The Changing Curriculum: Curricular Considerations for the 1970's

October 1, 1972

It is essential that we find new approaches to a music curriculum that will serve contemporary needs. The very survival of music as a significant force in western society may well depend upon it. At a time in history when we have an astonishing access to the musical cultures of the past and the present, our societyin part, the result of the misuse of technology and the insular effects of televisionseems to be on the verge of ignoring this challenge to enrich our lives in favor of a monochromatic musical existence.

As music becomes an increasingly peripheral part of American culture, music programs in the public schools are being dropped or curtailed at a frightening rate, while the problems faced by the bastions of our musical culturethe symphony orchestra and the operagrow and are symptomatic of our cultural crisis.

The laissez-faire attitude of the public toward the art is reflected in the actions, or "non-actions" of our legislators and government leaders. Typical is this comment of Republican Congressman Gross of Iowa:

It is freely admitted that not one major orchestra . . . in this country is operating in the black. Obviously, if the public is so hungry for these things, that segment of the public ought to be willing to pay for them. We got along pretty well in this country for more than a century without spending money for culture.

(In this connection let us note that, in per capita terms, the West German government spends $2.40 per person on the arts, Sweden $2.00, England $1.40, and the United States 7½ cents!).

Perhaps closer to home. Each year we see an uncomfortable number of music teachers drop out of the profession because they find themselves unable to cope with music of the present, unable to comprehend non-western concepts, or even unable to interest their students in the music they have been taught to teach.

It becomes obvious that a new kind of creative music educator is needed: one with a more comprehensive understanding of music, one flexible enough to cope with all musical experiences, and one committed to the broad concept that music may simply be sound that an individual or a society elects to hear. A contemporary music curriculum should be diverse, comprehensive, and flexible enough to allow the student to select those courses that interest him and that will eventually affect the kind of musical life he decides to create for himself.

This new world of accessvast, complicated, and ever-changinghas created a musical spectrum so broad that it is almost presumptuous to regiment a four-year program of arbitrarily selected courses that will supposedly satisfy the students' needs. The traditional series of packaged course requirements, drawn from a group of electives that are in themselves limited and unimaginative, is proving inadequate to meet the realities of contemporary life. As a result, most college music curricula appear short-sighted, provincial, and are, in the end, self-defeating.

Even when traditionally structured music departments make an effort at change, they often find themselves at the mercy of special interests and choked by methods long outdated. Hampered by faculties bent on perpetuating traditional procedures and pet courses, they find themselves unable to alter their music program significantly. So-called curriculum revision is often mere gesturea jazzy new course, a re-titling of an old course, a guitar seminar, a contemporary music festival. What is needed is a complete overhaula reconsideration of what is actually needed to develop a contemporary music educator and musician.

This is not to suggest an anarchy of freedoma supermarket of musical courses without direction or purposebut, rather, the creation of a controlled musical environment wherein the student creates the pattern for his musical future within a context that encourages future growth and the capacity to deal intelligently with the new, and a music educator who realizes that, in this age, his "education" can never be completed.

When considering the formulation of a new music curriculum we must begin by disregarding all previous formats and structures and ask ourselves some basic questions: 1) What areas should the music department involve itself with, and how deep should that involvement be? 2) How committed are we to contemporary music performance and composition? 3) How flexible should the program be? 4) What proficiencies are desirable, and is it possible for the student to achieve these independently? 5) What courses are absolutely necessary, regardless of the student's major? (And in considering this question, we should think in terms of a minimum rather than a maximum number of required courses.)

It seems to me that many requirements, often regarded as bulwarks of traditional music programs, are not only arbitrary, but frequently in conflict with reality. I would suggest that, other than the applied music major, the only required courses should be a music theory sequencethis, based on the assumption that regardless of one's concentration, music theory is the one area that seems basic to any musical education. From this base, the student could pursue any aspect of music that was his special interest.

This, however, does not mean music theory as traditionally taught, i.e., in small packages, like conventional harmony, beginning with the triad and gradually working through four semesters to the complexities of the augmented 6th chord and unusual resolutions of the dominant 7th. Harmony is probably taught the way it is because it has been codified and is eminently "teachable," and not because it is necessarily the best way to teach harmonic aggregates.

The sole purpose of music theory should be to develop the ability to approach any aural experience with intelligence. This study of the aural phenomenonwhat sounds are heard, regardless of the century or culture, and how one copes with themshould be consistent with the dictionary definition of theory as speculation, contemplation; hence, principles rather than rules.

