Theory vs. practical skills, or, “We are the 19%”

A number of readers sent me this podcast about the changing face of the conservatory. Richard Kessler, the dean of Mannes College, has redesigned the college’s core curriculum to incorporate required classes in entrepreneurship, technology, composition, and improvisation.

To make room for these, Kessler proposes lessening the requirements for music theory and history. I think some of my friends thought I would be outraged at this, since I teach a class in ear training as well as cello. But as I listened to the podcast, I found myself thinking that Kessler’s plan was a pretty good idea.

Lest anyone worry that Kostka-Payne and Grout are about to be thrown out with the bathwater, no one is suggesting that theory and history should be removed from the degree plan altogether. Kessler discussed treating the subjects “more efficiently,” which I assume would involve giving them more practical music-making applications. This is a thing I already do in my classes, where every year I develop strategies for learning music theory that relate to instrumental and vocal repertoire. (And woe betide any member of my cello or chamber music classes who doesn’t know when she’s playing an augmented sixth!)

The second guest, Elizabeth Sobol of Universal Records, agreed with Kessler, arguing that from her perspective as the president and CEO of a major recording company, emerging artists needed to transform their preparation for the new and changing world of the music profession.

What I found particularly interesting was her expressed need to integrate the concepts and worlds of live and recorded music as both industries continue to evolve. This will no doubt meet much resistance in the academy, and probably with this in mind, Sobol mentioned what she calls the “Tea Party of classical music…there’s a litmus test based on purity of concept and execution.” This musical conservatism is, I think, a mistake. We manifestly need to be teaching music students about the realities of the profession so that they can take care of themselves professionally once they leave our programmes.

To give one example of this, which I think relates to Sobol’s points, most young musicians have very little idea of how the recording industry works. This is problematic in our technology-dominated society. I remember that I actually didn’t know until my mid-twenties that if you wanted to make a CD, you had to pay the sound engineer and recording company yourself. I had naively assumed that a representative from Deutsche Grammophon might saunter outside my house one evening, hear me practising through the open window, and instantly offer me an all-expenses-paid contract to record the Elgar concerto with a major orchestra.

This slightly embarrassing memory makes me smile now, but I know I really had no idea that the onus was on the performer to promote his or her career. The fact is, nobody gets it all handed to them on a plate, not even the absolute best of the best. As Kessler asks, “How do you find a place for your art form?…How do you make a living doing it?…What does it take to be a practising artist?”

These are all insufficiently addressed questions in the old-fashioned conservatory or university music department, where we practically lock students in practice rooms and theory classrooms to fill them with knowledge that is only half of what they will need to make a living wage out of music. After all, now that college costs so much and students are increasingly treated as customers, we educators should make it our business to fight against the frightening statistic of 19%–that is, the percentage of music graduates who actually make their living as musicians. If that means cutting back on writing four-part chorales, so be it.

The third guest, David Cutler of the University of South Carolina, advises us to “treat music like a business…” and, conversely, “treat your business like an art form.” So what does that mean for the thoroughly modern music professor who wants to rethink her teaching?

“Intellectual curiosity,” says Sobol, again and again. I take that to mean research into the music business, but also, as Cutler points out, learning to do your own PR, press releases, graphic design, and promotion.

With this in mind, I’d propose that we look back to pre-modern models for twenty-first century inspiration. What is really that revolutionary about training performers to compose and improvise? One of the greatest organists in human history, Johann Sebastian Bach, did all three. (I’d argue that Western music has never had a greater improviser than JSB, not even among modern jazz musicians. I don’t have the time machine to prove this, but I still believe it.) There’s also nothing new about the musician as impresario and self-promoter: consider Herr Mozart, the first famous freelancer. Lots of musicians can be great writers, such as Robert Schumann, who was among the top music journalists of his day.

Kessler reminds us that before the twentieth century, musicians were expected to do a bit of everything–composition, performance, conducting–and it was only later that these areas became ultra-specialized. Where, then, does this leave the theory class? Still there, I think: to compose and improvise, we must understand how music works. (I’m reminded of an anecdote about a very grand elderly professor who, when asked by an impatient student why we had to know all these dull theoretical rules, barked “So that you can break them in good taste and not in ignorance!”)

