THE PROFILE AND PATHOLOGY OF THE OPPRESSED MUSICIAN
By Dion J. Flores
September 18th, 2018
Link to the Audio Book Version: https://soundcloud.com/dionflores/the-pathology-and-profile-of-the-oppressed-musician-audiobook
Table of Contents.
2. Definitions: The Dominant Elite and the Subjugated.
3. Interpretation and consumption of the canon and the ontological myth of music history.
4. Capitalism & Consumerism: Conducting batons as an instrument of exploitation
5. Prejudice & gatekeeping of the learning process.
6. “Oh, that won’t work. It’s just too difficult a problem to solve:” Oppression’s effect on the ability to problem solve.
7. Imposition, on the oppressed, the ideologies of the dominant elite.
8. Maintenance of Class Interests: Reflections on my graduating cohort’s reaction to my graduate essay at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
9. Why are they [the oppressed musician] this way? And how do we help them? A look into the pathology of the Token Asian.
10. Conclusions and Next Steps: “In solidarity, my life-long friends and fellow musicians.”
We, as classical musicians, have been struggling to liberate ourselves from oppression for hundreds of years. Perhaps the first time our oppression had a concrete manifestation was during the life of Joseph Haydn when he served as the court composer for the Esterházy family. Though he was treated well, he was composing for the court rather than for himself. I am positive that many historians would argue that musical consciousness did not have a concept of composing for the self at that point in history. It would be a few hundred years before the flood gates of musical self-expression would blow open.
Maybe we were freed from our oppression when Beethoven first started disrupting established compositional conventions in the early to mid 19th century? I believe that his revolutionary music definitely filled us in to what revolution could sound like, but it was too early in the history of musical consciousness to stimulate and encourage any critical action against oppression.
The 19th century kicked down the tall iron gates of musical oppression that patronage of the 17th and 18th century had erected. The 19th century asserted that we did not have to compose for the court or God as the Troubadours or Hildegard von Bingen of the 11th and 12th centuries had done. We could compose for ourselves. But what does it mean to be a self? Does everyone have a self? If we have a self, does God really exist? What is the nature of this contradiction?
The oppression experienced by classical musicians has a complicated history but in this short essay, I hope to give our struggle some language and terminology. I use Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a foundational text of bringing language to this struggle. Many argue that John Dewey in his 1916 publication of Democracy and Education had already done just that when the 20th century was still in its infancy, however, Freire’s experience with trying to lift an entire country out of submersion (a neurological condition brought on by oppression) qualifies him for the task of this piece of writing.
As Freire clearly has had on me, his writing has the power to deeply affect the reader. bell hooks, an educator and writer about feminism and white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy claims that her research would not be what it is today without having found Freire. In most of her books, she dedicates an entire chapter to him where she reflects on her own experiences with oppression, sexism, and racism. Below is an excerpt from her 2004 book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope:
“Teaching, lecturing, and facilitating workshops and writing about ending racism and other forms of domination, I have found that confronting racial biases, and more important, white-supremacist thinking, usually requires that all of us take a critical look at what we learned early in life about the nature of race. Those initial imprints seem to overdetermine attitudes about race. In writing groups, we often begin simply with our first remembered awareness of race. Exploring our earliest ways of knowing about race, we find it easier to think about the question of standpoint. Individual white people, moving from denial of race to awareness, suddenly realize that white-supremacist culture encourages white folks to deny their understanding of race, to claim as part of their superiority that they are beyond thinking about race. Yet when the denial stops, it becomes clear that underneath their skin, most white folks have an intimate awareness of the politics of race and racism. They have learned to pretend that it is not so, to take on the posture of learned helplessness (26).”
hooks accepts whole-heartedly the concepts illuminated by Freire’s revolutionary text. Not only does she acknowledge the history of the text, she goes a step further by finding and documenting the occurrences of these concepts in everyday life and reality. Below is an excerpt from her chapter on Paulo Freire in her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress where she dialogues with her legal named self, Gloria Jean Watkins:
Reading your books Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, and Talking Back, it is clear that your development as a critical thinker has been greatly influenced by the work of Paulo Freire. Can you speak about why his work has touched your life so deeply?
