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  • Sandy Coursey

The “Great” Composers: How Their Legacy Hinders A New Generation of Musicians

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

I look at the wall of my studio room in the local music school I teach at, and notice a poster I haven't paid much attention to before: “The Great Composers.” Forty-one of the most famous composers of music history stare back at me, reminding me that I, nor most of my students, are not like them, at all. Of the forty-one composers on the poster, forty of them are white males, and one is an Afro-French male.

Although this poster consists of names and portraits we all recognize (Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, and Mozart), I begin to wonder how my students must feel when learning that these men are hailed as the great composers. How can I inspire my young female students with representation when these composers are presented as the main giants?

As a white female, I can only add an ounce of perspective. My first thought is: where is Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Lili or Nadia Boulanger, Florence Price, or even Hildegard of Bingen? What accomplishments must a Female composer achieve to receive the same esteem of a white male composer? In my continued research, I have found no accomplishment of these men that exceeds that of the women listed that constitutes defining these men as “great” and these women as, well, not as.

Yes, these women and others are featured in many high school and college level music history courses. By this time in a student’s music career, they have been studying for years without this knowledge. Two of the main beginner method books, Piano Adventures, and Alfred Basic Piano Library/Premiere Course feature composer information from the very beginning: including blurbs about Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Haydn. Why then, are the students too young to learn about female composers from the beginning? If this representation does not happen, most piano students won’t make it far enough to learn about a diverse range of composers in high school and higher level education.

Only white men can become successful composers and musicians. This is the message that is sent to my students, through classical method books and innocent history lessons. Every page in a method book spent featuring another theme from a Mozart Symphony is an opportunity lost to relate to the diverse student population learning piano today. Why are beginner method books shoving these tired composers down the throats of students who, quite honestly, have no reason to relate to them? Beginner curriculums should be evolving to teach students through music written by composers from a variety of backgrounds to inspire a diverse new generation of musicians, instead of creating clones of those who have become before us.

Imagine a six year old girl in a piano lesson, only learning of Mozart’s prodigal abilities, Beethoven’s tumultuous but celebrated life, and Liszt’s famous bravado. Where can she fit into all of this? The message is clear: she can’t. In this narrative, there is no room for a young girl’s curiosity, intelligence, work ethic, or confidence. None of this matters, as she does not fit the mold of the composers (often treated as idols) that are continually presented to her as "the best."

Now, imagine a six year old girl in a piano lesson, learning of Florence Price’s will to write music despite the limitations society put on her, or Nadia Boulanger’s influence on the “great” composers we learn about (whose contributions to white male composers seem to be overlooked in mainstream beginner pedagogy), or Clara Schumann’s dedication to perform Robert Schumann’s works that without, his writing may not be as well-known as it is today. Where can this student fit into history now? In this perspective, she is clearly an integral part of music and history, even as a beginning student today.

So, how can you make a difference in raising a new generation of confident and diverse young musicians today? Stay tuned for my next post, where I will lay out some simple ways to supplement a primarily white-male biased beginner piano curriculum.

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