Comprehensive Musicianship: Some Cautionary Words

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Comprehensive musicianship as a factor in the structure of music curricula in secondary schools, colleges, universities, and conservatories has been in existence long enough for trends and attitudes to have emerged which permit observation and comment. A recent article by Leland D. Bland in SYMPOSIUM (Fall 1977, pp. 167-174), "The College Music Theory Curriculum: The Synthesis of Traditional and Comprehensive Musicianship Approaches" has touched off a desire to respond to these trends and attitudes and to suggest some words of caution about comprehensive musicianship as it appears to be evolving in collegiate institutions.

To describe comprehensive musicianship I would like to repeat the definition given by Willoughby, with which most readers of SYMPOSIUM are probably familiar:

Comprehensive musicianship is a concept about teaching and learning music. It is an approach that suggests that the source of all music study is the "literature" of music and is one that promotes the integration of all aspects of music study—whether in the classroom, in private or group lessons, or in ensemble rehearsals—at all educational levels. This approach provides a focus for an entire music curriculum, enabling students to synthesize material and to see relationships in all that they do. It makes possible more complete musical experiences.1

This is a sweeping definition, one that embraces the entire program of study. In actuality most programs with which I am familiar are not this inclusive. As the title of Bland's article indicates, most comprehensive musicianship approaches have been concentrated in those aspects of music instruction dealing with theory, literature, and history, with the emphasis on the theory aspects of the program. In my own institution the comprehensive idea is presented as an alternative to the traditional theory program, with the two programs running concurrently.

Comprehensive musicianship programs developed in a time of increasing awareness of recent developments in educational and psychological theories. Authors cited frequently are Bruner and Whitehead and the Gestaltists. Comprehensive musicianship also evolved from the movement to base music instruction on actual music literature, especially contemporary music. The many articles on comprehensive musicianship give the impression that only in comprehensive musicianship programs do these relationships exist, overlooking the development of integrated theory courses immediately following World War II, and the stylistic studies of authors as diverse as Jeppesen, Soderlund, Morris, McHose, Hindemith and Piston. Articles on comprehensive musicianship also dismiss the possibility that new developments in educational theories are compatible with traditional modes of instruction.

The idea which most requires a cautionary word is the very notion of "comprehensive." Even the most all-embracing comprehensive music program is still but a part of a total educational experience. However, the term has such strong connotations that it leads too many individuals—administrators, instructors, students—to expect too much from it. The use of the term leads to the framing of extravagant claims for the approach, claims which can be met only in a lifetime of practice and study.

One such extravagant claim is the constant dwelling on the effectiveness of "synthesis" in the program. It has always seemed paradoxical that a program seemingly based on the need to recognize and meet the different needs of individual students would attempt to organize under one umbrella so many diverse aspects of musical education. Comprehensive musicianship, according to the literature, attempts to show syntheses among the aspects of learning at all stages of the program, with the syntheses directed by the nature of the organization and mode of instruction. Obviously if the student sees no syntheses, no relationships among the diverse elements of the curriculum, the educational method has been singularly ineffective. However, no program can force a synthesis upon a student; even in highly integrated programs the students will tend to disassociate the various elements. The student must achieve the synthesis individually and not have it prescribed by the mode of instruction.

A trend resulting from these efforts at synthesis frequently encountered in comprehensive musicianship programs is described by Howard:

There now exists a growing trend toward enlarging the scope of theory as a core subject in the music curriculum, bringing into the framework of theory study a more in-depth treatment of such areas as history and literature, detailed analysis of formal structures, musicology, style-analysis, musical practices of other cultures and civilizations, and other aspects of the art which were formerly given only marginal consideration in most theory programs.2

That music theory of some sort is a basic need in a music curriculum is self-evident. However, making theory the "core" and incorporating under its aegis an everwidening concern and content can only result in the weakening of the basic premises of a theory program.

This trend of encroachment on other aspects of the music curriculum is stated another way by Mitchell: ". . . its [comprehensive musicianship's] recommendations have had less to do with curricular changes than with an umbrella-like philosophy of the teaching of music and the attitudes toward instruction engendered by it."3 This approach places undue prominence on this aspect of musical education. The college or university curriculum as a whole provides the "umbrella" and it is important to maintain the integrity of the various constituents of the curriculum. Too many attempts at synthesis at the level of undergraduate course content are limiting, impeding the students' opportunities for selection and synthesis for their own individual needs, and lessening the degree of mastery of some of the elements of music. The college can provide opportunities to experience learning in many fields and to gain mastery in some. This is the college's function. The student has a lifetime in which to discover syntheses and to pursue diverse interests. Let not the strong content of individual disciplines be attenuated by premature attempts at generalization and synthesis.

