John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

Music for All

John Steinmetz

At the turn of the millenium, the magazine American Music Teacher (Journal of Music Teachers National Association) asked musician/teachers "to share their thoughts, hopes and concerns about music teaching in the twenty-first century." A version of this essay was published in the June/July 2000 issue.

I’m no good at predicting the future, so instead I’ll describe a hope. A hope, when vividly imagined, can help to create the future. As you might have noticed with music students, if people can imagine what they want to create they can much more easily bring it into being.

My hope this: to live a culture in which more people make music for themselves.

In this future, we wouldn’t rely so much on professionals to supply music; we would all be busy making our own. The music we’d make wouldn’t necessarily be highfalutin’, either. There’d be plenty of folk music, garage bands, barbershop quartets, and street music. Art music would flourish, too, in jazz, chamber music, and classical forms from various world cultures. Composing new music would be at least as popular as performing the old stuff. Whatever the style, we would have an incredibly good time making it.

In school, all children would learn music, not only to become better musicians but also as a means for learning other subjects. In the workplace, music would be a prime tool. Board meetings would include group singing, planning meetings would be energized by jam sessions and drum circles, and before marketing presentations clients and office staff would improvise together. At conferences companies would enter their samba schools. After work, the shop floor would become a rehearsal room. Workouts at the gym would be energized by live bands.

To create a more musical society, we will have to address the trend of recent centuries toward over-professionalization. Having lots of professional musicians has its advantages, but the situation has gotten out of control. We have so oversold our skills that ordinary people don’t realize that they need to make music, too—so they just have us pros do it for them. Because canned and pickled music is available anywhere, anytime, at the touch of a button—often without an off switch—people have become misled into musical passivity. That’s bad for them and bad for society. Personal health requires regular exercise of innate musical equipment. Societal health requires a lively musical culture. A lively musical culture needs active participants, not couch potatoes.

In the kind of culture I imagine, professional musicians are valued for their ability to inspire, for strengthening a tradition, or for breaking new ground. Professionals take time to go deeply into things; they can serve as teachers and guides. But in a musical nation professionals are the tiny tip of a very large iceberg: the vast bulk of the iceberg is all the non-professionals who really keep music alive. The chamber music of Brahms and the traditions of jazz have survived not just because of professional musicians, but also because thousands of anonymous amateur players kept playing the music and held it in their hearts.

To make our country more musical we will need a different kind of music teaching. In our current professionalized culture, teachers are judged mostly on their students’ performances, not on how many students stay with music or how much pleasure they take in musicmaking. No music school is currently evaluated on how many students quit, or on how many become unhappy professionals.

Much of our music training system is devoted to eliminating students through competitions, juries, auditions, and the like. What if instead we developed a system to sustain, include, and nourish people in their musical pursuits? What if we took a break from training competition victors and audition gladiators and, instead, focussed on helping people get the maximum good time out of musicmaking? Even if no Americans won any awards for a decade, I think it would be worth doing if participation and enjoyment increased.

In a culture of musicmakers, a music teacher’s job would be to help people activate and celebrate their innate musicality. To foster enjoyment, teachers would inquire into each person’s unique set of reasons for making music and unique sources of pleasure in musicmaking. The best teachers would help each student discover, develop, and meet her own goals while growing a personal sense of what is beautiful. (Of course everyone desiring to excel would have access to high-quality music lessons, regardless of whether their parents could afford the cost and chauffeur the student.)

What about technology? Now that one person can play an entire symphony by pressing a single button, there is admittedly less incentive to sing or play an instrument, and so people are beginning to see music as something you buy rather than something you make. This, in my opinion, is a disaster. It’s not an unmitigated disaster; it’s a disaster with some positive features. Recordings give us access to the most beautiful and vital music our species has created, in performances by the finest artists of any time, and that is a wonderful thing. In fact, it’s miracle. It’s just not as great a miracle as a child singing, as a group of people performing for others, as a few people getting together to make music for themselves, as a village reaffirming its connection through musicmaking, as a city’s voices raised in song.

In the future I’m trying to imagine, people value the greater miracles. In that respect, I’m imagining an old-fashioned future, with human beings making live music for other live humans in the same place. The best music technologies are the ones that help us do that.

Musicians understand that every technology offers both advantages and pitfalls. The piano is a classic case, giving tremendous leverage while sacrificing the ability to sing. Pianists go to tremendous trouble to overcome the instrument’s pitfalls in order to enjoy its advantages. That kind of understanding of technology—that the best ones require some effort, that there’s no free lunch, that technologies need our soulfulness as well as our skills—is tremendously valuable now.

In the Western world technological changes and musical changes have always gone hand-in-hand: we’ve had hardware technologies such as drums, pianos, wah-wah pedals, symphony orchestras, rock bands, pipe organs, and MP3 players. We’ve had software technologies such as forms, styles, notation systems, compositional approaches, streaming audio. Flux is music’s normal state, but in a culture of musicmakers people understand that technology serves human ends, not the other way around.

Is such a society really possible? There are signs of a growing hunger for hands-on musicmaking. Community music schools report record demand for music lessons, possibly because research shows that music actually is good for people. A few school districts have restored music programs. Some school music curricula let students select music, make rehearsal suggestions, and conduct. In the business world, Fortune 500 corporations schedule drum circles to foster teamwork. A rock band of famous authors has received lots of press attention.

Some music teachers have already gone beyond the task of producing virtuosi to help all of their students find personal satisfaction and enjoyment in music. Whenever concert audiences are invited to participate, even if only by clapping with the beat, an outpouring of positive response follows. Bobby McFerrin’s solo concerts show how an accomplished performer can use his skills to activate the audience’s musicality. Projects of Chamber Music America and American Composer’s Forum make music and musicians integral to communities. Some new compositions include participation by non-professionals.

We performers and music teachers have a tremendous effect on how our culture views musicmaking. If we not only talk about the joy of music but help people to discover and live it for themselves, we help to make our culture more musical. Whenever our performances help listeners to encounter their own musicality, whenever we deemphasize the cult of celebrity, whenever we talk about musical life instead of the music business, we cultivate a more musical society. If we stop hiding our vulnerability, it will help people to understand music as a process instead of a product.

Music can’t save the world, nor can it guarantee a more enlightened populace. But in a society whose people long for fulfillment, where resources are consumed in a vain pursuit of happiness, musicmaking offers a direction from which some genuine fulfillment can come. Although this may sound like a call to devote our lives to the advancement of music, I think it’s really an opportunity to devote our music to the advancement of life.