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Musical Temptations of a New World

The current crisis has hit all musicians alike, regardless of genre. Equally, the discussion surrounding online content should be vital for all musicians, because it may be about to define your future as an artist. From my particular corner of the musical world I can say that classical music is on the verge of dramatic change: how it is produced, how it is consumed, how it is advertised, how it is performed, how it is promoted, how it is taught and how it is financed. Musicians are on the threshold of further entering the delicate and confusing game of online content. As a composer, pianist and educator, I am nervous. Very nervous. On the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the „emergency exit“ kind of nervous and one of the things that concerns me most, is how we may come to understand teaching in a new online medium.

Currently, I am of course thrilled by the opportunities presented by the internet in this time of crisis and they have allowed me to survive. While all my concerts, performances and projects have been cancelled, I am able to continue teaching online. However it happens too often, that emergency measures quickly become a new norm after the emergency subsides. On the surface offering online lessons does seem like a step forward, bringing classical music further into the digital medium. It is convenient and accessible to any one with a good internet connection. As a teacher you can take students from virtually anywhere in the world. There are no travel costs to incur and you can theoretically reach more people, enabling a larger spectrum of the population to engage with classical music. However I fear that we lose more than we gain in this bargain and we may end up actually setting a wider appreciation of classical music further back. Especially when it comes to the education of younger children and learning a musical instrument.

The teaching of music is very closely and importantly linked to the far larger question of how society chooses to understand and appreciate music in the ever shifting landscape of ‚artistic content‘, and furthermore, which path classical music may take moving forward. The reason online video lessons could be problematic for music has nothing to do with the quality of the video or the teacher. The problem as I see it is this: it reduces music to the learning of a task rather than the pursuit of an experience. A great piano teacher does not just teach us how to move our muscles, they help us fall in love with music. Our interaction with them and their personality can inspire us, direct us and reveal a rich tapestry of music to us. The connection we build with the teacher is tied into the ritual of the lesson, the place of the lesson, the feel of the lesson, the sound of the lesson, the live experience of the lesson. Music needs to have its own space and time. We are not yet so digitally assimilated that the online experience of human connection is the same as the offline experience. I accept this may be less problematic for adult students who are more in control of their aims, ambitions and perseverance but essentially, I still see it as a net loss for the musical experience as a whole.

I am not trying to imbue the job with any mystical qualities, nor I am suggesting every lesson is a revelatory experience for the student — I have definitely received and given very routine and uninspiring lessons, where both student and teacher were engaged at the bare minimum. Yet one of the great challenges and joys of teaching is keeping the fire of curiosity lit, especially while working with children. Children complain, are lazy, loose interest, don’t practice and don’t care, but we must not mistake that for disinterest on their part — they are simply being children. Keeping up their enthusiasm and inspiring them to continue learning the instrument is so important and vital to their discovery of music. Often it is these experiences that eventually lead to them buying a ticket for a concert or festival and so they feed back into the world of music, providing it with new audiences. I don’t think this vital keeping-the-flame-lit part of the job is achievable online. Once we have stripped the lesson of all the non instrumental sources of inspiration, we are left with (as my teacher used to say) fingers on notes — undeniably important, but not sustainable without the rest.

For me the great temptation of moving online as a teacher is the reach that one may then have. I like to imagine a boom in children learning instruments, now freed from waiting lists, time constraints, overly expensive tuition fees, and geographical complications. Maybe in fifteen years we will have a whole new demographic of interested young adults who started their journey towards classical music with those first online video lessons. Sadly, I believe this to be a dream, and a dangerous one. Once something becomes more convenient and easier to use, it also becomes more convenient and easier to stop using. Once giving up is just a case of logging out, then if anything we may push more people further and further away from music, as a result of even poorer first encounters. What we really need to do is make it much easier and more affordable to offer children lessons with inspiring teachers in their cities. Online lessons may seem like a beautiful and simple solution to this problem but I fear they are not. It may create a short new burst of interest and revenue, but in the long term it could be a decisive blow to the future of classical music.

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