The Death of the Learnéd Musician

I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend in musicians that must be rectified.  It is a problem that might not be immediately noticed by the general public but, none-the-less, promises to cheapen our art to the point where live performances will become irrelevant.  It can be summed up in three words – “Think for yourself.”

I have been pretty lucky regarding the soloists I have worked with.  For the most part there have been no major arguments, or no arguments that couldn’t be overcome by discussing the inner workings of the music that we are slated to perform.  Tempo, phrasing, dynamics, etc., those are all areas where two musicians can have a disagreement.  Within a good thinking collaboration accommodations can be made that don’t interrupt the flow of rehearsal or, God forbid, a concert.

On vey rare occasions, however, a disagreement arises that threatens this bonhomie.  I have learned that in those circumstances it is best to retire to a dressing room and hopefully talk out the differences rather than waste precious rehearsal time in a charged and public atmosphere.  But that’s where the troubles can be compounded, and that has me thinking of Bach.

There is a wonderful biography of Sebastian Bach called “Bach: The Learnéd Musician” by Christoph Wolff.  Through his masterful story telling Wolff really gives a vivid account of the mind and the man behind this most glorious music.  What is absolutely clear is that Bach had the most piercing and lucid mind, one quick to take musical cues and ideas from every aspect of life.  Bach was the true definition of homo sapien sapien – the thinking thinking Man.

When I am preparing a score for performance I try to take Bach’s blueprint into account.  Everything is relevant to my musical decisions – key signature, time signature, text, orchestration, acoustics, time period in which the piece was written, etc., etc., – these all go into the hopper, and hopefully an informed and excited performance comes out.  I will on rare occasions reference a recording just to get a basic sound in my head, but what I rely on most is the musical score and my own research into the composer and the time period in which the piece was written.

Yet on rare occasions I have had a conflict with a young musician (and it is always a young musician who says the following), and I have had them tell me “that’s not the way it is on the recording.”

Honestly, this statement I find utterly flabbergasting.  First of all, if your argument to me is that there is a recording that you have heard that does something different than what I am doing, as opposed to your argument being that there is a tempo indication I might have missed or a harmony in the phrase that is important, then what does that tell me about you?  It tells me that you don’t have the musical intelligence to make a musical decision on your own.  Instead you have decided to cheat your way through getting an understanding of a piece by relying on an aural crutch, one that has no more relevance to the argument than does a doorknob.

Second, “THE recording?” Really? Not only have you already demonstrated that you haven’t the brains to make your own decisions but now you have taken the ONE recording you have downloaded from iTunes as Gospel?  At this point I guarantee you that I have lost all respect for you as a musician and as a human being.  You are the antithesis of the phrase homo sapien sapien, and you have demonstrated all the trappings of a member of the  musical Tea Party – relentlessly parroting utter nonsense not based in fact for your own self-aggrandizement.

I cannot imagine Sebastian Bach, that most Learnéd of Musicians, ever taking this kind of intellectual shortcut.  If I have one piece of advice to give to all young musicians it is this – erase your MP3 player.  Instead, study the score.  Read about the composer, what age the composer lived in, their influences, their ideals about music, and then make up your own mind based on that information.  The music you create will be exciting, fresh, and worthy of being listened to in the great halls throughout the world.  Otherwise, why bother?  I can listen to THE recording in the comfort of my living room without having to spend all that money on a ticket to hear you faithfully recreate it.

Composers, expecially the great ones, were generally not idiots.  It behooves you to not treat them as such.

16 thoughts on “The Death of the Learnéd Musician”

  1. I share your frustration with this lack of creativity and constant referral to “the” recording. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve lost all respect for these young students as musicians, and certainly not as human beings. They simply don’t know any better, and have never been told. It’s our job as educators to enlighten our students, not to dismiss them. I agree with your assessment of the problem, but have to disagree with your placement of blame. Let’s work to educate musicians regarding their responsibility rather than condemn them for their ignorance.

  2. Nice article! Unfortunately I keep having students that haven’t listened to any recordings at all! If we are talking about a student/teacher relationship, I think we have to tell our students that intelligent professional musicians around them will dismiss them as ignorant if they bring up recordings as a defense of their interpretations, and that they will be right to do so. I agree totally with the ‘think for yourself’ mantra. If serious art music was more prevalent in this country, music students would be apt to enter college with proper expectations.

  3. I agree that a professional, mature musician uses many methods and research to decide how to perform a piece. However, I think listening to many good performances of the world’s best musicians is a great way to gain understanding about the music one is performing. I wish students would listen more, as well as study scores and all the other research you mention, before trying to rehearse and perform a piece. Then, all the musicians would come together with a set of common assumptions to start with. After that, they can bring their individual ideas and nuances to the ‘table’ as the piece develops. Yes, they should listen to more than “THE” one recording, but as has been said, as educators and mentors, we must encourage informed listening as one tool in our development. I hope you try to lead those budding musicians into broader, deeper knowledge of the music they are learning, and remember that we all learn in different ways. Studying the score is one way to learn.

