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Process or Product? Should recital, exam, and competition preparation fill our music lessons?

I remember watching the movie Shine twentysomething years ago. In it, “Rach 3” (Rachmaninoff’s Third piano concerto) is presented as the great white whale of the piano repertoire. The product of thousands of hours of practice.

Now, high schoolers play it. Which would be great, if that were part of a culture that’s broadly musical. But it’s not. Academic musicians are increasingly cloistered and we have to resort to outreach programs to get people to go to the symphony. 

Maybe instead of outreach programs we should have inreach programs where we guide students in nurturing the music that’s already in them.

My friend and former teacher, the world class jazz musician and Raleighite Elmer Gibson, told me a story about a piece he wrote for professional musicians in a string trio. The piece included an improvisatory section where the musicians were to solo using notes from an E Phrygian scale. He said they couldn’t play it. Without notes on the page in front of them they didn’t know what to do. So he ultimately had to write the parts out for them.

We’ve created a music culture where musicians need everything spelled out for them. It’s like an acting community where everyone knows Hamlet but nobody can have a conversation. Music lessons should be more than performer factories.

If our music lessons are entirely spent learning about notes that somebody else wrote, those lessons are not going to sustain our music culture. We should be constantly engaging in a process of singing and moving musically. This is how we develop our musicianship. Then we can apply what we’ve learned in ourselves in improvisation at our instrument. That’s how we sustain a musical culture with great expression and facility.

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