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Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sergei Diaghilev

Posted by Ben on September 16, 2016 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (0)

A core goal of the American education system is to create well-rounded children (and eventually adults). Even in specialized schools such as music conservatories, the curriculum still emphasizes the “a little bit of everything” approach, albeit within the confines of music. While there are of course many benefits to having a wide variety of skills and areas of knowledge, and while it is very admirable when people seem to have across-the-board talent in their field (for instance, Meryl Streep's seeming ability to play any role), there is also something to be said for people who truly lead with their strengths. For instance, Sergei Diaghilev and Lin-Manuel Miranda both have several domains in which they are immensely gifted and several domains in which they are not. Rather than rigorously working on improving their weaker areas, they carved out unique roles for themselves in which they could truly hone in on their strengths, and in which their weaknesses were left behind.

Sergei Diaghalev was the founder of the Ballets Russes, an early 20th-century ballet company in Paris that performed groundbreaking collaborations among artists of all disciplines, from designers to composers to painters. Though he attended the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music with aspirations of becoming a composer, he abandoned that ambition shortly after graduation when his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told him he had no talent for music. Diaghalev said of himself, “I am at first a charlatan, but full of dash; secondly, a great charmer; thirdly, cheeky; fourthly, a very reasonable man with few scruples; fifthly, someone afflicted, it seems with a complete absence of talent. And yet I think I have found my true vocation: to be a patron of the arts.” This acute level of self-awareness caused him to diverge from his original career goals and move towards a much more unique route. Through careful consideration of what exactly he could do and couldn't do, Diaghalev was able to become successful in a way that no one else at the time was attempting. 

A similar situation can be found with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist, and former star of the hit Broadway musicals Hamilton and In the Heights. Unlike many other musical theater composers, his musical training is quite minimal. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said, “I remember calling my friend Alex and saying 'I'm playing an F sharp, an A, and a C, what is that?' He says, 'You're playing an F sharp diminished chord.'” For comparative purposes, many of my elementary and middle school-aged students would have been able to tell him the name of that chord. Additionally, Miranda and some of his co-workers have admitted that he is not as versatile or polished of a singer as are most other Broadway performers. He is, however, an outstanding lyricist and rapper, and he has unparalleled visions of how to tell stories through musicals. With this skill set in mind, rather than going the traditional route and trying to become the next Sondheim, the way most aspiring musical theater composers do, Miranda carved out his own path. He wrote music that would not benefit from a Sondheim-esque level of harmonic intricacy (in fact, it would probably distract from the fast-paced, high-density nature of his lyrics), and he wrote vocal parts for himself that carry much more demand in rapping than in singing.

Steven Mackey, Professor of Music Composition at Princeton University, says of his teaching philosophy, “I believe that, in order to make a contribution to music, one should lead with their strengths rather than shore up weaknesses to a uniform level of mediocrity.” While there are of course many examples of people who would have achieved greater success had they spent more time repairing their areas of weakness, I believe that many people give up on their passions not because there isn't a role for them in those fields, but because they unthinkingly accept the “you need to be good at everything” mindset. But in the cases of Diaghalev and Miranda, not only did they carve out situations that allowed them to not have to worry too much about their weaknesses, but they also transformed their fields in staggering ways. Had there never been Diaghalev, 20th-century ballet would have been much more narrowly focused and conservative. Had there never been Lin-Manuel Miranda, musical theater would be more elitist and, for lack of a better word, white. Can a parallel statement be made about most other celebrities?

In Defense of Teaching

Posted by Ben on June 29, 2014 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (1)

I'm sure most college students have at some point come across the quote, "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." Though there are some disciplines in which this saying is more frequently used than others, it is particularly pervasive with regards to music. Obviously, as a music teacher who has no desire whatsoever to ever stop teaching regardless of how my future ends up, this is very annoying to hear!


I think the people who prescribe to this mindset ultimately have a sort of focusing bias, where they use Yo Yo Ma getting standing ovations throughout the world to represent "do-ers" and jaded kindergarten teachers clapping quarter notes to bored children to represent "teachers," thereby ignoring the bigger picture of what most musicians are really doing and what most teachers are really doing. I'd like to elaborate on this with 5 points on why I so strongly disapprove of this saying.


1. It assumes that "doing" skills are more admirable and difficult to obtain than "teaching" skills.

- I fail to see why the ability to play a Chopin prelude is any better than the ability to get a middle schooler to understand and become excited by a Chopin prelude. Why is being flexible enough to teach two completely different students any less impressive than being flexible enough to play two completely different pieces? Each skill comes with its own set of challenges. In fact, I would argue that the path towards playing a piece successfully is in some ways clearer than the path towards being a great teacher. When I sit down to practice a Beethoven piece, I feel very well-supported by all the teaching I've received, the thousands of books about Beethoven, all the recordings and videos of other pianists playing Beethoven, etc. When I'm substitute teaching at the Chester Charter School for the Arts and am trying to get a group of 7th graders to feel that music theory is relevant to them, however, I feel much more on my own, despite all of the existing literature on pedagogy.


