I have been rather quiet lately on the site, and I want to write to explain what has been going on.
Beginning in December of 2017, I have been dealing with perpetual, organized harassment directed at myself, my family and my friends. This is not internet trolling or junk comments on a website. This is criminal harassment, stalking, and assault and battery. I am actively involved in a court case regarding this matter and as a result, I will only share the details that I can.
On 7 December, the local police came to my home and demanded to speak to my sister. My sister Hannah passed away on 3 May, 2004 so it was an incredible shock to be hearing this from police officers, never mind that it was in the midst of the holidays when her passing weighs heavily on me no matter how much time has gone by. The reason for the police response, I was told, was that my sister was making threats to my former high school sweetheart over Facebook, and that I had to contact the police in Chelmsford, Massachusetts to figure out what was going on.
I have not spoken to or seen that ex-girlfriend since December of 2004. I called to wish her a Happy Christmas and her father answered, where he proceeded to call me an anti-Semitic slur word and strongly suggested that I commit suicide. That was the end of that relationship and any mutual friendships it bore.
I explained to the officers that Hannah had passed away over a decade ago, and that she never had a Facebook account because it didn’t really exist back then. She didn’t even have a MySpace page as those were fairly new at the time of her passing. The officers were very shocked that this was going on, and further informed me that they had little information other than that the Chelmsford Police had been trying to contact me all day.
I never once received a call from the Chelmsford Police that day, or anyone for that matter, meaning someone in that department was lying.
To solve this mystery, I called the Chelmsford station. I spoke to an “officer” after a long time on hold who never identified himself by name, and refused to give me his badge number when asked. He told me to stop bothering people on Facebook, and to cut out the pranks. I informed him that my sister had no Facebook and I had no means of making any such pranks using the site as I seldom use it anymore and, at the time of the incident, my account was deactivated and had been deactivated for several months while I was upgrading my studio computer system and had no time for social media nonsense.
He refused to listen to me and the name of my ex came up, which set off the alarm. I told him, very bluntly, to inform her to leave me alone and to never bother with myself or my family again. The officer nonchalantly agreed and hung up, seemingly irked that I had him figured out.
My high school ex-girlfriend, a woman whom I have not seen or spoken to in (then) 13 years made a prank call to her local police department just to harass and upset my family. The officer was talking to me off the record, as a favour, which would explain his failure to provide his own name, and why I couldn't hear the usual beeping noises of a police phone recording the conversation.
This woman has shown up from time to time online via this website and the social media pages I had in the past since late August of 2011. She always would appear out of the blue, asking to be friends again and when I refused, she would leave a stream of poorly spelled threats, anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs, and comments directed at my closest friends and relatives.
Each year in May and again in the November and December holidays, times when I was (and am) at my emotional weakest, she would reappear with new names, new email addresses and new social media accounts just to torment me. Her mother even got involved in it, and eventually, so did her husband.
What began as an online nuisance became a real world threat last December. This is a woman who was willing to lie to the police and openly falsify police reports in order to attack me, and to attack my friends and family. If she was capable of this, and if the police were that willing to side with her just because she "knows so-and-so at the station,” it put my entire public life in jeopardy.
Just as I’m recovering from this latest reappearance, the phone calls started. I would receive dozens of calls a day, all in my ex’s name on caller ID. One day she called my cellphone 57 times in a single hour. Every day she called. She called my cell, my landline, my parents’ house and their cell phones. So far, I have received over 500 phone calls from her, and they continue to come each day. In addition, her best friend, the mutual friend who had set us up back in high school, has also been involved in calling myself and my family. This mutual friend’s father, who is (or was) a police sergeant, has also been calling which is extremely unnerving.
They never leave a message. They almost always hang up if the call is answered. If they don’t hang up they just shout slurs into the phone or yell subjects that encourage suicide. Their primary phone numbers have been blocked since December and they still call, knowing that the blocked call message is enough to cause aggravation. When the primary numbers don't get through, they use a new, unblocked, cellphone to call from.
Last month, my family and I hired an attorney to handle this ongoing situation. That is all I can say about that for now. The calls are still coming in, and just today they called me four times and my parents three times.
I have been afraid of leaving my house because of their connection to the police. I fear that if I am out performing live, they will harass the venue or call the police to the location to arrest me in front of an audience on counterfeit charges. They have used these ties in the past in order to issue a false arrest warrant on my best friend, which was dropped after the police in her area realized it wasn’t authorized by a living judge (it was “signed” by a long deceased judge from Kansas).
For this reason, I have kept a low profile online. I normally see and can now expect an uptick in harassing, incessant phone calls after posting this. Every new post I’ve made since last December results in such activity.
