I have had a somewhat ambiguous relationship to music education throughout my life. Early guitar lessons were more of a straitjacket than a path to musical creativity, and I ran away from the teacher during my sole piano lesson. I only studied composition formally for one semester and never did anything I was assigned to do. Yet I no longer brag about being self-taught, because many teachers have influenced me.
There are three ways of learning any subject: (1) mentorship, (2) independent scholarship, and (3) the academic setting. For reasons of racial disparity, jazz was primarily learned throughout the 20th century by independent scholarship, coupled with mentorship; the latter being largely part-and-parcel of on-the-job training.
I am quite certain that I would not be a composer today were it not for having received an eclectic liberal arts undergraduate education, and I think there are plenty of young people out there now who, like my younger self, need something a bit different than the laser-focused, technical musical education one might receive at a conservatory or through some other types of programs.
I think we have a duty beyond simply teaching the material. We must also justify it and show how the knowledge we’re imparting is vital, interesting, and beautiful. Yet while music theory, and the fascinatingly intricate way it interacts with actual music, is all three of these things, four-part voice leading exercises are often none of these things.
The best teachers know that their truer calling is to engage aspects of musical experience that have become familiar and render them unfamiliar again. A great teacher must both illuminate the world for his or her students, and at the same time return parts of the illuminated world to a certain amount of mystery and confusion.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of composers, performers, and ensembles that have caught the attention of those in the media. It would be very easy to infer that their music must not only be of high quality but of superior quality when compared with the work of those who are not being noticed…and therein lies the rub.
The struggle of jazz artists to be recognized for their artistic merit is worth examination. My own sense is that the argument has always boiled down to two issues: one’s skin color and one’s economic status. Paradoxically, popular music has been generally understood to be artistically inferior to “creative” music, even though it makes much more money. Over the course of its history, jazz moved from novelty, to popular, to “creative.”
Almost 35 years ago, Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach album first came out. It’s hard to know exactly why this particular combination of Baroque music and synthesizers became such a popular phenomenon, but to me it seems inextricably connected to a certain optimism about the future. But as society became more concerned with earthly things, the fashion for space age classical synth covers faded. Now they seem a bit like majestic old ruins, simultaneous evidence of great talent and great folly.