The Heart of the Matter: Engaging Students in the “Classical” Repertoire

 

I have long since given up trying to coax people away from using the term “Classical” to describe all Western art music from Palestrina to the present day. Never mind that the term historically should refer to just the fairly short period between “Baroque” and “Romantic,” terms that themselves are fraught with problems. Such words lack much sensitivity to time and place, sub-genres and, indeed, counter-styles that exist at any given time of musical history. To call both Bach and Chopin “classical” – let alone Debussy and Copland! – is to render this word almost meaningless.

For the record, I prefer the term “art music,” which despite its own flaws, nicely separates the music we usually teach from commercial/popular and ethno/traditional genres. In short, the term emphasizes function over style – for me, a much easier generalization to stomach! Moreover, it suggests that “art” music’s role is to be listened to, contemplated and played with the intent to express ideas, emotion and ourselves. I fear that the term “classical,” nowadays, evokes at best something sort of cold – perfect and pure, but dangerous to approach. Worse, it implies merely something that is old. Beautiful, perhaps, but not relevant today.

All of us have experienced students who after several years of fast progress, simply lose interest come the sixth or seventh grade. And though there can be many reasons for this, I believe that the biggest one is our very insistence on the term “classical.” Well not exactly this, but the general idea that “classical” music equals “old” music is continually reinforced by the fact that most students simply don’t hear this music after they leave the studio. They may listen to a lot of music, but it is rarely this stuff.

Modern Music

When I was growing up in 1970’s, “classical” music was much easier to come across. Local concerts were more common and broadly advertised. And while there were fewer radio or television stations by far, many more played classical works. Warner Brothers cartoons with Carl Stalling’s weird combinations of sound effects and classical snippets kept these tunes forever in our heads. Classical artists frequently appeared in on-air performances or as guests on variety shows. Even if it be Victor Borge, Liberace or Dudley Moore, this music was frequently around. Why at one time, the “Arts & Entertainment” network filled most of its airtime with performances of great classical music – it was, in concept, a classical MTV (…not to be confused with today’s MTV!). The great composers, however over-mythologized, were more-generally known (revered even) and those that performed these works were likelier role-models.

I am not at all suggesting that art music has died. We’re testament to the fact it has not! All this stuff is still out there – actually easier found for those who look for it. In sheer numbers, there are likely as many listeners as ever (probably more artists). The problem is that these listeners are now spread far and wide. There are many fewer epicenters where a large number of folks support a classical scene. Even in our unusually fortunate area, great concerts at UMS or Kerrytown Concert House are occasionally high on empty seats. Orchestras are dying as fans have iPods or state-of-the-art sound systems at home plus any number of ways to acquire the music they want to hear. The excitement of live performance is missed and the entire activity of a performing artist is being forgotten – even as we listen to them play in absentia!

To counter this, we teachers must be the front line! More than teaching music reading and keyboard technique, we need to be serious promoters of this music. Do you give your students listening assignments? Do you let them know about upcoming concerts? Perform for your studio or consider bringing in a guest-artist to show them that this is actually something people do! Try engaging their parents on the subject as many of them don’t listen to art music either. When you assign a new piece to a student, tell them about the work and the composer. If possible, try to tie the music in with another art like painting or literature. Help them discover where art music exists around them: in concert, online, in movies or TV. Perhaps give them a little research project. Even if all they have to do is locate a few dates or a recording online, they may, in the process, discover a particular artist or the treasure trove of great performances on YouTube for seemingly any piece you can think of.

Technology can be a great help too, and the internet is full of websites and games that engage students in music. A multitude of apps now exists for your tablets and other devices to teach great music in a manner kids are more familiar with – and really enjoy using. Many teach basic elements of music and theory, while others let kids create music of their own. Still others can be introduced to the very young, a way to visually stimulate the child as it surrounds their ears with great pieces.

One such app is the remarkable “Piano Carnival” Ebook, developed by the Piano Theatre Artist Group to inspire creativity and imagination in young and old. We are fortunate to have one of the founders of this group, pianist Sonya Schumann, right here in Ann Arbor (she is a DMA candidate and president of MMTA’s collegiate chapter at UM). The Guild is especially honored to have Ms. Schumann come speak to us at our next formal meeting this Thursday, January 22 (for more information, click here).

Created around the famous “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns (and performed by pianists Sonya and Elizabeth Schumann), Piano Carnival is a visually exciting, fully interactive, and richly artistic experience for all ages. Like a musically-enhanced version of one of Peter Sis’s books, there are things to excite the very young and richer, deeper rewards to discover as you age. The interactive storybook app features:

  • 14 movements depicting different animals
  • narration of original poetry by Christopher Steger
  • entertaining interactive elements to explore on every page
  • engaging music videos of the pianists
  • vivid illustrations for an immersive experience
  • time-lapse videos of the illustrator, Natalie Hall, at work
  • exclusive artwork only available in this app

There are numerous ways to interact with the Piano Carnival Ebook:

  • Blow into the microphone to make the wind blow!
  • Tilt your iPad from side to side and enjoy the gravity animations!
  • Tap or drag the objects and characters to see how they react and move!
  • Drag the background to see what happens!
  • Choose to listen to narration, watch concert video, and see how illustrations were made

As teachers, we should be excited to see such creative teaching ideas producing such incredible results.  The Guild is happy to promote these efforts!

No, art music isn’t dead – far from it. However, we are quite possibly at a tipping point. As old, “Classical” music, I think it is in the greatest danger of being homogenized into the vast sea of sound which is “All Music” – “classical” being just some stale variety from the past. As “art music”, it appears more vital and alive. And even if Bach is three hundred years old, we recognize better his relationship with today’s composers: composers who integrate electronics with live performance, score films or video games, who adopt sounds heard across worldwide styles and, of course, composers who continue to write in traditional forms intended for the recital hall. The point of music is that it is active and alive – and it is up to us to make that apparent to our students!

-L.A.C.

The Ann Arbor Area Piano Teachers Guild is a professional organization supporting the work of its members on behalf of their students and studios. Funds raised through advertising and other contributions are used solely to support its administration and programs. While we welcome contributions, please be aware that the Guild is classified as a 501 (c) (6). Donations to the Guild are not tax deductible.

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