Musical heroes?


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musical heroes

By Jessica Ducharme

I have been giving the idea of having a “musical hero” a lot of thought recently. What is a hero or heroine really? A hero/heroine can be defined as:

A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities

As young musicians, it is easy to develop this idea of a “musical hero” and apply it to the great musicians that we listen to. As young musicians, how can we not admire the powerful and seemingly perfect sounds that emanate from the back row of the orchestra? As young musicians, how do we make the distinction between professional orchestral musician and god?

It’s easy. Professional orchestral musicians are not gods. They are not automatically deemed heroes. Professional orchestral musicians are simply that– professional orchestral musicians.

It has been a very eye-opening and painful journey for me to finally recognize this truth. It took me a long time to realize that good musician does not necessarily equal good person. What a disappointment it is to admire someone for their outstanding musicianship and pedagogical skills, only to have it ruined in an instant.

What I am referring to in a rather round-about way is sexual discrimination/harassment/assault in the orchestral world. This appalling behavior is most commonly a direct result of the over-inflated ego of said professional musician taking advantage of the admiration of the trusting student. It saddens me to write that this type of behavior in ever-so-common in today’s brass world. It makes me sick to know that most, if not all, of these highly regarded offenders escape any consequences greater than a slap on the wrist as their victims suffer in silence.

And why do these egregious offenders escape blame? Many women (men, too) say nothing. They are scared that if they do say something, then they might lose connections, cause an uproar, ruin their career, ruin their offender’s career, or even to not be taken seriously or believed. Even worse, the employers of these sexual predators seem to value the talent and prestige that they bring to their orchestras over a truly simplistic matter of right and wrong. It astounds me that professional orchestras in today’s society can so easily put up blinders and ignore this offensive and even criminal behavior.

While the worries and concerns of the victims of these abuses are legitimate, and I myself have had these thoughts, what is worse is to suffer in silence. These consequences are much greater and painful: to think that it was your fault, to think that you did something wrong, to feel nervous or sick every time you play your instrument, to cry alone, to hate being in your own skin, to worry when/if you might see him again, to see him praised and admired by others, to see him go to other universities and festivals and work with other trusting students.

I have had the pleasure of corresponding with famous trombonist Abbie Conant and composer William Osborne on this subject. It has meant a lot to me to experience their support and encouragement, and for that I am truly grateful. William really hit the nail on the head with this statement:

We need to work against this patriarchal deification of orchestral brass players. How ridiculous it is, when you think about it. Please know that things are changing and that the victims of this behavior now receive wide-spread and very strong support in the community. It’s not going to be too long before these predators start paying for what they do.

Patriarchal deification– this is exactly what fuels this type of despicable behavior and why so many offenders get away with it. We have somehow turned these musicians into untouchable gods that do as they please without repercussions. These men are people who play their instruments extremely well, nothing more. It is not my intention to stereotype all male orchestral brass players as being this type of person. I have met and worked with many who are amazing musicians, great teachers, and perfect gentlemen. Unfortunately, it would be mind boggling to learn how many of these men are exactly the opposite.

The solution is not simple or easy. To start, we must be brave and honest. We must not accept this type of behavior as “part of the business.” We must not support musicians or orchestras that condone this behavior. We must not invite these musicians to our universities and festivals, and we surely must not allow them to teach in our studios in one-on-one situations.

I return to my original thought about this “hero status” that we sometimes attribute to professional musicians. I felt so cheated when my “hero” turned out to be nothing more than a creepy predator, and what was a wonderful experience for my colleagues continues to be a nightmare for myself. So, should we not have heroes or heroines in our lives? That doesn’t seem fair, either. As young (and less young) musicians, we should allow ourselves to be inspired musically. We should be able to dream and strive to be better at our art. I suppose I don’t know the answer to my own question, but I do know that a true hero/heroine in the music world is someone who is an inspiring musician, a thoughtful teacher, a respectful person, someone who stands up for what is right, and someone who is truly principled in everything they do.

4 Responses to “Musical heroes?”

  1. Dear Ms. Ducharme,

    Thank you for a great article! This should also be applied to sports or media “heroes.” I especially like the phrase “Patriarchal deification,” although in the world of mass media this can also be applied to women, just not as often for a number of reasons that can be discussed later.

    You make several great points that I feel I must reinforce:

    1. When inspired by a musician’s performance, but inspired by the artistry and the music, not the personality. (Again, think sport and media demi-gods: some are fantastic at their craft but are NOT nice people, and who seem nice still my look upon you as nothing more than a “worshipper” and twist you as they see fit.)

    For us, it’s the MUSIC, not the person. As I am easily old enough to be your dad, for may decades I have watched these “demi-gods” worshiped until something happens the shows the real person behind the mentally graven idol was, as you say “creepy,” or far less than noble in their personal life.

    Ego? Yea, that warning about “never believe your own press reports” should be heeded.

    2. Definition of heroes: This word is used far to casually today. “Superstar” does not necessarily equal “hero.” A cursory look at the “heroes” of music, sports and media over the last 30+ years finds a long list of superb performers who used and abused “the little people” around them. I could name at least a dozen in each field – music, media and sports – who, after being put on a pedestal, fell. So…

    3. The problem is often passed on to the next generation. I’m glad you’re breaking the cycle.

    4. Heroes: the definition has to be narrowed. Your summary statement “true hero/heroine in the music world is someone who is an inspiring musician, a thoughtful teacher, a respectful person, someone who stands up for what is right, and someone who is truly principled in everything they do” is great, in your defined context.

    But as a society/the world-at-large, heroes are few and far between. To your definition I would add a couple of qualities:

    A. A hero does not think about being a hero, in fact, they don’t waste time thinking about themselves at all, other than how they can be of service to others, either on long-term basis like a great teacher who spends his/her life helping other musicians become great musicians, or like the (an extreme example!) the soldier who, in an instantaneous decision, throws himself on the grenade to save the life of his friends.

    B. A hero is self-sacrificing, putting the needs of others above their own needs and desires

    C. There are “everyday” heroes. People you never notice. People who are out there every day helping others, maybe giving their life and time behind the scenes doing jobs that are far less than
    “glamorous.”

    Just because someone is the best golfer, football, baseball, basketball, trombone or trumpet player, tv personality, actor or the hottest “rock star,” does NOT make them anything more than they are WITHOUT the celebrity status. The real hero may be the school janitor who keeps the place clean and functional for the kids every day.

    Idea for the future: don’t flinch at this please, because it does seem “Patriarchal” in nature. Please research the word “chivalry.”
    It’s almost dead, beaten severally by the very people you describe. But you don’t have to read very far into the code before you see a “heroic” mindset as the standard, not the exception.

    THANK YOU!!

  2. Please forgive typos and syntactical errors. It’s actually 7:30 AM where I am and I haven’t had my coffee yet!!!

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree, this is not just a problem in music, but everywhere. What an unfortunate truth. With music, it is so easy to for students to confuse the art from the personal. After all, so much of music is tied to the emotions and personal expression. But the distinction must be made, and the earlier, the better. I took a look into “chivalry.” You are right, a chivalrous person has many qualities to be admired.

    I can’t stress enough the importance of having the courage to speak up against this type of behavior. For me, it was the hardest and bravest thing I have ever done– why is the right thing to do never easy? I cannot change what happened, but I will do my best to help prevent others from going through what I did. As painful as this has been, I am very proud of myself for how I have dealt with everything, and I am thankful for people like you who will help me in my efforts.

    Thanks again for your comment, John.

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