29 July 2021

Music Educators - Do We Need Them?


A former student of mine made a comment recently about the failure of music educators to appreciate that their role was not just in training musicians to be performers, but in encouraging them to be ticket-buyers as well.  Wonderful! (thought I.) It may be some years since that student attended one of my lectures, but something I have said seems to have finally sunk in.  Of course, it had nothing at all to do with what I had tried to tell students during my lecturing career, but was prompted by an angry diatribe by another student who had become disillusioned with a conservatory course in violin performance.  But whatever the spark which ignited my former student’s comment, it is a point worth making again.


It is a self-evident truth – even if it is one many music educators choose to ignore – that in all probability none of your students will go on to be dazzling, headline stars.  A very few instrumentalists may make it to the rank and file of a regional orchestra, and some may, in time, be elevated to senior chairs in major orchestras, while a tiny handful of singers may, with a lot of luck, make it to the chorus of an opera company.  But as for all those myriad piano students, whose incessant practice populates the corridors of a hundred music conservatories around the world, the best they can expect is to graduate and be appointed teachers of piano at their alma mater, while the vast majority will end up as either school or private music teachers, feeding the seemingly insatiable desire of the next generation of music students to seek the unattainable goal of musical stardom.  Those who do make it to the top usually do it in spite of their education, and as often as not, today’s great performers never even went through a full course of formal professional music training.


The logical conclusion from this is that conservatory training is a pointless exercise, and merely raises hopes which would have been better stifled in childhood.  And so it is, if music educators regard their prime function as training the next generation of musical superstars.  I know only too many such teachers whose dream is the reflected glory of their name in the biography of a major superstar – and I note with some bemusement that those educators who help their students prepare their concert biographies, invariably urge them to include a list of their teachers even where those teachers will be totally unknown to any who shell out their hard-earned cash for a ticket.  But it does not have to be that way.  If we regard music conservatories not as hot-houses for the intensive training of performers, but as environments in which the value of music is explained and conveyed, then there is real value in advanced music education. 


The siren call of so many music students and educators is that music is special, that it deserves special treatment (especially when it comes to finance), and that it is an essential element in human existence.  And for us it is.  But it is not any of those things for the rest of humanity.  At best, true music-lovers seek out music as a kind of emotional fix, an addictive habit which they believe it is impossible to kick.  (Believe me, you can: I kicked the habit of music for a full year and came back to it more powerfully enthused than ever before.) But for the vast majority of people, if they are even remotely interested in music beyond its use as a background accompaniment to daily life, music is an entertainment, something on a par with cinema, television, theatre, sport, or a visit to the bar.  Classical music concerts compete with football matches and movie releases for the time and money of the public, and neither warrant nor deserve preferential treatment.  I have worked in the profession of music in various capacities virtually all my life, but I have also worked as a barman, double-glazing salesman, journalist, tour guide and bus driver, and have learnt that, while music is special to me, it is very much not for most people.  I know plenty of surgeons, lawyers, statisticians, accountants, office clerks, cooks, truck drivers, who enjoy music but could quite happily live without it, and with it circulating so freely, see no reason to pay for it through ticket or CD purchases.  So many of today’s music educators really have no awareness of the context of music within our society, because they themselves have lived lives utterly remote from the society around them.  Luckily, there are still music educators around who have persuaded former pupils that music is worth investing in as consumers rather than providers, and their students, who may have been disillusioned with the practice of music, still know the value of a live concert or a professionally-produced CD.  But it is a diminishing number, and it is diminishing because, at the very point where we might be able to engender enthusiasm for the art of listening to music (rather than playing it) we do exactly the opposite.  I have many times related the story of how, when a major pianist gave a recital in southeast Asia, none of the local piano teachers or their pupils was in the audience.  When I asked some, I was told “he wasn’t playing anything in the exam lists, so it was not relevant to us”.


The one thing it seems to me so many music educators fail to do is teach a love of, or, at least, an enthusiasm for, music as an art rather than as a skill.  Few seem really to know what music is, few show much interest in it beyond their individual instrumental or vocal disciplines, and few have much experience of it as uninvolved participants.  It appals me how many have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertory of their instruments but have virtually no interest in or knowledge of the wider concert repertory.  I never forget the advanced diploma student I was examining who played – superbly – one of Bach’s “48”. In the viva voce section of the exam I asked what the student considered Bach’s most significant works to be.  After an embarrassingly long hesitation, the suggestion was made that he had written “a few more preludes and fugues”.  Those great pillars of western civilization, the St Matthew Passion, B Minor Mass, maybe even the Brandenburgs had never crossed that student’s consciousness – and for that I blame the teacher.  I well recall the very first history lecture of my university days, when the lecturer came into the theatre, played a Bach Fugue subject and asked the class which one of the “48” it was.  Horrified that few knew it, or were able to recognise any of the others he played, he sadly declared, “In my day we would not have even been admitted if we could not immediately identify the subject of every one of the 48”.  To this day, I’m not sure that a comprehensive knowledge of all 48 Preludes and Fugues is really a vital piece of equipment in the training of a music student, but I get his point.  The very best guidance I ever had from one of my major study teachers (Michael Austin) was given when I was working on César Franck’s Chorale in A minor.  Austin sent me away for a month to immerse myself in every bit of Franck I could find, provided it was not organ music.  I listened to and studied the Symphony, the Violin Sonata, the Piano Trios, Quintet, the Symphonic Variations, Psyché, Les sept paroles du Christ en croix , Le Chasseur Maudit, you name it, if it was available on record or if the score was in the library, I lapped it up, and when, a month later, I went back to the organ Chorale, I suddenly felt I knew how to play it.  César Franck had become a familiar friend, and I knew every little hallmark of his individual style.  To this day I instantly recognise the sound of Franck even if I do not know the particular work.  And I followed this through with every other composer whose music I wanted to perform in public, with the result that I can instantly recognise the music by a host of major and minor composers.   It is useful, because it is as if I know these composers most intimate secrets, and eagerly seek them out when I see their names on concert programmes and playlists in order to renew an acquaintanceship with an old friend.  It is on this kind of thing that a loyal and knowledgeable audience for music is built, yet it is not being done by most music educators today.


There are two major problems with the recruitment of music educators which ensures that music students are getting a bad deal and are not being equipped for the realities of life away from the concert platform.  The first is the educator who has never done anything else, who has gone straight from being a student to being a teacher, and who has no experience whatsoever of the world of work outside music.  My generation was fortunate in that our professors had served national service, been called up for war duties, and had been forcibly exposed to life where music played no part. One of my own academic tutors, a specialist in 14th century chant, had served as a commander in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and brought with him all the swagger and earthiness of years spent aboard ship – it greatly enhanced his ability to communicate and enabled him to put his unique specialism in context.  The second is the educator who sees no point in teaching students outside their own discipline.  The piano professor, teaching Beethoven, who does not oblige students to study the symphonies, opera or quartets, the violin teacher who does not expose students to the world of brass bands or organ music, and the organ teacher who looks so closely at the niceties of north German Baroque that such names as Delius, Gershwin or Chopin are beyond the knowledge of their students.


It might be facile to say that Mozart never went to music college, never did any exams or diplomas, and studied music to the exclusion of all else, yet seems to have been quite successful.  But might not that silly statement hold at least a scintilla of relevance when we look at the way music students are taught today?

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