Current Pressure Points, Curriculum, and Moving Forward

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2016.56.fr.11138
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574447

The goal of the music theory teacher is to open the minds of music students. This may include the most basic rudiments, such as undotted note values being divided into twos while dotted note values are divided into threes, thus making rhythmic reading ever more accurate. Or, a bit later, to learn that first-species counterpoint is the backbone of tonal music, and that adding a consonant third pitch between the bass and upper voice of first-species counterpoint yields a three-voice structure, the basis of harmonic motion (e.g., given the perfect fifth between the cantus and upper voice creates a five-three triad when adding a third, or adding a third between the sixth in the cantus and upper voice creates a six-three triad). The point is to debunk the myths that somehow composers led one chord to another, helter-skelter; that triads are stacked thirds; that figured bass is merely inversion theory; that voice-leading rules are infinite and arbitrary, and so forth.

But today's music theory owes a debt to 4,000 years of human endeavor on the subject, to the understanding of acoustics and tuning, notation, even style and affect, and thus, what we want students to learn and hopefully master is not music theory, but rather musical practice. We are charged with changing the ways students think about and approach music (if not life itself!): to develop a sense of curiosity. The theory teacher does this by steadfastly inculcating how to listen and notate, see and sing, improvise, compose, and deal with a musical score--grappling with the formal anomalies of an orchestral movement and discovering and tracing the life of hidden motivic repetitions. The ultimate goal is to tie these apparently disparate threads to performance choices and interpretations. Only two ingredients are required to complete this massive task: a dedicated, informed, and experienced instructor, and ample time.

However, the multitude of pressure points in today's educational world shackle our efforts, and many of these forces are independent from or at least subordinate to the curriculum itself. Front and center to these pressures are the increasingly common draconian cutbacks in faculties and facilities. We are seeing ever-heavier teaching loads and increased class sizes. We know that the steady stream of music students flowing into our programs impact central activities such as aural skills, which depends on intimate settings, but are now dangerously oversubscribed, with as many as 30 students in each section. Exacerbating the problem are the fewer semesters of both the core curriculum and upper-division electives, all of which accord with the sobering statistic that adjuncts now outnumber full-time faculty in colleges around the U.S. Fortunately, the requirement that music departments meet the minimal levels for accreditation by governing bodies such as NASM and Middle States ensures that the number of semesters may be spared or only pruned, but such pruning occurs at the expense of jettisoning such topics as counterpoint, form, and perhaps even ignoring 20th- and 21st-century music. Of course, the long 20th century is now nearly twelve decades young, filled with vastly different compositional styles; in pure longevity, it covers more years than the high classical period and the entire 19th century combined.

Electives, usually the coin of the realm given the possibility of sustained and focused study, and including such topics as world music, opera, 18th-century chamber music, model composition, 19th-century Lieder, compositional techniques since 1950, and so forth, have all but disappeared, just when today's young musicians must be as well-rounded as possible in order to be prepared for ever-increasing challenges. It is one thing not to be part of a small group of interested students studying Schumann's Liederkreis, op. 39, but quite another for a student to have never encountered terms like invertible counterpoint, set class, species, ritornello form, octatonic, and so forth, let alone explored the literature and compositional techniques that bring these terms to life. And perhaps worse is the litmus test of comprehension and mastery. Model composition in the theory class and improvisation in the aural skills may not be accommodated into today's constricted curricula.

And it is here where schools rely on adjunct faculty, those often hired initially in the area of aural skills. They generally range from newly minted PhDs or DMAs with little or no experience teaching in the undergraduate trenches, or, often, they are drawn from their own institution's graduate program; on occasion, even talented undergraduates find themselves in front of their peers. And without proper preparation, such as that rarely offered course in music theory pedagogy or what in the past was the mentorship by faculty (now impossible given increased teaching loads that prevent them from offering their own experience), everyone is shortchanged. This particularly unfortunate circumstance occurs most often in the aural skills curriculum, since it is here that theory concepts and performance skills are wed. This is not to say that many adjuncts might not be wonderful colleagues, highly trained, and monsters in the classroom, but they cannot be expected to participate in departmental- or school-wide service, advising, and so forth, which means that those few full-time (tenure-track) faculty have additional time-consuming extra work. This huge increase in responsibilities for full-time faculty is now at unprecedented levels.

And what lies in store for adjuncts, many of whom hold terminal degrees, are first-rate performers, engaging teachers, productive scholars, and yet have just not secured one of those few full-time tenure-track positions offered each year throughout the country? These spectacularly over-qualified adjuncts are usually paid by the course, and when transportation costs, preparation, teaching, and meeting with students are factored in, the compensation is dismal. The average pay for teaching a one-semester course is $2600, or $160 per week over 15 weeks (we must not forget that the school year is only 30 weeks, leaving the adjunct 22 weeks without pay). If the course meets three times per week and preparation and grading consume four hours for each class meeting, the number of hours invested each week is roughly 20, some 300 hours per semester: a sad and insulting pay rate of $8.50 per hour, chiseled away by the need to buy gasoline, etc. To reach the poverty level in the U.S of $15,900 for a two-person household with one income earner, an adjunct instructor would need to teach at least six courses per year. A full-time load for tenure-track assistant professors varies, but in general ranges between two and three courses per semester, and these folks are paid four or five times more than the adjunct instructor, not to mention the benefits accompanying a full-time position. And what will happen when our full professors over the age of 55 begin to retire during the next dozen years and tenure becomes a thing of the past save for a few elite institutions?

