Sunday, June 10, 2012

An Education in Music, Part 2

I was saying that singing bass in the Mozart Requiem taught me more than anything else in first year university music. Sure, it was a big class, but believe me singing a part right in the middle of a double fugue is an experience like nothing else. Here, have a listen. The double fugue, on the kyrie eleison text, starts at the 6:43 mark:

There is simply nothing better for getting inside a great piece of music than singing/playing it. Good music departments, are, I think, immune to a lot of the quality degradation that other departments of humanities have experienced because they are, to an important extent, immune to theory and it is theory, critical theory to be specific, that has wreaked so much damage in the humanities. Music departments certainly have theory where music is studied from a theoretical point of view, but it is still loosely connected with the practice of music, which keeps it on an even keel. And what music departments mostly do is quite practical. They perform music. Every student has to get up at the end of the year and perform before a jury. This is no formality, believe me. In good departments, this is a very serious test of whether you have made progress or not. At McGill when I was there, at the graduate level, candidates for the master's degree in performance had to give two public recitals and quite a few were failed. If this happened they had to go before a committee and make an argument as to whether they even ought to be allowed to repeat the recital. What keeps music departments from sliding into irrelevancy is this practical side. You have to be able to deliver the goods: walk on stage, play a concert.

Now musicologists don't do this, of course, and it is in musicology that a bit of decay has set in. But musicology still has a lot of important jobs to do and again, they are measured by something practical. At the end of the day, does it help us perform, compose or understand music better? If not, why are you wasting our time?

Going back to Mozart for a minute, performing and studying music like this keeps one very humble. I think this is important. For one thing, it keeps your standards high. I have noticed quite a few young composers these days that seem to take what they are doing pretty lightly. They toss off little pieces or bigger pieces with insouciance. Well, good. But a lot of it sounds like it was tossed off. Like a salad. I think if they spent a little more time in the company of Mozart and Bach, they would be a little more humble and a little less insouciant.

Speaking of Bach, he is the one that really keeps us all humble. It is Bach that seems still to be teacher of us all. Beethoven famously remarked "Nicht BachMeer sollte er heissen" making a pun on Bach which in German means a stream or brook. The phrase is "not a brook, but rather a sea should he be called". Mozart got up from his seat in the Thomaskirk in Leipzig when he heard one of Bach's motets and said "now there is someone we can learn from!" And so we do. There is a little book containing some 371 chorales of Bach that was assembled a bit after his death and it has been in print ever since. Why? Because composers study it for lessons in harmony. I have a copy on my shelf.

Going back to university, I got a wonderful education. But it wasn't necessarily because of how well I was taught. A lot of the teaching was mediocre. But everything I needed and wanted to know was available--all I had to do was dig it out and figure out what to do with it. I had the right attitude: "you people know all this stuff and I want to learn it." If someone goes to university expecting to be cajoled, massaged into learning, then I think they will get a poor education. You have to be an active, not a passive student.

When I read some of the critiques of the current university system, how they have rafts of 'diversity' administrators, sky high tuition and compete to offer the most luxurious student housing I think, well, yes, this does seem pretty silly. Especially the increases in tuition. I think in Canada, tuition rates are still quite low, as they should be. Students in Quebec have been marching in the streets for the last month, protesting a modest increase in the tuition.

I wonder if some of the problems with universities comes from their having lost their sense of humility. I get the idea that administration has grown and grown along with class sizes. I know the sort of people who go into administration and it is probably best that they not be allowed to make the important decisions! Universities are probably better run if they put the idea aside that they alone are really responsible for the intellectual and professional life of their students. The truth is, they merely provide the site and occasion for people largely teaching themselves.

This is the bottom line: if you want an education in music (or anything else, probably) you will have to provide it yourself. Lots of others can help, but it is really all on your shoulders. You are the one who will have to sit down and work through that book of Bach chorales, practice scales, work on interval recognition, do harmonic analysis, listen to a wide variety of music and on and on. Teachers and professors can make suggestions and supervise a bit, but you will have to do all the work. And that's how you get an education in music. I'm still giving myself one!

No comments: