a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society
The word “elite” has been frequently heard during the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Athletes and sportspeople at the top of their game are regularly described as “elite”, and afforded an elevated status. And rightly so: these people are at the peak of their fitness, they’ve trained long, hard and meticulously to prepare for the games, and the medals and approbation are the visible badges of their great achievements. They are truly “elite”. We have no problem in applying this word to our sporting champions and when we use it, it’s replete with respect, admiration and awe.
It’s a rather different scenario when the word is used in relation to classical music. In this case it suggests exclusivity, inaccessibility, snobbery, and describes an art form which is regarded as the preserve of the few not the many whose practitioners and audiences are aloof, stuffy and out of touch.
You wouldn’t say that about Usain Bolt, Mo Farah or Simone Biles would you?
But of course classical musicians are elite. Look at how they train, the meticulous way they approach preparation, fitness, mental attitude. The mindset and physical preparation of the musician is very similar to that of the athlete, and many comparisons can – and should – be drawn between sporting elite and musicians.
These days many musicians look to sport and more specifically sports psychology to inform their musical training and preparation (cf The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green which came from the “inner game” sports training method used successfully by top tennis and golf players). Musicians, like sportspeople, require discipline, dedication and commitment to put in the many long hours of training to do what they do and do it well, and many make huge sacrifices to achieve this. And just like elite athletes, musicians undergo a very rigorous training which includes much repetitive physical activity (practising) and psychological conditioning. We admire our elite athletes for their physical prowess, their stamina, their grace and strength – and we praise them for their dedicated, meticulous training. And we should admire the same attributes in our musicians.
Musicians, unlike sportspeople, last longer: those who’ve been elevated to the dizzy heights of “elite” (aka “world class”, “internationally renowned”, “legendary” etc) can continue a career well into their 80s (Paul Badura Skoda, for example). A few know when it’s time to step back to let the younger players through (notably, Alfred Brendel). Others cling on determinedly, even if their playing does not match their revered status.
Sportspeople, meanwhile, are judged more objectively by their results and they usually know when it’s the right time to quit. They retain their special status and enter the hall of fame for others to aspire to and emulate. The greatest sportspeople go out at the top of their career (Bradley Wiggins, for example, who eschewed the big salary to concentrate what he enjoys and does well – track cycling; also Boris Becker). These people know that they have reached a point in their professional career where there is nothing left to add and that now is the time to stand down. This is partly because of the physical demands on the body, motivation, the punishing lifestyle, and the recognition that better, younger people are coming through. Many turn their attention to coaching, sharing their wisdom and experience to support and inspire the next generation of elites.
We want our musicians to be elite: by adopting a mindset and training regime akin to that of the elite athlete, musicians are able to produce performances which are consistently impressive, technically assured, absorbing, moving, exhilarating, inspiring…… These are the traits we admire in our elite musicians and for this reason we should celebrate their superhuman talents, in just the same way that we lionise our medal-winning athletes.