Education, Jazz, Canons: a Theoretical and Practical Postscript

[This essay is an elaboration of a previous one; it may help to read that one first.  Reflecting upon it, it became clear that a theoretical foundation was necessary for those ideas to make sense.]

A generalization

Here is an attempt at a very general statement about education (in the United States, perhaps) and how it is administered:

Any opinion or decision about education is inherently political; it is political because it implies a vision of how society should and/or will be.  There’s a lot going on in the universe.  We as a species don't know it all, and what we think we do know cannot, for practical and definitional reasons, be learned by a single person in a lifespan.  Thus, a decision about what to teach the human beings who our society designates as full- or part-time learners (what we call "students") necessarily excludes some things and includes others.  Thus, one's opinions about this inclusion and exclusion is a statement about what the world should and will look like in the future.  But it would be impractical for all of us to express our opinions about this all the time; and in any case, capitalism tends to divide labor in order to be efficient.  Thus, among the many, many jobs in our society is that of those who work as administrators and faculty members in educational institutions; they sort out and make decisions regarding those numerous and highly varied opinions about what should and shouldn’t be taught; and they allocate resources accordingly.  Their job is fundamentally a decision-making one; to gather a bunch of diverse thought, to consider it carefully, and to decide essential things about how a number of other people will behave as a result.

(My aim to make an uncontroversial statement; I certainly invite your revisions to this formulation.)

Canons and the education of performing musicians

Let me now narrow my focus considerably and talk about the education of performing musicians in the United States (mostly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, though I’m sure many of my remarks apply to other situations).  In my previous essay, I responded specifically to a statement made (to justify his institution's lack of focus on jazz) by the Yale School of Music Dean.  His statement, though, is really a line of thinking that is not merely his, but pervasive in some form in many music-educational institutions.  In response, I said this:

The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” [a quotation from the Dean] is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).  Neither is the case[.]

I'll get to jazz in a moment and give some reasons that I think it should be taught more widely in music school curricula; for now though, I want to expand on what I think is wrong with the concept of “canonicity” as used above.  Again, to quote myself:

What exists is not best described as a canon, but rather as a complex, not-fully-knowable, ever-fluid-and-reinterpreted history of music; perhaps a “tradition” if you’d rather use a less general word than “history.”  Sure, there are a lot of pieces we like to come back to; but by granting them a separate status as a “canon” removes them from the world that made them, and this in turn leads down a dangerous ideological road.

Which is to say, first, let us posit that a piece exists (however you think about its ontological status as a notated score, a performance, a tradition of performance, a set of choreographic gestures, relations between sounds, interpretation by an audience, any number of other possibilities).  Once the piece is played and/or heard, it influences the players or listeners in a very wide variety of possible ways.  Some have little influence. Some have a huge influence and in massive ways; my previous essay offered the example of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.  Separate phenomena are created as a result of this reception history – ways of interpreting its meaning (musical, affective, philosophical, political, etc.), modes of listening, styles of playing, other music that responds somehow, still other music that responds to the response, etc.  This is what I called “tradition” and “history,” though I’m not particularly attached to either word.  And furthermore: it would be implausible (or at least unobvious) not to talk about a “style” that the Eroica symphony engages with; it shares certain characteristics (ways of treating pitches, instrumentation, form, etc.) with other pieces written during the same time period and afterwards.  

Living in 2015, we have a lot of good reasons to care about all of this even though it was written a long time ago.  Strictly musical-historically: it’s a piece that influenced a lot of other music we like, and that music influenced other music, and that music influenced music being written today; in short, we deepen our understanding of other music by trying to understand the Eroica symphony.  Affectively: it is a deeply expressive work, and the act of listening to it tends to be enriching in a way that resists articulation in written or spoken language (though we sure enjoy trying).  Politically: it was written during a time of significant, fundamental upheaval, and basic questions about governments, social organization, and human freedoms were being asked in new ways; these questions are embedded in the work’s form, rhetoric, treatment of musical materials, etc.  Very similar questions about governments and human freedoms have obvious relevance to us: just ask the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky and the same-sex couple who tried to get a marriage license from her.   I could go on (easily and at length), but you get the gist of my argument: studying old music has a lot of relevance for the people alive on this planet now, and so we should all be in favor of, say, making sure that it gets taught in a way that is organized, nuanced, deep, thoughtful; in a way that accords with a vision of a maximally better future society.  (I feel like that word “better” might get me in trouble, but I’m happy to have that discussion.)

