Revised: Should Music Schools Continue Gnawing on the Past?

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­­Should Music Schools Continue Gnawing on the Past?

Without a past there can be no future. This premise is the foundation for most music schools’ required curricula. A vital part of the music major’s collegiate training incorporates learning music written before the Second World War: music written­­ by composers such as Leonin, Josquin, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy. Many critics take the opposite position and contend that the overemphasis on this aspect of the musician’s education is preventing the profession from progressing; they argue that this makes today’s music educators oblivious to new trends. These same critics postulate that music schools and conservatories are blinding students to new possibilities by confining their education to outdated music. Venturing into the twenty-first century, however, it remains imperative to remember the past and the base it serves for musical development.

Contemporary music is the product of thousands of years of musical advancement. Music began with early humans’ experimentations with sticks and became increasingly complex as time progressed. Innovative musicians and philosophers were responsible for these advancements; they manipulated the familiar to make it original. This is the process Darwin coined evolution. As with natural selection, the best adaptations will survive while the rest are forgotten. Without allocating time for the scholarship of previous knowledge one would not have a foundation against which to create. Examine, for example, the way a jazz musician might learn to improvise. One could go on stage relying on intuition alone, but the most proven method incorporates learning jazz scales and daily practice. Using this second method, when the musician goes on stage, he utilizes both past precedent and his creativity to construct a novel performance. To cite a famous case, Arnold Schoenberg invented the concept of serialism and was one of the pioneers of using true atonality, but his education still included formal training in the musical techniques of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Illustrating this, his first Chamber Symphony keeps a key signature throughout although most of the work is atonal.

Pundits insist that applied professors put too much emphasis on “the same old Paris Conservatory nonsense,” to the point of redundancy. These pieces, however, represent an integral step in the path to musical maturity. In addition to building a good repertoire, learning the standards aids in establishing a young performer’s skills. For the flutist, a competition piece from the Paris Conservatory can assist in bettering his technique, forming interpretive skills, and developing overall musicality. These abilities are crucial for the budding performer, especially one wishing to tackle contemporary music. A twentieth century work, for example, would not develop that skill set, but rather impede his study through the frustration of trying to master a piece beyond his current competence. This type of attitude is not conducive to the education of a student studying at the collegiate level.

Having demonstrated why non-contemporary music is necessary, one should also remember the simple pleasure that accompanies listening to it. Music’s purpose is to be enjoyed; an element that is often unfortunately forgotten. The numerous critics who aim to discard music written before the twentieth century fail to remember that the validity of music is determined by the audience. Listeners enjoy a variety of genres, new and old, and therefore each fulfill their purpose. One has to keep gnawing on the past for this reason: it is what the public demands.

It is prejudice that drives the argument to deemphasize the study of historical works. Those who argue this point tend to loathe any music except the contemporary, a passion that fuels their desire to purge the old in favor of the new. They are the anarchists of the musical world. Instead of opposing organized government, these renegades are against conventional form and chord progressions. As revolutionary as this may seem, one cannot simply destroy centuries of musical evolution because of a personal preference. Growth does not come simply from playing one’s favorite pieces; only through extensive exploration of both past and present does one develop. Without the past, the future of the classical musician will cease to exist.


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