The 21st Century Musician

What is a 21st century musician? I feel like this is a discussion that has been taking place a lot recently. The College Music Society made it the main theme of their national conference this year, DePauw University has launched a new program, and curriculums around the country are being reevaluated. The question we all face is how can we make the education of musicians relevant again?

I have been fortunate to be a part of these conversations and there is a trend emerging. The discussion seems to always go to a few key discussion points: Technology, Social Media, Music Business, etc. and it eventually ends with the term "Entrepreneurial Musician". 

Guess what. In my opinion if Entrepreneurial Musician is where the conversation ends then we are wrong. You see this argument is really just saying that classical music has a marketing issue, and it really doesn't. I teach a general education course and work with roughly 130 students a year who have no background in classical music, and they can name lots of classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, etc.) and they have heard lots of classical music (Beethoven 5 and 9. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1812 Overture, etc.). They are aware that classical music is a thing and it's happening on a regular basis. So I ask them why don't they go to classical music concerts. Their No. 1 answer is typically "I don't have the time.". That's an easy answer to take on face value but then of course they fully cop to spending the weekend binge watching some new Netflix show, so it can't be time. I push a little further and then they give the real answer "Classical music is boring.", and that's a little harder to respond to because when you dig a little deeper you find what they're really saying is "classical music isn't relevant to me." and this is the real issue. We don't have to design a curriculum for "The Entrepreneurial Musician" but a curriculum for "The Culturally Relevant Musician"!

Here's a terrifying infographic:

Here are the things that jump out to me:

  • The top ten composers being performed are all dead and they all come from Europe.
  • Women composers only make up 1.7% of all performances
  • The average composition date is 1882
  • Composers from Asia, and Latin and South America make up 11.1% of all performances.

Of course this is problematic. You see, women make up 50.9% of the U.S. population and minorities make up 23-38% of the population depending on how you count White Hispanics. Now do you see the problem?!

So how do we create the "culturally relevant musician"? Here are some of my ideas:

  • Program music of living composers, women composers, and minority composers. 
    • The audience not only needs musicians who look like them they need to hear the music that is coming out of their communities and experiences. 
  • Teach students the business and technology side of their craft
    • The "Entrepreneurial Musician" is actually an important component to what we need to be teaching but it only gets us half of the way there. In fact a really critical component is teaching our students how to ask for money and knowing they have financial worth. We devalue our art far too often in the name of exposure.
  • Take more music out of the concert hall and into the public.
    • This does not mean performing at art galleries (which shouldn't be overlooked). It means going to libraries, subways, public streets, parks, and wherever the public is. If the mountain won't come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain.
  • Teach students to be advocates for "art music"
    • One of the most important things that is so often left out of our curriculum is teaching our students what they do is a public good, and that they need to be able to voice that to different communities. Also we need to start integrating what we do into other disciplines outside of the arts. We can contribute a lot to programs in history, science, engineering, and health.
  • Scholarship more minorities and women as well as hire more minorities and women in universities. 
    • We would do much better for our future if our music programs looked more like the demographics of our country.
  • Expand the definition of what "art music" is to encompass music from different cultures outside of the west, and popular music into our definition. 
    • Thanks to one of my colleagues my thoughts on the things that separate ethnomusicology from musicology have grown smaller and smaller. If it is art it should be taught and studied, regardless of where it is from. When we talk about gregorian chant of the medieval period why do we leave out the sacred music of Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists? If we are going to talk about Jazz music why are we going to ignore The Beatles and Kendrick Lamar. The current educational narrative has actually made our cultural relevance smaller because we have created an us vs. them mentality. The reality is our students should be able to gig in any orchestra, rock band, hip-hop group, or studio that wants to pay them!

Finally, whenever these conversations come up there is an inevitably a conversation about what we must take out of the curriculum. It's true some things may get less emphasis but mostly it just means reframing the curriculum we already have. When I teach Augmented Sixth chords  in theory I also use that opportunity to teach tritone substitutions. When I teach text setting to my composition students we listen and study the Beatles. We can do this.

Let's Make Music Culturally Relevant Again!