Are you ready for the future?

This article was published on 20th January 2022 in Rhinegold’s International Piano Magazine. Where Ingolf Wunder explains how we have removed musicality from classical music, and suggests ways to secure the position of humans in a world full of artificial intelligence.” 

I started my pianistic journey aged 14 and soon after, I performed all of Liszt’sTranscendental Etudes in concert and at my entry exam for the University of Vienna. From this earliest stage of music-making, I never felt the need to engage in the social game of pleasing everybody with platitudes and fake words in order to benefit my own career. This has given me a personal integrity that allows me to point out things I find wrong in the music world and explain why.

I was raised to treat music as a human creation with a divine dimension – something much bigger than all of us. Music is a constant that exists beyond human politics or power games. While this view was quite normal in the past, these days I find it is regarded with suspicion. When I started to make an international career, I found myself in a quandary as to whether to talk openly about the ‘elephant in the room’ of the classical music scene. But since drastic times call for drastic measures, I see it as my duty to speak out.

Seen from a bird’s-eye view, classical music is becoming shallower and more standardised. The trend began around half a century ago, when music education started to go in the wrong direction. We are now experiencing the results of this trend all around the world and we all feel it – promoters and artists alike. Some choose to ignore it. Others are too busy making their daily bread to realise it. But the facts are cruel – and quality overall is suffering.

It’s time to call it what it is and make people aware that change is needed. Only with awareness can we switch direction. Such change might find momentum in the fact that we live in an age of radical and rapid transformation – fertile soil for reform.

From the outset it’s worth acknowledging the following statements, which are fundamental in our quest for change: a) Musicians need to be musical – or else they are not musicians; b) Artists need audiences in order to sustain their art.

These are the two vital pillars of music, but today they are standing on shaky ground. And this is why there are fewerrealmusicians in the world today. We have unfortunately produced a generation of pianists who resemble computers and robots in a way – or as my wife calls them, ‘self-playing pianos’: you switch them on and they all sound the same. Speed and no mistakes have become the absolute priorities, both in the education system and in the music business. Marketing and non-music-related factors are more important than the quality of content. There is a vicious circle of supply and demand of ‘unmusical music’ in the market, with the result that real musicality is not required anymore, because the majority of people don’t know what musicality – natural phrasing, expression, tone and dynamics – are really about.

As for audiences, in large parts of the world there are shrinking numbers for classical music. Promoters are unable to support themselves through ticket sales, depending more and more on subsidies and sponsorship. The financial strains are apparent throughout the industry, whether musicians are aware of them or not. The future doesn’t look too promising either. In developed nations, the average concertgoer is quite old – and no, I don’t buy the narrative that says ‘when today’s youth turn 60, they will all miraculously start going to classical concerts’. In the past, audiences for classical music were on average younger. The main reason for this audience aging process is that we have trouble exciting young people about classical music. It’s not the music’s fault. The way that music is performed, its image in today’s world and of course an outdated education system are to blame.

’Art and music play a crucial role in defining who we are as human beings’

This problematic approach to music education and a lack of musicality are the main reasons for the sorry situation in which classical music finds itself globally. Not all professional musicians demonstrate the proper fundamentals of musicianship, and the mounting pressure being felt among promoters, managers and artists is leading the industry to the brink of an abyss. On top of all this, classical music has to contend with the rapid growth of technology, the impact of which should not be underestimated.

Most of our existence today is inextricably bound up with technology. The smartphone has become our best friend and, as we place more and more faith in technological advances, it’s safe to assume that, unless a totally unexpected event occurs, we are entering a world where most areas of our life will be controlled to a large degree by artificial intelligence (AI). This extends to music and musicians.

What does a future stacked with technology, full of cyborgs, IoT (Internet of Things), wearable technology and the fusion of biological and electronic ‘computers’ hold for us pianists? And why is the idea of musicality connected to all this?

The challenge for humans in such a future will surely be to be better than computers and robots. Playing mediocre interpretations of standard repertoire will surely not suffice. Computers and robots of the near future will be better than humans at claiming this middle ground – ultra-competent but unimaginative. Moreover, they will be cheaper, more robust and less capricious than humans and their egos. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that humans will always choose humans over computers: humans will choose whatever excites them and is more practical.