I can only hope that the justice system hasn’t eroded completely, and that I can bring charges against this woman and receive a restraining order against her for my own protection.
Here's a little treat. Back in 2014 I was still focusing my career as a commercial composer and working behind the scenes rather than putting myself in the spotlight. I'll delve into why that was the wrong path for me later (another post) but while building my portfolio I wrote a short Celtic reel for a full symphony orchestra in 2012 to show off my training in writing for large ensembles. This is what I came up with:
As you can tell, this sucks. First, it's a Celtic reel, but I used an ABAB form instead of the traditional AABB form. Not that big of a deal as there are reels that use ABAB out there. However, you'll notice just how short and repetitive this motif is. Each section is only eight measures long and it gets on the nerves quickly. There's also little to no thematic variation, just a few orchestral variations that don't do much for the melody or development. I have to say in hindsight, this was a disappointing end result (it was also written for a course so I had to meet certain criteria such as every instrument section in the orchestra had to be used, even though I wasn't keen on using brass for this sort of piece).
Normally, I'd let an old piece sit and forget it, moving forward in my writing. But I could hear something in this, something good that just needed more work. So, late last year I composed a proper B section for this piece and adapted it into a formal AABB song to meet the Celtic style. I then re-orchestrated the entire piece for winds and strings in a 14 piece ensemble with thematic variations. This eliminated the course required brass and percussion sections and allowed me to keep a traditional Irish feel and sound to the piece without distraction. This is the result of the rewrite:
I am now looking for players to help me premiere this in the near future and to help spread my love of the Irish folk music I grew up with in a contemporary classical environment. Please note that the audio from both of these is from Finale's playback, and the quality isn't commercial. I could fix this by replaying everything with Kontakt but the focus is on real people and real instruments to give this life.
This call could only have come from the bottomless pits of the fiery underworld. No message was left and it's not connected to a telemarketer at the moment. My dad knows better than to call my landline!
Oh boy, here we are again. After last year’s insanity of posting my music to YouTube where I was hit by copyright strikes (not claims, but full-fledged strikes) for having the nerve to post my own copyrighted audio recordings of public domain music, the roles have now been reversed.
For the past few years, my published albums have been available on YouTube Music courtesy of CD Baby’s digital distribution partnership. However, upon finding my “Topic” page that was created by YouTube automatically when the audio was submitted, I was dismayed to see that the page was showcasing a stoned, fake blonde dude with a slacked jaw staring into space as the profile image, desperately trying to become the next sensation on the site.
The music was fine and that’s what mattered, but this bozo’s mug created a lot of confusion amongst my fans who assumed either that this dude was a plagiarist profiting off of my work, or that I was and that he was the original creator. And while I don’t admit I’m good looking and hate everything about my body and appearance, I at least know I’m better looking than that!
Last year, in order to stop this image confusion, I contacted CD Baby and they told me I needed to file an artist separation request because the image was chosen by YouTube from their algorithms merging the wrong channel information to create the topic page for my music. I did just that and about two months later, the profile image was the same as the cover art for my debut album. Then came a few weeks ago.
I linked to the page to help spread the streaming services I’m listed on such as Spotify and Google Music, and noticed that the YouTube Music page was now displaying a cement mixer as the profile picture. I filed for another artist separation, and it was changed back to the fake blonde bozo. Frustrating, but still not the end of the world. I filed again and linked once more to my actual YouTube account to correct it, but this time YouTube fought back.
My album of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood had been completely destroyed just for writing to report that YouTube was once again using the wrong profile image. What was once my album and artwork, with my name in the credits, was now generic artwork listing the tracks as “hip-hop and rap,” “techno” and “country” all while giving credit to artists such as “Piano – Topic” and “Café Lounge – Topic” on the same page specifically made for me. Upon listening, these were in fact my recordings of Schumann, but they were now being credited to generic relaxation topic pages, who were in turn collecting the revenue instead of me.
I promptly filed DMCA takedowns on all 13 offending tracks and am awaiting a resolution from YouTube. But because I have battled this for years, and because YouTube continues to create issues for me by linking my music to unrelated pages with different headshots, adding video folders to the topic page that include content such as violent bar fights, illegal gun modification tutorials, and racist rants, and has defamed my name and put my reputation at risk as a result of this dissociation, I have asked that CD Baby end my relationship with YouTube Music as soon as possible.
