On Making Silk Purses from Sows' Ears and Similar Impossibilities: Broader Considerations of Music in General Studies

William Ennis Thomson

I'm always surprised when I realize how long we Americans have fretted over engaging I the masses in serious art. I suspect that Thomas Jefferson was one of our first champions of "great music for everybody," although I have no proof of his interest in the issue. But we must be aware that the very founding premises of our country established a hidden contradiction for arts education. Our two-century old concept of democracy, conceived within a distrust of aristocratic power got mixed with our American forebearers' embedded taste for leisure-class art. (You may remember that even Ben Pranklin composed for the string quartet.) These strange bedfellows of egalitarianism and high art naturally begot the dilemma of modern educators, who still want to spread the arts as broadly as possible without diluting its substance. I commend this goal, at the same time realizing that it may never be achieved.

In recent times, the first most conspicuous rumblings of egalitarian discontent, just after the population surge of the late 1940's hit higher education,came in the Rockefeller Report of 1965. Our current perspective might be aided if we remind ourselves of just one observation made in that far-reaching document, if only to help us recall that our problem today is a continuation rather than a beginning.

In the Rockefeller Report the historic role of the university is stated succinctly. It is even stated with some beguiling hint of future academic squabbles, which in the 1960's loomed only on the horizon. On page 118 of the Report, in reference to "Developing Public Interest in the Arts," we are told that perhaps the most important role of the university and the liberal art college is, and traditionally has been, development of an appreciation and understanding of the arts as a broad general education in the humanities. Many educators still believe this is the university's only legitimate function in the arts." 1

We of the music establishment have recognized and talked about and pondered, with increasing vigor over the past ten years, the need to develop stronger programs for educating the lay population in music. All musicians—academic as well as non-academic professionals—seem to have an insatiable thirst for bringing newcomers into the fold of serious music. I often wonder what are our true deep motives in this thirst. I hope that our paramount aim can always be the lasting benefit of the individual person, whatever our more selfish motives might be.

For my presentation today I have consciously adopted a somewhat different approach than I have heard expressed before. I hope that my broad perspective, the questions I raise, and the tentative recommendations I offer, can provide you with some helpful background for understanding why progress may be slow, and what considerations should be entertained before sweeping conclusions and ambitious programs are mounted.

I'll discuss three fundamental obstacles which thwart our attempts to provide a more engaging education and a more dynamic engagement in music for the non-professionals whom we wish ultimately to serve. My remarks will focus on why we are not encountering instant success in producing teachers whose thrust of expertise and commitment would be toward educating the music consumer rather than the music practitioner.

First I'll discuss recent organizational and motivational peculiarities of music schools which reduce our effectiveness in this one facet of our mission.

My second broad point of discussion will be the linguistic conventions and non sequiturs we professionals rely on in communicating about music with others, and how these misfortunes of language and logic often lead to the intellectual paralysis—not to mention the emotional sclerosis—of novice music lovers.

Then my third and final point of contention revolves around our profession's benign neglect of the kinds of support systems which must be in place if we expect to improve our service to the teachers of future audiences.

In the beginning, let us note that our educational institutions are themselves less conducive to developing the teachers of future consumers than they were half a century ago. In 1940 most of our total music education establishment was neatly and conveniently divided into three rather exclusive compartments. Conservatories trained makers of music, our future performers, conductors, and composers. As a second division of labor, the so-called "teachers- college" or "normal school" educated music teachers. Even institutions undesignated as "normal" or "teachers" nonetheless operated music departments that were little more than sonic extensions of their neighboring "college" or "school" of education. And then a third institutional sub-type was the department of music, whose mandate in the older and most prestigious universities was to train scholars, to perfect the skills of those whose principal professional aim was to talk about music rather than to do it.

Although quite different in their objectives, two of these kinds of institutions, the normal school and the music department, provided potential soil for growing educators of the common man, the kinds of persons who have gained widespread admiration for their gift in carrying the message of music to the uninitiated. Writers like Jacques Barzun, Joseph Kerman, and even that venerable veteran of the airwaves Karl Haas, have been able to catch the imagination of the musical novice and lead him on to a richer life in music.

But within the past forty years, American music education institutions have undergone a slow but appreciable evolution. Most of the major schools have become, to a greater or lesser degree, syntheses of the three types which in our history have been separated. Since World War II, schools such as Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and even my own USC, have combined under a single roof the forces of scholar, performer, and pedagogue. Even smaller schools of less ambitious caste have nonetheless adopted a similar stance, attempting to become all things to our profession. Overall, the result has been healthy, in my judgment, but it has not proved to be equally beneficial to all sectors of our discipline. A curious (and perhaps unexpected) byproduct has been that when the three subdisciplines of performance, scholarship and pedagogy are combined, performance and the performer always seem to come out on top of the priorities heap. This is at least true at the undergraduate level of study.

