Amid a generation of music listeners who have rarely or never experienced live music, the sonically perfect recorded version, the product of many takes and extensive engineering, is the only kind of music they know. Recordings are so perfect that even if one hears performing artists live, they are either incapable of matching their studio perfection, or are so encapsulated in layers of sound technology, that the essential humanity and art of music making is all but lost and forgotten. The term “live” music is really a misnomer when what the audience is hearing is processed, filtered, auto-tuned, and otherwise altered from what is acoustically possible. The performers in these contexts are really part of the sound engineering team, manipulating electronic technology, even as they sing through an auto-tuner, and play through sound processors, filters, and samples. Of course, there is still the musicianship required to play the instrument and sing the song, but as technology has evolved to hide or eliminate performer error, less musical prowess is needed to obtain marketable results than once was the case.
Classical music is by no means immune from these issues. Symphony orchestras record in performance spaces that often acoustically exceed their home concert halls, and releases are the product of many takes edited together to form a single reading of the repertoire. Orchestras are often just as incapable of matching their recorded alter-egos as popular artists. They have realized that while a flawed live performance can be unmatched in passion, excitement and raw expressiveness, it cannot hold up under the scrutiny of repeated hearings by listeners accustomed to recorded perfection. But in depending so extensively on recordings as the main source of music, listeners are loosing an essential aspect of the music experience; that of seeing the performer make music.
Whether it is the choreographed antics of a solo rock guitarist, or the dexterous, supple and acrobatic moving of fingers over a Steinway in a recital hall, seeing the performer wrestle with, take on, and master the challenges of bringing great music from a composer’s mind to an audiences ears infuses the experience with interest, thrill, and exuberant fun that cannot be found in an aural-only experience. An occasional blemish in the musician’s play is not a liability, but a reminder of the difficulty he or she is faces in the midst of performing, and makes the experience all the more exciting, just as a formidable opponent in a sporting event is more exciting than a one-sided affair. Some of the greatest performances of classical music are and always have been flawed ones that nevertheless excelled in artistry and expression. One only needs to consider the recorded legacy the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein left to hear that this is so.
The recorded music culture has affected music education profoundly. It has widened the gap between what students are capable of musically and what they are hearing their favorite artists do. I have written elsewhere about the need for balancing the level of challenge with the level of ability. When a teacher gets that balance right, students are motivated by the challenge and promise of improving. Get it wrong, and students are either bored or discouraged. When a student realizes he or she cannot possibly sound like a recorded artist, he or she gets discouraged and may give up trying all together, settling for being just a consumer and not a maker of music. Popular music offers few opportunities for students to hear examples of obtainable acoustic performances, and those that are available are often by artists who are more appealing to an older audience (Billy Joel, James Taylor, etc.). Classical music artists offer more hope, even in the face of demanding repertoire and technical demands. The “playing field” is more level, because from beginner to virtuoso, all are able to play on the same instrument, an acoustic instrument. Excellent results are possible for the student, and younger students, with an eye and ear to their future, can easily hear older students perform in school concerts or studio recitals. It is for this reason that I believe that classical music is the gateway to a lifetime of satisfying music making for hosts of students. Drum sets and electric guitars and basses will always be another option for the same reason. With orchestral and rock instruments to choose from, students can embrace obtainable musical goals, and with qualified music teachers work toward those goals with an ever blossoming and growing love for music–their music.