How to Educate?

Jonathan Bellman

In my last blog, commenting on Richard Taruskin’s review-article in The New Republic I suggested that, while the usual high-culture, cod-liver-oil (“but it’s good for you!”) approach to music appreciation is a demonstrable failure, “Just keep listening!” is not really sufficient either.  Here’s why: almost the entire performance repertoire of art music was composed more than a century ago—not just the much-complained-about German repertoire; also the Russian and much of the French also.  The culture that produced it is long gone, in other words.  To expect “just listen”ing to afford sufficient cultural currency to understand the art music of a largely alien culture seems a bit like urging people to “just expose yourself to the beauty of the language” in order to understand Dante—in the original Italian.

Let’s forget about form and the adventures of a motive and all the usual approaches to “appreciating” art music; I’d go with styles first.  National styles, high and low styles, and certainly the topics and styles (e.g. dance topics like Sarabande and Mazurka, styles like Pastoral, Storm, Hunt) are immediately easier to recognize, given a modicum of background, than form and motive.  (“Modicum of background”: being able to make pastoral out of “pretty and peaceful,” hunt from “stirring and energetic,” “Turkish” Style from “thumping and percussive,” etc.)  The character of the musical surface is the composer’s first choice, and it’s what defines the affect of the piece.  Learning topical vocabulary and style literacy gives the listener far more tools for musical enjoyment and—dare I say it—understanding than will trying to discipline a normal human attention span to follow the adventures of a motive throughout a 50-minute symphony.  If we understand styles, we get the joke when Mozart moves almost indiscernibly from Singing Style to Brilliant Style to Turkish Style, and we recognize—and are captivated, as was Clara Schumann—when Brahms explodes from a turbulent, stormy texture into the noble strains of Romantic Medievalism and remembered chivalry.  Communication between composer and listeners takes place without our having to enter the workshop and check the voice-leading.

One level deeper, I cannot overstress the importance of pre-college music experience of the far-too-infrequent kind where students actually play in band and orchestra and sing in choirs without intending to be music majors later.  In the Common Practice vocabulary (and its modern derivatives work the same way), the play of styles rehearses the play of associated emotions.  Learning Common Practice music is in a way like learning a theatrical role—working through by proxy, in other words, a sequence of emotions and ideas, or varieties of human experience (grief, fury, horror, joy, contentment, yearning, the full gamut, all modulating smoothly one to another), without having to experience them in a real way, via the symbolic Common Practice language.  This of course means that one rehearses emotional experience in a controlled, supportive atmosphere, undeniably advantageous in facing real emotional turmoil in later life.  (This is not my own idea; I first ran across it in a Senior Honors Thesis I mentored in 1999, that of the now-English teacher Alberto Aguirre.)  This struck me—once I saw the issue laid out like that—as one of the most urgent reasons that music in the schools desperately needs support: the social and societal reason, the value of practice at emotional health, if you will.  (Increased test scores and so on are the icing on the cake, societally, not the main act; as Shinichi Suzuki stressed, music makes good citizens, which are more immediately needed than virtuoso musicians.)

Understand: I consider this kind of participation important groundwork for understanding musical language, but even those who don’t participate know people who do—the more participation, the more cultural understanding.  Participatory music making results in emotional education and musical experience, and through the experience one learns the vocabulary.  True, vocabulary can be learned in classrooms too.  All of this means, though, that historical vocabularies remain, if not current, at least familiar, vivid, and understood.  The same would then apply for works composed in those historical vocabularies, which retain enough currency among those with at least minimal education that they can communicate.  This is basic foreign-language education, I think—get some vocabulary and jump in.  No mention of high culture, or better and worse music, or nice and not nice, at all.  Just get some idea of what they’re talking/composing about, and go to concerts armed, so to speak, with some vocabulary.  Then: “Just listen.”

A final thought: we should keep tabs on what is happening in the Shakespeare education industry if we need new ideas.  Though dissenting voices at the Modern Language Association may carp about it (I read an article about this once), the Bard is still a major audience draw, and his work still communicates.  Whether you want to call his values and concerns “universals” or not doesn’t concern me, nor would I even claim that most directors and actors (not to mention audiences, at least where I live) have a complete understanding of what is going on in his language and subtexts.  Down to the grade-school level, though, teachers are creating a variety of interesting approaches, some of which are outlined in the final chapter of Herman Gollob’s Shakespeare and Me, a somewhat self-indulgent but interesting read.  Can we claim that music education on any level reflects this kind of flowering of creativity?  Shakespeare died almost four centuries ago, his plays were written for a world of capricious kings and queens, the counterpoint of the privileged high-born and those born to serve, the constant realities of conquest and cruelty.  Still, the plays have maintained a currency with audiences today, in the English-speaking world especially.  It is worth at least trying to achieve similar success with the “classical music,” the much-loved, much-derided, much-defended, much-misunderstood.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to How to Educate?

