Dead White Men

I teach piano, and just about all of the music my students are expected to learn are written by dead white men.  When the listen to the radio, they hear music written by people living very far away from them.  We live in the world where composing music is very distant from your average student.

This is one of the reasons that I teach all of my piano students to compose.  Among other reasons – its fun, it helps us learn how music is constructed (thus, making it easier to learn), and, like all creative endeavors, it validates our existence on this planet.  (OK – maybe that’s a bit existential …)

So, while chatting with the band members of my residency this Monday, I mentioned that one of the reasons I compose is that I get tired of playing (or, more accurately, teaching) only music that is written by dead or far away people.

And then, a lone voice came up from the flute section in front of me.  “I wish we played more music by dead people.”

I was so startled by this comment, that I had no idea what to say.  I didn’t think to mention that, yes, I too love playing music by the dead white men (and the occasional woman), and that I study their music to help improve my composing.  Nor did I think to mention that our history and present time is filled with great music, and that it is well worth embracing both the past and present.  No – the only thing I could think to mention was that I would try not to become one of those dead white men in the near future.  Yeah.

So, I started thinking about the band literature that I know.  And you know what?  Most of the rep that school bands play is written by living white men.  In fact, I was told many years ago that if I truly wanted to make a living at composing, I should focus on writing band music for school bands.  It is one of the few vibrant markets for new music by living composers.

This flautist is faced with a problem completely opposite to what my piano students face, and I can fully understand her situation.  If I was teaching my piano students music written only by Robert Vandall (a well known composer for student piano music) and his peers, I too would be crying out for music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann – my dear dead white friends.

So, now that I will be writing a piece for this band, am I part of the problem?  I’ll pretend not to be.  I’ll say – well, we’re focussing on bringing composition closer to the members of the band.  We’ll learn a bit of how a piece is composed.  Those who participate in the small group sessions with me will actually get more hands-on experience composing.  And, besides, we’re making a contrast to those far away people who compose.  This is someone in your own backyard.  No – I’m not part of the problem.

At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.


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