Posted: October 16, 2021 | Author: Ian Pace | Filed under: Academia, Culture, Higher Education, History, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: bach, beethoven, canons, eva moreda rodriguez, formalism, historiography, ian pace, j.p.e. harper-scott, john aulich, modernism, music analysis, musicology, notre dame organum, pauline oliveros, philip tagg, puccini, richard middleton, schenker, Simon Frith, slipped disc, spectator, universities, western art music |
The following is a guest blog post by Dr Eva Moreda Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Glasgow, in response both to my recent Spectator article (‘Roll Over, Beethoven’ – online version entitled ‘How the culture wars are killing classical music’ , Spectator, 7 October 2021) – I should add that neither of these titles were my own) and a range of responses on social media, including this by John Aulich.
How we read, how we write
Eva Moreda Rodriguez
A frustrating aspect of the debate around Ian Pace’s The Spectator article on social media was feeling that not all participants seemed to have read the same text as I did. Some accused Pace of wanting everyone to study music in his way (i.e. highly formalistic, dots on pages, music per se and nothing else). I read the article about four times in search of proof that this was indeed what Pace was saying; at some point, I even started to suspect that my ability to understand written English (which, after fifteen years in British academia, I considered to be pretty close to that of a native) was much poorer than I had assumed. Ultimately, though, I remain unconvinced. Pace writes, for example: “It is time to reassert the value of the study of music in its own right”. Does “reassert” imply the exclusion of everything which is not “the music in its own right”? True, Pace could (and probably should) have phrased his claim more inclusively – but the fact that he failed to write, for example, “reassert the value of the study of music in its own right alongside other approaches” is not in itself an indication that he believes these other approaches should be abandoned.
The frustration, however, led me to consider my own ways of reading and of writing: like Pace and J.P.E. Harper-Scott (although perhaps not as acutely as them), I have also felt for a while now that the study of Western art music qua sounding music (as opposed to social practice) is increasingly marginalized in British music academia. Might have I been misreading utterances from colleagues and stranger, twisting meanings and filling gaps based on my prejudices and previous experiences? I would like to pause here on the word “experience”, as I think it is key to this debate. If we are intent on answering the question “is the study of Western art music being marginalized in academia?”, we could (and should) invoke statistics (which, however, don’t tend to be readily available: we’d need to compile them first): numbers of jobs available by specialization; how this might have changed over the years; how many British universities offer courses in X, Y or Z; whether projects in certain areas are disproportionately likely to get funding, and so on. However, the response to such question will also be inevitably shaped by human interaction (with colleagues from our departments, with others we encounter at conferences, funding panels, professional associations, editorial committee). There is a whole new layer of information there that will likely influence our response: for example, when our department is presented to the outer world (in an Open Day, in a TV or radio programme), are certain areas privileged while others are hidden as a sort of dirty secret? How are teaching loads distributed between different kinds of specialisms? Are certain kinds of scholarship or approaches systematically disparaged in informal interactions or “banter” among colleagues (“same old same old”, “going into the archives and digging up positivistic crap”, “gibberish”, etc.)?
Moreover, such personal interactions tend to happen in an environment which demands extreme levels of productivity and incentivises that we see ourselves as rivals rather than colleagues. In addition, during the last year and a half most our interactions with colleagues are likely to have taken place in the emotionally alienating environment of conference calls. There is a risk here, I think, for us to become entrenched in our prior positions and overreact to anything we see as an attack on them. William Cheng – cited by Pace in his article – talks in his book about “paranoid scholarship”, which he has little time for. I am myself a bit of an enthusiast of paranoid scholarship – I take great pleasure in anticipating which kinds of objections might be put forward to my arguments, and how I might best address them before they have even been articulated: I think this has made me a better scholar –, and I would like to suggest that perhaps we should all be more paranoid when doing our scholarship, but less paranoid in everything else, especially when it comes to interacting with colleagues.
