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.