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The Academic Approach to Classical Music

by Neil F. Paynter

European Classical Music is an old tradition derived primarily from folk song and dance, and secondarily from ecclesiastical music. Infusions of folk elements into this tradition have continued up to contemporary times.

The academic approach began in the 19th century when classical music and musicians gained an elevated social status. Up until then musicians were typically vagrants, ne'er do wells, and at best humble servants. When the economic support of classical music shifted from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, musicians like many other craftspersons became “professional,” and the art of music a respectable discipline worthy of being studied at an advanced level.

Unfortunately, along with it's place in academia and the specialized school of higher learning known as the music conservatory, came an academic approach which cast aside practical learning and “tricks of the trade” in favor of theoretical knowledge. Since the early 19th century, the standards of classical music have been increasingly set by mere academics – persons with little performance experience, and a great deal of “book learning.” Even those graduating with performance degrees in music know relatively little repertoire, and have performed only in highly controlled environments. Real musicians who work their way out of taverns and the like are often co-opted into the academic environment as they gain notice.

The consequence of the rise of academic classical music has been increasingly dull and lifeless performance practice, and vanishing audiences. Academic musicians bemoan the lack of a sufficiently cultured public, and redouble their efforts to educate audiences. For example, the practice of lecturing during concerts is ubiquitous now. This does nothing, however, to make the performances more exciting and captivating.

Is there anything that can be done before the academics succeed in killing off a great musical tradition? It's possible that some musicians will rise to the occasion and provide the public with thrilling performances that attract large audiences. People do not need to be educated to like any music. If a performance is exciting, people will appreciate it. Things are as simple as that.

Neil F. Paynter is a composer and  performer.

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