So, when I feel that my area of study is becoming marginalized, where does this feeling come from? And might it be that I am subjected to confirmation bias, in that perhaps I tend to read perfectly innocent statements calling for increasing diversification of the music curriculum (a goal I share and have worked towards) as synonymous with “classical music must disappear from the curriculum”? A key point here is the fact that this feeling comes overwhelmingly from interactions on social media (mostly Twitter), rather than in-person. I am, however, dissatisfied with the explanation that Twitter is its own world, where we build bombastic personas or let off steam before going back to our real-life normal, in which we allegedly express who we truly are: at UK universities, we are increasingly expected to use Twitter for professional purposes; the personas we build there might help us obtain professional contacts, co-authors, PhD students – they are part of who we are.
In any case, my sense of how these interactions go is something like this:
A: Cancel classical music!
A: No one said we shouldn’t teach classical music anymore you silly cookie! We’re just saying, why don’t we teach more hip hop?
But I realize that such exchanges, even if they give this impression to me, do not always happen so neatly as laid out above. For example: “A” might be a composite of several people: it might be that there is indeed an “A” which says something to the effect of “Cancel classical music”, then C and D re-tweet it, then, to B’s protestations, C indeed says that we should teach less classical music, D instead is more conciliatory and says that statement A was made for rhetorical effect, but that no one in their right mind would dream of taking it literally. Sometimes the exchange might happen more or less as above, but more protracted in time – so that A says something eminently provocative at a certain point, perhaps for rhetorical effect in a specific context, but then, in a different exchange, they saw it fitter to articulate their argument for diversification in more rhetorically conventional ways.
However, statements to the effect of the “cancel classical music” above are indeed made (or also: generalizations to the effect that classical music is sexist and racist – and if sexism and racism is something no sane person would want at their universities, where does this leave classical music?). They are indeed made by people employed in academia or with some power within it; contrarily, I would struggle to remember instances of similar statements going in the opposite direction (e.g. “music outside the classical canon has no place in universities”).True, I am sure that if we dug up we would find plenty in the comment section of Slipped Disc and similar outlets; these proclamations, however, unlike the above, do not come from individuals who can make decisions about curriculum. To be clear, I believe in freedom of speech and in academia and elsewhere, and I believe in the right of everyone to make such statements as provocatively as they want (as long as they are free of insults and calls to violence, of course). I am also not contrary to the idea that hyperbole and rhetoric effect might have a place, sometimes, in academic debate. I would just like to humbly suggest that colleagues making such statements consider the context (for example, what about PhD students in their departments working on classical music topics, who might be anxious about their job prospects?). I hope I am not asking more than I am trying to give myself as I try to disentangle my own knee-jerk reactions to such proclamations.
If we are to take such provocative statements merely as hyperbole, as an invitation to diversify Music studies (which I think most of us can agree with), it occurs to me that two questions we might want to tackle are: if X approach is to be introduced into Music studies, does it mean everyone has to engage with it? Does it mean every university will have to teach it? Because, I have to confess, what has often led me to feel as if classical music was increasingly marginalized (and, after conversations with colleagues, it seems I am not the only one) was the urging, peremptory tone in the calls for including one approach or another into music study, as if implying that everyone has to do it or else is suspect or, at best, charmingly out of date. But is it so? I myself have made in my own publications that “we” must engage with this or that (e.g., with exile and displaced musicians). And now I wonder: am I being equally peremptory? Might these claims have been read by anyone to imply that every music scholar should engage with exile, or else they are suspect of minimizing the plight of exiled individuals? I sincerely hope not, and I would be horrified if anyone had felt this was the case. I hope the context might have clarified that by “we” I meant, mostly, scholars of Spanish art music between, say, 1930 and 1980, and probably scholars of musical modernism too – but in the understanding that, while exile is a category that I certainly think both groups should have in their minds at some point, for some it is likely to be a footnote rather than a central preoccupation.
