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Re-Thinking Music Teacher Education and Classical Music’s Identity Crisis

If every kid were the same, they would all enjoy the same genre of music.

Of course, we know that every kid is not the same but if the first sentence seems like it’s obvious then why isn’t it obvious in music programs around North America? The problem, as I see it, lies in the ways in which music and music education has been so indoctrinated at the university level that musicians are only trained in one of two genres of music—classical or jazz, but not both at the same time. These are even so compartmentalized and specialized that they cannot mix. I mean, they can, but they won’t.

Music–in real life–is a trade not unlike a Red-Sealed carpenter. Yes, you can specialize in particular aspects of the job but you still have to have a vast knowledge of all carpentry techniques or you won’t be hired to do the job. Music is the same. Classical music and jazz are niches only for the most “elite” (that is subject of another blog post) of musicians who are specialists within those niches. This assumption that only the elite belong in these two genres doesn’t make them approachable or relevant for very many people. I know a ton of musicians that play in these genres that are fantastic within those niches and can play in other genres but the best of musicians, in my opinion, are the ones that can play in a multitude of genres fairly fluently on a number of instruments. I am striving for the latter. On trombone, where I was heavily classically trained, I was forced to unlearn many of my indoctrinated teachings after earning my degree. Skills like learning songs without sheet music, composing, and improvising were entirely new for me on that instrument. These skills are not just important, but essential skills for any musician.

At the same time as learning trombone throughout high school and university, I had been learning drums almost entirely self-taught, where I improvised, composed, and learned songs without sheet music 99% of the time. During my time in university, I also performed with the PEI Symphony Orchestra in the percussion section. This means that, on percussion, I could “do it all” per se. On trombone, I could only ‘do’ classical. Everything else scared me. I was in two completely opposite worlds at the same time. What I have done, and am still striving to do is bridge that gap. I believe that I’ve come a long way but I still have a ways to go. However, I do feel somewhat comfortable playing in any genre at the moment.

I digress…

Music Teacher Education

Because music teachers are taught to teach classical or jazz only, that is what they tend to teach. There needs to be a paradigm shift at the university level to move away from teaching classical and art music exclusively. Yes, it is important to know but in this day-and-age where no one is going to classical concerts and jazz is too weird for the common person, universities that have music teacher education programs need to move away from a strict focus on classical art music and move toward more of an eclectic mix of musical genres not just for the teacher’s sake but for the sake of the students of those teachers they are training. Those kids deserve to learn from a teacher who is well versed in more than just wind band, choir, or jazz. Come to think of it, none of us are really that well-versed in wind band either. We study all the classical, romantic, baroque, and orchestral composers without even a mention of wind bands. Of course, classical music has its merits and definitely has a place within our society but here is how I think about it and make sense of it:

Classical musicians are musical historians. They study the way art music, specifically, has been played and learned over centuries and are experts in their respective fields of study. Orchestras and classical concerts are what art museums are to the great artists of the past. You go to a classical concert to hear a piece of history but not necessarily to be entertained. Those who can see can appreciate or enjoy an old painting but they may or may not enjoy looking at a musical score from the 1800s because most people cannot read the specialized notation—they would have to hear it to be able to appreciate it fully.

For this reason, classical music belongs in the university with its academic counterparts, which create specialized academics like in any other university field. There they learn skills that are not overly practical but they know a lot about the subject they study and can interpret the music using their specialized tool (instrument). University-trained musicians are perfectly equipped to study the music of the past too because they understand the notation used to transmit and communicate this type of music.

They are not unlike an historian who is an expert in an era where Old English is used. They must be able to read it and understand it in that line of work. It really isn’t a useful skill anywhere else outside of academia. Also like any historian, musicians can specialize in a particular era or style within that classical umbrella.

Note-Reading Today

Outside of the university and classical settings, reading music is not necessary in today’s world to be a good musician. GASP!! Yep, I said it.

