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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Music is Sport

I wrote in an earlier entry in this blog about why playing an instrument always seems to lead to the wish to become better at it. Why do you hardly ever meet anyone with the ambition to play House of the Rising Sun on his guitar who is satisfied when that ambition is fulfilled? Why do people always want to learn a sixth chord after the five they need?

It is just puzzling me. Why do we think that playing music is about playing better all the time? Is it a universal human trait or something western, connected to our `athletic view of music', as ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl calls it? I elsewhere suggested it may have to with the wish of the human being to dominate matter - with `instrumental rationality' as Habermas would say.

Nettl, Habermas - expensive names for a blog like this.
But the puzzle stays. I recently stumbled on a website where a violin teacher explained that Music is Sport - the more you train, the better you become. Among researchers dealing with professional musicians this is well-known - the difference between a good and an excellent violinist can best be explained by the amount of study hours both have taken over their lifetime; 10,000 hours of practice buzzes around as a sort of norm.

This luckily takes away much of the venom of the talent-debate. One could argue that the talent for music is simply the talent to keep practising - and therefor often connected to the talent of the parents to stimulate their children to do so (or in some cases: to force them to do so). And of course all this practising leads to amazing and beautiful results - people being able to play Bach's suites for violin, for example. I wouldn't like to miss that.

But still. Music may be a sport, but what if people discourage themselves from even trying to play an instrument because they don't see themselves as possible Olympic medal winners - or their surroundings don't? In our recent project on elderly people taking up playing an instrument this is something we noticed frequently: people being ashamed of what and how they were playing because it did not meet `standards', was not `quality' - or people not even thinking of starting it because they were told it is useless to pick up the violin after the age of 8.

And I think: the violin , maybe - but not the fiddle. I remember being in Larantuka, on the Indonesian island of Flores, and sitting at night in someone's home playing fiddles together. Often the fiddles were home built; and in any case the fiddlers were home built - not a music school or a `violin pedagogue' in sight to force you to keep the elbow in an impossible posture or to comment on the difference between an e-flat and a d-sharp. And still they played. So what about the quality of the music, what about standards, about artistry? I can't tell you, not because I do not know but because questions like these were completely misplaced in those circumstances.

What I can tell you is that we had fun, we were moved, we felt happy.

So let's not concentrate on music as sport, but on music as play. Let's not concentrate only on the violinists but also on the fiddlers. And, in two Dutch terms untranslatable to English: let's concentrate not only on `musici' but also on `muzikanten'. That may keep playing music within the reach also of the average, the ordinary, the obscure. And that's where it is needed also.


  1. Hallo Evert,
    Interessante blog. Het roept bij mij veel vragen op over 'onze' perceptie van muziek/musiceren, hoe deze vorm heeft gekregen (samenhang Christendom?) en hoe daar in andere culturen over gedacht wordt. Wat voor boeken/artikelen zijn er geschreven over dit onderwerp? Of moet ik daarvoor gewoon je vak komen volgen?

  2. Ja, veel vragen, daar houd ik van.

    Wat is onze perceptie van musiceren – dat is de vraag waar ik me mee bezig houd (of eigenlijk: van `musicking’, want musiceren is natuurlijk maar een vorm van muzikaal gedrag tem,idden avn vele anderen). Maar dan niet waar die perceptie vandaan komt, eerst maar eens gewoon wat die is.

    Interessante delen van antwoorden zijn te vinden bij mensen die schrijven over conservatoria – Bruno Nettl (Heartland Excursions), Henry Kingsbury (Music, Talent & Performance), recent het proefschrift van collega Rosie Perkins (maar dat is niet openbaar).

    Ik lees nu een dikke pil van de socioloog Andreas Reckwitz over `Subjektkulturen’ – die beschrijft hoe de moderne westerse samenleving sinds 1800 op steeds nieuwe manieren het `individu’ centraal stelt, zegt wat over de christelijke voor-moderne bronnen van de moderniteit, en geeft ook aan welke rol muziek/kunst als een soort tegenbeweging of katalysator in onze cultuur speelt. Maar hij is niet gericht op muziek in het algemeen, maar op specifieke soorten van omgang met muziek: muziek als romantisch fenomeen, avant-garde muziek. Hij zegt dus niets over het levenslied of het shantykoor, iets waarover je niet kunt zwijgen als je het hebt over muziek in onze samenleving.

    Niet-westers: er is literatuur te over over `andere’ omgangsvormen met muziek – tot op het punt waar de validiteit van het woord `muziek’ wordt betwist. Een mooie inleiding vind ik Miller e.a. – World Music; A Global Journey. Breed, en diep zat.

    Maar inderdaad: het allerbeste kun je die 9 lesjes van me even er bij komen zitten. Kunnen we verder praten...

  3. Mooi. Daar krijg ik honger van! Ik kom er graag bij zitten, mits het past in mijn rooster. Voor nu al heel erg bedankt voor alle suggesties.