My tracks will remain for sale and for streaming on all major storefronts and services, with the exception of YouTube. It will take about 30 days for the topic page to be deleted and I have no plans on picking it up on my own through my channel as I can’t stand using that site and only use it to watch. I prefer to use Vimeo to upload and share my films due to a more creative friendly environment over "video games and privileged white boys doing dumb things" as found in abundance on the 'Tube. The reason for this is explained the last time I wrote about YouTube and copyright issues and I have no interest in going down that route again.
Oh, and screw YouTube Music once more for good measure.
I have just released a two track single of piccolo bass recordings!
This may be a way to release new music a lot faster, using smaller releases instead of EPs and LPs at the moment, especially given that nearly 100% of my income is from streaming services. Not sure just yet, but it would give me a lot more freedom and control over the music I create and have the opportunity to share it sooner so I can focus on making new pieces and not the tedious production that goes into a full album release.
This single is available for sale on my CD Baby store, iTunes, Amazon and streaming on Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and more!
Last month, the music and podcasting community began to contemplate the future of distributing our works after rumors circulated that SoundCloud was going bankrupt. The financial stability of the company is still rather ambiguous as information comes out on deep financial cuts and layoffs within, alongside news of a bright future for the site (the latter coming mostly from the powers that be suspiciously close to investor meetings). Given that even major plug-in companies like Waves and iZotope were giving instructions on Facebook on how to secure your uploads so that they could be safely moved to another platform (why don’t you have the original files? Curses!), the future of SoundCloud looked (and continues to look) grim. The constant barrage of likes, follows and reposts from the spam and porn accounts that infest the site isn’t helping their image either.
In an effort to keep my recordings streaming on my own website for fans, potential students, venues and collaborators to hear, I decided to put my entire focus on my existing Bandcamp page which, up until this time, had only been another resource to host my three albums alongside CD Baby. This was a task that took a single afternoon to accomplish, mostly in creating album images for each of the portfolio playlists as I already had the audio files in .wav format at 48kHz so that I could also add them as "art tracks" on YouTube.
A few weeks ago, you may have read a post on my blog about subscribing to my YouTube channel and how all my music would be there for primary (free) distribution. You may have even seen how YouTube playlists had replaced the Bandcamp ones around that time within my portfolio. Well, as you can see now, it’s all back on good ol’ Bandcamp and I plan on keeping it that way. Why? Well sit down, because it’s storytime with Uncle Mike.
After creating video files with all of my pre-prepared audio in Premiere, and the exhaustive task of exporting them on an aging iMac that can barely run properly for the basics, let alone video rendering, I began the long task of uploading them to YouTube, arranging them in playlists, adding tags and descriptions, you know, the same thing that every gamer on there has someone else do for them so they can focus on creating content and not metadata. This took a good week due to the constant input of information for each track, adjusting the settings on a track-by-track basis, dealing with the occasional glitched export, etc. When everything was finished, I added the YouTube playlists to my site and looked over at all my hard work, and noticed numerous copyright claims.
The Content ID system on YouTube is notoriously flawed and with classical music, it often falsely flags your own version of a piece as that of a major label’s upload. I also had claims on selected tracks from my EP, Earwig Rising, though that was due to my own copyright and only meant that any ads that played on them would be revenue for me regardless. No big deal. I filed disputes on the three classical videos that had been claimed, explaining that the Mozart recording is mine and the music itself is in the Public Domain, and then on the two Satie tracks that were hit, I explained in detail that I owned the sound recordings, performances and audio productions on them, and that they were copyrighted by the US Copyright Office under the Registration Number: SRu 1-194-109.
The claim on the Mozart track was dropped within a week. The first Satie track, claimed by UMG for Universal Music, had the dispute ignored and would likely have expired after 30 days. However, SME, on behalf of Sony Classical, actually rejected my dispute one day shy of the claim terminating due to a lack of response by the claimant and then counterclaimed, saying that my Registration Number was not proof of copyright and that they owned that particular track and had the rights to monetize it. This is when it went insane.
To reject a dispute, a physical, living person has to read the response and manually dismiss it. Someone read my protest, the included Registration Number, the link to the Library of Congress file that holds the information in regards to my copyright online, and the ISRC code that I gave for the track and still decided “No, that’s ours.” and sent me on my way despite the overwhelming proof to the contrary.
I filed an appeal, and Sony Classical threatened litigation against me for copyright infringement if I didn’t comply with their orders. That’s total BS. I gave them everything I had to legally prove my ownership of the track, and they were vehemently rejecting it, hoping to get a few more pennies in their coffers rather than admit that a Public Domain piece of music can be recorded and copyrighted by artists that are not on their label. Sony Classical was, at this point, committing copyright infringement against me as well as committing a crime known as “monetize without consent.” It’s just what it sounds like.
