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 teachers 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 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 in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.