This replacement scenario is a very likely one if we let things continue as they have been in recent decades. It’s already happening if you look around carefully, although most people don’t see it or choose not to see it. Audiences are already becoming used to robotic, soulless music-making, because they have undergone years of conditioning, repetition and a lack of music education. All this has accelerated the normalisation of standardised playing and the lack of musicality. The big question is: How are we getting out of this? How as musicians do we secure our position in a world full of AI?

The solution is actually quite simple, but hard to execute as we are so far into the negative spiral. Firstly, it’s about global awareness of the problem – and luckily more and more people are waking up. Then it’s about bringing proper music education back into the core curriculum, engaging teachers who have a sense of natural music-making, using teaching methods that enhance sensitivity and emotional depth. For this to happen, however, we need the support of policy makers across the educational field, who are not yet aware of the problem and its complexity.

As for professional musicians’ education, we need to focus on using technique solely for musical purposes – how to understand and feel rubato, how to interpret the composer’s expressions and intentions, how to learn storytelling in music and research cross-references and influences in the score. This will enable us to engage in intuitive music-making based on old-school values. It’s also important to understand that only if one learns first-hand from the best teachers – ones who understand natural rubato, have a deep sense of sound and structure and a feeling for harmonics – can one feel one’s own way through music using the right values, full of musicality. This is how Friedman, Paderewski, Cortot, Kempff and many less-known pianists that are equally great, learnt their craft.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to turn the clock back. I simply want a better, more musical and creative future for classical music. And the best way in my opinion is to take the essence of these traditions and find new ways forward, based on old-school values. Luckily it is a proven method, but one that unfortunately got lost somewhere during the 20th century. Great mentors are obviously hard to find, but there are ways – and people – who are working on making it easier. This includes my wife and myself, whose startups aim to solve the supply and demand issue. The goal is to make great teaching accessible and affordable.

If we humans succeed in facilitating change, we might be able to reinstate what I call the ‘metadata’ of music – the deep metaphysical, spiritual inspiration that emerges from the notes on a page, which is the only way to make music meaningful. This ‘information-layer’ that musicians create reveals the emotional intentions of the composer. It’s this sacred data in an interpretation that can only be created by musicians who perform with realmusicality. And the beauty of “musical music” is, that if one gets it right, our human organism reacts to it immediately and becomes organized. By organized I mean the phenomenon we observe in a forest or garden, places where particles and systems of nature are the most organized and therefore our body feels good where our particles get more order just by being there. No matter if you are consciously noticing it or not, musical music gives our cells this order, unmusical music doesn’t.

Due to recent discoveries in science, we know that musicality can be a key not only to meaningful performing, but also to the health and wellbeing of musicians and non-musicians alike. For this reason, musicality must be included in our education system in a proper, coherent way that emphasises the ‘metadata’ within music – aspects which inspire instinctive, individual performances rather than homogenised, unnatural execution.

In my opinion, this is the only way we can assert our place as humans in a hyper-technological future. Why? Because the complex, metaphysical qualities of musicality and its effects on the human brain is what AI and computers will find difficult to assimilate and acquire – which will continue to give us humans the edge if we develop and cultivate it now.

If we manage to raise awareness of what music should really be about and why, we can turn this ship around and secure the survival of this amazing art form. In the process, we will give greater importance to classical musicians, who unfortunately have become irrelevant to wider society. While causes such as climate change and social equality are incredibly important, in my opinion the cause of musicality – the ability to touch and transform lives through music – is equally important for the future of the human race, though it’s overlooked by almost everybody. Art and music play a crucial role in defining who we are as human beings.

If you are a piano teacher, performer, conductor, promoter or music journalist, I invite you to think about what you have just read the next time you engage with music – when listening to and comparing performances, teaching students or playing concerts. Change lies in the hands of all of us: we must raise awareness of the importance of true musicality and act together to encourage it. At the end of the day, music without real musicality is just an empty commodity – the last thing that those who claim to love music should want.

Ingolf Wunder won multiple prizes at the Chopin Competition 2010. He is also a conductor, composer and co-founder of IT startups & projects. As a public speaker on music and education, he has presented at numerous high-profile events, including the Davos WEF SDG Lab, ASU GSV San Diego and TEDx.

This article draws on Wunder’s speech for the United Nations Internet Governance Forum 2021 in Katowice, Poland.


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