What To Do When You Make A Mistake

Music isn't about being right. It's about being human.


Mistakes are a big fixation in the life of a piano teacher. Students come to piano lessons and play their pieces and sooner or later they play wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong articulations, wrong dynamic shapes, and so forth.

Once upon a not-so-long-time ago (let’s say 50 years ago) a particular breed of teacher would respond to a mistake with a physical action – a smack across the knuckles with a ruler, say – with the idea that this would focus the student’s mind on not making mistakes. (It’s more likely that this focussed the student’s mind on not being tortured, but, well, we’ll talk about that another time.)

Even though piano teachers don’t do that now, this idea of not making mistakes still looms large in the learning-to-play-the-piano scene. Students are taught to avoid them. When they do make a mistake the teacher puts a big circle around the note in the music, and a list of these mistakes is compiled for the student to go home and fix.

I’ve written before about the importance of not having lessons (or life) structured around correcting mistakes. But here I’d like to explore the idea from the point of view of the mistake-maker: what should we do when we make a mistake? Here’s where I always start:

1. Think about what makes this mistake a mistake. Did it sound bad? Did it fail to communicate what you wanted to express? Did it feel bad? Did your body get muddled? Did it prevent flow in your performance? (Or was it your worry about the mistake that prevented flow?!)

If you don’t know exactly what it is that you did that was The Mistake then you’ll struggle to not do it again! Just as true in life as it is as a musician.

Looking at it another way…

Most of the mistakes we worry about in piano lessons are mistakes of accuracy rather than mistakes of truth. In some ways it doesn’t matter which kind of mistake it is – we still need to locate the source of the error in order to prevent the mistake occurring again. But while an audience will ignore/forgive/fail to notice mistakes of accuracy, mistakes of truth will destroy a performance.

2. Explore the mistake. Can you repeat the mistake? (If you can repeat the mistake on purpose you are almost certainly not going to make that mistake again.) How does the mistake change the meaning of the music? (If you understand what meaning the mistake communicates you can choose to create a different meaning.) If you make this mistake at this point in the music, what else do you need to adjust to make the music make sense?

This kind of exploration can go on for a long time, and if exploration of this kind is new to you it can feel as if you are ‘mucking around’ or ‘not getting on with it’. Stick with this as long as you can – these explorations build a platform of deep understanding for your future performances. (Ignore that little voice that tells you you would be better off practicing scales. You would not.)

3. Ask yourself if your mistake really was a mistake. Maybe the ‘wrong’ thing you did was what you totally meant to do. When beginner students consistently play a tune with the wrong melodic contour I ask them to sing the tune – more than half the time they are playing the melodic contour to perfectly match the shape in their imagination, and they’re not making a mistake at all! They’re just not playing the same piece I’m looking at in the score. This is a question that is a “locating the source of the error” question, but it can also lead to some further introspection…

If you are committed to your changes to the original musical text you need to be aware of the implications in the cultural context of that work – are you performing in a context where variation, improvisation and recomposition are valued, or will this be seen as sloppiness? Are you committed to your ‘mistake’ because you aren’t all that interested in other people’s point of view?! Are you capable of giving a range of different performances of the same work? A commitment to a mistake can sometimes indicate a high level of rigidity in the thinking of the performer, and this will be more or less troubling/interesting/challenging-to-work-with depending on the age and developmental stage of the performer!

Often our ‘mistakes’ are a commitment to a muddle-headed conception of the work. This is when and where you need to trust your teachers and mentors – they’ve had loads more experience than you have.

So, now, what NOT to do….

1. Don’t stab and stab at different keys on the piano until you stab the right one. By the time you get the “right” note the whole piece will be wrong, you’ll have forgotten where you were and what your point was.

2. Don’t go back and start at the beginning. You can already play that part. Don’t waste your time. By the time you get to where the mistake was you’ll have forgotten what happened and you’ll make the same mistake again. Going back to the start means you are in a cul-de-sac of doom.

