A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how many of us differentiate between “real music” and “educational music.” I questioned why we need to make such distinctions and how such labels can lessen the appreciation of excellent music that has such a label. However, from the responses received, it seems that many feel that most educational music deserves such a distinction. Indeed, I was even sent an article that questioned whether most educational music should even be called music.

Okay. So let’s wave “Hi” to the elephant in the room and concede for the moment that a lot of educational music out there is truly junk. So then, what is causing this low level of quality fare? Indeed, what is it that makes “educational music” not music?

Some posited that much of what our students learn today is a poor quasi-imitation of some particular composer’s style, rather than being in some style. The pieces are dumbed down, and in the process, lose whatever original character and life found in the music from which it was modeled.

Others say that it is because of the pressures put on our music programs to integrate other subjects’ curricula into the musical literature. Thus, we get the “Pocahontas Theme” with the clarinets wailing like Indians and the parents in the hall cringing like they are about to see the dentist.

Others say it is because of the educational music publishing business. They suggest that these companies try to make the music for young bands and orchestras into a product that can be copied and marketed on a mass scale. Thus, we have at music education conferences kiosks with publisher reps all pitching essentially the same band piece with the same type of form and orchestration, but with a few changes and different titles.

Then, there are those of you that say that educational music attracts a class of composer that does not have the chops nor the talent to write “real music.” Indeed, in the article I was sent, the columnist Stephen Budiansky wrote in The Washington Post:

None of these pieces could find an audience outside the captive market of the school curriculum. None of these composers could make a living in the real world.

(Well, actually, most composers regardless cannot make a living in our American world, but that is another discussion.)

So, what gives? We lament that there is no attention given to the quality music that is available for young players, but then we also tend to act dismissively of music that has been labeled under the umbrella of educational music. How can we approach changing the system and our biases without throwing out the baby with the bath water?

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3 thoughts on “Junk

  1. Armando

    I remember reading the Budiansky article Mrs. Reynolds quotes in the Washington Post about a year (more?) ago. I thought then the same thing I thought reading this article: like Mr. Budiansky, I feel that what passes for a music curriculum in our schools is, indeed, dumbed down. Granted, it is inappropriate and unrealistic to expect a beginning elementary or middle school band to be able to perform works by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart et al. even in the most facile arrangements, but these expectations should increase along with students’ playing ability. Certainly by high school students should at the very least be introduced to these works in music class beyond merely a cursory explanation. This ignorance of musical tradition is not merely relegated to so-called “classical” music (a term I abhor but must live with): while teaching high school music I was appalled to find that my Jazz band had never encountered, let alone played, any actual Jazz. Their repertoire mostly consisted of arrangements of rock and pop songs and did not include any music by Gershwin, Duke Ellington, or any other significan Jazz composer until my brief tenure with them. This phenomenon would be inconceivable (although perhaps no so much in our “No Child Left Behind” world, ironically) in any other subject. Imagine if students encountered watered down versions (or, worse yet, works “in the style” of important authors but not BY them) of works by Shakespeare or Jane Austen in an English class; or a watered down version of the Pythagorean theorem in Geometry; or if they were taught creationism as a science in lieu of evolutionary biology….

    Glibness aside, the problems with music education and educational music are a reflection of a much larger problem in American education. Somewhere along the way our educational system lost any means and its administrators any desires to inculcate in our students any real love for learning for its own sake (did we ever have this? I have this love but at the same time I don’t know whether it came from my teachers or from any inate curiosity I was born with) and the wonder of works of art. Our consumer culture is most concerned with the creation of product to be used by members of society, who have become nothing more than mere consumers. Priceless artworks like Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony become little more than prints to adorn college dorm rooms or sell subscriptions to premium cable TV channels. The market for educational music ties into this deeper culture of “the marketplace of ideas” in general. If something is of value it sells. If something doesn’t sell, it therefore is of little value. If, as a composer, you want your music to sell you must tailor it to meet the needs of the marketplace. If the marketplace calls for more music for students to perform, and that music must intersect another part of the curriculum, then write a “Pocahontas Theme” and tie it in to curricula teaching about the history of native cultures in the United States (rather than using actual music from those cultures). It is a ridiculous way of doing things, but until certain mores and attitudes with regards to the value of education in our culture change it will be the lot of music students everywhere to be exposed to more ridiculous music that does little to expose students to the pleasures of a great musical experience and we, as musicians, will continue to lose audiences in the process.

  2. Colin Holter

    Young Composers for Young Performers
    I’d be willing to compose a piece for middle school ensemble for like $50.

    OK, fine, you’re twisting my arm. I’ll do it for $20.

    In all seriousness, I think that a low-dollar-amount commissioning program that connected elementary- and middle-school groups to graduate students in the field would benefit all parties (except maybe the parents, who might not “get” our stuff). It would be an unusual exercise for us, and the kids would get to play some weird stuff written by someone maybe only one generation removed. Not having any experience writing for young players, I’m not sure it would work, but even a small budget would allow a primary school dangle a not-inconsiderable financial carrot before struggling grad students.

  3. JKG

    What a surprise.
    It makes perfect and logical sense that the academic world suffers from dearth of talent and originality, especially amongst the professorial class. They have very little to prove to anyone, so long as the demands of their academic expectations are met, and can have anything and everything they write performed on a whim, by virtue of being faculty. So long as experimentation is the rule in academia (as opposed to creating something of aesthetic value), there will always be those who want to be composers, taught by those who call themselves composers, but have no knack for expressive art. It is the very essence of what St. Exupery describes as the pathetic and tragic state of the unfulfilled artist – the ability to teach poetry, yet lacking the ability to write a poem. Just remember; standards were kicked out of most composition schools right around the time tradition got kicked out too.


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