Music in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

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Paul Henry Lang's oft-quoted admonition "Let us face squarely the fact that until it (the college) grasps the historical, esthetic, and stylistic problems of music, our college music education will remain in its present state of essential dilletantism" (Editorial, The Musical Quarterly, XXXV [1949], 605) is nearly as timely and as valid today as when it was written. This can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the college music teacher is unwilling and perhaps unable to come to grips with a fundamental problem that concerns the mission of music in higher education. Stated briefly: can music fulfill its mission by indiscriminately merging its humanistic, scholarly, creative, and professional functions? This problem, now largely confined to the undergraduate music program, has generally been resolved on the graduate level where the humanistic, scholarly, creative, and professional areas of study and the degrees granted in these areas are quite dearly defined. Now, as never before, it has become necessary for a similar definition on the undergraduate level, or college music is fated to a continued "state of essential dilletantism."

Among numerous serious efforts to evaluate college music, the most extensive, important, and responsible are Randall Thompson's report College Music (1935), Edmund Jeffers' report Music for the General College Student (1944), and more recently the report by the late Manfred Bukofzer and a distinguished committee for the American Council of Learned Societies. The facts compiled by the authors have become familiar enough to all concerned. It is not surprising however, that no one has ever really taken the facts or the criticism based on these facts seriously; that is, seriously enough. To close the gap between what one professes and what one practices is not always easy. The fact that vested interest or, at times, hypocrisy, masks the main issues makes it difficult to be sanguine about the outcome. Let it be said, however, that the sooner the academic community does come to grips with the issues, the happier the result is likely to be.

A partial answer to the problem may be sought by examining first, the composition of the profession of college music teaching; second, the historical position of the college music department; third, the place and purpose of music in the A.B. program.

Contemplating the profession as a whole, it may be stated that college music teaching is in many respects unusual. It is unusual because music teaching probably embraces more skills and a greater diversity of scholarly and/or professional accomplishments than is likely to be found in similar professions. And this very uniqueness is in many ways the key to the present state of college music. In higher education, the music teacher alone is committed to aims and ideals—humanistic, vocational, and recreational—not infrequently in conflict with one another and, realistically, quite impossible to attain within the framework of any meaningful degree, particularly the A.B. Few have seriously questioned the fact that vocational and recreational goals are irreconcilable with the aims and ideals of a liberal education, yet music professors, willingly or not, are engaged in efforts to achieve a rapprochement where none is possible.

The profession includes the instructor of brass instruments who has a conservatory education, as well as the scholar who leads an advanced seminar dealing with the most abstruse musical problems and who holds a Ph.D. from an important university; it includes the man engaged in developing a curriculum for teaching dance music at the college level, as well as the research scholar concerned with performance practice in the seventeenth century; in short the profession subsumes everybody from the journeyman performer—the man of practical attainments, to the most erudite of humanists and scholars—the man of letters. The only requirement for membership seems to be a connection with "music," no matter how remote. One is constrained to ask: are such diverse men, who often do not even speak the same language, and who, paradoxically, even carry the equal title "Professor of Music," really members of one profession at all? The answer may be a qualified "yes," provided the skill and the assignment are so clearly labeled and matched that misleading inferences become virtually impossible.

Historically, the college music department, in most cases, merely reflected the background, training, prejudices, and predilections of the man who was chairman. This could have meant departmental concentration on anything—keyboard instruction, musical activities, musicology. Any program that developed out of such murky beginnings inevitably led to departments devoid of a common philosophical meeting ground with music departments in other colleges. These departments were or were not humanistic or professional, and did or did not fit into the college program or its aims; and no one seemed to care very much. Today we can see the result, and it is confusing if not bizarre. It is confusing because many college music departments nominally participating in an A.B. program offer, in reality, a B.M. program; and many institutions provide such an odd mixture of the two that it is not always possible to recognize where one leaves off and the other begins. Commonly, there exists, therefore, a kind of hybrid music department that, unless one is prepared to defend and able to demonstrate that music is so unique that such a department is both desirable and necessary, he would have to concede that it is time to purify the species. Plainly, the college music teacher, wherever he may belong on the spectrum, must admit that, too frequently, he is a participant in a program where the humanistic, vocational, and recreational functions are so hopelessly intertwined that confusion and misunderstanding are accepted as normal. Not the least confused are the undergraduate students who in many cases do not really know exactly what a given music department has to offer.

To be sure, there are universities where music departments consistently live up to the highest standards of other curricula in an A.B. program, but if one attempted to observe, with the utmost objectivity, the college music scene generally, he very likely would find it impossible to identify a common body of meaningful aims and means consistent with high standards, or to adduce an orderly and logical set of practices capable of comparison with other subjects taught in our universities. How could one possibly find order in a profession that is concerned with, among other things: courses in music appreciation; courses in music history and theory (not to mention theory for the composer and theory for the musicologist); courses in music education; instrumental and vocal instruction; courses in piano tuning and instrument repair; then there are the non-curricular offerings for which music departments frequently assume responsibility—some of them important, others of purely ephemeral value or even of the anti-music variety: glee club, choir, collegium musicum, marching band, concert band, dance band, etc. But what is especially striking is not so much the diversity of the offerings and responsibilities, trivial and important, but the fact that there are institutions where too many of the aforementioned courses and activities contribute with near equal weight toward a degree in music. To pretend that there is a common denominator or a common bond in such a patchwork, or even to pretend that all of the people involved in all of these activities are equal members of one profession is self-delusion. That we permit ourselves to speak of "college music" as though it reflected a reasonably common set of practices in most colleges is self-deceiving. There is "college economics" or "college mathematics," but a consistent entity identifiable as "college music" is a mirage.

