The Skills to Pay the Bills

A short one today: I’m actually trying to get some composing done. (What’s that you say? Most people would stop posting for a day? You have not mastered the way of procrastination, grasshopper.) Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution points to an article by economist Ed Glaeser picking apart a proposal to alter Harvard’s Core Curriculum. The money quote:

Harvard’s system of general education should emphasize methodology over topic because methods are harder to teach and learn than facts. Facts become easier to absorb by one’s self once one has a handle on methods. Harvard students can learn facts about the United Nations Security Council or the Federal Reserve Board from the New York Times or Wikipedia, but they cannot learn the tools to make sense of these institutions so readily. As students learn to think rigorously about society and how to use data to test their thoughts, they acquire a set of tools that can then be used to acquire knowledge in any setting.

Can I get an Amen? It’s one of the biggest deficiencies in higher music education as well: the emphasis on “applied” over “theoretical” knowledge. Most students regard ear training and theory as drudgery to be survived rather than the fundamental basis of everything they’re going to do. I can kind of understand why: the focus of their education is, for the most part, public performances and preparing jury repertoire. But in retrospect, my three most important teachers were: my high school choir director, Jack Olander, who also taught theory and drilled the bejeezus out of my ear; my undergrad piano professor, Dmitry Paperno, who opened my eyes to the futility of attempting to play any piece without understanding it theoretically; and my graduate composition professor, Lukas Foss, who never let me forget that the greatest idea in the world would sink like a stone without solid technical execution (and for all his legendary absentmindedness, he could pick a harmonic or contrapuntal flaw out of the most dense and dissonant texture with a frighteningly uncanny focus).

I learned stuff from all my teachers (I’m lucky in that regard), but it’s those guys that I think of the most often, just because it’s the things they taught me that I use every single day of my working life; a working life, I might add, that’s not exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I graduated. They didn’t just teach me facts or literature or repertoire (Professor Paperno would be horrified to know that my colander of a brain has kept exactly one piece in my memory out of the four years in his studio), they taught me how to deal with a piece of music—how to read it, how to hear it, how to interpret it, how to communicate it.

Most college-level theater programs do a sophomore cut: at the end of sophomore year, the faculty decides whether you’re good enough to stick around for the next two years of the program. I’ve always thought music programs should do this too; and the more I think about it, the more I think the criteria for promotion should be based around the drudgery of theory and ear training. The people I know who have made a success in this business have varying degrees of skill, technique, and repertoire mastery—what they all have in common is steel-trap musicianship. That’s how you make a living as a musician.

(Thus endeth the sermon.)


  1. He was great for me, since he was all about craft and tremendously specific. He was style-agnostic (actually pan-stylistic) and could immediately pinpoint weak spots in any piece, no matter the vocabulary. Other teachers I had would look at what I was trying to do, and offer suggestions as to similar pieces in the repertoire that I could go study. Foss, though, would go through and say no, this note should be up an octave, you need to clean up the voice leading from this harmony to this harmony, this chord should come a beat later, you should separate these contrapuntal lines into separate octaves, etc., etc. And damned if he wasn’t right every time. Every so often I’ll still send him a piece that I think he might get a kick out of. He sent the last one back with a note: “I’m not convinced by the harmony.” Know what? Neither was I, but I thought I could finesse it.As a person, he’s charming and mischevious, and yes, absent-minded, albeit with a crucial caveat. If I see him, I have to re-introduce myself, but if I send him a piece of music, he remembers everything I’ve written. Every so often, I’d have a lesson where I hadn’t actually written anything new; I’d pull out a sketch from a couple years previous and try to pass it off. He’d look through it for a minute, then turn to me and say, “I’ve seen this.” Another student of his and I used to theorize that he deliberately forgot non-musical things in order to pack more music into his brain.One other highly entertaining thing: he’s met <>everybody<>. In fact, that same student and I once decided that we would name-drop in lessons, just to try and find someone he <>didn’t<> have a story about. Bernstein? An endless fountain. Cage? Great material there. I once brought a copy of <>The Magic Mountain<> to a lesson; turns out he used to play soccer with Thomas Mann’s son. Finally, one day, I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Katherine Hepburn on it. “She’s seen me in my underwear, you know,” he said. Turns out that he once rented her guest house, and she turned up one day and forgot to knock first. I gave up after that.

  2. About your original post: yes and no. I think that some schools are under pressure (sometimes self-imposed, sometimes external) to maintain or even expand their enrollment. Call me dark or elitist or whatever, but there just aren’t enough high school seniors out there to go around who can handle the kind of intense training you (correctly, I think) are advocating. Hence, the theory classes are neither here nor there, hard enough that most everyone hates them, yet not so out of control that 95% of the incoming freshmen would flunk out. I always had a good ear and was good at math; I barely had to try in theory class, but yes, I definitely would be better for it if they had made me bust my ass, and I could have handled it (I do terribly wish I could REALLY read score, but I’m too lazy and preoccupied to undertake something like that at the moment). I have been ironing out a theory about, well, theory, and it’s not entirely done yet, but I think it boils down to the necessity of making a basic distinction between the parts of theory class that translate directly to practical skills and those which merely embody the aesthetic/musical biases of the theorist and have no particular benefit to the student (same goes for music history/musicology classes). I personally wouldn’t want to see the theory/ear training requirements escalate until this is addressed (i.e. the Schenkerian thing passes over). About the “sophomore cut,” my school essentially did this by making the jury at the end of sophomore year really hard. It was, however, the exact same thing for everyone regardless of specialization (performance/ed/BA/etc.), and most everyone in the low brass studio passed it. At my school (which overall was/is good, not great), the paltry theory classes took out many many many more people than the upper division juries.