It seems to me, though, that the word “canon,” when used a certain way (especially when one sticks that word “Western” in front of it) does a different thing.  Assigning “canonicity” to something creates a separate characteristic.  Along with “canon” also tends to go words and phrases like “great” or “established” or “highest quality” or “most enduring.”   (Along these lines, check out the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry if you happen to have access.)  Etymologically, this makes sense, as a different but a related definition of the word “canon” takes its authority from the ultimate: “[t]he collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired.”  If you accept the tenets of Christian faith, that’s one canon you can’t question.  

I’m not claiming that people who use the word “canon” in a way to exclude certain traditions do so out of a quasi-religious belief (though that argument could be made).  I am claiming that assigning canonicity to a work of art, with all of these related concepts, reifies it; and that such a reification is deeply ideological insofar as it reinforces a set of power relations.

A word about reification, since it is (ironically) a slippery concept: the German word is “verdinglichung,” which perhaps better translates to “thingification.”  The basic definition that you might see for it, googling around, is something like "make (something abstract) more concrete or real" or “the tendency for individuals to ascribe a definitive value or form to an abstract concept.”   The way in which Karl Marx (and I’m very consciously appropriating his concept here) uses it, though, is meant to suggest the way in which commodities appear to have an independent existence in a capitalist society as a result of the division of labor.  To paraphrase György Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher: in reification, people’s “own activity, [their] own labor becomes something objective and independent of [them].”  Phenomena in a capitalist society are made to seem a “self-evident necessity imposed by Nature.”  When you buy a bar of soap at CVS, you may not always imagine it as the product of labor and a series of historical processes; you don’t necessary think about someone making it, and what into making it.  It’s a bar of soap that, as far as you know, just exists.

The claim I’m making is that this applies analogously to the way we present the large body of music that has been and is being written; I am able to make this claim because we live in a capitalist society, in which music has been subsumed into a capitalist mode of production.  Instead of presenting the unknowably, irreducibly complex situation of all music in the world for what it is (i.e., unknowably, irreducibly complex), claiming that one’s “real clear” mission is to teach the “Western canon” does two things: 1) it encourages a work claimed for the canon come to be viewed “something objective and independent,” its greatness not to be questioned, and 2) breeds a sense that its status is not changeable.  If a performer-in-training develops a comprehensive view that the field they’re involved in is partially or largely fixed and unchangeable this might have a number of possible undesirable educational effects.  In my anecdotal experience, I have observed at least these: an inability to interpret in an informed, personal, or interesting manner; a lack of desire to explore music’s (multiple) possible meanings; a devotion to accuracy at the expense of all else (i.e., an unsaid sense that the truth exists merely in the correct execution of a set of notes); a desire to have an authority figure (teacher, conductor, etc.) just tell them what to do; an intense, all-consuming anxiety about what must be done to “win a job;" and an attitude of defensiveness (that belies an insecurity) when trying to justify any of the these behaviors or beliefs.

All of this leads to a bunch of very unhappy music performers (professional and otherwise), and if you are reading this, you know a lot of those people.  I believe this state of music performance is the result of a canon-mongering attitude; and I hasten to add that my attempt here is not to demonize canon-mongers.  I don’t imagine they are sinister or ill-intentioned, though there are exceptions.  Precisely the opposite – their actions probably result from a conviction that they’re doing the right thing, coupled with a lack of realization that their actions are fundamentally ideological.  Nevertheless, though, though I believe this line of thinking is deeply problem; and it demands a solution.

