Bach is Not Enough

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There is a cliche concerning music, and music in music education, that deserves to be repeated because it contains an exquisite truth about the use of music, and the music experience. It is a cliché which fortifies us in music education when we begin to wonder just how important we really are in the educational scheme of things. And in these days of social and educational turmoil (and of decreasing financial support for our programs) we often wonder. And we ought to.

The cliché, stated very simply, is that music provides us who listen to it (among other things) with solace at a deep level, at a personal and intimate and private level, down there where we feel and choke up in our helplessness—because we are, after all, merely human beings, who can only withstand so much, only control and restrain so much, before the avalanche of feeling and memory overwhelm us.

There is more to music than just this, of course, for music wends its way into every kind of personal and social thought. In my recent journeys around the curriculum as I work at the task of preparing college and community college teachers (in all subject areas), I have learned to have a new and heightened respect for the contribution of music to the educational experience—a respect for what it is, for what we do, and mostly for what we can do through the activity of this glorious art form in education.

This comes to me ever so clearly as I examine at close quarters, now, the dubious curricula of many areas, the superficial activities, many of which are solely utilitarian, frequently out of date, and which are often taught and conceived without imagination, thoroughness, or tested results. (There is a more positive side, too, of course, but I am not speaking of this at this moment.) I often think of the hordes of students who submit themselves to this broad liberal arts curriculum—some with great faith—and who learn what we ask them to learn, but not always with purpose or meaning for their lives. The trust they hold for us in education is not always warranted. Too often these students are mere spectators, uninvolved, witnesses to faculty "doing their thing" while the "thing" we allow the students is hardly worth doing. In music, the student is active—personally and deeply so—I trust.

But there is now a growing reaction to all of this, and we are hearing about it. Now students want "to do their thing." And that is only part of it. There is a turbulence in education that none can escape, be they administrators, teachers, parents, civic officials, or trainers of teachers.

This came to me most clearly after one of our recent teacher training seminars which, in a sense, was hardly different from many of the others we have been having recently. But now I was ruminating about it. I was seated at a junior high school student-faculty concert, and the thoughts of the seminar, terminated only an hour earlier, insisted upon review. I think it was the music itself that engendered this almost passionate review of the seminar events. That we are caught up in educational change touched all of us in that seminar. A new directive from the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges last week had instantly challenged, through dropping requirements, the current existence of four subject areas—Health Education, American Studies, Government, and even English. And so the young graduates of these fields were threatened. (This is change.) But there was more. Others spoke of Encounter Groups, of the new educational attention being paid to the Affective Domain, and the challenges here, especially for those who had never heard of these things. In one way or another reference was made to innovative approaches to community college teaching now in force, and ever so surely coming to the fore: teaching by television, through programmed and computer instruction, through games and simulation, through large and small group instruction, through independent study, through co-operative work-study education, through systems approaches in which instructional objectives are made clear, taught for, and achieved.

In the midst of the Bach Trio being played by the extremely competent junior high school teaching staff, I recalled the look of surprise and helplessness of one of the seminar students when I reported that only a week ago one of our graduates of five years ago advised me to tell this new crop of teachers "to forget everything they ever learned, because it won't work anymore." What he meant was that the teaching role is changing, and that even the curriculum is no longer a certainty. That graduate, an English major, is serving as a member of an Inner College staff, a cluster group with 125 students and five faculty from five disciplines, with a mandate to teach meaningfully or to forget it.

As I thought of the surprise and helplessness, the confusion, and the fact that after the long road of 17 or 18 years of education (particularly by these M.A. candidates, who have proved they can do traditional academic work with distinction) I could see that it was no light matter to be told it may have been in vain. To put it in the vernacular, they want to buy into our educational system, but now they must learn that the system is changing—not only this, but that they must take leadership in its change.

It is at such times of confusion, when we as human beings are caught up with inescapable realities of life, that music speaks to us as nothing else can. It is here, where all other languages fail, that a human language of feeling, and of moment, captures what is left of us. And we gratefully succumb.

