7 Teaching

7.9 Alternatives


Rink’s approach to judging a competition (7.8), while far from being unconstrained by norms (he’d hardly be an acceptable judge at the moment if he were), points towards a more enquiring way of thinking about what performers may have to offer. But on the whole, for all the well-intentioned, sympathetic and encouraging teaching that goes on in WCM, there remains a deeply ingrained belief that what is written in a score must be sounded exactly, and that there is broadly one ideal way to do that, the way that ‘we’ (those admitted into the profession) do it now. To ensure that that continues to be so, the teaching of WCM accepts—even believes necessary—behaviours of teachers to pupils that would be wholly unacceptable in mainstream education.

What we’ve seen across Chapter 7 is bad enough. Sometimes the abuse is far worse. An environment in which bullying is already common; in which a teacher has complete authority, above that of the parents, and represents, and is seen as having a quasi-sacred duty to teach, the desires of composers whose authority is held to be quasi-divine; and in which the musical results they get seem to many to justify whatever it takes to get them; in such an environment it is only a small step from authoritarianism to sexual abuse. As Ian Pace reports,

What I have seen, overwhelmingly, from having gone through an elite musical training, working as a professional musician, and also from a large amount of information disclosed privately to me, is a systematic pattern of domination, cruelty, dehumanisation, bullying and emotional manipulation from unscrupulous musicians in positions of unchecked power, of which sexual abuse is one of several manifestations.[1]

Through his blog Pace has done essential work documenting and campaigning against sexual abuse in musical training, and has published valuable guidelines for teachers and students.[2] (It’s scandalous that this has had to be done by an individual.) There is nothing I can add to this, other than the observation—which after all we’ve seen must now be self-evident—that in much of this abuse WCM ideology plays an enabling role.

Do western classical musicians always realise how out-of-step their teaching is, particularly at advanced levels, with teaching in other contexts, and how abusive it is? Accepting this as essential for success is entirely unnecessary. There’s no reason—aside from the narrow-mindedness of gatekeepers to the profession, which as we’ve seen results from the same kind of teaching—why students should not be taught in a normally respectful and supportive atmosphere in which their ideas are heard and developed in productive ways, not simply dismissed.

There’s a fair case, then, for a movement for reform, led by young professionals with the desire for a practice that values them, determined to teach their students differently. The desire is there, as answers to another question in the survey for this book often showed.

Q) What do you tell your students about being original in their performances?

Among the answers here there is plenty of open-mindedness and encouraging of students to experiment. It seems more than likely, given the nature of the questionnaire and its emphasis on having been prevented from being creative in performance, that the respondents are on average unusually open to non-standard approaches. So we need to remember that these answers are probably not typical of WCM teachers as a whole; but they should be.

The past was much stranger than you think. Experiment in as many different ways as you can imagine; try going too far and striving for originality. (Historical flautist, 30-39)

I encourage them to be original and support their own ideas – oftentimes students are insecure and have to be pushed to come up with their ideas or go outside of the norms – I try to create a safe space in my lessons for them to do this. (Violist, 30-39)

As a teacher I incorporate improvisation into music lessons and encourage students to be as original as possible in performances, although this isn’t always easy.  I often ask them to try out an interpretation that they consider to be ‘over-the-top’ and this tends to be the most interesting. (Violinist, 30-39)

There is usually a caveat of one sort or another:

Respect the text, but think for your own. Think about every note and how YOU (not me!) want to make it sound. Play your repertoire and don’t feel obliged to perform as your teacher wants it. (Horn-player, 40-49)

As long as it feels necessary for them (necessary meaning here something that they burn to do, that they fell they MUST do), I encourage them to try out mostly anything. (Pianist, 30-39)

I push them to go to the very end of their own musical intentions. When I do propose some musical ideas, I always ask them if they agree, and I always remind them they’re allowed not to agree! (Pianist, 20-29)

Generally speaking, to go for it, but also to be honest about what it is they are doing and why. This is especially relevant for the performance of historic materials where one has to negotiate the borderlines of “authenticity”, both in relation to scholarly and performative partiality of knowledge and to audience’s expectations. (Medieval fiddler, 30-39)

And on audience expectations:

However, remain aware of the context of your performance. In certain countries like the United States, you may have to tone it down a bit to accord with the regional tastes, but you may be able to get away with much more in other places. (Flautist, 30-39)

Based on my experience, audience in different country also have a bearing on creativity and originality. For instance, I could be slightly innovative in my interpretation in Germany, but not in Italy. (Pianist, 22-29)

There was much emphasis on knowing the historical context for, or the musical construction of a score.

