Duke Ellington once said, “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” There is a lot for music educators to think about in that statement, especially because an enduring understanding for performing includes “knowledge of musical works,” and “understanding of their own technical skill.” Learning, motivation, and satisfaction are always tied to a careful balancing of difficulty of the music and level of a student’s performing skill. Music that is too easy compared to skill is not motivating, is boring unlikely to be the vehicle for much learning. Music that is too difficult compared to skill is not motivating either, and is discouraging and again unlikely to be the means of much learning. Music that is perfectly matched to skill level will be motivating and satisfying for a time, but because it does not present much if any challenge, will be abandoned relatively quickly, again because of boredom.
Notice that Ellington did not suggest musicians select music they can play, he said they should select music they can master. To master a piece requires an interval of time spent working at it; practicing, rehearsing, refining, evaluating, and learning about. A piece one can master is one that is not within immediate reach, but is within reach once reasonable effort is made to put it within one’s grasp, and then to take hold of it as master. The goal in selecting music is to choose a work that the student cannot play yet, and avoid works that the students simply cannot play; that is to say will not be able to play, even after working at it for a reasonable period of time. Remember, the student is the one doing the selecting. The music educator must teach students how to evaluate their music performance skills, the difficulty of a musical work, and guide the student in properly balancing the two to achieve the right amount of challenge. We are trying to train students to be wise musicians.
Ellington also calls musicians who choose music they can master “wise.” There is wisdom in choosing to be challenged, choosing to improve yourself, to constantly be working at becoming better. This is true for all human endeavors, whether vocational or avocational. Leading students to mastery is the heart and soul of education. Students who don’t take on challenges, who don’t struggle with problems, who don’t put themselves, or allow themselves to be put into situations where they cannot immediately succeed, are sure to miss the opportunity to master anything. Students should be encouraged to select music that will appropriately challenge them.
On the other hand, pushing someone to practice something that will continue to be beyond their ability, ever falsely encouraging them with assurances that they can succeed if only they will keep trying, is misguided and a disservice to the student. I have heard too many music ensembles perform works in concerts and adjudications that they simply had no business trying to play or sing. These were not pieces the ensemble could master, and were unwisely chosen. There is no virtue in performing great music badly, but a good deal of advantage in performing any worthy music with excellence. Isaac Stern, the great violinist captured this thought well when he said, “there are more bad musicians than there is bad music.” Music directors must, through exercising wisdom, present music that makes it and the performers look good, while developing musicianship through the process of rehearsing, refining and evaluating.