July/August 2018: Winds of Change
As you read this column, have pity for the long-suffering editor—my submission was way past the usual deadline. As an excuse I can only offer that unique syndrome, Retirement Nervous Breakdown. You may think retiring is easy, but I have found it exactly the opposite.
After forty years of university teaching, with a "view from the second floor" as my first column referenced, I am flooded by memories. They flow in mysterious ways, coming upon me when I least expect them. Some of this emerged at the MTNA National Conference where I was named a Foundation Fellow, nominated by the teachers of my adopted state of Missouri. Seated near me at the banquet were two students from more than thirty years ago, and one who just received her master's degree. Wouldn't you know it, as dessert was served, one asked the other, "What did you play on your senior recital?" That opened the floodgates. New Jersey joined Missouri at the table that night—also honored was Marvin Blickenstaff, someone I once recruited to become a faculty member at my school (missed on that one). Marvin and I both studied with Emil Danenberg at Oberlin (separated by several years—we didn't know each other then). Marvin has now hired three of my recent students to be on the faculty of the New School for Music Study in Kingston, New Jersey, including that most recent graduate at the table. Such are the amazing tendrils that connect us in this crazy field.
Also at the table were Ingrid Clarfield and Phyllis Lehrer, who hosted me in a recital and masterclass at the Westminster Choir College in 1991. Today that school is being sold by its host university to a Chinese education company called Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co. Ltd. That rather shocking sentence reinforces the name of the current column, "Winds of Change," as we careen into the present.
Music schools have not really changed in a century, modeled as they are on the European conservatory of the nineteenth century. They tend to offer similar programs of study, adhering to a misunderstanding of NASM guidelines, and thus, it is hard to tell one institution from another. Yet there is intense competition among them— for perceived rankings and reputation, for the best students, indeed, sometimes for any student to fill the teaching loads of the tenured faculty.
Having spent many years in music schools, I am ready for a change, even if nervous. We can no longer afford to focus only on the serious concert music of the last 300 years. We must find a way to make our music relevant to the general population, open to what a compelling performance looks like to today's audience. I include myself in this imperative: the announcement this spring that hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music left me as confused as many of my colleagues. Who in the world is Kendrick Lamar? However, a lot of students across campus know his work in a far deeper way than they know Beethoven.
As classical musicians, we believe in what we do. However, it plays such a small part in the larger environment. We must recognize that the world of serious music is in a time of transition, that things will change whether we are part of that change or not. The goal is to help lead the change.
Despite believing in what we do, we do little to truly connect our music to the general population. Milton Babbitt's question, "Who Cares If You Listen?" may have referred to the most advanced serial composition (i.e., past winner of the Pulitzer!), yet many traditional organizations seem to accept poor attendance at their concerts. Our students give graduation recitals to an audience of ten, yet we all accept this as "the way things are." I am no longer satisfied to be the tender of a niche market—serious music can and should exist as an integral part of society. Project number one for retirement: get to know Kendrick Lamar's music.
We deify creativity, yet as applied teachers, we are sticklers for accuracy to the score. We have given birth to musicians dependent on reading; few of our graduates (unless they are jazz majors) can improvise or play by ear. Personally, I think that one's musicianship increases exponentially when one can access music in this way. Yet our curriculum is so limiting, requiring so many recitals that pass a certain playing standard, that all our students can do is practice, and only what's in the score. Project number two: get more comfortable with improvisation.
In my years of teaching piano, I have often thought there must be a better way, and yes, I experimented. Real change, however, takes more than one experimenter. Let's return to that warm feeling at the conference banquet table, the sense that the pianists and teachers in that room were connected, not only in their choice of profession, but in their attitudes toward life and their frames of mind. Together we can do more for the cause than individually. Let Margaret Mead have the last word: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Congratulations, Mr. Weirich, on your retirement! May it prove to be a time of satisfaction and enjoyment in your pursuits. And also a time of continued sharing of your unique voice in this unsettling time in the profession and in the world. Best Wishes!