Do you believe in classical music?

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Great news: the latest figures from the BPI reveal that sales and streaming of recorded classical music grew by 10.2% in 2018 compared to the 2017 figures.

Taking a closer look, classical CD sales grew by 6.9%, while most other genres saw a decline. Meanwhile, online streaming of classical music grew by a whopping 42%, compared to the 33% rise in the overall market. These figures are presented and discussed in this BBC News article.

Some will no doubt quibble over the specific artists and composers featured in the statistics, and the categories formulated by salespeople and marketeers rarely tell the whole story.

But those of us who believe in promoting classical music won’t be surprised by its upsurge and enduring popularity. We know that once people encounter good music, it can wield its transformative power.

It is odd, then, that some piano teacher would seem to largely avoid classical music unless and until it is specifically requested by a student or required for an exam. Why is this?

A problem with the classics?

Teachers naturally have a simple desire to attract and please more students. When evaluating a pupil’s stated musical interests and prior learning, an assumption can emerge on both sides that they are unlikely to enjoy or be interested in classical music.

While this is sometimes true (and there’s obviously nothing wrong with somebody explicitly choosing to learn jazz or pop piano playing), we too easily overlook an important point here: while a student may have no prior interest in classical music, a teacher’s job fundamentally involves expanding the horizons of their musical knowledge and experience.

There are perhaps also teachers who aren’t themselves particularly interested in classical music. Maybe their former teachers failed to bring classical music to life in a way that excited them as younger players, and they remain unsure how to do so for their own pupils.

Clearly too, some doubt their own ability to demonstrate or perform classical music to an appropriate professional standard, which of course colours their judgment about its place in their teaching practice.

Here are some of the ways in which ambivalence might manifest:

  • Choosing funky method books which steer away from classical music.
  • Complaining that exam syllabi are “boring” when they include predominantly classical repertoire, regardless of how universally and enduringly popular that music might be.
  • Prioritising contemporary music and song downloads over established classics.
  • Complaining that the classical repertoire is dominated by the music of “dead, white European males”, as if this somehow renders it devoid of universal truth and enduring relevance.

I’ll return to this last point in a moment, but first we must consider what it is that gives any music its special quality, and how as pianists and teachers this impacts our selection.

How do we evaluate quality?

What is it that elevates one piece or song above another? Most of us will recognise that the best music exerts a transformative power over performers and listeners alike. But how do we move beyond our subjective responses to evaluate more objectively the true quality of music?

Here are some suggestions of qualities and characteristics to look out for when evaluating any piece of music:

  • Imagination:  that spark of originality and creative inspiration.
  • Innovation: progressive, pioneering, influencing other musicians.
  • Integrity: well-written, with good form and compositional technique.
  • Idiomatic: suiting instrument, function and occasion.
  • Impact: exercising a tangible effect on its listener.

These qualities are abundant in music of all genres and times.

Music reviewed on Pianodao ticks all or most of these boxes to qualify for inclusion in the Pianodao Music Library, and I am not suggesting we stop exploring the wonderful seem of new music. Nor should we ever consider frustrating our own creativity or that of others by limiting ongoing new music creation.

Rather, our development and exploration of new music should be balanced with understanding and appreciation of its context in the larger scheme of music history. And the way to do that is to recognise the immense and enduring value of the composers who went before us.

To the above list of qualities, we might therefore finally add:

  • Immortality: music whose appeal and impact endures from one generation to the next.

If music written 100, 200, or even 500 years ago can still speak to audiences today (as opposed to being merely of academic interest), we must celebrate the immense achievement of its enduring quality.

“Dead, white European males”?

And yet, bizarrely, some seem to consider the age and longevity of great music a reason not to play it.

And I find it genuinely shocking that anyone would imply that the skin colour, nationality or even the gender of the composer is somehow a deal-breaker. Surely we have a responsibility to teach our students that these absolutely don’t matter when it comes to the quality of the music?

Whether teaching an Indian Raag to an American teenager or the music of Martinů to an Asian child, teachers need to explain its historical and cultural background. So too it is the teacher’s duty to help students foster their own personal connection to the music they are learning, which will often involve explaining what it means to us and why.

And of course the best music has its own inner narrative, which students must ultimately be encouraged to discern, interpret and engage with for themselves.

The Power of Great Music

And this brings us back to the simple truth:

Great Music is Great Music, whether written by a Hungarian in the 18th century, by an African-American in the 20th, or even by a Martian invader in the 22nd.

So, do I believe in classical music? Yes, you bet I do! I’ve experienced its transformative power in my own life, and I’ve had the privilege of witnessing its special impact on so many others over many years, and from many backgrounds.

If you are a piano teacher, my plea to you is therefore this:

  • Put in whatever time you need to developing your own classical piano repertoire and deepening your love for this treasured music.
  • Share that love with all your students, including those you perhaps assume might not be interested.
  • Offer your pupils a properly balanced diet of both new music and established classical core repertoire.
  • While building on your pupils’ prior learning and enthusiasm, remember that as teachers we have a responsibility to enlarge their knowledge and broaden their experience of music.

If you would like my help or support with any of this, get in touch.

If you are concerned that students won’t respond positively to classical music, well I can attest from my own experience repeated with consistency across three decades that they usually do. But until they have had the opportunity, we’re all in the dark!

As the great composer and educator Zoltan Kodály so beautifully and succinctly put it:

“Let us take our children seriously!
Only the best is good enough for a child”

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

5 thoughts on “Do you believe in classical music?”

