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.


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