Redefining Success: Perspectives on the Education of Performers

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For this millennial issue of College Music Symposium, I was invited to use George Houle's 1974 article, "Performance: The Profession and Preparation for It" as a springboard for sharing thoughts related to music performance and music programs at institutions of higher education. In Volume Fourteen of Symposium, Professor Houle and other authors dealt with pragmatic and even moral issues related to establishing a balance between the number of students in degree programs and the number of positions that would be available for music graduates.


Responsibilities of Music Faculty in the New Millennium

An appropriate challenge for every college or university or conservatory teacher is to create environments in which students can grow as musicians, experience their teachers' excitement about some aspect of music, and discover gratifying ways to function as musical beings. I do not believe it is the responsibility of the 35,623 college teachers at 1817 institutions of higher education listed in the Directory of Music Faculties in Colleges and Universities, U.S. and Canada to prepare the next generations of opera singers, symphony conductors, virtuoso performers, and recording engineers. To begin with, I have a problem with the concept of "training teachers" and "producing professors." (Trainers work with dancing bears and guide dogs and mynah birds. Producers manufacture furniture and automobiles and other tools used by human beings.) If our students experience a solid musical foundation and understand what a musical life can provide, some of them will become divas, recording artists, arts administrators, orchestral leaders, and college professors. Other students will explore different paths and participate in other aspects of music making and listening.

Tomorrow's marketplaces will determine how many realtors, bankers, beauticians, divas, and music theory teachers society needs. But whether our music students support themselves as professional musicians—or as realtors, bankers and beauticians, I believe there will be room in the future for all the musical people today's teachers can nurture.


Measuring Success in the New Millennium

In the sports world, it is very easy to determine the best team on a certain day. Through a systematic process of eliminating half of the competitors (individuals or teams), a progressively smaller pool is created. When only two participants remain, one is declared "loser" and the other is named "winner" and Grand Champion on that occasion. However, in the process of identifying The Very Best Performer and selecting a single winner, all other participants are defined as losers.

Perhaps we cannot afford to have thousands of opera stars, instrumental virtuosi, concert artists, and doctoral candidates. But neither can our society afford to have hundreds of thousands of music students and music teachers who define themselves as losers because they do not get to the very top of the pile. The answer for our profession is not to improve the quality of our "products" or to become more selective in preparing fewer musicians. On the contrary, I suggest that a more appropriate response is to place a greater value on music and high-level music-making in the lives of all people. Certainly not all of our music students will become professional performers and college professors, but all of them can learn that behaving musically adds meaning and significance to their lives. When that goal is acknowledged and achieved, then the work of college music teachers reflects the efforts of successful musicians who are champions rather than failures.

The Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi suggested "What children need most are roots and wings." As music teachers as well as parents, it is sometimes appropriate to encourage students to risk leaving the nest and trying their wings. If we really believe that growth and learning take place throughout life, then departures from home and from ivy-covered halls can represent growth and success rather than a rejection of our values or removal from the competition.

In the academic music world, we have constructed a rather strange set of criteria. Often we define educational success in terms of how long a student continues formal study in an institutional setting. Accomplishment then is defined by the duration of study rather than by what the student achieves during a given period of study. According to some people, success is achieved when a beginning student continues lessons at an elementary level and then at an advanced level; greater success is recognized when a high school graduate enters a bachelor's degree program and later pursues a master's degree; an even greater level of achievement is acknowledged when a master's degree student completes a doctorate and a doctoral student receives a post-doctorate fellowship. But are we perhaps confusing inertia and dependence with creativity and accomplishment?

How do we determine the success of music performance teachers? There is one set of criteria that I find especially troubling: the level of technical difficulty of the music being performed by the student. According to that standard, the more difficult the music, the more successful the teacher. But does the performance of level eight repertoire really mean that the student is a better musician than one who plays level six repertoire? Is it really a sign of better teaching or better musicianship if a student plays Bach four-voice fugues before becoming comfortable with Bach two-part inventions? When students continually struggle through ever-more difficult music, they are learning to live with the constant stress of pushing themselves to their technical limits rather than increasing and strengthening their musicianship. They risk developing physical problems that result from over-extending their technical mechanism, and they risk establishing negative emotional patterns related to trying to meet unrealistic expectations.

Difficult music played badly is never a worthy performance goal, yet there is a risk that teachers will treat students as pawns in seeking to build their own professional reputations. If a piano student performs a late Beethoven sonata on a recital rather than an early Beethoven bagatelle, is the teacher more successful? The greater challenge—and the much more difficult task for a teacher—is to select developmentally appropriate experiences (such as assignments, research projects, and repertoire) that enable students to achieve a series of successes while strengthening their musical and technical skills.


Creating Musical Environments

I suggested that it is not our job to prepare students for specific positions in the music profession. What do I think is our job? My answer is somewhat contrapuntal with lines that weave in and out.

