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. According to his son, he taught students ﬁgured bass (the lead sheet of the day) near the beginning, and his students learned to improvise, arrange, and compose. He was preparing his students to be working musicians in the community. To give an example: at the audition for the organist position at a church in Hamburg in 1725, the keyboardist was required to do six different things—ﬁve of them had to do with improvisation in various forms.
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 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. 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 l all these musical paths.
So let’s re-orient pedagogy back to personal creativity and the primary relationship between a player and his or her inner life, rather than the secondary relationship of a public performer to an audience. Let's try not to have musicians who know anxiety far better than creativity.
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.
An educator is a gardener, helping little seeds emerge from underground darkness and break into the light.