On Disparagement

“Ironic dismissal of passionate commitment to ideals is really just a more sophisticated way of being lazy.”  —Christopher J. Smith, Prof. of Music at Texas Tech, Director of the Vernacular Music Center, Balor of the Bouzouki

Growing up in Sunnyvale, my wife’s favorite music store was in Palo Alto, a shop called Melody Lane. In the mid-1980s, just after we were married and had moved back to the west coast, we stopped in there for a piano score and the youngish guy behind the counter asked what I was doing. I smiled and happily explained: I’d just gotten a job accompanying for the San Francisco Ballet school. “Great!” he snorted sarcastically. “We’ll see how that goes…”  This rankled—I mean, a job playing music, with benefits? That’s something of a holy grail, whenever and wherever. Debbie and I noted it, discussed it, and life went on. Two years later, I got into the Stanford DMA program, and again found myself at Melody Lane to buy something. Same guy and response: embittered judgment, dismissal, etc. “Great. Good luck with that.” From that moment on, I made it a point to be utterly jolly and excited about whatever I was buying there (“Hi! I’m looking for a two-piano version of that Liszt concerto that Jay Rosenblatt discovered and reconstructed! Maybe I’ll get to learn it!!”) just to make him grumble and belittle. This went on for years. I’d go in there gleefully, knowing that any excitement I showed would provoke a Pavlovian response of disparagement. Or maybe not even Pavlovian—for me, it was more like poking the brain of a pithed frog to get it to twitch.

The Gentle Reader may be forgiven for considering me to be sadistic, here, though I don’t believe it to be so.  The principle behind this strategy had been taught to me by the clarinetist in my chamber group at the University of Illinois, in 1981–82: we were assigned a coach who would only carp and nag, considering herself far above musicians of our mean caliber, and the violinist and I were getting discouraged.   “Oh,” smiled Kurt, “watch me. I put myself down, and she can’t help piling on. Everything I say, she adds something mean, so I make her keep doing it. That way, I’m in control!” So we tried it. “Well, if I could figure out my fingering…EVER…” “Screwed up my bowing…AGAIN…” And our coach was helpless. Every self-deprecating remark we made was followed by a snarling insult from her, and we began to have a good time—she became our unwitting marionette. It was hilarious, and (yes) she’d asked for it: pissing on students is not “coaching,” regardless which impressive institution you studied at, and how good you think you are.

To this day, I adore our piece, Bartók’s Contrasts, which holds a special place in my pedagogical history.

I’d gloss the comment of my feared friend Chris to this extent: ironic dismissal of passionate commitment to ideals, or indeed to anything, is as unsophisticated as anything on earth—simply a sneering “Huh-uh, no you can’t” with more syllables. Beyond being lazy, it is cowardly: the tacit acknowledgment that someone’s commitment, passion, and action have called you out, and cast your ironically superior pose into the light for what it is.

It follows, somewhat counter-intuitively, that such put-downs should be welcomed, because they tell the aspirer something very important about the critic. Someone snidely puts down your efforts, or ideals, or aspirations, or beliefs? Somewhere in your soul there should be a radiant smile, because you’ve now learned something very important.

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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