The Death of Expertise

A Familiar Scene

In any given Freshman Music classroom, there will be a surprising number of students who believe they know more than the instructor. Of the rest, there will be an equally surprising number who hold opinions as being equal or superior to the instructor's. I suspect similar forces are at work in other discplines as well. It's an age-old dilemma: strong opinions and youth against perspective, experience, and decades of academic work.

I can't help but feel the same tug-o-war happens in some church music programs as well. Amateurs with a few years of guitar lessons (and possibly stage experience) go head-to-head in the congregation with trained and degreed Music professionals. The professionals end up 'losing' frequently. What's going on here?

It's as if there's a societywide rejection of the professional, and I found compelling arguments to support that in this article:

Nowhere in this article do we discuss Music, but I'm startled by how familiar everything seems. I'd encourage you to read it and see if you agree. Below, I'll try to apply the author's arguments to our problems, and describe my own ideas about how to proceed.

The Death of Musical Expertise, The Death of Humility

The foolishness in the "worship wars" is that the people who ought to know better are actually at a disadvantage: their partners in the conversation are ill-equipped to engage in the discussion at any kind of a reasonable level, as the article above aptly describes:

This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument.

How is one to discuss the role of Music in the Church, when your opinionated but ill-informed sparring partner has no training Music? No knowledge of Church history? No knowledge of Theology? How can one discuss the relative merits of a particular piece when nobody in the room wants to be bothered with (or cannot understand) the basics of Music Theory?

It is not musical expertise that is dying, but the regard for it. This obstinacy is summed up so:

There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb.

Someone who is entrapped in the Dunning-Kruger effect lacks the humility to acknowledge thier state, roll up their sleeves, and actually learn something. I'm as guilty of this as anyone; I only learn when I realize that I'm inadequate and out of my depth. Only then does the learning process take place. Being humble before the subject matter is the first and most important step for anyone!

The Experts are Dumb Now, Too

Even trained musicians are crippled when it comes to critqiue. In the interest of being inclusive, our curriculum is carefully scrubbed clean of any type of objective assessment. "All things are equal (it's only music!)" seems to be the motto of the modern United States College of Music. Hence, our graduates find it difficult to reconcile their stodgy training with the dynamic flash of modern pop culture.

Then, when the inevitable happens (and some faction in your congregation pushes hard for a dramatic shift in worship style and focus), your director of music is at a double disadvantage: unable to argue with their Dunning-Kruger-fueled opponents, and unsure of their own training, the fight is usually over quickly.

The Prescription

I'd be foolish to think I could solve this problem, as far better minds have struggled in vain for years to do. I can, however, encourage any readers to take steps to avoid getting dragged into the argumentative muck--a swamp so vile and desperate, few have escaped!

Here are some steps (in order of importance) to try:

  • Encourage and pray for your pastors, elders, and musicians
  • Teach the Theology of the Christian Church.
  • Teach the errors into which our brothers have fallen, pointing out the pitfalls and difficulties that plague them. Demand Theologically sound text everywhere--in your bulletin, in your sermon, in your Music.
  • Artifically divorce the text from the actual Music, and spend some time analyzing the lyrics in worship.
  • Acknowledge the value of popular music, validate people's individual tastes, and encourage them in their love of Music.
  • Don't give your 'experts' a break; if, when interviewing a Director of Worship, the only things they remember from College Music are "parallel fifths are bad" and "the Baroque comes before the Renaissance," show them the door.
  • Consider establishing a weekly 'reading group' in your church. Explore the Masterworks (Josquin, Palestrina, Scheidt, Bach, Buxtehude, Mozart, Brahms) -- help develop an appreciation for what makes "good" Music, and more importantly, how the Church has used and regarded Music historically.

And you, fellow Musician, do not be afraid to become an expert in Theology yourself. Historically, Theology and Music were regarded as being intimately related; I believe that relationship exists today, though few acknowledge it. Continue to regard Music as a gift from God, and treat it with the care and reverence it deserves.