"Creating An Integrated Music Performance Program: Expanding
Student Knowledge and Skills Across the Classical-Vernacular Divide"
A Videoconferenced Address to the College of Arts of
the University of New England in Australia

by Christopher Fulkerson
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Thank you for inviting me to speak today on “Creating An Integrated Music Performance Program: Expanding Student Knowledge and Skills Across the Classical-Vernacular Divide.”

I would like to address two necessary crossings of the great divide.   In terms of pedagogy these relate as teaching, and research.   The one that involves everyday teaching is the one that seems most directly related to our topic: getting younger musicians with a vernacular background to embrace Classical music.   We all have experience with this teaching task.   

My remarks will proceed from the large to the small, concluding with a matter I believe significant.


No applied effort to cross divides of this sort will be successful without a simultaneous and related research project.   It needs to involve properly planned public events, and would best include journalists and historians. And this means navigating greater obstructions than most academics suspect exist.   We all work to get young minds to perceive Classical music as being at least as vibrant and exciting as popular music.   Peter Maxwell Davies has written on this topic, saying that the tribal emotion in popular music is a good thing to be able to experience, though there are problems there, for the very reason it is tribal.   But I believe the situation is growing worse.   

The expression “guitar god” is now being applied in popular music.  Rock stars are being spoken of openly as gods.  It’s an outrage, of course, but it’s pretty clear evidence that the Commercial Music Culture is more successful than the Classical one.   We Classical musicians are, in fact, losing the popularity contest that drives Democracy.   Really addressing this topic means dealing with levels of popular success that render academics superfluous.   I am reminded of the phrase that Jesus got from the Pharisees, “How can you presume to teach us, who are righteous?”   In our context this would translate as a Rock star saying “How can you presume to teach us, who are popular?”

But I think an effective educational policy can be developed, in which the limitations, as well as the true possibilities, of popular musicians can be revealed to the benefit of all concerned, and allow their musical followers to more effectively draw conclusions on their own.

I have been working at this my whole professional career.  I had known since High School that Frank Zappa admired the Modernist composer Edgar Varese, and called him the GLC – the Greatest Living Composer.  Years later, when I was Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, my boss Jean-Louis LeRoux asked me for a fundraising idea.   Without missing a beat I said we should get Frank to conduct the music of Varese.   Jean-Louis said I should write the letter, and he would find out where to mail it.   So Frank Zappa went public with Classical music due to my idea, and at my invitation.   The best members of several orchestras played for him.   To this day it remains the most successful event in the history of the SFCMP.  

That was how I got Frank Zappa to practice his conducting.

But that’s not the whole story of the event.  Occasionally I edit Wikipedia.   One day I added a paragraph to the Frank Zappa article, describing that same Varese and Webern Centennial event at which he had guest conducted two pieces.   My short paragraph disappeared within minutes.   At the time I didn’t understand what this meant, and posted it again.   And again, and again.   Soon I found myself embroiled in what is called a Revert War.   

What I learned is that there are many persons all over the world who don’t want it known that their Rock idols have ever had any consistent involvement with Classical music.   There is an “open conspiracy” to this effect.   A number of excuses were made to me about why my entry was irrelevant, some of them were wrong, and others indicated a substandard Musicology.   I learned more about a subject I watch for, namely, the consensus, that exists in the music business, as to what is to be allowed to become popular and what is not.  

This consensus is an active de facto political policy, disturbingly similar to Stalinism, and not merely a part of what is being called Wiki Politics, which is also very bad, and there is I think more of this going on than most music educators suspect.   One of the items that seems agreed upon is that any involvement Rockers have with Classical music is forever subordinate to their Rock and Roll.   In short, with the people who really control public taste, Rock is “in,” and Classical is “out,” unless it happens to show for a moment how versatile and capable the Rock gods are.   But Classical music is an eccentricity, a fly on the windshield.    We have to make our way uphill against this.

Music educators feel they are the good guys, but through policy the music business teaches the public that we’re not merely boring academic types.   We are being positioned as the actual bad guys, the opportunistic elitists, imperiously ignoring the real needs of the people, and a Rocker’s involvement with Classical music is being positioned as nothing more than a perhaps interesting sideline in his godlike Rock existence.   How long must it go on that Rock is in the pilot’s seat, and Classical music a casualty?

