Music is Music

Music is Music

Recently I came across a quote given by a composer colleague concerning her approach to writing music for young players. One comment she made about the pieces really struck me:

They are music, not teaching pieces, but they do teach many things.

What caught me about this comment was the composer’s need to state that music for young players actually was music. All too often, music works are segregated into “teaching pieces” and “real music.” We all do it—from students to teachers to music institutions to publishing companies. Look at any music catalog and you will find separate categories for “educational” or “pedagogical” music. Below those labels most often you will find pieces listed that will not be found elsewhere in the catalog, even though they fit the specifications of other categories (such as a work for flute and piano).

How did this bias against composers who primarily focus on composing educational music come to be? It was not around in Bach’s time. Indeed, his income for many years came from working for the St. Thomas School in Leipzig.

Now there are the exceptions, such as Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or Chopin’s Etudes. But, for the most part, major league composers do not place their works in the pedagogical realm, even if the level of difficulty of a work would justify such a label. Likewise, professional players tend to ignore music that has such a label attached to it, even though there are a number of powerful pieces written at an easy technical level that are very daunting to execute with keen artistic interpretation.

Somewhere, somehow, a distinction began to be made between “real” music and “teaching” music. And, unfortunately it has helped create a library of works for students that, in my opinion, are not of a caliber worth learning.

So how can we de-stigmatize educational music and help both raise the quality of pieces being taught to students and validate the excellent works that are already being used? How can we make it so that the label “teaching music” is not a scarlet letter?

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4 thoughts on “Music is Music

  1. Daniel Wolf

    You’re absolutely correct. In fact, it’s vital to take back the whole spectrum of intended players, from students through amateurs and professionals of all levels. And not as Gebrauchsmusik, with its stigmatization as work of lesser quality or less intellectually demanding, but to reassert that sophisticated musical ideas do not necessarily suppose certain technical levels or may only be found in concert halls. There’s plenty of room for new music in homes, schools, and other private and public spaces outside the professional concert business.

    I’ve recently had some very good experiences with music for high-school-aged performers and for amateurs. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear what Ferneyhough would write for a Middle School Band, or Lucier for drum and bugle corps?

    I have recently proposed an online “book of consort lessons” for small ensembles with open instrumentation, specifically with the prospect of amateur performance in mind. Anyone want to join in?

  2. John Kennedy

    Great topic, Belinda. Obviously, “real” works can be used to great effect pedagogically assuming they are within the technical possibility of young players. With Santa Fe New Music, we have had a Youth Ensemble for 5 years now, and I encourage our director to try and stick with mainstream new music repertoire and avoid as much as possible “music for young people”, mainly because the aesthetic values of such works do not stand up. We have to teach aesthetic intelligence as well, and if a Youth Symphony plays Mozart (as opposed to simplified-in-the-style-of-Mozart), a new music Youth Ensemble should play Andreissen and Reich instead of imitations.

    We do use in workshop, things such as Art Jarvinen’s “Experimental Etudes”, works which intentionally expand musicianship; but it is fair to say many professional musicians would also benefit from Art’s etudes.

    At the behest of one of our seniors last year, the Youth Ensemble decided to commission a work and raise the money for it. They looked at composers out there and invited Eve Beglarian. The instruction to Eve was not to compose for “young people” per se – but, she was aware of what their general abilities were. The result was a work which I assume Eve sees as a “real” work (it is), which might be performed by a professional group next time.

    Daniel, count us in in your discussion.

  3. Stuart

    I’m a first-time poster, drawn to your article by the ASOL ‘in the news’, and agree with most of what you assert–there is indeed a strong negative stigma against works that are technically accessible by younger players.

    The truth is that most ‘educational’ music is really bad; also that most teachers lack critical discernment (or do not weigh it heavily enough) in making repertoire choices for students (especially in ensemble settings); or, as a matter of practical efficacy, choose what best meets the needs at hand most easily. This is a touchy subject among music educators, as it can quickly become personally insulting (“Really? You programmed that?“), but it’s something that should be addressed head on.

    Fortunately, there has been a tremendous upsurge in the amount of quality music available to young ensembles in the past few years. The shining example of this is the American Composer Forum’s BandQuest series, which features works by composers like Michael Colgrass, Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Tania Leon, Michael Daugherty, Jennifer Higdon, etc.

    Colgrass in particular has become very focused on this problem of the dearth of serious literature aimed at younger players, and has become quite the advocate of late. The roots of this problem, in my experience, lie in the disdain with which most composers (if you’ll pardon a generalization) regard technically accessible works. This, however, is changing, at least in the area of repertoire for band.

    I’m not sure that thinking along the lines of “how to get technically accessible but artistically solid works performed by professionals” is particularly fruitful; performances by professionals will not bring anything other than ephemeral legitimacy to repertoire for younger players. As Bach and Bartok understood, the point is to give young players their own body of quality work, so that as they grow, they can more readily identify quality in more substantial works.


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