Who Is Art?


Born 1948. Showed interest in music at age of 12 seconds (details shrouded in myth). Studied variously, including an ARCT in Theory from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, a few years as a performance major on classical guitar, and a Master’s in Musicology from the University of Toronto. PhD Dissertation, not completed, on Solmization from 1475-1600.

Teaching since ca. 1970, both privately and at U. of T., York U., McMaster U. Since 1986, Royal Conservatory, including Professional School (musicianship and theory). 2000 (or so) – 2013, music dept at York; ended up tenured, made associate prof, and promptly retired (and not just because I was old enough).

Also studied North Indian vocal music for ten years, and a founding member (11/95) of Gamelan Toronto, a central Javanese-style ensemble. Also, flipped out over jazz (mainly vocal standards) and Brazilian music. So, just a few things. Also, since 1991 or so, host of “This is Art” on CBC, where all of these experiences smash into each other to produce something, ah, like splitting the artom.

What is this site about? A couple of things, at least. First, I like to think about music and talk to people about it, wherever in the world they may be. Second, more locally, I teach theory and musicianship in Toronto (less so these days), and this seems like a good way to let people know what I do and think, and what the study of music, according to me, can or even should entail. Because I do not particularly subscribe to the model for music instruction put forward by any of the institutions I have been involved with (don’t get me started), I thought that the internet might provide me with a way to give people a more honest take on things.

Becoming a musician

Thinking about music-making by human beings in general, I realized that there are many ideas about what it means to be a musician, what it takes to become one, and even what the notions of “musicality” or “musical competence” are all about. European-style classical musicians have to emphasize, say, reading, specialization on one particular instrument, and not tapping their foot. Compared with the two scales which the Euros are programmed to recognize (major & minor), Indian musicians have to know dozens of ragas, but they don’t really have to know how to read music, since they make up pretty much everything. Saves paper, you have to say. In Indonesia, a good musician can basically play every instrument, not just one. And sing, too. In Brazil, they do indeed tap their feet, to put it mildly. So maybe there’s no such thing as, simply, a “musician”, since everyone’s status is somehow qualified by the demands of their situation. It’s as if we should all be issued with hyphens or id. tags.

This sense of qualification also holds for the word “classical”, as in “c. music” or “c. musician”. I prefer the prefix “Euro-“, as in “Euro-art”, to refer to this tradition, so that the word “classical” remains available to other art-musics, such as those of Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa. Simply to use the term “classical” to refer to the European tradition, as if nothing else exists, smacks too much of cultural chauvinism for me personally to accept. What about “concert music” for the high-end product?

Another thing is the social aspect. Practicing an instrument is often, if not always, a solitary pursuit, especially if you imagine a typical piano student bashing away in a practice room somewhere. Or the story of the Indian musician who tied his ponytail to the ceiling, so that, if he dosed off while practicing tabla, he’d get whiplash. Things change a bit when we think of rehearsing with groups, and even more with that photo of the two-year-old sitting on her mama’s lap at a gamelan session. (Actually, we had one such two-year-old specimen who regularly attended rehearsals of Gamelan Toronto. She hung out with her mom, and she was definitely not into such fussy things as keeping time; but she was a great presence, and no doubt packed away several boxcars-worth of knowledge.)

Where things become sort of disappointing for a lot of Euro-art students is with the discovery that, even when their practice is over, and they have arrived at some recognized level of proficiency, the culture of isolation continues. This is especially true for pianists, guitarists, and maybe a few others, but it is really related to the way music is taught and, equally, to the way musical competence is evaluated. At the RCM, for instance, students take exams based largely on the preparation and performance of solo repertoire. Much of the joy that music can provide is lost in the process. And so, after a year or two of this sort of thin and dismal gruel, are many of the students.

The social thing has influenced my own teaching a lot. For me, the two central aspects in studying music are 1) the value of the discipline as an end in itself, and 2) the opportunity for interaction with other humans. Without denying how much pleasure is to be found in just plain old practicing in an attic somewhere, or taking your guitar out to the woods to play for the dragonflies, one of the biggest buzzes in the music world surely comes from hanging out with your friends and making some organized sound.This is one of the reasons I teach as much ensemble repertory (mainly 2-part music) as I do: it’s just more fun. And even for people who prefer the solitary path, responsibility to at least one other musical partner tends to prevent all sorts of sloppy practicing habits.

What’s on this site

This site is broken down into several areas and sub-areas, each one reflecting a type of music or a particular aspect of music that I either teach, or just enjoy. Plus my CBC incarnation. The first ones deal with theory and musicianship — sight-singing, ear-training, rhythm, and so on — topics that fall under the general umbrella of “music-teaching”; as commonly understood. Please look around, since you might find some of the ideas, techniques, and suggestions to be of interest. This is also where I decided to park my ideas about jazz ear-training. With the jazz material, we are getting into actual music, of course.

Each of the the next three sections focuses on a specific type of music: Brazil, vocal duets ca.1500, J.S. Bach. After Bach (and “other Baroque music”), two sections (India, Indonesia) that have to do with my own studies (i.e. not anything I teach). And finally, some material related to the CBC show, the famous interview, and some playlists.

Throughout, there is a fair amount of notated music, samples of the gazillions of pieces I have edited and studied over the years. There is also a ton of music to download, either for next to nothing (since I’m crazy) or actually nothing (since I’m crazier).

2 thoughts on “Who Is Art?

  1. Ronni Rosenberg says:

    Would you be available to teach theory and harmony on keyboard. I have a fair amount of classical training


    • Art Levine says:

      Hi, I’m not a keyboard player, so I doubt that I could be of much service to you. You can email me at artlevine@sympatico.ca if you want to discuss it further. Maybe a good idea to read through a bunch of lead sheets, unless you feel like getting into figured bass.

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