Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

The history behind “High Art” bias in academia

TW: Contains historical quotes with racist content

The vast majority of academic music programs in the United States are predominantly if not fully steeped in classical music with few or no opportunities to study Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) styles. This model persists even though only 1% of consumers are engaging with classical music through commercial sales and streaming. Conversations about the need for degrees in CCM styles have been taking place for decades, yet as of Fall 2019 there were over 380 classical voice programs and less than 30 academic, commercial music programs in the United States.

In 2010, I started researching why there was such a disconnect between education and the marketplace. A few years ago, my wife Jackie started her own research into the roots of “high art” in the United States and we began working together to bring the answers to light. In the early 1900s, American popular music was becoming commercially successful and the African-American influence on this music was significant. In our research, we scoured through Etude Magazine, the most popular music teacher periodical in the United States in the early 1900s as well as historical documents of the Music Educator’s National Conference and the National Association of Schools of Music. What we found was shocking:

“While I have the very greatest respect for the accomplishments of a few of the American negroes who have risen above their surroundings to high places and to distinguished attainments, I cannot subscribe myself to the doctrine that all men are born equal, as it is inconceivable to me. It is not reasonable to expect that a race could arise from a savage condition to a high ethnological state in a century or two. It took Northern Europe nearly one thousand years to fight its way from barbarism to civilisation” – Gustav Mahler (Etude Magazine, May 1911)

“Jazz is to real music what the caricature is to the portrait. The caricature may be clever, but it aims at distortion of line and feature in order to make its point; similarly, jazz may be clever but its effects are made by exaggeration, distortion and vulgarisms.
If jazz originated in the dance rhythms of the negro, it was at least interesting as the self-expression of a primitive race. When jazz was adopted by the “highly civilized” white race, it tended to degenerate it towards primitivity.” ~ Dr. Frank Damrosch, Director of the Institute of Musical Art (now known as the Juilliard School; Etude Magazine, August 1924)

“We, therefore, recommend that popular music be used to preserve our influence on cultural trends, and to arouse in our students a discriminating attitude toward the good and bad in music, that they may themselves reject the cheap and tawdry influences of “tin-pan alley [popular/commercial music].” ~ Music Educator’s National Conference Consultant’s Group (Music Educator’s Journal, May-Jun 1945)

These are quotes from historical resources and emblematic of much of the literature of the time. Theodore presser created and published Etude magazine and founded the Music Teachers National Association from which the National Association of Teachers of Singing was birthed. The National Association of Schools of Music was founded in 1924 and accredited the first Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in 1952. These professional organizations were all formed before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which desegregated schools in the United States. Yet this historical desire to create hierarchies of human beings and their culture continued to persist.

“We have in recent years seen a redefinition of what the word music itself means to serious people. To our forebears, the word conjured up an elite, refined art, the product of man’s most civilized desires for self-improvement. In the past music was seen as the opposite of the ugly, the primitive, and the merely temporal. It was rather an expression of the uplifting, the beautiful, and the eternal….But now this conception of music itself is being challenged as limited, insular, arrogant, and irrelevant. Side by side in current polite musical society with the formerly carefully defined greats stands an unlimited amount of folk music; this folk music is the product of myriad cultures, usually non-Western, and almost always the product of societies in either early or blocked processes of growth. Deriving inspiration from this mass of material is a constantly expanding body of popular music; this music is all the more overwhelmingly commercial as it claims to speak for a broad and unsophisticated audience.” National Association of Schools of Music Proceedings of the 57th Annual Meeting (1981)

Some organizations such as NATS have been trailblazers in embracing diverse music styles, others have lagged behind. Jackie and I recently sat down with Dr. Marisa Lee for her “A Voice Beyond” podcast to talk about our research and illuminate some of the historical biases that prevented early adoption of popular music, how those ideas created a challenging environment for pioneers of CCM pedagogy, and what the future might look like if all styles were treated equally. This is the first of a two part series and hopefully the beginning of important conversations about how academia can break through historical barriers and embrace the music and artistic values of society in the 21st century.

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This entry was posted on January 26, 2023 by in Misc. Thoughts and tagged .


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