Since I heard about Jon Ronson's new book on shaming in the age of the Internet and social media, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, I've been considering how this phenomenon affects classical musicians. Ronson has investigated the ways social media facilitates public shaming, both for Internet-related acts (like posting an inappropriate photo on Facebook, then being shamed by other Facebook users) and for in-real-life acts (like a viral video of someone making an offensive gesture at a restaurant). As Ronson told PBS, "[W]e uncover a transgressor, sometimes by just like some inappropriate phraseology in some tweet, and then we pile in on that person."
Some classical musicians have been shamed for actions only loosely connected to their profession (here's one recent example), but it's interesting to consider how social media alters musicians as performers. When a poor performance can be viewed by millions online and the performer torn to shreds in a comment section or news feed, there are bound to be musicians who become inhibited by the environment public shaming creates. Even though a poor performance may not be the same type of transgression as a racist joke or indecent photo, the Internet and social media have made shaming easy and largely consequence-free for any act people want to censure or mock.
Increased public access and conversation probably galvanizes some musicians into performing their best at all times — but I'm not certain the prospect of public shaming is the right kind of motivation for playing well. When I consider my own performing experience, I usually play better when I concentrate on bringing joy and beauty to the audience, conveying the phrases and lines of a piece, or some other positive action. As a horn teacher, I advise my students to approach performing the same way.
I have seldom been moved (which isn't to say I have seldom been tempted) to shame a classical musician on social media, but my friend Adam is more experienced and was willing to talk to me about it. A few years ago he was "very vocal" on Facebook and online forums about his dissatisfaction with a hiring decision by a major American orchestra. He blasted the new hire for not filling his predecessor's shoes and not playing with the orchestra's characteristic sound.
I asked Adam whether it was emotionally satisfying for him to participate in publicly shaming this musician and the orchestra. "I wouldn't say it was satisfying to just be calling him out in a public way," he responded. "Rather it was satisfying when I encountered somebody who understood the minutiae of what I was getting at. Otherwise it was generally extremely frustrating and saddening when people didn't understand my viewpoint. I'm an extremely detailed-oriented person, so it's not as though I was just saying [the musician] sucks and leaving it at that. I usually went into very precise detail as to what my issues were."
This response aligns with one of Ronson's points from the PBS interview: "Because we surround ourselves on social media by people who feel the same way we do, we just mutually approve each other as we carry on tearing that person apart." Though in general I haven't found Adam to be particularly interested in mutual affirmations with like-minded friends, he clearly enjoyed having his opinion understood and appreciated on this issue.
Maybe that's partly why I'm not much of a public shamer. I do feel scorn for certain acts, including some by fellow musicians, but I rarely seek mutual or even one-sided approval of these opinions.
Truth be told, I was burned by an experience a few years ago. I had posted a Facebook comment about a musician I didn't like, and a close friend replied severely, believing my comment to be extremely insensitive. We came to some sort of understanding through private conversation, but I wished I had never made the original comment, especially in such a public way. Even if other friends had leaped to my defense, supporting my view, I still would have regretted the incident. Now I tend to keep opinions like this to myself.
One thing I'm curious about is whether the reluctance to shame musicians at public performances, from the audience, has any effect on shaming them online during or after a performance. It used to be more common for audiences to boo classical musicians, but where I live, at least, this is now extremely rare. I can't recall ever witnessing anything like it and would be shocked if I did. Are there people who save up their displeasure for a post-concert Twitter or YouTube rant? I suppose there are, yet sports fans are no strangers to social media rants, and there's no taboo against booing at many sporting events. Maybe classical music fans just save their boos for the Internet.
Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.
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