On punters, terminology, and the way we speak to one another

There’s been some debate today on The Twitter about programme notes.

The ‘discussion’ was started by Guardian journo Kate Molleson (previously spoken highly of on Thoroughly Good). There was a call for ‘plain English’ for the ‘punters’ for whom music analysis terminology like ‘sonata form’ and ‘recapitulation’ used in programme notes were seen as alienating jargon.

This is always a difficult subject to explore on a platform like Twitter because, rather like Facebook, Twitter has a tendency to create bubbles of ‘niceness’ such that when anyone comes along to challenge perceived or assumed truths, people tend to get a little worked up.

Then people get opinionated.

After which, people get a bit snarky.

Then that snarkiness gets ‘liked’ by all sorts of other people.

What might have begun as a fairly innocent statement soon turned into what at times felt like a bit of a grandstanding opportunity.

Like a complete and utter twat I waded in quite early. I really wish I hadn’t. Come three o’clock this afternoon I was getting rather sick of the damn argument.

Some thoughts arise.

  1. Referring to the audience as punters seems a little disingenuous. There’s a connotation with the word which only serves to reinforce the perceived hierarchy in the auditorium, meaning there are those who know and those who think they don’t know. It’s the audience. We’re all members of the audience.
  2. Was the quote from the programme note in Kate’s tweet real? If it was, does the author of the programme note quoted follow Kate on Twitter? Awkward. Excuse me while I just nip out to get some popcorn.
  3. There’s an assumption that the audience are stupid or lazy, and when confronted by a word they don’t understand they’ll either overlook it or storm out of the auditorium in a huff because they’ve been forced to buy a programme, and then tried and failed to read and understand it.Like composer Stuart Macrae suggested, people could for example look up the meaning of unknown words on say something like Google.
  4. Study, knowledge and understanding is yet again seen as a barrier to appreciating classical music as an artform – as though its something to be embarrassed about.One of the many appealing things about this art form for me has been the many different facets that continue to fascinate and delight. Studying for my music degree introduced me to some of those facets – I’m still discovering them now. I found the experience incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience.That same knowledge and understanding – usually signposted by terminology more efficient than euphemistic phrases which end up unwittingly making understanding woolly – is decried as invaluable or unhelpful in reaching out to new audiences.
  5. In safeguarding classical music’s future and looking for new ways to appeal to a wider demographic, are we in danger of assuming the audience needs spoon-feeding everything?
  6. I sometimes listen to football pundits on Five Live. I nearly always have absolutely no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. At no point have I heard anyone bemoan the fact that pundits use terminology great swathes of the population don’t understand. I don’t want them to change their use of language – its all part of the theatre.
  7. I wonder now whether the discussion Kate was initiating was really about sub-editing. In my work at the BBC I used spend some considerable time editing blog post drafts many of which read like complete drivel. What was required was some judicious editing to improve them. That was my job. Is it not the responsibility of the programme book editor to ensure the copy commission is written in the house style?
  8. Was Kate looking for programme note work, or some freelance sub-editing work?
  9. I wish I actually knew Kate, then I could ask her and then I wouldn’t need to write this blog post.
  10. I was genuinely surprised by the vociferous of some people’s comments to the extent that at times it felt like there was some kind of competition for who could be the most revolutionary. There was a kind of inverted snobbery in amongst of all this, a sense that if you were someone who wanted to hang on to any conventions at all then you were part of the problem classical music faces.

The irony here for me is that as a classical music devotee myself my expectation was that there would be a discernible camaraderie amongst fellow devotees. Instead there was a hostility, perhaps even a toxic atmosphere. I didn’t experience that last week at the ABO Conference, which leads me to wonder whether the problem classical music is facing isn’t the music, the auditorium, or the programme notes, but the devotees themselves.

I don’t especially feel as though classical music and the many people who love and benefit from it, put on the best show. The strings were a bit screechy, the brass were all over the place, and the woodwind were a bit chippy.

If classical music is to be seen as inclusive and welcoming, then it might be worth starting with the way we talk to one another about it.

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