Occasionally, some Rockers will seek the credibility that involvement with Classical musicians makes possible.   But they reconfigure the situation to their own advantage, and will leave out any academics that may have helped them. 

The problem here is not that a nice academic isn’t getting credit for a public service.   The nice academic isn’t ever part of the equation that’s made public, and this makes it more difficult for him to gain the credibility with his students that would facilitate his job of raising their consciousness.   The music business finds any academic presence to be inconvenient, because it would quickly make it clear that the pop musicians are not the omniscient gods their campaigns project them to be.

I also observed this sort of thing during my involvement as something like a consultant to the Grateful Dead.   (The settings I have done of popular song texts in my Celestial Sixties cycle are not part of any collaborative effort.)    The Dead bassist Phil Lesh has some interest in modern Classical music and used to have a Sunday night radio program of it on KPFA in Berkeley.   Once, when I heard his program, I called him at the studio.   He encouraged me to apply for Rex Foundation money, which I did, and got.  

We talked on the phone sometimes and found we agreed about who the GLC is, namely, Elliott Carter.    Phil wanted to fund a competitor performance to Leonard Bernstein’s of the Carter Concerto for Orchestra, and he wanted to know whom I would recommend to conduct it.  I suggested the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen, with whom I had worked at Tanglewood.   Phil said he’d never heard of any of these people, but would look into it.   He asked me for Carter’s address, which I thought it correct to give, since it’s no secret really, and I knew Phil had money and a major performance to offer him.  A couple of years later the disc with those very artists appeared.

The disappointment came when just a few months ago I heard an hour-long program about the friendship between Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh.  Though I was the one who brought them together, I wouldn’t have necessarily expected to have been named in this role.   But there was nothing in the account to indicate that anybody had ever helped Phil meet Elliott.   The event was treated as a remarkable but natural development in the careers of two musicians.   No one had helped Phil step up to the level of Classical music credibility.  The implication was that Phil has the chops for this on his own.   Now he wants to claim that his Rock music is similar to Carter’s metrical modulation.   Oliver Knussen was also too small a name for him to mention.   I admit it would have been nice if I’d been mentioned, and even thanked.    But the point is that, in my experience, any involvement pop musicians have with any but big name Classical artists is being completely, I can say literally, edited out of the process, constantly and in every medium.

Expressed in academic terms, then, dealing with popular music is not going to be effective without deep involvement of the entire academic community in the whole music industry, and this will create a problem for the good guys who believe in collegiality and full accountability.   And we need more than just the instrumental and vocal teachers to be involved.   A music performance program can be constructed, but it cannot get beyond its demographics, not even with online help, without, for example, music journalists who will get all of the facts onto the table, and music historians who will keep all of the facts alive, and not just the pseudo-facts that will keep the pop stars in their secure positions above the Classical musicians.  Because the online competition is already prodigious, much of it is free, the rest is cheap, and some of it is well done.

One last thing before I move from research to practice.   I want to just mention the very best evidence of what I am calling the “open conspiracy,” the active anti-Classical, Music Culture policy, by saying that far more revealing things can be found in the few brief paragraphs of the ASCAP 23rd Article of Association, a legal instrument that crudely bludgeons Classical composers out of any but the most restricted involvement in the Society.  Here the “open conspiracy” is at its most open, rendered in absolutely explicit language that prevents Classical composers from ever having real influence in the music business.   Please read that article, you will be shocked.  I believe it is having more negative effect on Classical music than any other factor, without exception.   Classical composers are expressly stripped of all their rights in the Society to frankly prevent them from turning any hit composition in any medium, including film, into the voting power that every pop song is guaranteed.  It is a perfectly lethal “Catch-22,” and I wish I weren’t the only person I know of to be aware of it.  I spoke with an antitrust lawyer about it, and he said he thought a suit was in order.   But who will file it?

To sum up to this point, if academics really want to improve the ease with which they accomplish the raising of the level of their students’ knowledge and skills, they have to compete against ruthless propagandists, in an environment resembling the most intense bad religion, enforced by virulent Wall Street contracts, so they must consider a multi-front campaign, in which among other things antitrust suits against the largest musical organizations in history are necessary.    Educators are not only trying to get their students into the practice room.   They are fighting for the long lost souls of the young, whose loss has already taken the most precious hopes of Western Civilization with them.   We live in the era of the Pied Piper Triumphant.


