“Quit thinking like a classical musician and start thinking like a rock musician.” So says Ivan Trevino, one of the cellists in the band Break of Reality. In a blog post on the website of The Strad magazine, Trevino shares his thoughts on how classical musicians can learn from the rock world.

His best observations are about the over-thinking we classical players do, and how it can hurt us. “Rock musicians understand rejection and don’t fear it. Most classical musicians don’t have that mindset…We believe, because it’s how we were taught, that there’s a perfect way to do things, and we can’t settle for less.”

Trevino urges classical musicians to play more gigs: “Just look at most local rock bands. They have show after show lined up. Every weekend, they are playing in a new bar or club. They’ve got their albums for sale, their email list out, and they are slowly but surely growing their fan-base. Meanwhile, classical musicians who have been playing their instruments for decades, who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their musical training, don’t have this same mindset.”

Some savvy classical musicians have embraced this idea of getting out there more – the great cellist Matt Haimovitz plays Bach in bars regularly, and the Classical Revolution movement has taken off in many cities. But on the whole, we aren’t really succeeding in this area – we need to do more.

Trevino’s suggestion to “start thinking like a rock musician” got me thinking – when did we stop thinking that way? Some of the biggest names in classical music history thought (and acted) like rockers – Paganini, Mozart and Beethoven all come to mind.

Music is supposed to be challenging, in your face and uncompromising – all rock musicians know that. Beethoven certainly wrote his music with that mindset, and sometimes acted a lot like a rock star, throwing food at his housekeeper, etc. Mozart certainly partied like a rock star, and you could argue that he paid the price, dying at 35, at least in part because of his “lifestyle choices.”

Franz Liszt may have been the first rock star – at his concerts, women tore his clothes and fought over broken strings from his piano. He even got to be played in a movie by a rock star! The picture above is from it – Roger Daltrey of the Who portrayed the great pianist in “Lisztomania,” which also features Ringo Starr as The Pope (who knew he had such range?).

Let’s just say this movie is NOT an example of the inspiration I’m hoping classical musicians will get from rockers – skip it. Still, in 1975, someone thought enough of the idea to back it financially, and it got made – I doubt that would happen today.

Bad movies aside – no one performing Liszt’s concertos today gets the kind of reception he did – is that good or bad? So what happened? One possibility is that Liszt was a rock star because there was no “pop” music to compete with in his day – classical music was pretty much it, and everyone knew its stars. As other styles of music emerged over time, classical music became pigeonholed as something for certain people with “taste” and “sophistication” (an idea that Mozart and company would probably think was complete nonsense).

There’s a great book about how classical music (and other art forms) got separated from more “popular” styles – “Highbrow/Lowbrow – The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” by Lawrence Levine – required reading, in my opinion, if you care about great music and its future. Classical music doesn’t have to live in isolation – that’s a recent development, and a really bad one, I think. Trevino and others like him are trying to bring it back into the mainstream – let’s get to it! Please post your comments and thoughts about how we can (re-)learn from rock musicians!

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