Can Taste Be Taught?

On the eve of their billion-dollar benchmark, I’m reminded that last Spring I brought Kickstarter co-founder, Yancey Strickler, to McNally Smith as our commencement speaker. He said a lot of great and encouraging things but one part of his speech more than any other stuck with me, “don’t let your talent drown out your taste.” What a staggering notion. So much of music edu is about cultivating or chasing talent; woodshedding away on your instrument. Truth is though; you will have your whole life to become a master musician, so why focus so narrowly?

Well, in a classic conservatory sense that was the best practice even 10 years ago. If you hunkered down on your instrument you might become “good” enough to score a coveted first chair or some highly sought after gig. Now in an increasingly multi-versed economy virtuosity is not enough and I wonder if Strickler is right, should we shift our focus to emphasizing taste, to developing a fingerprint?

It begs the question can you teach good taste? Some might argue that education itself is taste, in part that could be right. I believe that good taste comes in waves. Firstly it is about exposure. The learner who is offered different world-views, different experiences and a deep and rich set of opportunities will be able to pull from those alternating points-of-view into their own output. Secondly, and more importantly, taste is about reinvention. As we move through our lives we can select from those experiences we most resonant with, the pieces we believe best reflect our shifting identity. In that reframing of ourselves we can cast off those articles that we felt were an odd fit and keep those we like the look of in the mirror.

Love him or hate him, look at Kanye West. His talent level might be up for debate but his taste level is impeccable and it stems from a constantly shifting persona. 10 years later he has not made the same record twice, from his nerdy backpacking Late Registration to his post-industrial gnashing Yeezus. He is paying attention and ever changing; morphing through genres and experiences, picking up pieces of indie rock, classic rap and performance art along the way. Many celebrated artists worked the same way, Picasso or Miles Davis come to mind. They didn’t always hit, but they lead the zeitgeist for many years and broke more barriers than they tripped over.

The best thing my arts education gave me was a sense of snobbery. I now make choices with a critical eye; I get bored with a static aesthetic. Each new city I’ve lived in, each new job I’ve had; I only take my best jokes with me, I get a chance to whittle down who I am to a newer leaner me. That is all I have, more taste than talent, and I’ll stand by it as one of the few things that helps separate me from the herd.

Now, I wonder if to remain relevant as educators we must expand the palette of experiences for our students. For their own good we must push them out of their dorm-room nest and into the street; more travel, more internships, more business classes, more tech training. All the things they dread to do, we must embody and cultivate ourselves. We must leave our comfort zone because that is how we learn, that is how we grow and ultimately that is our job. We must model fearlessness and innovation with the hope of encouraging the same in our students. Because, after all, it’s the tasteful thing to do.

David Lewis is the Director of Career and Alumni Services at McNally Smith College of Music and the founder of Riot Act Media. He lives in Roseville, MN with his wife and two awesome boys.


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