Years before I met Paulo Freire, I had learned so much from his work, learned new ways of thinking about social reality that were liberatory. Often when university students and professors read Freire, they approach his work from a voyeuristic standpoint, where as they read they see two locations in the work, the subject position of Freire the educator (whom they are often more interested in than the ideas or subjects he speaks about) and the oppressed/marginalized groups he speaks about. In relation to these two subject positions, they position themselves as observers, as outsiders. When I came to Freire’s work, just at the moment in my life when I was beginning to question deeply and profoundly the politics of domination, the impact of racism, sexism, class exploitation, and the kind of domestic colonization that takes place in the United States, I felt myself to be deeply identified with the marginalized peasants he speaks about, or with my black brothers and sisters, my comrades in Guinea-Bissau. You see, I was coming from a rural southern black experience, into the university, and I had lived through the struggle for racial desegregation and was in resistance without having a political language to articulate that process. Paulo was one of the thinkers whose work gave me a language. He made me think deeply about the construction of an identity in resistance. There was this one sentence of Freire’s that became a revolutionary mantra for me: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects.” Really, it is difficult to find words adequate to explain how this statement was like a locked door—and I struggled within myself to find the key—and that struggle engaged me in a process of critical thought that was transformative. This experience positioned Freire in my mind and heart as a challenging teacher whose work furthered my own struggle against the colonizing process—the colonizing mind-set” (45).
We live in oppression. We always have and unless we take unified critical action as a species, we will forever be in its grips; restricted by the fetters and insurmountable barriers established and strengthened by our fear to contend with it (Freire, 1970; Freire, 1974).
Today, the work of Freire lives on in the painful, but cathartic, critical analysis of Henry Giroux. He leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exposing the dominant elite of their crimes against humanity or when he openly criticizes Donald Trump for his incompetence and insolence that will forever be an embarrassment to American democracy. But as a contemporary of Giroux, I leave the summary of his work to him or to the young writers that will succeed us.
In this essay, I will work to describe the profile and pathology of the oppressed musician. The musician who’s autonomy has been take away from them. The musician who’s behaviour is influenced by the grand forces of oppression. The musician who’s adherence to the directives and slogans of the dominant elite that work to distort their consciousness and ensconce them in a subordinate position.
Definitions: The Dominant Elite and the Subjugated
I would like to start with a few definitions. Who and what are the dominant elite? The dominant elite, historically, are the ruling class of society. You could think of them as elected officials or politicians but this definition would not be entirely correct; it is maybe only 85% correct. The dominant elite that Freire speaks of is a covert one. Common people, who utilize the necrophilic instruments of oppression and domination to supress those who’s autonomy threatens their power. The dominant elite work to impose their consciousness on those they desire to subjugate. This imposition poses a dichotomy on the consciousness of the oppressed which leads to subjugation, submersion, and negation of consciousness.
The subjugated are the lower class that the dominant elite work to subordinate. They are seen as threats to the power of the dominant elite. The subjugated have the same interests as the dominant elite, however, their perception of reality, and their behaviour within it, is distorted. They work to defend the dominant elite even if it means their subordination, submersion, and exploitation.
Though I credit Paulo Freire for teaching me about the subjugated and the revolutionaries, I believe it is important to state that the subjugated differ from the revolutionaries. Revolutionaries do not depend on their class status to be successful. They are peppered throughout society and history and work to dismantle the oppressive institutions of the dominant elite with their critical action.
Interpretation and Consumption of the Canon and the Ontological Myth of Music History
Since the beginning of my musical training, I was told that music has evolved from the primitive to the complex. That from the first Gregorian chant to the complete and unapologetic abandonment of convention by Stravinsky, Weber, and Schoenberg, music has become more sophisticated. This is the ontological myth of music history. Even as a trained musician myself, it is difficult not to see this myth as truth and fact. After all, Hildegard von Bingen did not realized rhythm and meter in the complexity that Stravinsky had. However, it is this very assumption that this essay aims to challenge. It is this assumption and resulting belief that we must overcome in order to free ourselves from oppression.
The dominant elite established the classical canon to consolidate their power. Some argue that the canon is a collection of the great works that best represent that profession, however, subscription to this idea tends to lead to a distorted perception of reality.
The dominant elite have a preoccupation with the canon. They believe that music outside of the canon just did not make the cut and that there are a set of works that are worthy of our recognition. But who made this decision in the first place? It certainly wasn’t me. Since I have been told this idea throughout my musical upbringing, and it was maintained and perpetuated by the teaching practices I was subject to, I have never had the opportunity, or ability, to question it. It may be fair to say, that the oppressed’s appreciation and support of the canon is the very notion that constitutes their oppression and thus distorted perception of reality.
The subjugated have internalized the slogans of the dominant elite. As Mark B. Tappan says, they [the oppressed] have appropriated the instruments of oppression, domination, and negation, which they use to act upon their reality. However, meaningful intervention in reality comes from critically examining and engaging reality. If they [university trained musicians] learned and internalized the ontological myth of music history, and have never questioned it, when did critical thought take place? It never did, which is why I am writing this essay today.
