Classical Music Establishment to Young Performers’ Creative Selves: Drop Dead

In a comment on my previous post, S.W. raises an objection:

If composing was an equivalent skill to performing, then there would be far more composers than we see today. Moreover, if world class performers were also world class composers — in equal number — then the world would be awash in new music with a clientele clamoring to hear it as they clamor to see world-class performers. Neither is true. The input and output channels for composition and performance seem to be quite distinct and different, distributed very, very unevenly amongst any given population and not clearly understood as different processes. This was true in Bach’s day and remains true today. Else, James Levine and Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo and Joshua Bell and Jessye Norman would all prove your thesis by their prodigious output of compositions. Additionally the recently deceased Milton Babbitt and his only world famous student Sondheim would both have shown their performing gifts in many, many concert appearances. I venture the opposite view, that most performers cannot and do not compose for a very basic reason, and that is that the two skills sets are not equivalent, nor equally distributed in a population, and your assumption that they should be is incorrect.

There’s a lot of truth in that comment. High-level composing and performing aren’t equivalent skill sets. As I said in the original entry, “It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.” I’m not proposing that the skill sets should (or could) be evenly distributed.

Participation in the activities ought to be, however.  If a world-class performer composes and improvises and keeps it private because the music isn’t great, that’s fine by me.  But if more performers had been composing and improvising all along, as a standard part of their educations, some of the music might be really, really good. We’ll never know, though, because for the most part they weren’t encouraged or allowed to explore their creative potential.

Compositional talent may be inborn, but compositional skill is developed through training, practice, study, and being mentored.  It doesn’t just happen.

We need to get away from the all-or-nothing mentality, the idea that you have to be great at something or not do it at all. Classical-music education, and classical-music culture, lacks widespread engagement by performers in the process of creating.  And suffers for it.  It’s a systemic problem.

Welcome to our school. You’re eighteen and have yet to manifest great skill at composing?  That’s OK, you’re a performer, or a music education major.

Oh, you have musical ideas in your head?

Hmm.  Just ignore them.  You’re not a composer, after all. No portfolio.  Your ideas are not worth hearing, exploring, or developing. No (significant) institutional  encouragement or support will be offered.

Failing to nurture the creative selves of young musicians, the structure of most classical-music education doesn’t allow students to develop their musicianship in the integrated way that, for example, jazz students experience.  Many others have argued this better than I.  Harold Best, who was the Dean of Music at Wheaton College for many years and a leader in the movement to mandate compositional and improvising activities in the National Association of Schools of Music accreditation requirements, has a great way of putting it.  Music schools (the ones focused on the classical tradition) do a great job of teaching students to think about music, he says.  But we need to do better at teaching students to think “in” music (i.e., to develop inner hearing), and the one of the best ways to do that is by “thinking up” music.

But for the most part, the classical-music education system, and classical music culture, says (in effect) “drop dead” to young performers’ creative selves.

Where I teach, at DePauw University, there have been tremendous differences between the periods when we’ve had a composer on the faculty and when we haven’t.  Students want to compose.  With guidance and training, they learn and grow a tremendous amount.  When there’s no composer on the faculty, no composition courses or lessons or informal mentoring, there’s something deeply lacking.  Some of these kids might develop into good composers if they had encouragement and support.  They’d absolutely become more complete musicians with greater insight into the process of composition.  But in a composer-free environment, that’s not going to happen.

It doesn’t seem much better at large institutions with a composition faculty.  The composition majors get trained, but there’s little opportunity or encouragement for performance majors to compose, or to improvise.  To create.

Virtually the entire pedagogical repertoire for any instrument consists of pieces written by performer/composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  When it comes to the 20th century and beyond, there’s almost nothing.  Classical music education became about learning to play the canon of great works, and much academic composition about writing pieces for other academic composers and a small, highly-educated audience of new-music followers.

