noun

noun: elite; plural noun: elite

a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society

The word “elite” is frequently applied to sportspeople and no one has a problem with that. 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 train long, hard and meticulously, and the medals, trophies and approbation they receive are the visible badges of their achievements. They are truly “elite”. We have no problem in applying this word to our sporting champions and when we use it it is 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 and privilege, and describes an art form which is regarded as the preserve of the monied few not the many. As I explain in this article, this view is inaccurate and misguided.

But of course classical music is full of elite people – the 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 which came from “inner game” sports training which has been used successfully by top tennis 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, Maria Joao Pires and Radu Lupu). Others cling on determinedly, even if their playing does not match their revered status.

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.