The Realm of Acceptability
(It is important to note, before reading this that these musical values do not exist in a vacuum. In all of music, we mostly live by the standard of “if it sounds good, it is good”, but for the sake of this blog and defining improvement, I’ve decided to categorize specific things in the hope that it helps someone make sense of what to value, and how to improve those values.)
The human race is built off of a wide variety of different life stances, views about the world that each one of us has formed through years of personal and learned experience. These life stances, learned behaviors and ideals, ultimately determine what our views, values, and core beliefs are (whether it has to do with social, political, or economical ideals, these are all learned behaviors.). This isn’t so different from how musician’s form their own set of views and core beliefs about what is good and bad, and what to value as good or bad in their own musical acumen and music making.
Estelle Jorgensen, one of the most distinguished music education experts in the country, says; “Most simply put, a value is an idea that one treasures and lives by. Values guide one’s actions and one not only assents to them but loves to live in reference to them. They constitute imperatives that cause one to be disposed to act in accordance with them.”
How do we learn what good values are? I’m sure we can all remember someone saying to us “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all”, which is a great humanistic value to have. Or how many times have you fundamentally disagreed with something someone has done? This helps define our system of belief and value structure as human beings. How do we determine what is good, and what is bad? Do we base our opinions and thought processes on personal experience and social acceptability? I think, for the most part, yes.
What exactly does this have to do with music?
Quite a bit, actually…
In such a subjective and critical discipline, such as music, how do we determine the spectrum of quality? Some things are very clear cut and objective, others are aesthetic and subjective. How exactly can we determine what our musical values are, if they’re good or bad, and how to stick to them and develop them? Is there a right, and a wrong?
We know there is a wrong. How do we determine what is right?
This is where we find ourselves up against the Realm of Acceptability (ROA): Everyone has their own musical tastes, and we develop these tastes based off any number of different human characteristics. Music aesthetics is a difficult thing to quantify because of its subjectivity to peoples specific taste. To reasonably achieve success in this subjectivity, you must fit inside of the extremes, or into the realm of acceptability.
First we must develop a set of criteria to judge our musical landscape by.
What are the most important aspects of musicianship and fundamental instrumental playing?
Personally, I have five major musical criteria that I base all of my subjective and objective musical knowledge and value on.
It is important to come up with your own set of criteria on which to work and develop.
Secondly; to understand what is good or bad, right or wrong, we must determine which subjective musical values are and which are objective.
OBJECTIVE MUSICAL VALUES
The “easy” ones, are the objective values; these things are clear-cut, there are both right and wrong ways to do these things. Ironically, these are also the most noticeable and easily spotted if they are underdeveloped and incorrect. These things would be:
Since these things are so objective, we must scrutinize about the details of these extremely fundamental aspects of trombone playing. Trust in the process and constantly listen to yourself.
Making a distinction between criteria that have clear-cut, right and wrong ways, and criteria that exist on a realm of acceptability, helps a great deal to help determine what is, versus what should be.
SUBJECTIVE MUSICAL VALUES
Now the hard ones…the relatively subjective criteria - Tone, Style and Articulation. These criteria are largely based on aesthetics and years of development and research into these particular areas of interest, and as said before, exist on a spectrum of acceptability for the field (forever known in this blog henceforth as ROA).
How do we determine if what we’re doing is good, or bad? If the values we hold, would be pleasing and within the realm of acceptability for our own musical tastes, and for those listening to us?
- Tone – To fit into the ROA and understand what a great tone/sound is, we must step outside of what we’re currently doing and look to outside sources. Listen and absorb what a decidedly great sound in your field sounds like. In the trombone world, the ones that come to mind are of course George Roberts, Randy Hawes, Joe Alessi, Jim Markey, Mark Lawrence, Pete Ellefson, to name a few at the very top of the heap. There are clearly specifics that are involved in how these players make their sound so fantastic, but by listening and trying to mimic the sound of your favorite player, this helps clearly define the value and determines the “what is, versus what should be”.
- Style – Similar to how we develop our values in regards to tone, the way we develop style is to listen and understand history and acceptable practices. Bad musical values would be to play everything you do with the same style and ideas. Contrary to that, good musical values would be to do everything on a ROA, and be informed as to the histories and stories behind each piece of music you play. Learning style is done through immersion into the time period and character of the piece. If you're playing a Baroque Sonata, make sure you listen and are familiar with the intricate nuances of music of this time period. Having a solid grasp of the historical and theoretical background of any genre of music that you wish to portray is paramount.
- Articulation – This is the most difficult of the three to qualify, more than any of the criteria, articulation falls in the “if it sounds right, it is right”. However, just like human speech, in which the articulation of words is not uniform, the way we articulate notes and phrases must not be uniform. The wider the arsenal of articulation, the better for the ROA. Remember though, the way to articulate things depends greatly on the physical structure of each person’s mouth, so what works for one, might not work for the other.
Now, this isn’t to say that this is all there is to making music, because it clearly is MUCH more involved than just this. We are all still developing our own musical values, and identities. By categorizing and qualifying some of this information, it might bring some insight into what falls into the ROA, and how to develop your own musical values.
 Jorgensen, Estelle Ruth. The Art of Teaching Music. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008.