Obviously people are going to specialize, especially in high-level careers. But that doesn’t mean that even the most gifted and disciplined and virtuosic young musicians wouldn’t benefit from an educational system that insisted they create music, good, bad, or indifferent.  Right now, in this time of great challenge, we continue the folly of forcing students to put arcane details of pre-Renaissance music into their short-term memories for a test while ignoring their creative selves.  (Despite the NASM standards, composition and improvisation activities tend to be of the low-impact, exercise variety in the form of theory and class piano exercises.) I’m not saying students shouldn’t learn Western classical-music history. But something’s not right when memorizing things we know the vast majority of students will quickly forget is an iron-clad, top priority while discovering what it is like to create a piece of music is not even on the list.

Those of us setting music school curricula (faculty) were trained in this same system.  It seems normal to most of us; for the most part, we are blind to the fact that we are perpetuating the same sort of creative abuse that we may not even understand we experienced.  We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we could have had richer lives if we’d composed and improvised music.

The idea that the whole system, the system of which we are both products and perpetuators, is screwed up?  Too awful to for most of us even to contemplate.


Filed under creative process, crisis in classical music, future of classical music, future of college/university music education, improvisation, inner hearing, Uncategorized

13 responses to “Classical Music Establishment to Young Performers’ Creative Selves: Drop Dead

  1. I know we’ve talked about this issue over the years and for the most part, I agree wholeheartedly.

    I was chatting with Erich Stem (he’s our department coordinator, but also a composer and runs the New Dynamic Records label at IUS which focuses on releasing newly composed music) after the presentation I gave on Tuesday just about alot of these issues. He thought it was great for the kids (some of whom are his composition students) to be exposed to different musical cultures, resources and styles and to know that outside of Western Classical music, Art and folk music traditions all around the world still maintain a healthy improvisation (and composition) culture that hasn’t been paralyzed by an institutionalized and insular community that we have in Classical Music.

    I think, unfortunately, that issues of authorship and creative activity are so tied to copyright and therefore the economic issue of who is legally allowed to make money with their productive activity that in some ways Western creativity has been hamstrung in ways we wouldn’t normally think about when it comes to being creative.

    It’s another aspect of that all-or-nothing mentality, I think, which is intimately connected to things like fidelity to the composers score; the inability to creatively re-imagine a previous existing work without securing the requisite permissions to use that pre-existing work (I’m recaling a local Indianapolis music store that was raided by IPD some years ago as the store was known for selling DJ mixes though nearly all of the recordings sold were actually legal in that the DJ’s did secure the copyrights for the samples used); the inability to see the connection between compositions and improvisation as related creative activities therefore conceiving o them as separate skills; and also just our inability to see even normal performance activity as a creative skill.

    That last point, and I’ve posted/talked about it elsewhere can be illustrated by a quote from a Theatre Symposium journal–the special issue titled “Crosscurrents in Drama: East and West” (Volume 6, 1998). It’s from “Part II: The Symposium, A Panel Discussion on Crosscurrents in the Drama” which is a condensed transcription of the panel discussion. Samuel Leiter says this in his discussion about Asian theatrical performance:

    [This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.

    We make all these categorizations and then get blinded by what the categorizations hide, I think.

  2. You do bring up a can of worms here, but I can tell you, from experience, the music of the Middle Ages is a whole world of wonder. A lot of composers have been deeply inspired by what they learned from studying Medieval Music (like Hindemith, for example), but Medieval Music is far more often kept, at least in academic settings, for the musicologists. Music appreciation books tend to limit their pre-Renaissance music to Gregorian Chant, Dufay, Hildegard, and a token Troubadour or two (thus leaving out Machaut, Pilgrim Music, the Carmina Burana, and all those wonderful Motets that had concurrent text in different languages).

    We really have an embarrassment of riches, and there is just not enough time (in a lifetime) to learn all the worthwhile music of the past. There is not enough time (in a lifetime) to learn all the worthwhile music of the present either, but we seem to have, as a greater culture, an insatiable appetite for the “new,” which is what got us into this mess in the first place.

  3. Jon, thanks for your thoughts which will take a bit to digest. Elaine, I didn’t mean to disparage Medieval music, which I love, too. I’m just saying it’s out of balance that we put so much emphasis on learning about it in, usually, a not very engaging way, because we recognize its importance, yet we don’t recognize the value of students participating in the creative process. And to tell you the truth, I think as adults educated musicians are more likely to be able to explore Medieval music on their own than they can learn to compose or improvise (especially with others).

