The future of music education.

Published online in Ecclectica Magazine in 2006.

It is impossible to speculate on the future of music education at Canadian Universities without offering observations on the future of music itself. A cursory glance at the history of music in Canadian schools (and at universities throughout the world) reveals a close relationship between the prevailing musical concerns of the time and the content of the offerings at the schools. In the early 20th century, the inherited aesthetics of the French and English strands of our heritage dominated composition training at schools in Quebec and English Canada, while by the 1950s, serialism and modernism were the dominant concerns at most schools. The creation of regional orchestras in Canada created a clear need for properly schooled performers. The recognition of education itself as a separate discipline, and the growing demand for well-trained teachers, led to the creation of Music Education divisions within virtually every Canadian university.

The second part of the 20th century, however, changed many of the inherited paradigms. In particular, the sudden rise of commercial music caused a complicated ripple which has not yet subsided. The trendiness of world music in the popular and film worlds moved musical anthropology from a purely academic concern into a practical study. Even the study of History and Literature grew to include the rather nebulous area of “culture”, and the traditional focus of study broadened dramatically.

The voracious demands of the commercial world led to the rise of the community colleges, where music programmes were designed openly to be “trade school” programmes. Universities, long the bastion of “pure” research, were pressured by newly-elected capitalist provincial governments, to demonstrate “real world viability” in their programmes, and the lines between community college and university music programmes blurred. The abrupt cessation of generous funding for ensembles, combined with a sudden spurt of growth in musical theatre, called traditional performance training into question. The unpredictable ebb and flow of educational funding rendered many students who had chosen to pursue music education as a path uncertain whether or not they would be able to find jobs. Even History/Literature/Culture divisions had trouble keeping up with the demands of an increasingly multi-cultural society in which political (and therefore financial) necessity dictated a shift in focus. And to add to the confusion, the new areas of music therapy and bioacoustics crossed lines not just within the discipline, but with other areas of study as well.

However the future of musical study evolves, there is one question that no school of music can ignore: have the fundamentals elements of music-making changed? A second part of this question is: how far should schools of music, and in particular universities, go towards adapting to what seem to be changing demands in the “real world”?

Traditionally, since the beginnings of Western Art Music, music has been taught as a sequential mastering of technique. Every area of the study of Western Art Music has been shaped by a platform-based approach—each new level of mastery opens the door to the next. The dramatic impact of computer-based music has threatened this tradition. Computer software can now leap-frog many of the basic elements of fundamental training. Anyone with access to relatively powerful computers (that is, virtually everyone) can compose music, orchestrate it, perform it, record it, and even distribute it. There are many people on staff at many schools who believe that this renders traditional training obsolete. They argue that, given the success of musicians who cannot even read music in the pop and film worlds, it is unnecessary for students to master traditional methods first. In a very real sense, this attitude represents a fallout from the explosion of creativity in the 1960s, when, driven first by the philosophical teaching of John Cage, and then by the undeniably vibrant creativity of the then-new pop world, creativity was celebrated as an end in itself. Where such conditions prevail, knowledge of traditional methods and standard repertoire become irrelevant. Discovery and raw creativity become paramount, replacing traditional approaches to music making.

There may be some interesting lessons to be learned from the field of jazz. Jazz began in exactly this way at the beginning of the 20th century. Originally a discipline learned by rote and apprenticeship (much in the manner of many forms of world music), jazz emerged as a major commercial force in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time of its commercial viability, its nature as an indigenous art form had been expanded, and it had become a mainstream activity, largely as a result of a combination of its commercial exposure and of the interest many Western Art Music composers took in it. By the 1950s, it had become a discipline, demanding serious training for both performers and composers, as well as commanding respect as an area for research. Within 20 years, it had become a degree course of study in many of the major universities in North America.

Jazz, however, is still not universally accepted as an academic discipline, and encounters considerable resistance in many schools. The reasons are manifold and complex. Is jazz, as is argued by many of its academic critics, simply too narrow a field to be acceptable as a course of study at a university? Is jazz obsolete? Is the primary purpose of jazz study to create commercial performers? Is jazz more suitably taught as a “trade”? Should jazz be taught at all? Should it not revert to being learned in its performance environment?

Many of these same questions bedevil the future of all music. Is pop too narrow a field for serious study? Is classical music obsolete? Is the primary purpose of study at a university to create teachers to fill jobs? Is historical and cultural research more suitably taught as an academic pursuit within the departments of history, culture, and anthropology? Should world music be taught at all? Should it not revert to being learned in its performance (and social) environment?

Why do students come to study music at a university music school at all? Before changes are made to the academic structure based upon assumptions and prejudices, it is worthwhile reviewing the motivation of incoming students. It is also incumbent upon staff teachers to reflect upon their own reasons for becoming musicians, and, perhaps more to the point, the path they took to their own success (assuming that teaching at a university is in some measure an indication of success.)

Performers come to school to learn to play their instrument, and to learn its repertoire. This has not changed in several hundred years. A violinist, for example, comes to a school to work with a specific teacher, a time-honoured approach to apprenticeship. They are drawn to this activity and the university environment not by bluegrass fiddle music or Acadian fiddling, but by the repertoire that has shaped their instrument in Western Art Music tradition. They may well have interests in other musics, but their primary focus is to learn the established canon for their instrument. Taking part in jazz or world music ensembles enriches their experience, but for most, it is an addendum to their main course of study. Any performer seriously interested in studying genuine world music would certainly not chose to do so at a Canadian university: He or she would go to the sources of these musics. Pop remains a largely rote-learned style, and can be learned only in a performance situation. Pop musicians often enroll in classical institutions, generally in the interest of expanding their abilities in their own field through the study of Western Art Music.

Perhaps most telling, students from all over the world, from a vast number of different cultural backgrounds, continue to compete for places in Canadian universities to study Western Art Music. These are often students who have already completed study in their own traditional practices who are nevertheless committed to acquiring the skills of Western Art Music. These students are not interested in pop music or world music: They come for a clear and strict background in traditional classical music. Students are often amused (although they rarely speak out) at the ignorance of the professors who are attempting to teach them pop or world music. There is something to be learned from a student from Tehran giving a piano recital which includes impeccably played Brahms, Mozart, and their own compositions, which sound far more like Shostakovich than Iranian music.

It is urgent that teachers, sometimes misled by excitement at new discoveries, or, more bleakly, by simple boredom, recognize that ignorance is not freedom. Their own path unquestionably included strict inculcation into the traditions of Western Art Music, and they were free to embrace or reject these traditions in later life. Denying students this same right is arrogant, shortsighted, and self-indulgent. Intimidating as it may seem, the manifold basic elements of music making remain the same, and the study of these basic skills is arduous and long. But all students want these skills. Students universally want to know what their teachers know. However they choose to use their skills, they are shaped first and foremost by a passion for music, and the basic elements of music remain constant. The expansion of music’s horizons will bring new layers of study, and will imply exciting new possibilities, but training in the fundamental historical skills must remain central to any university’s music programme. The future of music study at Canadian universities will encompass more and more new areas, but, if teachers continue to respect the needs of their students and remain inspired by their own activities, the threat of music study becoming simple trade–schooling can be abated.