Musical Education - Is it Time for Change?
“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer.”
.....Dr. Shinichi Suzuki
“A lot of people ask me where music is going today. I think it's going in short phrases. If you listen, anybody with an ear can hear that. Music is always changing. It changes because of the times and the technology that's available, the material that things are made of, like plastic cars instead of steel. So when you hear an accident today it sounds different, not all the metal colliding like it was in the forties and fifties. Musicians pick up sounds and incorporate that into their playing, so the music that they make will be different.”
We live in an age of change and music is no exception. Music in the 20th Century underwent an unprecedented explosion and the trend has continued to mushroom in 2000’s. Prior to this time, innovation in music was driven primarily by the Classical composers, who were continuously looking for new ways to express themselves.
In my mind, the Twentieth Century is when innovation in music shifted from the Classical world to more grassroots popular forms. The birth of the blues morphed into jazz, swing and eventually, rock and roll. With these, came experimentation with instrumentation, new harmonic ideas, and the birth of the electric guitar.
Gramophones became mono record players, which became stereo systems, and the tape recorder emerged. By the early 1960’s, the number of musical genres had exploded – jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, rock and roll, swing, none of these present a hundred years earlier.
Then, The Beatles spearhead a never-before-seen tidal wave of musical experimentation, technological advances, and innovation. The Fab Four changed the way music was written, fueled the birth of new recording equipment and techniques, and crossed over the boundaries between rock, blues, classical and jazz. Their producer, George Martin’s classical background played a major role in the way their music sounded. Other bands followed suit and a new age of musical creativity was born.
In 1969, Miles Davis released “Bitches Brew” a double album featuring Wayne Shorter, Bernie Maupin, Joe Zawinal, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, and many other musicians. This album experimented with the introduction of electric instruments into a genre that was previously, acoustic. Even though jazz purists rejected it, it sold over a million copies, triggering a renewed interest in jazz, and more importantly, igniting a new genre called Fusion.
Also around this time, a new instrument, the synthesizer appeared. It offered a myriad of musical opportunities by allowing the performer to imitate instruments like piano, Hammond organ, flute, vocals; natural sounds like ocean waves, etc.; or generate new electronic timbres. Musicians such as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Isao Tomita became synthesizer virtuosos, and as the instrument evolved, it was used in all forms of music. New musical genres such as Disco and Ambient resulted in even more technological development of this instrument.
In the 1980’s, personal computers began to gain popularity, and along with them, came digital music. Initially, it was very crude, used primarily for early video game background music. Today, it has evolved to the point that many music and producers and engineers are doing all their musical creation on computers. Now, tools for the creation of music are easily accessible through inexpensive software, which includes virtual instruments, recording/mixing capabilities, and much more. Young people have embraced this, using this technology to express themselves via Electronic Music, predominantly E.D.M. (Electronic Dance Music). I recently watched a fantastic documentary on the history and evolution of music over the past couple of centuries, which concluded that E.D.M. is the Folk Music of our age.
In 2017, the list of musical genres is massive. A small sampling would include, Classical, New World, Experimental, Blues, Reggae, Ska, Country, Bluegrass, Pop, Easy Listening, Cajun, Christian, Jazz, Fusion, Rock, Heavy Metal, Electronic, Ambient, Breakbeat, Dub, Hip-Hop, Folk, Latin, Soul, and R&B. Genres can also often be divided into multiple sub-genres.
In Canada, the study of the piano is most-often through the Conservatory system. This has been the case for decades. Has it kept up with the trends in music since the early 1900’s. When it comes to developing pianists with strong practical skills, I believe it falls far short. In a world that is constantly changing, the approach to teaching in the Conservatory system is almost the same today, as it was when I was a little boy.
Adults are wise, but children are far more intelligent. We can use this wisdom improve the way music is taught and allow children to use their intelligence to embrace it. It has been more than fifty years since Dr. Shinichi Suzuki proved to the musical world that musical education can be started at a very young age, and children have the potential to accomplish much more than traditional musical education gave them credit for. Traditional music educators have yet to embrace this. Today, a student completing all grade levels in most traditional methods will have attained theoretical knowledge equivalent to that utilized by composers in early nineteenth century music. It is safe to say traditional Theory courses have remained virtually unchanged for the last hundred years or so.
There is great value in studying the works of the great Classical Masters, but their music only a small part of the vast musical tapestry that has evolved since the beginning of the 20th Century. Today, those wishing to study other genres must be basically self-taught or attend post-secondary education. I believe these elements can be presented to young students, providing them with the tools at an early age to be more creative, and far more versatile musicians.