  1. TTU Theory says:

    There must be something in the water. I wrote about music appreciation just the other day:
    I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. I’d love to see a text that takes this approach and incorporates more than the token sub-Saharan African piece (because it’s good for them) among the parade of dead white guys.

  2. Galen says:

    I think we need to make a clear distinction between our desire to have a public that is knowledgeable about its cultural heritage and our desire to cultivate a larger fanbase for classical music. These are distincly different goals, and one of the serious problems we’ve had with music appreciation courses and arts education in general is that “education” has been appropriated by chauvinists who think it’s appropriate to use “education” as a tool for indoctrination. Which is both unethical and doesn’t seem to work.
    I agree with many of the ways you think Education could be changed for the better, and would add that it’s crucial to be stylistically broad — music appreication should not be focused on classical music, classical music should be one component of a broader, more inclusive curriculum.
    As far as marketing to a new audience, though, we need to put aside our chauvinistic assumptions and employ the tried and true strategies of the regular marketing industry. Classical music is no more inherently culturally foreign to white yuppies than rap is, but rap is kicking our ass. White yuppies don’t love rap because they’ve internalized the culture of the black inner city, they love the surface and how that surface resonates with their own cultural experience. The fact that the most popular classical music today is film score tells me that the surface language of classical music still resonates with the modern American cultural experience, but that the classical music industry proper is doing a lousy job of marketing.