Many schools have already initiated such theory programs titled sometimes as Literature and Materials or, simply, as Comprehensive Musicianship. Of course, the work undertaken by the Contemporary Music Project is, or should be, well known. What is important is that the entire field of theory pedagogy must be reconsidered and constantly revised.

While on the subject of theory, consider the frequent segregation of Ear Training-Sight Singing courses from contemporary music literature. For instance, such musical characteristics as parameter, texture, shape, density, mass, layers of sonority, or even basic electronic soundsso essential to contemporary musical comprehensionare seldom included in those courses. Isn't it just possible that this facility (at least as it is presently constituted) is no longer even necessary for all students?

History courses continue to be packaged programs of names and dates divorced from the practice of the literature. Perhaps traditional terms, such as Baroque and Classical, are no longer serviceable descriptions. After all, weren't Mendelssohn and Schumann, in certain respects, more "classical" than Haydn? And wasn't C.P.E. Bach really a "romantic"?

I would like to suggest that the whole idea of "music history" courses should be abandoned, along with their art history terminology, in favor of courses dealing primarily with performance practice, courses in which the student deals directly with the musical procedures of a given time.

Furthermore, a concept of World Music must replace the narrow chauvinism of Music in Western Civilization. Studies in non-western music must be made available to the undergraduate music student. Not only do contemporary global events require us to have an understanding of the music of other cultures, but the musical benefits to the individual who studies music systems other than his own are invaluable.

The music of India, for instance, provides insights into scale structure, melodic development, and ornamentation that can only add depth to one's musicianship, while the influence of Asian and African rhythms, as well as non-western sonorities, have exerted a strong and subtle influence on 20th century western music.

Then too, in our colleges, we see the scant attention paid to electronic music. This is, after all, one of our century's major musical contributions and as such, it must be regarded, not as something to be tolerated, but as an essential ingredient in the training of the music teacher of today.

The electronic instrument will be as much the instrumental voice of the future as was the lute and the harpsichord that of the 18th century, and the piano that of the 19th. Does anyone doubt that the piano is about to be relegated to a historic role whose value, like that of the harpsichord, will be that it provides access to music of the past? If we feel we must have a piano proficiency requirement, then surely there should be one for electronic proficiency. For the day is not far distant when every music classroom in the public schools will have (or should have) an electronic sound source and tape recorders for the creation of music.

Since traditional recital and concert techniques have been hopelessly outdated by television, new and imaginative approaches to the public performance of music must be found. The music student must be encouraged, to experiment with new ways of programming music.

The Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Band must no longer be limited to music using "standard" instrumentation. Indeed, perhaps all large musical organizations must become more flexible, capable of performing music for any combination of voices. The reason for this is simple: most of the music written in this century is for anything but the standard instrumentation. Thus our orchestras and bands would be more like "musicians' pools" rather than stereotyped set organizations.

And while we are discussing performance, let us not forget our faulty concert halls. We continue to build inflexible and uncomfortable auditoriums, isolating the performer from his audience, while our students slip away to enjoy the community of a rock concert, pack together on floors for the serenity of a sitar recital, hug together for the humanness of a folk singer, or stare into the immediacy of a television set. Painful as it may be, recitalists and concert groups are going to have to get to know their audiences.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that all music courses, other than theory and applied music, be made optional: courses chosen by the student after consultation, and adapted to his needs and future goals, even if those goals are uncertain and the program he selects seems unbalanced. It must be his decision.

The student must be made aware of what interests him now, so that in the future he will continue to think in terms of now, and hopefully he will develop the capacity to adjust and adapt. Naturally, a curriculum based upon these ideas relies more strongly than ever on faculty advice and counseling.

Today's musician has access potentially to more different kinds of music than ever before in historymusic of the past, music of today, music of other cultures, and music in a great variety of media. The recognition of that potential must be an integral part of his education if he is to participate significantly in the musical culture of his time.

An intelligent music curriculum for the 1970's must seek to develop a teacher capable of understanding many different kinds of music; he must be able to make intelligent use of technology, lest it use him; he must have the capacity to cope with music in a constant state of flux. The teacher of the future must not find himself in the position where his students or audiences are more aware of contemporary currents than he is.

The creation of a music curriculum to meet those needs is not only challenging, but necessary.

3378 Last modified on November 13, 2018