Backstabbing and Bastardry

by Simon Tedeschi. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 2 (February 2013). This article first appeared in Fine Music, the magazine of 2MBS FM radio station, Sydney, and is published in Music Forum with the kind permission of Simon Tedeschi and 2MBS.

I’m a nice guy. But not for want of trying. Twenty-five years in this business has the tendency to reduce a man to a beast. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I am one of the lucky few who get to play the very greatest of music and I am blessed. But if only that was the sum total of it.

If I look back at the last two and a half decades of concertising, I can honestly say that the politics, the backstabbing, the relentless bastardry of the classical music scene have had an effect. It has hardened me, which is both good and bad: good, because one must eventually concede that one is an adult - bad, because I was once a kid. It’s that dreadful paradox, that to play sensitively you gotta be sensitive but off stage you have to be someone else altogether. A rather well known colleague of mine, a truly lovely soul, confessed to me recently: ‘If I knew what people said about me, I wouldn’t even bother getting up in the morning.’ How true this is. By and large, why are classical musicians so deeply unsupportive of each other?  

We’ve all heard it expressed that in a small scene (that is being relegated more and more to the fringes of society) a small amount of musicians compete for the same opportunities. This breeds a ‘Lord of the Flies’ mindset - a scarcity mentality. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, are forced to work with each other. Save for the solo jazz pianist or the breakaway trombonist who improvises on stage for two hours, camaraderie is essential for a functioning jazz ensemble. Those with formidable egos find themselves consigned to the dustbin (or at least Centrelink). That is not to say that there is no nastiness in jazz - there certainly is - but it has not pervaded the very capillaries of the genre, like it has with mine.

‘Politics is everywhere,’ I’m told. ‘You should see what it is like in the law/medicine/visual art/the military/The House of Representatives.’ Sorry, no contest. A mean-spirited musician has the erudition of a lawyer, the creativity of the painter, the take-no-prisoners approach of the soldier and the Machiavellian diabolism of a cabinet minister.

Let's be clear what I'm talking about here - the side-of-the-mouth fare of music school cafes, faculties, and dressing rooms. The worst part is that it draws you in. You find yourself doing it as well, not out of a genuine desire to hurt but a feeling that you must strike first. How ironic it is that we elevated artists are reduced to no more than slobbering dogs or hardened prisoners. And then, we walk on stage and play Bach. I read a story once about the comedian Jerry Lewis, who after leaving a meeting, would deliberately leave behind a suitcase with a tape recorder inside to see what the remaining folks were saying about him. It’s a tempting proposition.

I’ve heard it expressed that this behaviour is ‘human nature.’ Yes, I am aware that coiled in our DNA is a reptilian strand, a vestige of our primate backstory. But, are we not also capable of more? Surely in understanding ourselves at a deeper level - commensurate with the music we play and the neocortexes we possess - we are also capable of raising our own consciousnesses.

By and large, in recent decades, we humans have adapted our language and behaviour because we recognise that they are all rooted in a cultural system that can malign others - women, ethnic groups, homo/bisexuals. Surely, as artists - and artists are on the frontline, the very edge of societal change - it is incumbent upon us to support each other. I don’t care what Tchaikovsky said about Bach or what Debussy said about Wagner. We can do better, and we should. Classical music is a dying art and we need each other more than ever.

Mark Latham famously said that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. The sledging that goes on in classical music is sport for the un-athletic. Right now, I’m sitting on a 737 to Melbourne and watching the latest safety video with an unfurling sense of horror. In it, the Australian cricket team, informing us of correct safety procedures, is applauded by the passengers. It ends with a lacklustre exchange between Qantas captain and cricket captain (‘skipper! skipper!’ etc.) And to think some advertising hack was paid a fortune to come up with this stuff. Before you think I’m going off topic, hold your horses. I posit that if artists were venerated in a way that was representative of their role in society instead of peacocks’ tails in a country of hard yakka machismo, greater civility would result. Maybe, just maybe, we could recognise that there is room for many talented musicians in the scene - even our competitors - and that one person’s win does not count as a personal loss for us.

In any case, through the ravages of years, I have come to a place where I am unaffected by what is said about me. As long as they spell my name right.


Simon Tedeschi is a concert pianist.