We Need A Minor League System for Musicians

The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell highlights a little-discussed gorilla in the corner of most high school and college music rooms: the overwhelming amount of practice it takes to become an elite performer in the world of professional music. Gladwell outlines a study by K. Anders Ericsson that tracked the practice habits of conservatory music students in Berlin’s Academy of Music. Their findings were illuminating: despite the music world’s love affair with the concept of the “genius”, “virtuoso”, and “talented” performer, Ericsson found that the greatest determining factor in the rate of improvement and eventual professional success of promising students was not their innate abilities. It was, in fact, their practice routine. The number of hours of practice per week inclined steadily from childhood through age 20, resulting in over 10,000 hours of practice logged by the time the students had graduated from college.

What’s more, Ericsson was able to extrapolate further on this “10,000 Hour Rule” to create a four-tiered strata of eventual professions for music students, based on their total number of practice hours. Student with 8,000 hours were considered “merely good”, and students with around 4,000 hours became teachers! Coincidentally, Ericsson also studied amateur pianists and found that they averaged only 2,000 hours of practice over the same period that “elite” professionals were logging five times that many. That no “naturally gifted” students were able to slacken their practice pace and still rise to the top of the brew should serve as a strong warning to aspiring professional performers, but it also has strong implications for aspiring professional music educators. The saying in baseball is that “the numbers don’t lie”, and Ericsson’s research indicates that the numbers here are, at least at first, overwhelming. For students, however, it might and should come as something of an inspiration. It isn’t some unknown commodity of “talent” that determines whether you make it to the top: it’s a matter of consistent practice.

It is understood by many parents and students that ensemble music courses, from the elementary level to post-secondary, are more than a laboratory environment for learning music skills. Music ensembles are frequently thought of as an expressive and creative outlet (though, frequently, creativity has little to do with it), a social bubble and community of caring classmates, an environment for students to display leadership skills, and, in some avenues, an opportunity to engage in a type of competitive environment most frequently found in youth athletics. Parents and the greater public, and, increasingly, students themselves, wish ensemble music experiences to contain a degree of entertainment value that they find in popular and consumer music. With tight budgets and cultural disregard and disrespect for the arts so common that it has become an assumed matter of course, schools, where {by the far the greatest degree of traditional and contemporary music education and training is taking place}, favor quantity over quality when gauging the worthiness of arts courses to even exist.

How, then, can any music educator be counted upon to ensure students get anywhere close to the number of practice hours they need to be competitive for a future in the profession? Even an ensemble that meets one hour a day for an entire school year only provides 180 hours of rehearsal time, 1,260 total if you track 6th thru 12th grade. Most teachers are lucky to meet 30 minutes three times per week, and that time is not necessarily focused on individual achievement and growth. Too often, music educators at the secondary level are trapped by the “y’all come” nature of their ensemble, forced to spend the majority of their efforts on bringing less knowledgeable or less motivated students up to snuff and praying that the ambitious students figure it out on their own. Even then, a motivated self-starter who practices on his/her own one hour a day all school year for seven years would log 2,030 hours of practice. Combined with the generous hour of daily rehearsal over that same time period, the number of hours logged isn’t quite a third of the necessary hours needed to make the 10,000 hour barrier. Going into college, such a student would need to practice four hours and thirty-six minutes per day, seven days a week, for four straight years to make it to exactly 10,000 hours.

What the professional and academic music scene needs is a farm system, a minor leagues of music, so to speak. I’m not talking about placing professional symphonies and opera companies in every small town in America, more the system of improvement and growth that a minor league system represents.

