bias

Why does everyone hate opera?

Megan and I were talking last night about opera. She hates it (though she did really enjoy the one opera we've seen together--a BYU production of Le Nozze di Figaro). She doesn't like that style of singing. It's not an uncommon viewpoint among those of my generation and even the one before me. Seems that most people my age (who aren't musicians) don't like the high notes, the vibrato, the resonance of operatic (bel canto) singing. It is a little distracting for people who grew up with folk-derived music, with its more intimate, speechlike quality. My theory has always been that the rise of recorded music, with microphones and amplification, made the bel canto style obsolete. Bel canto ("beautiful singing" in Italian) was developed during the 17th century in Italy around the same time as opera grew out of more and more elaborate and complex art songs called madrigals.  The rise in popularity of opera led to larger venues that required louder voices (which were also needed to sing over the expanding orchestras).  The need for loud, powerful voices in large concert halls with large orchestras only increased with the demands of Romantic composers like Wagner and Mahler.

"Hey mister! I don't mean to be tellin' tales out of school, but there's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can."

-Oh Brother Where Art Thou

The microphone let anyone sing and be heard over instruments in a large hall without formal training (required by bel canto).  By the 1940s the most popular vocalists were crooners singing with the big bands.  A generation later amplified singing had acquired a diversity that made bel canto seem inflexible and outdated.  Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Little Richard all had unique styles.  Who among us can tell the Three Tenors aparts by listening? Just kidding... a little.

All this brings me to something I read this morning in book called The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul (Walter Everett, Oxford University Press, 2001).  Here's part of the excerpt from page 71.

...the solo singers of that time [the 1950s], spearheaded by Presley, make their expression as physical and individual as possible.  What was at the time frequently condemned as the product of a lack of training (in a fiercely fought generation-defined battle of tastes) might conversely be appreciated as a new interest in expressive ornamentation, comparable to the situation created by the introduction of the Nuove Musiche at the turn of the seventeenth century.

What was condemned for lack of training, rock and roll, has become so common a generation later, that bel canto is foreign and difficult to comprehend (even when sung in English).  Ironically, perhaps we've traded a condemnation of a lack of training for a condemnation of the pretentiousness of training.

Is Music Grading a Bad Thing?

Here's a blog post from composer Daniel Wolf regarding the Texas Board of Education's University Interscholastic League.  This is an organization that controls athletics and music in Texas schools.  For those of us in music education, the UIL governs a lot of what we do.  The North Carolina Bandmasters Association uses some of the UIL structure in its own concert festivals regulations.  Now, it may seem strange to combine scholastic sports with music.  Goodness knows the two seem to be in constant competition with one another.  I think there is something utilitarian and super-efficient about this Texan bureaucracy, and I think that's part of what has appalled Wolf.  We artists shun the notion of categorization (at least explicitly), and the idea that some group of jocks in Texas might somehow influence music education around the country is intensely offensive.  I'll leave it to the linked article above to explain the details of the UIL and how this influence is wielded.  I will say, however, that the North Carolina system does not govern marching band festivals, nor is it governed directly by the North Carolina Board of Education. I think there are obvious benefits to grading music for adjudicated festivals--mainly, it is necessary to divide bands by their levels of proficiency.  Comparing bands of greatly differing abilities isn't very useful.  Thus, the bands choose their music from a list that arranges a finite number of compositions by difficulty.  My middle school band is playing Grade I, the easiest because we're a small band with mostly beginners.  It wouldn't make sense to be compared with larger bands with more experience.

However, where I am most interested in Wolf's point is the idea that this set-up introduces bias into music education.  I agree wholeheartedly that it does.  The list is finite.  There is a procedure for adding other pieces, but I haven't looked into it.  The system makes it too easy to buy from the publishers and composers on the list.  I can't see why the list can't be evolutionary and infinitely expandable.  Sure, have a panel of conductors to review new music for difficulty, but not for anything else. There's no reason to exclude any new music; let the individual teachers decide what they want to play.

Not only is there an exclusionary bias inherent in having a list, there is also a bias in the band world against new music, and that doesn't help our students.  I am rehearsing Terry Riley's In C this semester in honor of the groundbreaking piece's 50th anniversary.  The piece has no meter, no key, no phrasing indicated, no dynamics, no parts, and not even any instruments indicated.  A typical adjudicator wouldn't have anything to judge.  But, the notion that music must have all these elements was discarded decades ago--at least outside the band world.  Inside the band world, these are the foundational elements of music.  I'm not suggesting we stop teaching students these concepts, but let's keep going.  Let's show them aleatory music, improvisatory, atonal, music.  That extended techniques and experimental timbres in the music of George Crumb are powerful.  And most importantly, that these new music concepts aren't novel or weird--that you can phrase Schoenberg just like you would Brahms... or Swearingen.

©2017 Joshua Harris