I was at the College Music Society conference in Quebec City last weekend, to present my thoughts on the future of classical music. (And thanks, everyone there who reads this blog, for your warmth and enthusiasm.)

But what I presented at this conference wasn’t what most interested me there. The College Music Society is made up of people who teach music at colleges and universities, and the position they’re in is yet another symptom of the condition of classical music these days. They offer music courses to undergraduates, sometimes as part of a core humanities curriculum.

Traditionally, these courses cover classical music, but the current generation of students might not be interested. How, then, can the courses work? Many teachers are finding they have to include pop music, or even start with it. As someone at the conference said to me, “We can’t just dump the whole classical canon on the heads of students who don’t care about it.”

One solution is to begin with music that the students like. (I should make clear that this wasn’t my idea, but rather something that a teacher at a southern university has tried. As others have, too, I’m sure.) You ask students to bring in the music they’re listening to, and discuss it in just the same ways that you’d discuss classical music. Then it’s natural to bring classical music up for discussion as well.

I was also struck by how many universities teach non-classical music, and how vigorously they include entrepreneurship in their curriculum. Students, in other words, are taught how to go out into the world, and make their own careers. That’s more readily taught for non-classical students than for students studying classical music, because entrepreneurship is much better established outside the classical world.

But it’s becoming more common in the classical world as well. (Just think of ensembles like eighth blackbird, which are looking for new ways to make classical music careers. Not to mention Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who struck out on their own, way outside the classical mainstream, a generation ago.) So I began to think about how music history is taught. Typically it’s taught as the history of music itself, and above all as the history of the development of musical style and compositional technique.

But what if music history classes stressed how all the great composers made their living? That would push entrepreneurship right into the heart of the curriculum. I recently reviewed a new biography of Beethoven for The New York Times Book Review (the review appeared last Sunday, November 6), and as I read the book, I was struck by how earnest and eager an entrepreneur Beethoven was, even if he wasn’t exactly good at it. Composers had no guaranteed way to make a living in past centuries, and while some of them (Haydn, Bach) took jobs, others (Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Verdi) for all practical purposes went into business, finding their own ways to make their careers. Some of those ways were clearly established; Verdi was paid to write operas for all the big Italian opera houses, and then, as his career developed, for opera houses all over Europe, and in Egypt. But a career like that doesn’t happen automatically, and Verdi had to manage it carefully, just as any successful artist would manage a career today.

Too bad music history courses don’t usually teach that. If they did, they’d help make classical music a lot more contemporary.


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