Deconstructing the Curriculum

Change in academia is about as fast as continental drift.

Tectonic movement may be slow, but every now and then there's an earthquake, and one is overdue in higher education. Imagine the possibilities if the walls of all the departments were to tumble down; in the aftermath of the cataclysm, we might be surprised by the vast and glorious view we have of the unobstructed field. We might rediscover the fact that music is much more than the sum of its parts.

Starting over would be the opportunity of several lifetimes, discarding needless or obsolete fragmentation of the subject as well as addressing certain basics that unaccountably have been ignored. What if we were to eliminate all the specialized music majors: music education, the performance major, the jazz major, the composition major; indeed, all the present majors? We would be left with the Music Major. There would be no professors of music theory or trombone; all teachers would be called Professors of Music. In my 23 years as assistant, associate, and finally full professor of piano, I have never taught the instrument a damned thing!

My goal in suggesting such an open curriculum is simple, perhaps simple-minded: I assume that someone majoring in music wants to be a musician. A musician is someone who 1) can make music, 2) knows something about music, and 3) can teach others about music. Musicians are also participants in the larger society in which they live. Therefore, my post-cataclysm curriculum would contain four umbrella areas of study:

  • Courses that foster one's ability to make music: performance studies, large and small ensembles, conducting, sight-singing, ear-training, improvisation, composition, and dance
  • Courses that increase one's knowledge about music: theory, history, bibliography, comparative arts
  • Courses that foster one's ability to teach music: psychology, learning theory, human development
  • Courses that increase one's knowledge of the world in which we live: liberal arts, but not the whole cafeteria: does a musician really need a hard science class? Include here such things as recording arts, business of music

Despite these four divisions, there would be no departments within the larger field of music. One professor might teach the theory of music, another the making of music at the piano, but the theory professors would not meet as a theory department. What if they formed new groups or teams, made up of representatives from the old departments? One team might be a pianist, a string player, a wind player, a theorist, a musicologist, a composer, and a music educator (I hate that appellationwe are all music educators). Together, they would oversee the education of the students assigned to them, making curricular decisions based on a mutually understood sense of what it is to be a musician. The conversation would be ongoing, and in a large school, there might be several such teams, each interacting and exchanging ideas.

What would that conversation entail?

There would certainly be discussions of how time is apportioned. NASM suggests that the curriculum for the BM adhere to the following guidelines, and I quote from their handbook: study in the major area of performance, including ensemble participation, pedagogy courses, independent study, and recitals should comprise 25%-35% of the total program. Supportive courses in music 25%-35%, general studies 25%-35%, and elective areas of study 10%-15% comprise the remainder.

We all know that this translates to a weekly schedule for the student that goes something like this: 3 hours a week in a theory class; 2 hours in music history; 1-2 hours in ear training; 1-2 hours in a large ensemble; 3 hours a week in a liberal arts course; 2-3 hours in an elective; and finally, one hour a week with the major teacher. This has always been a great frustration to the major teacher, who finds that the student has spent four hours a day practicing in the mistakes, and the major teacher has one hour a week trying to fix things.

There has to be a better way. In my ideal music school, a team of teachers would work together to foster a student's ability to make music. Each week's schedule might change, depending on the needs of the students in the group. Furthermore, the teachers' tasks would expand and adapt to the students as well. If I, as the pianist on a team, realize that one of my student's difficulties are a result of a poor ear, I could myself work on ear-training in a lesson, instead of churning through more repertoire, having the input and support of the other faculty in these efforts.

Decisions on grades could be made by the team as well, the faculty having a sense of all the students' activities within a given time period. The team could discuss the balance of doing vs. knowing vs. teaching. All three are important, especially teaching. Surely a group of music teachers will want their students to prepare to teach as part of their careers, for that is simply the way it is in real life. Do not say, "If I don't make it as a concert artist, I'll teach." That is the same as saying, "If I don't win the lottery, I'll get a job." Every music student should study the art of teaching.

I have two subjects that I would add to a musical education, and I am indebted to Claudio Arrau for the idea. When, in his book Conversations with Arrau, Joseph Horowitz asked the great pianist what he would require in his ideal music school, his answer was dance and psychoanalysis. Somehow, in the course of nearly 200 years of building the formal music curriculum, music and dance were separated. What is more basic than feeling music by moving one's body? We tell our students to feel the music, yet we never give them the chance to do so as actual, physical feeling. Instead we rely on mental conceptualization, and when they don't get it, we think they are untalented.

As for psychoanalysis, it would take quite an earthquake to get that into the curriculum. However, if the body feels music on the physical level, it is the mind or psyche that feels it on a level much harder to talk about: we usually use the words emotional or spiritual. Arrau felt it was imperative for a musician to be connected to that level, to know a great deal about one's perceptions of reality, to know one's strengths and weaknesses. It is in this mysterious area that the music is either amplified or diminished. Arrau felt that if students were to make real progress during their studies, they needed professional help in this area, and that the logical place for it was in the school. Students would have a mentor of the mind right alongside their musical mentors, with the process striving once again toward integration instead of fragmentation.

An education in musicand most certainly success in musicis clearly much more than the sum of the parts. Isn't it time that our curriculum reflect that? A perfect example of someone who combined the ability to make music, who knew a lot about music, and who taught music every day is none other than J. S. Bach. He did it all, and was a pretty good musician.

Surely a state certification board would hire him!

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Robert W. Weirich

Robert Weirich has performed in such musical centers as Alice Tully Hall, Weill Recital Hall, the Kennedy Center, Chicago's Orchestra Hall, and at such summer festivals as Tanglewood, Ravinia and Marlboro. His performances across the U.S. of Bach’s Goldberg Variations during the 2010-11 season garnered raves from critics and audiences. During the 2009-2010 season he performed and taught in China and Argentina, and in the fall of 2013 was invited to teach for ten days at Beijing’s Central Conservatory. The New York Times called his 2008 Albany Records release, Piano Music of Aaron Copland, “brilliant, probing and austerely beautiful.”

He was the Artistic Director of the Skaneateles Festival in upstate New York from 1990-1999; during that time attendance tripled and support grew twofold while winning three Adventurous Programming Awards from Chamber Music America/ASCAP. Other administrative activity includes a term as President of the College Music Society, and chairing piano departments wherever he has taught. His columns for Clavier Magazine, and its successor, Clavier Companion, have been twice honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association. As a sometimes composer, his works have been performed at festivals nationwide.

He currently holds the Jack Strandberg Missouri Endowed Chair in Piano at the UMKC Conservatory. UMKC awarded him a Trustees’ Faculty Fellowship and the N.T. Veatch Prize for distinguished research and creative activity in 2002; he received the first Muriel McBrien Kaufmann Artistry/Scholarship Award in 2003, and an Excellence in Teaching Award from the UMKC Faculty Senate in 2006. Earlier prizes include a National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Fellowship, and the Pope Foundation Award for career development.

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