By Lidia Chang
In ten summers teaching at South Shore Conservatory’s Summer Music Festival (SMF), I’ve become increasingly aware of the complex network of relationships in which we musicians participate: performer to audience, audience to composer, composer to performer; with teachers and conductors helping it all come together. This thing that we do called music requires a fluidity and flexibility of relationships. In the microcosm of SMF, I’ve observed roles flip in an instant: a teacher becomes a student, a student a composer, a conductor an audience. I’ve come to appreciate that, for better or worse, in the act of performing our role(s) we constantly reinforce principles and assumptions of our music culture. A conductor chooses to program one piece over another, a performer slightly alters the text or tempo of a work, audience members sit reverently between movements rather than clapping. Innocent though they seem, these choices—informed, of course, by a variety of social pressures and expectations—over time become convention, and, eventually, convention becomes culture, reflecting our collective values.
The recent global pandemic, however, has turned societal norms on their heads, causing us to make fast and radical choices about what we value. Nowhere has that been more obvious to me than in conversations with my SMF colleagues, as we completely reimagine our beloved festival in a virtual space. The question was never, “How can we teach a music festival online?” but rather, “What are the core values of SMF and how can we use this new SMFCONNECT platform to promote them?”
Asking myself this question, I discovered that my own guiding principles as a faculty member have been: profound introspection and personal growth for the benefit of the whole ensemble—for the benefit of society?—after all, what is a wind ensemble if not a community of individuals contributing to a cause greater than their own? Viewing SMF ensembles as actual training ground for civic responsibility began for me as a dreamy ideal. Recently, though, this ideal has crystalized into a conviction: we must cultivate good citizenship through our music pedagogy.
In recent years, SMF Music Director’s purposeful and bold programming choices have given me opportunity to contextualize the music we perform within social structures such as race, gender, and nationality. Introducing our students to these difficult and often divisive topics has been both a tremendous privilege and a profound challenge for me—as a multi-racial woman of dual nationality— and at times, quite a personal one. But I choose to continue initiating these uncomfortable conversations in hopes of developing new musico-cultural ideals grounded in compassion, empathy, and equity.
With this goal in mind, I am offering Thinking Musically: The Language and Culture of Music as part of SMFCONNECT. First, I’ll call into question the premise of Western concert culture. I often think the modern concert hall has given entirely too much power and authority to this thing we are making and interpreting, which we call music. “Music” the noun has come to supersede “musicking” the verb. This slippage from verb to noun has had far-reaching consequences in our music culture, creating problematic hierarchies of artistic value, which we often, and unknowingly, perpetuate. But knowledge is powerful. I believe that by teaching our students to question convention and search for understanding we can build a more equitable musical culture, and a more just society.
Lidia Chang is a Summer Music Festival flute coach, currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at the City University of New York.