Artistry is Not the Enemy of Practicality!

Members of the music teaching profession, like any other profession, can be categorized in a number of ways. For example, in most music departments at the tertiary level there are applied faculty members who are specialists in particular areas of performance, ensemble conductors, specialists in “academic” music subjects such as theory and musicology, and those engaged primarily in the preparation of new teachers. Each of these categories has further subdivisions and in some cases there is overlap. At the secondary level there is the broad divide between vocal and instrumental music educators, again with further divisions and also overlap. Tonight my thoughts are turned to a more informal division between members of the profession, namely between those who would style themselves as “practical” and those who might be considered “artists.” The latter term is sometimes used as a pejorative applied to those in the second group who those in the first group consider to be, well, impractical, and though I’ve never seen it I’m sure the reverse situation sometimes exists. In some cases it is the ensemble conductors and the teacher educators who oppose themselves to the “high strung” ideas of “artist-faculty” in the applied music area, while in others it could be secondary school educators who are suspicious of new or different methods employed by university faculty. There are other examples of this, as well, and while these characterizations are sometimes apt they more often set in opposition groups of educators who would better serve their students and each other by developing understanding and cooperation.

To be sure, there are those teachers whose methods and aims are unreasonable and unworkable. Not every artist-level performer is able or qualified to help students with physical, emotional, or artistic challenges to overcome those challenges. Great “natural talent” can be accompanied by a failure to understand the difficulties encountered by those not thus endowed, and an inability to helpfully describe the processes and techniques that one uses to perform as he does. Those whose careers have been spent in the concert hall or the university do not always appreciate the priorities of teachers at the primary and secondary school levels, or of students who aspire to careers as teachers or in areas of the music profession other than their own. Such failures of understanding certainly represent deficiencies to be remedied.

At the same time, though, those who consider themselves to be on the more “practical” side of things should not be suspicious of those who seek to improve students’ artistry. From my own vantage point, this sometimes manifests itself in ensemble conductors’ suspicion of methods used by applied lesson instructors. (And before I proceed further, these thoughts are based upon a pattern observed over a number of years in different situations and even different states. I’m not passive-aggressively calling anyone out.) Although I initially trained for a career as a band director and still have a very cursory knowledge of instruments other than my own, I never cease to be amazed by the number of fingerings, tuning tendencies, and other refinements that a gifted and experienced band director knows for every instrument in his ensemble. University-level training provides a foundation at best; this knowledge is cultivated in the trenches and is immensely practical, usually able to be quickly imparted during short rehearsal breaks. Nevertheless, even the best ensemble conductor is not going to be able to develop minute refinements in advanced students past a certain level, at least not in the context of ensemble rehearsals. Even where the expertise is present available time doesn’t allow for this kind of teaching, and thus private lessons are advised and pursued. Problems can arise when the private teacher begins to suggest literature, techniques, or equipment that are unfamiliar to the ensemble conductor. Where a conflict is perceived, distrust can develop between the ensemble conductor and the private teacher, and the charge is sometimes leveled that the private teacher is becoming “uppity” and impractical, or the opposite assertion that the ensemble conductor is “set in his ways” and “holding students back.” Who suffers most in such an atmosphere of distrust? The student.

So what can be done about this? In short, we all need to stop acting as if artistry and practicality in music teaching are somehow opposed to each other. Those applied teachers and other high-level folks who have their heads in the clouds don’t necessarily need to give up their big ideas, but they need to make sure that they can not only explain their big ideas and advanced techniques to students at every level, but also explain to how these ideas and techniques practically contribute to the making of great music by students at every level. This doesn’t mean that, for example, I’m going to teach embouchure formation to a 11-year-old in the same way that I will discuss it with a graduate student, but I am going to make sure that the graduate student knows how his advanced techniques exist in seed form in the approach taken with the beginner. If you are comfortable coaching a great concerto but can’t successfully apply the same ideas to Grade 1-2 literature there is a problem, and the charge of impracticality might indeed apply.  While there are certain methods and ideas that are undertaken at the highest level without a lower-level precursor, the vast majority of the tools we use for constructing, phrasing, and executing beautiful musical lines apply in some way at every level and in every style. There should be no reason for applied teachers and others to approach music in a way that can’t be practically utilized on the ground in every situation. Make every effort to learn how to do this.

On the other hand, those who are suspicious of “artists” should view these folks as partners in the musical enterprise, not adversaries. Specialists on certain instruments or in particular areas of academic music study will of necessity know more about those specialties than those in more generalist positions. When students consult with these folks and come back with new ideas don’t dismiss them immediately as impractical. They might be, but they might not be, and often misunderstandings are a result of differences in terminology or emphasis—or errors in student understanding, execution, and communication—rather than in fundamental approach. Perhaps visiting over coffee or something like that will clear up any perceived conflicts. While unworkable ideas will have to be discarded, if an “artist” is doing his job well such ideas will be encountered very rarely, if at all.

I fear that my writing tonight sounds too much like a rant, but I hope not. I have always been troubled by the idea that we must choose between the practical and the artistic, and long to see this false dichotomy abandoned. Remember that the greatest artistry is achieved when one’s approach to music-making is maximally efficient. In that sense, the pursuit of great artistry is the most practical thing we can do, since the approach that yields that artistry will be the one that is simplest, most efficient, and most practical.

Pursue artistry, pursue beauty, and find the most efficient and practical way of getting there. Can’t we all agree on that?

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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