The Future(s)(?) of Canadian University Music Studies1
the new boss:
Same as the old boss?
The year 2006 marks the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of music studies at Brandon University, an event that affords opportunities both to celebrate past accomplishments and to take stock of future needs and directions. Accordingly, this issue of Ecclectica is devoted to exploring, from a number of diverse perspectives, the future(s) of music studies in Canadian universities.
In what ways may the next hundred years resemble and differ from the past? More broadly, what are the responsibilities, the opportunities, and the threats university music studies will encounter in the decades ahead? Still more provocatively, do university music studies, as currently understood, even have a future?
In many prominent respects, music studies remain what they always have been. Is that appropriate? Is it wise? How does it serve the future needs and interests of society? The needs, interests, and values of the university system of which they are a part?
Canada prides itself on its cultural plurality, its so-called multicultural identity. How do university music studies articulate with that identity? Or do they? Or should they?
We live in an era of rapid and dramatic cultural change. In what ways and to what extent do university music studies contribute to, or reflect, or inform that change? Or should they? What forces, foreseen or unforeseen, are likely to collide with the conventional values and practices that typify music schools and music studies in 2006? What may be done to avert such collisions?
Contributors to this issue of Ecclectica have been invited to write imaginatively and, if so inclined, provocatively, about the future of music studies in Canadian universities; to comment on their importance to society and to suggest how the futures of music studies should differ from their pasts. Their essays may be read as answers (if often implicit) to some fundamental and extraordinarily vexing questions:
- What is music? When we talk about music studies, what do we mean?
- What is music's value? Why is it important?
- Of all the things about music that could be taught, what, time and resources being limited, must be?
- Whose music should be taught? Music studies for whom?
- How is music best taught so as to assure that its values, skills, and understandings are effectively transmitted or learned?
If the individual essays printed here don't address each of these questions directly or systematically, it is worth noting that neither do our existing programs of study: They are not always so much products of rational deliberation as of political and economic expediency, and of habit.
One of the core concerns of most university music programs is the development of "musicianship." Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the presumed nature of that musicianship does not stem from empirical examination of the skills and understandings of skilled musicians in any comprehensive or direct way. Rather, "musicianship" is demonstrated by satisfactory completion of coursework in traditionally-designated areas—most notably, courses in music history, theory, literature, ear-training, and practical study. The assumption that these courses are the quintessential core of musicianship stems at least partly from accreditation regulations adopted in the early twentieth century in the U.S.A. (by its National Association of Schools of Music), regulations that sought to establish uniform standards for postsecondary music studies. These led, as such efforts invariably do, to standardization and uniformity, and, in turn, to the suppression of diversity and of change. The notion of musicianship thus created was based on a narrow range of musical practices, on strikingly selective historical accounts of musical development, and on technical and interpretive performance skills congruent with that range and those accounts.
Of course, Canadian institutions and programmes were not constrained by NASM regulations; but that illustrates a key point: the self-replicative force of standardization and of the rules and rituals it creates. Educated and socialized in U.S. schools of music (or their European conservatory predecessors), many influential Canadian music professors internalized those values and assumptions during their courses of studies, and in turn helped create Canadian institutions that were in their basic assumptions, structure, and content, carbon copies of the NASM model. The result was a proliferation of nearly-identical programs, each striving (and increasingly, competing) to achieve the same thing and to serve the same clientele(s). Their primary differences are differences in that elusive thing called "quality"; and the criteria by which such quality is gauged remain pretty much what they have been for more than a century—since the time music conservatories and their missions were absorbed into (or perhaps more accurately, grafted onto) programs of study in Canadian universities.
Thus, another way of looking at the question posed by this issue of Ecclectica: Will the new boss be the same as the old boss? Will traditional values and assumptions prevail despite their increasing anachronism and inadequacy to the world's ever-changing musical practices?
The contributors to this issue are each distinguished Canadian musician-scholars, some new to this country, others with long-established reputations as respected Canadian musicians and academics. I have approached people whose perspectives and insights I thought might present particular challenges to the tacit assumptions that continue to shape many of our traditional practices.
I hope the ideas introduced here may contribute in some modest way to the transformation, diversification, and revitalization of music studies in our country. But the comfort and power of habit are immense, and odds are that convention will prevail. Still, we must try. The commitment to educate is grounded in ethical obligations: obligations we ignore at considerable peril—to our programs; to our institutions; to our professional futures; and ultimately, to the social values these are intended to serve. We must ask difficult questions and we must attempt change. The alternative is replication and refinement of what we are already doing, at considerable risk of becoming victims of change rather than its agents.
"We are producing too many musicians the wrong way, too many in a very old-fashioned, very out-of-date system of professional training. [Schools of Music] are still training people to win the Queen Elizabeth Competition 50 years ago. And to that, nobody's listening."
"An estimated 2,700 music performance majors graduate from American [sic] centers of higher learning every year. The usual number of jobs available: 160 or fewer."
—Chris Pasles (L.A. Times)
In a 1996 survey, the comparative job satisfaction of orchestral musicians ranked seventh out of twelve professional groups: just below that of prison guards.
—Hackman & Allmendinger
Clearly, we need to devote serious consideration to yet another pair of questions:
- Music studies to what end(s)? Why teach and study music?
Responses to these crucial questions almost invariably gravitate toward one or the other of two conflicting poles—two very different orientations to curricular issues. Tensions between preservationist and progressive orientations are everywhere in academia; but they are especially prominent in practice-based concerns like music, where the pull between continuity and change is never fully resolved, and is always—and should always remain—a salient concern. Is education's concern in a discipline like music primarily to protect and transmit the past? Or should it draw upon the present to shape the future's ever-changing needs and conditions?
Traditions are, by definition, relatively unchanging set of practices, represented and protected by experts, exemplars, and gate-keepers who share a body of specialized knowledge. Living traditions, on the other hand, draw on people's creativity in changing times to transform the tradition: to nurture growth and change as the conditions, ideas, and values that guide practices themselves evolve. Preservationists tend to assume or insist that what has worked well in the past should continue to work well in the future. Progressives seek to transform past practice in an effort to remain responsive and relevant to the ever-changing needs and conditions of human practice. Preservationists seek to restrict practice while progressives seek to open it up2.
Making rules out of ideals, necessities out of habits, is a natural human tendency. But temporality and change are fundamental to the meaning of any human practice. What prevents useful habits from ossifying into hollow rituals is theoretical inquiry: interrogation, disagreement, debate, and discourse.
It is in that spirit and with this constructive intent that this issue of Ecclectica is presented: a celebration of past accomplishments that embraces the inevitability of change.
1 Note the deliberate ambiguity of "music studies" in framing this project. The different assumptions various contributors bring to this phrase (of what music studies consist, for instance, or where they should be "housed") are in themselves revealing.
2 I am indebted to J. Terry Gates for these descriptions of preservationist and progressive orientations. His "Grounding Music Education: Guidelines for Changing Times" (forthcoming) elaborates upon these points with considerably clarity.
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