New Perspectives in the Historical Development of the Main Subject



Since long the Royal Conservatoire is offering a subject in the curriculum of all instrumentalists and singers about the history of their profession. Actually this subject already existed at the beginning of the 19th century when the Paris conservatoire designed its curriculum.

The content of this subject is divided over several aspects which all show a different angle to look at information related to the main subject. There is information about the instrument and its makers, the methods of playing and the repertoire with its prominent players through the ages. This goes just as far as the history of the instrument goes back. For students most of this information is new and often has little or no direct relation to their own frame of reference.


For a student in his twenties who is mainly focused on his way to master an instrument and learn to perform while manifesting himself as an accomplished artist, this historical information is seldom of primary concern.

As a result the information that is provided in the lessons of historical development often tends to fall into dry earth. It is a challenge to make a connection with the world of priorities as a student experiences it.

Teachers, who offer in a top-down system content through readers and lectures, generously share their own enthusiasm and expert knowledge on a variety of related topics. Carefully selected chapters of reference books and other sources as well as iconography will nevertheless have different connotations in the head of a student who lacks the overview and contextually driven interpretation.

This of course is a well-known phenomenon in any educational process. But with a subject, which builds up reference by offering a lot of data, the risk is much bigger that a student will not have a personal relation to the content of this subject nor identify with it.


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Content of the course of Historical Development


The following article is a summary and report of research I did with support of the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague (NL) from the Fall of 2012 untill the Winter semester of 2013.

Being the head of the Early Music department I strongly connected this research to a practical implementation which in the subsequent years has been taking place. Actually it results rather in an ongoing process as any curriculum in education is regularly updated and ideally a constallation of sections or modules with a logical coherence.

The focus of restyling this part of the curriculum had as a purpose to achieve two main goals:

 - Bridging the gap between on the one hand the approach of music history in 'classical' (traditional) music education and on the other side the specialized 'Early Music' attitude.

 - Secondly to design a model for undergraduate research training which suits most bachelor students, because it is directly connected to  themselves and their main subject. 



- preface


- Introduction

                   - professional knowledge

                   - historical development


- content of the subject

                   - Oraganology - 'the hardware'

                   - Methodology -'the manuals'

                   - Repertoire and Players - 'the software'


changing the approach

                    - raising ownership

                    - commitment


The main issue is finding a way to engage students in such a way that there is an inspiration triggered that is related to the main subject and in the end inseparable from that subect.

This commitment can only be achieved if some basic conditions are fulfilled. 

These conditions are diverse in character but all based on a submission to the wholehearted choice for the profession.


- Curiosity

- Identification with the subject

- Sense of urge

- Responsibility for the own learning process


To a young person with the ambition to become a professional musician the instrument is part of his identity. ‘I am a clarinet player hence a clarinet is more or less my alter ego.’

Therefore the instrument is an object of passion apart from its function and seriously related to the future of every individual student. This passion leads to a desire to a kind of ownership of the world that is represented by the instrument. On the other hand there often is reluctance towards accepting knowledge that increases a demystification of that world. A history of imperfect precursors and analysis of the functional technology could be that kind of knowledge.

Nevertheless studying the past of an instrument, similar to studying the human being, can help a great deal towards a better understanding of its nature.


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Changes in the approach of the subject

raising ownership

Just as in the main subject lessons, the contextualization of that subject in other lessons such as historical development were always heavily depending on the choices of the individual teacher.

The advantage of that model was the commitment of that teacher and the expertise and impeccable preparation. A reader compiled by the teacher was always a solid point of reference for students who stepped into this territory with very limitied knowledge.

Student presentations were up to now the only occasion to invite students to engage more with their chosen topics. All other teaching was within a beautfully but top down conceived stucture.

Responsibility and ownership were only on the side of the 'authority'.


I therefore suggest to choose a new approach in the way this content is transmitted and asks for more commitment by the student himself to gather the knowledge.

In many cases a first step in that direction is made by having extended student presentations, which are dealing with capita selecta of the history of an instrument. Basically these presentations are mirroring the familiar format of the teachers and so there is just a ‘would be’ expert talking. Often these presentations are very successful and interesting but finally in front of the same passive audience, which is not really digesting their content. 


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The process of research contained roughly the following steps:


1) Making an inventory of the current situation of the 'historical development of the main subject' as it has been given now.


2) Experimenting with several formats of delivering the content while teaching the history of the viola da gamba, violoncello and violone.


3) Making an in depth study of the role of knowledge in music education and desgining a theory that describes this role. I used the publications of Michael Polanyi on tacit knowledge, which I discovered to fit very well to my own previously drawn model.


4) By using the experience of point 2, I used the outcomes of point 3 as a basis for a new format for the subject HD. This included mainly elements that would lead to commitment of the students and approaching information primarily as their personal knowledge.


5) After consultation of the teachers I worked on a format that preserves the benefits of group lessons by experts. However, this format should also mobilize the potential of the students to make their own contribution in the field, in the first place in their role as musicians.


