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.)