Take professional baseball in the United States. Players who show promise during their high school careers are drafted or signed to “professional” contracts with a team affiliated with a major parent, usually an MLB team. These minor league teams are located in cities large and small across the country and are split into strata from “rookie” teams composed entirely of newly signed players to the “A teams” classified as A, AA, and AAA, each of which represents a progression in skill and development of the player. Finally, players on the AAA teams serve as a sort of reserve squad for their parent MLB franchise, and players on the bubble of professional readiness for the major league roster frequently bounce between these two levels until they either earn a regular spot on the big team or settle into a less prestigious role. It is not uncommon for a newly signed prospect to spend five to seven years in the minor league farm system before he is ready to play in the “big leagues”. While players are on this developmental journey, they receive individualized instruction to improve their own skills. Position coaches specialize in the detailed skills of fielding, pitching, hitting, and catching. Managers bring all of these skills and talents together to create a stronger team and teach the players how to contribute their unique gifts to the greater good of the players around them. Experienced players teach rookies important shortcuts and advice from their personal experience, and strength and conditioning coaches work on the fundamentals of general athleticism to ensure that players can continue moving forward free from injury. Together, this system provides young players with the necessary 10,000 hours in a constructive, strategic, and purpose-driven environment.

There are already several parallels between the music academy and the baseball farm system. Position coaches are like studio teachers, focusing on the specific skills of the chosen instrument. Managers are akin to ensemble directors, bringing everyone’s talents together to make an ensembe, cast, or company. Graduate students assume the position of veterans, providing insights from experience, and music theory, pedagogy, ear training, and musicology provide fundamental, core knowledge of music that informs and improves student practice and performance in every genre. One could think of music majors on scholarship as a sort of “drafted” prospect, one who shows promise in high school and whose potential warrants a financial investment on the part of the university. In this way, there is sort of a farm system in place for developing musicians. However, where the musical academy falls short of professional baseball is in the connections, networks, and agreements between the different parts. High schools and universities rarely coordinate curriculum and expectations for promising musicians beyond state or regional music standards that are inconsistently adhered to or assessed. As a result, a student may spend 10 or more years in college trying to get to 10,000 hours, frequently paying thousands of dollars with few, if any, professional engagements during that time. Beginning minor donleague don’t make much, but it’s at least an incentive for developing players to stick with it until they’ve gotten to the highest level.

High schools need to start taking seriously what it means to prepare students for the next level. There is a reason why there are always one or two high schools in every state that send a disproportionate amount of promising young athletes on scholarship to collegiate athletics: their coaches, parents, and institutions decided that preparing students for every possible future in athletics, including professional sports, was going to be a goal and priority of their program. Therefore, these stakeholders invested the resources necessary to give their student-athletes the skills they need to make the jump to the next level.

Likewise, universities need to become more proactive in creating partnerships with professional, semi-professional, and amateur ensembles, artist programs, and institutions in their community and greater region, working to provide these organizations with future contributors and leaders. Performers should be moving out into these organizations as a natural extension of their university experience. There will always be a “major league” level of music performance. The Met isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These major organizations should reach out to others in a formal capacity. This doesn’t mean that the organization would have to have an inclusive partnership with a “feeder” program, but having a strong, mutual understanding of the skills and experiences desired by the bigger fish can only help the smaller fish to swim faster and stronger.

A farm system of interconnected curricula, expectations, and mutual respect and understanding is a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Ensemble music in secondary school isn’t going to change overnight. Nor is the societal value of academy music and music education. However, if the United States wishes to bring more students to the 10,000 hour threshold, it needs a better process than the wild west system it is currently saddled with. Middle and high schools (which should already, but often aren’t, be aligned with each other on curriculum) should work to align their curriculum with the needs of their local and regional post-secondary institutions. Those institutions should, in turn, partner with area professional and semi-professional organizations to provide graduates with a stepping stone into the professional music world. From there, less formal relationships and understandings can be made on a broader range of needs between these local/regional organizations and their “major league” counterparts.

The result of this system should bear fruit at all levels: increased competition at the highest echelons of the profession will move it forward. Increased awareness of, and participation in, regional music organizations will increase civic awareness and community engagement and support for local institutions. Universities can demonstrate their commitment to lifelong learning and increased practice time after students walk out the door while also receiving more students who possess the prioritized requirements of their music schools. Finally, and most importantly, secondary music programs can build bridges into the professional world, adding legitimacy to arts education through increased student participation after graduation and heightened academic and artistic integrity for students throughout their seven years of middle and high school music.

Let’s play ball!


Performing Bach Passions for Musical Muggles

I love the Passion settings of Bach.

I love to listen to them during Holy Week.

