All my life, I’ve loved music. I know I’m not alone in this love, and it’s so reassuring to know that music can connect people from many backgrounds, identities, cultures, traditions, ages and experiences.I’ve been lucky to have found music I like to listen to and perform, but as I’ve been planning for my sophomore recital, I’ve been coming back to the same question: Are the songs I want to perform professional enough for this setting? After pondering this question, I realized that there were even more questions that I had never thought of before.
Why are there pieces that seem “more professional” than others? What happens to students that prefer music from genres that aren’t accepted in professional settings? What happens to students who don’t see musicians that look or sound like them?
What happens to kids that want to learn more about an instrument that they don’t have access to? Should music theory literacy be something that qualifies a person to be considered professional?
Institutions historically place value on musicians that have been classically trained, especially in music with European or Western influence. If you think about musicians you’ve been told about, names like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven always come up. Their talent is valuable, but so are the works and talents of so many other musicians.
“Professional” music is traditionally racist, sexist and exclusive. It’s rare to hear about historical composers that weren’t white men. Of course, there are many instances of musicians that weren’t trained — none of the members of The Beatles could read or write sheet music, but instances like these are rare and hard to achieve.
I think about my elementary music classes where we sang and listened to music by mostly white composers.
Middle school, we worked with American folk songs. High school, we worked on pieces with European influences, but also would sometimes sing African American spirituals, not knowing the context of the piece’s composition.
At GC, it’s been some of the same — professors attempt to teach genres and styles that they wouldn’t have necessarily studied in college, and strive to choose pieces that represent a wider range of perspectives, but it’s something that they’ve consciously had to work on.
When music students ask to learn about different cultures, genres and styles we run out of time in the class, because of what we are required to cover for us to be considered professionals.
I don’t mention these experiences because of the failure of teachers to be inclusive with their repertoire, but to acknowledge that they were taught by teachers who taught them in a similar way. A cycle has been formed, and it seems like a Goliath to face in the music world.
Along with this comes the issue of accessibility. I wasn’t able to take applied lessons for voice until college, but I acknowledge that some people never get the opportunity to. I couldn’t take music theory until my senior year of high school, and some people will never even know what it is until they’re denied a scholarship or job because of their inexperience.
All of these factors exist, and music teachers wonder why they’re losing participation in their school’s ensembles and see such burnout. People don’t want to perform music that they don’t like, and they have an especially hard time with it if something they like is pushed aside.
Ultimately, all music has value, and all people can be musicians. There shouldn’t be boundaries put in place because of literacy and accessibility. The musical system has been too exclusive for centuries, and it needs to change with the times.