Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship part 1 – Guest post by Tony Whyton

Tony Whyton kicks off with an introduction to a series of reflections from the passionate and insightful discussion that went on in our Future of Musicianship event on May 1, 2012 in London. Full recording of the event is available for listening and download. We’re looking forward to your comments!

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Pete Lutkoski, Steve Lawson & Andrew Dubber
listening to Tony Whyton‘s opening words
at the Future of Musicianship event on May 1 2012.
Photo: Alan Tucker

Introduction to the May 1st The Future of Musicianship event

I was given the honour of chairing the first Loving & Living Music event on The Future of Musicianship this week and thought I would post up a slightly modified version of my introduction as a way into keeping the conversation going…

What is musicianship?

The Future of Musicianship provides us all with an opportunity to take stock – to think about what musicianship means today.  As musicians and educators working in a variety of different contexts, The Future of Musicianship provides us with a chance to reflect on both what we’re doing in education and to consider issues surrounding the types of musicians we’re producing.

Musicianship, like concepts of creativity, originality, authenticity and so on, is difficult to define when we break it down, especially when we consider the demands and expectations of different musical styles and traditions or the politics of genre and, when we consider the shifting expectations and needs of different music industries, the concept of musicianship – or what makes a good musician – is perhaps something that can be understood as being in a constant state of flux.Quite often, musicianship is a term that is bound up with different mythologies that surround music – it is not only about musicians and the acquisition of musical skills but also integrally linked to societal attitudes and perceptions.  Musicianship is quite often perceived as something natural and pre-given, a concept that ties into other myths that encourage music to be treated differently from other professions and societal roles.  This idea of the natural or innate music maker might work well when we think about romanticised depictions of artists, but for educators who invest time and energy in cultivating musicianship skills, these mythologies can be unhelpful or counterproductive, to say the least.

Role of the musician

I want to set the scene with a story that might have some resonance with everyone involved in music.  Pretty much every time that I’ve been to a dinner party, family occasion or public event where people have discovered that I am a musician, there is a genuine sense of intrigue about the work I do.  Most often, revealing the fact that I am a musician is greeted with a sense of pleasure – sometimes suspicion and bemusement (especially when I tell them I’m into jazz!) – and mostly there is a sense of interest and fascination about musical skill and ability that, on the surface, would appear to demonstrate the public value of musicianship in a very clear and compelling way.  However, as every musician might also testify, we might be familiar with the desire for us to entertain people in a spontaneous way at these same type of events – how often have you encountered the phrase,  “oh, you’re a musician, why don’t you play for us?” Now, just for one moment, let’s change the scenario and imagine that I am now an accountant at a dinner party – when I reveal my profession, I might well be greeted with bemusement, but I wouldn’t necessarily be asked to put down my cutlery in order to  complete tax returns for free on behalf of guests sitting around the table…

On the one hand, asking musicians to ‘play for us’ – to display their musicianship skills in a public gathering – demonstrates the societal value of music and the desire for pleasure among social groups.  Music has a social relevance and conveys respect among different people, its rituals give meaning to the world and make us feel part of a communal whole.  Furthermore, as musicians who like to play, we might all have found ourselves in the position of performing in this spontaneous manner and enjoying ourselves on these occasions.  And yet, I would argue that these scenarios also show us how musicianship is perceived as mysterious, innate and also intangible – again, hear the words, “if only I could play like that, I would be playing all day for anybody who wanted to hear” – more importantly, it becomes difficult to pin down the value of musicianship in both aesthetic and monetary terms.

What next?

This general introduction offers one way in to discussing the value of musicianship but there are obviously several more angles I think we should cover in this debate.  As a musical field, we are in a state of flux in terms of the changing role of musicians – both through increased mobility, communication through the internet, the decline of recording industry as we know it, limited opportunities for funded performance and a reduction in public subsidy, and a lack of wider recognition for the arts.  The withdrawal of subsidy for arts and humanities subjects in Higher Education has raised concerns about the future role of music education, and there is a growing uncertainty about the status of the DCMS, and support for the arts more generally, post the Olympic Games in July.  Equally, the creation of new music education hubs perhaps offers us an opportunity to explore new ways of collaborating and developing musicians and listeners of the future.

What do you think?

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Tony is looking forward to having a conversation with you here on the blog. If you have so much to say it would warrant a separate post, please feel free to send it to us at – more bloggers the merrier. You can also connect to Tony on Twitter as @TonyWhytonPlease comment generously!

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One thought on “Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship part 1 – Guest post by Tony Whyton

  1. Ben Hillyard says:

    A huge thank you to Tony for chairing the event and to all the speakers for their fascinating insights!

    Many important topics were tackled during the evening; one that I’d like to reflect now is the discussion around mythologies of music & musicians. The perception of musical ability as ‘something natural or pre-given’ can be a huge barrier to potential students who see playing an instrument as something mystical & unobtainable. Having a strong culture of musical participation & performance within a school or community is one of the best ways to break down that perception by opening up musical participation to all. When people see performances by their peers, particularly students who improve & develop from one performance to the next, it is a demonstration to the audience of the fact the musical ability (like any skill) is a result of practice and, most importantly, is obtainable by people just like themselves. This is a very different impression than the one that is given when a new artist is launched on the public perception, fully-formed, branded & styled, and backed-up by big-budget marketing. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the popular music industry, for all it’s air of egalitarianism and providing ‘music for the people’, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to creating a cultural elite.

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