THE ROLE OF THE MUSICIAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY: RETHINKING THE CORE 

Plenary address to the National Association of Schools of Music National Convention, 1997

In a letter from Samuel Hope concerning this presentation he asked that my speech today "step out of the trees and give a view of the forest." I was delighted with this challenge because it is the view of the forest that inspires me as a composer. I believe that my work as a composer is to "live in the forest" and to compose the music that already exists in the air. My musical instrument is the air. I believe that all musical instruments and musical ensembles are invented and evolved by the cultures in which they operate, because of a natural need by the culture to reflect itself through music.


It is the charge of the performers and composers that live and work, love and hate, breathe and exist, and hope and dream in a culture to use the best of their talent, the best of their techniques, the best of their imaginations, the best of their experiences, to make the music of their time.


Mr. Hope also asked me to consider two issues: What is the future of the kind of musical endeavor that requires highly developed musicians and music teachers, and what do the answers mean to the present education and training of music students at undergraduate and graduate levels?


These are profound questions to consider at this moment in time. From my point of view, we are only now ending a musical era that has occupied a thousand years of Western culture, and beginning a new era built around acoustic sound. Ladies and gentlemen, I am suggesting that we now have, along side of the core of classical music education, another core, and that is the core of produced sound. I hope to lead you along the path of my thesis and convince you that the future of music education resides in teaching music rigorously and with the highest standards from both the acoustic and produced sound cores.


To prepare for this speech I read several documents which Mr. Hope supplied to me, including the Executive Summaries of the National Association of Schools of Music [NASM Futureswork: EXECUTIVE SUMMARIES 1989-19921, the proceedings of the 1994 Annual Meeting [Proceedings, The 70th Annual Meeting, 1994 NASM], and the 1995-1996 National Association of Schools of Music Handbook. In that handbook, I found the mission and purposes of the National Association of Schools of Music. I'd like to reiterate Article 11 of the Constitution. It says:


The purpose of the Association shall be:

  • To advance the cause of music in American life and especially in higher education,
  • It will also establish and maintain minimum standards for the education of musicians, while encouraging both diversity and excellence,
  • And it will provide a national forum for the discussion of issues related to these purposes.

After I completed my reading of these documents, I felt a sense of belonging, a sense of the future and a sense of the past all rolled up into the deliberations of the members of the National Association of Schools of Music. I'd like to congratulate you for what you do. I am mightily impressed with your profound thinking. It is this thinking which has built the strong and supple foundation underlying music education in this country.

I believe the foundation is STRONG, because it is able to transcend boundaries. These boundaries include:

  • the boundaries of centuries of music-making,
  • national borders
  • language barriers
  • cultural barriers
  • economic stratification
  • spiritual barriers
  • stylistic barriers

The foundation which you have built in which to discuss, formulate, and finally practice the art of music education, which is supple and creative-the perfect balance for the studies of science and technology in our schools. Your foundation allows for creativity in teaching as well as for the adjustment of curriculum according to the needs of the school, the population the school serves, and the historical period in which the school and the population operate.

It seems to me that if the National Association of Schools of Music maintains the foundation it has built over this century, that the future for the kind of musical endeavor that requires highly developed musicians and music teachers is bright.

To prepare for this speech I also embarked on two other means of study:

First a friend and I took my daughter to the Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibition. The first stop of the Smithsonian Institute's exhibition of the history of America was installed in the St. Paul, Minnesota Civic Center. Tens of thousands of people visited it. There was plenty of music in the exhibition. But only one area of one display panel in of all the displays that involved music focused on classical music. The focus of that panel was on the instruments themselves as museum pieces. Another panel showed Marian Anderson performing on the Lincoln Memorial steps, as an act of racial and cultural triumph. The antagonist to the triumph was the DAR. The vehicle for the cultural battle was classical music, the DAR wishing to exclude Marian Anderson from singing in the concert. The American music which was displayed beautifully, with vitality, and a sense of the vigor of American life was Rock and Roll, Gospel, the blues, country and western, the many kinds of music which populate classical music halls as marginal concerts, or concerts which are distinctly other than the normal representations of classical music. This began to bother me. And I began to see that the Smithsonian show revealed music as central to our living forming culture and that classical music did not figure into it as an endeavor. I asked myself, why not? I asked myself, what is missing?