Why? I think the answer is simple. It is because creation and re-creation are the fundamental acts of music, those which make possible and give meaning to everything else. Talking about music (whether orally or in print) and teaching people about it are by nature once-removed from the essence. And so it goes in priorities, wherever large groups of musicians gather together.

Our broader society reflects the same ordering of values. I haven't read announcements lately about extravagant prizes for the best undergraduate essay on the subject of augmented sixth chords. I'm not aware of a national foundation providing grants for undergraduates who excel in the history of music. In fact, our undergraduate educational scene is not terribly inspiring in terms of high motivation for those who aren't direct producers of music. Only at the graduate level can a student hope for some small measure of approbation and commendation (and thereby gratification) for deeds that only indirectly bear on musical performance. Who are the recipients of our scholarships? Are they candidates for the B.A.?

What I report is not meant to be judgmental. I speak of this general organizational and motivational shift in the majority of American schools only because it subtly yet profoundly affects our students' sense of values and professional perspective. Rarely today will an undergraduate of an American music department, conservatory or school conclude that teaching non-musicians to interact more passionately and knowingly with music is a high-glamour goal. From the age of 18 to 20, they are all still on their way to Alice Tully Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra or to the Met.

Half a century ago the tri-part separation of our schools and departments eased the nurturing of this new kind of professional goal and expertise which we now seek. It even enabled a non-performance role to be seen as an admirable goal. This condition is less evident today.

The second area of conflict I want to mention has nothing to do with the first. In fact its history goes back at least two-thousand years prior to today's monolithic music school. I refer to the signs and symbols we use in communicating about music with others. I can't think of a human discipline in greater need of better tools than we use for this purpose.

First, let us face the regrettable but hard fact that most Americans don't read musical notation. Those who do seem to grow fewer every decade. And yet,do you notice how we seem to grow tongue-tied when we try to speak in depth about music to non-professionials? Have you ever longed to tell the average music lover something important about a musical passage without referring either to notation or alluding to musical concepts whose roots are imbedded in these strange hieroglyphics in which we encode our art?

Let me provide some descriptions in which the writer did not become tongue-tied, but whose reader is most likely dumbfounded.

Imagine the hopeful freshman for whom music notation holds no meaning, yet who has a deep interest in music and who knows it to be an art of sound. Now imagine this same student reading, early in a widely adopted music appreciation text, the following discussion of harmony and what this word refers to in the musical substance.

I quote: "Chords form the basis of harmony. In music notation, such a chord can be written so that the notes appear in a line-line-line or space-space-space arrangement."2

"Sometimes the same three notes in a chord are rearranged. For example, a low C . . . " Now, please remember just how rich in meaning is the term C for our sample freshman "may appear as a high C instead. This 'reorganization' may hide the basic pattern from the eye of a person looking at the notation, but the ear can hear the similarity, and the chord is essentially the same."

I could take too much of your time in dissecting the multitude of ways these statements are meaningless for those who can't visualize musical sounds or who can't audiate written signs, yet note that the author's description of one of music's critical properties is couched in references to seen rather than to heard images.

We have known of this problem for many years. A quaint statement of its inherent irony can be found in, of all places, Mrs. Curwen's Pianoforte Method published in London in 1886. The venerable Mrs. Curwen allows that "Music, from first to last, is a thing of hearing. Music reaches heart and brain through the ear, yet we have usually tried to teach it through the eye. It was always 'look' and never 'listen'."3

Our unintentional obfuscation only increases when we don't even realize that our language is drawn from notation. Consider our frequent references to "One" chords and "Five" chords. The numbering system carried by these terms can't be separated from notation. Even a rudimental understanding, of notes and staff doesn't enable one to understand the dynamics of harmonic structure we allude to, even in speaking of the simplest tonal music.

I find it curious that we have sponsored at least fifty years of elaborate pedagogical research in this country but still haven't developed a vocabulary capable of transmitting musical understanding without resorting to an incomprehensible language.

Allow me one additional example of our self-imposed linguistic road blocks. We have all read statements in primers of music similar to the following:

Statement #1: "Harmony in music is a product of tones sounding together rather than separately as in melody."

Later Statement # 2: "The music of Palestrina is not based in harmony. This great Renaissance composer formed his compositions from interweaving melodies, all of which are of equal interest. This lack of harmony is compensated for by emphasis on the horizontal rather than on the vertical plane of music."

