Sunday, July 12, 2009

Got a Marlboro?

I was reading this New Yorker piece by Alex Ross (the complete print version) on the Marlboro Music Festival, as headed by Dame Mitsuko Uchida and Richarde Goode (Richard God, according to my theory teacher this past year) and in a beautifully-written article, two bits stand out.

First, just the lovely:
[Dame Mitsuko]: "Beethoven was the greatest altogether. Mozart was the greatest genius. And Schubert . . ." She drew in her breath, her eyes opening wide, her head tilting back. "He is the most beautiful. He is the one you will be listening to when you die." And then she spoke of a friend of hers who, on his deathbed, in a state of great pain, was offered morphine and refused it. "He knew that he would die only once. He wanted to see what it felt like. That is some sort of a person, yes? It is a great pity that you can't come back to tell the tale."

Second, efficiently lays out the discussion-lines over which I lock horns with Mrs. Allen:
[Dame Mitsuko]: As a rule, the imaginative [musicians/applicants] are lacking the technique and the ones that have good technique haven't got a clue. But there are exceptions to the rule, and we try to snap them up."

I bring up, often, that voice teachers in conservatory-settings often seem uninterested in really teaching voice. Instead, they sort of polish up already-functioning voices and then try and cram all sorts of "now sing it this way here, and then do it there"-type of advice. And speaking confidentially to someone at school, there are teachers who express dismay that students don't follow such instruction (really, advice) to the letter. Heaven forbid that they grow or build on such advice!

And what gets my goat, too, is this statement by Marlena Malas in Anne Midgette's piece on where the big voices have gone. She says: "We want interesting artists. [...] "Where are they? There must be something wrong with what we're doing that doesn't allow that to come forth."

Obviously, depending on where you are in the process of development and training, you'll have to pick the comparatively more imaginative without technique or the comparatively more technical but clueless to train, and I think overwhelming, the conservatory attitude is to pick the latter.

Mrs. Allen contends that institutions have a responsibility to their students to ensure that they accept people they believe will be employable when they leave. Not only is this an end-result of a social contract between educational institution and student, it's in the school's best interest to turn out students who will reflect well on the school. I think this is admirable and a good way to look at it. It also explains why going with the "safe bet" might make the most sense.

But let's look at why "technique + cluelessness" is actually considered a "safe bet." What is the purpose of music - vocal music? Prima prattica harmonium or seconda prattica catharsis? Is just producing pitches in a pleasing way without an urgent need to express or communicate employable? And the bigger question is, since I think the answer to the previous is affirmative, should it be?

As Karol Berger contends in Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, the time of contemplative, timeless harmony has given way to linear, directed unfoldings of themes and rhetoric. Stasis and communion with the spheres through music is no longer an explicit purpose or in step with the over-riding conception of the times. And if the wheel is turning back on itself (the ultimate co-opt), it won't be returning to a time where music, as widely understood, is only available if one makes it or attends a live performance.

The fact that there is such saturation of music media in a multiplicity of portable forms means that music, in and of itself, is not novel. Hearing it is no longer the critical other half of its creation. Instead, its very ubiquity overflows and spills out our ears, unprocessed as we carry on with other activities, jamming more and more musical information into our heads via flashy i-pod earbuds.

And we pay (or some of us!) for the privilege of "owning" musical performances that we can sometimes pay attention to when we're listening and otherwise tune out. It's no longer ephemeral in the way that a live performance is. Which means that perhaps we are seeking for music and performances that slip seamlessly into our lives, that can be overlayed onto our busy consciousness and accompany our fitful REM sleep. Yes, there is a market for technical accomplishment hand-in-hand with cluelessness.

But there go all the interesting artists! By considering this a "safe bet," the excitement goes by the wayside. And in further disservice to students, the safe ones are trained as if they'll be the interesting, exciting ones. Hello, insult, meet my friend, injury. I believe you two have met?

No, I think it is a mistake. And you can even thought-experiment it yourself. A good friend of mine offered to teach me kuchipudi dance lessons. I took one with her, and she said, "if you are not dancing well, that is my responsibility." She didn't mean "if you really work hard" or "if you have talent." It was exactly as she said.

As a teacher, she took on the responsibility of also discovering elements of motivation (or that they were assumed) as well as the technique. The nourishment of individuality as well as the instruction. And this, she told me, is exactly what her teacher told her when she began. So if it is true, that I would become merely a technically proficient dancer, she would take the responsibility of getting me there. It was her reputation linked to mine in a way that conservatory teachers, and voice teachers especially, seem loathe to make. If they aren't putting their effort and name on the line here, well how good can that be for the students?

If schools are inclined to hedge their bets on the students they accept, they should at least train them as such. Develop the real skills that they need. There is no reason why technically proficient singers should graduate from school not knowing how to read music, or sight-sing at an advanced level, or have a nice, polished presentation. After all, schools can only pocket the cachet of having successful students if those students picked up something really valuable during their time there (most value-added consideration in country of origin determinations in Customs-speak). But really, schools should really reconsider their stance on which of the two types to err on when picking their battles. Because they aren't following through on the choice they seem to have already made.


Betsy said...

Oh my gosh, so much in this post!

First, the New Yorker quote blew my mind.

Second, I'm pretty much on the same page with you on the conservatory mindset. The music conservatory as an institution seems hellbent on staying in a bygone era. How is it that everything from programming to process to politics is so conservative and stuffy? It seems like not only does it reflect on the teaching process and types of singers they turn out, but also on this country's appalling lack of funding for the arts. What kinds of productions would major conservatories be mounting if filling seats weren't an issue? If singers didn't have to worry about getting certain marketable roles under their belts?

Conservatories (rightly) turn out singers they believe can get work upon graduation. But the greater music world is also stuck in its ways. Where is the experimentation? The search for newness and fostering of creativity? It's not there because the renaissance of the form isn't here. Sure, composers like Libby Larsen advocate for a changing of the guard, and certain other contemporary composers get produced and performed. But mostly we are singing the (admittedly brilliant) works of a handful of really old dead guys from centuries past. And we are narrowly focused on opera in large houses with velvet seats as THE form of classical singing. On the one hand, I love that type of experience. On the other hand, I think there are so many other ways to experience music and classical singing in particular, that don't involve earbuds or cocktail dresses.

If our conservatory system isn't producing "interesting" artists, then yeah, there must be something wrong with the system. But how to fix it? Now I'm sort of depressed and frustrated by it all. I'm also even more certain that I should calm the fuck down and do everything at my own pace, system be damned!

alex said...

Yeah, do it your own way and buck the system!

I have to say, I'm just very thankful that I've encountered people who liberated me from the thinking of my mother (who is herself musically conservative, even while decrying the extremely conservative Curtis Institute when she attended) to the point that I didn't get as swept up in the conservatory idea of things as much as I could have otherwise.

I don't accept that making a living as a choral singer is failing. I don't accept that opera is the highest aspiration that a singer can dream of. I don't accept that a big voice super-desirable and that those of us with smaller instruments that have to seek out venues smaller than airplane hangars are somehow less gifted or less talented.

And luckily, I've found allies in my teachers! They are definitely around in Peabody and I'm lucky that I found them - or that they found me. Sometimes it's hard to really say.

You're a real bona-fide working singer now! Your work will be important and affect people on a weekly basis. You should be extraordinarily proud to be doing this, and basically flip the bird to the conservatory attitude of this work as being "beneath" a serious singer or somehow being "inferior work" that you pick up. It'd time to dig in and work to make what it is you want to do a viable thing to do.