On Musical Excellence

Three weeks ago, when handing out this year's music-to-be-learned to students, I gave a kid - a freshman in high school - Elgar’s Cello Concerto and told him to start learning notes. What was I thinking? This is a piece I didn’t begin learning until college and, though every angsty middle school kid tries to play it, I remember my learning process being laborious and unsatisfying - because in college, I (like any/every middle school kid) wasn’t really good enough to play it. But, my student really wanted to take a stab at the piece. He wouldn’t shut up about it. So after forcing him to hack his way through Haydn’s C Major Concerto as a prerequisite, I relented. And here we are.

We musicians love to tout the life-long and academic benefits of a solid musical education. The National Association for Music Education has a big ol’ list of those benefits on their website. Personally, I’m tired of justifying music education by citing all the non-musical benefits, and I’m not the only one. Despite all that is great about a musical education, there is a problem: if we continue to justify our relevance this way, and we continue to expect parents to see these touted results of their kids’ music study, we have to actually teach music correctly. I’ve written something about this before, but recently I’ve been seeing more examples - in school orchestra and ESPECIALLY in private instruction - that makes me believe that it isn’t happening.

By justifying music programs and music lessons with less artistic, more academic reasonings, performers and teachers cheapen their subject area while simultaneously holding themselves to an almost-impossibly high standard. How can teachers and programs succeed in creating great musicians who also have great test scores and critical thinking skills if (I’ve noticed) programs spend a large amount of time competing with each other to get the best adjudication scores, have the most All-State students, and - especially - to attempt to play the hardest music.

Too often, I’ve heard good high school orchestras and high school student soloists perform repertory that is beyond the individual orchestra's and performer's technical capabilities. They perform these pieces to an adequate - though musically substandard - level. There’s no musical brilliance at play, and no deep dive into the intricacies of the piece. There’s no phrasing or appreciation of the music theory behind the dots and lines. This happens in my private teaching ALL. THE. TIME. I’ve had high school students come to their first lesson with terrible bow hand position and no sense of pitch or fingerboard geography, but they’ve “learned” a major concerto, like Dvorak or Tchaikovsky, in hopes of living up to unrealistic and incorrect expectations set forth by their parents or their peers.

These students aren’t enjoying those perceived benefits of a musical education set out by NAfME and music teachers everywhere; they are just barely getting by, if they are at all, in the process.

I’ve met some teachers who teach their students by rote - call and response, usually - when teaching rhythm and pitch, rather than forcing students to decipher complex rhythmic arrangements or the organization of notes on the staff. The students aren’t improving their pattern recognition or spatial intelligence if they’re being spoon fed the answers to these problems.

Far too many teachers allow their students to get away with ignoring various parts of musical notation, like sharps, flats, pitch names, and more, i.e., not actually reading music. In the same vein, I’ve taught quite a few students who are so afraid to play wrong notes or make bad sounds that they never take technical or musical risks when (after they’ve supposedly learned all the notes and rhythms) I force them to think about phrasing or sound production, and even proper finger placement and hand position. I've given trial lessons to new students who can “play” advanced repertory but can’t sightread a piece written for third-graders.

Give a student a piece of music that is too hard for them, and they will be lucky to rise to the level of their current competence. Few high school cellists should be performing a concerto by Schumann. Almost no high school orchestra should be playing symphonies by Shostakovich. The day that I hear a high school student working out a solo piece by Lutoslawski is the day I tip my cap to their "adventurous" programming, and then permanently skip town and quit this job.

My thought process is pretty simple: by giving students music that is too technically AND/OR musically difficult, you are setting the student up for failure. Programming or assigning music on the basis of “exposure” to a composer’s great work, the instructor’s love of the piece, or expansion of the student's/orchestra's repertory list is just an excuse for allowing mediocrity. Try exposing the kids to the old masterworks using YouTube or Spotify, and we’re not in a hurry to play pieces we love; there’s plenty of time - a lifetime, in fact. Also, nobody cares about repertory lists except for booking agents 30 years ago.

I don’t mean to imply that students can’t take these difficult pieces and “pull it off,” but that shouldn’t be the level of expectation that we are setting. Some of my worst memories of my doctoral program came from the university symphony orchestra dress rehearsals, when the conductor would say - EVERY TIME - at the end of the rehearsal, “Well, there’s no problem a performance can’t fix.” This comment always rang as an acceptance of our collective failure, often as a result of poor, thoughtless programming.

By handing inexperienced underclassmen a Schubert quartet, the instructor is telling the students that s/he knows they are going to fail, but doesn’t care. At least the students will get the (bad) experience of (poorly) performing the piece.

