Arrogant Teaching

Today I heard back from a student I am working with who has weak keyboard skills (is a vocalist) and is quite challenged to be in a required college musicianship class of keyboard harmony.  He was given an assignment to play a series of secondary dominant chords [I, V/ii- ii, V/iii-iii, V/IV-IV, V/V -V, V/vi-vi, I-64, V, I]  and to play it in three keys of his choice up to 4 #s or flats.   He worked hard to get this ready and came to me for help but only had 24 hrs to prepare from when the assignment was given.  So next class he told the teacher he could only play it in two keys so far.  The teacher's response was: "Then I don't want to hear it."  and skipped him.  This is not a student with attitude but one who is trying his best to learn.

This seems so arrogant and aggressive -- so opposite of teaching -- it is humiliation, not teaching.  The bitter pill is, this is a well paid faculty member at a major university.  My student's comment was, "and I'm PAYING for this!"

Perhaps this inappropriate to post on the composer's forum.  But many of us are teachers and this kind of experience is what gives the formal and traditional studies in music a bad name.

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  • In general I agree Spiros.  But in this case, and many others, the ground-work for preparation for that specific class description was not provided.  This is a class that is called "musicianship" which used to be called keyboard harmony in the time I went to college.  It is revealing to see that they have acknowledged that the purpose is musicianship -- not necessarily keyboard proficiency -- since I'm sure more than half in the class are not keyboard players.  I can tell by what my student does not already know that though he's been in this school 2 years, he is still utterly befuddled at the keyboard -- not much teaching is going on there.  Fortunate for him he took the class "Pass/Fail" meaning he will only get a pass or fail grade this time around.  I wish I could (or he could) rank the teacher P/F too.

    Spiros Makris said: For him this is a waste of his time because this is not his purpose. This should be solved by the faculty, by providing extra help for those who need it, essentially do what you do privately for your student.

  • I had a lot of keyboard issues, stemming from a variety of places. First, I have difficulty reading music (where the lines on the staff multiply, so I can't tell where the noteheads are appearing!). Sightreading is extremely difficult, so I need to basically memorize my piano music. My university had gotten a wonderful pianist to head the piano performance majors, and she had revamped the all the requirements for the basic keyboard classes, including instituting a final jury exam after the final semester of piano in order to pass. (She never taught any of these fundamental classes.) I had a wonderful teacher, and while I passed all my exams for each semester, I knew I wouldn't be able to pass the final jury without studying just piano full time for the next two years! I was *so* frustrated, that I probably wouldn't graduate, just because of this one class! I asked my teacher how many students fail this exam. She said since the jury was instituted two years earlier, only about 15 of her students ever passed, and *all* of them already knew how to play before entering college! After hearing this, I was able to get the jury abolished for non-piano performance majors, and graduate.

  • (psssst Fredrick! "Mr." Gray is a lass!)

  • ...or perhaps both! :-D

  • At least you didn't attend a "how to play the apollonian lyre" seminar. Thank god, you're not that old.

    Fredrick zinos said:

     "which used to be called keyboard harmony in the time I went to college"

    That's because Mr. Gray, you are a mere boy. When I went to college it was called "lute fundamentals"

    Arrogant Teaching
    Today I heard back from a student I am working with who has weak keyboard skills (is a vocalist) and is quite challenged to be in a required college…
  • Fredrick: we are probably equally ancient!   Bob: Sorry to hear that, and glad you are still here with us not hating music!  Janet: good to hear that story as it always has seemed really over the top to require non keyboard players to pass work that really is the domain of keyboard players. Even so I think a functional familiarity with keyboard is useful and perhaps if it were taught to non-keyboard players with a little more patience we'd have a stronger group of graduates.

    My own teacher was a string player and was self taught at that (depression era story).  I'm quite sure he would never have passed the course we are describing (what ever its called).  And yet he was a commissioned composer by several major US symphonies, a NEH grant recipient and awarded membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  And also he was one of the fastest minds in music I've encountered.  He had a virtual photographic memory of most of the symphony repertoire and could quote sections measure for measure from memory.  No one questioned his skill, or ability. 

    Bob Porter said:

    Music school did much to make me hate music.


    Arrogant Teaching
    Today I heard back from a student I am working with who has weak keyboard skills (is a vocalist) and is quite challenged to be in a required college…
  • Hi B Gray,

    Yeah I hated my music school too.  It was a California state university.  Looking back 40 years later, I can only guess at why the staff of the music department were so scornful and disparaging of all the students.  Perhaps since they had to accept anyone into their programs, they consequently tried to "thin the ranks", so that they would have time to focus on a handful of obviously outstanding students .    If your student is in a similar situation, I hope he/she will research into other schools.  When I was in college, I had no idea that some other school might be more suitable or actual provide some guidance or mentorship.   Help your student to look for a better situation!

