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.