In the 1700s when recording devices didn’t exist, composers and musicians had to write down their ideas so they wouldn’t forget them. As well, before playback devices were in every home, if a person wanted to hear their favourite music, they had to play it themselves from sheet music. Today, a rock band might compose a song together or come up with small licks and phrases that they don’t want to forget. Instead of writing it down on paper, they record it to a device. And instead of a person sitting down and learning it with sheet music, they turn on the radio or put on their favourite album. It serves the exact same purpose that writing it down in standardized notation did in the 1700s. There are instances where the ability to read and write music notation can be helpful and even fewer where it may be considered necessary outside of classical.

In my jurisdiction there is a music department in the local trade school that teaches popular genres, theory, and the business side of being a musician. It’s not academacized (meaning they learn the practical skills required of them in their line of work as opposed to focusing on the history and over-relying on theory). The students who graduate do learn to read some or may already possess a pre-existing ability to read but they are very well-versed musicians who have done well without relying on reading and can compose, improvise, and learn any style within the popular umbrella with ease.

An Identity Crisis?

If, in fact, universities want to train musicians to be musicians and not academics and historians, then striking a balance between popular styles, jazz, and classical needs to be achieved. Or perhaps teacher and musician training is the job of trade schools and colleges. Teachers are to some extent academics, yes, and it should remain that way but that doesn’t mean a PhD or an EdD is not able to teach at a college or trade school for teacher education purposes because there are hard skills that are being learned along with theoretical concepts.

The Problem

The biggest problem with Classical music and those that have been fully indoctrinated into its teachings (the purists) is not unlike being indoctrinated into a religion. Once they are there, it is difficult to convince them of the existence of other kinds of music and that these musics have merit. If we can move beyond the mindset that classical is only one genre among many and that it’s not any better or worse than any other genre or style of music we will begin to go toward where we need to be with this. I know there are much fewer purists around today than there were 15 years ago, but they still exist. Bringing down others is not a way forward. I should be clear; I am not a hater of classical music. I play classical music on my own time, and I play in classical groups. I have a soft-spot for the genre and understand its value to society.

Another issue has to do with the hard and soft skills that classical music degrees inherently ignore. There are skills that the general public expects a trained musician to be able to do. They always expect us to know about the history of Rock and Roll, that we can improvise, compose or write songs, that we can set up and run a sound board, and that we can play guitar and know a bunch of songs… However, they aren’t wrong in thinking any of this because the most backwards thing is that most “untrained” musicians can do these things. As trained musicians we should be able to do all these things, but many can’t, because as classically trained musicians trained at a university, we are academics and have not gained any real-world, practical musical knowledge. Sure, we can tell you about the life and times of the best baroque, classical, romantic, and 20th century art music composers, and read a score from 100 years ago, play the euphonium (one of the least useful brass instruments), and play a piece of music on the clarinet that nobody’s ever heard of, but that is about it. Most of us are useless in a social musical situation at a party, know very few answers at music trivia, cannot actually “play-it-by-ear,” don’t know how to turn on a sound system or that a microphone cable is actually called an XLR–you get my drift.

Still too are those educators that believe the true tell of a good musician is their ability to sight-read. This, is perhaps the least used and least needed skill in a modern music making setting. Theory, and some reading is important but not at the expense of all the other musical skills that are required.

I find it unusual that the common practice for music programs is to exclude popular styles. In my time at university, we weren’t even required to be in the jazz band! And the sad part was that most of the best players and improvisers in the jazz band weren’t even music majors. What does that tell you?

Don’t get me wrong, I love classical music and I do get a certain joy out of playing in a “classical” group–there is something extremely satisfying about reading a sheet of music and making it sound great with little rehearsal. It’s just a different feeling than playing in a rock group. As mentioned, I am a mostly self-taught drummer (which is completely normal in that genre) and I almost never read music on that instrument. That is because I don’t have to read notation to make fantastic music. I get an extreme sense of euphoria when “jamming” with another musician, making up music on the spot, and embracing those inevitable musical moments that I just can’t get enough of. I crave that creativity and spontaneity, and performing classical music doesn’t and just can’t do that for me.

To Conclude

Classical has its place, but so does every other genre. To be relevant into the future, music and music education programs need to be more accepting of all genres as equal partners in music. They also need to provide experience with the skills that musicians trained in university tend to lack. Music educators need to be well-versed in all genres and skills required of a musician in the real world. Our students deserve it.

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

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