What to apply to “applied music”

My Twitter feed this morning brought up Strad article by David Watkins from a few years ago that claimed performers can’t understand the meaning of a piece if they don’t understand the theory behind it. Since most cello teaching focuses on solo, melodic repertoire, Watkins writes, cellists often don’t know or don’t understand how to accompany.

I couldn’t agree more.

I wonder if this problem exists because most music theory is taught in a piano-centric way? I was lucky enough to have ten years of piano lessons with teachers who insisted on my taking Royal Schools theory exams every year, so I always had a reasonable grasp of harmony and analysis. But it’s true that most string teachers aren’t exactly martinets about teaching theory, and I notice a discrepancy in theory skills between the undergraduates who’ve had childhood piano lessons and those who haven’t.

What would happen if we cellist-teachers taught music theory to our students in a cello- or strings-centric way?

I must admit, I didn’t really connect my music theory study with learning repertoire on the cello in any meaningful way until I started playing in the Tasman String Quartet. It had been a few years since any of us had taken a theory class, but we found that it was impossible for the group to play in tune unless we realized which voice of the chord each individual was playing. I have the fondest memories of happy afternoons spent sitting cross-legged on the floor of our damp Wellington flats, pencilling Roman numeral analyses into photocopies of our Haydn and Mozart quartet scores. This was laborious at first, but we eventually got pretty fast at it.

Then we had the fun of spending even more hours figuring out how to tune the chords in relation to the resonant properties of our instruments, and discovering how much the harmonic series had to do with intonation–and how embarrassingly little we’d even thought about this before.

It wasn’t until reading Ross W. Duffin’s wonderful book, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care) that I realized that the harmonic series doesn’t just dictate how to tune chords. It dictates the chords themselves.

That blew my mind. All those triads and V7 chords? The circle of fifths? Those strict rules about which chord can go to which chord that I’d had to memorize? They weren’t some random invention that Mozart, Bach and their friends dreamed up to torment us. They were part of the physics and mathematics of sound.

My friend Andrew Stetson, who’s a professor at Texas Tech and a terrific trumpeter, made a great point in a recent masterclass here at the University of Idaho. “Do you know why they call performance ‘applied’ music?” he asked the students. “It’s because you’re supposed to apply all that other stuff you’ve been learning, the theory and aural skills and history, to your performance.”

Somehow I’d never thought about this terminology before, but it makes absolute sense.

Recordings, structure, and learning

Most teachers discourage students from playing along with recordings when they’re learning repertoire. Why?

I expect the thinking is that students doing this will copy the dynamics, articulations, phrasings, bowings and so on of a favourite recording, and never become independent interpreters. Or perhaps they won’t learn to cue and respond flexibly to the cues of others? I could imagine that this might be bad if you were a conductor, but I’m actually not sure what the argument against it is for an instrumentalist.

I’ve often reflexively discouraged my own students from playing along with recordings, mostly because my teachers discouraged me. And yet, I admittedly learned ten or twelve piano trios this way myself in my adolescence, and I learned their scores far better than I would have by simply studying the printed page.

Teenage pianists and violinists who could keep up with my rapacious desire for chamber music weren’t that thick on the ground in Wellington, New Zealand, so I spent many happy Sunday afternoons in my bedroom blasting the Beaux Arts Trio’s recordings of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann on the stereo while I sawed away at the cello parts. I’ve no doubt I sounded awful. And yet, the Beaux Arts taught me how the cello’s line fits in with the other lines, when the cello should sing out, when the cello should back off. I loved doing this and was shocked to find out when I went to university that it was considered “not the thing to do.”

Is it really?

I started thinking about other things children do when they’re learning. Take colouring books, for example. They get a pretty bad press for stifling children’s creativity, with no less a luminary than Sir Quentin Blake denouncing them for “limit[ing] the imagination.

But might they not simply provide a structured framework for teaching children how to control a crayon, and by extension eventually learn to draw more imaginatively with it?

Children respond well to structure. That’s why highly structured methods of music instruction like the Suzuki Method work so well. One of the central tenets of Suzuki is that children must listen repeatedly to the repertoire CDs so that they memorize the pieces long before they actually play them.

That’s not the only thing they internalize, however. They also learn how a great professional player sounds, counts, phrases, articulates, vibrates and so on.

At the end of each Suzuki CD, there are a bunch of tracks with just piano accompaniment so that students can play along. It’s a great way to practise playing duos when you don’t have the privileges of a piano in your house and a mother who plays the piano professionally, as I did when I was a child.

The Suzuki Method has its detractors, who think it causes “mechanical” or inexpressive playing. Personally, I think a method is only as good as its teachers, and I was lucky to have some good ones. As to the accusations of “mechanical” playing, well, of course some children play “mechanically.” That’s because musical expression is a learned skill like any other. It’s also because most of us are “bad” at things when we haven’t been learning them for very long. That’s why we have to practise until we’re musically independent.

Which brings me back to playing along with recordings. Maybe when you’re older and more experienced than I was during my stereo-blasting years, it’s a better idea to study full scores away from the instrument. After all, it’s generally expected that by the time you attain a certain level of advancement, you should be able–as Robert Schumann reminds us in his Advice for Young Musicians–to “hear music from the page.” But when you aren’t quite at that independent level of musicianship, playing along with a recording can still teach you to understand how music works.

We all seek our teachers wherever we can find them, and whether we admit it or not, we learn by copying others. It strikes me that playing along with a recording isn’t the worst self-teaching tool, if it encourages us to aspire to professional levels of sound, expression, and understanding.