I don’t know who first called Bach the “fifth evangelist”, but I couldn’t agree more. His large, dramatic settings are inspiring and profound. They are deep examinations of the varying relationship Christians have with Christ. What’s more, the themes of the work are still incredibly relevant to what Christians face today.

However, not a single one of my American music muggle friends (non-music folk) listens to these works, if they’ve ever heard of them.

Even the churchgoers would have little chance of hearing them, as they are usually not performed in church anymore, having been moved to the concert hall as museum pieces. Most modern American performances of these phenomenal works are incompatible with today’s average American music listener, for a variety of reasons:

  1. The musical texture doesn’t make sense to them
  2. It’s in a language (German) they don’t understand
  3. The instrumentation, melody, and rhythms aren’t as easily internalized as the run-of-the-mill pop song
  4. It’s LONG AS HELL with no breaks or just one intermission
  5. It’s entirely “presentational”, with no room or space for audiences to engage in the experience.

Would you be surprised to learn that none of these were impediments to audience understanding during Bach’s time?

The original performances (if we can call a worship service a performance) were in churches in Leipzig, Germany in the early 1700s. No concert hall, no large force of 200+ singers and players. Everyone spoke German, so it was in a language even the illiterate understood. Without the luxury of constant streaming music, aural memories caught repetitive themes more readily in complex textures. The entire Passion was designed to be part of a service, with a break for a sermon and hymns interspersed throughout the work for the congregation to stand and sing. They were participants in the greater experience. Throw in that church services frequently were longer than today’s 45-minute, home by Sunday kickoff affairs, and we can begin to understand why average, everyday German churchgoers in 1723 actually had much more to appreciate from Bach than audiences today.

So here’s the question: can we make Bach’s passions more relevant to today’s worshiper/audience member while still honoring the music and meaning of the original work? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Perform the work in English translation. There are some pretty good English translations out there of this work and other Bach masterpieces. Later in his career, Robert Shaw was a vocal proponent of this method of classical performance. If the original intention of Bach’s passions was for audiences to hear the story in their own language, then American audiences need to hear it in English. No more multi-page translation sheets or spending all of one’s time staring at a projector screen above the ensemble.
  2. Let the audience sing the chorales. Their purpose was to draw the congregation into the action. The work was never intended to have audiences sit and watch others for its entirety. Conductors need to give up control of the technical perfection of the chorales in exchange for facilitating more communal experiences. The purpose of dramatizing the Passion in the first place was to get people emotionally and spiritually involved in the story. Bonus: Letting the audience sing the chorales also gives the rest of the singers a chance to catch their breath!
  3. Bite size it even more. While most scholars believe that the Passions were meant to be performed in two halves with a sermon in the middle, the modern, 8-minute audience attention span is still going to be ill-served by this format. Why not place a few brief pauses in carefully selected locations? Read scripture, recite a poem, display relevant art or media, present movement and dance.
  4. Scale down the forces. Perhaps the only suggestion on this list that won’t make historical purists’ skin crawl, Bach never would have used 85 pieces and 100 singers. Too financially impractical and, frankly, not particularly intimate. I understand that beefing up the sound has its own dramatic advantages, but it also separates the audience from the individual performer, both physically and emotionally. What if there were no more than 40 musicians and fewer than 100 audience members?
  5. Don’t conduct it. Bach didn’t. You think you’re better than Bach? The truth is that conductors bring both an air of formality and a degree of separation between audience and performer. Someone has to cue, but ditch the penguin suit/formal concert gown and let the musicians take a little bit more personal responsibility. Contemporary audiences are also accustomed to watching performances across a variety of genres that don’t prominently feature the conductor.

This is a start. What other ideas do you have?



