Paradigmatic Shifts in "Classical" Music: Education, Composition & Performance

"In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally the absence of a reason for seeking some particular form of more recondite information, early fact-gathering is usually restricted to the wealth of data that lie ready at hand."--Thomas, Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, "The Route To Normal Science," 15.

Interest in classical music is declining. Everyone in the field desperately tries to understand why, attempting to solve this chasmic generational shift.

Music administrators make programs more “pop” oriented. Musicians dress differently. The audience dresses differently. Orchestras play movie music. Musicians demonstrate classical music to school children, hoping if they catch them young enough interest will stick.

But it doesn’t seem to.

The one possibility musicians never consider is that it may be the musicians themselves who are generating disinterest.

Upon examination, not only does the training--the educative side of the field--confuse or often permanently impair a student’s innate talent and enjoyment of music (parents and students beware), but the way professional musicians understand the music is, to put it simply, boring.

The field is an interesting example of functional incoherence. The system functions, but in a way that destroys itself.

“Classical” music is suffering from an institutionalized constriction, a myopic understanding of what music actually is. This is fueled by a desperate search for order within the field. We, classical musicians, are attempting to create order within a genre--the so-called disciplined art of music--that is unable to agree on much of anything regarding underlying principles.

As but one of myriad examples of professional confusion I cite this comment by the well-known musician, Gunther Schuller, from his book The Compleat Conductor:

"...we ought as conductors and performers to honor the basic premise that the score is a precious, unique, sacred document, which in essence should be relied upon for all the information it can yield."

This attitude is accepted orthodoxy in the field. Yet this sanctification has frozen creativity in “classical” music. Ironically, Schuller’s reverential approach to the “work” in classical music is too awestruck because even he is mistaken about fundamental elements of the printed music that cannot be literally translated.

For example, if one were to ask professional musicians how they understand rhythm they would articulate beats--the beats align with the time signature’s pattern. That this is  the common professional practice is shown in another citation from Gunther Schuller (I don’t mean to pick on him, but his comments are useful in this context). In his book Early Jazz he writes:

" jazz so-called weak beats (or weak parts of rhythmic units) are not under-played as in “classical” music. Instead, they are brought up to the level of strong beats, and very often emphasized beyond the strong beat."

Emphasizing the weak beats propels the music forward. Consider the obvious difference when an audience at a pop concert claps with the music. If they clap with the offbeats (the weak beats), the music swings. If they clap with the downbeats (the so-called strong beats), the music becomes static--boring.

Unfortunately for classical music, Schuller is correct. All contemporary classical musicians underplay weak beats in this way (I might have missed one who doesn’t), which produces music that seems to stay in place and, consequently, performances that are static (boring). 

That this way of playing classical music is pervasive, as Schuller states, is easily proven-- listen to any recording made in the last thirty years of an instrumental soloist, singer, orchestra, opera company, or ballet orchestra. All contemporary technical training is based on this assumption. All auditions for orchestral positions are based on this paradigm. Even contemporary jazz and pop music is played in this way due to the influence of synthesized drum beats, which has led players to mimic machine-made rhythm even when playing without synthesized back-up. 

Yet, an examination of great master classical musicians of the past, the unarguably great such as Heifetz, Horowitz, Glenn Gould, Caruso and Jussi Björling, to name just a few, shows conclusively that they do, in fact, emphasize the weak beats in the manner Schuller describes as the rhythmic paradigm for jazz. 

In fact, the great classical artists of the past phrase beats as if they were speaking. This is true of composer/performers of the past as well, including Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Bartok.

The difference between the common understanding of today, which is essentially naively literal and pedantic/mechanistic, and the esoteric, more creative approach of the great masters of the past is subtle. But the affect this psychological shift causes to the physical movement of playing and on one’s understanding of music creates an entirely different world of technique, expression and potentiality.

The greatest musicians had many ways of “seeing” and hearing music that were the opposite of how everyone else is trained. These masters’ insight into what music is essentially did not “present” the normal difficulties and problems that occur for most musicians. Their developmental path, evolved from these biases, promoted continual growth and creativity.

In fact, their skill cannot be separated from their musical insights. The never-ending "problems" and mechanical approach that routinely and inevitably appear for most musicians (who have an opposite perceptual bias) do not arise in the bias of the great players. This difference in outcome, in what is created from initial conditions and presumptions (tacit or not), creates very different musical worlds and potentialities.

Fortunately, this advantage is available to anyone once these ideas have been understood, not only changing individual potentiality, but the creative potential of the entire system.

Can music really be so different from what everyone is traditionally taught? Can there be truths about music that are beyond what is represented on the page, beyond what even a composer might believe for his own work? Does music have fundamental truths that are not understood by most musicians?

If the teaching, performing and composing of classical music is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of music, creating an antagonistic relationship with its underlying reality, is it any wonder that the art is not thriving?

Our misconceived biases have built an educational and professional edifice that is functionally incoherent. This includes the default pedagogical premise of musicians that talent cannot be explained. If talent cannot be explained, cannot be investigated and understood, what is anyone teaching?  They are teaching what they guess to be true, what the teachers were taught themselves, with haphazard (and often destructive) results for all.

But if an investigation into expertise is considered an impossibility, how can knowledge within the field be advanced? 

As mentioned, initial conditions and presumptions (tacit or not), create very different musical worlds and potentialities. It is this unexamined educational approach, of which our rhythm example above is but one of many limiting beliefs, that forms the basis of the educational/creative/business (conceptual) structure of the field. 

This matrix has spawned the illusory need for conductors in performance, the deeply confused efforts of modern composers, the erroneous belief in the scarcity of talent and a bureaucratic structure evolved from and promulgating these ubiquitous and multitudinous misapprehensions that, as a system, severely compromises the future of what we call classical music. Yet, presumptions can be changed.

Can the fundamental conceptual structure of an entire field be incorrect?

This has happened throughout the history of science. And scientists are pretty smart. Why should music be any different?

David Jacobson