    I remember being a ‘young musician’ back when I knew ‘everything’-Budding musicians know a lot, (I was just told by my student 2nd horn “Well, I know how it should go- I’ve been playing for TEN YEARS!”) but they have no idea yet how much more there is to learn, or that there will ALWAYS be something more to learn…after several sets of Ten Years, I am still developing…and I can remember being at that stage. I could have used a mentor then to open my eyes to all the nuances in the music and in performing with others, and to open my mind to how much I needed to learn … I’m sure in your position you have helped many young musicians along that path, so please encourage them to listen AND study the score.

  4. Bill
    With composers from periods before recordings existed I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying. The exception when I do rely somewhat heavily on a recording is when the composer himself is conducting. Not that they were always the best conductors and not even specifically for tempo (they themselves welcomed interpretation) but for instance with the Villa Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, (speaking of Bach) in his recording he adds two repeats without explanation that aren’t in the score, so I can only assume that was his final word, or at the very least he gives the option. In this case they work so I do them. The other thing that all musicians, soloists and conductors need to consider are the abilities, strengths and challenges of the group they are in front of and this speaks to your point, because if you are relying on a Berlin Phil recording in your head and you are standing in front of a high school orchestra, it is not likely to be a good combination and you will probably finish before the orchestra does!

  5. Bill,

    This is even more exasperating with young conductors, whom I refer to as “armchair conductors.” While I agree that a perusal of recordings (many, many recordings) can help open the idea mill, far too many conductors try to do it like famous conductor “X. ” And then by recording their imaginary Berlin Philharmonic, expect everything that a CD can produce, which often includes unrealistic acoustical balances, expectations, and response to gesture. And rarely does it enter the mind that these young aspirants are not the embodiment of von Karajan. My advice to them is to turn off the iPod and enter the score!

  6. My only question is, why did you have to mar this otherwise excellent article with an unnecessary political low blow? Do you not value *all* your readership?

    • “Political low blow?” I was making an analogy. To wit – I was looking for something that misrepresents reality, ignores facts, and generally exists for people to parade around, pander their own egos, and blather nonsense that doesn’t make any sense. Since that is the very definition of the Tea Party I don’t see where this could be construed as a low blow.

    • That was definitely not a “low blow” to the Tea Party. It is a well-known fact that they continually spout utter nonsense, and this analogy was a legitimate and illustrative point that he made in his article.

  7. Good article in general. I would like to elaborate on some of your points. I hope you are not serious when you claim to lose all respect for musicians as human beings for simply displaying human frailty (in this case, the frailty of basing one’s interpretation of a piece of music from a recording). Why not make it a teachable moment and share your knowledge of the score, the composer, the historical context, and how this knowledge influences your interpretation? And impart this information in a way that is non-judgemental of either the musician or her preferred recording.

    The narrow minded attitude you mention can be attributed, at least in part, to the conservatory system which trains students to be skilled specialists in their own instruments, but not to be the learnéd musicians which you would like to see. In my opinion, students of classical music should be taught not just their own specialty with theory and general music history on the side, but also composition, improvisation, the history of their own instrument (how many violinists really know the history of their instrument?), plus at least one European language other than English, a general history of Europe, an acquaintance with classical literature (Greek and Roman) and the Bible, poetry and drama, recording technology, and self-marketing and survival skills. Who cares if it can’t be squeezed into four years? The problem is that students learn to play the orchestra excerpts and a few solo pieces in a vacuum, they graduate, if they’re lucky they get a job, but they aren’t really prepared to be musicians and informed artists in society. Of course, all those extra subjects I mentioned won’t necessarily land one a job in a top orchestra if one hasn’t mastered one’s instrument, but that extra knowledge will help one survive once the novelty wears off and one is faced with yet another Beethoven 5.

    Finally, taking pot shots at political groups is popular these days, but I doubt that only the Tea Party has a monopoly on an inability to handle facts. This inability seems to be common among politicians and political groups in general, who will believe (or disbelieve) anything they want in order to gain power. The learnéd individual would do well to stand back from the groupthink, listen to all points of view, especially to those from whom he might disagree, and strive to discover the truth for himself, lest he be trapped by the very narrow-mindedness he deplores in the body of the article above.

  8. I’m tempted to say I’ve lost all respect for you as a musician, as a writer (?), and as a human being because of the wrong accent on “learnéd.” There actually isn’t any accent in English, but if there were, it would be learnèd (easy to ascertain you didn’t study French … okay, I assess, not a particularly learned homo sapien here). Then there is “expecially” and “vey” (that one is probably just a typo, but those lose points, too). Storytelling is one word, not two … shall I go on?

    Are you this unobservant with scores, I wonder?

    Seriously now, I’m sure you made some excellent points (in fairness, you did, and I agree with most), but having already encountered so many errors in your writing, I truly lost interest, connection, and caring when you judged your example as basically unworthy of breathing. By your logic and judgment, if you’re going to write, learn to write excellently – otherwise, don’t. Ever. I should probably add some form of “How dare you sully the esteemed art of writing by publishing such semi-literate balderdash?” since that’s how you sounded about the inferior, young musician for whom you instantly lost all respect as a musican and as a human being.

    How does this feel, by the way? It’s a mirror of the attitude you expressed. Is that really who you mean to be?

    If we treat each other this way, there is no point to any of it.

    • Thanks for your note. I shall concede your point and let you get back to your regular job flipping burgers.

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