Why, therefore, do calls to engage with other categories sound more peremptory to me? Upon reflection, I think the main difference is that engagement with these other categories is often framed as a sort of querelle des anciens et des modernes in ways that I find scholarly unsolid and inaccurate. For example: it is not uncommon in social media debates to find the assumption that, if you don’t regard X as crucial to your scholarship, it’s because you haven’t read the right theorists, or you haven’t understood them: “Read XYZ, who has demonstrated this” (in which “this” is not something verifiable and falsifiable, such as, say, the date of composition of a work). Interestingly, a couple of the most charitable responses to Harper-Scott’s and Pace’s articles intended to portray them as out-of-date, yet ultimately, harmless scholars: their preferred methods of enquiry are now as obsolete as is Lamarckian; let’s pity them and hope they can find solace somewhere else. I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but, whereas paradigms in musicology of course change, the situation is a bit more complex than that: the study of, say, medieval musical palaeography (one of the pillars of musicology when it was first born) can happily coexist, and perhaps even be cross-pollinized, by approaches to the music of the Middle Ages that put more emphasis on the conditions that surrounded music-making. I am sure that many of those who opposed Pace’s article know better than to regard history as a teleological, progress-driven, quasi-Darwinian narrative, and so it perplexes me that they do so with the history of their own discipline.
But, even if we accept that some boring, lineal progress will happen and some approaches will eventually become extinct, it seems to me that my own understanding of where we are in this timeline differs from the perception of those whom I can describe as being on the other side of the debate. I arrived in the UK fifteen years ago to study for a PhD after having completed my undergraduate degree in Spain. At the time, the social history of music was a well-established strand in British and even in Spanish academia; the academic study of popular music felt newer to me, but perhaps it would not feel so now: the pioneers (Frith, Middleton, Tagg) probably now have the right age to be our undergraduates’ grandparents. In short, I do not think it is accurate to portray (as more than a few do) frictions within the discipline as a bunch of old, decrepit formalists resisting the reformist enthusiasm of those who insist (rightly) that music is more than that. Not so long ago, I listened to a fascinating, thought-provoking conference paper which nevertheless disconcerted me somewhat because of its author’s insistence that for a musicologist to privilege society and culture instead of the formal elements of the music extremely uncommon. Is it, in 2021? I would venture that a cursory look at say, what the top five musicology journals have published in the last few years would say otherwise.
In the same way as many did not see themselves reflected in the claim that there’s a push to cancel Beethoven, I often do not recognize the picture that claims that present-day students are fed a strict diet of Bach, Beethoven and Schenker. Maybe this is true in US academia, where I understand the music history survey, harmony and counterpoint are still a staple of the curriculum, but I would say it is emphatically not so in the UK, and I sometimes wish those on the opposite side of the debate would be more forthcoming in recognizing this. I have to confess here that my own experience has perhaps made me quite embittered in this respect: as a new PhD student in the UK, I enthusiastically embraced the claim (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) that music does not simply mean classical music, but other musics too. Even though my expertise was nominally in classical music, I felt the need to engage with the broader world out there, and when I started to teach I made sure to introduce plenty of non-classical topics in my teaching (in courses such as “Analysis” “Historiography”, “Research skills”, which don’t call for a specific repertoire); I also try to engage with other areas of Music study via reading and attending music research seminars. However, over the years I have noticed that colleagues whose main specialization was in ethnomusicology or popular music didn’t feel they needed to diversify their own teaching and engagement to the same extent, and this I’ve found sometimes disheartening, particularly when some of these same colleagues felt the need to point out that my own teaching wasn’t diversified enough (and this often based on the fact that I was, nominally, a “classical” musicologist, and not on the actual content of my classes). Conversations with colleagues at other UK universities suggest that my experience is not uncommon: many scholars who publish predominantly on classical music teach outside those topics, whereas I would dare to say the opposite is less common: while we can surely celebrate the fact that some Music scholars have eclectic research and teaching profiles, we should perhaps also ask ourselves whether cultivating such an eclectic profile (which is surely rewarding, but takes time and work) has become de facto a requirement for some but not for others.
