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Musicians and class

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

In what has become an annual event, members of Exultate Singers travel over to Wentworth Golf Club in early December to sing carols at their Christmas party. In return, the club makes a donation to the choir’s funds, and gives us a superb meal in the afternoon.

As you may have guessed, the club’s membership is extremely exclusive, the main criterion being, as far as we can see, money. The club house is, to be blunt, a castle, and contains many hugely luxurious rooms bedecked with antique paintings, and thick carpets trodden silently by armies of (mostly foreign-accented) forelock-tugging staff.

Now if you’re a jobbing musician, you will have noticed something odd that happens to your self-image when you perform at certain events, especially those in the rarefied atmospheres of the wealthy classes: you disappear. We’re all used to performing at concerts, of course, where we are centre-stage, and everyone pays attention, because that’s the cultural norm in these situations. Even when you’re hired to perform background music – and Christmas carols are this season’s live muzak – you expect some people to stop and listen, and you may even enjoy a ripple of applause or occasional audience participation. But when you’re in the presence of very wealthy people, who are paying through the nose for the event at which you’re performing, the relationship changes in a far more bizarre manner.

Wealthy classes – what might once have been ‘upper class’ – are more or less defined by purely exclusive criteria. The distinctions that indicate membership of this class are the education that they have that you might not (ha ha), the money they have that you do not (granted), the social connections, and similar distinctive acquistions. But further to this, to inhabit this class with true authenticity, you must develop a relationship with the have-nots that clearly defines you, both in others’ eyes and, eventually, even in your own self-image. In short, you have to treat the staff as if they’re nobodies. In the atmosphere of class, you must push down to generate your own upthrust.

When you’re providing some service to them, as we were at Wentworth, it’s very important that they pay you no more attention than they would to, say, the man who takes their coat at the door, or the waiter who brings them their dessert, or turns a blind eye to the privileged little brat who throws cream at them. There must be embarrassed awkwardness as their underlying humanity jars against the rules of their social position.

Despite the fact that you’re entertaining them, and they may well love to hear traditional carols sung with some style and panache, they absolutely cannot show this appreciation, for that would cost them valuable points in loftier game that they’re all dedicated to playing: the class game. When passing through the lobby, therefore, where we were smartly disported around the Christmas tree, they would hurry through, turn their heads away, and pretend not to notice us.

All except for the old people, and the children, who often stopped and listened. The old had no more need for such games: their status was safe. And the young had not yet been inculcated into the game that they were ultimately born to play. But those in the middle were playing hard, and we smiled extra sweetly at anyone who dared to catch our eye, just for fun.

There’s a terrific natural defence that the wealthy classes have against this charge, though: we must only state the charge, as I’ve done above, and they can immediately bark their embarrassed distaste at the conspiracy-laden whining of the ‘working classes’. By exposing the folly of their game, we’re already the losers. The trick, as played out through any hierarchical system, whether it’s based in class, wealth, or reputation (especially in the media) is to play the game, never speak ill of the game, and certainly never complain that the game is unjust.

It is the ugliest phenomenon imaginable, but you can rest assured that true, well-bred class has long ago abandoned this trite little performance as marking out the would-be greasy pole climbers. (What they might call the ‘middle classes’…)

Our conductor suggested, with some gleeful mischievousness, that we should put down a hat in front to make them really squirm. It would have been vulgar and distasteful, but we could probably have cleaned up.

  1. Susan Green
    December 7, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I agree that one’s image is different in such situations, but I don’t think my self-image changes. We were performing to a group for whom, supposedly, sport is more interesting than music. Their indifference to our singing is possibly similar to my indifference to the football game on the telly when we’re in the pub. If anything, I think my self-image was boosted. I was with a group of friends, doing something I enjoy and having, I’m pretty sure, more fun than the paying guests. I think they are the poorer for not engaging with the staff. How horrible to be judged on the immaculate nature of one’s attire or its label. I don’t pity them, but certainly don’t envy them either.

  2. December 8, 2009 at 9:10 am

    But it’s hard to escape the fact that how we see ourselves is partly formed by how (we imagine) others see us too, even though we were all having fun ‘in ourselves’.

    I think if it were genuine indifference they were showing, where they couldn’t have cared whether we were there or not, it would have been more understandable, as you say. But they were actively avoiding us, and were obviously at pains to do so, which gave the game away for me.

    With us and football, there are no class restrictions forcing us to turn our backs on it, and in any case, footballers are on television, so can’t expect our attention because they can’t see us, of course. With actual people standing in front of you, adding something traditional to the event itself, rather than just being on in the background, it’s a whole different, er, ball game.

    I agree though – they are poorer for being forced to ‘play the game’, which might explain why so many wealthy people are so darned unhappy.

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