3. Don’t write in the names of all the notes. This doesn’t help. It distracts. And it makes you feel righteous when you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing at all. And you still don’t know why you made the mistake in the first place.

4. Don’t think you’ve sorted it out as soon as you’ve played the section correctly once. Tomorrow you’ll come back and make the same mistake, because all your practice has been practicing the mistake, and only 1.3 seconds of your practice was when you played it right.

Practice is fundamentally NOT about repetition and discipline – it’s fundamentally about listening and reflecting and noticing and exploring. Take your thinking away from an accuracy = perfection model. Music isn’t about being right, it’s about being human.

And remember, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything. Every single time you make a mistake you have the chance to become someone even more fabulous than you’ve ever been before – so celebrate your mistakes; they remind you you’re alive.

 

 

 

These ARE The Good Old Days

This last weekend I attended the Kennedy Awards, a New South Wales-based peer-awarded recognition of excellence in journalism, in the role of handbag to my journalist husband (who also happened to be nominated for, and go on to win, an award). Many stories were shared over the course of the night – events that had transpired behind the headlines, hair-raising exploits of reporters whose recklessness was matched by their journalistic brilliance. At some point in the evening, my husband noted that, for all the journalists in the room, these were ‘the good old days’ that would be recounted 20 years, 30 years, 50 years hence. From the premier undone by a bottle of wine through to disgraced former policemen being arrested for murder; from pervasively corrupt infrastructure deals involving Sydney’s water supply and regional mining leases through to politicians being handed paper bags of $10,000 cash just prior to elections; these are the good old days these journalists will look back on.

This last weekend also saw the passing away of iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, a man whose music and mentorship has defined much of what it means to express oneself as an Australian composer. Anyone whose lives were touched by his has found themselves complicit in communal remembering of various good old days and decades with Peter: former students, editors, performers, pop musicians who enjoyed drinking/collaborating with him, friends. Peter Sculthorpe’s death has suddenly rendered a whole suite of musical and human experience as part of the fondly remembered past.

The present becomes history so rapidly.

In my first year at university I was studying composition and the general music subjects one studies in one’s first year. But on the side I was taking a course in 20th century literature. This was 1984, and I was just 16 years old. The first term’s lectures were devoted to poetry, and the lecturer started with Gerard Manley Hopkins and took us the way through to boot-legged recordings of the then still (comparatively) nascent hip hop and rap that had been developing in New York. “This is your time,” the lecturer told us, “this is the time of your contemporaries. The art that will be talked about in 50 years time is the art being made around you right now. One day you will realise that you were here. Pay attention.”

I couldn’t believe how exciting it felt. I felt so privileged to be experiencing the living of history when I was still so young! Things that had already happened, that were already over, notated, documented, recorded – they weren’t the limit of what counted. Yesterday – this morning – this afternoon – mattered, too. It was all important. Suddenly, as I walked down the hill to catch the bus, the very atmosphere was heavy with all the creating that was possible, all the contemporaneousness that was.

In shaping learning experiences for my piano students I am always aware that as much as the past informs the present, so the present will soon be that past that informs future presents… How am I teaching my students about the past they are a part of? How am I helping them connect with contemporary experience as future memory? As future history?

I was gloriously fortunate in my teachers, both at university and at high school – teachers who understood that they were building the past even as they were building the future. I don’t just honour them by maintaining that tradition in my own teaching – I honour my students, present and yet to come, who are only just beginning to realise that these are their good old days.

Music That Resists An Audience

Since my previous post, reflecting on a simple reason why audiences are so small for new music concerts, I’ve had a wave of comment come my way, either directly on the blog (you can read for yourself) or via twitter or rebloggings or facebook sharings, even emails sent directly to me.

It was fascinating to see the kaleidoscope of angles taken when referring to the piece. To some it was a piece about the fragmentation of audiences in the 21st century; to others it was about what a venue/artist partnership looks like; to others it was a checklist of great ideas for audience building. And the post has been shared by visual artists, choreographers, jazz musicians and pop producers.