The other area of study I embarked upon was to ask a group of friends what they would say if they were given the opportunity to stand before you and talk about the role of the musician in the twenty-first century.

Here are their replies:

I asked Susan Brailove, the formerly of Oxford University Press, New York, what she would say, given this opportunity, and I paraphrase her answer:

"I would look back at the end of the 19th century and see what changes happened then and there. We had a world war which really changed things, the self-confidence of citizens and soldiers on all sides was shattered, the lower classes felt their strength, the women got the vote etc ... what are the "sides" now from which we might deduce a future? The commercial enterprises -- Kmart, Disney, Warner, Sony -- on the one hand -- the individual on the other. Has the individual a chance? The task of the educator, the composer, the artists of all kinds, ought to be to keep the individual energized, seeking, exploring, trying -- and not succumbing to the disease of IT'S NOT ON THE SYSTEM."

Then I asked Dale Warland, Founder and Music Director of the Dale Warland Singers, one of our country's most renowned professional choruses. This is what he said:

"I would say this to teachers and performers alike -- and importantly to composers. We simply must respect and cultivate our audiences -- as musicians -- as artful auditors. They are part of our art form. Perhaps the most important part."

Next, I spoke with Merrill Bradshaw, composer, retired professor of composition at Brigham Young University, and Executive Director of the Barlow Foundation for Music.

"The NASM has created a strong network for producing the best and brightest performers and teachers. It fills in -- even explodes -- the top of the musical pyramid. The center and the bottom of the pyramid are the next frontier. That's where our audiences and supportive individuals are. Those people are also parents with the power to encourage their children to study music."

And from Mary Ann Feldman, program annotator and editor for the Minnesota Orchestra's magazine, Showcase:

"I'm nervous but optimistic. More and more people are spending their lives so drearily in front of computer terminals - this mode of false communication -- they will need very soon to explode -- to get out -- to live. Then we must be prepared, prepared to integrate two cultural traditions -- popular and traditional concert hall. It's what Dvorak talked about but
Gershwin did."

I spoke with Dan Devanny, former director of programming for Minnesota Public Radio, and now with WETA in Washington, DC. He says:

"...like it or not, we are in an age of electronic music and mass media. Our children have grown up with the SOUND of synthesizers since birth... To them a piano is a totally foreign sound. Even conventional orchestral instruments sound "weird".

Joel Revzen, Music Director of the Berkshire Opera Company and formerly the guiding light and executive director of the St. Louis Conservatory of Music, says this:

I only have one thing to say -- ear training -- that's all. A musician without ears is like a chef without taste buds. Training our ears must be re-established as a comprehensive part of all aspects of musical education. If we can't hear, we can't listen. If we can't listen, then we lose the battle of active versus passive music."

And finally, I happened to meet and talk with Michael Sitton, a young professor of music at Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia. I think I was most struck by what he had to say, because Michael Sitton will live in this future we are trying to foretell as we talk with each other today.

Michael talks about produced sound, and he talks about acoustic sound, and he worries. This is what he has to say:

"I first must say I do not (nor, do I think, do you) wish to cast myself in the role of defending a musical golden age against the corrupting intrusions of modernity. Discomfort and adjustment have certainly accompanied all major changes in musical culture; innovations up to and including notation itself have, I think, demanded a certain trade-off of liabilities in exchange for benefits gained. I assume that we will survive this change as well."

"Nevertheless, I feel it is important to voice some real concerns because the change (I speak of the ability to record and broadcast musical performances repeatedly, rather than re-create them each time "live," along with the more recent enhancements to this ability provided by MIDI and associated computer technology) this time is enormous and enormously influential. It challenges certain core aspects of the musical art as it has been practiced, and our answers to those challenges need to be good ones...

"The 'canned' musical experience ... tends to suppress the more difficult active experience of participation in music-making or even in listening actively. Leonard Bernstein observed decades ago that the pervasive presence of Muzak had dulled our senses to real listening. This is a process which has clearly continued; its effects are visible in the classroom. Students, whose lives are pervaded by musical sounds, find it incredibly difficult to talk meaningfully about music, rather resorting to the vaguest and most unsupported generalities ('It has a good beat,' 'I just like it,' 'It's boring,' etc.)."

