Looking for Masterable Challenges and Masterpieces

When I asked some trusted music educators what they look for when picking a piece for students to play, almost everyone’s answers came back with the following items:

  • The music has to be within the technical abilities of the player(s).
  • It needs to challenge, yet be within their reach to master.
  • The music has to be of high “quality.”

  • The first two items of this list are relatively self-explanatory. But how do we address the third item, the “quality” of the music? As one of my colleagues wrote, “…the criteria for this [is a] whole other topic and definitely up for debate.”

    One composer-teacher left me with even more piercing questions: “What are we really looking for when we use terms like quality? I worry that perhaps too many educators might be seduced by works that are rubber-stamped as ‘masterpieces’ [or that] push certain tried and true semiotic buttons…[with] nice four-bar chunks and handy symmetrical phrases…or works they simply like, and so equate with quality.”

    So what makes a good piece? When I was a young student, “quality” was not part of the picture for me. I either liked the music or I did not. But, I never said, “This is a ‘quality’ work of art.” It was just not part of my ten-year-old view of the world. As I progressed the issue began to creep into my studies. I was presented music in the context of historical “fact,” with teachers and professors stating a work was a “masterpiece” because of certain traits. I began to follow suit, labeling music and basing it on what I felt were the correct standards. Eventually the time came when my teachers started to contradict each other. I then started to trust my own knowledge and instincts and began forming opinions based on my perspective of things.

    Still, if you ask me to define what makes a “quality” piece for young players, I find myself at a loss for words. It just seems that all too often stylistic tastes get confused with standards. For instance, I have a composer friend who had to present a public performance of a work of his for a jury of his professors as part of his master’s requirement. During the evaluation one teacher began to denounce the piece as an utter failure. However, all he could give as examples of the piece’s weaknesses were elements of the style of the piece. When the student pointed this out, the professor begrudgingly agreed. However, he still held to the notion that what he liked in music is the correct way to hear all music.

    Are there any basic elements that we all can agree exist in a piece of “quality” music? Evan Tobias, educator and founding member of the collective Music Educators Network, pointed out to me that most music teachers have to consider a list of non-musical factors when selecting music, from the length of the piece to the cost of purchasing it. Perhaps these pragmatic aspects, rather than artistic or intellectual arguments, can be used to define what “quality” is in music for young players. If not, then what?

    2 thoughts on “Looking for Masterable Challenges and Masterpieces

    1. scottgendel@hotmail.com

      “quality” for young musicians
      I would argue that the second quality you list above: “needs to challenge, yet be within their reach to master” should apply to the musical material itself and not just the technical aspects. That is to say, a quality piece for a young musician should have enough musical material in it that is novel (not yet understanded by the student) to provide that student with a cognitive challenge in understanding the piece… yet also the piece should be within the student’s grasp to comprehend. Given that, I find a fair amount of music for young artists to be unsatisfactory in that it spends so much time attempting to be easily accessible to the student that it provides no mental challenge, only a technical one. And on the contrary, I’ve seen numerous pieces by contemporary composers for young artists that are simply out of reach for 99.9% of young music students, given their theoretical and musical understanding.

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    2. jcw@webbermusic.com

      “quality” for young musicians
      In response to Belinda Reynolds it seems to me that there are two criteria (sets of criteria to be more accurate) for “good” music. The outer criterion is the set of standards imposed by the composer and the culture he lives in. In this case one of the standards is that the music has to be technically within the grasp of young people and yet still challenging. The inner criterion is that it ‘exults the soul’ (to quote a definition of beauty). There has to be an ‘emotional’ or ‘spiritual’ (both words are inadequate) resonance where the music means something important to the listener. Some criteria seem to belong to both categories, eg we usually place a high value on originality. Originality in music is not called for in all cultures, so it is culturally conditioned and therefore an outer criterion for our culture. However there also seems to be a strong inner need to discover the new, to grow and break barriers which makes this an inner criterion as well. This inner need does seem to be universal, all cultures evolve and grow, but not all cultures apply it to music and art the way western culture has.

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