Amongst the positive responses are lines like “I’d kiss you. But then people would talk.” (thanks Rebekah!) and “Well written punchy piece by @ElissaMilne delivers knockout blow to new music narcissism then picks it up off the mat.” (thanks Séan). And “What she said”, “Wow. Yes.”, “This.”, “Just read this.”, and “Duh!” and so forth (thanks to all for your endorsements).

But it’s the people who don’t quite agree, or who profoundly disagree whose comments prompt further teasing out of the issues in any debate; in this case, of the issues implicit in any examination of the slender appeal of new music concerts.

The first such issue to get my attention was this idea that some music resists an audience. Music that’s hard to hear. Complicated. The stuff admired for not rewarding a half-listening listener.

The fundamental idea here being that it’s the audiences that new music rejects that makes it the best.

I’m assuming this is what we’re supposed to leap-frog into understanding through this rhetoric: that some music is so muscular it just won’t cozy up with you on the couch, so serious it can’t have a laugh, and so ascetic it eats its gruel in private.

The irony being that music is anthropomorphised for the very purpose of stating its antipathy to people. And the raising of a discursive eyebrow is always in order when for-purposes-other-than-poetry anthropomorphising is in action.

See, it’s not music that resists audience at all. It’s artists.

One of my favourite stories about how music in and of itself is ever-willing to find an audience, if only the artist will allow it, is the story of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Only, it wasn’t called that to start with. It was called 8’37”. But when the composer heard the work he decided to abandon his Cage-like (or possibly Cage-homage) title in favour of something that communicated the human meanings Penderecki experienced on first hearing the work performed. Finally he settled on “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” and dedicated the work to those victims. But the music was not composed for that purpose; the composer found this purpose in the music he had already composed, and then presented his work to his audiences with this narrative and framing attached.

If the artist had wanted his music to resist an audience he would have refused to share his emotional insights and connections with others. But why would you want your music to resist an audience? (ah, that will be the topic of my next post, I believe…)

New art music, notoriously, has its largest audience amongst contemporary dance audiences. Not that the audiences for contemporary dance are massive; but they are gargantuan in comparison to the bedraggled twos and threes who gather in the name of contemporary classical music. The music is fundamental to the aesthetic experience at a contemporary dance event, but the dance frames, explains, illustrates and animates even the most complex compositional experience. And damn it, bodies are involved.

Yep. Bodies.

I know it goes against all classical musicians believe in when they are on stage, but bodies are where it’s at. Bodies tell truths and lies and share stories and reveal secrets.

And new music concerts do their level best to make the bodies disappear. “Just listen”, is the mantra, as if the eye is the doorway to aesthetic damnation, as if the music were only about the experience of the ear. Dame Evelyn Glennie would call you on that.

Performers don’t look at each other (often because they don’t dare look up from the score). The stage is a ramshackle of music stands and extra chairs, abandoned instruments from the last piece and with the instruments for the current piece all set at angles that make it hard for the audience to see what’s going on. Alternatively, the layout is the same as you’d expect for music written in the late 1700s. And if anyone talks it’s either in an unrehearsed mumble or in a haze of faux self-deprecation.

One of the best moments I’ve had as an audience member for a new music concert took place during one of the ISCM World New Music Days concerts held in Sydney in 2010. It’s a concert I loved for so many reasons I blogged about it. It was an Ensemble Offspring concert, and the overworked ensemble were performing an astonishing amount of new music within a week – it was just staggering seeing how much of the performing load they were carrying. This concert featured some of the younger composers selected for the festival, and even when works weren’t completely convincing they really did feel ‘fresh’, which was fabulous.