I also wish there was more recognition that the canon is not hegemonic anymore at British universities. I have long resigned myself to the fact that, when teaching Pauline Oliveros’s Bye bye Butterfly, only a handful of students will have heard of Puccini; when teaching Tchaikovsky in relation to queer theory, only a handful will know sonata form and its ideologies to any level of detail, and so on. In his response to Pace’s article, John Aulich used Notre Dame organum as an example, implying that it is a staple of undergraduate teaching. At my university, I can conclusively say that the number of students who encountered Notre Dame organum in the classroom can be counted on the fingers of one hand – i.e. those who took my non-compulsory course in medieval music last year.
I am not saying that civilization is at risk of falling apart if we don’t remedy this; I am saying that this is the reality at the university where I teach, and I would say at many universities in the UK, and that this reality is at odds with the pretence that the content of UK HE music education is still predominantly white, male and formalist. These days, I find myself pondering whether the brave new world that was being envisaged in British academy fifteen, twenty years ago, a world centered around “musics” and not just classical music, is finally here, but maybe we are all realizing it is not that great and we are reacting, in our own way, against that. And, in my own perception, the fact that it is not great it is not necessarily because of anything inherent to the repertoires studied, but because of marketization pressures, de-funding, internal department politics, sometimes even politics plain and simple, and so on. One thing, however, seems clearer to me now more than ever: the problems with music education in HE were and are not due to the hegemony, or even the mere presence of, the classical canon.
Posted: November 15, 2019 | Author: Ian Pace | Filed under: Abuse, Chetham's, Culture, Higher Education, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology, Specialist Music Schools, Yehudi Menuhin School | Tags: arnold whittall, Barbara Kelly, Charlotte Gardiner, chetham's, christopher wiley, critical thinking, David Hughes, David Ross Education Trust, Deborah Mawer, ethnography, ethnomusicology, Eton Choral Courses, franklin cox, gillian moore, henry stobart, Jessica Pitt, kay kaufman shelemay, martin roscoe, musicology, Nicola Benedetti, peter tregear, popular music studies, realism, royal holloway, royal musical association, Simon Frith, Simon Toyne, SOAS, Southbank Centre, Steven Berryman, terry eagleton, william cheng |
A significantly abridged version of this statement will be delivered at the public debate on ‘Music in the Curriculum: tensions, choices and opportunities’, City, University of London, 15 November 2019. This is chaired by Steven Berryman, Director of Music, City of London School for Girls; Cultural and Creative Learning, City of London Education Team, with a panel consisting of Dr David Hughes, Research Associate at SOAS and expert on Japan and Japanese musical culture, Professor Barbara Kelly, from the Royal Northern College of Music, also President of the Royal Musical Association, Professor Barbara Mawer from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Gillian Moore CBE, Director of Music and former Head of Education, Southbank Centre, Dr Jessica Pitt, Lecturer in Music Education at the Royal College of Music, Dr Henry Stobart, Reader in Music and Ethnomusicology, Royal Holloway, University of London, and Simon Toyne, Executive Director of Music at the David Ross Education Trust and Director of the Eton Choral Courses.
I wish to speak about two distinct issues facing music education, both of them relating to my own research and areas of expertise. The first is safeguarding, the welfare of pupils undergoing instrumental and vocal tuition. This comes out of my work as a researcher, lobbyist and campaigner on abuse in music education, following the revelations in this respect that have become public since the trial and conviction of Michael Brewer, former Director of Music at Chetham’s School of Music, and his former wife Kay. All of this led to spate of reporting on widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within specialist music education, leading to hearings on the subject in October at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, for which I gave evidence as an academic expert. A link to videos, transcripts and other documents from these hearings can be found here.
The second issue is the ‘deskilling’ of musical education, and draws upon a range of writings and public statements which began with an article I wrote in 2015 for the 80th birthday of musicologist Arnold Whittall (Ian Pace, ‘To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse a tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline’, Society for Music Analysis Newsletter 2015, pp. 28-9), and was recently the subject of a roundtable at the Royal Musical Association Conference 2019.
