Performance as Humanistic Study

The discussion of this controversial subject was sparked by regulations found in the Constitution and By-Laws of Phi Beta Kappa:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

In this article, Luise Vosgerchian describes the Basic Piano Program at Harvard where performance is required without credit toward the degree. Also in this discussion, John Kirkpatrick provides a philosophic basis for performance in humanistic study, and William Newman and Putnam Aldrich, both scholars and performers, enter a plea for credit for "applied music." All four articles appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 4. Letters arguing the matter pro or con will be welcomed for future issues of SYMPOSIUM.


The Basic Piano Program at Harvard was started by Professor A. Tillman Merritt. Realizing that a musician must be able to make use of the piano as a tool rather than as an instrument for performance, he felt some practical keyboard work in addition to the normal theory courses was necessary. Subsequent experience in the program has led to the further realization that individual deficiencies could be more advantageously overcome by special training at the keyboard than in the regular theory classes. The program has been so successful that the Department decided that the course should be required of all concentrators, that it should be given without credit, and that the awarding of the degree should depend on the successful completion of the course.

To pass the Basic Piano Course, the student must show proficiency in sight-reading. The examination includes such works as a fugue of Bach, a song from one of the Romantic composers, a contemporary work of the difficulty of Mikrokosmos IV or V, and the reduction of a score of one of the earlier symphonies of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven. In addition, the student is given a melody and is required to present his harmonization at the piano. When technical demands of keyboard performance are beyond the ability of the student, he must show that he can invent within the style of the particular composer involved. Students who have had no training in piano are given the privilege of private lessons without cost.

At the beginning of the year, each student who chooses music as a concentration is examined, his weaknesses diagnosed and a program involving the creation of exercises designed to overcome his specific deficiencies, is devised. Following are examples of various types of exercises used during the past few years. For harmonization at the keyboard, a student is presented with melodies taken from one particular composer until the consistent features of that composer's style have been assimilated by the student and become a part of his musical vocabulary. After the student has performed his harmonization, the original is played by him and analyzed. He is then asked to reconstruct what he can of the composer's version. He may be asked a week or two later to present the original, again from memory.

To develop contrapuntal thinking, a student is given a continuo line from a Bach aria, with a scattering of notes omitted. After a brief period of looking through the exercise, he is asked to fill in the missing notes. By comparing his version with the original, the student immediately becomes aware of Bach's control of melodic lines.

Exercises dealing with the handling of voice leadings range from elementary work with sequences to advanced work of a more demanding nature. For example, a student is asked to reverse his hand position and play the soprano with his left hand, the bass with his right hand and to sing the tenor, switching to the alto at any given moment. Or he may be asked to sing a line which he invents as he plays the bass and soprano line. In Basic Piano, a student is given the opportunity to practice what he has learned in his theory courses concerning figured bass.

After the alto and tenor clefs are learned, the student begins to reduce at the piano full scores of early Classical symphonies. Acquiring a facility in the sight-reading of scores involves a knowledge of individual instruments and instrumental lines. To learn this, the student is required to memorize a number of individual instrumental parts from the orchestral and chamber music literature. This knowledge allows him to make his decisions quickly and surely when reading full scores at the piano.

Too frequently the attempt is made to teach these techniques before the student has acquired the proper aural equipment, i.e., the ability of the ear to preconceive and analyze sounds melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, and to assimilate the stylistic features of a work. The purpose of the Basic Piano Course is to build an aural vocabulary which is the necessary equipment of any musician, whether he be performer, composer, or historian. Our responsibility ends when these technical capacities begin to serve the demands of the musician. The student is then able to dedicate himself to the development of his special talents.

2589 Last modified on November 14, 2018