Kirchhoff, Benson, and our national music standards

Thank you to whomever recorded this fantastic lecture by Craig Kirchhoff that every ensemble educator should review. He cuts right to the heart of the matter regarding our ultimate charge, which is decidedly NOT to teach students to love an ensemble or activity, but to transcend that and love music. This should be our core value as ensemble educators. We have heard this expressed in various ways time and again from Battisti, Reynolds, Kirchhoff, Green, and others who are deeply concerned with our profession's priorities.

During the lecture I was particularly struck by this quote from composer Warren Benson about performing compositions:

"What infuses life to cold print is imagination, creativity, and beauty."

That is the finest summation I've heard regarding the meaningful endeavor of bringing composed music to musical fruition. Additionally, in an obvious-yet-insightful statement, Benson says that what a composer does makes no sound (nor what a conductor does, we could add). He says it is in the musical performance where "my understanding, and your understanding, meet." This is simply brilliant. The music's true meaning is incomplete until that intersection occurs between the composer's understanding and the performer's. 

Performers and composers are all in the creative process together. Merely playing the printed music "correctly" yet devoid of personal creative decision-making is insufficient for bringing compositions fully to life. Learning and performing music intertwines technical requirements and knowledge with a uniquely creative interpretive, interdependent process that, when done well, results in a meaningful experience for the performer, listener, and composer. As ensemble teachers, we empower our students to realize their vital role in this association. It is their creative musicianship, after all, that should be primary....not our own.

I wish the NCCAS music standards writing team had understood this before creating a framework that forcefully divides composition (and improvisation) into the creating role and performing as merely serving "intent." Really? It's as if the performer is the waiter who carries the food to the table, or a FedEx delivery person bringing the pre-packaged goods to your door. Benson understands that the performer is doing far more than that, and so should the NCCAS.

What performer's do is learn, create, then reveal their own understanding of the composition. Not the composer's intent, but the music itself as understood. That is what interpretation is. To do this requires imagination, creativity, and beauty. When we teach students to do this, they learn to love music, and that's the goal. And that is how our national standards for performing should be designed... around a recognition of what is really happening within the musical learning and performing cycle.

Thank you Craig, and thank you Warren.

Afterword: I continue to hear the commentary that somehow we "need to" segment the standards as Creating/Performing/Responding/Connecting so that composition will have its due, or because the format is easily understood and managed, or because "otherwise ensemble teachers will just rehearse." None of these justify manipulating the realities of music making. It makes no sense to ignore the creative capacities required in performance in order to bolster another form of music education, or to make a framework that is convenient to process. 

The bottom line is the existing framework may look nice on paper but it does not reflect the realities/complexities of making music. We are coming up short at the exact moment we need to be embracing the creative process in every form of music making. We need to do away with the false divisions. Musicians are interdependent because bringing music into the world is almost always an interdependent process. Think about that....then look at the way the standards are structured.

There is probably a more delicate way to say this, but the framework and standards being developed for ensembles are not consistent with the philosophy and approaches of educators who have taught students to experience deep, meaningful musicianship over many years. The standards read as though developed by those with cursory knowledge of ensemble education before moving on to "bigger and better" endeavors. If that was your experience I am sorry, but the truth is that there are many of us out here who are empowering students to be creative, expressive musicians who think deeply and critically about their music making.