Wheaton College Conservatory of Music


This article originally appeared in Arts Policy Review, November/December 1992. Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036-1802. Copyright 1992.

In a very few years, those of us in higher education will be compelled to wedge material about 21st century music into curricula which have yet to deal convincingly with the 20th century wedge, driven some years ago into curricula already filled up with musical practices up to the late 1800's. (1) Whatever intellectual and pedagogical leadership was at work in the development of the curricula into which we have driven these wedges, this much can be said for it: It took better account of the then-contemporary scene than we do now.

As it appears to me, there are three things wrong with our present curricula. First, they are designed too much around a chronological model. A chronological model is of necessity a quantitative model, issuing in one of three decisions as new phenomena appear: adding, cutting, or compressing. Since higher education runs on a fixed-time model--so many terms to get it all in--the quantative inevitably clashes with the chronological. Except for our music education programs, regularly visited by any number of experimenters and pedagogical evangelists who politicize, sloganize, and tamper with these groaning structures, there is no way that we are about to add a fifth year to our other programs, just to give the kind of attention to the music of the present that we have given to that of the past.

So we are compelled to ask the same questions of music curricula that vice presidents of finance regularly ask of our budgets. Shall we rob Beethoven to pay Shulamit Ran? And if we couple the chronological squeeze to the press of multiculturalism, shall we rob the string quartet to pay the gamelan, or Penderecki to pay Max Roach? And as we further know, the many-cultures issue is no longer one of separate and distinct tribes and ethnicities. It is right here at home, taking in inter- and intra-cultural proliferation and fusion: everything from MTV and Music Row, to music so eclectically innovative that labels fail. To account for these explosions, we commonly take one of two curricular decisions. We subtract, compress, or selectively ignore. Or we create new programs which, while superficially innovative, still follow the dis-integrative idea that music is a phenomenon of categories. As phenomena increase, so do the categories.

Second, our curricula are based too much on a back-end-forward concept of musical process. What we do in basic musicianship, including most upper division work, is to treat symptoms as causes. Instead of beginning with music as poetic process, we start off with one of its grammars, mistakenly calling it theory. This begins a process of the ex post facto substituting for the a priori; the micro precedes the macro; the detail informs the principle, and cause follows effect. We introduce secondary--perhaps even tertiary--rules at the expense of fundamental process, continuing more on what not to do than on what is creatively possible. We spend immense amounts of time dismantling and re-assembling musical trees without giving too much thought that they might just be specks in a forest. This further means that we may spend little or no time on what constitutes the forest itself, let alone how it comprises a living ecology.

The third concern is that curricula, parallel to that of musical practice in general culture, are almost exclusively performance-driven. By this I mean that, outside of the improvisatory arts, composition has become secondary to performance. The two are seriously out of touch with each other. Through the proliferation of increasingly replicative performances of older music, we have forgotten that what we are hearing, over and over, was once really truly newly composed. Honest, the ink was once really wet on all this music. With the possible exception of those who work in academia, serious composers are minority specialists whose exposure to the public is at the mercy of a market-driven and consumerist culture. The approach to classical and popular music is guided by a single motivation: familiarism, of which repeated performance is the reinforcement. In this sense, high culture and popular culture may be identical. The musics may be different, but the perceptual attitudes are not.

The typical music major is trained to be a combination of observer and re-presenter. By, observer, I mean someone whose main contact with real music largely comprises formulizing and verbalizing about music. The hearing that she or he does is more related to how music is performed, or how its sonic and structural values issue in visual and verbal schemata, than to direct engagement in music as music. Students spend far too much time seeing intervals, inversions, retrogrades, and forms; hearing elaborate lectures about scale formations and harmonic processes, and doing verbal reports on musical process. These substitute far too much for the actual musicking of these.

By re-presenter, I mean someone whose presentation of music is limited almost exclusively to repeating a known literature to audiences who increasingly listen more to music as production--the how and who of performance--than to music as content--the what, how, and why of the music itself. Creativity, which is nothing more or less than imagining something and then executing it, has been virtually removed from all but the most innovative curricula. This raises two questions: If the continuing presence of music is the cause of continuing to learn music; if the cause of music is human creativity, why is creativity not at the center of the music curriculum? Why is the act of thinking up music left just to a select few specialists, while re-presenting it, or over-verbalizing about it, is the province of so many? We claim complete musicianship; we advertise and accredit accordingly. But I'm afraid that we do not tell the whole truth.

