A voice against musical illiteracy

Christopher Gravis shook up Facebook today with a thoughtful and spot-on post about the current state of choral education, and the lack of emphasis on actually reading music and learning real musical skills.

Chris is an active conductor and clinician, and his post confirms a reality in the choral world that has been growing for a very long time. With more than eighty comments in the first five hours alone, he has also clearly hit a nerve with musicfolk and parents alike.  With Chris’ permission, we’ve echoed his original post here. Thanks, Chris, for bringing up this important topic and prompting some very hopeful discourse.  Click here to view the original post and join the discussion.

I’ve been fortunate to be asked to serve as a clinician at a lot of choral festivals around the country in the last few years. These are truly amazing experiences. It’s been inspiring to hear high school choirs sing ambitious repertoire memorized, and these festivals often result in really outstanding performances. The students are having a blast, the teachers are rightly recognized for their excellent and hard work, and as the clinician you are always treated so well.

However, all of this has revealed something of increasing concern to me and for the future of our art. Every single choir has performed their three pieces from memory…pieces that they have spent months learning since the Fall. Although the performances are exceptional, there is something amiss: we proudly tout the importance of music education, but in action we collectively value public performance over musical literacy. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with this, until we acknowledge that many of the students performing in these exceptional high school ensembles lack the most fundamental music reading skills to even transfer this experience to the next set of repertoire. And in every other academic discipline we recognize that literacy is the skill necessary to be conversant.

It’s as if we spent every class from September through mid-Spring semester teaching illiterate people to memorize the sounds and words from the balcony scene from ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ and when they performed it beautifully (as they had been carefully taught), we then fooled ourselves into thinking they could now read ‘Hamlet.’ Now imagine if the clinician got up on stage and started asking them to change little things, explore new ideas, or start the scene anywhere except the beginning. You begin to see the complications…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s is the very nature of our art to get a choir comprised of people of differing skill levels to perform at a high level. This is one of the greatest and most rewarding attributes of choral music. It’s why choral music has been the primary musical expression of people across cultures for thousands of years. I laud the educators who are working hard to give students that extraordinary experience, and to spark that fire of life-long passion that comes from these kinds of memorized public performances of exceptional repertoire…

But…you had to learn to read words before you could become a voracious reader, you had to learn arithmetic before you could create that business plan, and you have to learn musical literacy if art is ever intended to express anything in your life beyond what someone else tells you should feel and mean when you sing. We value literacy across all disciplines because the ability to be conversant respects the individual’s innate intelligence, and provides them with the skills to articulate and create for themselves.

All that to say, instead of having your choir stand up and sing some complex 16-part divisi tone cluster for 8 minutes from memory, I’d rather you spent the time teaching them how to find their starting pitches off a tuning fork for Tallis’ ‘If ye love me,’ and allowing them to read the music, so that they might have a rewarding, literate, substantive life of music.

I know it means a paradigm shift. I know it means rethinking how we do everything. But the choirs and the teachers I see at these festivals are so good, so smart, and so musical. We can do this. For the future of our students and of the art.

Header photo by Talya Willson, via FreeImages.com

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