I’m constantly inspired by teachers who step foot in the studio or school everyday for the pure joy of seeing students play music and watching them succeed. But I don’t understand why some of them aren’t setting a standard of true musical success. So many are handing out difficult concertos and symphonies just for the sake of doing it. There’s more to learning a piece of music than playing the notes and the rhythms. In fact, there’s much more!

I am both guilty of this mindset and a victim of it. I assign students music from the 20th- and 21st-century because I believe it is necessary for them to be playing things that aren't the old warhorses. But, few students are prepared to dive into the  musical depths of one of Britten's Suites for Cello, and even fewer have the technical capabilities to "pull it off." Back in high school and college, I played music that was way too hard for me just so that I could say that I had done it: I ignorantly used the Dvorak Cello Concerto as my youth orchestra audition piece when I was in tenth grade! (Almost 20 years later, I’m just now feeling good enough to do it justice.) I programmed recital repertoire because I liked that way certain pieces sounded on the recordings: as a junior in college, I played a program of late-Beethoven and Shostakovich sonatas with a pianist who banged on the keys while I hacked my way through the notes. It didn't even occur to me to read musicological writings on these pieces, and I definitely didn't do any score study before I started learning.

My private students want to play harder and harder music, which I assume they want to do so that they can keep up with their friends and peers, who are themselves playing harder and more challenging music. School orchestras that can’t really play in tune are playing Beethoven symphonies. Young quartets are working on Brahms when they should be playing Mozart.

Students' (and some teachers) definition of "hard music" is different than mine. I believe that students can still be challenged even if they are playing what is colloquially (but incorrectly) perceived as “easier” music. I think that musical standards can be raised if we pay just as much (more?) attention to the subjective side of music as we pay to the objective side. It seems like it should be easy: instead of playing this "hard" music and worrying about notes that students don’t/won’t learn, or a specific, technically challenging section that will nevereverever sound good, students will be able to “master” a work that is technically simpler, but musically complex. Rather than trying to learn how to play the notes up to the day of the performance, students finish the basic outline of the piece (notes, rhythm, etc.) long before the performance, and spend the remaining time thinking about, struggling with, and mastering musical considerations.

For example, let’s take Bach: his Six Suites for solo cello are well-known, and generally aren’t as technically challenging as other, later works for unaccompanied cello, like Dutilleux's Trois strophesPlaying the First Suite gives an advanced student the opportunity to delve into the mysterious phrasing and interpretation of Bach’s music. They have the time to ponder the theoretical importance of this note, or that agogic accent. They are given the freedom to experiment with phrasings and bowings that drastically alter the motion and feel of the piece. If they were spending all of their time learning difficult notes and practicing difficult shifts, they’d never get to this point. Nobody judges Yo Yo Ma's advanced musical capabilities when he plays the first Suite

Haydn’s opus 20 string quartets are NOT easier than Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden.’ In fact, these pieces are equally difficult, but in very different ways, requiring very different technical and musical considerations. Both works are hard, both have complications, both are trouble. It’s just a different kind of trouble. The Emerson Quartet has released recording after recording with Mozart and Haydn quartets. Nobody second guesses their mastery of the repertoire.

Playing a Haydn (rather than Shostakovich) symphony in your school orchestra or a Mozart (rather than Tchaikovsky) concerto in your private lesson isn’t failure - it’s a natural step along the path to technical and musical mastery. Top notch musicians are far more impressed when you play an "easier" classical extremely well - stylistically, technically, and with thoughtful musicality - than when you almost pull off one of the "harder" romantic concertos, with mostly correct notes and approximate rhythms. I don't expect there will ever be a day when someone criticizes the Vienna Philharmonic or Anne-Sophie Mutter for performing a symphony or concerto by Mozart.

Anyone who is assigning music to young students must stress that there is more to the music than objective standards, like notes and rhythms. The cello part in a Haydn piano trio may be simple, but it's not easy. Subjective things, like phrasing, tone, articulation, and interpretation inspired by music theory and score study are all required to make a great performance.

The ultimate goal of any performer is to have total command over the technical difficulties of a piece so that they have the freedom to make decisions that best express their musical interpretation of that piece. Programming music because you like it, because others will be impressed that you attempted it, or the piece's difficulty rating on the American String Teachers or Royal Conservatory string syllabus rather than the possibility of musical excellence, stunts students’ musical growth, and all but eliminates the non-musical benefits of a musical education.

When a piece of music is too technically difficult for students, the intellectual and creative benefits of learning and performing music take a back seat to regular, just-like-every-class, no-benefit struggles. It’s not just the notes. It’s not just the rhythms. We educators need to stop allowing our desire to expose students to hard music trump what should be our ultimate goal in music education: promoting complete musical excellence at the highest level.