The Teaching of Classical Music is an Endangered Art…

These days, I have not felt compelled to write.  I am striving to remain more anonymous.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to publicly acknowledge that I have mental illness, and I want to share my stories with others in order to help the cause at large.

But… recently, I have decided to revive my career as a music teacher.  I was lucky enough to be hired by a local music school in my area, and I’ve already been assigned a few students.  I’m teaching violin lessons, a voice lesson and a music theory lesson.  All of which, I’m quite qualified to teach.  I’ve played violin since age five, and studied pedagogy intensively at the college level, more than anyone knows.  I live for violin technique and posture, even more than the music itself.   Regarding voice, I’ve sung my whole life, and learned to sing with freedom and relaxed technique from an expert singer, educated in the bel canto style.  And theory?  A snap.  I will likely inherit some piano students as well.  I am well off enough to teach beginners in this instrument.

But as I teach… I realize that I have lost many many years.  At my age, 29, there are scores of conservatory-trained musicians who have impressive performance credentials, and are maintaining respectable private studios where students pay $50 an hour or more.  And yet, I know that I teach better than most of these people.  In that… I just know.  Everything I teach has a pedagogical purpose.  Much of it is preparatory even for concepts introduced years later.  Whereas other teachers say, “Do what I do.”

Another term for “Do what I do…”  is this:  “I don’t know how to do it, but I know that what I do works.  So just copy me.”

News flash:  THAT’S NOT TEACHING.  And yet… people who teach at this inferior level are employed at our nation’s top conservatories.  They are winners of competitions, and then they get cushy professorships.  Many lack even a Bachelors degree.  And we wonder why classical music is a dying art.

As a teacher, I set the bar high for myself.  Not only do I want to teach my students to play with expert technique… but I want them to also understand what they are doing, and why they are doing it.  So that it’s not just about “copying,” but it is about self-awareness too.  And also about developing a vocabulary.  I talk about bones in the body, using their proper names.  Scapula, jaw, clavicle (or perhaps “collar bone” for ease of understanding).  I talk about bouncing the knees to encourage a natural spine.  To children!  When they understand their own anatomy, they can then take ownership of their technique.  That results in greater confidence, and satisfies curiosities as well.

Many students don’t follow a teacher’s orders to improve technique, because they don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re being instructed to do.  Usually, this is the result of the teacher not giving enough of an explanation to the student.  The idea is to SATURATE the student with enough information, that the student no longer has a question about why ____ is done the way it is.  Once the student understands, the only task that remains is to simply practice the concept to perfection.  It is cumulative.

This confidence… it can be developed from the very beginning.  At the first lesson, a student is potentially set up for life.

A lot of conservatory professors figure that they are too advanced to teach beginner students.  Yet they fail to realize that everyone once started as a beginner.  Their lack of “patience” with beginners, is simply another way of realizing that they don’t know how to teach technique.

I find often, that musicians are inarticulate people.  Verbally.  They are not eloquent, but rather the frustrating silent type.  They listen to music and feel happy, or they feel ____ feeling while they play their music.  For me?  It’s just technique.  That “emotion” you’re feeling when Brahms writes a pretty strain… that’s a simple matter of chord progressions and melody intertwining, with a structure of notes.  It’s a freaking science.  People think if you do vibrato on a certain note, that it has greater feeling.  WRONG.  The feeling is written into the music by the composer.  Your job is to just play what s/he wrote.

You might wonder… where is the creativity in playing the violin?  If I am decrying the role of a musician as a non-creative discipline, then perhaps it is unappealing.  Where is the motivation?

I answer this thus: a musician’s role, is to have perfect mastery of technique, in the sense that the layman audience can appreciate the posture of the musician visually.  This then piques their curiosity to then pay attention to the music.  This is not due to the squints and hunches and “acting” that a musician does when playing the violin.  Wrong.  This is burlesque.  Observe Heifetz and Oistrakh and the other former greats.  They don’t act while playing the violin.  They simply play it.

When music is excellently executed… you can even hear the posture.  You can hear the way the person is holding the instrument.  Perhaps this is my schizophrenic imagination running wild here.  But… is this not the blur of the line, between music and dance?

We classical musicians should be ashamed of ourselves.  We fail to reproduce.  We fail to share our craft with the future generation, because we’re too busy accumulating credentials on our resumes, of having performed with ____ at _____ concert hall, having won _____ competition, now teaching at _____.

Who cares?  Do you have social skills?  Are you a nice person that gives your gift freely?  That is what matters more.  Because the more snotty you are, the less people are going to care about your music.  And that is not only a disservice to you, but it is EVIL.  Centuries of effort of musicians has gone into the discipline you now cherish.  Yet your arrogance endangers this art into extinction.  Professors and the like should be ashamed of themselves.

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