Saturday, October 24, 2015

over at The New Republic--the violin prodigy factory industry
Having subjected her son to a life of what she now knows is effectively (and effective) brainwashing, Wagner knows better. She knows that in all likelihood her son—if he’s lucky—will play violin in an orchestra and/or teach children, feeling forever second-rate. She also now knows that to an informed observer this outcome was predictable from the time her son could read.

“According to my observations,” Wagner writes, “parents in all categories [of musical experience] tend to believe that their child’s talent will enable them to prevail in the struggle that is the consequence of a saturated market.” The narrative of the child prodigy bewitches parents, and not just when it comes to music. We’re taught that the cost of genius is instability or underdevelopment in other areas, but we rarely hear about the people who finish third through tenth. Also-rans make up the vast majority in every race, but in any field of elite competition the losers have to subject themselves to the same work, same costs, same instability, same underdevelopment, but without the glory or affirmation that come with making it. We like to believe that the winners were that much better or tried that much harder, but the difference between the two is often an arbitrary twist of fate or a powerful person’s whim.
I believe glory and virtuosity are worthwhile pursuits, and a world without them would be lesser. However, for a society to cross the line from nurturing into producing excellence is to incur grave costs. Production turns raw material into waste and product, and in a competitive system both waste and product are people who, despite what they’re told, have value. It’s a myth that there’s anything parents, teachers, or kids themselves can do or be that will ensure they emerge from such a lifelong contest as wheat and not chaff. Machines that produce excellence in reality produce, principally, failure. To feed your child into the mouth of such a machine isn’t just an extreme act of faith, it’s a terrible miscalculation.

Not that many people enjoy his music or like what he wrote, but Paul Hindemith's complaint about the American musical educational culture was that it taught every kid "You could be the next Heifetz or Beethoven if you work at it." This Hindemith condemned as delusionally unrealistic and that instead of this specialist training future music educators and soloists of America educational regime, a healthier alternative would be a rounded practical musical education that gave students a musical education in which music was part of regular life rather than specialized vocational training.

A century ago Sousa's warning was that by letting machines and the companies that sell them control and define the nature of our musical experience that the culture of amateur musicianship and musical culture that was the lifeblood of American musical life was going to die.  I think that a century later the fact that there's so much musical culture suggests Sousa's concerns at the specifics were too pessimistic but then when I see music critics complain that every dude with a cowboy hat and a Telecaster's playing the same stupid four-chord chorus Sousa still had a point worth heeding.  It may be that mechanical and digital reproduction and corporate patronage systems have led to pop music that all sounds the same.  But ... it's possible to hear recordings made nearly a century ago and if the silver lining is listening to early Duke Ellington and Blind Willie Johnson I'll see that as a small but precious "win".

But if we get more music education in American schools (as many a musician has hoped for) it can't be the kind of educational culture described above. Americans need to be okay with being average or even less-than-average, whatever "average" may be defined as being.  A professor telling a class "there's nothing wrong with getting a C" was one of my favorite professors in my college career. 

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