I had to ask for help from CD Baby as they published the record, the AFM since I’m a union member, as well as issuing notarized legal complaints to YouTube by mail and fax (you try looking up information like that), and to Sony Classical via email. None of them responded.
I had a lawyer contact the companies with the threat of filing litigation against them for infringing on my copyright, but YouTube merely sent an email back with a special dispute email to reach SME by (and it’s some crappy Gmail address, you’d think a major label would have the money to have a domain based email, even I have one!) and said they do not mitigate copyright issues before signing off for good on the matter.
We filed a notice to SME through the email address we were provided with. We gave them 10 business days to comply with our order to remove their claim and illegal monetization of my copyrighted work alongside a scanned image of my Certificate of Registration:
Personal information redacted.
They didn’t respond until the last possible day, and rather than a professional reply and apology for these criminal actions, they spouted off about how our legal notices were a form of harassment and that I was stealing work that one of their artists had made (they never gave a name because it's my property and not theirs) and that this would be the last they would hear of it. The next day, my track was deleted and I had a copyright strike issued against my YouTube account.
This was the most unprofessional experience I have ever had with a major company, both with YouTube and Sony Classical. Everyone in the AFM and with CD Baby, as well as my lawyer of course, said it was blatantly clear that Sony Classical was in the wrong and that I had more than sufficient evidence to support my ownership of that track. But because money talks, SME was able to profit off of my work for over 30 days without my permission, and then shoved a hickory stick up my bottom when they realized I wasn’t going to back down.
This is why so many new artists don’t want affiliation with major labels. They can steal from indie musicians under false pretense and have the power to win, even with plenty of evidence to prove them wrong. You want to take them to court? Good, they have the cash to sit on a case like that, delaying it and holding you back until you are bankrupt and are forced to withdraw the suit entirely. If you want to try, make sure you come from old money first.
I will keep my YouTube account as a user, but I’ll be damned before I ever upload any content there again. Oh, and because I was hit with a copyright strike, I had to sit through a patronizing Happy Tree Friends video on copyright infringement and pass a test on it. When I was the proven copyright holder from the beginning. (And you can’t tell me that Mondo Media made that YouTube Copyright School video willingly, they’re better than that.)
As I wrote on Twitter in the aftermath of all this, to hell with YouTube. They hold average users to insane requirements for advertiser friendly content, claim fair use content (such as film critiques) are infringement on a regular basis, and sometimes just delete your channel for no reason. But if you’re a major corporation you can infringe on someone else’s copyright and they’ll take the side with the bigger dollars every time. Just look where I am.
You can follow me on Bandcamp: mikesmale.bandcamp.com.
Today I received a threatening phone call from an unknown number located in New York state. I didn't answer it as it was outside of my area, and I don't know anyone in NY outside of NYC. What I got was a vile, venomous voicemail that included threats of violence and legal action in a voice that sounded like the caller was talking down a taped off paper towel roll.
Looking up the number, it's connected to a known debt collection scam calling itself "CCA" (Consumer Compliance LLC Group Inc [so, what's that "A" for now?]) which calls with a threat of legal action against you, someone you know or even a total stranger. The person on the other end, usually a guy named something like Needle Weenie, will then give you back your personal information (or a relative's or, again, a stranger's) including Social Security number (in full), bank account numbers, addresses, etc. and threaten you with legal action or violence. Needle Weenie claims to be an attorney in NY state working for CCA, but if you ask for his Bar number, he cannot provide it and then claims he isn't an attorney. So he's only a lawyer when it's convenient for him. Yup, I'm buying this malarkey.
Anyways, this rotten little worm (I'm being nice here) either called himself with a robot voice, or (allegedly, according to the message) had his daddy call me claiming I was repeatedly calling and upsetting poor little Needle Weenie (you're in your 30s or something and need daddy to fight your battles?). I haven't made a single outgoing phone call in three months, this was complete bullshit. But they claimed my phone called them (and read back my number) and demanded other personal information in restitution and other such nonsense to try to scare me into handing them the key to my identity. Not gonna happen, you idiots.
Remember, you called me and left me a message threatening violence against myself and my family. I can now bring that to the police and press charges against you. Even better, I know you can see this because I know you found my personal/business phone number off of this website and linked my name to it since that's the only way to trace my own number to my name (the bill is in a relative's name and my phone is his yearly birthday gift to me).
