On Expanded Repertoires

September 1, 1997

Among readers' concerns expressed in David Willoughby's Readership Survey were that we should "Ease up a bit on the politically correct, world-ethno-music" and that "the emphasis on ethnomusicology and world music further dilutes time and interest in our Western art music traditions and strongly contributes to its demise-so sad."

These responses do not, I believe, represent simply a faction of narrow-minded jingoism among our membership, and they do not arise from self-serving turf-protection by colleagues who do not know or wish to know about non-Western music.

The first statement raises the real concern that what might be perceived as a "world-music fad" stems from dubious motivations and threatens our students' learning. The second statement regrets that when we incorporate world musics into our curricula we cannot continue to include as much of Western music.

In some cases, the addition of world music studies may reflect mere catering to a student population with weak backgrounds in the Western concert tradition. Skeptics who suspect this may well worry about a corresponding unwillingness of our institutions to challenge students. But we can challenge students' thinking, imagination, and musical skills, no matter what culture's music they are learning. If our standards are collapsing, world music is not to blame.

One objection that might be raised is that the spreading of curricula over wider repertoires does not allow for study of as much detail as when our musical world was more focused. Those among us who argue against teaching world musics in our curricula ironically have allies among some of our ethnomusicologists, who worry in turn about the quality of teaching in these areas by any who are not trained to the Ph.D. level in that field.

Detail is not depth. We can afford to sacrifice some data about Classic quartets or African instruments and in exchange challenge our students to deeper conceptual understanding of different ways in which music achieves meaning and heightens experience to many people.

If what we are protecting is the opportunity to teach details we know because of our own areas of specialization, let us sacrifice that for students who are more alert to and more thoughtful about new things than we ourselves have been.

My field is Western music history. Not long ago, three days before the final exam in my sophomore survey course on Western music, I attended a colleague's concert of Japanese music. Seeing some of my sophomores in the hall, I became acutely aware of things I hoped they would hear and think about. The Japanese pieces, perhaps unfamiliar, were mostly programmatic, and we had talked about the relation of the program to the audience's acceptance of unfamiliar sounds in the nineteenth century. Some of the music illustrated constructive devices we had discussed - motivic melodic materials, conversational texture, variation forms. Other pieces would remind students of our observations of experimental structures. The koto and shakuhachi should have recalled to them our exploration of impressionist music. The performers' reverent bows would be reminders that different musics operate in culture and as culture in different ways.

As I listened, I tried not to look too obviously around at my students to see whether their eyes would be lighting up in recognition of familiar gestures and with curiosity about unexpected musical ideas.

I have often fretted that we did not have enough time to notice every detail of every piece in our class's score anthology. It now seemed to me that, if we had done our work in the course as well as we could have, the Japanese concert would do more to sharpen students' hearing and thinking than additional classes would.

There are good reasons to welcome world musics in our courses or curricula. As teachers, we may need to respond to new musical information, concepts, and repertoire. Our administrations may need to find resources to expand our capabilities. Specialists in world musics may need to help colleagues prepare themselves. Ethnomusicologists and Western-tradition colleagues alike may need to worry less about comprehensiveness in the detail we give our students and more about depth of insight.

Last May I met with colleagues from various music areas who were discussing strengths and weaknesses in a music program. At the end of the day, when we came to discuss overall strengths, what struck me most was that no area argued that another was less important, and no one complained about not being able to cover enough of one thing because of the inclusion of another.

This is the attitude that will strengthen our profession and our next generation of musicians: that we embrace the variety in our discipline—performance and composition and scholarship, abstract theory and practical pedagogy, Western and non-Western repertoires—to challenge our students to deeper musical experience and thinking.


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