Recordings and accessibility

I don’t normally like to get all “When I was your age…” on my students, because they’re not much more than a decade my junior, but I sometimes feel compelled to remind them how accessible recorded music is to them. When I ask them a question about, say, Le sacre du printemps and get a roomful of surprised expressions, I just have to throw a little fit and tell them how easy it is for them to open their laptops (or switch on their smartphones) and, with the click of a button, have the choice of dozens of recordings of pretty much anything. There’s Spotify, which, although the free version has annoying ads, contains just about any recording of any cello, orchestral or chamber work that my heart could desire. For those who can’t bear the ads, there’s the Naxos Music Library, which they can access through the university library website. I’m a little wary of YouTube because I suspect a lot of the videos posted there are in violation of copyright laws, but it’s a wonderful, wonderful teaching and learning tool. Then there are various services like Pandora which suggest, via some clever algorithm, recordings you might enjoy based on your expressed preferences. I like to listen to Pandora on my Droid phone when I’m walking to and from work to “clean my ears,” and I love stumbling across works and performers I didn’t know, although it has the occasional weird blip where it thinks it’s a good idea to insert Pachelbel’s horrid Canon into my Chopin station. (Chopin?! What has that one-hit wonder Johann Pachelbel to do with one of the finest minds of nineteenth-century Europe? Can’t they invent an algorithm that senses when the listener spent her student years playing wedding gigs and never wishes to hear that wretched piece ever again?)

After haranguing the poor things for a few minutes about how easy it is to listen to music in 2012 and how they should appreciate it more, I then launch into a diatribe about how when I was an undergraduate, if I wanted to listen to a recording of a particular work, I had to walk (horrors!) up a hill (imagine!) to the university library (gasp!), look up a CD on a computer, then go and ask a librarian for it, promising to bring it back within two weeks. And I seem to recall that we marvelled at the technology we had, which was so much better than the LPs and cassettes of our 1980s childhood, never imagining that the CD itself would be obsolete in just a few years’ time. (Indeed, when I had a studenty job in the classical department of the big HMV on Oxford Street in London some ten years ago, the whole CD industry was in upheaval even then.) I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD. Actually, I can. It was when I still had my staff discount at HMV Oxford Street.

And yet, I wonder if my generation of musicians might be better-informed about recordings than the emerging generation. I hung around with a geekier than usual crowd, but we listened obsessively to CDs and traded them with each other in those innocent days before CD-burning software was widely available, and illegally copied them in the less innocent subsequent days. (I haven’t kept any of the illegal copies, I hasten to add.) We amassed listening libraries in a way that I don’t think people do any more. Maybe it was because music was more expensive and harder to get that we valued it so much.

I keep my CD library in my office at the university now, because when I’m at home I almost exclusively listen to online recordings. But I think back with nostalgic affection to my teenage years in the mid- to late 1990s, and to the wonderful CD collection at the Wellington Public Library, which in those days used to let holders of Child and Young Adult cards take CDs out for free. I used to catch the bus there on Saturdays after my Wellington Youth Orchestra rehearsals and borrow a stack of eight or 10 CDs. Then I’d listen to each of them five or six times before taking them back the next Saturday. That was how I got to know the symphonic and chamber repertoire, as well as a very wide range of cello music. I wasn’t the only kid who did this–I used to meet various friends my age browsing the collections there, and we’d compare what we were borrowing that week. That’s how I started listening to things it mightn’t have occurred to me to seek out, such as Brahms lieder, historically informed recordings of early music, Liszt piano music and so on. I wonder if whoever was the acquisitions librarian back then had any idea of the effect this far-sighted collection (not to mention the policy of free CDs for children) had on my generation of New Zealand musicians. Whoever that person is, I’d like to thank him or her.



A number of my Australian friends are outraged at the news that the Australian National University is restructuring its School of Music. Prompted by a large budget deficit, ANU administrators have decided on a “curriculum change” that apparently discontinues the performance-based Bachelor of Music programme in the hopes of attracting more enrolments from a significantly different demographic. This change enables them–surprise!–to cut around half their music teaching jobs.

At first I thought the new degree programme must be modelled on the British university-based music degree which, as opposed to the conservatory degree in applied music, focuses on academic music subjects such as musicology and analysis. ANU students, like British university students, will have a “professional development allowance” to take performance lessons with outside teachers, presumably in the form of reimbursements. But that’s where the similarities end.

The vice-chancellor of the university claims that the new degree will better equip students for a career in music.

“The new program acknowledges the fact that successful 21st century music professionals engage in a broad range of activities as they build their careers,” he said.

“They need to be highly-skilled creative artists, who are business and technology savvy, with entrepreneurial skills and a good basis in teaching practice.”

This goal, couched in blandly unspecific terms, seems unobjectionable enough, but there’s more:

The University has said that it expects a “significant” increase in the number of students at the School due to the changes. Currently around 260 students study at the School. Last year the school accepted less than 100 students from more than 500 applicants. Professor Walter conceded that the changes may mean that the School will enroll students with lower standards of music performance.

They said that the changes may allow people from rural and regional areas or lower socioeconomic status backgrounds who have been denied high-quality musical education to enroll in the new programme.

So: drastically enlarge the faculty-to-student ratio and lower the standards? I don’t, in theory, disapprove of opening university doors to those lacking a musical background, because some of the finest musicians of my acquaintance came from remote areas and had no good pre-university music teaching. But I wonder how ANU plans to get its students to professional standard when it has simultaneously banished half its faculty and ensured that students can only have approximately half the number of one-on-one performance lessons offered in the current degree course. (Furthermore, how do we know that the sacked faculty will stay in the area? Who will teach the students if all the music teachers are gone?)

I’m also bemused by the stated goal of producing music educators, journalists, and administrators when it’s pretty difficult to become any of these things without a high standard of training in the actual practice of music. If the ANU administrators looked beyond their own spreadsheets for a moment, they might observe that the lucky few music graduates who make it in the profession are already doing all of these things. When times are hard for gigging freelancers, a private teaching studio or a part-time job as an itinerant school music teacher can be their bread and butter. Many musicians, myself included, write about music to supplement their income. And anyone self-managing a performing career knows all about music business and administration, since oftentimes, for lack of funds to pay anyone else, we have to be our own manager, publicist, book-keeper, travel agent, fundraiser, grant-writer and accountant.

I’m not saying universities shouldn’t offer courses in these subjects, but it sounds as if ANU is putting the cart before the horse in a well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempt to cut costs. I can only hope that the head of the School of Music and the vice-chancellor will recognize before it’s too late that once they destroy what they have, there will be no getting it back.