A range of what I believe are my most important earlier writings on abuse and safeguarding in musical education are the following:
‘Reported Cases in Musical Education, 1990-2012, and Issues for a Public Inquiry’ (2013)
‘The Trial of Michael and Kay Brewer and the Death of Frances Andrade, and the Aftermath, 2013’ (2014)
‘The culture of music education lends itself to abuse’, Times Educational Supplement, 8 May 2013
‘Safeguarding’, Music Teacher (April 2015), pp. 13-15
‘Marcel Gazelle and the Culture of the Early Yehudi Menuhin School’ (2013)
I have recently collated a series of forty-five testimonies from former Chetham’s pupils who generally studied there between the 1960s and 1990s. These paint a bleak picture of a school characterised by physical, emotional and sexual abuse on a regular basis, as part of a wider culture of bullying (including from teachers), isolation, grooming, routine humiliation, cynical exploitation of competition, institutionalised misogyny, self-harm and eating disorders.
I would add that the range of testimonies I have heard relating to other specialist music schools over the course of their history are of a similar nature, and would not want to suggest that this has been exclusive just to one school. Nor that conditions from the 1960s to 1990s are the same as today, though we should be cautious in assuming that everything has changed.
There is much to say about measures to ensure these sorts of environments can never arise again, and indeed about how schools which build their reputation upon the success of some their historic students need to accept responsibility and make amends for the immense suffering, often with long-term implications, experienced by some of the others who studied at them. But what I want to pinpoint now is the relationship between the student and their 1-1 instrumental or vocal teacher. The pianist Martin Roscoe said to me that his own teacher, Gordon Green (about whom a PhD student of mine is currently writing a thesis) thought that the best teacher is the one who makes themselves dispensable. I wholeheartedly agree, but have seen the opposite far too often: teachers who try to dominate and take over the lives of their students. We must above all recognise boundaries here, and ensure clear guidelines to instruct teachers for good practice in helping young musicians to develop and flourish without trying to mould their whole person. I absolutely believe in the importance of vigorous and intensive musical training, especially for those seeking professional careers as musicians, but refuse to accept that this requires any type of demeaning behaviour or language on the part of the teacher, which can often crush a student’s wider confidence. At the heart of safeguarding should be a recognition for the dignity and independence of a student as a person, and a nurturing culture which does not isolate them from the world. I have seen all too well what the alternative entails.
Beyond the 2015 article in which I was one of the first to apply the term ‘deskilling’ to musical education, reports from the roundtable I chaired at the RMA 2019 conference can be found here and here. I have also, with Australian musicologist Peter Tregear, been co-editing a book together entitled Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling. Many of the contributors are concerned about a progressive reduction, in the teaching of and research into music at some Anglo-American universities, of many core skills – notation, musicianship, theory and analysis, knowledge of historical context and so on.
Many students can gain degrees in music with only limited development of these skills, if at all. Some then go on to teach in schools and are unable to transmit such skills to their own students. Corresponding, some academics whose own sub-disciplines least require these skills to any great degree can become the most enthusiastic advocates of dumbing-down and deskilling.
Skills are not and should not be set in stone, and different skills are more appropriate for different types of music. But in order to accommodate the possibility of developing some skills to a high level, I do think we should at least question an assumption that an increase in ‘diversity’ in the curriculum is an unquestioned positive in all respects. Without extra teaching time available to accommodate this, superficial breadth often takes the place of depth. Attempts at books on ‘global musics’ and the like, such as Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s Soundscapes (New York: Norton, 2001) inevitably find it hard to avoid presenting a touristic view, which hardly breeds more concrete engagement either with music or its context, and can reduce a lot of music primarily to varieties of exotica.
The skills involved to engage with a Schubert song in terms of its relationship to early nineteenth-century Germanic melodic and harmonic conventions, those of text setting, poetic conventions, early romantic aesthetics, wider German philosophy are of a different order of depth. Scholars who can engage meaningfully with all of these factors (and would have a wider contextual framework owing to knowledge of the composer’s output and much other music of the period) are increasingly out of demand in all but the most elite institutions. In every sense the skills required to engage with various Indian, Chinese, Arabic or other musical traditions, or with the work of Miles Davis or many other musicians in various genres, are just as extensive and require just as wide a range of wider contextual knowledge.
