21 October 2013

The Latest on Extrinsic Benefits

This NYT opinion piece detailing the notable musical backgrounds of several highly successful people is currently making the rounds. Having gained a reputation in my immediate circle as a cynic, I've been asked for a reaction.

I doubt very much that the correlation between musical training and extramusical success is a mirage. I feel that my own musical endeavors have had much the same impact on me as these people describe, and I have iron-clad confidence that should circumstances dictate it, I could slip into any number of second careers that could have been my first, and with greater success than if I had majored in them in college.

Where the article and most every other one like it equivocates in a counterproductive way is in addressing (or not) the difference between rigorous pre-professional musical training (e.g. Paula Zahn) and sustained amateurism (e.g. Woody Allen). If there is one thing we can count on regarding the extrinsic benefit discussion, it is that where the rubber meets the road, it will be loudly proclaimed by all involved in the most overdetermined fashion imaginable that it must never, ever become the primary or even the secondary purpose of music education to train the students to be professional musicians. In the most literal sense, I could not agree more; however, I think it is equally self-evident that the ultimate beneficiality of the training (not to fret, Postmodernists, I promise to unpack that term in a moment) varies in direct proportion to the degree of rigor and accomplishment.

This leaves us in an awkward place few commentators are willing to explore, and one which requires much more space than they are customarily afforded in the dead-tree media. Many on the outside of this discussion will be quite surprised to be told that most professional performers don't have nearly the grasp of the kinds of higher-order musical skills that we think of as having particular value outside of music; that most of them are not equally fluent in playing from notation and playing by ear; that hardly any have had meaningful, sustained engagement with either the science of sound or the rich literature of philosophical aesthetics; and that virtually none truly reach their ceiling as technicians for simple lack of of dedication. In terms of making cross-disciplinary connections, pre-professional musical training as it is currently constituted is actually too narrow and not rigorous enough! The admonishment against training future professionals, then, is constructive primarily as an issue of mindset, far less so, though, as one of curriculum.

Even if we accept that characterization, however, there are still great conceptual problems here. Students, parents, and teachers do not simply throw themselves into rigorous, comprehensive, all-encompassing, life-dictating academic endeavors without any clear endgame. Should they? It would be far preferable to assuming a studied ambivalence which runs counter to all the values we purport to be teaching through music. That is my greatest fear and objection to much of the dialogue on this issue, the fly in the ointment that needs to be addressed in any and all of these discussions but virtually never is. I don't think we have any hope whatsoever of musical or extramusical successes if their pursuit becomes calculated, compromised, or triangulated.

Every research study and anecdote alike that is piled onto the heap of evidence for music as a force stronger than itself only causes making good on this promise to become less likely and more difficult. And to be unequivocal, I say that without any doubt whatsoever that the benefits are real. People need to understand that those two positions do not contradict each other in the least. One is directed at the ideal potential of the work and the other at its present, less-than-ideal mode of implementation. The point is that these are benefits which we know to arise from the naive, the recreational, and certainly, where they are pursued happily and healthily, the rigorous pre-professional and professional varieties of musical activity. It is not at all clear that they arise from what following Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind could be called "gainfulness," in other words, the self-conscious notion held from the outset that one is going to "get something" from all of this musicking. No, that has not been studied enough, if it can be at all; yes, it does matter; and holy shit does that mean we're playing with fire here.

Even as Kenny Werner, most notably, has delivered a suspicion of the gainful mindset to the musico-pedagogical mainstream, as far as I can tell no one has yet succeeded in doing the same for the arts outreach, advocacy, and non-profit community. Indeed, if I may be so callous, here is a meta-example of extrinsic benefits at work, a line in the sand between those who "do" and those who merely administrate, editorialize, and evaluate. If the latter groups all read the Suzuki and Werner books and rededicated themselves to their own artistic endeavors, that would be a start; I think, though, that without their having been through quite the same ringer as people like me, we're bound to have this same discussion with them over and over. Their culture is profoundly shaped by the concept of accountability, a rosy-sounding term which is nonetheless among the most toxic to art. In that sense, all of this relates to the general erosion of trust in our society, the fragmenting of culture, the world becoming smaller, the blowing of the lid off pedophilia, the notion of letting the terrorists win, and the whole mess. Accountability is society's answer to its own disintegration. Hopefully you agree that's too much to tackle for the present moment. But if you were expecting me to make some sarcastic remark about music not really being that important, hopefully this analysis to the contrary has been a pleasant surprise.