But one thing I’d point out that none of the guests on the podcast did is that a lot of this stuff can and should be done pre-university. What, then, would happen if we remodelled pre-college education in America to get all the “hard” theory (four-part harmony, 16th- and 18th-century counterpoint, dodecaphonism, solfege, etc) out of the way before students even darkened the doors of the university and had to start thinking about earning a living?

This is hardly a new idea, by the way. I’m currently researching a piece for Strings on the Russian music education system, and one thing every one of my interviewees has remarked on is the strict education in theory and solfege they received alongside their general studies as quite small children. Children are, for the most part, receptive to learning structures and rules, and I see no reason we shouldn’t push more for these things in America. Not just in private music studies, but in the public school orchestra, choir, and band classroom too.

In my own small-scale way, that was part of what I was aiming for when I founded the University of Idaho Music Preparatory Division. Part of it was a desire to grow our own excellent pre-college musicians instead of expecting others to do it for us, and another part was to provide my college students with mentored, supervised teaching experiences so they could learn how to build and teach a studio as part of their professional portfolios. But I’ll admit that at the back of my mind, I was thinking “If I have to meet one more college freshman who claims not to know what a perfect fifth is, I’ll jump out the window!” (Luckily my office is on the ground floor.)

With our Saturday morning theory classes, we make some small steps into educating children in the materials of music itself so that once they go to college, they can worry less about theory assignments and more about building their websites, recording their performances, marketing themselves, and adapting their artistry to the shifting landscapes of the modern music profession.

There’s room for both. We can do both. We just have to make better use of our time.


Audience participation

Last night, I went to a concert by eighth blackbird where one of the works on the programme was Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades. Based on some American folk music of the nineteenth century, it appeared to veer between quotation from, and postmodern commentary on, some pretty foot-stomping material. At one point, the players actually started stamping their own feet loudly on the stage. I was sitting next to a young man who had never been to a classical concert before, and at this point, he started spontaneously clapping along with the beat.

No one else in the audience did.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that my first reaction was that I wished he’d stop. I started blushing in embarrassment for him until a few moments had passed and he realized no one else was doing this, and stopped. I say ashamed because his behaviour was a perfectly normal one for any other type of Western music. In a concert of country music, or rock, or the type of folk music Murder Ballades was based on, the performers might feel insulted if the audience didn’t clap along. And I think the performers of eighth blackbird might not have found it distracting if people clapped. Maybe they would even have liked it. Maybe the young man was right, and I was wrong.

And then I started feeling sorry for the him, and hoping that he hadn’t felt humiliated, or put off from ever coming to another classical concert again.

And then I started wondering if the classical music profession and its followers hadn’t, in fact, been sadly socialized out of any kind of spontaneous response to music. Isn’t it natural to feel moved to clap and dance and sway? To boo if you don’t like it, or even to start a riot? When my two-year-old daughter hears a favourite pop song, she starts dancing around the room; she laughs when she hears a musical sound she finds funny; she even called out “My Daddy!” during a Christmas concert as her father raised his trumpet to his lips and “Light back on!” as the vicar slowly dimmed the lamps during Silent Night. She hasn’t been socialized out of her reactions (yet). When did this culture of painful silence start? When and why are we letting it get to us?

As I was driving home, I started thinking about the small handful of classical concerts I’d played in or been to where audience participation was invited. Sing-along Messiahs are pretty common, of course, although I confess I’ve sometimes got lost while trying to sing the alto part of the Hallelujah Chorus. During my student days in London, I went to a staged performance of the St. John Passion at the English National Opera where the audience were invited to join in the chorales. They weren’t hard for someone with a bit of musical training to sight-read, judging by the efforts of the large audience, and even as a professional musician I felt that I was drawn into the drama and understanding of the performance far more than if I’d been there only as an observer.

What would happen if we broke down the barriers of convention and politeness to let music be part of us, instead of something that’s done to us?