School music programs should be teaching Mohammed Abdel Wahab rather than Ludwig van Beethoven

Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the "Beethoven of the Arabic World,"  with a Cümbüş.
Mohhamed Abdel Wahab, sometimes referrrred to as the “Beethoven of the Arabic World,” with a Cümbüş.

Fireandair had this to say in one of my recent blog posts about parochial nature of Western Classical Music:

fireandair November 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm · Edit · Reply

Still thinking about this — in a way, the attitude that says that Western orchestras should just stick to what they do best is not a bad one. The idea that a Western orchestra could have a hope in hell of presenting such diverse types of music with any real fluency — or worse, that they “should” — is an ego trip. If the African drum virtuosi can crank out polyrhythms with one hand behind their backs … then in a way why do the Western orchestras need to? I could see how the musicians would find it fascinating (especially the timpanists) but isn’t it an ego trip to treat these incredibly complex traditions like some sort of political bingo chips, or to imagine that most of the (culturally Western) members of a Western orchestra could have a prayer in hell of playing that sort of stuff with the mastery of someone who has been doing it since they were in diapers? Classical musicians are quick to say that you need to start in the womb to be able to play their stuff — well, that African drum master did just that. You can play with those tools but unless they are a part of your culture, you probably can’t touch the master’s virtuosity.

Just thinking about this — that it can either be a hallmark of ego of of humility to say that Western orchestras have a “home court” of music and will probably always be best at that kind of stuff — either because one feels that Beethoven is the ultimate expression of passion, or because the other varied traditions are simply too complex, great, and involved to master them on the side after a lifetime of training in Western music. Individual musicians in a Western orchestra may have a grounded feel for it if they come from that background, but the orchestra as a whole may not.

my response (which didn’t address everything she brought up) was:

Jon Silpayamanant November 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm · Edit · Reply

That’s a good point. I think one of the reasons I posted this blog and occasionally about the ethnic orchestras is simply to dispel the “myth” that Western Classical is universal in any sense. Especially the way it has been practiced in the past century by focusing on the canonical warhorses.

I remember when the early music/historically informed practice movement started to get a lot of negative attention from mainstream classical music institutions–it all seemed to be a way for one population to disparage another by highlighting the legitimacy of a “correct” (and universal) way to perform classical music. I think the underlying fear is that this “correct” way is simply one of many and has now become another form of “historically informed practice” since most new music that is performed is rarely done by the SOBs–Symphony, Opera, and Ballet organizations are just another historical way of approaching a relatively narrow range of music from a particular period of time and region (primarily 19th century Europe).

To admit that there is other “great music” out there–other “great performing traditions” with ensembles and practices–would lessen the legitimacy of the one touted as featuring the “greatest” musical works of mankind–and we can’t have that, right?

So maybe it is best to let SOBs do what they do best: Specialists in one art form of many. This begs the question of what then do we mean by music education since it become untenable that by bringing back music education in the schools at the pre-college level we should be focusing on the traditional string orchestras, full orchestras, and concert bands. Then it becomes a question of Whose Art are we supporting–and once you ask that question, then you realize that there’s no reason why Western Instrumental Instruction should be the norm and we should actually be bringing relevant music instruction to communities rather than subsidizing one cultural art form over another–letting the local cultures determine what arts they value!

My question to music education advocates would be how would they feel if instead of teaching violin, and string classes we teach erhu and other traditional Chinese huqin strings as the Purple Silk organization does in the Oakland area?  Or instead of teaching timpani and flute in band class we started teaching dumbek and ney as the New York Arabic Orchestra hopes to do with their new Arabic Music School?  Instead of school orchestras playing German symphonies, we have them learn how to play Turkish fasıl, Azerbaijan mugham, Indonesian gamelan, Arabic waslah, or Japanese gagaku?

If the answer is that “we should teach kids how to play the greatest music of mankind,” then unless we can demonstrate that there is something greater about a Beethoven Symphony over, say, an Abdel Wahhab Waslah, the question was loaded with an ethnocentric and eurocentric bias in the first place and that percolates up to the Music Conservatory Level and then the Professional Performing Arts world level.

Are music schools serving the needs of its students?

Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth - mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music.  More info here: http://malaysiafinance.blogspot.com/2011/07/how-cool-is-this.html
Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth – mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music. http://malaysiafinance.blogspot.com/2011/07/how-cool-is-this.html

 

I really do plan on getting back to the Aging of Orchestra Audiences issue–really, I do!  But I’d been having a stimulating and thought-provoking dialogue with some folks over at Eric Edberg’s blog in a post titled, Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?

