To set the stage… As part of the conclusion to my keynote at the University of Western Ontario LME Conference back in May, I made two general but connected observations on the international Sistema movement. The first of the two highlighted an issue many of the privately-funded Sistema initiatives face: with annual or similar short-term funding windows, these start-ups often find themselves compelled to demonstrate some kind of positive outcome very quickly in order to justify renewal of support. As a result, their first target becomes technical proficiency – if nothing else, their participants will sound decent.
This isn’t a problem, and I was careful to say as much. The fact of the matter is that the social consequences of this choice are not known, simply because the exact, specific relationship between music and social change isn’t understood. It’s comprehended conceptually, but there isn’t as yet a prescription to follow like “take three years of violin in an orchestra that rehearses Tchaikovsky four times a week and you’ll have better life outcomes.” But it does mean that programs in their early stages frequently judge their success only by how good their kids sound, which has in turn led to some reprehensible statements like “my kids play so much better than their kids” from some ill-informed individuals who have completely missed the point.
So they might all be heading down the right path, but as the official Scottish Government evaluation of the national Big Noise program noted so very often, it’s “too early to tell.”
There is one outcome which is unequivocal, in my experience, and this is where I waded up to my neck in controversy. I stated that the corollary to making technical proficiency the first target was that it made musical literacy the first casualty. I said this phenomenon was universal, and was present without exception in many Sistema programs with which I had worked or consulted.
This wasn’t a casual, off-the-cuff remark. (I don’t need to write my keynotes on my shirtsleeves, thank you.) This was based on my fairly extensive personal experience on four different continents working with musicians who played quite well technically, but were surprisingly, disturbingly incapable of associating what was on the page with what they were playing. I’m certainly more aware – or at least, in a position to be more aware – of this in my work as a conductor, as I recall the difficulty I had persuading a clarinetist that he should be playing a C-flat in 1812 Overture rather than the C natural he had probably heard his mentor play several dozen times before. (Yes, there are C-flats in 1812 Overture.)
I’m not going to cite chapter and verse of my experiences in this area,nor am I criticizing the students or faculty in the least. Teachers in some programs are trying interesting new approaches, although with limited results. The fact is that music notation is an incredibly complex symbol system, and the students actually show great intelligence by addressing its challenges in the simplest way possible: learning the music by ear/rote. (Easy to do with high frequency!) Memorization of the repertoire sounds impressive, but without the flexibility or the capacity to change or correct, it’s largely meaningless. And of course, you run into hereditary C-naturals, handed down by generations of clarinetists in defiance of all harmonic or tonal sense.
Musical literacy remains a major point of contention in music education, and the moment the audience in London had a chance to push back, I was assailed from all sides with arguments against it in the form in which I had defined it.
I don’t actually dispute any of the points or counterpoints made: what we teach and how depends greatly on the musical genres chosen. My point is that if you wish to engage in a genre which is without exception encoded in western classical music notation, real literacy in that symbol system is probably a good idea.
There may be social consequences in this situation too – it may be that learning how to read music is an integral part of the struggle. It may be that those students who cannot climb that pedagogical mountain learn to fake or drop out – or both, once the level of musical difficulty becomes too high. But when we talk about empowering individuals, engaging them in a lifetime of independent learning, we invariably and very reasonably talk about the value of literacy. There is so much knowledge and beauty encoded on a printed page, be it in letters or neumes, but all of it remains inaccessible to those without the training to read and comprehend it.
At this point, I’m content to leave the matter unresolved, citing “insufficient data.” It’s important to keep in mind that musical excellence isn’t the point. Pursing it is, but it can be pursued in many different ways.
What do you think?