The weirdest part about this is that Needles the Bug Fondler here called my unlisted landline to make the threat, and yet he clearly already knew my cell number and was accusing me of calling him on that. First, how did he find my landline? Second, why not just call the cell phone since that's the one that he's alleged had called him (or was hijacked by another scammer like him as is known to happen in this day and age)? That's dumber than a pre-used bag of kitty litter.
If anyone ever calls you claiming to be a law firm, debt collector, lawyer, etc. demand to know the state they operate from and their Bar number, if they refuse, hang up. A lawyer or firm must provide this information just as a police officer must provide their badge number. Anyone claiming to be an attorney who cannot provide a Bar number is a liar and is committing a felony much like Needle Weenie and CCA here. Upon looking up the number in Google, 855-202-4849 is a known scam number, is auto-blocked by the Mr. Number app as a scam, and everyone agrees that the person on the other end is a con artist impersonating an officer of the court.
Since CCA can see this, screw you.
Update 13 July 2017
I just received numerous calls from a Foster and Monroe law firm in upstate New York from the number 844-822-4455. The person on the other end was the same as the one from CCA, and identified himself as Henry Clarke and that he was a lawyer. When I asked for his Bar number he replied "Why are you doing this, you are wasting my time." He only spoke through an audio distortion effect to mask his voice but it was the same voice as the one that left me a death threat Tuesday and he accused me of prank calling his law firm. Again, I haven't made any outgoing calls in three months, until today. After he was done, I called the Clinton Police Department and informed them of his name, both active phone numbers and the nature of the threats he is sending.
Looking at the Foster and Monroe site, it's a basic design with no editing of the preset layouts, the firm has no physical address, just a PO Box number, and the request information by email form does not work and freezes on the "sending data" bar. This "company" also has 46 complaints filed against it with the BBB at the time of this writing. Numerous new businesses are showing up lately in upstate New York that have no federal licence, like Foster and Monroe, and are nothing but extortion scams that pose as debt collectors and lawyers to scare you into giving out personal information. Never believe them, hang up and report the calls to your local police to get them in prison.
Block 855-202-4849 and 844-822-4455 right now. No law firm uses 855, 844 or other 800 numbers to contact you (though they may use them as information lines for the firm, they will never use them as a primary line for contact). Even Saul Goodman has a real number.
Clinton Police Department
Should I Answer?
Who Called You
So, a month from today, I will be 30. Here are my thoughts on all of that.
Yeah. It's just a number. Seriously, I don't care.
Unlike most people, I always start my annual Halloween celebrations early. Usually, this is something I reserve for my old "alter-ego" site with Krowness, but in the past few years, posting on that site hasn't really had the same spark that it used to have for me. Sure, going there from time to time and seeing articles littered with curse words purely for the sake of it alongside other rants is funny, but I also realize how much I've grown over the past several years and that the need to hide my real personality behind a "clown" in order to deflect hurtful comments from trolls and generalized internet ne'er do wells, as well as fears of coming off as "unprofessional" just because I'd like to inject some humor into my writings, feels outdated.
As a result, I'm going to start using my own website to post critiques when I'm feeling the need to review something (a music video, software, an event, etc.) as well as for the occasional satire or comedy infused piece. Most of these are going to move away from the sailor mouthed rantings of my Viking alter-ego, so it'll have a more professional and family friendly flair, but anything that just requires that sort of language will come with a NSFW warning so that younger people (and my own younger students) know to keep on scrolling and ignore it. This is something I've already started with the creative writings I've shared, as many of those touch on more mature subjects or use profanity as a means of expression or tone setting. So from here on out, if I drop a nasty word that would get Ralphie a mouthful of soap, it's only going to be for a good reason and you'll know in advance if the blog post contains such materials!
Anyways, moving into the spirit of the season, I just can't resist sharing one of my favorite costumes from way back when. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be the best dressed when going out for candy, or when I was older and running "the haunt" at home where my dad and I would try to make the scariest display and features (we'd always beat the competition as he had been working for Spooky World). Out of all the costumes I ever had, the two favorites of mine were Duke Nukem (complete with body armour made of foam and an unloaded BB gun) and Torgo.
You don't know who Torgo is? Well, then I have to introduce you to the worst movie ever made! Manos: The Hands of Fate was a mostly obscure flick from the 1960s made on a bet. It involves a family on vacation who gets lost on their way to the Valley Lodge when they stumble upon The Master's polygamous cult (complete with an evil dog) and a satyr named Torgo taking care of his house. This movie became infamous after Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured it, and it has since gained a cult following amongst MST3K/Rifftrax fans and connoisseurs of B-movies alike. I just had to do a theme off of this after I saw the MST3K version when I was in high school, and I did the best I could!
