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Why History Matters by Matt Cahow

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

As music instructors, we sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time working on the fundamentals and not enough time devoted to history and its context. In a private lesson we focus on things like correct technique, sight-reading, rhythms, dynamics and phrasing; but we often leave very little time for history. This can happen in lecture-style, classroom instruction as well and even in history courses focused specifically on music. When this happens, I believe we are doing a disservice to our students.

As an instructor for college-level, music appreciation courses, I have encountered in recent years a general lack of understanding of history and historical reference points. Putting music aside for a moment, many students seem to have no idea when the Second World War took place, when the US Constitution was written or when the automobile first came into existence. Just for kicks, I will sometimes ask students when a significant world event happened. Most students simply refuse to answer (probably for fear of being embarrassed). When I probe a little further and actually get some answers, often the responses are sadly shocking. I’m not even asking for exact dates. What I find nowadays, is that most of my students haven’t the foggiest idea that the US Constitution was written in the last half of the 18th century.

I can only venture to guess why this is. The educational system is easy to blame, but I suspect it’s a number of factors. Perhaps the way today’s technology is constantly changing skews perspectives. For someone in their early 20s, five years seems like an eternity ago. Throw in that the newest cell phone model today will be considered ancient in a couple of years and this really amplifies things. I find that when I’m lecturing on something like opera and I tell the students that the earliest works date from around 1600, I can see their eyes glaze over. I know that I’ve already lost them. They have no historical point of reference and for them, I might as well be discussing life on another planet.

In the case of private music lessons, this presents instructors with a wonderful opportunity. Where many students are sadly lacking in their understanding of history, we can help fill that gap. It’s just as important that a student knows about Francisco Tárrega’s life as well as how to phrase the opening section of Capricho árabe. These two things are not mutually exclusive. Each informs the other. For a young student, this might simply mean telling them that Tárrega was Spanish and asking them if they know where Spain is located. Depending upon the student, you may have to get out a map and have a geography lesson. This could very easily turn into a session about culture, languages and geography. This is a good thing. All of a sudden, the notes on the page are connected to a real person who lived in a real place at a real time. Come to think of it, isn’t this what program notes are all about?

As guitar instructors, we ought to keep in mind that the instrument and lessons should enrich a student’s life. All students eventually stop taking lessons and many will inevitably put down the guitar for something else that interests them. What we can do for all of our students is expose them not just to the guitar and its music, but also to the wonderful cultures, people and history that are connected to it. This is true enrichment.

Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.

-Paul Robeson


Dr. Matt Cahow has been a performing member of the OCGO since 2012 and is currently the acting President. He is on faculty at Mt. San Antonio College and Chaffey College and when he's not "adulting" he enjoys spending time with his wife and energetic two-year-old daughter.

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