  • Create environments in which all students can grow musically. Help them learn how to establish and meet artistic standards as musicians.
  • Share with students our own excitement about music from whatever perspective is important to us (whether performance, composition, teaching, or research; whether music history or music theory).
  • Share with students our own excitement about whatever music is meaningful to us and explore with them whatever music is meaningful to them.
  • Compile and share information so that students can understand in what ways and to what levels of accomplishment they will need to grow in order to be prepared to be considered for various professional opportunities and to accomplish specific professional tasks. With many skills, the required level of professional accomplishment is far beyond what we might expect a student to reach during formal academic study. Sometimes higher achievements will need to be developed outside of the studio or classroom through independent study, special coaching, on-job training, extensive professional experience, or simply time to mature.
  • Help students discover their strengths and needs and learn how to grow in ways that will be useful to them.
  • Enable students to understand what professional performers do and how to develop the skills needed by opera singers, symphonic conductors, or instrumental virtuosi. Direct students to appropriate opportunities (whether in or out of academia) that will allow them to grow.
  • Help students put together the specialized parts of music study, learning how knowledge of music history, music theory, and music performance strengthen each other. Work with students during a specific course, academic year, or degree program to help them develop a foundation of secure musicianship.

As I look at the above list of goals, I realize that it reflects basic goals of The College Music Society as faculty members seek to put together the specializations of musicians in higher education and to create a meaningful professional unity.



Professor Houle concluded his essay by saying "The awakening of artistic and technical consciousness is one of the principal tasks of the education an artist should have in his college years" [p. 33]. Several years ago I realized that no statement from a student had ever discombobulated me as much as an off-hand remark from a young instructor after a rather disappointing end-of-the-semester recital presented by his secondary piano students. The TA had commented to me, with what seemed to reflect both dissatisfaction with the performances and disrespect for the students, "Artistry? You want artistry? But they're just beginners!"

To that doctoral student and to all music teachers, I suggest that the awakening of artistic and technical consciousness needs to begin very early in the study of music. Artistry is not like a layer of shellac applied after students reach their college years. The developing of artistic sensitivity and technical ease are two of the primary tasks confronting teachers when working with performance students from their very first music lessons or classes whether those begin in college or earlier.

Not every instructor of music will have singers bound for La Scala or the Met, conductors on their way to Severance Hall or the Kennedy Center, or pianists heading for the Cliburn or Kapell Competitions. But in every studio and every practice room, it is appropriate to expect students to perform with confidence and respond with sensitivity to sounds in time. All music students can create music that is rhythmic, present harmonies that represent tension and release, and create textures that reflect contrasts of material. All music teachers need to be able to demonstrate effective examples of energetic syncopations and expressive appoggiaturas, explore music that is new to them, and demonstrate the startling difference between tritones that contract and those that expand. All music faculty have opportunities to demonstrate how the specializations of music history and theory and performance relate to and enhance each other. Whether playing a four-part harmony exercise for a theory class, supporting a vocal warm-up pattern for a choral rehearsal, comparing two variations of a melodic line, or improvising on a basic chord pattern, musician/teachers can model musical behavior by demonstrating musical responses.

In the process of being involved with musicians, some students will discover that they want to become professional musicians. But if they do not make that choice, they can still have the joy and satisfaction of behaving as musical people and sharing musical activities with others.

Fortunately for musicians who teach in institutions of higher education, we are not totally responsible for preparing the professional musicians of the twenty-first century. Our greatest influence as teachers probably will be on those students who do not get doctorates or end up on the stages at Lincoln Center or the Grammy Awards. When our students behave as artistic musicians—whatever their technical level as performers—we have produced winners. When we have provided a strong musical foundation for our students and shared with them our excitement about music, we will have achieved success as music teachers. We will have done our jobs and become millennial champions.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17/10/2018

Barbara English Maris

Barbara English Maris has been actively involved with The College Music Society throughout her professional career as a musician in higher education. She first joined CMS in 1973, as a student member of CMS.  After completing doctoral work (DMA in piano performance) at Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, she taught at several very different types of institutions: Federal City College (Washington, DC); Smith College (Northfield, MA); and University of Wisconsin-Parkside (Kenosha, WI). Her final twenty years of teaching before retirement were at The Catholic University of America (CUA - Washington, DC), where she directed the graduate degree programs in piano pedagogy and worked with students from six continents. After retiring from CUA as a Professor Emerita, she has remained active as a musician, author, teacher, and mentor of teachers. Her book, Making Music at the Piano: Learning Strategies for Adult Students, was published by Oxford University Press (2000). Dr. Maris was the first woman to be elected President of CMS, serving in that role in 1981 and 1982. She and her husband, David Willoughby (CMS President in 1987 and 1988), now live in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where the vista from their back yard includes wide expanses of Lancaster County's preserved farmland.

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