One of the works really wasn’t resonating with me at all, however, and I was making notes to that effect when the music trailed off; Roland Peelman, the conductor, had dramatically called a halt to proceedings and turned to the audience and apologised with words along the lines of “That was terrible, we’re starting again”, an apology that was met with gasps from the audience and a stentorian “Oh, ROLAND” from Geoffrey Gartner, the group’s cellist. It was funny, and it was honest, and it made the audience sit up and listen to the second play through. And that second play through was a revelation; the same composition, played well, spoke the volumes it had failed to communicate the first time around.

Here’s the thing… The conductor spoke clearly, directly, and almost conspiratorially with the audience: we were part of the success of this work! The performance had gone haywire somewhere along the way and that less-than-well-performed music had begun to resist the audience. The conductor had the courage to identify AND rectify the problem; and the cellist had also communicated a truth of the performance: the work was hard (especially in the context of so many performances, day after day)! And the performers had another gig to get to later that evening! It was context, framing, narrative that cleared the path for that music to be heard well. Nothing to do with quiet or small audiences; everything to do with a desire to connect.

Again, it’s not music that resists an audience; it’s artists who do. Are they shy? Are they unsocialised? Are they high functioning autistics? Are they so focussed on the values of the century that brought us high fidelity that anything that isn’t picked up by the grammaphone needle is considered extraneous? It’s the 20th century equivalent of Brahms saying he’d rather stay home and read the score than go to a (contaminated by humans) concert.

The Bible tells the story of Jonah, sent to Ninevah (reluctantly, and therefore via a whale) to tell its inhabitants to repent. He despises the people, preaches in a cursory manner, and is then disgusted when they all start worshipping his god.

I kind of get the feeling that’s how it would be for some contemporary art music practitioners if they looked up from their music stands and saw the great unwashed taking an interest…

A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts

Discussions about the small audiences new music attracts have been a constant of my life as a musician since I first entered university as a 16 year old to study composition.

I have to confess I’m getting a bit sick of the topic, mostly because there’s no mystery to these matters whatsoever, and the whole ‘debate’ ends up in the field of deliberate self-delusion almost as soon as it begins.

Last night someone said to me that audiences are small for ‘this kind of thing’ because, and I quote, “Australia is so backward”.

Something in my head finally broke after all the years, and I found myself struggling to hold back the waves of derision engulfing me. I may not have won that struggle.

I’m not going to waste my breath explaining the multitude of ways in which Australia fails to demonstrate backwardness. And before I don’t do that I’m not going to waste my time deconstructing the idea of backwardness itself. Instead, let’s begin from the beginning.

Of all the possible reasons for a concert to have a microscopic audience the most likely of them all is this one: the music has no fans.

Live concerts (or any live events) are built on a fan-base, so if you have no fans you have a limited chance of attracting an audience. This holds true for a pub band as much as it does for a purveyor of experimental sound art. Any performer needs to build an audience if they want to have an audience.

Now I do appreciate that there has been an aesthetic of writing with no thought for connection with listeners, but seriously people, if you write with no consideration of how you are building your audience you can hardly be surprised when you don’t have one.

And yeah, it’s your audience. It’s not the audience for “new music” or “experimental music” or “art music”. It’s the group of people in your neighbourhood, community, workplace, internet forums, facebook groups and twitterfeed who are interested in what you do. That’s what an audience is: it’s a bunch of people who care about your work so much that they want to participate. By being there. By being close to the action. By giving you money so you’ll keep doing what you do.

For about 8 months in pre-social media days I once programmed cabaret for a new, small but growing-in-prominence Sydney music/art venue. We had some of Australia’s finest musical theatre and cabaret talent on that fabulous, small stage, and the experience got me wised up to some fundamental truths about audiences.

The most important lesson was this: there is no general public. Even when you are an institution with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when there are tens of thousands of them.

Some performers would tell me an hour before going on “I haven’t told any of my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like” and my heart would sink. “There is no general public,” I would whisper to myself as I pulled out my phone to track down even two or three extra friends prepared to drop everything right then and there to come in and bulk out the “crowd”.