Something I hadn’t thought about in some time, but especially as we’re getting an entrepreneurial push in music conservatories, was whether this is enough and whether its too late.  I’m almost wondering if this is just the latest effort of one industry (the music education industry) feeling the pressure to make itself relevant to its “customers” (i.e. the students).  Eric had said in response to my ideas about Diversifying Your Performance Skills Portfolio, that:

Some organically broaden their portfolios as they explore styles which don’t have the centuries of traditions that classical art forms do, because they are drawn to the music. I think we need to encourage students to do that; whether or not we need to actually teach them to do that, since many other genres are only semi-notated and have their own aural/oral traditions, is another matter.

Continue reading “Are music schools serving the needs of its students?”

To teach, or not to teach: that is the question

Jon Silpayamanant teaching an "Alien Music workshop for Kids" at Cyphan Science-Fiction Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

So this past week was the first week of school and I’ve been coaching two periods of cellos since Tuesday. Earlier this week I read a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about some research regarding the correlation between teaching and research.  Most studies of this type looked at the connection between research activities and teaching, with mostly equivocal results though perhaps leaning in the direction that there may be a positive correlation.  Few studies looked at the connection from the opposite end of seeing how teaching experience can enhance research.  And fewer still (if this article is correct) have looked at it quantitatively, rather than through qualitative and often subjective surveys.

It was timely that the article was published just as my teaching load has increased (as it always does this time of the year) as I often question the function of teaching and education and how this can be changed and whether or not things like this should be changed.  But I’d rarely looked at it from the standpoint of how teaching music could possibly enhance, say, musical ability.  In many ways, I can agree–in others I can just as easily disagree.  In the end, it really depends on the teacher/musician.

For example, being able to show someone how to do something on a musical instrument would seem to demonstrate that you know the instrument well enough to be able to teach how to do it.  On the other hand, if your ability to do it on the instrument isn’t necessarily the most efficient or useful or, just downright idiosyncratic, then what you may be teaching would be how you would do it–not necessarily how it can or should be done.  Whether that idiosyncratic way of playing an instrument is the result of previous ‘bad teaching’ or just willful ignore-ance of former instructors (or combination of both) doesn’t necessarily matter.  And in some ways, I imagine it can simply be the result of a tradition of performance practice such as the holding-books-under-the-arm technique of bowing that used to be relatively commonplace in cello pedagogy.

The thing is, we can’t necessarily predict what might be a more efficient and useful way of doing things in the future.  In hindsight, as the saying goes, we’ll see it as inevitable but that doesn’t help our abilities to know future ‘good performance practice’–much less future enhancement of musical ability due to the ability to teach music.  Really, in many ways we’re just walking blindly into a future with only our personal histories or institutional histories (e.g. teaching traditions) as a guide.

I guess one of the questions is, if you can’t teach someone else how to do something, how much does that affect your ability to teach yourself something?  Another thorny question.  Some folks just have an intuitive sense of how to play a kind of music and can easily learn something within those boundaries.  Which says next to nothing about their ability to learn something in a different musical style or genre (or on another instrument, for that matter).  It’s an almost autistic way of relating to a broader musical culture or, rather, a broader culture of music.

Continue reading “To teach, or not to teach: that is the question”

Wednesday Teaching Reflections

As I mentioned in my previous post I spend most of the afternoon and early evening giving private cello lessons.  Wednesdays are much the same though I do start and end a bit later in the day (roughly 4:30 – 9ish).

I first started giving private lessons while I was still in high school.  Occasionally, while I was an undergrad at DePauw University School of Music, I did the same.  For a couple of years I was a “music assistant” to my cello professor.  Most of those duties involved giving technique lessons to other cello majors.  Also during those undergraduate years and following I would occasionally sub for some of the professors in theory courses or special topics courses. Continue reading “Wednesday Teaching Reflections”

Monday Cello Coaching Reflections

Mondays are usually a cello coaching day for me–at least during the k-12 school year.  Nearly every afternoon I coach the cello section of the Floyd Central High School 7th period Orchestra.  This is a high school group that has gone every year for 21 (or maybe 22 or 23?  I lost count) years in a row to the state level.

This year 6 of the student cellists in this orchestra were members of the Indiana All-State Orchestra (a total of 13 students from Floyd Central High School were in this year’s All-State Orchestra) which, proportionally speaking (as well as from an absolute number standpoint) for the cello section (which I think had 13 members this year) and from the standpoint of the orchestra as a whole is the most students from one school to have privilege of being members.

Pound for pound, this is likely the strongest string section in the orchestra.

The repertoire that they will be playing for this year’s state contest, and with which I’ve been coaching them (since Fall of 2008), is the finale of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 8, Op. 46; Bach’s Air on G which is an adaptation of the second movement from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 (this is the Stokowski arrangement–meaning the cellos get the melody throughout the whole piece); and the finale to Shostakovich’s  Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47.

Continue reading “Monday Cello Coaching Reflections”