Nowadays, learning by tradition is becoming less and less common. The profusion of academies since the 19th century has generated an academic culture that – hand in hand with the ideals of positivism that coined them – recognizes its teaching paradigm, inherited from the method of the hard sciences, as the only one that provides valid learning. It is not that academies did not exist before the 19th century -they certainly did. But it is around that time that the amount of academies around Europe multiplied, and they defined the modern system of teaching and evaluation, as well as began to grant degrees which became a validation method – almost the only one, in our days – and, for all this, they have contributed very significantly to shaping the style of learning, performing and valuing music during subsequent centuries, the 20th century especially.
Learning through an academy, or from teachers who, in one way or another, teach according to the same paradigm, in music, was designed for the knowledge and teaching objectives of mid and late-19th century Europe. So much so that in recent years it has been proposed to replace the (indeed confusing) title of “classical music” with “academic music”, which is total nonsense: Bach, Mozart or Wagner were never closer than several kilometers from the academies of their time, which, furthermore (at least in the case of the first two), had nothing to do with those of ours. If we accept that there is “academic” music, it should be that of Schoenberg, Debussy, Messiaen, that is, composers trained through the knowledge of an academy and whose creations dialogue with that knowledge.
Over time, new knowledge, or even different knowledge, has been incorporated into these institutions, which required some type of adaptation, either in teaching or content.
Academic culture has enjoyed so much validation in society that, in many cases, the adaptation of knowledge external to it for teaching in the academy (for example, the teaching and study of traditional music or dance) was seen as a “hierarchization” of that knowledge, without realizing that every adaptation involves, at least, a change. And in general, it is usually worse: when we adapt a square to fit into a circle of the same surface (or vice versa), it is impossible to make it fit without filing the edges. It is evident that an ideal adaptation requires, to begin with, a larger surface area and not the same as the initial one, something that is not usually the case.
In recent decades, the world’s traditional music has sought to become more academic to avoid disappearing, since the tradition that sustains it is increasingly fragile in a world of increasing globalization that leaves behind and denies all tradition. Today’s culture perceives – consciously or unconsciously – tradition as something negative.
This has given rise to a new type of academic culture, even opening up the possibility of a student graduating with a non-negligible amount of knowledge without having had much contact with genuine tradition. This is something that is quite striking when it comes to “popular” music, and usually makes the older generations of musicians bang the table when they talk about it, but in “classical” music it seems completely possible to us, since the identity between the music that is studied and the academies is total. In fact, it is the academies themselves that facilitate contact between the student and the traditions of the genre (or what remains of them). This is not a minor detail.
In an interview with Miguel Mora, the flamenco singer Enrique Morente (1942 – 2010) was able to say about flamenco: “… it is an art made without writing: today’s guitarists continue to learn from other guitarists. It is better to know flamenco and music, of course, but before no one could write it. “Mr. So-and-so knows music,” we said then. It is still said. We greatly admire those who have studied music; Not the other way around. That is why there is always a tone of superiority of the career musician compared to the flamenco musician. Maybe they don’t know that our codes, to learn them, require fifteen years of study in Vienna, eating two or three quinces in Beethoven’s town and even with everything and that you don’t learn it.”
If these new institutions are founded to teach traditional music, it is striking that they include many pieces of knowledge that are considered indispensable in “classical” academies – such as musical literacy, for example – although they are not part of the tradition they teach. Some of this knowledge (not all, of course) comes into contradiction with the very tradition that they teach: returning to the example of reading and writing, in many traditional music there is its own system of transmission, whether oral or also written, or in some cases as verbal Indian music, which are completely discarded in favor of literacy in the European system.
It is worth clarifying that any criticism of the new academies must consider that any response and question about them is insufficient, because in all of them they are -necessarily- improvising, trying to build a new paradigm on top of a previous one, to teach a music that was never taught, but whose teaching in our time becomes essential to keep it alive, or at least in artificial respiration.
Precisely the purpose of this note is to compare a little bit the two forms of learning: learning by tradition and academic learning, taking advantage of the fact that the writer has extensively gone through both types of learning (a decade and a half of each, at least). In the course of this note, a bit extensive for the style of this blog, I will sometimes talk about popular music and traditional music. In principle, it is important to pay attention to the differences between “traditional” and “popular” (whose definition still escapes the broad limits of this note) although Western culture proposes only two categories, “classical” and “popular”, a category this one that encompasses both Gardel and Madonna, Michel Bubblé and Alberto Merlo.