Even with advertisements in the right places at the right times (including feature stories, sometimes, in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro section), the audiences for these uniformly stunning performances were invariably friends, family, colleagues, and their friends, family and colleagues. Walk-ups were rare.

Some of these shows went on to be performed in RSLs around the city/region/state/country. But RSLs have their own audiences, their own loyal fan base, their own communities with vested interests in participating. The performer is the detail. The performer has to persuade the RSL to host the performance, not the audience to attend. And so the performer experiences the delusion that the public at the RSL is ‘general’, when in fact it has been carefully inculcated over many years.

This is what a festival can bring to a performer/composer – a focussed, committed audience that is engaged in participating in the event of the festival primarily, and interested in the performer/composer as a by-product of that primary engagement.

Established venues (such as the Sydney Opera House) have in the past decade or so attempted to build this same kind of audience loyalty and invested-ness.

But the best way for an exponent of new music to ensure there is an audience for their music is to take responsibility themselves, particularly as festivals and venues who work hard at building their audiences will want to see a partnership with an artist as being mutually advantageous. And that means the performer needs to attract an audience. And if the performer can’t attract an audience without the festival/venue, then…. You see the circularity we’re dealing with here.

What can new art music musicians do? Try these seven suggestions for a start:

  1. Stop blaming the people who stay away. If there’s no one in Australia ‘forward’ enough for your music then travel until you find a sympathetic community in which you can thrive.
  2. Start thinking about who you want to connect with from the inception of the creative process. So you’re composing a 90 minute work about sewer pipes – who might find that interesting? Why are you wanting to compose a work about sewer pipes? Why do you think people will be interested for 90 minutes? Answering questions of this ilk will improve your composing. It helps you edit, to synthesise. But it also helps you gear up for connecting with your audience right from the get-go.
  3. Stop thinking that the audience doesn’t matter. If you’re talking to thin air then you’re talking to thin air. If that’s your point, that’s sensational, but no one is hearing your point, so your artistic practice is probably more like a spiritual or psychological praxis. Which is fine. But now you’re not being an artist, you’re just engaging in growth. And no one other than your family and close friends care about that. See what I did there?
  4. Stop being a narcissist. Seriously, you think random strangers care about your personal growth?
  5. Start connecting with people. Whether you have a concert coming up or not. Connect via conversation, shared interests, real life dilemmas. Connect by sharing recipes, local knowledge, book recommendations, travel tips. For one thing, having people in your life who trust you and feel connected to you will be incredibly life-enhancing no matter what, but you’ll also start building an audience who really *are* interested in your discoveries and performances. Because they know you and they trust you.
  6. Use social media. You don’t need an organisation to build a platform for you – get on twitter, set up a facebook page, make a video blog. The gatekeepers of culture are no more. Start finding yourself an audience in the global village.
  7. Know who you are. Easier said than done. And really hard when ethical artistic engagement involves change as much as it does consistency. But the more you know who you are the more clarity you will have in shaping engaging music/performances and in building an audience for your work. And the less you will find yourself taking on projects that go nowhere and have no one listening.

Having something to say is somewhere between unsatisfying and stultifying without having someone who wants to hear it. Stop composing, rehearsing and performing for audiences you could have brought with you in a family vehicle. And start changing your/the world.

A small rant about diagrammatic illiteracy in the Arts Curriculum draft document

This has been my longest ever break in blogging since I began nearly three years ago. Family matters have been very pressing, and I ended up shutting down all my projects until things were on a more even keel.

During this time, however, I’ve either tried or wanted to blog about any number of things: the Steve Reich retrospective held at the Sydney Opera House at the end of April, the value of learning the melodic minor scale, background information on my piece Vendetta which is currently on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 5 piano syllabus, a post on how I’ve let a student down by not teaching her to read chord charts before now, a review of the Nico Muhly/Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dressner collaboration “Planetarium” as performed here in Sydney at the end of May, a Top 5 Things Parents Need to Know Once Their Child Starts Taking Piano Lessons list, as well as a discussion of the value and challenge of playing on the black keys in the very first lessons, a discussion of the new-look and hopelessly fuddy-duddy Limelight magazine, and looking at piano lessons through the lens of gifted education.