I'll make only two brief observations of such explanations. First, the writers of such lines suffer an incomplete knowledge of the Palestrina repertory, which is by no means limited to textures created by "melodies that interweave." But even more pertinent to our current point, elementary logic denies credibility for both Statement #1 and #2, and this is where harm is done the anxious novice. If we remember (from Statement #1) that tones sounding together produce harmony, reflection forces us to wonder why some tones sounding together do but Palestrina's don't.

And thus the inexperienced reader either concludes that there is still some dark mystery out there in the history of music, or that perhaps music can best be left for the joys of the more tenacious. Our most uncommon common language has denied us another convert.

In some ways, my third and final complaint is of greater urgency and importance than the previous two. It is also the most formidable to overcome. It has to do with our collective disregard for educational forces outside our schools. These forces can't be controlled, but they can be influenced, and if we truly are concerned about the general health of music in our society, we are the best group to exert that influence.

Educators all seem to believe that every human flaw and every societal shortcoming has a ready correction in the classroom. Give us some aspect of ignorance and what do we do? We plan a new course! If our new course can be made a required course in somebody's curriculum, then universal enlightenment surely is just around the comer.

What a naive, perspective of education! Many problems are best solved outside a formal class; much ignorance is most effectively overcome through suggestion rather than by preaching. In fact, what happens in a classroom can be effective only to the degree that the learner's sense of values either eases or inhibits the reception of knowledge. And it occurs to me that our communications media have a lot to do with our values. They have a great deal to do with the public's notion of what music might mean for life.

Did you ever reflect upon the actual value, for the serious as well as for the casual listener, of the typical newspaper concert review? I have, and I have concluded that in its present form its function is obsolete, its timing is unfortunate, and its help in encouraging and in educating any audience, lay or professional, is at best trivial. In fact, the typical concert review harbors an implication for readers that distorts their view of what music is really about and what can be derived from it.

The typical post-performance music review, whether in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, or the Los Angeles Times, replaces the old journalistic triumvirate of WHO, WHEN and WHERE with WHAT WAS PLAYED, WHO PLAYED IT and HOW WELL. These are indeed matters of import for performers and their careers. (If the evidence is damaging enough, even for their detractors as well.) Yet the concert review whets mostly the wrong appetite in the listener. The musical insight present in a truly perceptive review is actually lost, for it is unlikely that the reader will have a chance to hear a repetition of the same concert, once the review appears three days after the fact. Even so, precious few reviews tell us anything about music. The review relates to us, first of all, an event that is past, and it describes surface effects rather than underlying causes for a particular human experience. In its worst form, a concert review gossips about star performers, disregarding wholly what musical meaning the star was supposed to be projecting.

Listeners—and especially inexperienced ones—need more help before a concert rather than after. They need two basic things which newspapers and radio and television don't provide; First, they need accurate information about the musical substance as an auditory experience, and second, they need encouragement in believing that what music is is important because it is potentially a moving human experience. And this is where the media could form a more powerful lobby than all of our general education classes, all of our well prepared teachers of music appreciation.

When I read the Sunday sports section of the L.A. Times, I move from detailed analyses of Saturday's collegiate games through the projected conditions for the Raiders' game on Sunday and expectations for the Rams' game on Monday night. I pause over an essay about some quarterback's survival of knee surgery, move on to an accounting of why this basketball team has slim expectations for next season, that team's new draft choice, some leftover musings about why the Dodgers lost to the Phillies, and I end with headlines screaming about Abdul Jabbar's experimentations with drugs. I could drown in the verbiage of sports in my own home. But two things become clear to me. First, these must be important matters if so much human effort and newsprint are devoted to them, and second, I am impressed with how informed and "connected" I can become if I just read on, and on, and on.

Believe me, I have no wish that arts news coverage ape our media's coverage of sports. But I do know that we are missing our greatest educational opportunity when we don't individually and collectively cry out for equal time, equal space, equal projection of human importance. Is music important? If it is, do our media reflect this importance? I know, and you know, that the cause of music in general education would be vastly furthered—in fact, it would be geometrically progressed—if you and I and our colleagues hounded our journalists, demanding drastic changes in their representations of music as an art and as a commodity. These people could and should be our accomplices. They have more power to sway our students' sense of values than you do. Our syllabi and texts will remain weak tools without a public reappraisal of values that cause people to regard music—or any art—as more than a play thing for the few.