In learning by tradition, in principle, one of the most important skills that the apprentice has to develop is reproduction . The Teacher (if there is one) plays, and the student imitates. The process has very little efficiency – I mean, it will take the apprentice, especially at the beginning, a long time to achieve an imitation that convinces the teacher – and, many times, the teacher is very incapable of explaining even the very subject that he intends to teach. In academic teaching it is the other way around: everything that is known can be codified and written in some way, the student only has to memorize it and he will be learned, or if not, he has a teacher who is generally able to transmit his ideas with absolute fidelity; Thus, the acquisition of new knowledge seems to work much faster in academia than in tradition. Non-academic (or popular) musicians very often make up for this (or try to make up for it) by greatly developing their capacity for reproduction. This is, depending on how you look at it, a weakness and a strength in both methods. Many traditional musicians have not even invented a writing system, since oral tradition is sufficient . It is often said (and often wrongly) that a musician plays “by ear” when he did not learn in an academy. In an academy, you learn (one could almost say, with the same sarcasm) “by sight” something that would have to be learned “by ear”, because instead of listening to the music, the student looks at it on a sheet of music. This transition implies a shift in the learning process that, in a few words, could be said to go from being intuitive to being rational.
In tradition, when learning by copying, what is copied depends a lot on what is perceived and processed and this entire process happens in the student ; When learning through a score, what is read is an idea already processed by the person who wrote it. The latter guarantees that the student will receive the teacher’s almost distilled idea, although it often seems to be thought that it is exactly the other way around.
When learning within a tradition there is usually no division between technique, theory and practice. Everything is learned together. In the past, it was rarely necessary to study “technique” to learn to dance a malambo, even though it is a technically very demanding dance. This different way of learning makes the academy think that “popular music has no technique,” which, in a way, is true, but it is a good thing. Much traditional music uses very complex techniques, but learning those techniques comes along with, and above all, is a consequence of, learning the other elements of that tradition. I repeat: in many traditions, learning other elements (for example, style) is what develops the performer’s technique.
Talking about musical writing would require a whole other note (in fact, a few years ago, I dedicated one of the longest ones on this blog to it without covering most of its proposed subject… and probably, when reading it, it seems to contradict much of what I say in this note), but in principle we can agree that the score is an encoding not of a sound, but of an idea . In the same way that written words does not encode the sound of said words rather than their meaning independently of their sound. In the transformation of a sound to an idea, which is then written down, there is necessarily a reduction. This is not a problem exclusive to the scores, but a characteristic of all symbolization: the symbol reduces the meaning in order to be codifiable. The details of the tree do not matter to the word tree. No series of words in any language will be able to describe the tree on the corner of my house in all its dimensions. But, at the same time, the word tree can name all the trees of the universe, past, present, future and even the imaginary ones that never existed.
Copying has the possibility of greater learning, which operates intuitively: when copying, not only the notes of a musical work are copied, but also the details of the performance . When you copy a teacher you also learn many things from him: posture, gestures, style, etc. Over time, prolonged contact with a teacher (or a community) provides an artist with much more than a background in music, for better or worse.
It is not that copying is without risks: when a single person is the reference, the student usually becomes a caricature of the teacher at best; At worst, he only receives half-information. That is why it is impossible to fully learn oral tradition music without a community that plays it (at least if it is purely oral learning). This is a fundamental detail: learning traditional music can be done through a teacher or not, but it always requires integration into a community. It is what provides the learner with all the necessary elements to be able to complete and sift their learning, in general, making up for the shortcomings that purely intuitive learning may have. So does prolonged practice playing music in ensembles, exercising accompaniment and soloist roles. No amount of hours of practice can be a substitute for an hour of playing alongside other musicians (it goes without saying that the training of a good musician depends on both), formally or informally.
If that happy case happens and there is a community of good musicians, and even a good teacher and a good student, an outstanding musician appears, one of those who make many people question the need to study in an academy, like Paco de Lucía or Aníbal Troilo. Both musicians, outstanding in their instrument, did not emerge from the laziness of pursuing an academic career for years, but from many hours of playing their instrument (from an early age) and contact with the best musicians of their time. This contact is irreplaceable in any context. It also applies to classical music: It is nonsense to think that only a few years of conservatory will train an artist . The study must be complemented by listening to great teachers, but it is not enough: contact with them is also necessary.
