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Teaching music: Part 2

May 30, 2011

Previously, I discussed some of the more mundane reasons for teaching music and mentioned a few attributes essential to effective instruction; empathy and the ability to communicate complex information clearly.  I’d like to follow up with some elaboration on why I bother with a discipline that can at once be incredibly draining and hugely rewarding.

Taking a cue from the theorists who wrote so eloquently on the subject centuries ago, I believe strongly that some level of education in the skill of music is essential for any thinking, empathetic and fully socialized human being.  Music is a creative skill that melds the science of numbers and proportion with less tangible aesthetics of mood and texture, and offers us a language of non-verbal communication and expression.

It is upon such a foundation that empathy is formed.

While this is my own description and is based on a personal path of discovery, these ideas are not new.  Unfortunately, there are now so many reasons that instruction in music is and will in future be an increasingly rare opportunity.  That is to say a rare opportunity in the US, where there have been several generations of public school students who have been denied the study of music, and have been taught that the role of the individual is to be a good consumer.  In the current economic and political environment, this situation will only become worse.

The received message: Music is a performance art that is packaged and sold as a commodity, which all consumers should buy in a multitude of formats and in great quantities.

Those of us involved in playing music of the past know full well that music as a performance art has peacefully co-existed with music as a social pastime for many years before broadcasting and recording became a huge high-stakes industry.  Formerly, broadcasts and recordings were a source of inspiration that gave anyone the opportunity to hear new ideas, clever songs and virtuoso performances, so anyone could buy the sheet music and play it themselves at home.  But without funding for training in the basic skill of music, that door is now closed and consumers are invited to buy recordings to be heard in isolation through ear-numbing headphones.  For these reasons, I am motivated as a teacher to empower individuals to make their own music at some level, whether as a social activity at home with family and friends or as a performing artist.

Bob Lundberg, luthier and friend, once said to me that he believed that music today was in crisis, and that was a major reason why so many people were turning to music of the past, and to the gentle transparency of the lute in particular.  So much of today’s music is hollow, derivative, formulaic and just plain unlistenable.  But while I take every opportunity to steer students down the path of old music, just getting them to make their own music, old or new, is a significant reward.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll discuss more about effective approaches to individual instruction.

  1. Although I largely agree, I do have to say that much Early music is “hollow, derivative, formulaic and just plain unlistenable”, and there is an awful lot of great music being played and written today. You have to make the effort to find it.

  2. Thanks, Rob. You’re right, there is plenty of old music that is uninspired and we have the luxury of picking through the remains and only playing the cream of the crop. When I remark about new music, I can’t help but refer to some of the pop music that I am asked to teach – music that plain does not work without effects which, when taken away, leave the hollow shell of something you don’t want. I’m not writing about the new music for lute, some of which is quite imaginative.

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