  3. My website,, is a resource of biographies of 52 men and women of African descent who could be the subjects of the kind of relevant music textbook to which reference is made above. The composers and musicians are Africans, African Americans and Afro-Europeans. Over 100 audio samples bring the music to life. One recent exciting CD is “Elilta” (2006), by the Ethiopian composer and pianist Girma Yifrashewa, who will tour in the U.S. again soon. Each page of links to the companion AfriClassical Blog, which features many more composers and musicians of African descent: Alvin Singleton with the CD “Sing to the Sun” (2007); Regina Harris Baiocchi with a large repertoire and a new CD “Kidstuff” (2007); Roy F. Eaton, a pianist and a Joplin specialist, has won a 2007 Grammy nomination for “Keyboard Classics for Children”; Dr. Quincy C. Hilliard, prolific composer for wind band, whose commissions include works for the 1996 Olympic Games and the documentary “The Texas Rangers”.
    The 20th century produced a number of Black composers whose works retain their freshness and relevance, even when the themes are of earlier times: Florence B. Price and William Grant Still, among many other distinctions each won a commission for a World’s Fair Theme, Chicago for Price and New York for Still; Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” is a wonderful synthesis of jazz and blues in classical form; William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” is crafted from three spirituals; Duke Ellington’s classical works, recorded after his death, include “Harlem” and “Suite from ‘The River'”; R. Nathaniel Dett’s “Suite from the Bottoms” is best known for the lively “Juba Dance”, made famous on a recording by Percy Grainger. Kevin Scott is conductor of the Albion Records CD: “Ulysses Kay: Works for Chamber Orchestra”, Troy 961 (2007). Many of Kay’s works were performed under Leonard Bernstein and other prominent conductors.
    David N. Baker is one of a newer group of composers, along with Julius P. Williams, Adolphus Hailstork and the late Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.
    The music to diversify classical music education exists in profusion. It will be performed, along with works by majority composers, in the 2008 U.S. Tour of the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra and the Harlem Quartet.
    Both groups include Black and Latino musicians who are Sphinx Competition Winners. A recent Sphinx Gala at Carnegie Hall saw the premiere by the Harlem Quartet of “Delights and Dances” by Michael Abels, of “Global Warming” fame.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    One consequence of recognizing that, yes, you can’t just drop in and listen but need to get at least a bit familiar with the language in use, *since the language is not ours*, is that it becomes no longer quite so obvious that the language is always worth the while of learning. Mozart may be doing something very clever: but there are other clever things I can appreciate right now. This isn’t an expression of a desire for instant gratification, either; it’s an acknowledgement that there is, after all, only so much time to spend acquiring abilities and appreciating things, and if you express the results of the appreciation in general terms, you have to deal with the fact that other, more tractable, things instantiate those generalities as well. And danger of the alternative to saying that the pleasures of musical experience are such-and-such definite things is that you might sway too far to the side of Culture! or the Sublime! or whatever, and make it seem a duty.
    (One of my professors in college would frequently point out the pleasures that his musical education had brought him, and then, after telling us that if we had children we should have them learn some instrument other than his, the drums, observe that it takes a lot of time to learn to read a score, and then it also takes time for the reading itself, and maybe you’d actually enjoy learning about and watching baseball more.)
    It also raises the question of why one should listen to older composers and not newer, who are in at least *some* respects not so far away. Lots of people with an appreciation for literature, after all, can get away with reading mostly contemporary fiction, even contemporary literary fiction. And, moreover, we don’t fault such people for not having read all the works of high modernism or people working in a modernist, self-conciously “difficult” or allusive mode these days, because everyone will agree (maybe not everyone, but enough, anyway) that there’s perfectly respectable stuff being written that’s just easier to get down one’s throat. Different strokes, you know?
    Of course, my own musical training consists of maybe a year and change of piano lessons, all forgot.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    I’m going to have to call you on this whole music-as-a-foreign-language thing. Ben points out that if music is a language that needs to be picked up the same way as any other, then one might reasonably ask why *this* language and not some other. But “musical language” is to some extent a metaphor. It’s a particularly resonant metaphor, because music certainly acts *like* a language — it has syntactic and semantic properties that allow us to talk about musical “meaning” — but it’s not as if I can ask for a pound of peas in musical language. You can’t even really say “I love you” in music, like they do in old movie musicals — in fact, the reason so many people hate these films nowadays is that the moments where people *do* say “I love you” in music bring to the surface the fact that you can never really say anything in music (at least, not in the same way that you can say things with words).
    And because of this, the path to appreciation for (love of, passion for) Relatively Unpopular Music is not the same as the path to a language. I had a student once who was a truck driver who had gone back to college to study music. He was an intense, totally devoted student — one of the very few who started out in a general “music appreciation” course and ended up taking all the music theory and music history courses for majors (and aceing them). Anyway, I once asked him what his musical background was, and he told me that he had never listened to anything other than Country radio until one day, on a run between Minneapolis and Duluth, he happened to tune into a broadcast of Mahler’s first symphony. He said he pulled over to the side of the road to listen to it, and by the time it had finished, he knew what he was going to do for the next several years.
    Now, admittedly this is an unusual story, but it is not really so unusual either. A lot of people get into some kind of Relatively Unpopular Music — music whose unfamiliar language they had to learn — because of some Pauline moment like this. And no-one, I submit, has anything like this kind of experience in learning a language. You don’t overhear some guy speaking German and instantly fall in love with the language, but these sorts of “revelations” happen with music all the time. The guy listening to Mahler 1 at the side of the road may not have understood the syntax of symphonic form yet, but the music had something to offer his consciousness, and it was not linguistic meaning. Music is not reducible to meaning.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Maybe I’ll have to vote with Mendelssohn: words will never be as clear as music. In the first place, I’m not talking about “music,” I’m talking about “common practice music and its derivatives.” Because you can’t ask for a pound of peas in music, Phil, does not disallow it as a language. Given common practice music’s ability to juxtapose associations in undreamt-of ways, it really can be a language of the emotions (in some measure metaphorical, but that measure is not 95%). I’m not sure whether you can say “I love you” or not–it may depend on context and pitch, like many other languages–you can say “God.” C major triad to E-flat major, or E major. Try it. It’s a standard movie cue. You can also say Hunt and fear (diminished chord tremolos) and cheesy heartbreak. Don’t laugh; go to any silent film cue anthology. So, to paraphrase an old joke, now that we’ve established what it is, we’re only arguing about vocabulary.
    I suppose I would agree on the idea that some people will prefer not to learn about music; many prefer not to know about literature (and the people who read contemporary literature, Ben, have often read older literatures in the past, in school etc.). Not sure what the relevance is. Some people would rather not learn math, too. So? I’m trying to get at honing the educational tools, not forcing everyone to learn Bruckner. And as far as rap kicking our ass, Galen, maybe…but McDonald’s kicks everyone else’s ass in volume, and I’m simply not going to bother spitting in that wind. As I live much of the time in the world of music, classical and rock both, I sometimes think about ways to make it more accessible.
    Many thanks for the thought-provoking responses! Not sure I’ll be posting before we take off on Tuesday for some pre-AMS tourism in Québec City. I’ll see some of you there, I hope, and will catch the others on the flip side.

  7. Kip W says:

    I don’t want to force my 5-year-old daughter into anything. I did sort of angle her into asking if she could have dance lessons, and she’s still at it, two years later. On the other hand, I’ve been playing piano around her her whole life, and she has no appreciation for anything I play, except “Rubber Duckie.”
    On the other hand, she’s been into playing video games with me, or just watching me play the tough levels, so I reintroduced “Donkey Konga.” Now she plays it with me, and she’s starting to get better, and I think it’ll help her rhythm. Anyway, it’s fun.

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