There is a lot of work that goes into being truly creative with a work that is new to you. You must understand style, structure, harmony, motifs and how they all relate to one another and to the overall shape of the piece. (Cellist, 40-49)

I tell them to respect historical context, performance practice and the composer. Besides that, if they have something individual and is truly what they believe in, they should believe in themselves. (Cellist, 30-39)

And emphasis on the need to be able to explain yourself.

I ask them to consider the intentions of the music displayed through the score and through its social and historical context. I encourage students to annotate their scores with the musical decisions they have made ready for discussion of why they have come to these conclusions. (Clarinettist, 30-39)

I want my students to be able to discuss and justify their choices out loud, not because they simply want to do something. (Classical guitarist, 50-59)

Even among this self-selecting constituency there were some much more dirigiste approaches.

must first understand the idea of HIP (Historical Informed Performance), then they could, as they become a more mature musician, examining different interpretation approach. (Pianist, 22-29)

you’re supposed to serve music, not vice versa. … if you want music to serve you, then compose or improvise. (Organist, conductor, 40-49)

But even so, the results showed a powerful desire for more open-mindedness in the teaching of WCM. Is a movement for change too much to propose? To be noticed and to work it needs to be supported by widespread public discussion in social and other media, which will have to include examples, on occasion even the naming of names. In the light of Pace’s evidence the relevance of #MeToo is clear; even without it, the kinds of psychological abuse that are routine surely justify a comparable response.

I’ve made a number of suggestions in this chapter for alternative ways of approaching the teaching of WCM. In Chapter 7.2, drawing on Green’s research, we looked at the benefits of teaching classical music aurally in schools. Getting away from the score as a sacred text which must be obeyed would be beneficial at all levels, and starting in childhood would make it easier to achieve. (We saw in 7.3 how the King’s College regulations encouraged that.) Introducing improvisation into classical practice at an early age (as we saw the Trinity board doing in 7.3) would give musicians far greater confidence later on. Playing down perfection would ease the pressure on young musicians. All three would reduce their sense that obedience is the only route to success: that you obey or you give up. It is not impossible to imagine a teaching that encouraged and accepted more, and denigrated and punished less.

Also in 7.3 I suggested how reducing conformity might increase the sense that music can be (arguably, by its very nature is) a collaborative, socialising practice and would benefit from being allowed to be in WCM as it is in other musics. In 7.4 Hill (2018) made a powerful case for the moral, social and psychological benefits of much more creativity in musical training and practice.

In 7.5 Nettl (1995) and Richardson (2007) reminded us that WCM training is diametrically opposed to values fundamental to western life, including democracy and (crucially for us) freedom of expression,[3] which we’ll return to at the very end of this book. As a guide, reforms can usefully take freedom of expression as a measure of their progress.

7.5 concluded that an ethical conservatoire, looking to its relationship with the music business, ‘should not be gatekeeping to suit the gatekeepers: it should be putting pressure on them to rise to the challenge of thinking and responding as imaginatively as its students’.

7.6 brought together the benefits of having creativity as a a ‘constant presence throughout training’ with a much more serious attitude to child protection, in which ‘fostering personal creative expression would necessarily become a key aim’, leading to training and practice that are more ‘ethically defensible and artistically desirable’.

7.7 gave a sense of how strong is the desire among younger professionals for better treatment and for more freedom to be creative; and it called for ‘widespread public discussion in social and other media’ which would not be afraid to air abuses of all sorts in order to achieve a better learning and working environment.

The challenge for competitions (7.8) is one we can shrug off, I think. It’s their problem to work out whether competing is really a useful way of comparing performers in the absence of fanatically constrained norms. If it is, then maybe we’ll not have expanded norms far enough.

In Chapter 14 we’ll look at how more freedom of musical expression would benefit musicians’ health, and in Chapter 17 we’ll add to this the advantages for audiences and for the music business.[4] Here, though, I’d like to add two more aims, not in any attempt to be comprehensive—because this is just a tentative beginning to thinking about a new kind of practice for WCM—but simply to add a couple more ingredients to the cauldron. We need to be more accommodating of those who don’t enter the profession as performers; and we really should also be opening ourselves back up (this is one thing you can say for the Victorians) to amateur music making as a widespread part of our cultural life. The value of that can only increase as most entertainment becomes digital and virtual.