But I have a new topic to add to the blog-post-wish-list: the latest Arts Curriculum draft document from ACARA. About 18 months ago I blogged (relentlessly) about the buried misconceptions about music education in the previous draft document, and I’ve taken a quick look at this new draft and felt my spirits sink as I see a whole new batch of blind spots, insufficiencies and outmoded assumptions.

For now, however, let me simply draw your attention to Figure 1 on page 5. This is a diagram of such woeful conception that it calls into question the general literacy of the authors of the draft. I know it’s a tad old-fashioned of me, but I do expect that educators understand basic concepts as what a Venn diagram is for and when not to use one. The most generous interpretation I can put on the inclusion of this poorly conceived figure is that the writers of the curriculum have just discovered the possibilities of SmartArt in their Word program. Which begs many questions about their capacity to author the Media Arts section of the curriculum document.

But, you know, if it’s good enough for a US presidential candidate, right?

Is the Study of Piano Declining in the United States of America?

This topic in the Tuesday afternoon line-up of MTNA Conference presentations seemed almost arcane on the page of the conference booklet, especially by way of comparison to other topics with immediate practical application in the 30 minute piano lesson. And the question seemed one of those asked-and-answered types: is the study of piano in decline? Hell, yeah. Who doesn’t know that, right?

But I’m an arcane-topic kind of chick, so I bounded with enthusiasm into this panel presentation-discussion. It was already impressive just checking out who was in the panel: Peter Jutras, who is the editor of the wonderful Clavier Companion; E.L. Lancaster, who is both Vice President and Keyboard-Editor-in-Chief of Alfred Publishing; Brian Chung, Vice President of the Kawai Corporation; Gary Ingle, CEO of MTNA; Mike Bates, Senior Member of the Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America; and Sharon Girard, NCTM, a private piano teacher since 1976 in Connecticut.

To begin: college-level study (and beyond). The raw number of students taking piano as their major for the undergraduate degrees in the United States has increased significantly over the past twenty years (roughly a 25% increase), numbers for masters have increased slightly (currently around the 1000 mark)  and numbers of students enrolled in doctoral programs with a piano major have increased astronomically (currently around 1000, up from only about 400 less than ten years ago). But these raw figures don’t tell the complete story. More and more piano majors (all levels) are international students (so these figures don’t reflect piano learning activity in the US in any case); there are more options for students to choose from when selecting their music major (so students who might previously have taken piano are now specialising in some other aspect of music); there are more students studying music (so the proportion of students piano majors  in comparison to the entire student population cannot be inferred from the raw data).

What are piano teachers in the suburbs, cities and small towns noticing? An increase in adult students and in very young beginners (4 and 5 year olds) and a sharp decline in beginners aged 9 and 10. The GFC seems to have had a pronounced (negative) impact on enrollments, but further to this there seems to be a decline in the value parents in 2012 ascribe to piano lessons in the broad education of their children. From my Australian perspective I was also fascinated to learn that school teachers are drivers of enrollments in piano lessons! In Australia school teachers have absolutely no impact on the propensity of a child to begin lessons – and if anything, their neutral impact skews slightly negative. But in the US many children learn band instruments through the school, and so children can still have an instrumental education without taking private piano lessons. Apparently it’s the band teachers who promote piano to some large degree, and when those teachers don’t encourage piano lesson enrollment a sharp decline can be seen.

