Musicians’ “Racism”

Not real racism, but racism based on what instrument you play, or part you sing. What is the definition of a half-step? Two flutes playing in unison. What do clarinetists use for birth control? Their personalities. What did the banjo player get on his theory exam? Drool. Why did the soprano spend the night on the porch? She lost the key and didn’t know how to come in. Why did the violist put his instrument on his car’s hood? So he could park in handicapped spaces.

I was at a music festival this past summer, and at a party some of the musicians began telling viola jokes, including many I had not heard. Some of these were side-splittingly funny. What I cherish about this humor is that it’s like family humor: Dad’s like this, Mom’s like that, you know how the cousins get…but it’s a family nonetheless. All the instrumental jokes seem to be by other musicians in the same ensembles, or from other collaborative situations. Flutes are like this, trumpets are like that, and you know how the violas get… Didn’t Garrison Keillor say recently, in one of his monologues, that watching the viola section play alone was like watching the blind play basketball?

Pianists are somewhat neglected in this genre of humor. Because pianists tend not to play much in ensembles—at least ensembles like orchestras and concert bands—we don’t get as much love or loathing. The closest thing to a pianist joke I’ve seen is found in a description of the various members of a Jazz band, an internet classic called “How Jazz Works,” from Bill Anschell’s “A First-Timer’s Guide to Jazz Jam Sessions.” Here is the piano excerpt:

Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don’t. As adolescents, they were social rejects. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.

This, as we say in my house, is very hurtful.


I’ll have to interlineate.

>Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls.

Sigh. One strives to be an intellectual and is accused of being a know-it-all. I guess some people didn’t stay in grade school long enough to know there’s a difference. Know-it-all beats don’t-know-any-of-it, anyway.

>They studied theory, harmony and composition in college.

What’s the problem here? The studying part? Sorry for showing you brass players up.

>Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald.

OW! This is really below the belt. I can’t decide which of these hurts more. I’ll plead guilty to baldness.

>They should have big hands, but often don’t.

I knew we’d hear from the piccolo section.

>As adolescents, they were social rejects.

It wasn’t that bad, really. Females, particularly singers, hang around the piano. (You do TOO envy that.)

>They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers.

This one is an oddity from the Brahms biography, and weird or not we’re all grateful to be lumped in with him. Anyway, my mother felt that even toy soldiers were too dangerous…

>Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers.

Hate-hate. Unless you married one, in which case it becomes a yes-Dear relationship.

>If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.

He will condescend any time!
Yeah, I know—comedy is hard. I miss riddles like those all the other instruments and singers have, though. Here’s a challenge: please post any riddle-type pianist jokes in the comments section. If they’re TOO disgusting I reserve the right to yank them off, but I’d sure like to know what’s out there.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Musicians’ “Racism”

  1. Phil Ford says:

    Not exactly what you were looking for, but I’ll tell it anyway:
    Q: How many Deadheads (i.e. fans of the Grateful Dead) does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Deadheads don’t change the lightbulb. They just wait for it to burn out and then blindly follow it around the country.
    Jonathan, you didn’t mention a few important facts:
    1. If someone shows up for a performance in an opera pit orchestra without pants, that person is most likely a trumpet player.
    2. Backpressure has driven all oboists completely insane, sort of like mercury and Victorian hatters.
    3. Horn players have a haughty attitude because, as Frank Zappa once said, “they play that shit that sounds like graduation.”
    4. The lower the instrumental tessitura, the mellower the player. Violinists and flutists are too nervous; bass players and tubists are a bit too earthy; cellists and bassoonists strike a pretty good balance. They’re pretty normal, comparatively speaking.
    5. Musicologists and music theorists are such poindexters they make even clarinettists look cool. If a musicologist claims to have studied an instrument as an undergraduate, he or she can be relied on to suck. “Dude, you played like a musicologist” is probably one of the most hurtful receiving-line comments anybody could make.

  2. Vinny says:

    How could you not come up with the old standard:
    What do you get when you drop a piano down a mine shaft?

  3. Bodie says:

    More of a bass joke, but:
    How many string bass players does it take to change a light bulb?
    None; the piano player can do that with his left hand.
    The audience at a piano recital were appalled when a telephone rang just off stage. Without missing a note the soloist glanced toward the wings and called, “If that’s my agent, tell him I’m working!”
    A pianist is playing in a seedy, Mafia-owned tavern in South Jersey…it’s 11:55 PM, and he’s 5 minutes away from the end of his gig. The owner’s assistant comes up to the pianist and says:
    “Da boss wants you should play Strangers In Da Nite.”
    The pianist says: “Okay, no problem.”
    The henchman continues: “Da boss wants you should play it in F#”…
    The pianist says “I usually play it in F, but no problem!”
    The henchman goes on: “Da boss wants you should play it in 5/4 time.”
    The pianist says “But the song is in 4/4 time…How am I supposed to do that?”
    Henchman asks him: “Look, you want paid or not?”
    So the pianist improvises an introduction, and as he gets to the opening notes of the song, he hears, in a really ugly, raspy voice behind him:
    “Strangers in-da-friggin’ night….exchanging glances; Strangers in-da-friggin’ night …”
    -and, my favorite-
    A pianist and singer are rehearsing “Autumn Leaves” for a concert and the pianist says:
    “OK. We will start in G minor and then on the third bar, modulate to B major and go into 5/4. When you get to the bridge, modulate back down to F# minor and alternate a 4/4 bar with a 7/4 bar. On the last A section go into double time and slowly modulate back to G minor.”
    The singer says: “Wow, I don’t think I can remember all of that.”
    The pianist says: “Well, that’s what you did last time.”

  4. eba says:

    Hilarious post. Thanks.
    Again, not what you’re looking for, but:
    What’s perfect pitch?
    When you throw a banjo in the dumpster and don’t hit any sides.

  5. Kip W says:

    They should have big hands, but often don’t.
    “Why, Madame, wherever did you get the idea that we play with our hands?”
    (Can’t find the attribution — some society woman grabbed a well-known performer’s hands after a recital and asked how he played so well with such small hands. I thought it was in Schonberg’s book, but…)

  6. Tom Myron says:

    Q: What’s a musicologist?
    A: A person who can read music but can’t hear it.

  7. eba says:

    Some more old ones…
    Why was the piano invented? So the pianist would have a place to put his beer.
    Did you hear about the pianist who kept banging his head against the keys? He was playing by ear.
    What’s the difference between a pianist and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.
    Two people are walking down the street. One is a pianist; the other didn’t have any money either.

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