And for the full-time tenure track instructors, their 75-hour weeks will not permit them to participate in retreats, institutes, workshops, or conferences where they would be exposed to new and stimulating ways that curricula can be integrated by such powerful learning experiences as model composition projects, robust keyboard programs, and any number of other activities that draw together a dozen disparate activities to create an effective and efficient curriculum. These days, theory departments have little time to meet as a group, whereby curricular discussions and initiatives never see the light of day. And in recent years, institutions' upper-level administrators view faculty in the humanities the same way they do their science colleagues: new full-time music theory faculty are hired with the expectation that they apply for and win grants as part of the promotion and tenure process. Of course, taken in toto, course content suffers, instructors burn out, and students are ultimately the ones who pay the price.

Arguably the most pernicious problem centers on students' preparation for college-level music theory study, which populates a vast continuum, from those who took up an instrument just months before declaring music as their major, to those who have mastered solfege, dictation, part writing, and analysis by the ninth grade and who enter college with four years of species and Baroque counterpoint study. Some lay the blame for unprepared students at the feet of high school music programs, others on the shoulders of the applied teacher in junior and senior high school. But perhaps the consistent concern of many, including the author of this paper, is the diminishing and oftentimes missing element in so many students' characters: basic curiosity. So, more classes must be added to the curriculum to accommodate these inexperienced students, or, a now-common tack, to throw one's hands into the air, and place them all in "regular" freshman theory, where the inexperienced are terrified, the experienced bored to tears, and the instructor, who discovers the unwanted arrival of that fourth ulcer, combine and conspire to guarantee failure for all. Remediation is such that administrators (often in tandem with the applied faculty) demand that such basic courses (essentially fundamentals) serve as the first course in the theory core, thus reducing yet again the number of semesters in which actual theory study takes place. And it's not just music theory that suffers; the pianist who can play Liszt's sonata might also have studied one or two Beethoven sonatas, but has no interest in getting to know what any of the rest of the "32" sound like, or to read through portions of them (sight reading skills have plummeted in the past thirty years, perhaps because of the instant access to any work in the canon via YouTube, Naxos, etc.)

I am often asked this question: "How do we as a community of theorists engage non-theorists in a productive dialogue about these issues: how to develop purpose and advocate for a flexible vision of curricular renovation at various levels (from our institutions to our professional societies and accrediting bodies)?" Although reasonable and important, I believe that the question assiduously avoids the elephant in the room, where there is the tacit assumption that "the theorist" (one who holds a Ph.D. in music theory) should come to the rescue of the "non-theorist" (usually the performer who holds a DMA). Why should we assume that the professional theorist, who may long to teach graduate seminars but instead is consigned to the mines of undergraduate instruction, is unquestionably dedicated and effective, or that newly minted Ph.D.'s whose teaching experience has been limited to department gopher hunting down that converter for the prof's laptop is ready to step into freshman aural skills classes? And if the theorist does not have a performance background, could this impact musical legitimacy in the classroom?

On the other hand, why should we assume that the non-specialist DMA performer with 20+ years' teaching experience in the undergraduate core, and perhaps might be right at home teaching higher-level courses such as counterpoint and analysis and performance, is not able to turn heads just because there is no Ph.D. diploma on his/her office wall?

Or, should we instead distinguish between weak and strong teachers, between dedicated and undedicated teachers, between flexible and inflexible teachers, and between those who are satisfied with what they do versus those who constantly strive to make their teaching better. By acknowledging this scenario, we can pose the more relevant, if not ecumenical question: "how do we as a community of musicians engage in a productive dialogue?" Thus, there are both non-specialists and specialists who are outstanding teachers, powerfully engaging, highly musical, creative, and deeply pedagogical, and then there are those who are at sea when teaching, foundering in the theory and musicianship classrooms. Granted, the specialist has the edge, with a deep knowledge of the field and instant access to relevant sources, but the non-specialist might bring to bear artist-level performance abilities and remarkable musicianship skills.

It is incumbent upon all of us to share our ideas of teaching music theory and aural skills. While the Ph.D. is considered the epitome of education, it is often frowned upon by non-Ph.D granting institutions as a degree in which research receives the lion's share of attention and the art and craft of teaching plays a distant secondary role. Because of this focus on publishing, it is not uncommon for such an institution to hire a DMA. We must never lose sight that, once a candidate makes it to the campus interview, the teaching demo will likely take place in the freshman aural skills classroom. We must be aware that in the vast majority of institutions, the Ph.D.'s day job is to teach. Once the candidate lands the job, he or she will have the awesome yet wonderfully stimulating responsibility to interact with 100% of all music majors, and for that matter, many non-music majors.