Curricular components, modules, and quantities aside, there are only three things musicians can do. They can (1) write music, (2) present music, and (3) contextualize music. Each will be commented on briefly.

1. Writing Music. This act can comprise three activities: 1) thinking up music as an aspect of the originating imagination; 2) thinking up music as a way of responding to already known musical processes in order to learn and develop thereby; 3) constructing brief, grammatically conscious exercises, constructed as responses to grammatically conceived assignments. The first may be thought of as composition as an end; the second, composition as means; and the third, composition as adjunct--writing musical examples about music, somewhat akin to writing grammatical exercises about poetry.

2. Presenting Music. This can comprise one of four activities: 1) improvising music--the simultaneous coupling of thinking up and presenting; 2) presenting a composed piece of music for the first time; 3) re-presenting a piece of music, no matter how many times; 4) cloning, which is the multiplying of one of the preceding through recording technology. There may quite possibly be a fifth: live re-presentations increasingly similar, scrubbed clean technically and narrowed down stylistically: virtual acoustical recordings of each other. Individuation has been reduced to the molecular: stylistic minimalism, if you will.

3. Contextualizing Music. This comprises one of two activities: 1) placing, comparing, and inter-relating of music-making within historical and socio-cultural matrices; 2) the intellectual and analytical attempts to explain musical content as process, so as to enable codification, comparison, abstraction, reduction, and model building.

Now if we take the above: writing music, with its three possibilities; performing, with its four (maybe five); contextualizing, with its two; and if we attempt to locate their presence in the typical undergraduate curriculum, we come up with some rather disturbing results.

Of the three activities comprising writing, the third--writing grammatically--is virtually the only one present. Its equivalent in performance studies would be the reduction of applied music to renditions of its grammars: technical studies and etudes. In the field of sport, this would be like limiting figure skating to the compulsories.

Of the four activities comprising presenting music, only the third and fourth predominate: re-presenting and cloning. We need only look at our recital programs, our repertoire lists, our pedagogical techniques, our competitions; and outside of academia, the regular programming of our major symphony orchestras, soloists, and opera companies. Much of what we do in performance studies can be likened to penmanship, which is the craft of copying something as closely as possible, irrespective of the intricacy of the thing being copied. In other words, if I can copy the way Ashkenazy plays Chopin, I will be demonstrating advanced penmanship in the context of Ashkenazy's artistic creativity. But only if I can originate a way of playing Chopin that shows both skill and personal insight, can I claim to be creative.

Contextualizing, as would be imagined, fares somewhat better. Both activities are present in quite some abundance, but still in a secondary sense. The historical and socio-cultural contextualizing is thorough but quite narrowed. The discussions are limited to a certain few European/American dialects/styles and socio-aesthetic time frames. While we codify and use models, we spend too little time on teaching our students to think generatively, conceptually, and theoretically for themselves. Instead, we ask for the memorization of the thoughts and formulae of others. Instead of training them to think syntactically--much less, linguistically--about music, we give them grammatical reductions and ask for replications. Instead of teaching them how to identify musical process (What musical shape is in the form?), we ask them to apply formulae (What form is the music in?). Because we have generally preferred derivations to causes, hence grammars to linguistic processes, we find ourselves increasingly incapable of covering all the bases. As dialects and styles increase, idioms multiply and options accrue, the procedures at hand cannot account for them, for they are simply at the wrong level. And so the great majority of music in general culture goes its way, with little or no educational response.

There is another way, implied in the foregoing, to describe what musicians do. They 1) think up music; 2) think in music; 3) think about music. Each is pretty much self-explanatory. Composing and improvising constitute thinking up. Thinking about music constitutes contextualizing. And thinking in music seems rather obvious. However, an analogy may assist us in discovering that most of us are far less capable of thinking in music than we care to admit. And here we may well have the beginning of the answer as to why the music education of our students is so limited.

Here is the analogy. Our ability to think in our native tongue allows us to express ourselves clearly in a variety of ways (including the use of dialects and styles) and in a variety of situations. Communication, the communal and meaningful exchange of symbols, is based on some kind of shared understanding of the symbols themselves. This allows the community to think commonly at the same time, in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, as well as in agreement or disagreement. What happens when we do all this discoursing? What do we think about when we speak: the language itself, or what we want to say in it? A language is said to be mastered when we do not have to think about the language in order to think in it and think up in it. Thinking about language is, of course, possible, and in the case of many intellectual exercises, necessary. But thinking about should not substitute for thinking in and thinking up. When this happens, attention is focused on thinking up about thinking about. And I strongly suspect that the latter has glutted our educational systems, especially the liberal arts.

