On Creating Musical Identities

In one week not long ago, I attended four local performances, and they forced me to reflect on the musical world in which we live and teach. The first was Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! The second featured world music percussion ensembles—Balinese gamelan, Brazilian samba group, and steel drums. The steel drums played not only calypso numbers but also the famous "Air" from Bach's D-major Suite. The gamelan played traditional music and a new composition for gamelan with hip-hop DJ. The third performance was a recital by Marilyn Horne, whose program included English songs on Shakespeare texts; Lieder by Schubert, Brahms, and Wolf; mJlodies by Poulenc; songs by Leonard Bernstein, including rather advanced modern compositions and music theater songs; and two popular songs by Jerome Kern. The fourth performance was by Anonymous 4, an evening of twelfth-century organum.

That variety of musical experiences reminded me how really remarkable our musical environment is. It is the product of multiple factors: the beginning of "historical concerts" in the nineteenth century, the democratization of American culture, the shrinking of the globe in an age of rapid transportation and instant communication, and technology's encouragement to us to try just about anything.

One of music's most important functions is to create and articulate identity for individuals and societies. Our challenge is to help our students and our culture to develop musical identities in our complex environment. If persons and societies fall into a passive role in this, the diversity of music may produce lightweight, homogenized, intercultural or non-cultural music with no identity. If we meet our challenge, our students and our communities will have the opportunity to participate in and enjoy a brighter, richer musical landscape of musical identities.

So we can no longer realistically imagine that our goal should be to propagate the performance and appreciation of the masterworks and master composers of the golden age of common practice music, when the great men of Europe conquered the world's highest pinnacles of truth and beauty as they conquered everything and everyone else. Neither must we throw up our hands and lament the decline of our great civilization. We have a new challenge—to lead our students and musical communities to active, thoughtful choices in creation, performance, and appreciation of the amazing possibilities open to us all.

We cannot, however, accomplish our task to educate our students merely by giving them a smattering of courses and pretending that this will constitute a broad education. The attempt to make well-rounded and discriminating students by letting them fill out a curricular checklist and pick up a diploma always reminds me of Tom Sawyer collecting his blue, red, and "yaller" tickets for his Sunday school Bible but not really learning his verses. If our students leave us and do not really know much about any music and cannot make discriminating judgments about all musics, then the best we will be able to do as they enter the world is, as Mark Twain wrote, to "draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene."

Only together can we meet our challenge to enable those we reach to form complex, rich, interesting musical and cultural identities. Whether we work primarily as composers or performers, music historians or specialists in world musics, theorists, pioneers in music technologies, teachers of music in general studies, preparers of future music educators, or specialists in any other sub-discipline within music, we must share our music, our ways of approaching it, and our views of teaching it. Only then will we prepare college students to become sensitive, critical participants in the identity-constructing and identity-expressing capacity of the wealth of musics in their environment, musicians and audiences whose music-cultural identities are both rich in themselves and appreciative of the identities of others.

There is more to our challenge as we work for our students and our communities than just fostering interaction across the music disciplines, however. In order to teach for the present and the future, we ourselves must each face the challenge to continue to grow and learn. We cannot ask or expect our students to synthesize and to make good judgments about the variety of musics they encounter, unless we make it our business to encounter a great variety of musics and demonstrate that synthesis and judgment as we teach them.

In our new musical world we must be ready to free ourselves from rigid, obsolete divisions within our discipline and profession. Our challenge is to foster more open relationships among our colleagues and to stretch ourselves beyond our safe, comfortable, specialized musical roles. I am proud that The College Music Society can help us do this more effectively than any other organization. May we each make it our resolution to take on these challenges, individually and through CMS, in 1998.

Happy New Year!
 

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Douglass Seaton

Douglass Seaton is Warren D. Allen Professor of Music at The Florida State University. He is the author of The Art Song: A Research and Information Guide (Garland, 1987), The Mendelssohn Companion (Greenwood, 2001), and Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition (3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010). He has prepared critical editions of Mendelssohn's Lobgesang, op. 52 (Carus, 1990) and Elijah (Bärenreiter, 2009). His articles have appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, The Musical Quarterly, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Journal of Musicological Research, Ars Lyrica, The Music Review, College Music Symposium, the Choral Journal, and Current Musicology, as well as in numerous collective volumes. In addition to his role as Chair of Forums and Dialogues, Douglass has served The College Music Society as Editor of the CMS Newsletter, Secretary of the Society, Chair of the Nominations Committee, representative to the US-RILM Governing Board, Program Chair for CMS and representative to the joint program committee for the millennial meeting in Toronto in 2000, President of the Southern Chapter, Board Member for The CMS Fund, and CMS President.

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