The bulk of those profiled in the article were or are high musical achievers, not dabblers, and while they clearly were cherrypicked to a degree that makes drawing any such larger conclusions inadvisable, I have to strongly agree, incidentally, with this bias in the method of selection. Even Woody Allen, as the token dilettante in the group, is fiercely committed: "I have to practice every single day to be as bad as I am." Talk about mindset! That's not a zinger I would willingly share with a young student, having as it does the potential to be lost in translation, but the intent of the remark is one I wish they would all grasp more readily. At half an hour of daily practice and regular gigs with his band, how many of us have had more than a few students that devoted?

After the unknown, unintended consequences of gainfulness, my second sphere of concern is yet more difficult to approach and also virtually never raised in polite company: which music are we really talking about here? It would come as an utter shock in purely statistical terms if all musical traditions proved to offer the exact same extrinsic benefits to the exact same degree. If this is indeed not the case, then the extrinsic benefit discussion has a highly political dimension to it that cannot go unremarked upon if this dialogue is to bear any fruit at all.

Personally, I think it is self-evident that the particular types of results described in this article could not possibly be achieved with, for example, New York School experimental music as the curricular focal point; and yet I feel equally strongly that virtually any music curriculum on any level which fails to meaningfully account for this body of work, or at the very least its philosophy and spirit, is profoundly compromised and minimally relevant to today's world. Of course, the question is not so complicated for me: the traditional and early-modern classical and jazz styles at the core of so much extrinsic benefit blather are also at the core of my own work as an artist; the ultra-modern, the experimental, the minimalist, and the popular are decidedly secondary, studied only casually and borrowed from only in tiny fragments. (Think Stockhausen to Feldman: "Your piece could be part of one of my pieces," possibly the ultimate asshole-composer quote for all time, but one which I, for better or worse, identify with to the core.)

There is existing research, philosophy, and infrastructure to support a mainstream, highbrow musico-pedagogical edifice, and we are busy at work building more of all of those things. This promises to earn money, prestige, and influence for musicians who work in those particular modes of expression, usually at the direct expense of those who do not. Even in my case, as someone who espouses the right kind of music on one hand and an odious devotion to rigor and ambition on the other, it has not been so easy to convince colleagues, institutions, and most of all, students and parents to buy into my version of the narrative. This is an unavoidable and dire political problem for musical culture broadly, particularly as music education becomes increasingly compromised through teaching positions at all levels having become the art-world equivalent of shoe contracts in basketball. It's a time bomb of sorts for the musico-cultural ecology that has delivered a body of knowledge we now know to have profound applications to every aspect of life. If educational utilitarianism truly becomes the only justification of our existence, as it is well on its way to doing, the nineteenth-century European value system we have spent the last century deconstructing, protesting, and overthrowing merely becomes reinstitutionalized, with music restored roughly to the place it had in ancient Greece, but without much of any acknowledgment of the events of the intervening millennia. That's a loaded statement I'm not fully prepared to defend here and now; but I believe it wholeheartedly and it keeps me up at night.

Two closing thoughts to this diatribe:

First, even if the various extrinsic benefit profiles of a wide range of musical cultures were to be codified, I would remain trepidatious. Aesthetic synergy with the individual student will always be a bedrock prerequisite for reaping extrinsic benefits, and it's hard to imagine that the prescription of certain courses of study with certain endgames in mind could possibly have much success. Gainfulness is an abstraction, but I think this much we can agree on, at least those of us who have ever been forced to study closely music which we didn't necessarily think warranted it in our cases.

Second, and finally, because I pay attention to all of this stuff in music, I chuckle often when I encounter less compelling extrinsic benefit narratives from other areas of culture. Golf, science fiction, gardening, and just about everything else is being sold virtually the same way music is. That doesn't change the evidence in our favor, but I think it does change the nature of the dialogue once we understand that we are hardly the only ones taking this tack. If we don't realize it, the people we are trying the hardest to reach will.

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