What is a "real" musician?

One of my professors in college was an older gentleman nearing retirement age. He taught General Music History for freshman. Perhaps his strongest opinion about music was that the term "classical" was misused. He felt it needed to be restricted to the Classical era in music history, not spread out to cover all music that uses instruments of the Classical age. As an alternative, he insisted on calling it "Serious" music.

That always bothered me because of its inherently exclusive and elitist connotations. It seriously devalued other forms of music. Suddenly Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Dizzy Gillespie, Peter Gabriel and others were making frivolous, less-than-serious music. Whether that was his intent or not, it still stuck in my craw.

The other day a friend of mine groused on Facebook that people like Charlotte Church and Josh Groban are not real musicians, ostensibly because they and others of their ilk are not trained, have poor technique, and cannot read music. Many of my friend's friends lined up in quick agreement.

This too bothered me. As a classically trained musician myself, I understand the underlying sentiment. When you've gone through the rigorous academic training and worked diligently on your technique, it's pretty easy to spot those who did not put in the same time and effort. So I understand the dues-paying part of the comment.

What bothers me, though, is the notion of there being "real" musicians. There are "trained" musicians of course, as well as untrained ones. But "real"? What is a "real" musician? Happy Rhodes is has a four-plus octave range, yet she sings with tremolo instead of vibrato. Steve Howe never took a guitar lesson in his life, yet by the age of 32 he had been voted into Guitar Player Magazine's Gallery Of The Greats for consistently topping reader polls for many years. Are people like them any less "real" than those who trained for years and have wonderful technique?

Maybe it's a matter of fame (as that was another point brought up in the rather spirited discussion). The general sentiment was that "real" musicians don't need auto-tune and teleprompters, yet pop artists do--and they are the ones playing sold-out stadiums and raking in millions of dollars. Okay. They are also making music that millions of people enjoy. Isn't the point of music to be enjoyable?

The notion of there being "real" musicians implies that others are not "real"--or to go back to that other term, "serious". It is another exclusive and, yes, elitist term that in my opinion is used to bolster one's fragile ego. Does it somehow hurt me that John Mayer is a hack songwriter who sells millions of CDs and plays to huge sold-out houses? Not in the least. Does Lady Gaga's success somehow invalidate me as a musician? Not one bit. Nor does Charles Daellenbach's long and successful tenure as part of the Canadian Brass make me a better tuba player.

The second movement of Beethoven's fifth piano concerto often moves me to tears. So does Procol Harum's "A Salty Dog". I sit with absolutely rapt attention through the last few minutes of Stravinsky's "The Firebird". Then I smile all the way through Mika's "Grace Kelly" and play it at least twice. It's all music that I enjoy.

Music is about enjoyment. If you enjoy the music, what does it matter how it is made? If there's an artist or a style you don't enjoy, that's fine--but the people who make it are no less "real" musicians than anyone else. Less trained? Probably. Less "real"? Not a bit.