  4. I’m remembering during the DCO Great Britain tour we got a chance to hear the evensong at King’s College–I think learning about Medieval music absent being able to experience how so much of the music was experienced in those accoustically gorgeous cathedrals, basilicae, and churches can be so unappealing (and misleading in ways).

    What would happen if a curriculum included learning some of the Medieval (or Renaissance, or Baroque, or whatever) compositional techniques also included experiments or performances in similar venues? Sure, there aren’t centuries old cathedrals in the states, but there certainly are some really accoustically beautiful older churches in larger cities that could be engaged with–it would also be a way for interaction with a broader community. Just a thought.

    One of the other frustrations (for me) with the orthodox music curricula is that big jump we seem to take between Ancient Greece to Medieval Europe. I mean, I guess it’s good that newer texts will preface this as a history of “Western Music” now (not that this wasn’t the case with the venerable Grout) but until I started my journey into music of the Middle East and eventually into Mediterranean music there was no understanding that Ancient Greek Music theory is still the foundation of a Pan-Mediterranean set of related art and folk music styles.

    Flamenco music talks about their functional harmony in terms of tetrachords; Arabic Maqams and melodic development are based on Ancient Greek Theory after the Arabs began to voratiously translate nd make commentary on all things Greek (which is how the Greek Music Theory got transmitted back to Christian Europe); The Byzantine Empire was the part of the Roman empire which did not collapse nd the fundamental music theory of the Eastern Orthodox Church has a direct line of development from the Ancient Greeks into the music theory and notation systems eventually used in the Armeian and Russian Orthodox churches; Ottoman and Turkish Classical Music still uses many of the Greek Musical terms (e.g. commas, tetrachords) as the background of their art musics.

    For all intents and purposes, ancient Greek Music theory was a dead end according to Western Music theory–at least until the Medieval Church started to “revive” some of those antiquated ideas in a “new” context.


  5. I agree Dr. Edberg, in many many many ways…

    I came when there was a full time composer on staff. Carlos Carrillo changed my life…

    I am now getting a DMA in composition. Without Carlos, i would have been a HS band director, writing the occasional little song, but concentrating fully on working with HS students.

    Now, i write music, perform with a jazz group in town regularly (though not this semester, sadly), work with an electronic music society in town, run the UMKC Guild Concerts, have my hat in as a conductor around town, freelance as an audio engineer, and teach music to students at two colleges.

    All because i had, first, you force me to improv several times a week and get me to “write” music, as it were. 🙂 then Jim Beckel being supportive when i asked “hey, could i do a winter term to learn a bit more about this composition thing?” and then meeting Carlos. Creativity and compositional aspects are a MAJOR part of performing (interpretation as a form of re-composition. I really believe that.) We’re not out to create machines for auto-playback of the Bach cello suites (i have a CD set for that, thanks…). It’s about something much deeper- a connection and an understanding that an individual or an ensemble can bring to a piece. This can only happen through using all portions of the musical world

    We’re not all world-class in everything. I’m a fine trombone player, but i probably won’t hit up an orchestra gig anytime soon (though i feel more than confident to play the trombone concerto i’m currently writing…and it’s harder than anything i’ve ever played.). But if i wasn’t a performer, i wouldn’t have insights into how i write my own music. The same with me as a performer. I love going back and looking at pieces and realizing how ignorant i was. Just popped out Bach French Suites and did that…saw all my marks. So entry level- fingerings, poorly done (and incorrect) harmonic analysis. Heh, i’m not sure i could have even told my piano teacher what the melody actually was in that piece back in undergrad! now, thanks to my theory, musicology, and composition chops, I “get it” much more clearly!

    We have to get all students being creative, using all sides of their brain, and taking the full spectrum of the musical world into consideration.

    BTW, i graduate in a couple years. put in a good word for me at DPU, if you still need a composer on staff 🙂

  6. Hey, John, thanks for the thoughtful comments. What a tremendous difference Carlos made at DePauw! Imagine if we had someone like him actually teaching composition. I’m glad you had your life changed by working with him. Your story illustrates the point I’m making so well.

