The Cruelest Month, Indeed

Among other rites of April I’m heavily involved in faculty evaluations, part of my obligatory committee work – which I grumble about like everyone else, but secretly find rather refreshing. My fellow music faculty are thoroughly predictable, but the contact with faculty from other fields has a bracing effect. While music’s fit within academia is inevitably uneasy, some of these people in religion, classics, literature, biology, et al, are the soul of institutional life, and I find their ethic inspiring. In the course of this work (to change the subject somewhat) I ran across a brilliant teaching statement by my jazz colleague John Esposito, and since it is in the public part of his file, I think I break no rules by quoting it. John talks about his education in the 1970s:

The prevailing wisdom among working jazz artists at that
time was that jazz was an art form that could only be learned on the bandstand
and in the community from which it grew. These musicians held the opinion that
a college education could only give the bare technical bones that form the
structure of the music, and that the expressive qualities in the music could
never be successfully taught in the classroom. At one time I thought that this
argument had some merit….

I don’t think the same environment exists today. It is no
longer possible to play, as Monk did at the Five Spot in NYC, six nights a week
for six months. It is no longer possible to tour for ten months a year. It is
no longer a requirement that we play six fifty-minute sets a night. The typical
gig in any of the New York clubs lasts for two one-hour shows, or may entail
traveling to a European venue for twelve hours, playing for an hour and twenty
minutes, and returning. Therefore the opportunity to train oneself methodically
and thoughtfully on the  bandstand
no longer exists. Young players therefore seldom have the opportunity to play
consistently with older, more experienced musicians for extended periods.

This is enlightening on its own, and could, I think, be generalized beyond jazz. As opportunities have diminished for musicians, the role of college becomes more crucial. We have to compensate for the wider performance world in which composers could have once gained more experience. I myself spend only a tiny fraction of my professional life in rehearsals and performance, and sometimes wish I had gained a more comprehensive education in orchestration and performance practice. I have to assume that many of my students will find themselves in similar situations. And so while forty years ago I might have left them to learn from real-life experiences, I have to explain to them much about performer psychology, audience psychology, rehearsal techniques, that long ago they might have learned on their own. I am moved by John’s words to take my own role a little more seriously.


  1. kraig Grady says

    Well this will solve the solution for 4 years maybe a little longer but what then? What is needed are spaces or even homes or apt. where the music can be done on a ‘too extensive pace’. I had such opportunities in the 80’s playing say 18 times a month. it exceeded what 8 years of schooling did by a long shot. I agree that allot of music can’t be done in such situations. But what composers learns in such a world far exceeds what might lack in comfort. Also one does not have to concede to the ‘flavor’ of thue institution.
    It touches upon a larger question too. Communal music making. The west moved away from this long ago. Cardew and others tried to revive it. One would hope that it can regain some more footage as there is truly a renewed interest in it. Also maybe without having to resort to atomistic musical language that just doesn’t work in this context. the idea of “sounds in themselves” does not offer anything intrinsic to the goal. It can be done as a small square can fit into a bigger whole. possibly looking at how it is done elsewhere might be worthy if we can get past our cultural conceit.

  2. says

    Great post, Kyle – it does help to have the viewpoints of colleagues in other disciplines to point out such issues. Already has got me thinking…

  3. mclaren says

    Shorter version: “Live performance is going away.”
    No serious contemporary musician wants to to admit it, but it’s happening. More and more music is getting composed electronically by individuals sitting alone in their rooms, and more and more music is getting consumed by individuals sitting alone in their rooms.
    If memory serves, some time back you censored one of my comments to the effect that music has become a thoroughly antisocial activity conducted in near-total isolation. Once upon a time, performing and listening to music occurred only in groups. But today that has increasingly become untrue; today the lone composer working at a computer, and the lone listener sauntering down the street listening to an iPod, have become the norm rather than the exception.
    Breaking through that isolation (bothon the performance and audience sides) will offer the great challenge for performers and composers and audiences in the 21st century.