Recently I came across a quote given by a composer colleague concerning her approach to writing music for young players. One comment she made about the pieces really struck me:
They are music, not teaching pieces, but they do teach many things.
What caught me about this comment was the composer’s need to state that music for young players actually was music. All too often, music works are segregated into “teaching pieces” and “real music.” We all do it—from students to teachers to music institutions to publishing companies. Look at any music catalog and you will find separate categories for “educational” or “pedagogical” music. Below those labels most often you will find pieces listed that will not be found elsewhere in the catalog, even though they fit the specifications of other categories (such as a work for flute and piano).
How did this bias against composers who primarily focus on composing educational music come to be? It was not around in Bach’s time. Indeed, his income for many years came from working for the St. Thomas School in Leipzig.
Now there are the exceptions, such as Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or Chopin’s Etudes. But, for the most part, major league composers do not place their works in the pedagogical realm, even if the level of difficulty of a work would justify such a label. Likewise, professional players tend to ignore music that has such a label attached to it, even though there are a number of powerful pieces written at an easy technical level that are very daunting to execute with keen artistic interpretation.
Somewhere, somehow, a distinction began to be made between “real” music and “teaching” music. And, unfortunately it has helped create a library of works for students that, in my opinion, are not of a caliber worth learning.
So how can we de-stigmatize educational music and help both raise the quality of pieces being taught to students and validate the excellent works that are already being used? How can we make it so that the label “teaching music” is not a scarlet letter?