Thing 1's trumpet teacher suggested that he watch the video below, of trumpter Rafael Mendez. It's all about precision and control, and it's pretty amazing--it closes with Mendez playing the Mexican Hat Dance on a single breath.
Being the person I am (He Who Broods On Larger Implications), it has gotten me thinking about this idea of excellence, and what place it has in our culture anymore.
In the education field, of course, we've completely given up on the idea of excellence. For most teachers in most districts, even the goal of proficiency is ludicrously pie-in-the-sky, leading teachers and administrators do things like cancel everything but math and English and drill those subjects till test day. And still the students can't pass.
One of the reasons for this downward slide is a lack of rigor--a refusal to demand, and teach to, excellence (in our teachers as much as in our students). I've been in schools--across the country--and seen error-strewn student work posted on bulletin boards. Some of the work was corrected; most was not. Some of it was graded; most was not. What, exactly, made it worthy of display and celebration? What values do we teach our students when merely completing something makes it worthy of applause?
Are things any better in the arts--the world I more or less left behind in order to be a Responsible Parent? I would have to say Hell No.
What does excellence mean in popular music these days? Is there an agreed-upon definition? There are tastes, of course--everyone has tastes and preferences. But I'm talking about recognition of skill that transcends preference. You can hate jazz, classical music, or the trumpet, and still have to acknowledge that Mendez is a master. It's clear what Good is, and what Great is, completely apart from personal preference.
But virtuosity as an instrumentalist is old-fashioned and, it seems, entirely beside the point these days. It still matters in classical music and in jazz, of course, but who really cares about those anymore? Weirdos. Fringe-dwellers. It's not Mainstream. In the Mainstream, everything is synthesized and pre-programmed, and even when real instruments are involved, not much is asked of them. I mean, we aren't exactly hearing new Jimi Hendrixes out there, are we? It's just not part of the conversation.
What about singing? Yeah, what about it? Doesn't virtuosity in singing have anything to do with public approval or popularity? I mean, come on--it's singing. We must care whether or not it's good.
Well....must we? Did we love Madonna because of her pipes? Is Brittney our latest tragic heroine because of the pure vocal skill that she's throwing away?
Listen, there are certainly things we like and hate, and want and don't want in our musical artists--but musical skill is not one of them. It's not that we hate it. It's just not relevant. It's not the point of the exercise. Maybe it's because the larger show has overtaken the musical performance. If Brittney can dance, we consider her a good singer, somehow.
How about in the visual arts? I'm no expert, but it seems to me that what is desired and applauded these days is conceptual daring rather than virtuosic or even skillful execution. I'm not sure what excellence would even mean these days. If Damien Hirst is a great artist for displaying a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, what does execution even mean? A clean tank? He's famous because he proposes and executes daring and provocative ideas. But the execution requires no particular skill or craft--nothing that requires years of training and practice and honing of ability.
It seems to me that, in all these fields, the idea of working and sweating to develop and hone one's skill and technique is just...not that important.
Rigor and excellence are still demanded in the world of athletics, though I'm sure the prevalance of steroids and the lifting up to glory of Barry Bonds will work to make a hash of that sooner or later. But for the moment, at least, it's one area where we do care about not just raw ability, but the training and shaping of that ability to the point of excellence--to the point of transcendance above what ordinary people can do.
And listen, obviously there are exceptions to all of this. We do celebrate and hold in awe certain performers who rise above the rabble out of sheer skill. But we also, sometimes, resent them for it, and think of them as being elitist and Not Like Us....which was supposed to be the whole point.
Is it that outrageous and impractical and unrealistic to desire a culture in which we raise our children to at least aspire to excellence in all things--to train their minds and their bodies--their spirits and their appetities--their physical and aesthetic desires--to seek out and work towards the best that the world has to offer, and that they can offer the world?
Yeah, you're right. My bad.