Reconstructing the “Canon”

Although century-old musicians and composers were previously seen on a lower social status, current artists must follow the mentally exhausting upkeep of the idealistic perception that musicians must be “obedient and flawless” for art’s sake. Within the classical music world, the stigma that musicians, conductors, and composers must hold themselves up to the highest standards and excellency in their profession is admirable but nonetheless a bit nonsensical. From performance etiquette to eloquence and musical expression, the demands of classical music require such perfectionism that it ultimately seeps into the daily life and behavior of musicians and artists. Nico Muhly, an American composer, has expressed a concern about the toxic nature of a culture that solely focuses on the classical ideals of such narcissistic behavior and brings attention to the reality that artists are imperfect humans in the global scheme of the musical world.

Prior to the nineteenth century, musicians were “servants to aristocratic circles” and composed music for entertainment to the upper social class and courts. Jason Dobney states that the access and rise of middle-class musicians lead to era of “Romanticism,” which opened up “new opportunities for earning a livelihood as a musician or composer”. Musical entertainment transitioned from small court audiences to large and extravagant events of orchestral and operatic performances that would show off virtuosic and “flawless” musicians who were viewed in a perfect light. The development of musicianship went beyond creating a nice, small atmosphere and thus musicians and composers were able to sell their music to an audience, albeit with the price of perfectionism and sanity. While we are currently in the 21st century, the traditional expectations of maintaining a marketable sound to audiences is ingrained within the rules of etiquette and social rules placed upon classical musicians in their own world.

Within the Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra’s rehearsal etiquette guide, a musician must balance between always being prepared at a moment’s notice and being obedient in the thousands of rules that lead to a “perfect” rehearsal. When translated to a performance, if a musician is unable to perform without a single mistake other fellow musician will have a more negative perception of that person (personal experience). Furthermore, the performer who was unable to have a “perfect” performance is left with a lowered sense of self even if they receive praise from fellow musicians or audience members. In the article, “The Role of the Composer,” Nash shows us that even composers are placed into a similar role of producing music that must appease other artists; the failure of producing art that is worthy leads the composer to having lowered self-esteem from the negative criticism and narcissism from other musicians. Additionally, composers may feel pressured to create music that appeals to their audience (other musicians) rather than create music simply because it is enjoyable to themselves.

In his “Thoughts on Being Well” blog, Muhly has expressed his concern about the toxicity that follows a musician in their pursuit to create, and ultimately expect perfection from himself and others. He states that the obsession derived from his “quality control” behaviour lead him to edit his music into the late hours beside his pervasive thoughts of the musicians who will perform his music. Even Muhly himself believed that “Once I get anybody else involved on any level, though, I expect, unfairly, for them to have spent the same amount of time and energy doing their jobs as I’d done mine”, creating an expectation that may be unachievable to some musicians who are not as developed in their skill as others in the field. Unfortunately, this type of negative practice permeates other life situations, such as when Muhly expressed annoyance at people who did not effectively or correctly do their job or task (even outside of the musical world). While Muhly’s shows that anyone, even a composer, can have toxic and narcissistic behaviours, his blog demonstrates that being aware of such actions may be corrected and changed if one is willing to address the “accepted” and “expected” behaviours of classical musicians.

– Ashley Venegas


“Rehearsal Etiquette.” Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Brock, Kev. “How to Recognize a Narcissist Musician in 10 Steps.” K’Brocking. (accessed April 16, 2019).

Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Nineteenth-Century Classical Music.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Thoughts on Being Well.” Nico Muhly. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Mulcahy, Holly. “How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians.” Neo Classical. (accessed April 16, 2019).

Nash, Dennison. “The Role of the Composer (Part I).” Ethnomusicology 5, no. 2 (1961): 81-94. (accessed April 15, 2019).

One thought on “Reconstructing the “Canon”

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  1. Hi Ashley,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog about Nico Muhly. You bring up such great points that us a musicians feel with dealing with perfection and constantly trying to please our listeners. It is shocking to me that artists don’t talk about the struggles we face in this music world how it can come to affect us mentally. I think that the blog Muhly created, “Thoughts on Being Well,” was very enlightening and although I can’t say I have felt that, I can understand it. His stories about his different episodes that could last a long time and how that influenced his work was very real and I wish musicians could talk about it more without feeling it will define them as a person and artist.
    Again, I really enjoyed reading your blog! Thank you for you insight. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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