  1. Great article as always! With my students, I give them a piece of music to listen to each week. They choose which time period, baroque, classical etc. They create a playlist and write a few bullet points of their thoughts about the piece which we disucss in the lesson. It’s a great way for them to access the rather overwhelming genre of ‘classical’ music and to personally engage with music outside of the pieces they are learning.

  2. Hi Andrew and everyone. Please brace yourselves because this post is going to be a little spicy (and a little lengthy!).

    As a Person Of Colour (POC) who’s played both classical and modern/popular music, I feel I need to jump in here to clarify somethings. No one anywhere says “that the skin colour, nationality or even the gender of the composer is somehow a deal-breaker.” The issue is that the vast, vast majority of pedagogical repertoire is _ONLY_ dead white European males, to the utter and complete exclusion of everyone else. Open any classical graded exam pieces book, remove all pieces that were composed by dead white European men, many of these publications would now be 100% blank pages. Or even just remove all pieces by men (forget dead, white, and European), and you’ll probably still end up with a blank book. This is a huge problem. This is the deal breaker.

    Of course these pieces have longevity, because there was literally nothing else. Anyone who wasn’t a white European male and either rich (or attached to riches) basically didn’t exist or was completely ignored. It’s only now we’re just barely scratching the surface of (dead white European) women’s historical involvement in classical composition (see some of your lovely previous posts on this blog recently). And it turns out many of them only had the limited exposure they had because they were married to prominent male composers, or were their children.

    This is the same problem top universities have. “We only admit people based on merit”, except the vast majority of students (and staff) are white men from middle class (or richer) backgrounds. Then you aren’t admitting people on merit only, you are perpetuating the inertia of historical/institutional/structural barriers, whilst also being meritorious only to the ones remaining who aren’t excluded. This is not the same as being truly meritorious.

    Further, in giving people a well rounded and deep love for music, hopefully this should involve more than just classical music from dead white European men. No one will argue against the vast, deep, and meaningful contribution that Baroque/Classical/Romantic music has made to history and the modern day. But if pedagogical music presents this only and nothing else, then it is failing. Courtesy of your illuminating blog posts, I myself have bought those new publications that centre (dead white European) women’s classical compositions throughout history. These books are wonderful. That they need to exist for me to play _any_ classical music that isn’t by a dead white European man is the problem.

    How about teaching folks about how classical music has been the basis and inspiration of many hits in modern popular music, giving folks a deeper appreciation of both (and giving them more diverse music to play!)? How classical music has exerted influences on many modern musical genres, both historically and in the present day? What about more C20th music? What about more rock and pop songs? Many well-known popular music hits are composed/played/performed on the piano, piano ballads are a whole sub-genre of popular music (see: Elton John, Adele, Lady Gaga, etc.). What about music from cinema, TV shows, video games? Music should also come to where people live, to where they already enjoy and love things, not be a classical continent unto itself of only dead white European men that they need to sail to to be alone with their music teacher during their lessons.

    Just the cost alone of buying a piano already excludes (and has excluded) millions of people would have been wonderful musicians with a deep love for classical music. Any other barriers should be torn down by everyone, including music teachers. I would encourage anyone who teaches music, you expect your students to come to the classical music that you love and learn to share your love for it, do you also go to the things you students love and learn to share their love for it? Do you love to play and teach classical music composed by women? By People Of Colour (POC)? Do you love to play and teach modern music from rock, pop, cinema, TV, and video games?

    I understand this post could come across as fingerwag-y and a bit “I’m just telling you”, but I would encourage everyone to try and centre yourself from the point of view of anyone who has been excluded, both now and historically, for being not white, not European, and/or not male, and try to empathise and centre those people, and their musical work. Because they haven’t been. And they need to be.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to contribute such a detailed and helpful comment.

      I am glad to read that through the Pianodao website you have discovered the music of women composers. Hopefully you will also have noticed that I promote the music of black composers here, as well as jazz, popular music, films, shows, games and so on – all exactly as you advocate. I agree with you that this wealth of music immensely enriches music education. The counterbalance of this particular post (thinking back to 2018 when I wrote it) is that, like a pendulum swinging, I have found from working with teachers that some are neglecting the core classics in favour of only teaching new discoveries, which is (and I think you will agree) equally an error. We need to give a rounded education.

      The one point in your comment where I would agree to differ is your point that the music of the white european male composers has only survived “because there was literally nothing else”. Here I must disagree, because a lot of music from those centuries has disappeared entirely, and in my view that which has survived has done so because it has quality. I cannot overstate the extent that the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and so many others has had a transformative impact on my own life.
      Thanks again!

      1. I appreciate that my post made it through moderation, because I have had many experiences where (usually white) people address topics of diversity (or lack thereof) and when myself (or other POC) try to speak on the subject, we’re excluded or silenced (or told we’re angry, etc.). Sadly this also happens often in the classical world. And just to clarify, whenever I say “you”, I usually mean the general plural you of everyone. It wouldn’t be reasonable or fair to lay the diversity of classical and all music at your feet alone! I was remiss in not mentioning jazz in my original post, trying to avoid writing War & Peace.

        It’s also worth commending that you (this time you personally!) promote the work of Black composers, of women composers, of jazz, of popular music, of TV shows, films, and video games. It’s a big part of why I visit the blog regularly, and mention it to others. Sadly this diversity is not the norm, but I hope that one day it will be.

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