With this preparation in mind let me re-state the two central issues for my speech and offer my view as to some possible answers. Then I will talk about how I came up with my point of view as I look at the forest:

First, What is the future of the kind of musical endeavor that requires highly developed musicians and music teachers?

As I see it, the future is bright and full of the best that opportunity has to offer. The standards that the NASM has developed are hard-won standards, as true as tempered steel. The future for the classical study of music and I emphasize the classical study of music, rather than the study of classical music, is bright.

While these standards represent the "high ground," the high ground has been hard-won, and the high ground must not change. However, the specifics to which the standards are applied (i.e. instruments, style, cultural preference) must evolve to embrace the instruments and repertoire which have developed alongside produced sound.

Frederick Miller talked about standards in one of his articles, stating:

"Standards are not about what should be taught, and they are not about how music should be taught. They are about what children should know and be able to do in music upon completion of fourth, eighth and twelfth grades."

I might add that what students should know should be carefully crafted so that they relate what they've mastered in music in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades, to the musical world in which they will spend their lives as non-professional musicians in a commercial musical environment.

Now more than ever, these children need masters to teach them what they should know in order to be responsive musical citizens. All of them will need to have active listening skills. Many of them, but not all of them, will need technical performance skills. All of them will need skills in critical thinking, about music, about its purpose in our lives, about how well it is or is not performed, and about its place in our cultural environment. They will need to know about our cultural environment and the place of the musician in that environment. And finally, those who move on to teach music will need pedagogical training in both the acoustic core and the produced sound core.

Students who go on to study in schools of music will always need masters in the field to teach them how to teach the skills of ear training, listening skills, performance skills, analysis and cultural environment and place of the musician in it.

We do not need to replace the basic standards but we must rethink the approach to music. We must rethink its core, and we must expand it to include the core of produced sound.

The core of music education, as I have experienced it, is based on a set of parameters derived from a particular repertoire that was developed in conjunction with a group of instruments which have been developed and evolved over 450 years of musical life in central Europe. The core looks like this:

Around a particular repertoire,
1) we teach harmony and its functional and theoretical extensions,

2) we teach performance practice,

3) we study a specific notational system, that is the Guidonian Hand system of notation, based on the manipulation of symbols on paper. Those symbols are to be arranged, manipulated, and fixed in time and space, as a document, which is then handed to the musician for independent interpretation through practice and performance.

4) The concert venues, their physical acoustics and the attendant society related to these concert venues grew up around the development and evolution of 450 years of music on the instruments, with the notational system, with the performance practice, in Central Europe. Now I move back to the Smithsonian Exhibit.

If we are to take anything away from the Smithsonian Exhibit, the academic core described above is NOT the central core of American Music. But the above core is the specific and central core that informs the development of curriculum in our schools of music. And while this core informs and is a central part of some of American culture, it is not the core of the music that has grown up and evolved with most of American culture in the second half of this century.

I have many, many questions. I do not have many answers. However the National Association of Schools of Music has the forum to discover the answers. For instance:

1) Do we continue to strengthen our curriculum by further investigations of the core of classical music and its extensions?

2) Do we, as a friend of mine has pointed out, "turn into culture marts," offering off-the-rack, bin-program classes?

3) Do these classes offer familiar works within the categories of jazz, rock, opera, easy listening, and so forth? Or,

4) Do we strengthen our resolve in the school of music's ability to investigate at each and every turn the music that has become classical in our culture?

Do we accept the philosophy of passive listening as exemplified and defined by Colorado's WCFR-FM Denver Report? If you haven't come across the Denver Report, this particular effort was a marketing research effort directed by WCFR- FM. In this report, the radio station was trying to determine the listening habits and preferences of its perceived market. Through typical commercial market research methods, WCFR-FM determined that rather than listening to an entire piece of music, such as a symphony, in an active manner, the general population would prefer that its classical music be light and buoyant played in the background as an accompaniment to its everyday life's activities. The report went further to recommend what kinds of music should be played at what hours of the day. It made recommendations about the nature of dissonance in music, and it suggested that large-form pieces should be broken up into small doses in order to maintain the listenership of its constituents. All this is based on a fundamental shift in public radio's perception of how its listeners actually listen to music. Many radio stations throughout the country have adopted some of the findings of the Denver report in various configurations. The National Association of Schools of Music has the intellectual and political power to become a vigorous voice in the debate around active versus passive listening habits.