The call to influence the way young musicians think about music is paramount and the way it must be done can only be at the highest level. The theory teacher's range of influence and responsibility to do so can flourish only with clear goals and with musical and passionate delivery of meaningful content: in a word, to strive for excellence. And to do so, as a community of pedagogues must learn from each other regardless of specialization, degree types, performance ability, and successful scholarship. I personally want to know what the jazz teacher does in a 20th/21st century undergraduate theory class; what the professional theorist who specializes in Renaissance history of theory does in a remedial fundamentals class; and what the winner of the Queen Elizabeth violin competition does in a six-week species counterpoint module.

Finally, I believe we must intensify our focus on the undergraduate core curriculum, those four to six semesters that all students must take, where there should be in each school a curriculum endorsed and adhered to by all faculty, with common goals and a similar philosophical underpinning that is embraced by all, where there is an abiding spirit of mutual learning and continual musical growth all within an environment where theory and its many elements are seen to be a cornerstone for musicians of all stripes.

It might be worthwhile to consider the following questions:

1. How do we learn best practices from each other, to confront ineffective teaching and to improve it?

2. Should we offer more pedagogical events, such as workshops and institutes, perhaps going so far as launching the Society for Music Theory Pedagogy, which could be aligned with the Society for Music Theory or the College Music Society. I can say, based on my attendance at such conferences that it is the non-specialists who go out of their way to attend these events. This begs the question: are specialists somehow not interested, or worse, feel it unnecessary to improve what they do in the classroom? Historically, pedagogy has not been a central concern of SMT; one might go so far as to say that music theory pedagogy has been marginalized, often restricted to a lunchtime meeting. CMS, on the other hand, has placed pedagogy front and center since its inception.

3. Should there be more repositories of easily accessible first-rate materials that stress new pedagogical insights, whether it be Flip Camp or Music Theory Pedagogy Online? If so, what would these look like?

4. As educators, we must be willing to share our materials—to provide creative, cutting edge, musically stimulating, and powerful resources that will impact the way we approach and carry out a most noble goal: to educate.

There is much more that needs to be done in order to raise the bar and aim for consistent excellence in teaching. I am pleased that there are more venues for such discussions, because if there were not, we would be painting ourselves into a corner. We all operate under the assumption that good teachers are able to adapt their research and experience in such a way that it not only extends the individual's professional area, but also can be incorporated into undergraduate teaching, thus impacting not only the scholarly arena, but also the classroom, so that our ideas are meaningful to all musicians.

This has not always been the case. I remember too well asking Oswald Jonas (then a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside where I was completing my MA) why he never offered a Schenker course, given his first-hand knowledge of Schenkerian analysis (he studied with Schenker for many years), and the publication of his elegant introduction to Schenker's theory that he had written many decades earlier. His reaction shocked me, but in retrospect, was typical of the time: "Because students are not ready to learn this art; they are too stupid to understand such a subtle and complicated approach to music." The troubling philosophy of hiding knowledge is fortunately waning, the barrel slowly being lifted off the candle. Indeed, the majority of today's undergraduate harmony textbooks are grounded in the work of Schenker. We must work together to raise standards, to be patient yet rigorous, to listen, to improve ourselves, and to share. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, an excerpt from a book by the writer George Saunders appeared, and included these wise words: "Good teaching is grounded in generosity of spirit."

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Last modified on Friday, 08/03/2019

Steven Laitz

Professor Steven Laitz is currently Chair of Music Theory and Analysis, and Assistant Dean for Curricular Initiatives at the Juilliard School. Before this he served from 1989-2014 as a faculty member in the Theory Department at the Eastman School of Music (for seven of those years served as department chair). Laitz also holds the position of Distinguished Visiting Professor at Shanghai Conservatory and in 2012, was appointed Director of the Gail Boyd de Stwolinski Center for Music Theory Pedagogy), Executive Editor of Music Theory Pedagogy Online, and Visiting Professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

For nine seasons, Laitz taught on the piano faculty at the Chautauqua Institution, where he lectured on issues in analysis and performance. He has delivered lectures, keynote addresses, workshops, and performances throughout the United States (including a yearly residency in Honolulu, Hawaii), the Netherlands, Australia (for the Australian Musicological Society in Sydney, and as Resident Music Faculty at the Hale School in Perth), and continues to visit conservatories throughout China.

In 2003 Oxford University Press published Laitz' The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis and Listening, which is currently in its fourth edition. In 2016 a Chinese translation of this text will be published by the Hunan Literature and Art Publishing House in Wuhan, China. His second textbook, Graduate Review of Tonal Theory: A Recasting of Common-Practice Harmony, Form, and Counterpoint (co-authored with Christopher Bartlette), appeared in 2009, also for Oxford University Press; it will appear in a second edition in 2017. Laitz is the author of three web courses, created for the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music: "Music Theory Fundamentals in Four Weeks" (in both English and Chinese), "Graduate Music Theory Review" and "eTheory LIVE: Interactive Music Theory Classroom". He is currently creating an integrated online music theory, history, and appreciation course for Juilliard Global Ventures.

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