2. Between The Devil and the Deep Sea
For the majority of my time in music school, I had the lowest grades in my class. It’s better not to even think about some of the things I endured there. My perfect pitch changed the situation at the very core: instead of ordinary, I suddenly became gifted and extraordinary. This doesn’t mean that all of the problems disappeared, but for the first time in my life, my teachers began to take me seriously – what a difference that can make!
Then, at last, our music school had its final exams. One by one, my classmates, whom I had always seen as unreachable, rose to the stage to perform. They always had an easy time learning, and every year at the final, they performed with “excellent” marks. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever envisioned myself as becoming one of them. This time, though, I played well enough to get an “excellent” mark as well! This was my very first “5” in seven years. I was finally victorious! My eyes filled with tears, I promised myself that I would definitely find a way to teach every child to hear, understand, and make music.
After that fateful day, three decades passed. I expected to find many comrades-in-arms, hoping as I did for a better system of music education. This turned out to be a very naïve assumption. No matter what my accomplishments were, I was treated as a stranger, both in the music school and at the conservatory. I never forgot what it was like to be a “2” student, something that most of my classmates never experienced. This very difference affected the fate of my profession. More than anything else, I just wanted to find out more about music teaching. For some reason, this didn’t call forth the enthusiasm of my professors. Pedagogy, psychology, and methodology weren’t subjects that were received with respect by students, nor professors. The most popular subjects were in specialization: piano, music theory, music literature and criticism. Music schools specialized in producing concert performers or musicologists that wrote knowledgeable, lengthy theses. But ironically, most of these graduates ended up teaching in the beginners’ music schools. And of course, they taught the small kids just as they were taught in the conservatories!
It turns out that an ironic disrespect, even an attitude of hatred towards pedagogy is embedded in the very heart of music education. Graduates finish college and have trouble finding work, and eventually resort to teaching children as if it were an inescapable evil. Moreover, working for a music degree in education is not considered to be a good career move. Thus, most teachers rush to find ‘talents’ and polish them, so that they can show off the final ‘result’ without much trouble. There is barely anyone that is interested in finding ways to create musical abilities such as hearing, sight-reading, playing, and composition in students that don’t have them. This isn’t even thought to be possible!
Yet, why is work so hard to find? The field of performance is over saturated, as there isn’t much of a demand for it. Without educated listeners, musical art isn’t worth much. This means that making effective music education available to more people is even more important than preparing performers. Yet, most of the people on our planet are musically illiterate. Most people aren’t even capable of memorizing more than the simplest of melodies. Because of this, mass media is saturated with pop music, which, it must be acknowledged, isn’t very advanced. Worst of all, few professional musicians feel any personal responsibility for this. “The people are getting what they want, right?” they might say with a shrug.
When I chose to examine how best to teach children to listen to and understand symphony music as the topic for my thesis, there arose a scandal in the department of my Alma Mater.
I was called into the office and asked to think my choice over very carefully. It was explained to me that such a subject wasn’t suitable for a person like me, and that a career in musicology might as well have a gravestone over it. This seemed extremely unfair! I was sure that a single work of this nature would be worth thousands of those others, which were deeply “scientific” simply for the sake of seeming “scientific.” My work was actually invested in making music more accessible to “average” people! Without much regard to the protests, I wrote and successfully defended my thesis. Even now, I can’t shake the anxiety I’ve gotten for the future of the language of music.
Yet, even these difficulties came to use. In the conservatory, I learned the most valuable lesson: I wouldn’t be able to count on others to make any changes. It would be up to me to not only fix the problems of education, but to also circumvent my colleagues, who either can’t see any problems, or more likely do not want to see them. When I immigrated to the Unites States, I learned another lesson: the devaluation of music pedagogy is a worldwide phenomenon. Both in the former USSR and here, have I noticed a marked disinterest in public music education. Neither organizations, nor performance groups, nor government structures, nor even the majority of my colleagues understand that we can teach music to everyone!
At the core of music education lies a very sly axiom: there isn’t any sense in teaching the language of music to a wide population of people, because it is only for those that are “gifted.” Haven’t we teachers gotten quite comfortable? If our students can’t learn to play, then it is their own fault; they simply aren’t talented enough! We aren’t held responsible for the results, and there is no motivation to seek out the most productive means of teaching. But these means already exist! There is a real solution to music illiteracy. The elementary inability to educate all people, no matter how ‘untalented’ they might be, can easily be remedied!
So, what’s the problem? It’s extremely hard to teach music. Most kids give up quickly. If they somehow make it through music school, they abandon the piano upon graduation and don’t play anymore. Some kids just don’t have the ear for it, not to mention the patience and perseverance necessary for years of practice. Music isn’t for everyone. Yet, if it really isn’t for everyone, then why do people enjoy hearing music so much? In grade school, we are often told that if there’s a will, there’s a way. But when it comes to piano lessons, it is said that a desire to learn simply isn’t enough. How can we consider this acceptable? People without an ear for music live all around us, but it is a fact that it can be developed like any other skill.
Is it really impossible to teach music to every person?
To better understand, I looked for answers everywhere: in the theory and history of music, in the psychology of music perception, in neurology, in social and musical methodology, general and music pedagogy, and even in linguistics. The more I found out, the more clearly I understood that our methods of teaching are only hindering music education! It isn’t as if a big bear has roared into the ears of a large part of the world’s population and ruined their music ear, or that God has sprinkled ‘talent’ onto the heads of some people, and not others. We are the ones responsible for our own musical impotence – or, to be more precise, we, the music educators.
As it turns out, from day to day, from lesson to lesson, we thoughtlessly disrupt the gradualness of learning, irresponsibly overload the student’s perception, systematically ignore his established skills, and demand that which is impossible. Unable to do everything that we want, the child gets lost and confused, and then we, frustrated to tears, tie blame to him, instilling an inability to learn and a disappointment in music. Instead of giving children a “key,” we assiduously deprive them of this support. Then, we say, “Well, not everyone is born with it!”
How we managed to secure this level of success is a topic that I will address in this book. My most sincere plea to other educators that might read it to the end is: don’t torment yourself and your students anymore! Please, try to look at the work you’ve been doing objectively. Of course, it is convenient not to change anything, and to cling to the usual excuses. But there is a sensible idea in what I have written, and it can be proven. My work with students of all ages constantly confirms this.
 The grades one could earn in school in the Soviet Union ranged from 1: “Very Poor” to 5: “Excellent.”