Capitalism & Consumerism: Conducting batons as an instrument of exploitation.
The voice of oppression has also made its way into what we, classical musicians, choose to buy. Music equipment manufacturers may sometimes utilize the exploitative rhetoric of the dominant elites in order to lure us into buying their products. One of these products in our conducting batons. Who has the best one? Is your bulb made of cedar? Rosewood? Oak? How long is yours? (Clearly our appreciation and enthrallment with the power embedded in phallic objects). Is yours hand-made? (Because we want to feel as though God reached his hand down and chose the stick for us). When really, you probably ordered it at 2am in the morning from some manufacturer while scarfing down McDonalds. Our training forces us to mythicize reality rather than to critically engage with it. Music stores, owned and operated by the dominant elite, take advantage of this psychological weakness to turn a profit. But they often do so unconsciously because they themselves are oppressed. After all, we most likely have had the same training. It’s no one’s fault that we are here, but rather, it is the pathology that our musical ancestors have passed down to us.
The dominant elite work to exploit the subjugated by way of manufacturing, marketing, and distributing decadent wares. They sell it to us on the pretext that the more sophisticated our equipment is, the more sophisticated we are. The dominant elite are aware of this myth, however, they continue to deepen our oppression through more insidious and covert means of exploitation.
Prejudice & Gatekeeping of the Learning Process
The dominant elites gatekeep the learning process from those they deem unworthy. They do this through the banking concept of education.
Before I go into what the banking concept of education is, I want to make known that I purposefully said “gatekeepers of the learning process” rather than the “gatekeepers of knowledge.” The emphasis in the banking concept is not the withholding of knowledge but rather withholding the experiences and practices that make learning meaningful. And here, I define meaningful learning as learning that raises critical consciousness of the concrete world. As you will shortly see, the banking concept prevents and suppresses critical thinking and critical action.
The Banking Concept of Education
The banking model is easily compared to our current systems and structures of public education. There’s 30 kids in the room, they all face the front, and they do so in silence to prove to the teacher that they are truly worthy of being there. Banking sees students as empty vessels that are to be filled with information that has been previously decided upon and synthesized by the teacher. If the students do not learn, it is evidence that they must not have cared enough; that they deserve to be subjugated.
The subjugated go through the banking concept of education. When they emerge, they wield the same prejudices as the dominant elite, however, they conceptualize and instrumentalize these prejudices with the same distortion that banking has embedded within them. They turn on their comrades out of fear of disapproval by the dominant elites.
“Oh, that won’t work. It’s just too difficult a problem to solve:” Oppression’s effect on the ability to problem solve.
The dominant elite lack the desire to find solutions to the problems of the oppressed. It is an unconscious deficiency. If they were to engage with the subjugated in a dialogue to solve problems, they would be certainly risking their fall from power. The dominant elite work to suppress the subjugated’s ability or desire to problem solve in order to maintain their power over them.
The subjugated person’s consciousness is impaired by this negation of thought by the dominant elite. The subjugated exhibit a difficulty, and at times inability, to problem solve. If only they knew that their awareness of the problem and subsequent action to overcome the problem would constitute their liberation. The dominant elite will, at all costs, prevent the subjugated from obtaining this awareness.
As a recently freed oppressed person, I have an incessant, and at times overly-powerful desire to solve problems. It is difficult not to after realizing that my inability to problem solve deepened my submersion and impairment of consciousness. I started playing the violin a year ago and have recently fallen in love with Bach’s D Minor Chaconne. Even though I have only played violin for a year, I thought I would give it a shot. There was a voice in my head that said, ‘you’re not allowed to play the violin. You went to school for piano.” It took some time but I eventually recognized that this was the voice of the oppressor that I had internalized. It is this voice that the oppressed must eject from their consciousness (Freire, 1970, chapter 3 & 4).
Imposition, on the Oppressed, the Ideologies of the Dominant Elite.
The audacity of the dominant elite to impose their ideas on the consciousness of the oppressed without as much as asking if they want to take it on is the quality of thought that the dominant elite are most proud of in themselves.
