Saturday, February 25, 2012

Establishing Musical Authority: A Rant

It seems that the very first thing we learn about teachers is that they have authority over students. As children we have all experienced the powerlessness connected with being "judged" by our teachers.

Obedience from students is highly valued in a classroom music situation because it gives the instructor the illusion that the students understand the musical directions and are eager to act upon them. Students learn early on (and sometimes against their better judgement) that the conductor or leader of a group is the one making the music, and that it is the role of a good "team player" to go with the flow and follow directions. What I have noticed from my perch on the other side of childhood, is that the end product of this kind of teacher-student relationship can result, if it is is not immediately addressed, in musical passivity and lack of musical awareness on the part of students. It also results in people who develop the desire to become school band and chorus directors for the perceived power connected with such a position.

I was very lucky as a child. I had formal music teachers who taught their students to listen to one another. I had formal music teachers who were in the business of teaching music because they loved the true expression that results when young people love what they were doing, whether it be singing or playing. I don't recall any of my elementary chorus teachers or orchestra teachers having to establish authority, because everyone participating in their ensembles (which were all after school ensembles) were there to make music. The vocal ensembles I sang with throughout my time in Junior High and in High School (in Newton, Massachusetts) were exceptional. What did the kids in them do for fun? We got together for parties and sang the music we knew. There was no "director" when we did this. We followed the piano (and there was usually a kid who could play the piano accompaniments). I admired and respected my musical colleagues, and I loved making music with them.

Perhaps this early indoctrination into cooperative music making has caused me to value the cooperative musical experience: the idea that participating in a chamber music ensemble means that every person has the obligation to contribute to the interpretation, and nobody is the "authority." Even as a composer I do not feel the need to be the "authority" in a musical situation.

Why is it that young musicians tend to have difficulty with this? Why must a small performing group have a leader? Could it be the practices of the musical hierarchies at higher academic institutions? Could it be the importance given to the "lesson plan," something people learn in music education classes? Could it be that the "authority" role is given to the composer, who, often being dead has to have his or her "authority" interpreted by a single human being armed, at times, with a set of rules?

When I play in an orchestra I do follow the conductor and I follow the bowings of the section leader. I feel that in an orchestra (made of many playing the same part) the best contribution I can make is to play the notes, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics in my music, blend with my stand partner, and give energy to the sound of the section as a whole. But the difference between section playing and chamber music, where everyone plays his or her own part, is that everyone is responsible for keeping the tempo, everyone is responsible for playing together, and everyone is responsible for the interpretation. I have found that music making improves exponentially when everyone has a stake in the interpretation, and the experience is often less than satisfying when there is one leader among the people playing or singing who takes "ownership" of the situation.

Perhaps it is difficult to teach cooperative chamber music playing in a university situation. Chamber music ensembles in university settings often have coaches, and students usually rely on those coaches (who usually do know a lot if they are coaching chamber music in a university situation) to tell them what to do. A coach who comes to a rehearsal and tells the ensemble that they need to work their interpretation out amongst themselves might not be the kind of coach that would produce the best results. When coaching it is really difficult not to make suggestions (especially when those suggestions might really improve things). Left to their own devices, and without the presence of an authority figure, some students might not take a musical situation seriously (i.e. learn his or her part, remain focused on the task at hand, or even show up for rehearsal). When everyone is at the same "rank" in an essentially hierarchical situation, students may not respect one another enough to work on their own.

Perhaps it has something to do with my experiences, but I do not like being in the position of a musician who is expected to dictate "how" something should go. As a composer I try to put everything that is necessary for my part of the interpretation into the music, but I don't expect a group to replicate the ideas I have in my head. I expect to hear new ideas, and I expect to hear things I never noticed before. I like to voice suggestions and observations, and I like it when people take my ideas seriously, but the idea of "authority" in a musical situation is abhorrent to me because there is no "authority." Music making often involves making instance-by-instance decisions, and change and inspiration (that often come only through intuition) are the very things that make experiences with music truly meaningful.

1 comment:

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Wow! I'm a music therapist and have spent a lot of time trying to figure out music educators. I agree with pretty much everything you're saying, and that it's all coming from an educator is surprising. Whenever basic assumptions are questioned, there's often a circling of the wagons.

Cooperative music making is a fundamental of music therapy and it surprises me how so many coming out of the music education system have such a hard time with it.

Thanks so much for this post/rant. That last sentence is great.

If you're interested, here's a link to a post/rant of mine some time back that has a little overlap with what you're saying.