    And now that you’re heading to being a “Dr.” yourself, time to start calling me “Eric.” 🙂

    • John Chittum

      I’ll keep working on that…Once a Dr. always a Dr. to me. lol. I have the same problem with Dr. Balensuela…I mean, uh, Matthew. lol. Especially all my undergrad profs.

  7. Nicole Brockmann

    “(Despite the NASM standards, composition and improvisation activities tend to be of the low-impact, exercise variety in the form of theory and class piano exercises.)”

    I hear that NASM has just recently taken a large step backwards in those standards in terms of what kind and level of activities satisfy the requirement.

    • Eric Edberg

      I should look up the latest written standards. I definitely have the sense that the zeal for enforcing the standards is greatly diminished. And not just for composition and improvisation, but non-Western music as well. Harold Best’s vision, I know, was for “thinking up” music to be as integral a learning process throughout the curriculum as imitation and memorization are.

      On another note, I met several Dalcroze enthusiasts at the CMA conference, each of whom spoke highly of you.

      Sent from my iPhone

      • Nicole Brockmann

        “On another note, I met several Dalcroze enthusiasts at the CMA conference, each of whom spoke highly of you. ”

        Really? How unexpected, and flattering.

  8. S. W.

    “The idea that the whole system, the system of which we are both products and perpetuators, is screwed up? Too awful to for most of us even to contemplate.”

    As with previous centuries in which great talents have arisen with the blessing of a formal university’s curriculum choices and perhaps a little leveraged correctness thrown in as to which modern music is approved and which is to be avoided (both these I draw from personal experience), a long view of music history suggests that the university “establishment” as you have chosen to genercially call it is neither an absolutely crucial participant or “perpetrator” in so many cases. (Loved the notion of a faculty member being a “perpetrator,” though I’ve seen a few students who’d match that MO as well. And certainly a dean or two.)

    As with business creators, some performer-composers have been university trained-approved and some developed outside its purview. This seems more true for the pop world than the classic, but a stroll through the average music shop suggests that pop is the heads-up breadwinner these days, rightly or wrongly.

    The question you courageously propose that is “too awful to for most of us even to contemplate” is probably exactly the question we should be pondering. If med schools and the AMA are cautious about training too many doctors, and the law profession is bemoaning there being too many lawyers (and old refrain, eh?), what about music students? How many are not enough? Just enough? Too many? Not skilled enough, but passed through? Not motivated enough, but necessary to generate a paid tuition stream? Awful to contemplate?

    It is a problem of the modern world in which composers and performers expect to be financially rewarded for what they do, even when what they (we) do is not bringing bottoms in to sit in the chairs, much less pay for the tickets — as your retelling of the fund-raiser demonstrates.

    A Bach had churches supporting him, while a Mozart had an aristocracy. A Brahms had a novel new publisher and a performing career. An Ives built and insurance agency, and rather innovatingly we know. These days it seems some but not all universities support composer-performers, with few actually making a living wage from their sales and performances alone. So what is sure is that the whole economy of music making has been in flux, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.

    It seems to me therefore your “too horrible to contemplate” question is THE question of our musical age as regards the rearing of our “children.” Not which modern composer is the next figure to ascend into history’s legends. Rather, are we doing our best to stimulate-teach-mentor-assist-elevate our students.

    I propose the following: the “screwed up” system is really found at levels beneath the graduate seminars. Probably the screw-up is beginning in primary schools, and is only being amplified by the time we see it on the university and conservatory level. But hooray for such questions, for without asking them where shall answers be found?

  9. Janis

    Composing and performing are different skills sets, but they are not different like flower arranging and rock-climbing are different. Move outside of classical music, and suddenly the portmanteau “composer/performer” becomes “singer/songwriter,” and the planet is frankly littered with them. They’re not all good, but they’re there, and in large numbers. People who like to make noise on musical instruments like to make noise on musical instruments.

  10. alexdiaz969

    When ever I have the opportunity in my music ed classes to teach a lesson I usually try to have the lesson be centered around composition. It’s terrifying how my own colleagues here at DePauw are scared to write down a note because it’s nothing GREAT! Just ONE note. Me thinks everyone should have to go through some type of improv and or composition seminar.

    The cycle only continues with no composer at DePauw as of late. 😦

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