Tuesday, September 16, 2008

For Maishe

It may be true that classical music education is done all wrong--and I mean to talk here only about classical music. This is something that has been troubling people for quite a while. (Keep in mind that I'm not much of a(n) historian.) It used to be, way back in the medieval day, that composition was taught by rote. There were certain interval progressions that were thought pleasing and proper, and a student would memorize hundreds and hundreds of these, and assembling them constituted composition (this was apparently also true of drawing and painting at the time--artists would learn to copy really well, not create new pictures). By (post?)modern standards, this seems odd, but we ought to bear in mind that composition then was not seen as a creative endeavor--composers were not artists--but a technical skill. Composers and painters, etc., were craftsmen (sometimes women, maybe).

Apparently around the 18th century this started to change. Surely this has to do with the development of Enlightenment aesthetics, about which I still know too little. Kant's and then Hegel's notions of free play and artistic subjectivity (respectively) are useful historical focal points for the increasing emphasis on the creative subject--and subsequently the development of Romantic theories of genius--but ought not necessarily to be seen as sources, but also as reflections of these cultural changes. All this is to say that, though I don't know enough about why, for some reason around Bach's time and a little later, composers were expected to be not craftsmen but artists, in what would come to be the Romantic sense of the word. They were to create, not merely make. (I think I'm over-blowing the difference a bit though.)

Keep in mind that Bach was not just a great composer. He was *the* consummate keyboard improviser. Legend has it that he was invited to Frederic the Great's court, where his son, C.P.E., was Kappelmeister, and just sat around improvising 5 voice fugues, including some to the theme of what later became The Musical Offering. Of course, we can't recover what he improvised, but the mere feat of improvising a fugue is unheard of nowadays. According to William Renwick, however, this sort of behavior, was not as rare then as it is now. Keyboard students were expected to be able to supply, in the act of performing, 3 upper voices to a pre-composed fugue bass, and this was considered to be an early step in education. Such a complicated act, expected to be performed in real-time, would be beyond the capacity of all but the most tenacious undergrads, even were they given a month to write.

Around this same time a conservative composer/educator named Fux (long U), penned his Gradus ad Parnassum, which advocated a much older approach to counterpoint. This pedagogical technique has since become known as species counterpoint, and was used by, amongst others, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. I won't make claims about the improvisatory skills of these composers (Schenker claims that they were in all cases great), but would like to emphasize the focus on counterpoint in their education and teaching, and in their compositional practice (Brahms continued to do species counterpoint exercises long after becoming a respected composer).

Both of these things have changed quite a bit. No longer is keyboard improvisation (or even proficiency) incorporated into the curriculum in a serious way--not at either of the institutions I'm attended, nor in any sphere that I'm familiar with, though I know very few conservatory students. Counterpoint was more or less jettisoned (according to Schenker) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as university programs sought quick and efficient ways to manufacture competent tonal composers on a large (classroom) scale. Schenker, Schoenberg and schurely others have worked to reverse this trend, but it's clearly not taken so seriously now as it was by Brahms, for example. Even heavily Schenkerian text books (and Schenker privileged counterpoint in his theories) will often dedicate only an introductory chapter of so to the subject of counterpoint.

This leads in parallel motion to two points:
1) Diminished interest in piano competency reduces opportunities for students to explore music in time with multiple parts. Even those students focusing on a keyboard instrument in private lessons lose the opportunity to pursue music in a more theoretical setting, where harmony and counterpoint can be the focus, rather than expression and performance technique.

2) I don't think that it makes sense to teach species counterpoint simply because Beethoven studied it. Certainly that would be one valuable avenue to understanding Beethoven's work, but it's not the only, or necessarily the best, way to get at music. I think counterpoint is necessary because it fosters discipline and facility with musical language. Learning counterpoint requires not only the ability to read music quickly, but the ability to compose simple lines in your head that adhere specific--if arbitrary--requirements. In short, it is good practice of thinking music. If one is interested in improvisation or composition, or simply in reading well, this is an efficient (and time-consuming) way to learn.

But at this step we need to interrogate a few positions. What is the function of a university (undergraduate) degree in music (cynicism aside)? Why would we want to teach improvisation or composition (why are they good things)?

One thing that strikes me about music undergrads is how much they complain about their course load. Now, I expect that this happens in all departments, but let us suppose for a second that the situation is comparatively bad in music. Reworking the curriculum to stress keyboard and contrapuntal proficiency (I am presuming the above critique to be correct) would require an enormous increase in the demands on students. I don't think that there exists time in a 4-year institution even to begin properly the process of training competent composers and improvisers in the classical tradition. I suppose that's why counterpoint was pushed aside in the first place: it's hard to take a room full of people and teach them music in a useful way... instead we aim to teach them about music. Undergraduate education (and I think this is true of most fields) is about teaching people how not to embarrass themselves in their given field.

But I meant to put aside cynicism. We would do well to remember that most undergrads are studying (classical) performance or (primary and secondary) education, and the pressures of learning these specific components of music are a large part of what prevent the institution of the above plan. We might go a step further and suggest that entire approach to education is ill-suited to learning composition. We really should start kids immediately with the mechanics of music while they're learning the rudiments of performance--and it should be taken seriously by parents, instead of seen as a tool to develop intelligence. Too often, it seems, music is forced on children by philistine parents who are more concerned with producing cultured and accomplished offspring than with teaching their children music (of course this was equally true in Victorian times). I'm getting side-tracked :) What I mean to say is that the amount of knowledge and facility required to improvise competently in a tonal (that is, common practice) musical language is attainable only through a program that does not suit itself well to the educational superstructure as it exists today. There simply isn't enough time.

So if improvisation and composition are the goals, surely we are doing it wrong. Even a conservatory setting, where the greatest performers are produced, falls short of this goal.

However, even assuming artistic expression is a positive ideal, we must keep in mind that there is more to expression than creating new series of notes. Score interpretation is itself a creative act, valued highly enough that while few people are interested in composers nowadays, brilliant interpreters actually make pretty good money (look at me use the market to justify). So my own performances aside, a skilled university student will actually put a great deal of expression and creativity into performing what we, out of habit, call somebody else's music. This raises serious questions of authorship and propriety, which I think are dealty with best by dismissing them. Should we really concern ourselves with whose work is more important in the creation of a musical event? We do well to remember that Beethoven does not exist on paper alone; even if no one will play, we have to listen in our heads while we read the score. So the act of writing new melodies is surely important (for some), but so too is the act of creating old melodies.

I don't mean to suggest that Mike is belittling performers by saying they're not composers. Nor do I mean to claim that my sight-reading is the same sort of creative event as a Glen Gould or Mitsuko Uchida performance (to pick two performers on opposite sides of the interpretation spectrum). But I think it's a mistake to equate creation with composition and improvisation. I find much more life in playing someone else's pieces than I ever did in writing my own.

This is helping me remember that I'm not as smart as I was 3 months ago.

This is an interesting site.

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