An anthropologist's unusual ethnography of an American conservatory
Music, Talent, and Performance
A Conservatory Cultural System
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A provocative, perceptive study of the cultural dynamics of classical music in American society, Music, Talent, and Performance describes music as a metaphor of the society in which it takes place.
Author Henry Kingsbury, a conservatory-trained pianist and music educator turned anthropologist forgoes the traditional ethnomusicologist approach of looking at a non-Western musical culture to focus on the "field" of an American conservatory. The result is a penetrating look at the distinction between teaching music and the nurturing of musicality. Kingsbury offers an innovative anthropological analysis of the western notion of "talent" and its cultural character, noting that many non-western societies have no such concept. Furthermore, he examines various contexts in which music is produced, experienced, and evaluated. His discussion includes the dynamics of orchestra rehearsals in the conservatory, "master class" lessons with a distinguished performer-pedagogue, the ritual characteristics of solo recitals, and an interpretive analysis of stage fright.
Ultimately, Kingsbury argues that music "is highly shifting and indeterminate in meaning, "a concept that has important implications for all interpreters of culture and for the artists themselves.
"Kingsbury has created an enjoyable and enlightening work. Music, Talent, and Performance is liberally spiced with anecdotes and examples that are pertinent to the points being made and that enhance the human interest and flow of the text as well.... Moreover, the greatest value of this book lies in the fact that it directs all of us, as teachers and students, to examine our own music education systems so that we can understand better the sociocultural implications of the circumstances and contexts in which we and our students are living, working, and learning."
"The efforts ethnomusicologists have expended in defining our field as the study of all music from the perspectives of cultural anthropology is inversely proportional to our effort to apply these perspectives to Western classical music. If this book did little else but fill this gap between theory and practice, it would be welcome; fortunately, it does much more... [This] account is richly textured, perspicacious, well written, and full of dry wit. Its pleasures extend beyond the 'local knowledge' they portray to provide a model style of 'music as a cultural system'."
Henry Kingsbury is a performing pianist and a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University.