Music Curricula in the '70's

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This paper was part of a panel presentation for The College Music Society at the University of Toronto on November 7, 1970 entitled
Music and Higher Education in the 1970's. Chairman of the panel was William J. Mitchell. The other panelists were Charles Hamm, Mantle Hood, James Haar, Claude V. Palisca, and Robert J. Werner. Abstracts of the papers they presentedas well as Mitchell's introductory remarkswere also included in Symposium Volume 11.

This brief paper may not contain a great deal that could be called original, but I do believe, nonetheless, that it deals with matters that require serious consideration.

I propose to discuss "curriculum." Let us define curriculum not in the narrow sense of "those subjects which are offered," but in its broadest possible aspect as "the entire experience which will impinge upon a student from the moment he applies for admission until that moment in which—we hope—he graduates and finds employment."

Many students flourish in the type of carefully structured course offerings that have traditionally been found in our schools at their best. Those who propose that this traditional structure is per se too rigid to meet the diverse needs of students are, in my opinion, merely mouthing fashionable platitudes while failing to recognize that the needs of many students are in fact met by such a curriculum. Those who propose wholesale abandonment of present curricula without sound new alternatives, will be the doctors whose medicine cures a patient's disease but kills him in the process.

Having made that perhaps unfashionable and conservative-seeming statement, I must now state the other side of the matter. Among those students for whom the traditional curriculum is not ideal are at least two groups. The first consists of those personality types who can only pursue their educations via idiosyncratic paths. The second—not by any means mutually exclusive from the first—arises out of the current interest among many students for a more spontaneous and less formalized life-style. (The first group has been and will always be with us; whether the second will persist, and what its long range implications for our society might be, remains to be seen.)

In thinking about potential music students in these two groups, you might try an experiment some afternoon during cocktail hour. Make three lists containing your nominees for the twenty-five greatest performers, the twenty-five greatest composers, and the twenty-five greatest musical scholars of the past two centuries. Then ask yourself candidly how many of these seventy-five great men truly owed their success to academic training, and how many others were either self-trained or in active rebellion against the academy.

Even in former times, academic success and credentials often determined who attained secure positions, but in our time this mania for credentials has reached absurd proportions. For the student who does not thrive under our present educational arrangements, the implications of this are grim: either sitting through years of what is to him agony, or abandoning the degree only to find himself in many cases ineligible for positions for which his capabilities might otherwise qualify him. While this situation may eventually be remedied, it behoves us, as long as it persists, to make provisions for those musically talented students for whom the traditional curriculum is unsuitable.

What I am suggesting is that there should be more than one way to earn a degree in music—and by that I do not mean a hard way and an easy way but, rather, two, or several, more or less parallel paths which may occasionally cross or diverge but which in the end will arrive at the same destination. That destination is a high degree of musical competence, whether in performance, scholarship, teaching, composition, or any combination of those.

Such new roads to a degree might begin and end at a single institution but contain along the way: travel for formal or independent study in other places; semesters, or whole years, devoted to the practical experiences of working in the field; leaves of absence to meditate upon the purposes of education, to try alternate fields or arrangements, or to start a family; and any other form of activity that may be proposed which might lead in the long run to the required skills and understanding. Faculty members in the home institution might keep in touch with the progress of itinerant students and advise them. Finally, the degree might be awarded upon demonstration of requisite command of the métier, perhaps during a terminal year in residence.

The objection has been posed that it would be extremely difficult to test our latter-day goliards in a way which would reveal accurately and fairly what they have learned off campus. In reply to this I must refer to my own experiences as a student, which I have every reason to believe were not atypical. From the time I began my first day of kindergarten until the day that I stepped up in cap and gown to receive my doctorate, very nearly a quarter of a century had elapsed. During that rather long period it was rare that I knew with any clarity why I was studying what I had been told to study, or what it was that our teachers were hoping to accomplish by their course of action. In retrospect I conclude that most of these teachers had not thought out these questions fully and often did not know why they taught what and how they did. I submit that when we as teachers bother to understand what our goals are for our students, no very great obstacles will be found in devising ways of ascertaining whether or not our students have reached those goals. If students are going to be kept in school for a quarter of a century, there had better be excellent reasons for it.

