Our Mythical Past

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Time to vent another pet peeve: “there are no great ____________ today”. Another take on the adage “kids these days….!”

“The standard of flutists has declined. There are so many good flutists today, but none can compare to the giants of the past” is a statement I have actually heard in several contexts by flutists of the older generation.

Stephen Jay Gould

I am truly convinced what we are witnessing is a statistical phenomenon of human systems, not the implied degeneration of our collective abilites. Scientist Stephen Jay Gould referred to this type of degeneration as entropic homogeneity 1. He argued heavily against its being the agent of seeming decline. To paraphrase him, over time (1) human performance (here, flute playing) approaches its outer limits of human capacity, and (2) systems tend to an equilibrium as they improve. What has actually declined is the standard deviation in average ability, which is a natural result of flutists having gotten better over the years.

” Paradoxically, this decline [of the standard deviation] produces a decrease in the difference between average and stellar performance. Therefore, modern leaders don’t stand so far above their contemporaries. The myth of ancient heroes – the greater distance between average and best in the past – actually records the improvement of play through time.”

Stephen Jay Gould, quoted in The Free Library

You could get into a lot of arguments here. Were the past heroes of flute playing relatively better, but absolutely worse (or equal)?

1 Gould, S. J. (1986, August). Entropic homogeneity isn’t why no one hits .400 anymore. Discover, pp. 60-66. Republished in Gould, S. J. Full House, Three Rivers Press, 1997. Gould applies his argument to the subject of sports, namely, baseball. I admit to directly stealing some of his wording and translating it into flute-speak.

Read about my other pet peeve “Too Many Flutists

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2 thoughts on “Our Mythical Past

  1. We also have a lot of evidence, in the form of recordings, of what the actual level of ability of some of these mythical flute (and other) heroes really was. I think that historical record tends to strongly support your hypothesis.

    Another part of this comparing of eras seems to center around actual differences between then and now. If you’re inclined to think that, for example, a fast and shallow vibrato is a desirable style to affect, then even the best of our era can’t compare with the old dudes who played that way.

    “Entropic homogeneity” — love that term, and the thinking behind it. Thanks for this post.

    And equipment — we (thank god) have flutes that can produce sound more easily and more abundantly, and that default to more accurate pitches. I remember how hard I had to wrestle with my first “professional” flute — a pre-modern scale Haynes — to correct the instrument’s flawed intonation. My next flutes (Cooper-scale Powell and then Brannen-Cooper) gave me a much better shot, with much less work. But that needing to wrestle the pitch into some semblance of correctitude is viewed by some as a more honorable way of going about it.

    “Entropic homogeneity” — great term, and great thinking behind it. Thanks for this post.

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