January 17, 2003
How I would teach music

The latest issue of the BBC Music Magazine (February 2003 - strictly paper so no point in a link) has the usual kind of brand X BBC article about "music education". If your child is keen on the cello, here's how to encourage them. Don't push them too hard if it's you and not them that's ambitious. Watch out for when they hit the Yehudi Menuhin school and get discouraged by the other better infant prodigies. These are the good choir schools and here's how they work. Here's how much they cost. That kind of thing.

You get no sense from reading this article that the classical way of making music is in any sort of crisis, although the evidence of this crisis is abundant throughout every issue of this magazine, and throughout the rest of this issue. If this were a piece for my Culture Blog, I might perhaps go into elaborate detail. Suffice it to say here that in the classical music business, an ever increasing flood of expert young musicians are chasing an ever diminishing pool of jobs. Major orchestras thrash about in a state of permanent financial crisis. Star soloists and conductors lose their permanent recording contracts. And government arts bureaucrats ask with increasing urgency what the point of it all is now supposed to be? But never mind, my little Susan is going to be the next Jacqueline du Pre.

In order to be a capable educator, it seems to me, you do have to have some idea of where the world outside and beyond your little academy is probably moving, and "classical music" needs a torrent of average classical instrumentalists like it needs a hole in the head. If the children you are teaching are just in it for the fun of it, and to stir up their brain cells (which classical music making is famously good at doing, by the way) before they all go off and become systems engineers, fine. But if the idea is that this music teaching might lead to some kind of musical career, then a major change of attitude is in order.

If the universe decided to play an evil joke on the rest of itself and to make me into a music teacher, the instruments I'd focus on most obsessively would be not the violin or the cello or the oboe, but the tape recorder and the personal computer. I would encourage my charges to make recordings as soon as they could manage them, and the questions I'd then ask would not be: Do I Like It? – or: Would Mozart have liked it? No. I'd ask: Do You Like It? Is this the kind of stuff that you and your friends might enjoy listening to?

The world of professional music making has all the recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto it can now use. New ones are sometimes interesting, but they won't pay the rent. But what music, all music, still has is a voracious appetite for new stuff, expressing new impulses and feelings, for new audiences. There is the territory where livings can be made.

The Next Big Thing for classical music making is for all that instrumental skill to be applied to the making of new kinds of music.

When classical musicians talk like this, the phrase "cross over" is often used, and the results are usually dire in the extreme. But there is a reason for this. You can't imbibe one style of music making throughout your childhood, and then switch at the age of thirty seven to making stuff that will storm the album charts and actually earn you a living. This is the equivalent of trying to write a popular novel in a foreign language.

The language parallel is actually very apt. I recall reading in one of Steven Pinker's books about the difference between children brought up in a multilingual culture, and adults trying to make sense of such a world. The adults can only ever "translate" in a very self-conscious and laborious way. For them, the new multi-lingual world will always be that: multi-lingual. But mix up several languages in a group of children and leave them to get on with it, and you'll get a genuine new language, a "creole" language as I believe these things are called. If classical music is ever going to get beyond Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., it is going to have to teach the next generations very differently to the way Yehudi Menuhin and Jacqueline du Pre were taught.

Don't get me wrong. I love classical music with maniacal adoration. My classical CD collection is the talk of libertarian London. But the job of making this wonderful music available to the musical public has now, give or take a few more rarities and oddities, been done. The teaching of music should now reflect that fact.

My guess is that in lots of places it already does.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:48 PM
Category: Technology
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