In 2014, a former Yale English professor published a provocative book following an essay in the American Scholar. His central idea: the elite institutions of American higher education, from high-priced secondary schools to prestigious universities, increasingly value, encourage, and churn out students who are very good at jumping through hoops on a path to achievement (so-called "excellent sheep") without engaging in real intellectual risk-taking and discovery. Though I felt somewhat differently about my own experience at an elite institution, there is one subject where I felt and continue to experience exactly what he's talking about: music education.
Music education, of course, comes in many different strains and variations, and within any system or institution there are always exceptions. But any student in a traditional classical performance program will recognize the excellent-sheep-ist attitude that propels us from conservatory preparatory programs through college and graduate school, funneling many of us (in some sense, the lucky ones) into orchestras and competitions after graduation.
To put it bluntly, a traditional instrumental music education is largely and predominantly about execution as opposed to creation: how to execute precisely, exactly, and perfectly the music on the page in front of you.
Full disclosure: I am a piano teacher at a school that is very much part of the system I'm writing about, though it is better than most, and moving in the right direction. But I am part of the problem too. Another disclosure: obviously there are times and situations where execution is paramount (especially in large ensembles). But that doesn't mean it needs to be the singular focus of an education.
First, we teach children to read music and show them exactly what all the symbols mean in front of them. We teach them technique and exercises so that they have the freedom to play anything, but if that anything is written down in front of them, then we generally demand they play it a certain way.
I can hear some of my friends and colleagues crying out, "but there's so much room for creativity in different manners of execution!" And that is true, but even there the role of creativity, of personal artistic freedom, is often minimized in service to the original creator of the music.
Think I'm simplifying? Don't believe me? Let's look to some authorities of classical music. Sviatoslav Richter is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, and he described his thinking thusly: "The interpreter is really an executant," (emphasis mine), "carrying out the composer's intentions to the letter. He doesn't add anything that isn't already in the work." It wasn't hard to find this blog post from renowned cellist Lynn Harrell about his frustration with students' imposing—get this!—their own wills on musical performances. Other examples explicitly urging forth excellent sheep from the Internet abound.
The philosophical problem with these types of views, though dominant in the conservatory world, are several, but in practice they tend to fuse everyone's playing together, encouraging a sameness across the world of music. A performance in this view is less an act of creative expression than a fact-finding mission, a piece of detective work. Is that really what we want?
Ironically, Richter himself came up with some of the bizarre and enigmatic performances of the music of Brahms, Schubert, etc., and that's what truly made him a great pianist, at least for me. In fact, is there any artist, musician or otherwise, performer or otherwise, for whom anyone holds the highest admiration, merely for playing exactly by the rules and strictures handed down from above?
Thankfully, I've had some wonderful teachers in my own education, but I believe it's time for classical music to reckon with its authoritarian attitude and priorities. A music education should emphasize execution in the service of expression. It should include spontaneity, improvisation and creation, in addition to tradition. How to do that? Coming up next time...