  • I've been to four "music schools" and all of them were very different.

    The first was a tiny junior college with six music majors and ten faculty members.  This was a glorious experience.  We had classes 5 1/2 days a week, plus most of us either played organ or sang in a choir so Sunday morning was part of our education.  My day started at 5 am (piano practice) and ended at 11 pm (orchestra rehearsal).  I was 16 then and those hours suited me just fine.  We were all like family at Brevard and because of the teacher/student ratio, we each got specialized attention.  This was during the height of the Viet Nam war.  Just like in Stravinsky's day, all the men had gone off to war, via the draft, which left the rest of us with a tiny and incredible music department.

    My next school was Duke University, not known for its music department, but a must for me because we were dirt poor and I could go to Duke for free - my dad was a Methodist minister.  The teachers were brilliant and accessible and helpful, particularly the head of the department who took me on as an independent study student.  I got to design my own curriculum and study pretty much whatever I wanted - after I placed out of all the basic classes.  It wasn't as close knit as Brevard, but a wonderful experience.

    The next "school" was five years when I lived with a concert pianist and every moment of every day was either studying, practicing, composing, performing, or listening to music.  We had "name that tune" quizzes or theory questions we had to answer before we could eat dinner. and our evenings with friends were spent doing things like sight-singing Bach chorales or improvising fugues.  We considered all this great fun - plus we gave concerts and premieres and did solo and chamber music all over the state.  I learned more during this time than at either previous school.  It was like moving to Spain to learn Spanish.  Total immersion really works! 

    My current "school" is my own music composition studio.  The reason I teach is because it's a way to keep learning forever.  This one is the ultimate in learning - whatever anyone gets interested in, we all explore.  The kids have 7 - 11 years of very rich music immersion before they go to college, so they already have learned all the college material before they start high school.  We mix up the stuff like keyboard harmony, species counterpoint, voice leading with other things so they never feel like they are "in school", just that they are learning, which is two different things!   Most of the kids are home schooled and study two or three instruments, so we can have three hour lessons, include a movie or opera in a lesson, do sleepover lessons, drop in on some of the local college classes, attend evening concerts together.  I'm learning more now than ever before in my life, mostly barefoot and with my velvety cat Lyra giving and receiving lots of attention from each student (including me).  Composing is so much easier with a purring cat in your lap ....

    I guess what I've learned in a lifetime of exploring music is that there is no way you can even skim the surface of music in a four year degree.  Graduate school might go a bit deeper, but it's often too focused and very political, and it's also too short, even when it takes ten years!   Music education is for life ... from my five year old Gianni who today learned how to move beyond five-finger position via the "magic pianist's thumb" to my 87 year old Pat who has just written his first arrangement of the music he has loved all his life and finally feels like he's becoming a musician!  

    I think the most important thing that a student can "learn" during those first years of music school is that s/he truly loves music and is willing to embrace it as a lifetime endeavor and passion - since the real learning is going to come in the 50 to 70 years after school!  The prestige or size of the school doesn't matter if it causes students to hate music or to hate learning.  I've got a bunch of rising high school seniors and we're trying to match them to universities where they can remain on fire and continue their exuberant learning.  Those schools are not easy to find, but hopefully we matchmakers will find a good match for each one!!

  • Thanks for this post Julie.  Its most interesting to see a life-time's pursuit -- I copied it to my student for encouragement.

    And I've quoted some of the rest of the comments here by way of encouraging this student.  Rather than a "gripe" session I think this thread has been helpful to think about the way music is taught.  For one, I think its time to revise our college musicianship classes so that people who are not keyboard majors can thrive in their understanding of content.  Once I realized my own composition teacher (who was an excellent symphony violinist) could not have played the exercise that started this thread, I began to see just how skewed the teaching is toward keyboard players.  That doesn't mean keyboard skills should be skipped -- I think they are still necessary -- but there needs to be instruction that helps non-keyboard players who are still excellent musicians have access.  The whole discussion here has set my mind a whir about how we teach these things and how to go about improving it.

    Thanks for all your comments.

    Julie Harris said:

    I've been to four "music schools" and all of them were very different.

    Arrogant Teaching
    Today I heard back from a student I am working with who has weak keyboard skills (is a vocalist) and is quite challenged to be in a required college…
  • Very funny!  All thumbs eh?

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