Earlier today I ranted on Twitter about how the line is policed between “worthy” and “unworthy” music. It got a bit long and eventually I stopped tweeting and noted it down to put here later. Here are the collated tweets (with corrections to typos and missed out words) with the extra end bit in an easier to read format, but it’s still essentially raw, unedited, rant…
Music and racism/classism rant coming up…
The way the imaginary line between “real”, “serious” or “worthy” music and “that other music which has little value” is policed by (mostly) white European and North American formally educated middle class musicians and audiences is damaging not only to musicians who fall on the “wrong” side of that line, but to those who fall on the “right” side too.
One of the ways the line is often policed is through how repertoire is passed from one musician to another: if it is notated it’s probably “good”, “valuable” or “worthy” music, if it’s passed on aurally it’s probably “bad”, “worthless”, “frivolous” music. The way it’s notated is a factor too: 5 line stave = “worthy”, guitar tab, lyrics and chord symbols, or notations such as Ethiopian meleket or notation in the Jewish liturgical tradition where marks are written above or below text to show which tune it should be sung to = “unworthy”.
Obviously, this creates a problematic “us and them” attitude between different groups of musicians and casts some as a lesser type of musician and others, but it also holds back those on the “worthy” side of the line too: I learned, from the age of 5, in a pedagogy that always centred around notation, and all my musicianship came from reading then doing. Consequently, there wasn’t much listening involved for me, and when it was there it was a secondary thing to the reading and doing, and I never quite played in tune. I went through learning with my local music service, to a specialist music school (considered one of the top in the world), and two and a half music degrees without learning to play in tune. I did a lot of ear playing in this time and really got into a musical tradition that is passed on primarily by ear, but I was still wedded to notation and reading and doing before I listened. It was so ingrained in me it was too hard to undo. Then I started playing professionally and got notes every performance that I had to play passages X, Y and Z in tune, but I just couldn’t do it.
Fortunately, a few years ago, I started teaching for an organisation who teach with a focus on the western classical tradition but use notation as it should be, to compliment what we hear, and the ongoing and high quality training I have as part of that is slowly turning me into a listening-first musician. I can’t say I *always* play in tune now (I frequently don’t) but when I don’t I am much more aware of it and able to fix it.
I don’t know what it is we teach classical musicians when we train them to turn off their ears and glue their eyes to a page, but it’s certainly not music.
Obviously, the majority of my teaching goes sing->play->read, sing->read->play or read->sing->play. There’s some read->play because this is a skill we need as musicians, but only when I’m certain they’ve internalised the singing part and the notes on the stave mean sounds they can hear in their heads first, and instructions for what to do with their bodies and instruments second.
To explain (but not justify) one of the reasons “notated music is best” is perpetuated: when musicians who have always read without playing from ear are put in a situation where they have to learn aurally, they find they don’t have the aural skills to do it and, rather than admitting they have a weakness, they write off the style of music that challenged their musicianship as “not real music”. I know this because I’ve done exactly this.
It’s the same with teaching: to teach through listening first requires excellent aural skills from the teacher; music teaching is often funded by public money, which is limited, so teachers are told by managers to teach in a way they don’t have the skills or confidence to do, and there isn’t the money to train them properly to do it, so they just revert to what they know, which is teach the kids to read notation and do all the other aspects through that. If the kid struggles with reading they’re either written off as “not musical” or the teacher continues to beat them round the head every week with reading notation instead of getting on with the music and everyone involved gets miserable.
(FYI, this rant in no way contradicts or negates my rant [on Twitter] a few months ago about teachers dumbing down 5 line stave notation for kids.)
It can be hard to challenge the notation-first approach in teaching bc teachers most likely to do this are usually from the older generation when classical musicians who got as far as teaching or playing professionally were overwhelmingly white & often male, and it’s harder for younger teachers to challenge older white men, and new teachers coming into the profession work alongside these older colleagues and mimic their notation-centric approach. Coupled with inadequate training and the isolation of peripatetic music teachers, we wind up robbing generation after generation of classical musicians of their musicianship, as well as teaching them to hide their lack of musicianship behind the attitude that classical music is the pinnacle of musical achievement, far more important than all other genres.
Another problematic way the “notation over listening” approach is perpetuated is that some musicians who teach see teaching as something to do when you don’t have enough playing work and they don’t value teaching for itself, so they take the easy approach of putting a sheet of notation in front of a child and haranguing them into playing it. Again, this can only be addressed with better training and less isolation for peripatetic music teachers, alongside better pay and conditions (which have been significantly eroded in recent years in the public sector with a move to self-employment and 0 hrs contracts) to attract the best teachers.
All this is fed by racism and classism: can’t-be-bothered teachers can only get work with local authorities strapped for cash, desperate for *anyone* who can hold the violin the right way up, and wind up recruiting teachers who have the attitude that their students are “just inner city/Muslim/black/Traveller/whatever kids who won’t get anywhere with their instrument so don’t need to learn proper musicianship anyway”, while the teachers who do care are attracted away to affluent areas with offers of better pay, conditions, training, and support to teach in a way that challenges and improves their own musicianship as well as their students’. How do I know this? Again, it’s because I’ve done exactly this.
I appreciate this rant may piss off other music teachers and musicians. I don’t care: it needs to be said, and if you have a problem with it I suggest you take a long hard look at why it makes you feel uncomfortable.