Thursday, April 21, 2016

"...Those Who Would Dedicate Themselves to Music": A Dispatch from the Front Lines

By Ellen Exner

Title page from Quantz's Versuch...
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I recently took a voluntary leap off the university tenure track to begin teaching at a major conservatory, happy to be once more in the Northeast and surrounded by the working musicians who used to be my tribe. New settings generally mean change and one of the biggest I’ve had to make so far has been to my teaching. I’ve had to reorient for my new audience: the conservatory student. I thought that the transition to conservatory teaching would be more or less seamless because I have a performance background and have taught successfully already in a school of music. I was wrong. I have therefore been experimenting with different approaches this year, trying to identify a formula that works. It became clear early on that my new students respond best to music, not abstract discussions about it. This is not really a surprise. What has been a surprise though is how much this new population has challenged me to deepen my own level of engagement with repertory. The mantra I have developed is “more music, less ‘ology.”

Regardless of experience, I had somehow lost track of just how little overlap there can be between the driving concerns of a conservatory and the preoccupations of musicology as currently practiced in many tenure-granting institutions. It seems to me that the focus of musicology as a discipline has increasingly been trending away from the repertory that concerns the majority of my conservatory students, which is the traditional Western canon.

The main occupation of performance students is exploring the “how” of music-making. This is mostly the domain of their studio teachers. As a scholar whose specialty is eighteenth-century music, I can also help them with the how when it comes to dealing with manuscript sources and certain matters of performance practice. But I think my bigger purpose, though, might be to help them explore the question of why one makes music. I have to thank a discussion with my new colleague Eliot Fisk for helping me frame my job in this way. For me, pathways to answering the hows and whys of music lie in an understanding of music’s history—the story of humanity’s passionate relationship with organized sound. Music’s history offers us the collective wisdom of millennia as companionship for our own journeys to Parnassus. I see it as part of my job to help students know that.  

We all know that every institution has its own culture. The culture of conservatory teaching, for those of us on the academic side, has its shares of joys and sorrows. One of the greatest joys in this case is communicating about music at a very high level with students who are steeped in the repertory. I don’t have to sell them on the glories of the art. They’re betting their livelihoods on the continued relevancy of Western Art music in contemporary culture. On the other hand, it will shock hardly anyone reading this blog that the priorities of conservatory students rarely include academic coursework. That said, there are plenty of wonderfully curious and brilliant students in every class, just as there are those who will never see the value of losing practice time to homework. I hope, for their sakes, that they are right. I doubt it, though. For my part, I firmly believe that the power of knowledge can build better players.

Because I spend my research time working with eighteenth-century sources, I recently assigned for the delectation of graduate students in my seminar “Music in Berlin, 1700-1800” the writings of two of my favorite fellow travelers to Parnassus: the great virtuoso performers, composers, and writers Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) and Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773). In fact, I borrowed the first half of this blog entry’s title from the Introduction to Quantz’s Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen [1752]. (I assigned it in translation, of course.) I thought my students might find it enlightening or at least entertaining to read career advice and opinions on what makes a successful performer from the famously accomplished, even at the remove of three centuries. It turns out that the wisdom of Bach and Quantz sounds surprisingly fresh, even in an era that seems to believe it has invented musical entrepreneurship. 

There were a number of passages in these two treatises that attracted particular attention. My students seemed to sense a kindred spirit in C. P. E. Bach, whose descriptions of effective performances in the eighteenth century provoked recognition and even approval, even if his music has been a harder sell. Now that they have read some of Bach’s treatise (Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen [1753, 1762]) and learned about his cultural and intellectual context, they have insight into his aesthetic priorities and a better understanding of what he meant his music to communicate. If my students develop from this at least an appreciation for what Bach was doing, if not quite an affection, I will call it a win.

Quantz’s pronouncements, on the other hand, at first generated some heated dissent. His description of the physical attributes necessary for success as a performer (the “right” shapes for hands, lips, nasal passages, and so forth) ruffled more than a few feathers, and justifiably so: successful musicians now demonstrably come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Because disagreement is fabulous discussion fodder, I encouraged the disaffected to rage on. Observations that met with general approval, though, were Quantz’s statements on matters including career choices: (“The choice of a profession, and the decision to enter into that of music or any other, must be made with great circumspection” ¶3); his identification of different kinds of teachers (“It is possible that somebody who plays quite well knows little of how to teach. Someone else may teach better than he plays” ¶16); and, finally, the dangers of too much talent and too little discipline (¶14). (All of these translations come from J. J. Quantz, On Playing the Flute, transl. and ed. Edward R. Reilly [Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001] 25.)

The sections just cited came up not only in a number of response papers but also produced some reflective in-class anecdotes. My students identified personally with the world of music past and were, I believe, newly curious to find out more about it. I was particularly gratified by their reaction to Quantz’s outspoken advocacy for learning. The students had agreed with so much of what he had written leading up to this point (physical details excluded) and had recognized so much in his words that their experience told them was true that he already had their confidence when they read:
“He who does not possess sufficient natural gifts for academic study probably has even fewer gifts for music. Yet if someone who gives himself to academic studies has sufficient talent for music, and devotes just as much industry to it as to the former, he not only has an advantage over other musicians, but also can be of greater service to music in general than others … [S]erious counsel must be given to young people who dedicate themselves to music that they endeavor not to remain strangers at least to those sciences mentioned above [mathematics, philosophy, rhetoric], and some foreign languages besides, even if time does not permit them to engage in all academic studies” (¶ 19).
They understood what Quantz was suggesting and why: acquiring an education and learning to be discerning and articulate helps music’s cause, and therefore theirs, profoundly. I can’t be sure, but I think these readings helped them justify spending further time considering the aesthetics of Berlin’s unique repertory (even though they seldom play it), especially that which issued from the pens of Quantz and Emanuel Bach. Hopefully the lesson that knowledge is good also stuck. 

Academic writing that yields useful reflective opportunities for performers is not always easy to find. I feel a particular responsibility to conservatory students to provide them with information they can use, to craft assignments that will build their musical thinking and demonstrate the benefits of seeking out the written word as a nourishing companion to musical practice. I am surprised to find myself, a few years into my teaching career, again at the beginning of a journey. Preparing for each class with a special focus on linking scholarship to repertory is hard work but it also feels refreshingly honest and like a return to what drew me to music scholarship in the first place.   

Ellen Exner has recently joined the full-time faculty at New England Conservatory in Boston following three years as Assistant Professor of Music History at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the American Bach Society and serves as Editor of its official newsletter, Bach Notes.

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