The extremely narrow and demanding requirements for a career as a performer are more than anything what makes being a music student so stressful: if you can’t hit the target exactly you’re not going to make it. It’s quite unlike art school, or even drama school, in that sense. (Only classical ballet is worse, in that there you also have to look a particular way.) Thus talented, sensitive, skilled people are simply jettisoned; left with painfully acquired skills they can’t use except privately, and whose private use is itself now painful because of the sense of loss and exclusion that is rekindled whenever one exercises them. (There’s a touching and realistic evocation of this sadness in the 2015 movie ‘Victoria’.)[5] It’s wasteful and cruel. Can we not find a way of welcoming and using musicians who are not concert players, other than as disappointed teachers, without them feeling failures? Several conservatoires are now encouraging students into doing community work, which needs and deserves much more funding because it does so much good for those it serves. But that could cover a much wider range of activity. There is still room, if we look for it, for WCM to have much more presence in everyday life if it can become more varied, less predictable, less classed, more surprising, more participatory.[6] Making room in training for a wider range of musical imaginations, which at present are suppressed, may enable the music business to include many more fine performers who at the moment drop out, discouraged by a training that has no use for their alternative voices.

I suggested earlier in this section that it’s no coincidence that whether we look at childhood teaching, examining, conservatoire, the virtuoso studio, competitions, and whether we listen to research observations or student experiences, the same abuses are found. Like the prejudices that run through our society from top to bottom and which we’ll see equally at work in WCM very shortly, these problems are structural; they are built-in to the belief system that underpins WCM. The worship of composers and texts, fantasies about the past and about the intentions of the long-dead, and obligations to them, all masking the desire to hold on to the power to determine the behaviour of others and to protect one’s own identity from the challenging encounter with others, all of these drive the oppression of each new generation by the last.[7] Absurd beliefs lead inevitably to abusive behaviour, because there’s no other way of forcing people to hold them. Cleaning up WCM involves cleaning out the ideology, and then discovering other ways of being musical. We’ve looked at the first of these in Part 1. And we’ll look at the second in Part 3. For now, I’m afraid there are many more problems to face up to if—and this is surely a necessary step, however painful—we’re to admit to a motivating and galvanizing selection of the problems that the ideology will go on causing until we change it. Until we have conservatoires, teaching studios, performance institutions, commentators, and music businesses that no longer believe this delusional ideology, we won’t have a musical culture that represents and nurtures the kinds of people that we try to be.


Continue to Chapter 8: ‘Musicology and editions’

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[1] Pace, Ian. 2015. Music Teacher Sentenced to 11 Years in Prison as Abuse Film Whiplash Prepares for Oscars. The Conversation, February 20. https://theconversation.com/music-teacher-sentenced-to-11-years-in-prison-as-abuse-film-whiplash-prepares-for-oscars-37786
[2] Pace, Ian. 2015. Safeguarding. Music Teacher April 2015, 13–15.
[3] Fernández-Morante (2018), table 2 (p. 17), usefully compares the values of the standard ideology with an imaginary humane approach to teaching music.
[4] While Ch. 17 remains to be written let me make it clear here (in case it is not already obvious) that it will not promote the notion that creativity should serve the neo-liberal notions of entrepreneurship critiqued in Kanellopoulos, Panagiotis. 2015. Musical Creativity and “the Police”: Troubling Core Music Education Certainties. In Cathy Benedict, Patrick Schmidt, Gary Spruce, and Paul Woodford (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education (New York: Oxford University Press), 318–39.
[5] Victoria, dir. Sebastian Schipper (2015). Curzon Artificial Eye ART 781DVD. 00:42:30–47:25.
[6] On the narrowness of WCM culture in terms of class, and of course gender and ethnicity, see Scharff, Christina. 2015. Equality and Diversity in the Classical Music Profession: A Research Report. London: Kings College London. https://www.impulse-music.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Equality-and-Diversity-in-Classical-Music-Report.pdf
[7] A very pertinent discussion of Freire (1996), The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, can be found in Barton, David. 2019. The Autonomy of Private Instrumental Teachers: Its Effect on Valid Knowledge Construction, Curriculum Design, and Quality of Teaching and Learning. PhD thesis, Royal College of Music (London), 84–6. Freire, Paulo. 1996. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin.

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