Since I went to a private school, I wasn't allowed to have a beard (and mine wasn't that thick or course anyway, even at 15), so I used a burned piece of cork to create that part. The walking stick was a branch that fell off a tree across the street from my house, the hat was an Indiana Jones fedora my dad had, and the coat was just my winter jacket. It looked the part. Since I was older, this was a costume to be used in the haunt. My dad was The Master, but reimagined as a skeletal nightmare maker instead of "guy with a moustache" like the movie.
My favorite part was getting Torgo's irregular accents of words down, and I was amazed by how many people were scared of me! I was a pseudo-satyr with a speech impediment, once they got past me and hit my dad, it was crazy! I got so much free candy from the bags and pieces they dropped as they ran I may as well had gone out as a "Halloweenie"!
Anyways, here's 15-year-old me, a sophomore in high school as Torgo!
Pardon the non-canonical braces.
Note: This is the original article that I posted on August 12, 2016. I linked it to a Facebook group about certain Arts involving Piano Pedagogy as a way to help fellow teachers further explore classical music beyond what we already have and to shut down the stereotypes that often plague not only the genre, but art in general. I received so much hate mail for it that the admins deleted the link and kicked me out of their group! I ended up writing a rebuttal over the content in the original link to show how far they missed the point (and to make it visible to them if they went back to it).
So, here's the original writing. If you can figure out what was so inflammatory about this, please let me know in the comments below because I'm stumped!
If you’re involved in the arts in any way, it won’t be long before you come across the typical artistic snob. Whether you are perusing a piano forum, checking into a Facebook group for painters or just heading out to a concert or gallery, it won’t be long before you come face to face (or monitor to monitor) with at least one such person at any given event. These are the individuals sitting atop mighty pillars of ego, looking down on everyone else who enters their domain, ready to drop a nice steaming load of narcissism onto anyone who thinks differently from them, for we all know that any interpretation of an artwork that is different from theirs is inherently wrong. And if you consider yourself a teacher of the arts and dare go against the grains of this one person’s predetermined conclusions, then it is nothing short of blasphemy!
Because the arts are such a massive, diverse arena to cover, let’s go to an old stereotype and just focus on the classical music snob in order to save bandwidth.
We’ll begin our study on snobbery in the arts with the story of a concert pianist named Wallace Stuckupington. Wally is not just any pianist though; he’s the best in the world! How do we know? Ask him (but he’ll tell you regardless)! He will gladly point out how your performances are flawed compared to his own (or those of Gould or Horowitz on the occasion he’s feeling particularly humble), how his emotional interpretations of Chopin can end wars, how only the music he plays matters and to Hell with all others and those who enjoy them! You can’t say otherwise, because Wally has won several classical piano competitions and has studied with only the best instructors at the only best conservatories, and that alone should be proof that what he says is fact and not blind self-devotion, because criticizing him must mean you are also criticizing those institutions or competitions. Don’t be naïve! After all, you can never be anywhere near his level of talent or greatness! Just smile and know that you had the chance to bask in the light of The Great Stuckupington at least once in your meager little life! That alone should make you happy, so put down your instruments now and give up. Greatness has been achieved, perfection and godhood is at hand, and there is no use in trying now. You can add nothing to this conversation that hasn’t already been said.
That is what it can feel like when one of these snobs shows up to a post or event and starts putting his or herself before everyone else. Even though they’re a minority of artists and art connoisseurs, with over 7 billion people on the planet, you’re bound to find one statistically speaking. This attitude is not limited to just classical music, or music at all. As mentioned earlier, you’ll find these sorts of people in jazz clubs rattling on and on about how jazz hasn’t been innovative since 1949, or staring sardonically at a new painter’s latest creation and brushing it aside because the color choices and brush strokes aren’t the same as Monet’s. It’s a disease that has plagued our world since the first human decided to create something new, and it’s become stereotypical of our culture as you’re now guaranteed to see at least one stuffy character with a fake accent (possibly with a monocle or perpetually wearing sunglasses) in attendance of anything involving art in any film or cartoon you happen to watch. Many from outside our circles make assumptions about us as creatives purely because of how solidified the image of the egotistical musician, artist, dancer, actor, etc. has become in modern society. And for the vast majority of us, it is simply untrue and we are left on the defensive while we try to show our collective audiences that we are just ordinary people like them who happened to follow a different career path or passion (or got lucky in making it successful).
