If you’re a music teacher, and these are your students, you should know that the place of classical music in our culture’s future is largely dependent on what you teach – and don’t teach – your students.
I recently had an interesting chat with the violinist Barry Shiffman – who runs the Young Artist Performance Academy, and also the Glenn Gould School, at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music – about music education. And in our conversation he emphasized the effectiveness of musical training in a studio environment.
I have no doubt he’s right: while music history, theory, ear-training and some other subjects can be taught in a classroom, nothing beats the private lesson for developing a student’s performing skills.
But more than just skills are taught in the private studios. One-on-one instruction also has a powerful influence over a student’s musical values.
More than anywhere else, it’s in this environment that students are often taught respect (perhaps too much respect) for the printed page, and to value perfection over creativity. As well, impressionable young students may be taught to idolize the pantheon of “great composers” – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, et al. – as though they were an extinct race of gods.
This view of music history (especially the “extinct” part) is often taught in a passive yet remarkably effective way. While there may be some teachers out there who make a point of fostering an interest in the new, I suspect that many are content to say and do nothing, where contemporary music is concerned.
Yet that kind of nothing isn’t really nothing. On the contrary – it sends an implicit message that’s clear and strong. By treating contemporary music as though it doesn’t exist, teachers encourage their students to adopt the same view. Through a kind of osmosis, many students come to believe that contemporary music can’t be any good, and isn’t worthy of their interest or effort. And this kind of prejudice is one of the most daunting obstacles composers face nowadays.
So I have a few questions for the music teachers of the world. Do you encourage your students to seek out recently composed music, to listen to contemporary works and take an interest in the direction(s) of new music? Do you challenge them to sift through the vast array of composers active today, decide which ones they like, and learn to play some of their works? Are you sufficiently well versed in contemporary composers and styles to make useful recommendations to your students?
Or do you implicitly teach them that the history of classical music is “over”? And if you’re conveying the idea that contemporary composers don’t matter, how does that benefit your students, or strengthen classical music’s place in the present and future?
And by the way, when I speak of contemporary composers, I’m not talking about Schoenberg, Bartók, Britten, Prokofiev or Shostakovich. They wrote some splendid music, but they’re long gone. I’m talking about composers who still have a pulse.
© Colin Eatock 2012