It seemed, as we listened to the ageless certainty of that Bach Trio, that the turbulence of education, and of these trying revolutionary times, were revolving around the steady, solid expression of the music, which held together for us—a reminder that today and yesterday are forged around a human history that leaves us not alone, but linked with others, linked with other times, linked with other people who knew their way—like Bach, and yes, like these performers, and like the art form that does not fail us. The trying thoughts, the turbulence, the anxiety, the uncertainty of where we go next, the need for answers that we cannot instantly provide, the thin thread of courage not yet solidly mustered—all these played about the music as though it were a ground bass of some fundamental wisdom and security. How nice it was! How essential. At such moments of thin confidence and security in who and what we are, how gratifying that man did invent a whole literature and art form which caters to this kind of need. No one could ever doubt its virtue. These performers were heroes of the moment for me. So was Bach. And so were all the music educators engaged in these and related endeavors.

But this is not all of it. For this service to me, I could excuse these music educators, and their colleagues, of many educational sins of commission and omission. I could excuse them of holding fast to a curriculum that is not always justified, not always argued out on terms other than tradition and common practice. (For instance, I am not certain that all students of music should devote huge amounts of time to studying traditional harmony, while not studying musical analysis and structure, or aesthetic principles related to music.) I could excuse them for becoming lost in the techniques and principles of music of the past while a revolution of some fundamental proportions takes place all about them, a revolution which is too often ignored in terms of its musical implications. We are not unlike, many of us, the intransigent enemies of freedom and democracy which Daumier saw fit to satirize and to castigate during the troubled 1830's, people like judges and lawyers and others with secure positions in a society which was geared to favor those in power against the little people who were powerless. (In our case, substitute "student" or "the poor," or "the members of certain minorities" for "the powerless.")

When you leave the day-to-day struggle with music (as I did a few years ago)—the preparation for performance, the actual performance, and all that holds a person's energy within the art, as music selfishly does to those of us who succumb to it—when you leave this almost compulsive strain of specialization, you get a chance to see how music and music educators are seen by others. And you have a chance to see what others are doing, the people who do not attend your concerts, or support your various activities.

One vivid picture that I have and that came to me quite sharply during the faculty-student strike of 1968-1969 at San Francisco State College was that many music students by and large seemed unaware of changing social conditions, and of changing priorities relating to educational needs of other students. That their practice schedules were disturbed by the strike seemed wholly unreasonable to many of them. In the midst of bodily injury to their fellow students, these music students wanted "life as usual" even when their campus was surrounded by violence, police, community intervention, and political turmoil. Such realities were secondary to the practice schedules—for after all, these music students know better than anyone that you cannot perform creditably, with flawless technique and skill, without practice. This was their major focus. Revolution could wait.

Occasionally these music students would come outside and make complaints to the radical student leaders and to others who were willing to be influenced. The argument, if I heard it right, was that they and their musical progress came first. No other priority was higher.

Invariably these students were devoted to learning, playing and composing music of the past. These were not soul-searchers, wondering aloud or to themselves, if their work was relevant to these times or not. These were people of indignation, of certainty. Why of course one must play Bach. And Mozart. And in good style and technique. And no one doubts this.

But there is more.

In these times Bach is not enough. Nor is Mozart. Nor even Stravinsky or Berio or Carter or anyone else we know.

While we need the musician for the solace and strength he will provide for us, as our knees buckle in attempting to face today's social trials, we need another kind of musician—and educator—too.

We need a man who can do these things and more, a person who is attuned to the age he lives in, attuned to the edge of our repertoire, who can take part in the old, and then help forge new and strange directions into the future, who can take his part without knowing all the answers, who can risk and be wrong just as often as not, who can learn to know new bedfellows, who can sponsor that which he is uncertain about, and who has the courage to make music bend into the future with the same force and strength that Beethoven dared as he catapulted us into the 19th century and its Romantic expression and—even more phenomenal—as he pushed us into the modern era with his late string quartets.

