The Importance of Knowing How

When’s the last time you saw a theory course in someone’s bio?

At least among students, it’s customary to credit one’s teachers in a professional bio, but we never mention our classroom experiences. Implicit in this distinction, I think, is the idea that private lessons are more capable of molding our doughy compositional identities than are classes, even classes that specifically address compositional techniques. Although I fundamentally agree with that statement, I’d submit that there are exceedingly important areas of compositional development that are often addressed more extensively in the classroom than in the office, studio, bar, or wherever the lesson takes place.

I’d also argue that greater facility when it comes to these technical issues can only help us realize the experimental impulse we value so highly, the same impulse we cultivate in our more abstract compositional training. Unfortunately, because we’re required to take far fewer theory classes than composition lessons, it’s easy for our craft to slip, and sometimes we don’t have the chops we need. (This is probably nobody’s fault but our own—more on that later.)

Strangely, this limitation doesn’t seem to apply to our use of technology. The level of electroacoustic know-how among students here is unbelievable, and its instruction is probably taken as seriously as Zarlino took his counterpoint. I’m sure Illinois is not the only school where this is the case.

It’s also worth noting that the rigid division between lesson and class is by no means a universal; in Europe, my experience has been that the line is much blurrier, and a meeting among students and professor can take on both “lesson-like” and “class-like” characteristics with much greater fluidity than in the U.S. Furthermore, if I may make a sweeping and not entirely fair generalization, the European composers of my generation that I’ve met tend to enjoy greater mastery of the craft of composing—from fugue-writing on down the line—than my American buddies and I.

Ultimately, I guess it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the techniques we’ll need to do our job, whether that means signing up for elective set theory classes or cracking the Forte book. I’m certainly not complaining about the quality of instruction here or suggesting that it might be insufficient anywhere else. It may be that my fellow students and I are just plain incurious. But maybe somebody of an earlier vintage can fill me in: Did your teachers make you do compositional études for your lessons? Did you learn these things in classes? Did you just pick it up on your own? Do you feel that you gained a strong technical foundation in grad school and, if so, whom do you have to thank for it?

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Knowing How

  1. areguero

    Speaking from a performer’s standpoint, theory classes often seemed irrelevant to the art of performing, and in my experience, many students did what they could to simply “get by,” which usually translates to a grasp of theory with lots of holes; a swiss cheese knowledge. Not that I subscribe to that belief. I was always convinced that theory gave a performer clues to musical choices beyond phrase structure and previously notated dynamic markings. In fact, music has so many layers and so much depth that you’re doing a disservice to the music if you don’t search for the underlying structure and theory. And, as an argument for why we still play the old masterpieces time and time again, there are so many layers in music of all genres that each performance can completely rejuvenate a piece if a performer or ensemble digs far enough down. (That’s also argument for multiple performances of world premieres, by different performers.)

    The other problem that I found in music school theory classes is that the professors aren’t teaching the classes. They leave the teaching to the TAs. It gives the perception that the school doesn’t care about students’ knowledge of theory enough to give the task of teaching to professors, even if the TAs are able and knowledgeable teachers. And, there wasn’t a screening process for TAs once they were assigned to a class. I had an awful aural skills TA one semester and not only was my learning process slowed, but my enthusiasm dropped because my input, and my class’, to the school was completely ignored. I lost a semester of valuable training.

    Students put in effort for their private teachers because they understand how much they can gain from someone with a certain level of experience. Would a student try just as hard if their primary studio teacher were just the doctorate student in the program? Just food for thought.

  2. E. Tobias

    I have always found it interesting and somewhat disconcerting that while music education students take various courses in music theory, history, composition, performance etc. in addition to courses in education; many students who go on to eventually teach theory, musicology, performance, composition in universities have never taken a course in education theory, pedagogy, philosophy etc. Very often a shift in pedagogy can make all the difference in helping someone learn and grow.

    I think k-12 music educators, music teacher educators and professors of music could definitely benefit from a more symbiotic relationship. Hopefully online forums such as newmusicbox and the various music blogs that exist will lead to more discussion and collaboration across disciplines.

  3. D. Ott

    As a composer, who also happens to teach harmony, counterpoint, and solfege, I have to say that part of the problem lies in dealing with what a student learns BEFORE they get to college. Often I have even taught graduate students in conservatory who have a tenuous grasp of the basics (including intervals and key signatures!), which seems completely at odds with their technical proficiency as performers.

    And this goes for composers, as well. Perhaps it’s because undergraduate theory courses are expected to cover a lot of ground (sort of “complete” the training, so to speak) without being able to go into depth as far as mastery of various techniques is concerned. Also, the level of keyboard proficiency is quite low these days, so many students, while being able to work on paper, are not able to translate that into playing on an instrument.

    I agree with the “aural skills” comment. I think a lot of departments regard it as a necessary evil. Most professors don’t want to teach it, and it therefore falls to a grad. student who may or may not have any pedagogical background. Solfege (ear training) is perhaps the MOST vital of all the subjects. I credit a great deal of growth as a composer to what I learned (as a graduate student taking reivew classes) to my Ear Training teacher.

  4. belindareynolds

    getting ALL the basics
    i agree with e. about questioning why most composers do not get some training in pedagogy, while music educators learn compositional techniques. another overlooked area is also a basic BUSINESS course. i mean, most of us will be in a situation where we need to write a press release, sign a contract, do a policy statement, file our taxes…doctors learn how to start a practice, filmmakers learn how to fund a film and even start a production company! learning these elements in graduate school would really help those coming out to make the step from student to professional, regardless of what path their composition degree takes them….and, those that teach us should tools should get credit for that…


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