  3. Stefan: There’s a lot to be said for trying to up the proportion of “practical” theory in the traditional sequence, but on the other hand, it leaves one in the position of trying to predict what is and isn’t going to be useful once the degree is finished. Maybe my experience is atypical, but a lot of the stuff I thought I’d never use I use on a daily basis, and a lot of the stuff I <>would<> have used if my career path had been less peripatetic has lain dormant for some time. Even the little Schenkerian method I picked up has come in handy now and again. What I really liked about Glaeser’s article was that it made explicit the point that education shouldn’t be about practical information anyway, it should be about giving students the tools to make sense out of the practical information that isn’t going to exist until ten years down the line… in that sense, learning Schenker, for example, is less important for it’s own (rather limited) usefulness than for the practice it gives the student in learning <>any<> method or approach and being able to ascertain whether or not it’s going to prove useful in a given situation. I don’t think that freshmen, or even undergrads, really, should be expected to be grad-level fluent in Schenkerian analysis, or set theory, or the more esoteric corners of combinatoriality—I’d be happy with just a solid grounding in history, form, and Roman numeral-style analysis—but they should definitely be aware of their existence and their applicability.But you have a good point about the winnowing effect of theory classes—I always think that if a student isn’t rabidly curious enough to want to soak up every bit of musical knowledge they can, practical or esoteric, then they’re probably not cut out to be a professional musician anyway. Institutions do face a lot of enrollment pressure—it’s one of the reasons they let in so many singers, even though that particular professional field has a more brutal attrition rate than most—but I think they have a balancing responsibility to be honest about the realities of the business, and what kind of skills are going to make the difference between eating and starving. In that regard, I think making musicianship skills a more prominent part of that sophomore promotional, at least on equal terms with a student’s instrumental mastery, would result in a better overall professional musical level by forcing the issue; better to make the hard decisions about music as a vocation at the age of 20 than at the age of 30.

  4. It is telling that Glaeser smartly framed his discussion around methodology vs. topic instead of the age-old theory vs. practice. You’ve confused the issue a little by mentioning music “theory” and then proceeding to talk up its practical applications–not very Aristotelian of you. This is all well above my pay grade and I doubt I could say anything too interesting, but it strikes me that methodology is not the same as theory (in the old sense), but rather just another sort of theory put into action—another sort of practice (praxis if you will) involving methods rather than hard facts. Glaeser’s argument stays firmly grounded in the practical, which it must because it there is little room in today’s society for the pursuit of what used to be called pure knowledge (I guess there’s string theory, but it gets hammered for not having experimentally testable thesis). And who is going to pay Ivy League tuitions without the promise of some practical recompense? Also, I think we should be a little careful about the winnowing effects of music theory. Singers are a good example, because there are always singers who manage to sing beautifully without the aid of theory. They command an intuitive understanding of the musical language that transcends and confounds theory. You’ve spent enough time in voice studios to see the smart students who just can’t make a beautiful phrase while those who manage negative numbers on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale seem, somehow, to sing like gods. I’ll grant you that the former are easier to teach, while if the later don’t get it there is no helping them. It would be a shame to move so far in either the direction of theory or practice and forget about the Aristotelian redheaded stepchild, Poïesis. The lack of a good English word for this transcendent, creative category speaks volumes of our current problems in arts education. By it’s nature it is not testable in any standardized way and not directly practical until put into (often unpredictable) practice. The true creative impulse becomes the real casualty if we lean too rigidly in either the direction of theory or practice when it comes to deciding who can stay in class and who must leave. One last point, if you’ll allow, is that all these categories seem to change with the times. Today its theory and practice, a while back it was praxis, theoria, and poiesis, but more recently, Ruskin (in Modern Painters) was defining the field with sensual, intellectual, and moral.

  5. “Music Theory” as it’s taught to undergrads is such a misnomer, I sometimes think they only hang on to the name to give actual Theory majors nominally relevant TA experience. What it <>should<> be called is “Musical Vocabulary and Analytical Methods.” I would have actually taken a <>real<> theory class, Schlegel, Adorno, Rolland, etc., etc. I don’t think many other people would have voluntarily signed up for that one, though.Did Ruskin talk about music that much? I don’t kow him as well as I should, and everything I’ve read talks about the visual arts. I still love that story of him taking a horde of college students out into the country to dig ditches and commune with their inner peasant, I guess. The horde included Oscar Wilde. Quips ensue.Of course, before Ruskin and even the German Romantics there was the whole theory of rhetoric and its relation to classic period music. Anybody pick that one up in their undergrad theory course? Neither did I.

  6. Although much of his writing about visual arts can tangentially be applied to music, I’ve never come across anything serious by Ruskin specifically on Music. I have only read the well known, anthologized stuff, though. He does have some choice words about Wagner, which include such gems as “boniest doggerel of sounds I ever endured,” and “blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff.” Not exactly the sort of thing upon which his reputation rests.That’s a really good point about music theory. I suspect you are right about a <>real<> music theory class. Even if students did sign up, as a teacher I don’t think you would ever get used to walking into a classroom full of students all dressed liked Andy Warhol.

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