Do you believe in classical music?

Wonderful 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.

This compares to the much lower 5.7% growth in other genres. In fact, classical CD sales grew by 6.9%, while most other genres actually saw a decline in sales.

And 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 we must admit that the categories formulated by salespeople and marketeers rarely tell the whole story. But those of us who really believe in 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 so many piano teaching colleagues seem to largely avoid classical music unless and until it is specifically requested by a student or required for an exam. Why is this?

Why the problem with classical music?

The reasons for this seem often to be rooted in a simple desire to attract and please more students. And 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 the point that 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;
  • Favouring new educational music and downloads over established classics;
  • Complaining that the classical repertoire is dominated by the music of “dead, white European males”, as if this somehow makes it irrelevant in the modern world.

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. Many of the most recent piano pieces reviewed on Pianodao tick these boxes, 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 there are those who 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.

In any case, one would hardly need to dig far into the culture of jazz, rock, country or rap to similarly dismiss them on spurious grounds. To limit our own or our students’ cultural awareness is as logically inconsistent as it is morally dubious.

The Power of Great Music

And this brings us back to the simple truth: Good music is Good 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.

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 impact on so many others over many years, and from many backgrounds. There’s nothing quite like it!

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

  1. Put in whatever time you need to developing your own classical piano repertoire and deepening your love for our most treasured music.
  2. Share that love with all your students, including those you perhaps assume might not be interested.
  3. Offer your pupils a properly balanced diet of both new music and established classical core repertoire.
  4. 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 young players won’t respond positively to classical music, well I can attest from my own experience that they usually do.

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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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

One thought 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.

    Liked by 1 person

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