Because we can learn our native languages so well that we can think in and think up in them without thinking about them, this means that we can improvise in them. And virtually all of our language use is improvisatory. That we do this regularly in our spoken language demonstrates that we can do it, to varying degrees, with any language that we can truly think in.

To be able to think in a language also means that we neither need an intermediary language to stand in for what is being thought up and communicated. Nor do we need a surrogate language for fear that the primary language is incapable of expressing itself. For, example, if I have mastered Chinese, I do not need Hungarian to clarify its meaning, or to communicate something basic that Chinese cannot. And if I have mastered a number of languages: phonetic ones, ideogrammatic ones, and so on, then I can improvise in contrasting cognitive modes.

Coming closer to the point, if I can truly think in music, I may well depend less on verbal and visual languages to be proxies for this primary responsibility. Thinking in music should thus precede and direct whatever else I do musically. Thinking in and up should thus drive thinking about.

Admittedly we do not, most of us, think well in music, for if we did, we would be more facile at thinking it up, whether through improvisation or composition. Furthermore, though these need not necessarily be our specialities--we'll get to this in a moment--they should constitute the normal way we go about making and studying music. What prevents us from doing this? Not lack of creativity, for all people are creative enough to compose and improvise regularly in their native and adopted languages. And those who do this best have practiced and practiced, turning this ordinary activity into an art. These are the ones who give leadership to debate and beauty to expression. Granted, some are better at this than others. But this is a matter of degree, not kind. The real point is that everyone is capable of thinking in his or her language(s). Since everyone is, to some degree, musical, and since everyone is to some degree creative, it follows that virtually everyone should be able to think in and think up music, given the right training.

So there must be something which prevents us from readily and regularly thinking in and thinking up music. Remember, I am neither talking about the qualities and abilities of specialist composers, but just plain and ordinary music makers, brought up in the ways of plain and ordinary musicianship, brought to bloom by constant practice. This is the kind of musicianship of which earlier generations of musicians were capable. Whether precocious or ordinary, all of them could perform, compose, improvise, and teach. And strangely enough, this was before the time--the l9th century--that musicians and artists were accorded something approaching deity. These diversified practitioners simply considered themselves craftsmen.

Could it be that we have so saturated ourselves and our curricula with thinking about and replicating, each usurping the place of thinking in and thinking up, that we have turned this wonderful art of ours into something less than it can be? And, beginning with our children and continuing through so-called advanced studies, have we closed something down in all of us--something which should really be at the base of music-making and learning? Have we turned away from creativity to technique, from perceiving music as creative process to using it as a variously packaged product--we the purveyors and our various publics, including our students, the consumers?

We must remember that the primary mode of higher education is the verbal mode, despite the presence of disciplines which use other-than-verbal languages. The life of the mind, as noble as the concept could be, is primarily word/idea driven. This is entirely suitable as long as that which is under consideration is limited to the verbal or verbally ideological. In this case, one can think in, think up, and think about, all in the same mode. This is just the ticket for philosophers, aesthetes, historians, humanities and literary scholars. And these are the ones who pretty much control the debate as to the definitions and directions of liberal arts. Unfortunately, many of these individuals have minimized the merit of other ways of communicating significance. And in so doing, they have demonstrated that they are less liberally educated than they purport to be.

One who is truly liberally educated should be multilingual, not merely at the secondary level of foreign language proficiency, but at the fundamental level of creative and perceptual diversity. Just because music, or some other kinds of art may not be able to directly communicate the propositional stuff of truth, does not mean that they cannot communicate propositionally and intellectually, on their own terms. Somehow, the idea has become fixed in certain overly important minds that the proper way to "appreciate" the arts is to think about them. The actual doing of them is relegated to an order of lesser significance. The artifacts created by thinking about the arts, including increasingly lengthy explanations of compositions and art pieces themselves--artifacts about artifacts--have usurped the place of the art piece itself. And when a philosopher can tell me (as a widely published one once did) that he could create an aesthetic without attending concerts, exhibits and recitals, then it is quite apparent that a nearly immovable force has come to stand in the way of a good deal of what music and art are really about. Unfortunately, we music educators have bought into much of this. As important as verbal communication is in music curricula, we must remember that it does not substitute for musical communication any more than a fugue would substitute for a critique of Kirkegaard at a philosophy conference.