Needless to say, my brief sketch of some new curriculum arrangements leaves numerous large practical problems unsolved, but I hope that I may have proposed some ideas which can serve as a basis for discussion. Undoubtedly, if any of these suggestions has merit, ways will be found to surmount the practical obstacles to their realization.

Should you doubt the need for alternate routes of access to music degrees, then consider the fact that, on liberal arts campuses at any rate, it is a commonplace that a number of the best musicians among the undergraduates have in one way or another been repulsed from being music majors and are pursuing other training. It is, after all, in the mutual interest of faculty and students that the most musically talented enter the field. While it is surely true, for instance, that most harmony students write poor exercises simply because they can do no better, we should always keep in mind the specter of a latter-day Berlioz unable to pass a harmony course because he won't follow the rules, a Spivakovsky unable to enter a conservatory because of his eccentric bow grip, a Sanford Terry unable to join a graduate seminar in musicology for lack of formal prerequisites, or a Webern unable to earn a DMA degree because the final requirement is the completion of a composition for large orchestra lasting more than ten minutes.

These last remarks, while meant half in jest, are made in order to suggest that the more promising the student, the more flexible the training ought to be—our problem here being in the correct perception of talent. In matters of formal training nothing has changed during the two centuries since the French encyclopedist d'Alembert wrote,

In music as in all the fine arts, it is up to the artist to give and to follow the rules; it is up to the man of taste and genius to find the exceptions.1

Before leaving the topic of curriculum, I would like to indicate as strongly as possible my support of Professor Haar's contention that at all costs standards must be maintained, and this must be done regardless of any pressures to the contrary that may arise out of new conditions, such as open admissions, restructured courses, new requirements, abandonment of requirements, and so on. I am also in agreement—as my earlier remarks must have made abundantly clear—with Professor Hamm's idea that we should make "those modifications in our programs and attitudes" that will "help insure that we continue to attract our share of the most talented and sensitive young people. . . ." Professor Palisca very plausibly suggests some of the directions these modifications might take. I must, however, respectfully take exception to Professor Hood's idea that the "existing core curricula in music should be greatly compressed" in order to allow time for courses usually grouped under the rubric of ethnomusicology, World music, or non-Western music. The study of non-Western music is as noble a pursuit as any I know; and I am aware of the hardships (pointed out to us so eloquently by Charles Seeger at the 1969 meetings of American Musicological Society in St. Louis) that are placed upon would-be ethnomusicologists who have first to complete all of the already rigorous requirements of Western musicology. Such a double standard is unfair. However, let us not have ethnomusicology replacing musicology, or vice versa, but let us, rather, enjoy the richness of both simultaneously.

My final remarks on career goals would, I believe, be timely on any occasion, but are made urgently so now by the current economic situation. Our field has just ended a long period of steady expansion, and we seem now to be entering a period of what we can hope will be only mild retrenchment. This belt tightening will prove to have been beneficial if it forces us to reconsider the possibility of new careers for our graduates. Such a change can take place only if we are convinced that there are other honorable careers in music besides those of touring concert artist, world-famous composer, or renowned scholar. Our graduates, if they are well-trained musicians or musicologists, have important contributions to make: in publishing as editors and writers; in journalism as critics and reviewers; in recording companies as A and R men, recording engineers, and jacket annotators; with audio equipment manufacturers as consultants; at radio and TV stations as program directors, script writers, and announcers; as music librarians; as local (rather than jet-set) performers and composers; and in teaching of all ages at all levels, not just in the university. At present, much of our undergraduate and graduate training shows little interest in these pursuits, and, as a result, those who drift into them become by implication failures or dropouts. That is scandalous! These are useful, interesting, rewarding, and important careers, and we would all be much better off if such positions were more often filled by better qualified people. After all, what better way than that could there be to raise the level of musical literacy in our society? And if we fail to meet this challenge, we must expect to watch the demand for the music we compose, perform, write about, and teach about, to decline steadily. And with that decline will go our hopes for a vigorous musical culture.


1Jean LeRond d'Alembert, Élémens de musique théorique et pratique, suivant les principes de M. Rameau (Paris 1752), p. 168. ("En Musique, comme dans tous les beaux Arts, c'est à l'Artiste à donner, et à suivre les regles; c'est à l'homme de goût et de génie à trouver les exceptions.")

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