We need music educators who will take their heads out of their music stands and look around at their own personal contribution to institutional racism, to inflexibility of curriculum and process, to the meaningless repetition of traditional practices and curriculum without questioning their efficacy today.

While it is noble and nurturing and enlivening and unifying for the fiddler to play for us, and to give us the succor and strength which his art brings, it is nonetheless ridiculous for him to play on and on and on while modern Rome burns. And to play the same music of a bygone culture while another one is being forged, or struggled with, and to insist upon the older culture, no matter what. Some of my colleagues in music education look as ridiculous as this to others who are struggling with new exigencies both in education and throughout society. Who can deny the drug menace? Who can deny the consequences of increased population, inundating technology, rising expectations of heretofore disadvantaged people—people, by the way, who have less regard than we musicians have for the music of the court, the elite, the special lot who forged the music of the 18th and 19th centuries in and about their palaces and social gatherings. (Where is the Third World in the average music history course?)

We need a new look, and we need it desperately. We need musicians and music educators who are thoroughly familiar with the fact that in music education it is not enough to be merely a good musician. We need people who understand the basic flaw which exists in our field—namely, that it takes almost all our energy to keep alive the music of the past, and to interest others in it, but that if this is all we do, we forfeit the right, the ability and the energy to propel our field into a meaningful future.

This does not mean that music education sells out to popular music, or to current fads, or that music educators win popularity contests because they can replicate the familiar and the banal.

But it does suggest that as custodians of a discipline, among others which are agonizingly surveying their procedures and assumptions, musicians and music educators, too, should make an agonizing reappraisal, even though they know they own a legacy of great music which is not likely to dwindle radically in interest tomorrow. (Yet even this possibility and this assumption must be studied with interest and detachment. We already have data which indicate a gradual decrease these last few years in sales of recordings of the great classic repertoire. And in more than one locality great classic music is less likely to be found on FM radio channels than only a few years ago.)

Our house is not entirely in order. There is a theme of authoritarianism which runs through the entire spectrum of music and music education. (And authoritarianism is being seriously questioned by many people today as an inappropriate mode of teacher-student, or boss-worker relationship.) There is an inflexibility in our curriculum, and a teacher self-interest which guides many actions, so that it is especially difficult to admit into the curriculum new modes of musical expression; and more particularly, there is little leadership in this direction. Hence the slow entrance of the guitar, the reluctant acknowledgment of rock music, electronic music, and various strands of popular musical expression. In an age which moves away from the older allegiances to religious organizations and expression, music, which historically has been firmly tied to religious institutions and thought finds itself less free to go its way independently—hence its puritanical outlook in an age whose fiery demands for expression go well beyond the emotional and expressive parameters of religious institutions. (It is painful for the Music Educators Journal to include a four-letter word in it, even when it is thoroughly in context, as dialogue emanating from a ghetto classroom.)

We are even confused, so help us, as to whether we are "long-hairs" any longer. In my day, musicians were lovingly referred to as "long-hairs" when they devoted themselves to the classic literature, rather than to jazz and other popular idioms. But today, studies show the musicians and music departments (i.e., the "establishment") are more closely allied to the short-haired temperament of the students of the schools of business, natural sciences and law, rather than to that of the new long-hairs who, by their hair styles, make a contemporary statement of alliance with aspects of the counter-cultural movement.

You might say that the job of the modern music educator is a nearly impossible one. First he must play the music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and all the others, and he must play it with a norm of newly expected excellence. And then he must go beyond and participate in some way or another in the social struggle of the current moment, and must help us to understand the basic elements of that struggle as they are felt by man, and as man experiences them in his art forms—the newly emerging ones, as they imperfectly develop.

This is hardly an insignificant task. No one engaged in it can have doubts either as to his own efficacy or the efficacy of his art.

It is bad enough to fiddle while modern Rome burns. But to fiddle the wrong tune, and for the wrong audience, or for no audience at all, is even more unacceptable. The days of kings, and queens and princes, and hangers-on to their court, is gone. This is the day of the common man, and we are all of us fashioning the music and the aesthetic expression of this common man. Hopefully, what we do will be worth it.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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