Twenty-six years ago, when I finished my formal music education (a Master of Music in jazz and composition from New England Conservatory of Music, Boston) I said, "That's it, no more music schools for me! I'm out of here!"
Twenty-six years later I am still a freelance composer/performer/producer with no teaching activities and no links to academia.
Now, I'll be the first to admit I had a great time in music school, both at the undergraduate level (Concordia University, Montreal) and later at graduate school. I was an absolutely insatiable student, always doing more work than necessary, asking teachers for extra information on different composers and different music, pushing myself to my musical and academic limits. I was, as they say, a "suck," a best-marks-in-the-class kind of guy. But not too annoying, I hope. Music school was one the of the most influential experiences of my life, because I spent four years doing nothing but eating, thinking, sleeping, dreaming, playing, composing and listening to music.
So why would I make such a determined effort to leave the environment that had given me so much? I can see several reasons. The two most obvious to me at the time were:
- I wanted to be famous. University professors aren't famous.
- I wanted to play and compose music all the time. University professors have to fit these activities around their teaching schedule.
A quarter of a century later, I would add the following reasons to my list:
- I have a fierce independent streak, which is probably poorly suited to the necessary requirements of "fitting in" to the university structure.
- I have a strong belief that music, especially creative concert music of all forms, must establish a direct connection to society. A university composer is, first and foremost a teacher, in terms of his/her social role (how people and the government classify him/her). A freelance concert music composer, though admittedly a very obscure social position, is nonetheless 100% a creative artist in terms of social function. This feels like a considerable difference to me.
- I have a strong organisational/entrepreneurial streak which the freelance milieu has allowed me (in fact, forced me) to develop. I love organising things - recording, tours, festivals, concerts, associations, whatever. But (relating to point three, above) they have to be MY things: it is all about bringing my vision of music (both in terms of notes on the page and larger social perspective) into being. Quite frankly, I've never been able to get excited about anything else than doing what I want to do.
So, unlike the other musicians writing for this issue of Ecclectica, my relationship to music studies is somewhat removed. I do, on occasion, give workshops in universities when I am on tour. And I also work with high school students every once in a while on creative music projects.
But I am always there in a capacity of creative artist, never teacher. So I do not know the intimate details of the day to day organising and running a music school, or even what it is like to teach a regular studio of students. From what I have seen, it can be very stimulating and exciting, and lots of hard work. It can also be annoying and boring and endlessly tedious. But the same can be said of the life of a freelancer: ah, the joys of doing twenty-five different grants applications a year!!
So my comments should be viewed from this perspective.
As I see it, music schools have two functions: technical training and creative training.
There is no hard and fast border between the two, but most of us can understand that learning your scales and species counterpoint is part of technical training, while trying to understand the formal and emotional complexities of a Beethoven symphony or a South Indian Raga are part of creative training.
Technical training issues are somewhat easier to grapple with (at least on the surface). If we want good violinists in the Western classical tradition, we need to focus on good violin technique in the Western classical tradition. As the joke goes:
Young violinist on the streets of New York asks policeman for directions:
"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"
Policeman: "Practice, practice, practice!"
The question is: what technical training do universities want to give? Do we want more violinists in the Western classical tradition? Do we need them? Do we want more orchestral composers? Do we need them? Do we need more film composers? More jazz piano players? More improvising viola players? More concert sitar and tabla players?
I believe that the university milieu should try to offer the absolute best technical training in as many areas as possible. Young artists need the tools to develop. But universities cannot, collectively, decide what tools artists need or don't need. So there should be no question of limiting what is considered "necessary" or not. All serious, intensive, focused music study is of great value.
But not all universities can offer all studies. I think a key to creating a balanced and dynamic music education system in Canada is for universities to be in constant communication. Who offers what programme? What is our strength? What are our weaknesses?
Here in Montreal, we have four university-based music schools, plus the Conservatoire du Québec. They have each developed very different characters and specialties, which gives young musicians in Montreal an enviable choice. It also creates a healthy, balanced musical and educational ecosystem.
Some schools are more traditional and academic, some are more open and experimental, but young artists can find the training they need. It is not uncommon for a young student to move from one school to another over the course of studies, before finding an appropriate match between her or his own artistic "voice" and the school that best supports it.
So I would strongly urge all Canadian music schools to work together, to understand that the country needs a scope of serious, artistic training to be available to young artists. Serious, concentrated, in-depth music study is what we need.
A related point: Ignore market forces as much as possible. Market forces are always "after the fact": By the time we feel them, the shift is always on to the next trend. It's a mug's game. This week they say "film music is the future," and "the orchestra is dead." Next week it's something else. Attempt to build serious music studies around market forces and you are dead (or soon will be). Art follows its own rhythm, generally slower and a bit ahead of society.
In fact, there are an increasing number of two-year technical programmes for music-industry related studies. This is a very positive development: exactly what we need. These institutions can focus on "market-force" driven, industrial-arts needs. Society needs this music and commercial art to be properly taught. But universities are not the place for it: they are too heavy, too ponderous, too reflective.
I think the university should be about the intense, serious study of art and art techniques. The commercially driven world will always take care of itself, just as it always has.
But if we are going to ignore the outside forces, what are we studying? This brings me to my second concern: creative training.
The point of a good university education should be to leave with more, and better, questions than you came in with; and, yes, some good technical training as well. But a good education means that you start asking serious questions about your art, your society and yourself. And, eventually, you start finding your own answers.
This is a long process, and far more difficult to quantify or control than technical studies. But I believe this approach to creative music making needs to be part of the overall vision of university music training.
Most great teachers have an instinct for this. They realise they are not there to grind out cookie-cutter copies of this violinist or this composer, but rather to nurture the unique strengths of each student.
In fact, as digital technology pushes our society to seemingly greater heights of duplication and conformity, it is this creative training which will become of even great value to students.
Digital machinery has already replaced hundreds of thousands of musicians, from a technical and commercial perspective. So why do we keep training musicians, when machines can do most of their work?
The answer lies in the creative nature of human music making. And I think we need to constantly reinforce that music making is a creative, not just a technical pursuit. Machines can now do it better, faster, cheaper. We have already lost that one.
But we have also won. Machines can do it better, faster, cheaper, but young artists are still drawn to live music making with humans. Why? Because making music with other humans has a history of over 50,000 years in our collective experience, and machines cannot replace this. Music creates a special bond of time and place among humans that can only be created by humans.
The creative nature of human interaction that is the act of music making is our strength. It is what we are good at. It is why it still matters. Technology has made its point: machines can now make music. But we still prefer humans, because it is not just about playing the notes, or about making the right noises at the right time. Machines can do that.
We need to understand and approach music studies as a truly human expression of our creative potential. This spirit of human creativity should be at the forefront of music education: not just for composers or improvisers but for all fields. Western classical repertoire, ethnomusicology, whatever. Ask questions. Ask some more. If we follow the basic principle that serious music studies are a doorway to human potential, then the other issues fall into place. Ask questions. Ask some more.
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