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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 2 October 2011

The Institutionalization of Music Education

by Pemi Paull / October 1, 2011

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During the period of history between the Middle Ages and the French Revolution, music was deeply integrated into the fabric of life. Cultivating an understanding of music was considered a basic component of general education. In the past two centuries, there has been a gradual shift in the role music plays in our lives. With regard to the training of musicians, prior to the French Revolution music instruction was typically done on a master-apprentice basis, one-on-one. Just as a craftsman was taught, a pupil would go study with a master to learn the “trade”, the master’s approach to making music.

Typically this would involve the study of composition, singing, learning a musical instrument, and also the study of rhetoric. A constant theme in writings on music, especially in the age of Baroque music, from about 1600 to the last decades of the 18th century, states that music is a language in tones, involving dialogue and dramatic confrontation. The apprentice had to learn his art in all its aspects, not merely how to play an instrument or sing, but also how to present music convincingly.

With the French Revolution came a great upheaval, which also affected the study of music. Not only musical training as a whole, but musical life itself, was given a fundamentally new orientation. The relationship between master and apprentice was replaced by a system, an institution: the Conservatoire, founded in 1795. The new French method involved comprehensively unifying style down to the last detail, and in line with the new political ideals of the times, creating music that spoke directly to the emotions of the people with the simplest and most accessible means possible.

In 1822, Luigi Cherubini, who had previously been Napoleon’s director of music in Vienna, became the director of the Conservatoire de Paris, where he commissioned the great musical authorities of the time to compose didactic works, which were supposed to embody the new ideal of égalité in music. And so, Baillot wrote his violin method and Kreutzer wrote his etudes. Indeed, all the most important teachers in France were enlisted in the project of formulating these new ideas into a universal system of music education. Out of this arose a codification of technique, and the pictorial replacing the verbal, or rhetorical, elements of music. This is how the sostenuto, the sweeping melodic line, the modern legato came about. This revolution in musical training was carried out so radically that within a few short decades, musicians all over Europe were being trained in accordance with the system of the Conservatoire. To a large extent musicians continue to be trained this way today.

Undoubtedly, some positive developments have resulted from the systematization of music education. One of the best examples is the publicly funded voluntary musical training program in Venezuela, El Sistema, a state foundation that watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. Its greatest achievements are the 250,000 children who attend its music schools around the country, 90 percent of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The fact that a relatively impoverished nation such as Venezuela is able to demonstrate to the world that it is possible to make music education a priority for its young people on such a large scale offers great hope for the future of music. This is especially true at a time when music education funding is shrinking in Europe and North America.

Nonetheless, the times in which we live require professors within the conservatoire system not to be limited to teaching the student how to produce a beautiful, even tone, with clean execution and steady rhythm, where the goal of getting a post in a university or a job in an orchestra is paramount. Unlike the musicians of the past, today’s students are expected to perform music from four centuries, and should study and experiment with the performance practices of whatever music they are absorbing.

Developing an understanding—preferably an enthusiasm—for the music of our time, and some experience in improvisation is also a necessity. In the past, the study of music was the study of a living art, an art rooted in the culture of the present. The goal, in the end, must be to teach young musicians to understand and communicate the different languages of music rather than to homogenize music in order that beauty and perfection become priorities. In this way, the separation between “popular” and “serious” music, and, ultimately, between music and time will disappear and cultural life will once again form a whole.

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