“It’s How Bach Would Have Heard It”: Stifling Creativity Through Historical Reconstructionism

I recently read a review in the New York Times that criticizes professional musicians for making artistic choices. A critic judges a professional German symphony and its conductor to be unmusical (or less musically perfect than they are capable of) because they made the conscious decision to not diminish the size of the orchestra for certain selections in their program. This scolding is part of a large, increasingly emboldened segment of the classical music academy that has begun to call for all performances to be “historically informed”. The movement seeks to synthesize the research of musicology with performance practice. This pendulum swing in favor of historical research has led to a plethora of recordings, interest sessions, and articles extolling the virtues of the concept. Their primary question comes in two parts: Is there an “ideal” performance version of a musical work (in the platonic sense of the word)? If so, is the ideal performance one that recreates, to the smallest detail, the exact environment of the original performance, as it would have existed in the time and space in which it was conceived? Such a recreation would, theoretically, be as close to sounding like what the composer him/herself would have heard or envisioned for the work. One can see the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to declare one’s own performance of a great master as “the way Bach would have heard it?” For many musicians this desire to recreate what the composer intended is like uncovering a new code in the DNA sequence of musical society, taking our understanding of the art form one step closer to perfection. It is a scientific principal applied to an artistic medium. We all like confidently declaring that we did something the “right” way.

To that end, many conductors and performers have been fascinated with the challenges such a performance presents. They are at pains to deploy the exact same forces, period instruments, physical staging of players, historical tuning, and historical language pronunciation that the latest scholarship has discovered. It has played out in concert halls and recordings across the world, though the American academy has embraced it with unusual relish. At a recent national gathering of the Choralrati, much conversation was had on the historical appropriateness of certain ensemble presentations. The higher the level of musicianship, the greater the expectation that the ensemble reproduce a historically informed performance. Generally, high school and youth ensembles are forgiven for not recreating historically informed performances because their role is seen to be more about exposure than artistry. However, collegiate and professional ensembles are increasingly expected to take this scholarship into consideration when making a public performance or risk being dismissed as “behind the times”, “unscholarly”, “amateurish”, or even “lazy”. The historical reconstructionism movement has developed a subgroup that seems to enjoy bullying anyone who doesn’t wear the same clothes as them.

To which I say, “bull.” First, it is impossible to actually recreate a historical performance. Taken to its furthest extreme, we have to admit that there are elements of the original performance of a work that make replicating it either impractical or undesirable. For example, women couldn’t conduct any of them. Women also didn’t sing or play in most ensembles until the 1800s or later. This is particularly a problem for singers, as the timbre and color of the adult female voice is naturally quite different from that of the boy soprano. Most institutions don’t have access to historical instruments, usually there are more students in a collegiate ensemble than there were in the church and court ensembles of history. Far too much time is already wasted on historical language pronunciation. It is very in vogue right now to sing with Latin pronunciation of a certain composer’s country because it is deemed to be more authentic to the sound that would have been heard during that time. No one (at least no one I have read about or heard) makes that same effort with historical vernacular language. Concert spaces today are built with different acoustics and technologies in mind. The inconsistency in application of these characteristics in today’s historically informed performances dilutes their potency.

This is all peas and carrots, to some degree. If musicians want to try recreating historically accurate performance environments, why not? There should be no problem with this approach provided it remains one of many methods of musical presentation. It’s certainly interesting to see and hear these unique performances, as they are usually quite different than contemporary concert paradigms. What should absolutely be condemned, however, is this call for historical accuracy to be the sole means by which an ensemble’s presentation and musical accumen may be taken seriously. Such a philosophy will inhibit creative and artistic interpretation, limiting conductors and ensembles to the role of large, expensive, human record players. Incapable of doing anything other than repeating what others have already done, the focus of their musical craft would lean toward technical efficiency and away from creative artistry.

Homogenization is, after all, just another word for standardization. Standards have their value: they define and defend quality and support tradition and institution. The musical world already has layers of hidden code in this regard, code written to dictate global themes and local minutae, from concert attire to program notes, musical technique, facial expression, concert length, appropriate venues, acceptable instrumentation, acceptable composers. The list goes on and on like some long, complex DNA blueprint for acceptable musicianship. To build outside of the blueprint is to risk marginalization and, on rare occasions, personal obsolescence.

Yet, creativity thrives beneath the shroud of mystery! If every element of an artistic form is quantified and codified, is it still artistic? Is artistry possible without individual interpretation, without creativity? Is not the essential, humanizing component of art that it explores and gives voice to the uncharted and undiscovered pathways of the human experience? Surely, this type of creative artistry cannot be reserved for art creators only. It is a vital quality for those who give voice to musical creation throughout time. Music without humanity is simply ink dots on paper. The music historian an critic alike should bear that in mind.