It also appears evident that Jeffers' recommendations in the conclusion of his report Music for the General College Student are taken just seriously enough to perpetuate the confusion. What Jeffers in effect suggested was that music should remain isolated from other disciplines. He recommended: (1) Adapt college music aims to changing culture; (2) Adapt college music to college aims; (3) Unite cultural and vocational instruction in music; (4) Adapt college music to the student and the locality.

One wonders why something as axiomatic as point two should have been stated at all. And would anyone even dream of making the remaining recommendations for other college departments? One cannot help being reminded of life-adjustment education. Implicit in Jeffers' recommendations is the conviction that college music study cannot be rigorous and therefore less is to be expected from it than from other subjects; or, to say it even more bluntly—the music department is doomed to the role of sponsoring the "gut" courses and serving the college as an entertainment bureau or as an arm of the public relations office.

All of this is unacceptable to responsible educators for it is certain that there is a worthier role for music either in partially fulfilling the humanistic segment for the general student in the A.B. program or as an area of concentrated study; and in either case, through a realization of the "historical, esthetic, and stylistic problems of music."

Phi Beta Kappa has provided the guidelines to enable all departments to live up to the ideals of a liberal education which the following will substantiate:

From the Constitution and By-Laws, Phi
Beta Kappa, Alpha of New Jersey

Article III

f. Grades earned in applied or professional work shall not be counted in computing the cumulative average for purposes of eligibility. Applied and professional work shall be understood to include all training intended to develop skill or vocational techniques in such fields as business administration, education, engineering, home economics, journalism, library science, military and air science, physical education, radio, secretarial science, and applied art, dramatic art, and music.

g. Weight shall be given to the breadth of the course programs of all students under consideration. The department major should normally consist of not more than 30 credit hours beyond the introductory course. In no case should the student's required work within a single department, or in closely related departments exceed 42 credit hours.

Restated as postulates specifically applicable to music: (1) Instrumental instruction is a fine thing—we believe in it and we play instruments; it is not, however, a proper unit of instruction for credit in an A.B. curriculum. (2) Music appreciation is a fine thing—we appreciate music and we believe that music should be appreciated by others; it is not, however, the proper role of a college music department to offer courses in music appreciation. (3) Bands are fine at athletic events, political rallies, or parades; it is doubtful whether band instruction and maintenance is the proper responsibility of humanists and music scholars, or that band participation should be rewarded with college credit. (4) Singing is a fine thing; it is doubtful whether private or group voice instruction should carry academic credit in a liberal arts program. This list can be extended to include student recitals, workshops, clinics, and numerous other activities that serve only to obscure the real purpose of a college education.

To state that the aforementioned activities have no meaning in an A.B. program is not to oppose them. Some of them are very important adjuncts of the A.B. program, others are splendid as extra-curricular educational and social activities and most of them are important and legitimate in a professional or B.M. program for the student and teacher primarily interested in professional performance skills.

Clearly, reform directed toward a new rationale is necessary, and only those engaged in college music teaching can make it a reality. Under a new rationale humanists alone would develop and control the music curriculum in the A.B. program, and the professional performer or composer would develop and control the B.M. curriculum in professionally oriented departments and music schools. But just as long as college music educators are called upon to provide various kinds of music programs for undergraduates, they will have to recognize that it is absurd to treat all programs as though they were one and the same thing reaching the same student and able to be taught by a common faculty. The kind of music department that attempts to be all things to all men—humanities department, professional department, conservatory, entertainment bureau, student activities center—is an anomaly that should be banished from the college music scene.

One by-product of a new rationale would be the lessening of frictions—and let us be honest about this—between humanists and professionals trying to function within the same department or even between coordinate departments within the same university. Ideally there should be complete rapport between the two areas. No professional musician should be blind to the humanistic and scholarly endeavor, nor should the humanist be blind to the applied endeavor. But we ought to stop pretending that the performing musician and the humanist scholar are the same thing. To say that they are is like saying that the art historian is a painter. Nor is the painter an art historian. Nor are the scholarly and applied areas mutually exclusive either. Desirability of achievement in both areas should be freely admitted and recognized. The professional, however, should not even want to perform the function of the humanist-scholar, let alone preempt it, and vice versa.

The image of the music professor as a mere teacher of musical instruments, or as a professional performer who teaches "music appreciation" is, in spite of ourselves, the prevailing one. The image of the music professor as a peer among equals in the academic community is the exception. If reform will ever become a reality it will at least reduce the likelihood that many college music teachers will be looked upon condescendingly and patronizingly by colleagues; an unpleasant fact, but a fact nevertheless. This attitude prevails because our non-musical colleagues have never been quite certain whether they were addressing a saxophone teacher, an ethno-musicologist, a music "appreesh" teacher, a band director, or a booking agent. Hopefully, humanists will live to see the day when an encounter with a non-musical colleague will not lead to the question, "What instrument do you play?" A colleague has suggested that the next time I am asked by an economics professor what instrument I play, I should reply by asking him what his fee is for making out income tax returns.

Bukofzer wrote (The Place of Musicology in American Institutions of Higher Learning, [1957], p. 43), "Musicology is a relative newcomer at institutions of higher learning, and in consequence the representatives of other disciplines have so far not fully utilized the results of musicological studies. Formerly the faculty members in music were regarded mainly as representatives of a pleasant extra-curricular activity." Then he added somewhat expansively, "Now that scholarship in music has been established in its own right, the musicologist has been received in the community of scholars." Many of us know that the latter thought applies to a relative handful of universities. It remains the task of all in the profession to make this an accepted norm.

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Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

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