So we return to the twin subjects of performance and composition. Properly considered and rightly balanced, they call out for curricular reform. What must really happen is that music making should issue in far more music making. We must literally spend more time in responding to music with music. Consider this possibility. If learning music in the true sense means thinking in music, it follows that as a piece of music is presented, say a Bartok dance or a 12-bar blues, the student will demonstrate what she or he is actually absorbing--besides notes and technique--by responding in thought-up music, no matter how brief or faltering. Perhaps entire class sessions, better yet, entire courses, should pass with very few words spoken. Musical example and musical response would be in constant exchange. And so it would go: students would learn to make music in response to music, much the same way children learn speech by being found in the company of advanced speakers. Both the poetry and grammar, the smaller units and the larger structures, would gradually be absorbed deeply into the musical consciousness--down where musical discourse truly happens and is refined.

A very close friend of mine is an accomplished improviser. After hearing a particularly stunning rendition, I'll never forget his response to a question one of my colleagues asked him as to how he learned to improvise so well. He said that his first piano teacher insisted that he improvise a piece of music in response to every new piano composition he studied. He was brought up with the idea that music begets music. Consequently there was no division between presenting and re-presenting, between thinking up, in, and about.

Why switch so quickly to verbal and visual explanatories, diagrams, paradigms, and schemes? Let these come, and come liberally, but in their proper place in the curriculum: as counterparts, not substitutes. Meantime, let musical process beget musical process. Just as a response to a mathematical equation can be another mathematical equation, and a response to a philosophical treatise is philosophical thought, so with music. The primary response to music should be music.

It is my conviction that we must saturate curriculum with writing and improvising music. This should go on all the time in some cumulative way. Performance would not be diminished. In fact, it would have a renewed strength. It would serve as the simultaneous means for thinking in, thinking up, and re-presenting, and would continue to serve both specialists and laypersons with abundant repertoire and fresh experiences. And maybe the concert world would be treated to some rather courageous and innovative re-presentations of a repertory that is increasingly stultified by the legalisms of performance practices and traditions-- the canonization of production governing the canon of content.

What we now mistakenly call music theory would find a better identity and place. We could begin to speculate on--think about--what we have done while responding to music with music. This kind of theory would be of a different kind, taking in a more global expanse and discovering more generatively fundamental paradigms. It would move from the concept of grammar-as-language study--a tertiary event--to music as linguistic process--the primary event.

Learning a language does not furnish knowledge of how all languages work. Learning content does not guarantee learning process. A linguist does not concern him/herself with learning languages, but with the discovery and use of principles by which the workings of any number of languages can be explained. Learning about musical languages linguistically is the best way to introduce the possibility of thinking in, up, and about, a given language as thoroughly as possible, and to avoid spending too much time in specificities at too early a stage. Furthermore, a linguistic approach would probably show us that many allegedly contrastive musics may be no more than dialects, or styles, of each other. The distinctions, however dramatic they first seem, may turn out to be rather superficial. If, for instance, Hindemith is right in saying that any sonority can be found to possess a root, then Schonberg may be simply a dialect of root movement music, separated from Mozart less by kind than by degree, less by fundamental process than by vocabulary. And with the recent influence of linguistic theory on music theory, entirely new vistas are opening up in the teaching of musicianship. (2)

A linguistic approach assumes the irrelevancy of getting at the nature of musical language through its idiomatic compartments. It suggests instead that an understanding of the nature of language ultimately brings more accurate information and integration to these discreet compartments. It suggests that language itself is symptomatic of grounding, relational, discursive, and binding principles found everywhere. It is in this sense that a particular language is less simple than the linguistic principles which precede. Therefore, to learn the principles first is to simplify and better organize the approach to the complexities and proliferations. I am reminded of something Oliver Wendell Holmes is alleged to have said. It is simple, straightforward, and startlingly profound: "I do not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." (3)

In summary, thinking up, thinking in, and thinking about; composing, improvising, presenting, and contextualizing, constitute music making. This is core curriculum, and core curriculum must prevail all the way from the music education of children to Ph.D. programs. All else derives: methods, specialities, majors, options, and integrations. Integration of the most fundamental kind is the best way to take account of, relate, and control proliferation. This means that proliferation should be reined in until the wholistic questions are asked and answered. If we wish to continue to perpetuate music curricula which deal with symptoms instead of causes, musical trees to the exclusion of forests, and technique instead of creativity--all in the name of basic and complete musicianship--we can stay as we are, limited and limiting. If we choose to do so, we will continue to shortchange society, and especially our children, by offering them narrowly prepared graduates and limited advocates for an art form which is grander than we are presently making it out to be. In the process of staying the same, we may well be commissioning the very music and training the very players for our own funerals.