How far do we go in allowing ourselves to be market driven? Do we provide what our customers will pay for and shun what they do not know? Of course not! We rightly talk about trend and fad but we need to recognize always the core of any music that becomes central in our discussions, teaching and debates. Which brings me to the last and most important part of my talk with you this morning.

How do we deal with the musical reality of produced sound that has established itself since World War II? There has been a revolution in sound that began early in the century and became dominant by 1975. This is the biggest thing that has universally happened to music in several centuries. I believe that we are only now coming to the end of the Romantic Era in Music. I believe that what we have been calling "post-modernism" actually is a culminating period of the major trends similar to the culminating periods of the late Classical and the Romantic eras in music. At the end of each musical era, and the beginning of each new musical era, there is a fudge period of several decades in which five things always happen. These happen in no particular order, they happen symbiotically, and they happen within the larger culture.

First, the instruments begin to change. Old ones are adapted and new ones are invented.

Secondly, the ensembles and the makeup of who plays in the ensembles change to reflect the sound combinations of the instruments.

Third, the performance venues change.

Fourth, the notation system adapts to reflect the new instruments, the adapted old ones, and the evolving musical language.

And finally, and to me most importantly, because I am a composer, the composed music changes, bringing secondary and tertiary parameters to the foreground, eclipsing present primary parameters.

Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a revolution in sound. All five of the above indicators of change are in place. We are at the end of the Romantic era in music, and we are at the beginning of-who knows what? What we do know is that since World War 11 sound has become electronically dependent. Instruments that are plugged in seem to be adaptations of ancient instruments. For instance the guitar. The guitar has become the most-used amateur instrument in our culture. It has also become the electric guitar. It plays in an ensemble called the "Rock Band." The rock band itself is a new grouping of instruments which has evolved since 1948. The notational system for electric guitar is itself an adaptation of standard guitar notation. The music that is composed for the electric guitar is full of all kinds of new sound. It demands amplification and is performed in venues by preference other than the classical concert hall.

The new instruments that have been born since 1948 include the sound studio, mixing boards, microphones, MIDI keyboards, electric drums and computers. With the invention of these instruments, the performance of music has essentially been put into competition with itself. Essentially, a pre-1948 music experience meant that an audience member went to the music, performed live in an acoustic space. Since 1948, an audience member increasingly has the choice between the traditional concert experience and the new concert experience. In the new experience, an audience member purchases a CD of music, arranges the concert any way he or she likes, and hears the concert on a customized sound system, on demand, in the casual atmosphere of the home entertainment system. The traditional concert experience evolved around acoustic sound. The new concert experience evolves around produced sound.

Our ears have become democratic ears. This means that a student may come to us in our schools of music to learn music with the secure knowledge that Mozart is wonderful music, equally as wonderful as reggae, rock, boogie, and Broadway. These students come to us with their CD collections intact, and their passions for music deep and abiding. They come to us with large repertoires, and they want to learn about music itself. Our challenge is to apply everything we know about the classical study of music to the vast and eclectic repertoires of our students. Our challenge is also to recognize that our students have trained their ears on PRODUCED SOUND.

Is it possible that in the 21st century our mass listening culture will value mixed and produced sound over acoustic sound? Somewhere in history, at some point in time, people preferred the sound of the trombone over the sound of the sackbut. Now, people are beginning to prefer the sound of recorded music to the sound of the live concert experience.