6) In the end also research done by master students should be integrated in the process,  which hopefully will result in a change of attitude of all students, Bachelor as well as Masters, towards contextualization in music practice.


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REPERTOIRES – ‘the software’


The features of the above mentioned musical language could be defined as the idiom of the instrument. Idiomatic repertoires reveal the most appropriate use of musical instruments and their possibilities and applications. These repertoires were normally composed by the players themselves and idiom was developed by practice. In most cases these practices were going hand in hand with the change of musical styles, which altogether constitutes what with hindsight we call the canon of a particular instrument.


If one wants to describe the historical development of an instrument, the canon of prominent players and their repertoire is indispensable to define the identity of that instrument. Composers such as John Dowland, Marin Marais, Arcangelo Corelli, Luigi Boccherini, Frederic Chopin, were all principally outstanding players of their instruments and often found reason for innovation in using its possibilities.

To grasp the full spectrum of their music and its contextual coherence, asks for a certain amount of identification with the intentions of the original players. Getting acquainted with a substantial part of their oeuvre and its context is the only way to understand the peculiarities of the art of playing the instrument at stake. The guiding help of teachers in this process is of great value. But teachers can be found in many different ways and short or long term interactions and relations.

Normally repertoire is the domain of the main subject teacher, who is the principle person to make clear how the embodiment of a musical style, playing techniques, aesthetics and artistic expressions through a musical instrument works.

Musicians build up professional knowledge in this domain in a direct way by experiences such as performance or practice.

Classes with repertoire studies help to map the canon and often are essential as introduction into territories unknown to a student, but the personal relation with the repertoire only arises together with experience.

This experience can also be obtained indirectly (passively) by listening to a performance by someone else, live or recorded. It is the ability of any talented person to empathize with peers, which makes such experiences valuable in building up a frame of reference. Sometimes this indirect way works even stronger than the active learning.

Acquaintance with repertoire, apart from any artistic satisfaction it provides, is a way to build up a personal relation with the past that leads to a broader understanding of the present.


 In terms of sound the concept of ‘the past’ has changed fundamentally since the age of recording started. As in visual arts it became possible to ‘freeze’ the musical work of art and preserve it. Nevertheless the idea that recording would be a technology excluding all doubts concerning repertoires and playing styles is a misconception. It lasted only briefly among some composers (such as Debussy) at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In that sense recordings are just another reduction of the phenomenon called music, which through the ages was reduced to a variety of codifications or more specifically, notations in order to be transmitted to future performance.

Ideally the confrontation with repertoire and its performers, dead or alive, is an essential step in the education of new performers towards independence and the capacity to make their own assessments.

Finally the perception and assessment of repertoire by a learning musician changes the more experience is built up, because with every newly ‘conquered territory’ the frame of reference is growing. This is what we call professional knowledge and it is tacitly understood as expertise.


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Professional Knowledge

Anyone who leaves an institution of higher education with a Bachelor diploma is expected to have a certain amount of professional knowledge. In the first place this is the knowledge of the profession, but a real professional also has knowledge about his profession.

The latter normally is the kind of knowledge one gathers over the years while working as a professional and it contains expertise that is based on personal experience or exchanges with colleagues who share theirs. The sharing can be in publications of articles or even books that in some cases get the status of a ‘standard’ work or reference book.

These days the reference function is increasingly taken over by Internet sources, but basically the information works in the same way.

The other way professionals share their knowledge is in a direct oral way, often including demonstrations or showing examples. This direct transmission goes back to the very beginnings of any particular profession, but it has an equivalent in the latest communication technology as well. The new media make it even possible to have an (quasi) oral exchange of professional knowledge with an infinite number of peers all over the world.

In virtually all education the role of Internet has become of primary importance.

Since most of the time there is no control in the Internet flow of information by an editor or publisher as in most printed publications, professional education should increasingly anticipate by offering tools to students to judge content. And of course take advantage of the new possibilities.


In what way is this training relevant for the professional musician?

Higher education in music is by its nature mostly concerned with learning how to do something in order to produce music. It is primarily about performance in whatever way and this asks for the knowledge of a practitioner.  The learning process is focused on the embodiment of knowledge and the understanding comes with the action.

Without the possibility to demonstrate directly by playing or singing, music related professionalism is still present, but it will have to be communicated in another way.

This communication is often very personal and often consists of metaphors or imagination of some kind in cases there is lack of common ground between the sender and the receiver.


Higher education offers tools and specialized techniques through subjects of music theory or history of music to analyse and describe the profession, which results in jargon that is only understandable by other professionals.
For this reason judging content of information in this field is often not a problem, though it asks an intellectual effort different than the daily practice of playing the instrument.

The more we enter the contextual side of the profession, the further it is removed from the practice and the harder it becomes to keep the same solid ability to judge the content of information.