Perhaps a parable will help me explain what I have been trying to say.

In a certain country, there lived a certain artist whose skills were known far and wide. This artist did not paint or make music. He taught and performed a beautiful language--Spanish--and was known everywhere for his compelling performances from its great literatures.

A young and promising student, eager to do the same, went to him one day and said, "I have heard you perform many times and in many places. I am particularly inspired by what you do. I, too want to learn to speak this noble language. I am drawn to its lilt, to its flow, I want also to make these sounds, as you do. I want to speak Spanish as beautifully as I possibly can."

Whereupon the teacher, starting from the very beginning, proceeded to do this very thing. He introduced the single sounds to the young student, patiently teaching her to say each one carefully and correctly: a, be, ce, de, e, efe, ge, hache, i, jota, ka, ele, elle, eme, ene, eñe, o, pe, qu, ere, erre, ese, te, u, ve, doble ve, equis, y griega, zeta. Over and over they went, working polishing, detailing, spending extra time on the more difficult ones.

The teacher, noting a special gift said, "Very good. You are now ready to put some of these sounds together, simply at first, but increasing in difficulty. You will say these, and more: 'Poco; bueno; año; tiempo; mundo; alumno.'"

The student began not only to say, but to say very well, these gorgeous sounds, over and over. To these the teacher added others, more difficult: "Necesito; corazón; nosotros; azucena; tristezas; resguardo." And they began to be put into longer and tongue twisting sonorities: "El pero de San Roque no tiene rabo, porque Ramon Ramírez se lo ha robado. Rapidos corren los carros del ferrocarril."

And then came the beauty. The teacher, noting the rapid growth and prowess of his young student then said, "Wonderful. You are now ready for the literature, the very great literature. You are now ready to say many, many sounds together for long periods of time." And he taught her to say whole passages, whole chapters, and recite whole poems:

Slowly, painfully, heroically, and masterfully the student mastered these, and more and more. She became known far and wide for her elegant and moving performances of Spanish. She was called upon to perform here and there and everywhere, to the great delight of her audiences and her agent, for by this time she needed one.

One day, another teacher of Spanish was visiting town. Having heard of the prodigious talents of this fine young woman, she made every effort to meet her, for she, too loved this grand language, but in another way. The young performer was only to glad to recite a particularly resonant and virtuosic work--one just newly learned.

Upon hearing this, the renowned teacher took her by the hand and said, very simply and quietly, "Usted habla bien. Me gusta muchissimo conocerle." The young virtuoso replied, "Pardon me, madam, but I did not quite understand what you said. Could you speak in my own language, please?"

The teacher, somewhat puzzled, said, "Certainly; but if you speak Spanish as well as you do, you must certainly have understood what I said to you; you must certainly likewise write your own poetry, your own thoughts and stories in this beautiful language. Certainly your love for Spanish is such that you cannot keep yourself from doing this."

"Oh no," replied the student. "I do not know how to do this. I was not taught this way. I was taught to recite Spanish. Writing in Spanish is for others. I only perform."

And so the second teacher went away saddened because, as she had to conclude, this fine young performer did not really know the language. She did not possess it so as to create with it, so as to understand it from within. She only knew it from the outside. She could only perform what others had so profoundly made their own. Meanwhile, she could not even ask for bread in the language in which she performed so eloquently.


(1). While the majority of the comments in this article are directed at undergraduate education, the implications for graduate work and for children cannot be avoided.

(2). Two contrasting strands of linguistics, tagmemics (Kenneth Pike) and transformational- generational linguistics (Noam Chomsky) each suggest concepts about musical practice, of which music theorists are taking more and more note. Two works, influenced by the work of Pike and Chomsky respectively, are mentioned here: Vida Chenoweth, Melodic Structure and Analysis, (Ukurumpa, E. H. D., Papua New Guinea: Summer Institute of Linguistics, l972); Fred Lehrdal, Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1983).

(3). Sharon Parks, The Critical Years: The Young Adult's Search for a Faith to Live By, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 50-51.

(4). Rubín Darío, "Sonatina," in An Anthology of Spanish Poetry From Garcilaso to García Lorca, ed. A. Flores, (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961), p. 439.