Old story

Of course I know that Cathy Shefski’s book — and my post on it — take their place in an ongoing cultural debate. New culture vs. old culture, high culture vs. popular culture, traditional hierarchies vs. newer thinking. The notion that piano students are better off writing their own music, or making arrangements of pop songs, instead of practicing a Beethoven Sonatina — that’s going to set some people off, people who think Cathy and I are throwing away any hope of quality.

And while (as I said) I’ll mostly refrain (or maybe entirely refrain) from debating these points with commenters, I’ll happily encourage people who disagree with me by giving them some red meat — on their side! This is from an essay called “Some thoughts on heritage,” by Richard Mills, a composer and also artistic director of the Western Australia Opera, which appeared on the Australia Council’s website. Mills, talking about a New Media initiative tried some years ago in Australia, calls it “meretricious, self-serving clap-trap, which confused content with process.” (Many thanks to Callum Moncrieff, for sending Mills’s essay my way.)

I can imagine Mills would say the same about Cathy’s book, and about a lot of my writing. We confuse content with process, he might say, by encouraging people to create on their own before they’ve properly absorbed their heritage, before they’ve learned their craft, and, especially, before they’ve immersed themselves in “the life-changing experience of artistic greatness” (quoting Mills again). Or, more simply, Cathy’s students don’t yet know what quality is, and now Cathy irresponsibly turns them away from Beethoven, and substitutes the facile, shallow process of creating what Mills would likely think is facile, shallow crap. (Or craptrap.)

Thus the debate. Cathy and I might say that this is the only her students will ever have a chance — at least through their piano lessons — of learning Beethoven. And we’d also say that there’s plenty of quality possible with no reference to Beethoven at all.

For another view our side in this, see the piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about energizing middle school kids by teaching them to play and program video games. I don’t think Richard Mills would like that at all.

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  1. Greg Sandow says

    Three comments were deleted by mistake. I’m reinstating them this way.


    I think too many people believe (incorrectly) that Beethoven and Taylor Swift belong on the same continuum – that there’s a “relevancy scale”

    somewhere that has Beethoven near the bottom and Popular Music near the top.


    I find much in John Seabrook’s “Nobrow” that applies here. We no longer live in a world where the notion of “high culture” and “low culture” yields a substantive debate.


    There is, of course, plenty of room for quality (or a lack thereof) in the performance of a work by Beethoven, or Ellington, or Jason Robert Brown.


    Where the education of young musicians is concerned, the problem is that we’ve had two hundred years (or more) to develop a pedagogy for the training of classical pianists. There are a number of paths that, if dutifully traversed, will lead a student to a quality performance of the “masterworks” (even if many of the performances suffer from sounding artificial or manufactured.)


    We have not, however, had time to as fully describe the path that leads to a quality performance of popular music. Only a handful of music schools follow a curriculum that embraces popular styles, and in pedagogical circles, there has yet to be a leader on the level of Kodaly, Villa-Lobos, or Suzuki who has made a serious attempt at raising the quality of popular music instruction in the US. (The mantra in the public schools and in most arts organizations seems to be ‘Exposure!’ – an important aspect of music education, but a far cry from the kind of training that actually brings kids to a point where they can participate in the creation of music.)


    We should see Shefski’s book for what it is – an attempt to start describing the path to quality in the education of young pianists interested in popular styles, and I don’t see how that’s a problem.

    –from Jason


    I’ve been wondering recently if there hasn’t been a shift in our culture, understanding art less as a collection of universal greats, but as a spread of particular tastes. I have a limited perspective, though.

    In my own experience, no two people hold the same standards of excellence. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But the ideas of universality and “greatness” seem to run entirely counter to that idea.

    What is “the life-changing experience of artistic greatness”? And why have I never had it despite all the Beethoven I’ve listened to and all the Shakespeare I’ve read? What do cultural proponents mean when they say all that flowery stuff about “innate and enduring vitality”? Does “great” mean anything at all?

    These are serious questions in need of serious answers. Florid language might make good PR, but it makes serious discussion impossible.

    –from Tristan Parker


    Mills seems to have forgotten that craft is developed by doing it, and playing around with the materials. Anything that is worth doing is worth doing badly.


    –from Richard