One could make claims with equal validity for areas other than theory to be the "core" of the music curriculum. Applied music immediately comes to mind. Since most music curricula demand continued undergraduate specialization in an applied music area, were this area considered the "core" then theory, history, and literature would be ancillary courses, supporting the basic performing skills. With equal ease cases could be made for history or literature as the "core" areas.

The comprehensive musicianship programs described in the literature demand extremely well-trained, non-specialist instructors, men and women equally at home in the intricacies of counterpoint, aesthetics, historical and stylistic developments, composition, and methodology of teaching such basic skills as ear-training and sight-singing. Such individuals are rare. Most university and conservatory faculties are comprised of many specialists, each of whom contributes an area of expertise to the educational complex as a whole. The comprehensive nature of the curriculum is engendered by the variety of specialties represented and the strength of the program depends on the strength of these individuals. That these individuals may sometimes appear to exist in isolation from one another is unfortunate but the solution is to encourage communication and cooperation among specialists rather than to create generalists who attempt to do all things within the curriculum. According to Bruner, "It takes no elaborate research to know that communication of knowledge depends in enormous measure upon one's mastery of the knowledge to be communicated."4 It would appear that the more generalized the comprehensive musicianship program becomes, the shallower the program is bound to be.

A problem in a too-comprehensive or too-integrated approach is that individuals learn different types of knowledge at varied rates of speed; some skills and knowledge can be acquired quickly while others take much longer. One sees this problem exemplified in the impatience that is often expressed when dealing with mastery of details of style, as in Bland:

Since appropriate part-writing rules take months to master, experience in dealing with common harmonic functions and alternatives in creative work and practice in harmonizing melodies cannot be delayed until this mastery has been completely achieved.5

In a curriculum which maintains a degree of independence among the types of study and courses, it is possible for a student to spend a semester or more as needed concentrating on specific problems such as common-practice-period harmony, Bach-chorale part-writing, orchestration, or sixteenth-century counterpoint. Meanwhile the student can be applying different methods of learning to other aspects of his education. In any case it is important to remember that there are no short cuts to musical mastery of any kind, whether it be violin-playing, part-writing, jazz-improvisation or any other skill. Much drudgery and hard work are necessary to achieve such mastery. No attempts to simplify, glamorize, or synthesize the studies will change this.

Yet I endorse the attempts of comprehensive musicianship to incorporate new educational ideas into the curriculum, particularly as stated by McGaughey:

It has been the essence of the Comprehensive Musicianship idea that it is not a "method" but an attitude, giving rise to an effort to break loose from teaching patterns which were not preparing students to deal with the demands of musical careers today.6

We must always keep alert for new ideas and findings. What is disturbing in many of the claims for comprehensive musicianship is that too frequently it has not been proven that existing types of training are "not preparing students to deal with the demands of musical careers today" nor that comprehensive musicianship can do it better. In attempting to cover too much material, to aim at synthesis before details are mastered, comprehensive musicianship is in danger of encouraging dilettantism.

In conclusion I would suggest four areas in which comprehensive musicianship must apply caution: (1) the notion of "comprehensive" in itself, (2) too early attempts at synthesis, (3) encroachment on areas such as history which may be served better as distinct entities, and (4) impatience with mastery of details before embarking on more general "creative" projects. If these areas are considered carefully then comprehensive musicianship can make a valuable contribution to the college curriculum.


1David Willoughby, Comprehensive Musicianship and the Undergraduate Music Curricula (Contemporary Music Project of the Music Educators National Conference, 1971), p. vii.

2Bertrand Howard, "Teaching Music Theory: the University," Journal of Music Theory XVIII (Spring 1974), 52.

3William J. Mitchell, "Under the Comprehensive Musicianship Umbrella," Music Educators Journal LV (March 1969), 71.

4Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 88.

5Bland, p. 172.

6Janet McGaughey, "Teaching Music Theory: The University," Journal of Music Theory XVIII (Spring 1974), 88.

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