Let's take the evolution of the Tonight Show Band as a laboratory to test my theorem. My theorem is that it is possible that the general public will come to prefer produced sound to acoustic sound. In the mid-1950's Steve Allen hosted the Tonight Show. He performed his own music on the grand piano, which was situated front and center. When Skitch Henderson took over as the director of the Tonight Show Band, he played the piano, and conducted the band. The band was made up of brasses, woodwinds, a few strings, and drum set. The grand piano was still located front and center. When Doc Severenson took over the job of music director from Skitch Henderson, Doc played the trumpet, and the grand piano was moved slightly off to the right-but still in front. Then Branford Marsalis took over as director. He played saxophone, and the piano was moved much further to the right. A synthesizer was added to the piano, and the keyboard sound was more synthesized than acoustic. Note also that the term "piano" was replaced by "keyboards." Kevin Eubanks took over for Branford Marsalis. His instrument is the electric guitar. The piano has disappeared. Now there are only electric keyboards, and they are placed out of sight. I posit again: it is probable in our time that the larger population will come to prefer produced sound over acoustic sound.

If this is true, then the questions raised about how we teach music, what we teach, and the expected outcomes of our degree programs, are enormous. We will need to vigorously expand our teaching knowledge of professions in music to include not only our traditional professions but also producers, sound technicians, environmental sound scientists and recording engineers and managers. We will need to expand our teaching techniques to train our students in recording studio performance practice techniques. And some point in time, we will need to come to grips with the microphone. It is a new instrument. Without it performers such as Bobby McFerrin could not exist. It is central to the produced sound core. It permeates the ensembles, the music, the notational systems and the compositions of those who work in produced sound. To ignore the microphone and the recording studio in teaching music to young students is, in my opinion, a grave error.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am suggesting is that we now have along side of the core of classical music education, another core, and that is the core of produced sound. We need to develop a rigorous course of study around this core. This course of study must have the highest standards and demand discipline and extraordinary craftsmanship from its students. The repertoire of acoustic sound has been created over the past 400 years. We know that repertoire well. The repertoire of produced sound is only now forming. But forming it is, at a rapid growth. It has harmony, theory, structure, performance practice and over 100 years of history.

The ensembles of produced sound include various combinations of electric guitars, much percussion, electric keyboards, amplified voices, and from time to time, acoustic instruments, always amplified and mixed into the proper proportions of their electronically controlled collaborators. There is a new notation forming around the produced core. This notation appears to be a combination of paper documents and digital notation. Digital notation allows the musical score to exist in a performed state. The performance is in essence the score. The score can be transferred from one computer to another, from one CD to another, and the music can be learned by ear, with guidance from a few written notational symbols. This means that when a student comes to us with a desire to "write it down," we need to vigorously expand our knowledge of how to practically notate produced sound. Performance venues designed around the acoustic core are well known to us. At present, performance venues designed around the produced core are anywhere speakers can be placed.

We can teach our students about the difference between wet and dry sound, about the difference between performing a solo recital in the cathedral versus the living room. We know how to speak about acoustic sound produced in a variety of acoustic spaces. The venues for performance of produced sound are virtually anywhere you can plug in an amplifier and some speakers. We who teach music in formal higher education have a great deal to learn about sound amplification and its acoustics. And we must learn about amplified sound. We will need to muster all our skills, everything we've learned about teaching music, all our critical training, all our curiosity, and all our faith in the formal study of music itself as an endeavor of higher education, in order to prepare ourselves to teach not only the acoustic core but also the produced core. Both are realities and both attract bright, passionately musical students.

The future of the kind of musical endeavor that requires highly developed musicians and music teachers is burning brightly. I have many questions. And there are many answers. The answers mean that present education and training of music students at the undergraduate and graduate level, must open its doors, take a deep breath, and launch itself into the future of music in our culture with wonder and curiosity. We must be even better musicians than we are now. We must deal elegantly and expertly with the two cores-the acoustic core and the produced core. We must take on the challenge of leadership knocking at the doors of our schools of music. We must maintain our standards in performance, pedagogy, critical thinking skills and devotion to the art of music. But we must apply these standards with generosity and curiosity to the musics that inhabit our lives and the lives of the students and ultimately the audiences who surround us. One student may come to us with a repertoire in Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, another may arrive with a repertoire in big band, boogie, and Broadway. Still another will arrive with a large repertoire consisting solely of contemporary pop music. All three students have passion, skill, and curiosity and come to us for help. That is our future. On the one hand, the acoustic core, on the other, the produced sound core. I have many questions. Thank you very much for honoring my thoughts today with your time and talent.