Don’t Be Cool

On the heels of last month’s Comments-Fest (in which I recalled some of the best post-concert comments I have ever received), a reader emailed to suggest I write something about the best advice that I ever received. While there is an important sense in which it’s wise to consider all feedback a form of advice, there are certain particularly clear injunctions which come to resonate with a sense of rightness, and take on a guiding authority of their own. The following advice was overheard rather than provided to me directly, but it seems of particular value to those pursuing creative endeavors that—more than most activities—absolutely require an awareness of one’s own internal compass.

One of the first times I sat in on an instrumental master class, a visibly nervous and self-conscious student completely lost the line of his performed selection in misguided pursuit of some fancy expressive distortions, and then succumbed to hopping about in an exaggerated fashion—a “move” which he had doubtless poached from an idolized soloist.

In exasperation, the respected pedagogue leaned over and tartly proclaimed, “Don’t be cool.” In this context it was a relevant but not particularly profound bit of advice; but when I began to ponder the larger idea of Coolness the true wisdom of this advice became manifest.

What is being cool, exactly? Perhaps it would be best to first list what isn’t cool. Crying during a film or musical performance isn’t cool, because being cool means remaining emotionally detached. Saying something interesting or perceptive that might make one look silly or asking a question that might reveal us to be uninformed are behaviors also typically considered as the province of the uncool, because being cool is more about seeming a certain way than being a certain way. Showing up at a social environment, event, or “scene” without already knowing how to act is also patently uncool, as not being privy to the preferences and habits of the cool (or worse, not caring) are further black marks.

If one were to boil down the unspoken rules of being cool, then, you’d come up with something like this:

  • Be so afraid of potential embarrassment and rejection that you never learn, grow, or act like yourself.
  • You may act interested in the “right” things, but interests in the “wrong” things or interests that take on a personal quality—actually being moved by something in an un-ironic way—reveal undesirable vulnerability, and ought to be avoided.
  • Wearing and doing what those deemed cool choose to is, of course, cool; but apparently coolness is profoundly intolerant of other attitudes, especially those that choose to ignore to pronouncements of the cool entirely.
  • If you are not cool, there might be hope that if you purchase products from the right corporations, you will one day pass.
  • There is no point in doing anything unless you are already good at it, or at least look good doing it; barring that, you’d be better off not trying than embarking on the kinds of fumbling, playful exploration that might actually yield real engagement and mastery.
  • The way that others see you is much more important than the way you see yourself.

When put this way, coolness (or at least the kind of coolness that I’m talking about) seems fairly absurd, if not downright damaging. As there are many subcultures, there are many brands of cool—hipster, preppy, new-music specialist, opera-goer, academic, hip hop aficionado—and as such it can occasionally be difficult to divine the exact manner of coolness expected. But sooner or later, all species of coolness have the same underlying foundation: aloofness, willful ignorance, and crippling fear of failure.

Above all, coolness doesn’t belong to any one social group or activity; rather, it’s an attitude towards approaching any activity. So when I say that “don’t be cool” became some of the best and most useful advice I’ve ever received, what I really mean is: be your own person. There is no one else in the world who can see through your eyes, and no one else who must live out the consequences of your actions as they impact your own life.

Whenever I’ve felt out of place, insignificant, or incomplete and have given into the temptation to be one of the cool, the illusory feeling of belonging only served to delay my finding solutions to fill these voids for myself; that’s why especially for beginning composers, finding the intellectual courage to be and maintain one’s self is absolutely a prerequisite to navigating a minefield of stylistic, social, and professional pressures.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Be Cool

  1. Matt Marks

    “Don’t be cool.” is actually one of my mottos as a composer/performer. It’s interesting, the classical music world used to hold as a its ideal the enigmatic mystique of the musical genius. Who knows what type of emotions rage in the heart of that jerking violin soloist? Who knows the ornate tumult stirring into that furrowed-browed composer’s mind? I think to some extent children sent to music school are taught to act like little geniuses, taught to exude a quiet wisdom. In my opinion, this is all part of a (perhaps unintentional) scheme to get the public to recognize classical musicians as their betters, in the hope that they’ll support us. Good luck.

    As someone involved with the more pop-influenced side of classical music (indie/alt/whatever), many of us have discarded the tweed for black leather, so to speak. Pop’s mystique runs along more middle-class lines: looking ‘tough’, emotionally unengaged, etc. Treat your instrument like your “axe”, not a museum piece. Write music that ‘kicks ass’, not music that aspires to the heavens.

    I think both these approaches are due to, as you say, “aloofness, willful ignorance, and crippling fear of failure”. Classical music will never be “cool” in my opinion, and I don’t want it to. Let’s keep classical music geeky.

    Reply
  2. Colewthornton

    But I would add, also, that trying to NOT be cool can be just as damaging as trying to be cool. It seems like the best course, if your goal is artistic integrity, is always to write the music that you yourself honestly want to write, regardless if that makes people think you are cool or uncool. Don’t strive to be cool or uncool, just write.

    Reply

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