Artists, Artisans, and Actors
Bach and his contemporaries considered themselves to be ARTISANS who crafted music for specific occasions and purposes. Bach improvised, arranged, and composed music for church services, events (weddings, funerals, dances, etc.), organ testing, and lessons. His pedagogy reflected these aims.
Bach often played hand-copied scores of others, but it was not to perform them on a concert stage—it was to give him ideas for compositions and improvisations. After public concerts emerged, keyboardists (such as Mozart) performed their own compositions, arrangements, and improvisations in variety concerts into the middle of the 19th century.
Beethoven was among the first to consider himself to be an ARTIST expressing his unique genius for posterity. In the latter part of his life, he became one of the first actual “composers,” a person able to live off commissions and royalty checks from the emerging industry of music publishing. Bach (who never heard of royalty checks and saw only eight of his works printed) would have been astonished by this.
In the latter part of Beethoven’s life, printed masterworks by him, Bach, and many others became widely available for the first time. Within a generation, pianists began to see themselves as akin to Shakespearian ACTORS, performers with the noble purpose of bringing to life the profound musical scripts of the masters. Pedagogy followed, conservatories were born, and to this day, many (if not most) music students are taught to recite and perform the works of composers but not to improvise, arrange, or compose themselves. Bach would have been even more astonished by a keyboardist who didn’t arrange, improvise, or compose!
Today, there is another revolution (literally, “a revolving back”) in music pedagogy. Many pedagogues (myself included) are creating materials and approaches to restore the Artisan/Artist tradition and integrate it with the Actor tradition in the weekly lesson. We feel the range of the creative musical act is so profound that students should be encouraged to experience it, and that music becomes a full art (like painting or creative writing) when musicians work to create music that is unique to them, even if it is not great music. Others feel that reciting masterworks is the highest art because the music itself is so profound, and so they may resist or even dismiss the inevitable pedagogic swing to the old ways.
I say, let us recognize that to be an actor bringing to life the masterworks is the highest calling for some, while for many others it is to be an artisan/artist (a composer, an improviser, or an arranger). My hope is that we embrace the expansive range of our rich heritage and encourage ALL these musical paths.
Much of the joy and sense of adventure in our journey as music educators is to keep exploring, learning, and sharing the endless richness that is music.