Making Sure Students Don’t Graduate…from New Music

A colleague said to me over lunch recently, “Our young musicians are often quite resistant to playing new music. Some come around, some don’t…” This comment quite surprised me, as I am a strong believer that young players are often more open to learning music by living composers than their older, more experienced counterparts.

But is there a type of young player for whom new music is “old news?” I asked my friend Teresa McCollough, professor of piano at Santa Clara University. Besides being an amazing pianist with several acclaimed CDs under her belt, Teresa is also in the forefront of commissioning and performing “new music.” She is also the mother of a ten year old, who is learning to play piano and harp. She explained to me:

What I think is interesting about this whole situation, is that…many of the good teaching books that are out there are written by living composers…Then, students “graduate” to “real literature” and they suddenly leave living composers behind in favor of the tried and true classics…Most of the teachers of intermediate and even advanced students don’t know music by living composers, and many are intimidated by what they do know…So, the more advanced and trained students have left new music behind years ago.

Is this really the case? We teachers make sure our students have technique and master all the requisite pieces from the repertoire. But in that process, do we inadvertently allow our students to lose their openness to try new things, music that may not be part of the annual competitions and achievement awards?

I began to think about my experiences with exposing new music to kids. One particular project came to mind. I was composing an ensemble piece that was co-commissioned by two youth orchestras. One consisted of students who had little or no private instruction, with most of them having limited years of training on their instruments. The other ensemble was comprised of students who had numerous opportunities to further their musical studies, including private lessons. The time came for the premiere performances of the piece. The first orchestra played with such concentration and energy that they sounded well beyond their years in experience. They loved that the piece was new and that it was written for them. However, the other orchestra, while technically superior, played the music in a lackluster fashion. Even though I had been able to goose up their enthusiasm during rehearsal, that energy did not carry through to their performance. It was just another gig.

How can students gain the skills to play and still retain their natural curiosity? We need to find a way to give our musicians the skills and confidence to perform music from all periods. We as composers need to help teachers feel comfortable about learning new music. This will translate into music students gaining that confidence as well, thus making “new music” just music.

One thought on “Making Sure Students Don’t Graduate…from New Music

  1. binkov

    I agree with Belinda that it is important for teachers to feel comfortable with presenting
    New Music to their students. It should go without saying that we all should be comfortable in general with living music and living composing.

    However, there are a few obstacles that are difficult to overcome. One is, that students of certain ages often succumb to certain pressures.
    That is, they hear from others about what they are working on. Peer pressure comes into play, as well as competitiveness. It has been documented that teenagers learn about pop songs, for example, from their friends and often are more open to those they’ve learned that way. This can carry over to other musics, of course, since this age group is not immune, even if they are musicians, to this influence.

    The competiveness is something that can loom large, particularly among the more advanced students. So, even though they may be more likely to be able to take on newer, unheard works, they may not feel as motivated since they may want to not feel as if they are falling behind.

    Last, new music is at a disadvantage in a large cultural sense. What we hear daily, in commercials, background music, soundtracks, etc. is terrifically informed by the fixed canon of Western music literature. That helps promote a certain mindset towards what is music. Combining that with the overall perception of what a violinist, pianist, guitarist, vocalist, etc. “should” know creates a sort of rigid membrane that New Music struggles to penetrate.

    Reply

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