Now, learning by tradition also has a series of shortcomings. The first, the clearest and therefore already mentioned, is that it requires a community around the learner, the second, capital, is that this community and the student know how to differentiate their knowledge from the rest.
Here, the great flamenco guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar explains it in detail (video on Spanish):
I quote: “Any guitarist listens to all kinds of music, from the first moment his mother puts him in the crib and turns on the television to distract him. That’s where they put all kinds of music in your house; If there is no school knowledge, then, that person who absorbs all that musical abstraction, how does he put order there? And then, it is very easy to pick up what is immediate from music, but going deeper into it is much more difficult” […]
It is very notable that this appreciation comes from a flamenco guitarist, coming from one of the most resistant traditions of Western music. What is left for urban music, like Tango, for example? Today’s Tango musician grew up listening to other music at least in a three to one ratio compared to tango. There are exceptions: leaving aside his immeasurable talent, Hugo Rivas is also a product of having started playing the guitar since he was a child, and of the contact he had with all the great musicians and singers of past decades (starting with his father and uncle, guitarists of Adolfo Berón), with whom he played and recorded many times. And there is the result of that exception.
The cases of people like Paco de Lucía or Hugo Rivas today are true unicorns, very difficult to find. The most common thing is that a musician tries to approach a musical genre of his own culture with some few advantages over a tourist . The description that follows could well be that of any young person approaching tango after the 1980s (and includes me twenty years ago): He does not know about the great masters (past and present) of the genre, and even if he knows them It is very unlikely that he will play with them because the sources of work are few and remain in the hands of a relatively limited number of people. Surely he is interested in the genre, but that does not take away the fact that for most of his life (including his daily life) he listens to music that is completely outside that tradition, even against his will: music that is heard on the radio, in social media advertisements, on television, in shops and restaurants, is always another. Not even a restaurant serving pure ethnic food plays music from the same tradition that originated the recipes it serves on its menu, moreoften choosing the same music you’d find on a McDonalds.
In this way, musical intuition is severely limited by being invaded – we could also say colonized – by a lot of music that is listened to involuntarily.
Nowadays certain mannerisms of interpretation of pop music appear everywhere, in all music from all over the world. In the same way, it is not uncommon to hear Argentine folklore musicians using jazz harmonies , which were never intended to describe the spiritual world of the inhabitant of (for example) northern Argentina; or they might use instruments that were never intended to be played in that tradition. All of this requires maximum attention from the student, not to avoid it, but to be able to differentiate which elements are part of the frame of reference that he makes to that tradition.
Reading the last paragraph, many will think that I am a conservative. Maybe they are right. However, I am interested in insisting on the transcendent meaning of a tradition and the culture that sheltered it. Tradition maintains within itself a degree of coherence that is impossible to obtain in an “experimental” way, because it is the fruit of hundreds of years of maturation within a community.
Tradition carries a transcendent message that needs to be communicated.
And here arises another of the problems (perhaps the biggest) of learning through a tradition. Tradition is a very broad and – by definition – non-verbalized message, a knowledge that is not completely codifiable; This usually causes the true meaning and message of the tradition to be misunderstood or directly forgotten. And without that message, all the rest of the elements that make up a tradition have no meaning. It is at this point where tradition runs the risk of becoming a mere limitation for the musical imagination that contributes absolutely nothing. And the musician chooses either to abandon it completely, or to follow to the letter some instructions that make no sense. He prefers to stay still in the same place, rather than move towards another, thinking that tradition is an anchor, when in reality it is a compass.
Up to this point it seems that the purpose of this note is to criticize the contribution of the academy to the most recent history of music. I am not going to deny that I make this criticism almost daily. But we must not fail to take into account that academic training, if carried out in the best way, is the best tool to generate some degree of intellection in learning a tradition . Perhaps it is the best answer to Sanlúcar’s question: “How do you put order there?”
Nowadays, the musician who ventures into a tradition needs the ability to theorize, because theorizing is the only thing that allows things to be put in order . The academy is perhaps the only one that has the possibility of rescuing traditions; But for this to happen, it is the academy that has to adapt its knowledge to put it at the service of a knowledge that is outside its paradigm. And if the academy as an institution does not do it, at least it is a custom that those of us who study traditional genres and music in general should adopt.
After having sailed (and been shipwrecked) in both waters, I would say that both learnings provided me with essential knowledge and I would not recommend anyone (I exaggerate: almost anyone) to miss them.