My suggestion is not, first and foremost, a specific one regarding what is to be taught, but rather an attitude towards the teaching, and more importantly, an attitude towards thinking about the teaching.  The latter is the important point; we would all benefit from an big, on-going, large-scale, in-depth, frequent, thoughtful set of conversations between administrators, performers, scholars, critics, and audiences.  I don’t want us to stop rehearsing, performing, and studying the Eroica symphony.  I want us to listen to the vast array of things it, and the tradition of interpreting it, has to tell us, and I want us to talk to each other about this.  And, given that we live in world that seems to get ever bigger, I want us also listen to what it being told to us by so many other musics that we encounter regularly: jazz, improvisation, popular and commercial musics; and world traditions that we may not encounter so often.

Regarding education in jazz specifically, and in the case of the Yale School of Music’s Dean’s remarks, this struck a nerve because it seems like such a no-brainer, for at least the following reasons:

  1. It is the indigenous music of Americans in a way that the European art music tradition (as much as we may love it) simply cannot ever be; thus, it is as relevant to our lives as paying taxes.

  2. Embedded in its history is also the history of American society, important aspects of its political development, and a relatedness of the artform to life (one thinks of obvious issues of race relations, but that is certainly not the end of it).

  3. It seems to me that jazz is unique in the history of music in a confluence of the following factors: its extremely rapid and comprehensive development, its sophisticated use of tonal resources, its rethinking of the role of the performer, its development of instrumental techniques, and its radical approaches to form.

My claims about what is variously called free improvisation or experimental improvisation, (an area of music too vast and nuanced for the confines of this essay, precisely because it is less well-know than jazz), while perhaps less sweeping, would be similar.

Put negatively, the consequences of not teaching jazz and improvised styles are very real, and have a clear impact on the growth of musicians.  I pointed to the positive example, in my previous essay, of Anthony Cheung, a composer whose music engages multiple traditions about as successfully as anyone, and whose biography cites “an early exposure to 20th century concert music and jazz/improvised music.”  As a different, if not opposing, example I offer myself.  I started studying music relatively late, and was not as exposed to jazz performance as much, retrospectively, I wish I had been.  I was, however, extremely fortunate to have high school teachers (Robin Beauchamp and Lynne Tobin, then at Savannah Country Day School) who combined our string orchestra with the jazz ensemble to create a studio orchestra from time to time, and I believe this may have set me on the path towards a stylistic pluralism that I embrace today.  It was a long time coming for me, though, and I regret not having been educated in jazz traditions more thoroughly from an earlier age.  I believe I would be a better, more comprehensive, more thoughtful musician if I had.

Austin Wulliman, a violinist for the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente, and I have talked about precisely this issue.  The slight differences in his set of experiences emphasize the overwhelming similarity of our conclusions:

As I got serious about playing and attending various music schools and festivals, pursuits seen as "other" were discouraged by my mentors, and for solidly practical reasons.  I was being taught to shoehorn my musicality into a specific economic model.

Throughout my education, in spite of efforts on my part to find a way to branch out, my orbit was rarely able to leave the traditional technique orientation in the strings department. I was simply too busy learning to play my instrument "well" through solo repertoire and trying to establish myself as a good collaborator in notated music.  Without a doubt, these are pursuits I still cherish and define my career today.  I remember thinking more than once that specializing my skills was crucial to my economic success as a performer.  

If I had been introduced to alternate modes of music theory, performance and creation of style I'm certain I would have ended up a different musician; a more daring musician, experimenting more, creating more.

In recent years, as I've gained confidence in my musical imagination and more knowledge about styles of contemporary music both notated and improvised I have begun to explore these avenues, but I feel as if academia let me down. A lack of imagination or even investigation into how musical styles interrelate in the standard curriculum was absolutely detrimental to my development as a musician; and I believe it leads to unimaginative music-making.