I came upon this on a piano forum that will remain nameless for the sake of their privacy. A young woman had recently been hired to accompany a performance of show tunes and pop-styled music and was asking for suggestions on how to memorize and more easily navigate roughly 20 pieces in a short amount of time. Since I have done this sort of job many times myself, I suggested that she write the chord symbols over each measure and even include a numbered version (Nashville system or Roman numeral, personal choice though I recommend Nashville more for its ease of use). This way she can see the harmony right away, use that as a road map and if a slight mistake were to be made, she would still have the foundation of the part until she could recover it. Adding the Nashville styled chords make it easier to transpose in the event a singer or the musical director requests a key change to better fit the vocals. The Nashville system is based on the root of the key signature so in the key of E-flat, the E-flat chord would be “1”, A-flat would be “4” and an inverted chord like B-flat/D would be “5/7”. This makes changing keys incredibly easy as it’s based off the movable “do” of the scale rather than having to rewrite the parts or the letter-based chord symbols if the need arises.
She was very happy with the suggestion and the post started to dwindle. Then the classical music snob showed up. Seeing my post, he responded thus: “For pop music and jazz maybe. You wouldn't do it for this or classical music in general. Say a Beethoven violin sonata.”
Good point, so it’s a good thing we’re working with pop and jazz music then, isn’t it? So why wouldn’t we do that for this particular set? He never answered, but his response gave me an idea. While I was studying at Berklee, we would often analyze classical scores and then write not only piano reductions of them, but also the letter-based chord symbols above the reductions so that we could dig deeper into the theory and harmony used in the piece. It was a way of looking into the composer’s mind, discovering what made their music sound the way it does and a means of finding new harmonic ideas that we otherwise might not have explored.
I proposed that this thread-hijacker try it on the first few measures of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata 1 just to see what he could find, and in the process, try to humble his now out of control attitude (that the others in the thread were exhausted of). Maybe, by studying the chord progression and the melodies and counterpoint painted with that, he could find something that wasn’t there for him the last time he played or listened to it. That he may hear the piece in a new way or think of it differently once he knew what was going on “under the hood” so to speak. This way, he has a deeper knowledge of the piece over playing back the written part without knowing why it was written that way at all.
Rather than even consider the audacity of such a thing, he responded: “Not unless it was written as figured bass. Changing Baroque figured bass is okay. Composers know what they want and they write it out. Beethoven especially. I wouldn't dare reduce the quality of their music by reducing it to simple fake book chords. It might make it worth more in the realm of improvising and jazz, but it would be blasphemous to the composer. I love jazz and improvisation, but I don't think the two should interfear [sic].”
So, instead of analyzing the progression, he jumped to the conclusion that I wanted him to recompose the piece, remove the written notation in the piano part and replace it with nothing more than the chord symbols, leaving the accompaniment up to the pianist in an improvised setting. That’s not at all what I asked. Oy, this is a tough one to reach!
I clarified my point, telling the snobby thread-hijacker I was merely asking him to analyze the harmony, nothing more. But, if he wanted to, try leaving it just as chord symbols and either orchestrate a new part, or go all out and let the pianist improvise the accompaniment as an experiment. Continuing my challenge, I asked him; what would that sound like? What sort of pianist is needed to perform under those circumstances? If we leave the violin part as written, what would happen if the pianist were to improvise the accompaniment? Vice versa? What would happen if such an improvisation were as strong as the original written part, or at least better received by the audience that way?
These are merely questions to get him to think of an old piece of music differently, to challenge his preconceptions of Beethoven and just to explore not only the original work but music in a broader sense, to try to open his mind up from the echo chamber he was so blatantly trapped in. Instead, he walked away and started to heckle another teacher who was looking for ways to help a student who was a little too inexperienced to play “Let it Go” from Frozen, all the while talking about how music in film and on pop radio has nothing on Beethoven and can be “safely ignored”.
This sort of snobbery, while difficult to confront, can only be defeated through critical thinking. As we have seen here and with our fictional story of Wally, snobbery is born of ignorance, whether it is ignorance of other genres and techniques, or just an unawareness of one’s own limitations that are overcompensated for with immeasurable ego. By challenging people like this to think harder about something they believe they know everything about, you can open them up to some humility and the acceptance that they, in fact, don’t have all the answers and are not the gods’ divine gift of music to the whole of mankind. My first bass guitar teacher once told me “those who think they know it all still have much to learn”. A line he had found in a Zen guitar book and one that I strive to live by and instill in my own students.