Let me give you a recent personal example that I find as annoying as I find it convincing. I've been a movie-goer all of my life. From Snow White to The Return of the Jedi, film has been a favored form of entertainment for me. But since moving to Los Angeles just four years ago, I find a detectable shift in the way I behave in theatres and in what my perspective of film as art and film as commodity has become.

Much to my surprise, I now sit through the credits at the end of a screening, where once I would have been the first patron on the way to the parking lot, once the actual dramatic images had faded. For the first time in my life, I find myself concerned not with just who directed a film, but also who produced it, who wrote the screenplay, even who those hapless creatures called "grips" were. In the past, I might have felt specially inquisitive just to seek out who composed the score.

Furthermore, I now have a far greater awareness of filmic technique, even to the point of detecting flaws in pace, weaknesses in dialogue or in casting, or in any of the facets of the complex mix that makes a motion picture.

Why has this change come about for me? Simple. It comes from my gradual reaction to the barrage of radio and video and newspaper attention to film that exists in Los Angeles, a day by day focus on anything directly or remotely connected with the history, the present or the future of the silver screen. No aspect of the art, the business, the psychology, the sociology, nor the anthropology of the film world is left unmentioned. Motion pictures are important in Los Angeles, and its citizens aren't allowed to forget that fact. Those who are in no way involved in this business are innocently seduced into an acceptance of its significance because of its hovering presence in our local media. A psychological set is inexorably fixed by mere suggestion.

But sheer volume of verbiage, you might say, need not distort my perspective. True. But pay special attention to a part of my message. The very fact that so much is said suggests that this medium is important, that there is more to it for me than I once imagined. Like any other reader or listener, I have slowly absorbed the implied message more thoroughly than the actual words. Film is important to me. It wasn't four years ago.

Given page after page of attention in newspapers, given recognition by radio announcers and TV newscasters that art music survived World War I, given something more than our struggling little "serious music stations," we would find our work as educators less an uphill effort. Music could become more acceptable to a broader population. But only because conditions outside our schools have softened the market.

This leads me to say in closing that these barriers to our success are all three the more pernicious because their scope is greater than the single class or school curriculum.

What can we do about them?

In regard to the second problem area I mentioned, our failing language can be directly attacked by each of us if we care enough to overcome it by systematically rummaging through out linguistic attics. The most helpful and far reaching changes will not occur, however, until our scholars have coined a language that works as well for non-professionals as it works for us, ridding us all of this jammed circuit of communication.

The first problem I referred to was that of how our recent synthesis within the single institutions of performance, scholarship and pedagogy, has not provided the best breeding ground for teachers of the lay public. It seems evident that the immediate resolution of this problem is to sincerely and forcefully reinvigorate the B.A. degree in music. The B.A.'s image has never been outstanding among professionals and it has been further tarnished within the past twenty years. What is essential is a curriculum, of precisely defined substance for the B.A., a curriculum directed toward tighter professional goals rather than the vague notions of "learned humanist" associated with it in the past. And coupled with this curricular overhauling would have to come dollars where good words end. By this I mean that we would have to release scholarship aid for those students whose principal virtue is in being bright students who might not be able to augment our string sections or opera casts.

Provided a revitalized sense of urgency and professional integrity, the B.A. degree could overcome the stigma of painful alternative that our performance dominated programs have imposed on it during the past three decades. Lacking such fundamental changes, we can't expect talented young musicians to opt for professional goals outside the more glamorous mainstream we set for them.

And finally, we must note that the mores of a culture are not quickly nor easily changed. Our communications network is complex, it is expensive, and it is firmly rooted in the values of the larger society it serves. Does this mean that we need not attack it when it ignores or poorly serves our special interests? Does this mean that we should meekly accept the status quo of contemporary mass media, which relegate art music to a minor role in human affairs?

These are questions only you can answer. Let us observe, nonetheless, that while music as an art in history has been a minority affair, ours is the age of minority uprisings. What should keep us from demanding that Beethoven is at least as important as the very hardest metal rock, that the concert master of the New York Philharmonic is as significant to our lives as Pete Rose?

In seeking greater musical awareness, our attempts at expansion are made more difficult because our background support systems are useless. Their functions are defined by obsolete ideas of how music serves people, and they distort what they purport to enhance and elucidate. Only a mass of concerned and acting people can change this condition, and it is my conclusion that we aren't doing much about it.


1Report to the Rockefeller Foundation, New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 1965, page 118.

2Hoffer, Charles, The Understanding of Music, First Edition, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1967, page 39.

3Curwen, Annie, Mrs. Curwen's Pianoforte Method, London: John Curwen and Sons,1886.