Yeah, But Do You Have the Will?

Cross-post today.  Love it when I only have to write once.

A former colleague of mine just wrote an article for the Music Educators Journal. Although my work has morphed over the past decade or so, I like to keep up with music education issues.  There are two reasons for this:

1. There are many cross-references to K-12 education (in general) and higher education.

2. Musicians claim to be creative people. When musicians are actually creative as educators, beautiful things happen that serve as models.

So the idea of a music education scholar approaching the studio teaching concept is a beautiful thing to me.  There is much that the education community (especially those in music education) have to offer studio teachers and performers.  This is one of those cases, and it takes on a key problem with studio music teachers.

Musicians in élite groups always speak of high standards of musicianship. The problem is that those standards are by nature subjective. That’s fine, but too many times that subjectivity gets extrapolated beyond it’s usefulness and necessity. Using a performance example, I have absolutely no idea why Jerry Junkin at “School Loosely Affiliated with Longhorn Football” decided that Tschesnokoff’s “Salvation Is Created” needs to take 20 minutes to perform. Or is it 30. I fall asleep.

It’s a subjective decision, but within that decision are a fair amount of flat-out facts. When you look around, nobody else is taking this tempo. When you listen around, nobody is recording that tempo. Unless there’s some obscure letter somewhere, one can wonder if this is what the composer intended. I can’t imagine a composer, even a Russian composer, deciding on a tempo of 50 bpm.

Or is it 30 bpm. I fall asleep.

Finally, nobody wants to hear this piece played this way. If nobody listens, it’s the wind ensemble equivalent of a tree falling in the forest discussion. That’s too bad. It’s a great ensemble.

When you compare current practice, the music education standards offer studio teachers and conductors quite a bit of structure. Within that structure are the myriad opportunities for subjective artistic decision-making (the fun part). But every studio teacher should have a clear idea of what she or he want each student to know, do, and be like. In fact, studio teachers would do well to reconsider their goals in light of these standards. Instruction should be geared toward the mental picture that comes from fully considering the final “product.”

The standards do not allow themselves to be chained to the old ideas of music education. This is especially challenging for a studio teacher. As the mentor, a studio teacher needs to foster actual creativity and decision making in their own students. That would lead to some radical change in most studios. Does a student get to choose their own Baroque embellishments? Does a student (think undergraduate) ever get a piece with a section demanding improvisation? Without a piece of music, does a non-jazz performer ever get to…I don’t know…just play?

In the more popular music culture, music is created in apartments, garages, and studios. Yes, guitarists learn three chords first. Yes, pianists must learn scales. But these are supposed to be means to a creative end. The goal should be art, not reproduction. We have reproduction everywhere else. We need original ideas. Not just from internet-types or marketing majors. From musicians, the ones who are supposed to be among the most creative.

This article is academic in nature, and I hesitated to put the link to the abstract up due to my position (read it both ways–it works). Still, the idea that a studio teacher would forego a semester of studying the Hindemith Concerto for [insert any instrument here] and choose to focus on creativity is exciting. Schools have to rethink what they’re doing today, whether they teach 5 year olds of 25 year olds. It’s unfortunate that “thinking outside the box” is one of the very last things on the minds of those that claim to be creative by nature. It’s why we have a glut of composers; they’re apparently the only ones allowed to actually create in the music world.

So do this. Read the MENC standards. All of them. Implement as many as possible into your teaching, studio folk. Make every senior and graduate recital one of creativity, as well as “high standards.”

If you do that, I promise to stay awake for the whole thing.

About Paul T. Henley, Ph. D.
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