I believe some other valuable teaching skills have been undermined by wider forms of corrosion in academia, various of which will be addressed in the book Peter and I are co-editing. Some of these stem from the marketisation of academic and the need to attract and retain as many students as possible, regardless of prior aptitude or achievement, leading to the growth of ‘soft’ subjects. While there is a good deal of ethnomusicology involving exhaustive inquiry into unfamiliar musical cultures through immersion and application of sophisticated theoretical models, some other work involving ethnographic approaches can consist of little more than rather slavish reiterations of the views of the subjects interviewed, with minimal wider contextual knowledge (this is explored in some detail in my ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Study of Western Art Music: Questions of Context, Realism, Evidence, Description and Analysis’ and ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography: Uncritical Musical Perspectives’, in Researching and Writing on Contemporary Creative Art and Artists in Theory and Practice, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)). Some of those who supplied statements in response to a 2016 debate on ethnomusicology have described an unhappy situation of an evangelical and censorious set of attitudes from some ethnomusicologists to most others, and a ‘rather flat, uncritical reporting of what the people of country X say about their music(al practices)’.
The field of popular music studies in the UK has many deep roots in sociology and cultural studies, not necessarily requiring musical expertise. The popular music academic Simon Frith once wrote disparagingly of listening and close engagement with music in favour of focus-group style investigations into what people think of it, an enthusiastic endorsement of what I have elsewhere called ‘musicology without ears’. But I do not believe a degree in Music should be essentially one in Market Research. A good deal of popular, film and video game music studies reflect the populist biases of many of their academic practitioners, and a wider wish to keep such study accessible to those with no specialist musical knowledge. There are of course many exceptions, for example in rigorous analytical work on popular music, but I have not seen evidence of these yet playing any central role within their sub-disciplines.
The peer-review system faces serious challenges in the face of an atomisation of sub-disciplines, so that many articles, chapters and books gain acceptance from reviewers and editors with a particular sub-disciplinary knowledge but not necessarily expertise in the subject of inquiry or wider methods which have been applied to it. Sweeping pronouncements on historical performance, on new music, on nineteenth-century aesthetics, to give a few areas about which I have some expertise, are not always subject to the right sort of scrutiny. As a consequence, all sorts of factual errors, half-truths or untruths, falsifiable or unsubstantiated claims, material lacking rigorous use of data or reasoning, or which cherry-picks data to support a priori assumptions, appear in print in respected journals or books by major publishers, and much of this type of material is reiterated by students and other academics, in the process becoming ideology. At worst, demonstrably unreliable or unresearched work is treated uncritically or even defensively by others with tribal loyalties to particular ideological approaches, especially when their advocates have institutional power.
I believe this is the result of a decline of critical thinking in academia, in favour of narrow political advocacy or simple group think. Has this not has always been the case to some extent? Perhaps, but I do believe a sufficiently vigorous intellectual culture has previously served to reveal and discredit clearly false and uninformed claims. But this process has itself been under some attack for a number of years, most prominently by the advocates of William Cheng’s book Just Vibrations (Ann Arbor: MI: University of Michigan Press), subject to a sustained critique by Peter Tregear in the pages of Musicology Australia and also in the RMA panel. Cheng dismisses the value of fact-checking, scrutiny of reasoning, and so on, in academic writing, as part of a ‘paranoid’ approach; he prefers to judge work by the extent to which he would claim it does social justice. What this amounts to is a simple surrender of scholarship to a narrow political agenda.
I am disappointed that our discipline has sunk so low that arguments like those of Cheng are taken seriously, but believe this is symptomatic of a wider Anglophone culture and politics in which music and other art forms are little valued. In Britain and America, which adopted industrialisation more fundamentally than their counterparts elsewhere, with associated utilitarian values, music and other arts have often been valued primarily to the extent they serve as pointers to other phenomena, or can be associated with a clear social function. The former constitutes a variety of artistic realism which ultimately denies the art. As the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton once wrote, ‘A poet who managed to make his or her words ‘become’ the fruit they describe would be a greengrocer’. Art does not simply provide a window onto reality, but adds to that reality.