What techniques can we use in the everyday effort to elevate music students?   I will first make some obvious points about trying to expand the purview of Jazz musicians, a bridge not too far.  

One of the problems in ever talking about this situation is that the patterns are different for different types of performers coming from the pop background.   But no form of popular music uses all the instruments of the orchestra equally, so a few cases should give a reasonable picture of a program.

With singers, it is not considered adequate to let them go without voice lessons in classical Italian singing, and this includes performing Classical pieces.  This is usually not too difficult a paradigm to get Jazz and musicals singers to accept.   Singers are the athletes of music, and ought to sing in public frequently, even if it is only a song.   My observation is that really dedicated music theater types are unhappy if they have to sing too many operas and what they would consider to be too few musicals.    

Most Jazz pianists already acquainted with Classical music, but if they are not, it is possible to simply change the order of exposure to get them interested.   Some advanced Modern piano music might help them get a handle on Classical music better than Mozart would. 

This is what worked for me; I was excited about Xenakis more consistently than any older-era composer.   In addition to Mozart, I was playing the Schoenberg Sechs Kleine Klavierstuecke as a lower classman, about the same time I was trying to decipher Eonta.   Piano lessons became much more exciting as soon as I got to play Schoenberg.   I would recommend that with this type of student, a regular march through the Classical repertoire not be insisted upon, merely that, by the end of their academic career, they have gone in sufficient depth into all the major styles.   By the time they are done, such students will perhaps consider themselves to have achieved greater versatility than they could have hoped to achieve without an education.  But I don’t think it’s a good idea to ever try to get anybody to completely change what they want to do.  It is better to think in terms of adding to their capabilities.

Some bridges are already in place.  Classical bass players know that their instrument doesn’t have a great repertoire, and that the real interest for them is in Jazz.  Jazz bass players are usually pretty easy going about an academic orchestral requirement, they may even like the experience, which is usually less technically demanding than their Jazz repertoire.   Stylistic crossover is usually the easiest for players of the stand-up bass.

There are greater problems for Jazz guitarists, for whom there is scarcely any chamber music repertoire, and still less for Rock guitarists.   If they feel they have no reason to learn Classical guitar, it might be best to simply tell them you can’t help them.   While at school, they should be expected to meet a Classical guitar, or bass, requirement.   It would be best to find two different teachers for them, even if they have to go off campus for this.   Performance opportunities need to be found for them, but not ones that would warp production values at recitals.

Just as some lessons for the students are major confrontations with uncompromising forces, so too does major confrontation exist for a faculty.   Teachers can bend over backwards only so far without losing their balance, and without changing their arts and sciences beyond recognition.    It is not possible to be all educators to all students.   This is especially true when a popular idiom is too deeply associated with life style issues.


There are two curriculum ingredients I think crucial to the effort.  They both involve massive amounts of listening.

Rather than attempt something nefarious by eroding an enthusiast’s interest in their first, popular love, or denying it altogether as some ancient Greek may recommend, it is better to reveal a larger world and let them realize their own path.  This has the advantage that the students will create their own order of work, out of their own artistic interests.  They will be artists from their very beginning, and will never remember a time when they weren’t artists.
I’m a big believer in the utility of weekly, required, in-department recitals.  At my undergraduate conservatory, every Monday at 5 o’clock was “Solo Class.”   No student could graduate without going to the majority of these, and nobody got any credit whatever for going.  It was indeed a Zero Credit Class that could hold you back from graduating.    There were no undergraduate exceptions, ever.

The psychology of confronting this on Day One at the conservatory was invaluable.   Solo Class was where you met the Dean and the Faculty.   Solo Class was everybody’s first class ever.   All important announcements were made in Solo Class.   Students who couldn’t deal with this requirement were sorted out quickly.

I began as one of those kids from the “other side.”   I had played lead guitar in garage bands in High School and though I had begun teaching myself from the Piston Orchestration Book and had started writing chamber music for strings and something like Classical guitar, I had no real experience and no knowledge of the repertoire.

A large listening and concert attendance requirement can be the perfect way to help kids bridge the gap.  There is no performance crisis, and they get the message: this, and not that other thing, is what it means to do a concert.

A similar stress on listening, to the same purpose of immersion, should be made in all other music classes.    Listening exams should be frequent.    