A response to possible objections

Among many other things, Austin anticipates a possible objection to my (and his) line of thinking.  This objection is a well-intentioned, practical one, and I can imagine it coming from both educators and educatees: why should students be taught things that won’t be of practical value to them in the “real world?”  Don’t we have an obligation to put our students in positions to get jobs and have sustainable lives, and isn’t training them in different traditions from what they will do professionally simply a distraction from what’s practical?  [Please forgive an angry tangent: I just hate the implication that the “real world” is something different and removed.  An educational setting is as real as anything; it is a bunch of people in the world, figuring out how to relate to each other; while the power roles may feel artificially constructed sometimes, there is nothing fundamentally fake about the interactions.]

I have multiple answers to this objection.  The first is that engaging a wide variety of stylistic traditions does create better musicianship, and the practical/professional value of that is obvious.  To cite the specific example of jazz: my overwhelming anecdotal experience, working with classical instrumentalists at the DePaul University School of Music, is that those who have familiarity with jazz have significantly better ear-training skills than those who don’t.  Put differently, you can imagine that an instrumentalist with a nuanced understanding of many approaches is likely to have a wider variety of ways of thinking about a set of notes than one that worries mostly about audition excerpts.

But my second response is that asking such a question misses the point, because it already presupposes that a student has a fully formed and fixed idea of what kind of musician they want to be and what kind of career they want to have.  On the one hand, one might think it irresponsible not to do one’s best to help students get existing jobs in musical institutions; they are scarce, competitive and hard to attain.  On the other, I say that it is more irresponsible to push a student towards a specialization before they have had a chance to fully explore their artistic potential.  American students are taught from a very young age to be anxious about the possibilities practical success, or the lack thereof; they must get good grades so they can get into a good college, so they can get into a good grad school, so they can get a good job, and so on, endlessly deferring the question of why they’re doing it.  It’s not that we shouldn’t help them get jobs; it’s that we must also help them know why they might want to get that job, what they can do with it, and how they might be good influences on the world from within it.

[If you find yourself saying something like "but it's just the way things are!" or "the situation is what it is, and we can't fight it" I ask you the following: are you sure?  What is your evidence that your understanding of the situation is comprehensive?  Will it be that way in a year?  Will it be that way in 5 years?  In 10 years?  In 20 years?]

This segues clearly to my third and final response.  I think such an objection exhibits the same fundamental misunderstanding that the Yale School of Music Dean's “real clear mission” of “teach[ing] the Western canon and new music” does.  It implies that the world is unchangeable.  To my way of thinking, it’s not simply that the world is changeable.  It’s that it does change, regardless of whether we want it to; the buildings that US musicians train and practice in didn’t exist 200 years ago, and probably won’t exist in 200 years.  In short, we have influence, in a wide variety of spheres and on myriad levels, into how that change happens.  Our real clear mission is, rather, to think very carefully and very critically about it; and my hope is that this thinking will lead us -- performing musicians, educators, audiences, composers -- to a more artistically satisfying set of engagements with the world we live in.

Postscript to the postscript

Since I wanted to keep the topic of the above essay focused and narrow, I have chosen not to discuss something that is equally important about the education of performing musicians.  In my first essay I mentioned in passing “the tendency of performing musicians not to be particularly well-trained as critical thinkers of their own artform.”  This is a huge topic, though, and one of equal importance to the above.  That performing musicians are not systematically trained, or at least introduced to, critical traditions is just as detrimental to music in the U.S. as their lack of training in various musical traditions.  By “critical traditions” I might start by naming the following, but this is by no means a comprehensive list: formalism(s), structuralism and post-structuralisms (including deconstruction, feminist theory, queer theory, etc.), Critical Theory (i.e., of the Frankfurt School), and psychoanalysis.  Expanding on this, though, would require substantially more thought.