A long time ago, while talking to an Italian colleague, I wondered about some missing theoretical knowledge I noticed in some American musicians I had met: some could not read uncommon clefs, some others were counting to find out the name of the note on ledger lines, others didn’t know the value of a double dotted note. I was not talking about random amateur musicians, but about professionals. On the other hand this colleague wondered about it too, telling me that he knew for sure that American orchestra players are great sight readers. Also in the UK Dame Fanny Waterman founder of the Leeds International Piano ,Competition and renowned piano teacher, seems worried: she worries in particular about the future of the quality of pianists in her country. She blames the popularity of keyboards in the UK for failing to produce performers who can compete internationally. I do not think the issue is so simple. The modern society wants fast results, it is a society which is moving quickly: one could also become a musician playing only keyboards (provided of course that this person would never claim to be a pianist), but must take the time needed to have those results that make his music worth to be listened to.
When I arrived in the States and I started working with some music students, I was surprised: while in schools and academies in Europe I was used to work in small steps, paying attention to details, thinking about the quality of the sound, the movements of fingers, hand and arm, working slowly in a grueling tempo, these guys pretended to play a complete piece every two days (aka sight read!). Finished that piece, they went directly into the next, without having assimilated the previous music in its entirety.
I still remember when a music student who had just finished his bachelor was trying to explain to me how to phrase a piece I was sight reading: I am sure the student was unable to imagine that I have worked on a few pieces entire years without ever considering them perfect. Instead this person thought that the meaning of a sentence was a thing one could understand fast, in less than five minutes, and that it could even be understood while sight reading. The same person let me accompany at the piano a piece after another, pieces that the student learned for his classes and that, after a first reading, were put aside to start a next piece.
Of course the problem was not this person in particular, but it is a general problem related to our conception of time, to the hurry to take the next step and to the widespread superficiality and lack of realistic goals also in academies. It is good that nowadays music and music education are available to everyone, that many people can read music, but not all the music we hear has to be considered art and there should be a distinction between pure art and pure entertainment. As in the past, popular culture is for everyone, art is for a few. And it is also good so.
It is not enough to know how to put your hands on a piano to become a pianist, it is not enough to learn how to write notes to become a composer, it is not enough to have a blog to be considered a writer. It is not important the number of pieces that you have in the repertoire, but the quality of what you play, the deep understanding of the music, the absolute knowledge of every detail and the capacity of a performer to communicate a musical message, avoiding to choreograph the piece with excessive movements in order to create distractions.
Some are musicians, others are sight-readers or dancers. Some are worth listening to, others not.