Are we better musicians?
06/08/2012 § Leave a comment
We went shopping for an electric guitar for padawan #1 this weekend. We found a nice little Ibanez that fit her hands and had plenty of that hello-cleveland feel. Of course, it needed an amp and lead and strap and pick and chord book. With the high NZ exchange rate, the transaction wasn’t as painful as it could have been.
The music store was fabulous — filled floor-to-ceiling with instruments and paraphernalia, with the requisite baby grand sitting in the middle. Music store are promises. You, too, can sound amazing! All you need is one of these and one of those and…
Of course, you also have to practice. You have to learn where the fingers go and how to hold your hand just so, and pick or blow or tap at the right time. You have to try again and again until you get it right, and then do it all over for the next piece. And then there are the lessons; Duras captured them exactly right in the opening chapter to Moderato Cantabile.
It all got me thinking: are we better musicians? Better than, say, 150 years ago? I don’t mean each and every one of us, but have we shifted the bell curve rightward so that an average musical performance is somehow better?
There are forces pulling in both directions. Instruments are cheaper than they used to be. We can get better-quality instruments, so our playing should improve. We can also have more of them, so we can match the instrument to the person. That should improve performances.
On the other hand, time is not on our side. It still takes time to learn an instrument. How much can we speed up the process? Can we make it more efficient for the learner? Some technologies do help. DVD lessons allow one teacher to reach more pupils; on-line videos make it easier for learners to find instruction; site after site has tablatures, lyrics, and sheet music. The player still needs to convert the information into a performance. Yeah, you can find a video of someone playing that riff, but you still have to learn it.
There are also all the other uses for our leisure time. Television is the biggest one, of course, but everything from chat rooms to triathlons takes time. Playing music is just one item on a lengthening menu of activities.
It seems to suggest that we are changing the distribution as well as the mean. Perhaps the average performance has improved, because it is more likely to be done by someone with more talent and interest on a better instrument. But perhaps the distribution has tightened, or the left tail shrunk as fewer people bother to start or play casually.
We’ll see how my young guitarist goes. With all the new equipment, she certainly looks the part.