Next: sales of educational and classical print music. These sales have declined since 2006, but only slightly (4%), and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a ripple-on effect of the GFC. The breakdown of print music sales in the US works out at something like 19% Classical Music, 19% Christian Music and 13% piano methods, with the bulk of the remainder being taken up by pop titles. This proportion appears to have held steady. In any case, print music sales are a poor indicator of piano study, because younger siblings often use the print music older siblings used before them, and it’s entirely possible that in a climate of financial restraint parents are more likely to seek these kinds of economies.

We move on to sales of instruments: grand pianos, uprights, digital pianos and keyboards. There has been a massive decline in sales of grand pianos since 2005 – down from 35,000 then to around 12,000 now. Seeing as most new grand pianos are purchased by institutions and very rich people it’s possible to infer that the rich people are being careful and the institutions have had their budgets slashed – neither of which reflects on the current number of piano students in the US. It’s when we get to the other categories that we see some interesting trends. Upright acoustic piano sales are also consistently down, as are sales of digital pianos. The category that is doing just fine (although not increasing, particularly) is the under $200 keyboard. These instruments are purchased by parents who want to invest the bare minimum to afford their children access to music education, with the intention to trade up if their child demonstrates prolonged interest and/or aptitude. In the US roughly 1,000,000 units of this kind of keyboard has been sold every year for the past decade. Do the instruments live in the back of cupboards? Who knows! This statistic is as enigmatic as the numbers on grand piano sales in terms of establishing a trend of piano study decline in the United States (although it potentially reflects an opportunity).

Meantime, the percentage of MTNA members who teach the piano has been increasing. Again, this fact doesn’t really tell us anything: are memberships of MTNA in decline or are they increasing? Has there been a recent trend of the teachers of particular instrument families to not sign up to the Music Teachers Associations? Has the MTNA been catering very well for piano teachers of late, and dropping the ball as regards the other instruments?

One comment was made by a panelist that I found very interesting: “we live in a culture of deflection and distraction”, a comment intended to speak to a broad trend away from educational practice that engaged students in critical thinking and practical skill acquisition. I tend to take the view that gaming cultures are educationally preferable (in so very many ways) to traditional classroom practices, and I further take the view that learning the piano is much more like a game than it is like a traditional school classroom learning experience. But I suspect this comment reflects some things that are particularly true not of Western culture but of American culture.

Comments were opened to the audience, and one emerging theme (reflecting comments also made by panellists) was the tension between sport and piano in the broad culture of childhood in the US – this idea that you either play soccer or you learn the piano, the idea that promising students find themselves pressured into team sport participation that then compromises their musical education, and so forth. Implicit in this theme was the notion that parents these days just don’t get what piano lessons are for (as touched on above), that soccer and team sports are widely seen to provide benefits for children while piano lessons do not.

Another theme (again, reflecting comments already made by panelists) was that piano teachers are not very marketing savvy, and that they are not very technology savvy. Sometimes these two lacks merge into one big piano teacher fail, with piano teachers not taking advantage of the internet to reinforce community awareness of their services and not taking advantage of social media to communicate with current and prospective students. There was an implicit sense that piano teachers do not look at their teaching as being a business (much in this theme was not unpacked, but, I think, broadly understood by the audience).

A third theme was that piano teachers are often quite rigid in their idea about what they do; instead of looking at their available skill set and thinking about a range of services they can provide to the community, teachers imagine that their real job is to provide the same kind of piano lessons as those they received, last century. Some comments from the floor detailed the wide ranging activities some exception-to-the-rule teachers engage in in order to have a solid business model.

In short, I felt as if this session were the first two pages of an introduction to a 350 page book on the topic; we just began to frame the conversation when it came to an end. And as fascinating as what was said was what was not. What about socio-economics? Are there some parts of the United States where piano study is thriving? Some cities that are doing significantly better than others? [I can't imagine piano lessons are as common as they used to be in Detroit, for example.] Are language issues an impediment to piano study? [The paucity of Spanish-language piano methods, for instance, as compared to Spanish-speaking population in the US surely indicates a swathe of the population disengaged from piano study.] How about the decline of the use of the acoustic piano in churches and other worship settings? [Once upon a time many not-wealthy churches would have a good, mid-range grand piano in addition to an organ.]

