The Birth of “SO MANY WRONG NOTES”

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Sometime near the end of our doctorates, Jeannette approached me about doing a podcast.

We had started our degrees at the University of Michigan together, but hadn’t become friends until Jeannette began dating (redating?) one of my friends. I think the friendship really got off the ground when we realized we could use each other. It was the end of our degrees and I think we both felt adrift, looking for honest feedback of our playing as well as keeping ourselves motivated in our respective job searches. We spent a lot of time playing for each other or editing our cover letters. And the feedback we gave each other was honest, often brutal. And it was refreshing. There was no walking on eggshells, no worrying about hurting the other’s feelings. We both understood that the more honest we were, the better the final product would be.

Soon we discovered that we had a lot in common. We were both Asian, we both grew up in the NY/NJ area, and we both seemed to feel the same trepidation and anxiety about fulfilling social and familial obligations:

Do I have to go to that recital?

When can I leave this party without seeming rude?

My parents want me to…

Most importantly, we shared the same philosophy when it came to music. We seemed to agree on what made a good performance (and would, in our sado-masochistic feedback loop, almost cruelly point out each others’ flaws), we both proselytized about the importance of new music with the fervor of a born-again fundamentalist, and we viewed almost nothing about our field as sacrosanct. We both saw value in questioning established traditions.

Classical music has inherited many traditions and codes of conduct that, at least for me, can sometimes detract from the music itself. Why can’t there be applause between movements? Why do we have to memorize? Who determined these things and why can’t we change them?

I can’t speak for Jeannette on this, but for me this line of questioning stems from a deep love of classical music. It’s the music I’ve dedicated my life to–an obsession that feels almost pathological, like a stalker’s infatuation with her victim or a junkie’s overwhelming need to find his next fix. And I want others to feel the same way about this music as I do. So, it breaks my heart that many unexposed to classical music view it as staid, lifeless, something that is irrelevant to their lives. Or those who were curious about classical music but got turned off because they didn’t know all the (in my opinion, arbitrary) rules and were made to feel ashamed for their lack of knowledge. Perhaps we classical musicians are part of the problem; perhaps we have to examine ourselves and begin to question traditions, reevaluate ourselves all for the purpose of allowing more people to hear us, to give us a shot, show them why we love this, and in that process have them love it too.

Jeannette’s eagerness to explore these questions with me proved that she felt just as passionate about reevaluating ourselves as I did. But it wasn’t enough for her to have these discussions in private. Jeannette wanted to put these questions out in the world and create dialogue. Her solution was a podcast.

I agreed without a second thought. Both of us have podcast addictions and we recognized that a podcast was a perfect medium for what we wanted to do. We wanted to have in depth conversations about classical music that we found interesting or controversial or important to us. We wanted to demystify classical music, knock it off the pedestal that made people view it as a museum piece or something to be venerated like the preserved jawbone of a long dead saint. We wanted to share how this music is still very much alive; how new composers are reshaping the field, how new performers can shape the way we hear an old piece, and how new research can make us reevaluate the music of the past by introducing new frames of reference.

It took us a while to get off the ground. Life got in the way. When we revisited the idea, we both committed to it and I was surprised at how smoothly things went. We defined clear roles and found ourselves agreeing most of the time. I think the time we spent hearing each other play or editing each other’s writing really helped us to understand how to work together.

That’s not to say we didn’t have disagreements. We’ve had a few differences of opinion, but we always seemed to work it out without us feeling like we had to settle. Actually, the disagreements seemed almost vital to the process. The argument itself seemed to lead to a better solution that we would never have thought was possible.

Case in point, our biggest argument arose when we both came to the conclusion that we had to rename our podcast. We came up with our original title, Finger This, in a fit of adolescent glee. Mostly that title represented us giving the finger to accepted conventions in classical music, but I can’t deny also being amused by the other connotations that title evoked. In fact, we played that angle too much with a raunchy theme song and other jokes made in the episodes. We realized we were shooting ourselves in the foot. The whole point of the podcast was to question, not to make adolescent jokes made in poor taste. It detracted from our content, which we both loved (that’s a high compliment coming from us two obsessive, perfectionist, never satisfied people.)  We agreed we had to change our name.

 

But to what?

 

This sparked the argument. We settled on a name, but only because we wanted to solve this problem quickly and not discuss how we really felt about this new name. By the time we came clean, one felt strongly that the new name was great while the other strongly felt the opposite. We argued back and forth, one defending this new name the other who kept suggesting others. Really the argument wasn’t about the name at all. It was really about being upfront with each other and saying what we thought from the get go. Lack of honesty sparked this fight. This realization helped us move on and almost magically led us to our new name, a name that we both love.

We are now So Many Wrong Notes. I love this name because it’s such a common criticism thrown at performers, even though wrong notes don’t necessarily destroy a performance (seriously, listen to some early Horowitz recordings.) For me, it’s a metaphor for what we want to do with this podcast. We want to challenge, point out the “wrong notes” we see in our field, and try to suggest ways of making things better. And really, what’s more natural than a couple of keyboard players bitching about someone else’s wrong notes?  (I can see Jeannette rolling her eyes at this. Hey, it takes a bullshitter to sniff out bullshit.)

Our ultimate goal is to question. We may not provide answers or we might come to different conclusions, but we think it’s vital to reflect on ourselves as classical musicians, to see if we can change certain aspects of our field. Most of all, we want to share our love of music and want to find ways to communicate this love to a bigger audience.

So, why do we have to memorize again? Why do orchestras wear tuxes? When the hell am I supposed to clap?

 

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