Summer in the Back Seat

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This summer has been wild. I’ve had no proper vacation, yet have had a lot of quality family time. Musically it’s been rich, but as far as teaching, I have given up my job at the Conservatory of Bremen. Although it is not a financial blow, it will make my musical life poorer indeed.

I imagine I would have time to devote to students and to build up a good studio when I reach my 60’s. However, 65 is the age of compulsory retirement in Germany (and many other countries). It’s just not fair. If I live out my given life-span, I would have about 20 good years to give and devote to my students. Although I will continue to teach privately, coach and give masterclasses, regular teaching will have to take a back seat, for now at least.

This summer has also been filled with large theater projects, where music may often take a back seat. Seen in a positive light, music becomes just one facet that makes up theatrical life. But it is astonishing how one has to often struggle in order to give the musical facet any substance. I sometimes believe that being a dead composer is the most difficult job in the world. Heaven forbid if you have taken the trouble to print specific directions for staging, costume and lighting. They will be ignored and trampled upon by future generations.

It doesn’t do to be critical though, poor J.S. Bach would likely cringe at my interpretation of his Sonatas. Life goes on.

I will finish with a contradictory thought I can’t get rid of. It seems to me that Contemporary Music is undergoing an institutionalization and a marginalization at the same time. (This is in spite of the critical acclaim that followed Stockhausen’s works at Lincoln Center and the Munich Biennale this summer. However, I stress, it wasn’t the music that drew such media attention.)

Institutionalization is likely a natural progression, it has happened to some extent with “regular” Classical Music and Jazz. By institutionalization of Contemporary Music, I refer to the number of Ensembles and Ensemble Academies that have sprung up, and the specialized Masters Degrees that are available. These are wonderful things!

just what are we broadcasting to the universe?

Marginalization is relative and less easy to define, but I can name a few trends. One is less air-time on radio. Another is academic. It is astonishing how few top contemporary players have top teaching jobs, and I mean full professorships and not just adjunct, assistant, whatever. Sophie Cherrier and Mario Caroli are wonderful exceptions. But what about Robert Dick, who is an amazing teacher? And if the trend continues, I believe that upon retirement, Harrie Starreveld will be replaced in Amsterdam with an orchestral player, not with a premiere contemporary ensemble player and soloist as he is.

Feel free to argue with me on these points, they reflect my rather limited experiences.



Should I Study Flute with Karl Marx?

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The short answer is no. Dialectical materialism* has no place in the music room.

Although his beard may have been bushier than Monsieur Taffanel’s.

The long answer is more complicated. I am no expert on the works of Marx, and realize I am using his image for exaggerated effect. My real argument is anti-materialist and I could have just as easily picked on the Bourgeoisie. Read the comments below for quotes on Marx’s ideas on creativity. At the end of the day, we may have a lot in common.

I approach the subject of materialism and economics with some humility and trepidation.  For many of my colleagues in the Netherlands and the USA, economic determinism has reared its ugly head. Many orchestral musicians have lost their source of income and teaching staff have been severely reduced in many music schools and conservatories. The latter has hit me as well. This has made me think more than ever about my teaching responsibilities and, as usual when I have conflicting emotions, spurred a belated adolescent rebelliousness.

Rebelliousness against whom? Against those who teach the lie: “there is a right way and a wrong way to play”, “play it my way because I have a job and a house (or a yacht or whatever), “work hard and you will be rewarded with_____”.

Materialistic success is dangled before the student like a carrot before a donkey. Even worse, the materialistic success of the teacher creates in some cases an arrogant sort of authority. Granted, this may do the trick for some students. A clever teacher will latch on to whatever motivates the student and use it accordingly.

Yet doesn’t it make more sense to train whole musicians? Performers who improvise and compose. Composers who perform (rather than sit at the computer or synthesizer, which then spits out the parts).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the opposite of what seems to be the majority opinion. Despite the dwindling opportunities for orchestra work and reduced funding for the arts, this is as good a time as ever for young musicians who have something unique to say. With the internet, the world is your oyster. With the big institutions dying out, this is the time for small enterprises to fill the niches. Finding an orchestra job may be a quicker way to material success, but it is not a given these days. Nor does an orchestra job (or any material success) necessarily equal musical satisfaction or personal happiness. Having a job is hard work. I can vouch for that as a former orchestral player and as a full-time ensemble player. If finances are the only thing keeping you at your job, that is the quickest way to burn-out and bitterness. When things are getting grim for me, I can turn my attention to improvisation, or listen with knowledge and pleasure to Jazz or Carnatic music. Then I thank my former teachers who exposed me to these wonderful things!

This is why I think it is important for students to be exposed to as many ways of making music as possible. How else can you find out what it is you want to express and the best medium for expressing it?

Human beings are not going to stop listening to music entirely. Music will always be there in some form or another, in the background, in the foreground, live in concert or through ear buds. Take heart that you can make music, and get paid for it, if you are courageous, persistent, and seek inspiration. The path may be long or it may be short, but if you want to be heard, you will be! There is no excuse not to be heard, these days.

*Footnote: From my reading I gather that Marx did not coin or make particular use of the term dialectical materialism. It was popularized in a Marxist context  by Stalin in his 1938 paper Dialectical and Historical Materialism. I definitely would not have wanted to study with Stalin.


Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective

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Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so!  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I’ll retell this because here is an interesting twist on “what everybody else knows already”.

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works, but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are, and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I’ll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word “flight” with “flute”:

Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,…”I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor’s experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. […] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – […] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it’s fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be an asshole about it – especially to yourself. And besides, apes are higher primates, not lower primates.

but I was going for that high D!