2. It fails to account for the fact that almost every musician both "does" and "teaches."

 - Except for the most lucrative .01% (Joshua Bell, John Adams, etc.), every musician teaches in some capacity. Almost all of the recent Pulitzer Prize winners teach full-time at universities, and almost all orchestral musicians maintain a private studio. Similarly, I have never heard of a music teacher who does nothing but teaching and never gets any sort of a professional gig. While we can differentiate between what age groups different people teach, it is nonetheless unhelpful to differentiate between "teachers" and "do-ers" (especially in a hierarchal way) when those two almost never exist in isolation.


3. It assumes that everyone secretly wishes they were a "do-er."                 

- This is like saying, "Some people can't afford to live in suburbs, so they live in cities. Therefore, those who can live in suburbs do, and those who can't live in cities." While it is possibly true that more people want to become performers than teachers, this negates the thousands upon thousands of people (including people who go to school specifically for music education) for whom teaching is their principal interest, more so than performing or composing. Personally, I look forward to teaching MUCH more than I look forward to composing or practicing piano.


4. It doesn't consider the sociological state of classical music.

- Interest in classical music is dying, and audiences are becoming more exclusively elderly, and yet the number of students looking to study music both in colleges and taking lessons is as high as ever. About 40 million people in China are taking piano lessons (/, about 30 million Americans take instrumental lessons (/, and applications to major conservatories grow every year. This is not to mention the millions of grade school students who are required to take a music class at school. However, an unbelievably small percent of those people actually pay money to attend concerts or purchase CDs. It would seem to me that given these statistics, teachers as a whole are in a better position to keep interest in classical music alive than are people who do "gigs" or play in orchestras, who target such a narrower pool of people.


5. It values quantity above quality.

- It is definitely true that individual professional musicians reach a larger number of people than individual teachers do (but only on an individual level. Read my comment number 4 about teachers and musicians as a whole), but it is not necessarily true that musicians impact their audiences in a more meaningful way. I've gone to classical music concerts and listened to classical music CDs all throughout my life, but it was the teachers I had who really cemented my interest. When I sit down to compose or play the piano, I think about comments my composition and piano teachers have given me much more than I think about the output of any composers or pianists or the experience I had at any concert. I would think that the comparatively individual, customized, and habitual interaction between a teacher and student is in many ways more meaningful than the more distanced, sporadic interaction between a performer and an audience member.


A 2010 study by Indiana University (!/story/job-market-conservatories-stress-business-skills/) found that less than half of recent music conservatory alumni are doing work that even "somewhat" relates to their training. I think that part of that comes from the fact that graduates have so strongly internalized this romanticized idea of what it means to be a "real musician" that they give up once they fail to obtain one of the almost negligibly small openings in orchestras each year. While I am not saying that getting a teaching job is easy (even a middle school opening can get hundreds of applicants), and while I'm DEFINITELY not saying that teaching is for everyone, I do believe that many people who otherwise could have enjoyed a fulfilling and successful life as a teacher back out simply because of prestige. If more of these potentially great musicians tried out teaching, the state of classical music might very well be much more vibrant than it is at the moment.

Writing History Backwards

Posted by Ben on February 9, 2014 at 9:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Since I just graduated college and am now at the next "chapter" in my life, it is often fun to look back and divide everything else into "chapters" based on school, meeting certain people, being introduced to certain ideas, etc. Once these periods are established, it is fun to think how the lessons acquired from one period showed up applied in the later ones in a kind of linear way. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel like the big changes that have happened in my life kind of came out of nowhere. For instance, I used to think that my decision to write children's music started with loving the music I sang as a kid, leading into a composition teacher who always taught me to think outside the box, leading into arts administration internships that stressed that I should be thinking about what there is a market for, etc. But in reality, I hated the songs I sang as a kid, lots of children's composers don't think outside the box (and lots of composers of adult music do), and wanting to write children's music had nothing to do with marketing. I just randomly decided to try it as an experiment, and it stuck.


I think the reason I was in denial about this is because once you already know the end result of something, it is tempting to make everything seem neat by writing history backwards and selectively picking out "stepping stones" in a way that gives the final result a justification. This approach makes your life story seem like one of continuous progress.


In music history, this also happens all the time. Historians love to see a feature of one time period/composer as foreshadowing a feature of a future time period/composer. Academics go nuts talking about how Wagner's hardcore dissonance inevitably led to Schoenberg's atonal 12-tone method. In reality, though, Wagner's dissonance depended even more than normal on tonality, as his huge delays of resolution made the oppositions of consonance and dissonance that defined tonality even more intense. Getting rid of the ideas of dissonance and resolution altogether has nothing to do with that. The same thing can be applied to hip hop moving away from hour-long free jams to shorter, more deliberate "songs"; it's more of a function of rap adapting to settings besides a background soundtrack to street parties than a function of rap artists evolving and learning the art of resourcefulness or anything.


I understand why people try to rationalize their own lives into a way that follows a linear path; otherwise, you have to admit that a lot of it was an ultimately unnecessary stream of "false starts" (though a separate discussion could be had about the educational value of that process.) But doing this in a historical sense to art forms like music seems to me to be a result of the culture of academia, which always tries to lump an enormous range of topics into a single, all-encompassing narrative. Academics can be so annoying!