Nevertheless there are ways to offer training in the approach of contextual information, which makes it possible for the student to connect this field of the profession to his focus of the practitioner.


This training offers the student opportunities to acquire an attitude that will help him on the way to independent judgment and creativity in gathering subsidiary information to his profession. The umbrella term for this attitude is called inquisitiveness and the consequence is research. An ideal playground for this research training is studying the historical development and contexts of the main subject.

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ORGANOLOGY – ‘the hardware’


One way to enter the history of music is walking into a museum of musical instruments. Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Basel or Prague all have collections, which make you instantly aware what kind of developments has been taking place over the centuries.

While we see pieces of technology of different kinds we ask ourselves what sounds were related to these instruments. So the functionality is one of the first things that come to our attention and for musicians the temptations to try and compare the instruments is often the first reflex.

This spontaneous reaction is actually a logical one and this logic formed the basis for many studies. For instance to categorize instruments by the way they generate the sound.


Hundred years ago the musicologist Curt Sachs published the Real Lexicon der Musikinstrumentethe result of his attempt to make a thorough and systematic classification of all musical instruments in order to get grip on the subject. His work is still the guideline for the way the museums exhibit the instruments. We see instrument families or several generations of one type of instrument. 

Since the introduction of electronic technology many things have influenced this straight and simple conception of progress in music. There were new possibilities in sound production and also traditional concepts in music were affected by new possibilities of hearing recorded instruments or measuring their sound in another way than by the ear.


As a parallel movement (or may be reaction) to this new technology the appreciation of ‘technologies of the past’ or the so called period instruments was a growing phenomenon that finally had a great influence on the way we nowadays perceive music of former centuries.

As such musical instruments represent a world in itself.                         

The reification of the instrument is one aspect of this world. It became a collector’s item in the early 20th century and even falsifications were produced to satisfy the need to get physically in touch with history. The relation to the past was fundamentally changing and this had an impact on the course of new developments in performance as well as composition.


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METHODOLOGY – ‘ the manuals’


Normally one learns a craft by imitation and personal guidance. In that sense teaching or learning to play an instrument is part of an oral tradition. Just as in most cases this also counts for the making of musical instruments.

Through the ages the abovementioned personal guidance was more and more enriched by ‘user manuals’ of all kinds to be consulted as additional information in the learning process. Treatises, methods, etudes (studies), ‘schools of velocity’ are handed down as a witness of an increasing concern to separate playing techniques from music making. And often in the same books we find instructions how to fuse those techniques again with their original purposes, the intended musical action.


If we consider a musical instrument in general as a mechanical extension of the human body we can see the logic of the fact that these instruction manuals are mostly concerned with fingerings, tonguing, grip and breathing. Clearly described actions with the purpose of making music are isolated in order to focus on particular aspects and in this way obtain more control.

To isolate these actions and look at them as études was very much encouraged at the beginning of the 19th century, when academic emancipation of musicianship took place by the foundation of conservatoires. And so playing technique has a technological flavour that fits very well in the age of industrialisation.


But also from the previous ages we owe rediscoveries and new insights by following instruction from the user manuals.

The advantage of all these instructions for us today is the fact that they offer an idea of the principles and aesthetics of the related period, which cannot be given by music notation alone.

This consultation of related sources on playing is one of the essential conditions in the historical performance practice, next to the use of original instruments or their copies. Sylvestro Ganassi, Christopher Simpson, Leopold Mozart and Carl Czerny though successively a century apart, have in common that by their instructions on physical actions to handle the instruments, we get closer to the knowledge about the actual sounds and their meaning in the context of their times. In a way one could say that the instruments ‘speak’ to us again with the help of ‘native speakers.’ To a certain extent it is made possible for them to testify through a description of the embodiment of their language.

Though this approach is primarily useful for instrumental practices from the remote past, it might help in understanding music from the last century just as well.


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In a way Sachs was a successor of Michael Praetorius who did the same three hundred years earlier in the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum; De Organographia of 1619. (facsimile in IMSLP)


Around the time of Sachs’ first major publications the idea about music history was still coloured by a concept of progress. Every new step in the development of art was a step forward in the evolution towards ‘perfection.’ The music from the past was out-dated and needed help by adapting it to the present day. Until the Early Music revival this was a common practice throughout the ages.

This positivistic approach can be found in instrument making as a series of innovations, which caused developments that were driven by the needs of performers and composers. In this development the volume of sound became increasingly important. If we consider the instruments which are currently in use as the standard, one can say that ease in playing (such as keys on wind instruments) and loudness were the two most important arguments for all the changes that have been made in the age of their innovation, the 19th century.

Flutes, Oboes and Clarinets, Basel museum of musical instruments,

classified according to sound production and genealogy.

Research question:


How can we organize the subject of historical development in such a way that:


A - we profit to a maximum degree of the expertise and possibilities in the Royal Conservatoire,


B - assure integration of the undergraduate research training in the curriculum, while the backflow of master research becomes a self generating process.