The Music Composition Program Here
by Jody Nagel
The vast majority of musical compositions played by School-of-Music faculty and student performers and conductors had their beginning in the head of a composer. (Only some improvisations may possibly be excepted.) 'Composing' is the starting point. Do music educators encourage the activity of composing? Hardly ever. The school of music is thoroughly dominated by performers and by educators that have bought in to the notion that it is the performance of music that constitutes proper music education. The usurping of composers' work for the profit (monetary, ego, etc.) of performers, conductors, and music-business managers (and hardly ever the composer) is quite old and continues to cause composers to seethe.
-- This university's School-of-Music faculty composers get no monetary compensation for having their works played on the Summer Chamber Music Series, though the performers of the piece do.
-- This university's School of Music claims to offer undergraduate and graduate composition degrees. Yet, there is no budget at all allocated for the needs of composition students. They have to beg weak performance students to get poor-quality readings of their pieces. The performance students and their studio teachers generally dislike playing new music, though they seem to forget that ALL music started as new music by a contemporary composer. No graduate-student group, say a brass quintet or string trio, is ever offered a stipend just for the role of allowing composition students to have the opportunity to write a work for the specified instrumentation and then to hear it. This type of activity is common in many schools that are large enough to support a composition degree; but not here.
-- I would never insist upon judging the quality of bassoon reed-making, conducting patterns, large-ensemble operations, or string bowings. These concerns are best handled by the experts of those areas. Yet, composers, presumably hired for their expertise in composition, are never asked to judge the quality of works chosen for performance by conductors and performers. It is militantly assumed that the selection of compositions for performance should be handled by anybody other than a composer. Why should composers have no share in the selection of music to be played by the performance resources of the School of Music?
-- Finally, has anyone noticed how, more and more, composers are hired as assistant professors of music theory AND composition. Of course, the teaching, preparation, and grading involved with music theory courses ends up taking far more time than any involvement with composition students. Why not hire a music theory Ph.D. instead of a composition D.M.A.? Well, somehow the impression is that the D.M.A. is less prestigious than the Ph.D. so you can hire a D.M.A. for less money. At least in my case, other than the compositonal emphasis of my dissertation, my D.M.A. course requirements were identical to theory Ph.D. requirements, with the exception that the theory Ph.D. students did not have to take all the extra composition classes that I had to take. So, a composer D.M.A. is hired to teach theory courses. But the composer is dependent on performance faculty and conducting faculty to perform their works now and then. But the performance and conducting faculty generally have at least a mild detestation of music theory. They always want their studio's students to "get little breaks" from the theory teachers. So a composer hired to teach theory courses ends up eventually facing a choice: either maintain high standards for music theory students and gradually find that the performance faculty refuse to play your music, or let the theory standards slide into the gutter so one can get one's pieces played here now and then. Of course, in the long run, the gradual decline of "theory" knowledge by performing musicians leads to ever lower abilities to interpret and comprehend the music they play. The music they choose to play, therefore, gets easier and easier, and the serious composer finds himself stranded anyway.
Should Music Theory Be a Requirement Within Schools of Music?
Ever since Pythagoras and his students learned about the string-length ratios of musical intervals, music theory has been the domain of philosophers, music theorists, and thinkers and ponderers. The minstrels and troubadours of the Middle Ages were not expected to study contemporary music theory treatises. Only in our times, presumably because of NASM, do undergraduate instrumentalists and vocalists have to take six, or more, courses in music theory. Basic musical elements (scales, intervals, chords, keys, rhythmic notation and meter, dynamic marks, etc.) hardly constitute music theory, any more than arithmetic constitutes the domain of a college mathematics major. At this point in time, there is nothing theoretical about a major scale. These basic elements are best taught in the studio by performance faculty. When these elements are taught by "music theory teachers," the students have an automatic reflex action of considering the course boring, hard, and irrelevant. Conversely, the relationship between these students and their studio teachers is almost the same as that between a patient and his therapist. They believe them!
But most of the studio teachers do not, or can not, encourage their students to take the theory courses seriously. If musical elements were taught in the context of learning instruments or voice, instrumental and vocal students might not automatically hate the material the way they do, and therefore learn it more efficiently. If a vocal teacher, for example, believes that intervals and rhythm are important to the teaching of voice, then they should by all means teach those topics; if they don't think it's necessary, that would be fine, too, but I do not think, then, that I should have to suffer through having their students take a "theory" class with me. I, for one, seriously dislike the NASM requirements. "Harmony," in particular, should not be a required study. Harmony is too wonderful a subject to be wasted on indifferent students. No one should be forced to learn about that which they are adamant about remaining ignorant. Conversely, no one should get college credit for something of which they ultimately will not be master and of which they couldn't care less. Theory courses should be elective. Perhaps the NASM requirements are in place just to make sure every little college has to hire music theory teachers.
Real composition students, however, need to be real scholars and study real music theory: Schenkarian analysis, atonal pitch relationships, informational and linguistic models for comprehending musical structuring, etc. (They also need courses in philosophy, history, mythology, and any number of other subjects!) But the few actual composition students at this university are deprived of such courses because they are forced to take theory courses along with performance and music-ed students that can tolerate only painfully low levels of cognitive thought. The School-of-Music music theory expectations are virtually hopeless to do any good for composition majors. The composition degree here is a joke. The School of Music "Music Technology" program is certainly a convenient way to force into existence a higher (though fraudulent) number of "composition students." (Music Technology here is inexplicably classified within the same division as Theory and Composition, and technology students here are required to take composition lessons, if you can imagine that.) However, for the sake of the few real composition students, the composition program here should either be allowed to flourish or to die, but not retain its current sickly deceitful status.
Dr. Jody Nagel
December 3, 1999