Constraint in Pop Vs. Classical Music

Posted by Ben on December 24, 2011 at 2:35 AM Comments comments (0)

     **Before I say anything, please note that I love pop music just as much as I love other types of music. I am not intending anything in this post to be a commentary on the quality of pop or classical music.**

     For my latest project, I am collaborating with a senior at my college on her final project as a dance major. One of the sections in her project calls for a pop song, so I have been dabbling around at my keyboard trying to get some ideas. I have found it really difficult and have spent a lot of time speculating as to why.

     Part of the reason why I find popular music so difficult to write is that it could not be more restricted. I do not wish to rattle off all of the musical norms in pop, since doing so could be the subject of a separate post and music theory is alienating to many, but almost all pop songs have a limited harmonic vocabulary, use symmetrical phrase structure and repeating drum and bass patterns, and place structurally important events on downbeats. Lyrically, almost all pop songs are about the same few sets of issues (one of the reasons why I generally have more interest in rap lyrics than pop lyrics and why I admire Lady Gaga) and have choruses which repeat a "hook" many times. Also, though different parts of the song may make different points, the lyrics as a whole rarely feel like a "journey" where each subsequent verse expands on the points made by its predecessors in the way that they would in a Sondheim song. (That doesn't necessarily make them bad, it just contributes to the sense of limitation). Finally, it doesn't seem like many pop artists write "funny" songs. Even the ones that come close like "Stacy's Mom" and "F*ck You" seem more FUN than FUNNY. But I could be wrong about that.

     Normally, constraint is good. Igor Stravinsky famously said, "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraints, diminishes strength." However, in contexts in which the constraints are imposed externally, then the pieces are usually "about" toying with the constraints. For instance, in a haiku poem, it is obvious what the constraints are, so part of the charm of haikus lies in using that restricted form to make a point about whatever topic is being discussed. Most people who write haikus have also written other types of poems, so they must think of how to adjust to the new challenge. To bring it back to music, the opening of John Adams' opera "Nixon in China" is just ascending A minor scales, but Adams toys around with which instruments play the A minor scale at which times, at what speed each instrument plays it, etc. Most jazz solos occur in an even number of measures with a simple chord structure underneath, but most soloists do such cool stuff above all of that that the listener almost forgets that the underlying framework is so simple. Constraints like these facilitate the artistic process because they allow the artist to already know some degree of what their work is going to be "about" before he or she starts creating it, and the constrained form sparks immediate questions which help get things going.

      However, unlike classical composers, I don't think pop composers really think of any of the formulas behind pop music as constraints. I think that these constraints are just the nature of how they express their musical thoughts. While a writer of a haiku or a minuet is certainly well aware of their formal constraints, I think pop people naturally think within that constrained idiom. They eat, sleep, and breathe 4-bar phrases, I-V-IV-I progressions, and intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge or instrumental-chorus out, so their music sounds genuine. In the same vein, if I gave an emotional rant to someone, I would not feel constrained by the fact that the subjects of my sentences have to agree with the verbs. I probably wouldn't even be aware that I am using subject/verb agreement in the first place unless someone else explicitly brought it to my attention, because I have internalized subject/verb agreement enough that it has become automatic. I think pop singers internalize song form in a similar way; I don't think they see their music as constrained. Unlike classical music, where the constraints are acknowledged and imposed externally, the constraints from pop music are felt internally. In the instances I've seen where pop songs go outside the traditional formulas, they seem to hold everything else constant to keep the piece from sounding too out there, making the piece still sound pretty similar to other pop songs. The few (extremely few) songs that break almost all of the formulas usually come across as pretentious and trying too hard, but that is admittedly a matter of taste.

     This discrepancy between internal and external constraint makes it a lot harder to write in the pop style than to write a minuet or any other constrained classical music style. Almost all of the attempts I've made at writing a pop song don't sound genuine in the same way that Alicia Keys' songs do. They sound like a restrained classical person wishing to do more and getting frustrated with the pop style, similar to what might result if someone was told to break up with their lover using only words beginning with the letter "A". To the person whose language does not include "A", doing so is no problem, but to the person whose language is filled with "A"s, it can get annoying.

     I think the issue of external versus internal constraint is why it in general doesn't work as well when classical composers attempt to write pop music as it does when pop musicians try out classical music. Look at the comparitive successes of Copland's ventures into jazz (the pop music of his time) versus Gershwin's ventures into classical. Look at William Bolcom's pop-influenced musical, "Casino Royale", versus Johnny Greenwood's (Radiohead's guitarist) string symphony, which served as the background music for "There Will be Blood". I think that this difference in success exists because when one is used to writing in the freer classical idiom for so long, the amount of rules in pop music feel overwhelming. However, when one comes from the rigidly constrained background of pop, their constrainted background can add a sense of clarity and "catchiness" to the classical pieces, which can sound cool, especially today when contemporary classical music is stereotyped as being thorny and inaccessible.

     Either way, I'll do my best!