The panel mentioned the rise of online, do-it-yourself-by-watching-videos-and-buying-the-book piano study, and this touches on another aspect of this topic. It could be that piano/keyboard study by volume has seen no significant decline, but there’s every chance that the national pianistic skill set is in decline.

It’s a fascinating time in the United States, a time of substantial cultural reframing and contention. The study of the piano could well be a case study for this rethinking of what it means to be an American with an education (even if you never did make it to college)….

The Making of Lists: An Alternative 100

This is a post about lists, and it’s going to get specific about making lists about music. If you are not of the High Fidelity school of music discourse this post may irritate. Discontinue use if irritation persists.

Lists reflect those who make them, but they also reflect the list-making process. A To-Do list might be broken down into things to do before lunchtime, things to do before the weekend and things to do before Christmas, as a way of managing different priorities. A shopping list might be organised according to retail establishments, or even by way of supermarket aisles. Even books list contents by chapter, by title, alphabetically or by author name. There are all kinds of ways of organising the lists we make.

A radio station I rarely listen to recently compiled a list, as voted by its listeners (and me), of the 20th century pieces of classical music most cherished by its listeners (and me).

The enthusiasm for lists seeming to be universal, particularly amongst readers of blogs and consumers of music (see High Fidelity link above, and cf Rage programming, any hit parade/countdown music presentation format, and hints for bloggers), this appears to be a winner of a broadcasting idea. Lists are a starting point for debate and discussion, and all curation is (at heart) sophisticated list-making, so there seems little to lose in such an endeavour.

But a great list needs clear definition. Favourite Compositions for Viola in Quintuple Time. Favourite Compositions for Piano by South American-born-and-raised composers. Favourite Art Music Compositions for non-orchestral instruments composed 1996-2000. And so forth. Generally speaking, the more specific the confines of the list the more intriguing the results.

And this ABC Classic FM top 100 20th century classical music pieces featured an unhelpful looseness of definition in two key ways.

1. Time Constraints. So the 20th century either began on January 1, 1900, or on January 1, 1901. Decide which and be brutal at excluding works not within the arbitrarily decided starting point. Yes, this means that works composed in 1899 were not, in fact, 20th century works at all. And a century lasts 100 years, not 110 or 111. So works composed after December 31, 1999, or after December 31, 2000 (keep it consistent with the decided-upon starting date) shouldn’t have been included either. Unless you change the name of the list.

2. Intention/Reception/Production. The 20th century saw a diffusion of musical styles and consumption, and the term ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ has come to represent a particular subset of styles and consumption models. The final list included works composed for film/performed by orchestra: an interesting cross-roads of what constitutes classical music. Brilliant and demonstrably popular film scores were not included, one assumes because of their unsymphonic approach. TV themes of similar popularity and interest also went unnominated. Musical theatre entries told the same story, the scored-for-symphonic-orchestra-and-composed-by-legitimate-classical-conductor West Side Story featured in the list, but nothing else from this genre. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that if it’s symphonic in ambition it probably counts as classical music in this list-making process.

So what if we made some different parameters for the construction of a 20th Century Classic 100? What if we broke it down a little in the voting process, and then compiled an über-list from the results?

How about this: vote for up to 3 in each of the following categories; the same composition can be included in as many categories as you please; dates of composition are strictly from January 1, 1901 through to December 31, 2000.

1. Astonishing

2. Beautiful

3. Ground-breaking

4. Orchestral for the Concert Hall

5. Small Ensemble/Chamber

6. Non-orchestral instrumentation/forces/media

7. Keyboard

8. Opera/Music Theatre

9. Film/TV/Games

10. Vocal/Choral

You can vote for as few pieces as you like, or for as many as 30. The most voted-for pieces will make it into the top 100, irrespective of category.

Who’s in?