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Code-Switching In Classical Music: How Bad Is It?

Are some classical musicians required to change who they are in order to fit in?

I was reading this article recently and I begin to think…

Is code-switching a problem in classical music?

According to, code-switching is "the modifying of one's behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms".

In this article on the I Care If You Listen blog, bassoonist Garrett McQueen, co-host of the TRILLOQUY podcast, discusses the effect of code-switching on classical musicians:

"Being Black in America and code switching go hand in hand. Our “excellence,” “success,” and “professionalism” have always been measured by how well we can assimilate, and how well we can do what we do to the comfort and acceptance of white people. This is something that I’ve always challenged as an activist, but something that’s been harder to execute when it comes to my role in the field. With the help of my manager, Julie, I’ve been able to find my true voice–to sound exactly like myself both on the air and in live conversation and presentation. I’ve started to take this a step further in the way I dress and in the way I move around in my various professional spaces."

Is code-switching a problem in classical music? Does it create hardships that many musicians find difficult to overcome? When dealing with the topic of code-switching, three questions come to mind:

  • Where does it come from?

  • What harm does it cause?

  • What can be done to make things better?

Where does code-switching come from?

Code-switching results from, at best, a lack of awareness that a dominant group is forcing a subordinate group to conform in order to fit in.

This is a bit of a simplification, but different cultures can converge upon each other in two different ways.

  1. They can blend together, or

  2. The dominant group can force the subordinate group to conform.

In my opinion, it's always better for groups to merge or blend together.

This is what Antonin Dvorak had in mind when he referred to the future of American music being rooted in "Negro melodies".

Unfortunately, instead of these cultural genres blending together as Dvorak had hoped, they were kept separate.

What harm does code-switching cause?

Code-switching in classical music causes harm in at least two ways. I'll mention them briefly.

  1. Music, as an artistic endeavor, should allow for the freedom of expression and not the necessity of conformity.

  2. If artists are restricted from free expression, they will never maximize their potential.

What can be done to make things better?

In essence, code-switching can be changed through adjustments in attitudes.

If everyone could learn to accept our differences in both appearance and expression, we would all benefit.

If we could see the potential in merging and blending cultural genres instead of separating them, we would all benefit.

If certain musicians didn't feel the need to assimilate, they could use their time and energy for more productive things such as musical expression and innovation.

These are the things we all need to understand and accept. In doing so, we all benefit.


So, what do you think? Is code-switching a real problem in classical music? Does it hinder your ability to reach your potential? What is the best way to stop it from occurring? Let me know in the comments...


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