Simply put, the more repertoire a musician knows, the less likely will he be to fail to expand his own repertoire, and with it his skills and ambitions.   My preferred method of expanding student knowledge is, then, to rely on listening first, and performance second, with history and theory providing a structure to the knowledge gained practically.    

So what I am saying is that you need a student audience requirement to make your student performance program work.   

With the method of exposure to considerable amounts of music repertoire, a music student’s experience can be made to resemble a professional’s career in one important way: whether a beginner or a pro, they have so much involvement with music that it seems to be coming OUT of their ears.

Another major curriculum requirement that moves a student bodily into Classical Music is the Major Ensemble.

Nobody can call themselves a musician without experience performing in large groups.   One of the commonest complaints about pianists is that since their repertoire is so extensive and self-sufficient they can go for years without performing with anybody else and thus don’t develop proper ensemble skills.   All music students have to learn that this is unacceptable.  

For performers used to popular music, probably playing only the instruments that pop music features, there is a good chance they won’t make it into the University Orchestra to fulfill their major ensemble requirement.   However, done properly, University Chorus can be an adequate substitute.  There is still the trap of getting caught in the choral music world, a curious example of a universal province.   But it will have to do for people without an orchestral capability.   And choruses do perform with orchestras and opera companies.   

Every school needs an Opera Theater, and if it is done correctly opera certainly counts as a major ensemble.   

It is possible that pop musicians can get some Major Ensemble experience if they play in the bands of the musical theater pieces.   For the intransigents who cordially refuse to develop beyond Rock perhaps some sort of Theater component can be built into their curriculum, and this could involve their writing and performing their own Rock opera or musical.  There should be serious composition requirement, so they will have the tools to get out of the industry trap called the “Tribute Band.”  Perhaps a certificate program could be created that varies requirements at the Upper Division level.  They might not get beyond Rock, but they would have a fuller awareness of what production is, and what success is, and this might be the biggest favor one can do for them.   They can get then get rich and donate back to the school.
To sum up, I think immediate and sustained full exposure to the entire corpus of the Classical repertoire is the best way to bridge the great divide.   All other projects fall into place if the students are listening.   It is never unreasonable to ask a musician to listen.   When you are exposed to an entire world all at once, you lose your parochial views more easily.


I think one last point needs to be made.   In the broadest possible terms, crossing the Classical-vernacular divide cannot be effected through musical performance alone.   The more you involve people with a pop music background, the more the present conservatory thinking has to bend to one certain assumption of the masses, that was in fact an assumption of the eighteenth-century generation that established the conservatories: that new music, of whatever kind, is really what music all about.   That’s one thing we Modernist Classical composers can agree with the public about.   Academies are not fulfilling their role when they act as though reviving the past is their primary duty.   Conservatories were created by people like Cherubini because they feared things like counterpoint wouldn’t be taught, not because they thought orchestral and operatic performances were under any threat and needed to be preserved.  Conservatories were not created to conserve the repertoire of the past.   They were created to keep composition from degenerating.   It was naively assumed that new works would always be done.   The quality of the new works was the issue.

Crossing of the divide will only be definitive and real if the public is fully involved.   You can’t talk about becoming better artists without consumers who participate as listeners, preferably in the High Court of public performance.   But the public has to be led along.   Structural compromise results in an infinite regress.   Solving these problems for good will involve a change in what Classical music means in the marketplace, and it should therefore involve creating an entire new repertoire of music.  If we are going to get that divide to be crossed, we have to have forms of music that effect easier transitions for the musicians who are interested in looking further.

The taste for sophisticated music must be developed, and on a large scale.  The public is not oriented toward discovering the past.  They want what is new; as Wagner said, “Kinder immer wollen etwas neues.”

Children always want something new.  


Delivered November 30, 2009.

APPENDIX, not included in the talk:

The following entry appears in the SUPPLEMENT TO MUSIC SINCE 1900, by Nicolas Slonimsky:


Frank Zappa, radical rock musician and enthusiastic admirer of ultra-modern classical music, presides over a concert in San Francisco commemorating the approximate centennials of the birth of Edgar VARESE and Anton von WEBERN, conducting Varese's Ionisation and Integrales, the balance of the program included Varese's Poeme electronique and Offrandes, and Variations for Piano, op. 27, and vocal works by Anton von Webern, conducted by Jean-Louis LeRoux.