We have to accept that the composers of classical music were human, like you and I (but not Klepbor from Omega Epsilon VII, he’s from another galaxy entirely, sorry). Music, like all art, is born from our emotions and because we are not divine beings, our emotions are imperfect. These little imperfections make art unique to us as creators. Not every composer used a groundbreaking chord progression or rhythmic style, many were set in their ways towards the end of their lives and little nuances can be discovered if you look closely at Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc. and find where they used the same sort of ideas across many of their works. This is what made their music theirs, and it comes from the fact that they were not perfect writers, that they often recycled older ideas that they had used in other pieces, and that it was these imperfections that gave them an original voice. Modern composers do the same thing. As a contemporary classical composer myself, I am also guilty of it. We all are!
From the standpoint of those experiencing the music, we too have our own set of images that go through our heads as we listen to a sonata or concerto that tells a story based on our tastes, our experiences and what makes us unique. There is no such thing as a “correct interpretation”, just interpretations that either did or did not resonate with the player and/or audience. Unlike high school English lectures where the instructor’s ideas are final, art in the real world is far more fluid. One performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations may strike you as boring, but another pianist’s (or even a different recording or live concert by the same musician) may speak to you in ways you never thought possible.
We also have to understand that classical music and art are not exempt from criticism, something people with those holier-than-though personalities tend to ignore. An exercise I give my students in any subject is this; listen to the music or look at the artwork like you are the first person to ever hear or see it. What makes it work for you? Is there anything here that doesn’t work for you? Is something in this piece filling you with joy or sorrow, or is it boring you? This makes the work relevant to them; it gives them the desire to learn more about why art makes them feel a certain way, but not someone else. It helps them understand what makes a strong interpretation of a musical piece, to hear your own emotions come alive in someone else’s notation. This makes classical music more approachable to the layperson that believes the genre sits atop an ivory tower that only the most elite (or super-villainy) of our society can appreciate (or play).
Art is subjective, and all too often we grade what others do based on what has already been done with the same material. This is why I’m not a fan of music competitions, especially in the classical style. Many judges and critics are basing their opinions of the performances not on the originality or the passion in the musicians competing, but how well those recitals resemble the likes of concerts and recordings by Janis, Horowitz, Gould and Weissenberg. What made a piece speak to any one of those concert pianists was different, and the same goes for anyone else playing that music. Competing musicians are told never to “play to the judges”, yet when the material is subjective by nature, how do you play naturally when one moderator may deem your natural performance as pandering to them? It is not an easy feat and I applaud anyone with the stones to go up there, often before a critical audience of people who have never played a concert in their dreams (including the journalists who will be symbolically breathing down their necks the entire time) and still perform to the best of their abilities. That takes a lot of guts just to go out there, never mind making it into the finals or placing.
Trying new ways of performing old music keeps our understanding of it fresh. New variations on old themes we’ve long since memorized give us room to challenge our technique (for example, Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin's Etudes) and force us to relearn something we thought we already knew. Most importantly, it keeps music from centuries past relevant to young students who, growing up surrounded by the negative stereotypes of the genre and those who play it, may be reluctant to give Bach a shot.
Bear in mind, almost all of the great composers were also great improvisers. Improvisation is a mostly forgotten art in the classical world and many of the composers, whose works we play to the note without question in the 21st century, were quite fond of inventing new parts while they performed. We don't hear those pieces today like audiences did in the composers' lifetime. This is true of Bach and Liszt, the latter being known to have improvised entire concerts, a display not common outside of jazz in this day and age. It is worthwhile trying it just for the sake of experimentation when you go back to The Well Tempered Clavier or a prelude by Rachmaninoff, just to hear what happens.
The good news is that improvisation in classical music is starting to come back, and the idea of recomposing classical works has taken off in recent decades. Both of these are some of the foundations to Third Stream music, and are increasingly a requirement for performing contemporary classical music where entire development sections of sonatas may give you nothing but chord symbols and slash notation (the cue to start noodling)! Contrary to what the earlier snob said, you most certainly can meld classical and jazz ideas together.
But that’s not the point here (I can easily do an article on fusion and contemporary recompositions, but another time). The point is that snobbery, as we’ve seen, is detrimental to art and extremely dangerous for students, especially young ones who are more open to experimentation. It turns people off of art, it discourages children from picking up an instrument, it makes it harder for us to make a living because of all the negativity and stereotyping that surrounds our careers. When we see people acting like this, we need to give them something to challenge that mindset. They have it in their heads that they know it all, that there is nothing new for them to discover. Give them that new idea to explore and try to open them up! Show them how complex the world beyond their echo chamber can be, and offer them an invitation into that greater realm.
The world needs more creators and art teachers working together for the common good, not more self-absorbed Wallace Stuckupingtons who can’t find their way out of their own ass, and are so set in their unbending methods that they refuse to even consider the existence of other paths to achieve the same goal.