The violinist Nicola Benedetti, however, has recently spoken about how:
It [Music] is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. It is feelings and thoughts, offerings of generosity, vulnerability and openness. It addresses us, communicates and passes invisible things from people creating sound to people receiving sound. It has the power to capture us, to make us feel many complex things. It can lift us high into optimism and accompany us during feelings of hurt and pain. The making of music can be described as healing, invigorating, exhausting and all-consuming. It brings millions together through the basic act of listening and thousands together through the act of making melody, rhythm and harmony in the practice and service of collective expression.
[During Benedetti’s work with schools and music organisations]: ‘I saw a huge number of inspiring teachers engaging their students with no sacrifice on quality, […]
I saw great teaching and playing, regardless of level. The more I looked, the more excellence, ingenuity, creativity, dedication, resilience and unbelievable steadfastness in both teacher and student I encountered. […]
But I also saw lacklustre music teachers and students, worn down by years of zero celebration of their work, continuous battles to hold onto the tiny resources they have, and feeling like they are pushing against a culture that only celebrates music sold like addictive candy.
(Nicola Benedetti, ‘Music teaching is vital to a child’s education’ (2019); another section from the talk is found in ‘Music is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. We need it in our lives’, The Guardian, 8 November 2019).
Benedetti’s ‘music sold like addictive candy’ is symptomatic of a wider educational culture which distrusts aesthetic judgement and as such is wary to try and develop wider taste among young people beyond what provides a form of instant gratification.
Two other quotes encapsulate issues at stake. The critic Charlotte Gardiner has written about the problems of de-professionalisation of music criticism and concomitant decline of technical engagement with music:
Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job.
Furthermore, technical knowledge is a vital ingredient towards painting the picture for a reader who wasn’t there. For instance, if you’re reading about the premiere of a cello piece drawing on Arabic musical traditions, what best helps you imagine it in your head: being told that it had you practically feeling the desert sand on your face and smelling the exotic spices, or that the composer used the quarter-tones and wavering notes heard across Middle-Eastern music, and mimicked the sound of the region’s traditional reed flute by getting the cellist to play airy harmonics on their lowest string? Basically, emotions and adjectives add important color, but the meat of the review will be the verbs.
Sticking with technical knowledge, when artists themselves have spent their lives training to the highest technical standards, they deserve critics who are similarly trained and who properly understand what they’re doing. I’m actually yet to meet an artist who wants to be reviewed by a non-professional. They want specifics and accuracy.
(Charlotte Gardiner, ‘Criticism Reviewed’, takt1 (11 June 2019))
Then, the cellist and composer Franklin Cox made a comment on social media which I found remarkable and earlier blogged. He was prepared to express the unfashionable view that those teaching music have a responsibility towards tradition and history, because of the poor consequences of a musical culture in which musicians and scholars have no knowledge of these, rendering students only really able to create a type of musical or scholarly ‘fast food’ (resonating with the remarks of Benedetti and to some extent Gardiner):
The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.
It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.
There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.
These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.
Those who care about music – and about scholarship – should stand up for a proper curriculum, for rigorous teaching of core skills and methods. The current (2016) QAA Subject Benchmark Statement is very loose in its benchmark skills:
These need to be strengthened to incorporate more clearly core requirements – in notation, aural skills, analysis, history, aesthetics – for any degree simply calling itself ‘Music’, a designator which at present as often quite vague. We should not be trying to teach too many types of music simultaneously, and be prepared to re-embrace specialisation and depth. Also, classical music does not deserve a more hostile treatment than other genres and idioms, as I feel it does receive in some environments.
Music (or any other art form) should be taught because it matters, because musical traditions are worth preserving, disseminating and developing for new generations, not because music is just some sociological phenomenon. If teachers and academics do not appear to be personally invested in music, what are the chances that students will feel inspired to study it? To be able to engage with the myriad range of detail, meanings and context of music means far more than simply being able to parrot that X or Y group in society negotiate their identity by listening to genre A or B. We need curricula and approaches to teaching which value music and other arts for their own sake.