I was watching a video of Christine Carter, a professor at Memorial University, playing in a masterclass at Carnegie Hall with Wenzel Fuchs, the principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic, as the clinician. After she finished playing, his first comment was a criticism. He clearly did not enjoy what he just heard. Knowing Carter when I was a student at Memorial University, she knew exactly what she was doing. During her meticulous and exceptionally productive practice, I am confident that she had made each interpretive choice consciously and with purpose. Despite this obvious preparation, Fuchs persisted and continued to give confused, bewildered, and frantic advice and direction. Perhaps as a member of the elite, he could not tolerate that a well-educated woman could think for herself. In my previous research, I found that misogyny was a fundamental component of the dominating rhetoric and is directly tied to one’s disgust sensitivity. Fuchs’ facility of disgust sensitivity must have been impaired with his experience as an oppressed musician. The oppressed musician has a fractured sense of self-worth. He’s unable to find satisfaction if his subjects do not eat up his every word. It is the sign of a cowardly and small man. Wenzel Fuchs is oppressed as well. I wonder what percentage of musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic are.
Maintenance of Class Interests: Reflections on my graduating cohort’s reaction to my graduate essay at Memorial University
The dominant elite have a powerful desire to maintain the institutionalization of their alienating ideology and rhetoric that they use to subjugate the oppressed. To dismantle their institutions would mean to allow the subjugated to think critically which would be the ultimate threat to their class interests as the elite. When the domination of the elite is successful, they [the subjugated] will work to defend the class interests of the elite even if it means losing their own autonomous voices. Freire describes the subjugated in this circumstance as dual beings. Meaning that their consciousness is split, consisting of their autonomous voice (which is submerged) and the voice of the oppressor. In my final days in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador in my music education seminar, I presented the final draft of my self-published essay Failing to be perfect: The role of mindfulness and meditation in music performance to my cohort of music education students. Following my very well-prepared presentation, like clockwork, each person of my cohort responded with shock and skepticism to the ideas I was presenting. At the time, I was disheartened, fearful that my essay would not be successful. However, I now see that they were reacting as the subjugated would. Their impaired consciousnesses as dual beings was triggered and they sprung to action to defend the class interests of the elite which my essay surely threatened.
Harkening back to a previous example, another instance of the maintenance of the class interests of the elite that manifest in music practice is that of the idea that as a trained musician, you are not allowed to play another instrument. The elite are threatened by this ambition and unconsciously, but fervently, work to suppress your ardent enthusiasm.
Why are they (the oppressed musician) this way? And how do we help them?
The historicity of oppression has had an neurological effect on the consciousness of all that have participated, or have been subjected to, oppression. Our brains are impaired. This impairment leads to intense and unmanageable anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. The dominant elite want this to happen. After all, they must not allow you, the conscious musician, to succeed in dismantling their institutions.
I believe it is necessary to share with you my experience of being a subordinate being. My parents immigrated from the Philippines in the 1980s to seek work in Canada and the United States and to provide a better life for their children. I know far too well the nature of Asian subordination. One manifestation of this subordination is through the idea of the “Token Asian.” We are tokens because we have accepted our subordinate position and the whites reward us by including us in their ventures as long as we do not speak or think critically of them. As a trained musician, I am well aware of the stereotype against Asian people as being ambitious, studious, and gratefully passive to the dominating, prejudicial, and exploitative advances of the whites. Unfortunately, I have met these Token Asians that are blissfully unaware of the systems of domination and exploitation that work to mangle their bodies and minds and render their consciousnesses inoperative. I am saddened when one of these Token Asians give in to the dominating rhetoric of the elite. I think about the neurological and degradative effect that this ‘giving in’ has on their bodies and minds. I think about the chronic illness that they will surely contract because of this relationship that they appear to be grateful for. I write this essay, in part, for them. Wake up! They are hurting you. Give it a shot and think critically of those you think highly of. And I assure you, you will discover the same relationships that I have outlined above.
Conclusions and Next Steps.
As a profession, we must come together and realize our oppression. Through this realization, we must struggle together to free ourselves even if it means changing the emphasis on the practices and ideas that are closest to our hearts. To fail to do so would be to abandon your stand partner that you played with in university orchestra for four years. You would be betraying the trust that you have built with your fellow musicians. You would be ignoring the ground-breaking and compassionate research that has already been trying to help us.
Take small steps. Read an article or two. Journal down some initial thoughts. Read some more. Observe your professors and document their actions. Reflect upon these observations. Find research that explains it. If you can’t find the research, give it your best guess. Reflect and research often to make sure you are right.
With this constant cycle of research, action, and reflection, you may find that the iron gates of oppression are as harmful as a bouncy castle at a fifth grade birthday party.
In solidarity, my life-long friends and fellow musicians.
Carnegie Hall. (2013, March 1). Carnegie Hall Clarinet Master Class: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUYuuvZ0A68
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