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.

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