December Discussion of the Month

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Hello and welcome! For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.” Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at This month’s article from the above collection is by Canadian jazz educator Paul Read, and is the eighth installment from Ecclectica to be featured on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month.

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.


Music Studies in Canada: The Rob Bowman variations

Rob Bowman, Associate Professor of Music, York University

To my way of thinking, the ultimate goal of university education is to open up new ways to think about, understand and consequently interact with phenomena in the world, both natural and man made. For music, that means providing students with the cognitive and auditory skills to enrich their experience of music, both as listeners and players. The future I am going to describe is the one I envision to be desirable, not necessarily the one that I am confident will come to pass.

In the future, the best university music education will treat all musics on an even playing field. While there may be survey courses that look at various traditions such as jazz, rhythm and blues, Western art music, Eastern Art music, etc. as separate streams, there will also be courses that specifically engage with the interaction between these musics and that will look at commonalities across time and space. So, when discussing additive meters, examples will be drawn from South Asian classical music, Bartok, and Metallica. Similarly, a discussion of the use of timbre in the construction of musical meaning would ideally look at examples as diverse as Janis Joplin, John Cage, and Peking Opera singers and analyses of counterpoint will discuss not only Western species counterpoint but will also investigate contrapuntal activity in Balinese and Javanese gamelan ensembles, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Whenever possible, small scale connections will also be made. In a class that is looking at a Bach oratorio, when the organ part ends with a sustained open 5th, a discussion should naturally note the affect that such a sound would have had in Bach’s day. Before pneumatic drills and airplanes existed, that open 5th would have sounded astonishingly loud, evoking the hammer of the Gods in the same way that amplified open 5th power chords do in heavy metal today.

Further, in an ideal university music curriculum all musical gestures should be grounded in both historical and social contexts, which means, essentially, the study of all musics will be taught from an ethnomusicological perspective. Issues such as class, race, gender, political economy, identity, space, place, and the body will be given equal time with the discussion of the sonic phenomena of music. Wherever possible, sound will be connected to social meaning.

The net effect of this kind of teaching will be to demystify music making as much as possible.

Where does all this leave performance? It is hard to imagine a music department where students don’t actually play music. The questions become: (1) What music should be played? and (2) How should it be taught (and by whom)?

At the moment, most music departments have performance courses in various styles and periods of Western Art Music although repertoire tends to be rooted in the musics of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many universities also have performance courses in jazz with repertoire concentrated on the styles of jazz that originated between 1940 and the mid-1960s. A few departments also offer various “world” music courses, providing the opportunity for music majors and sometimes non-majors to develop rudimentary knowledge and performing skills in one or another non-Western music traditions.

As someone who has devoted his life to the study of “popular” music, I get frightened when I hear people suggesting that we should develop performance courses in this area. The way performance has tended to be taught at the university level tends to turn whatever music is being studied into a mummified tradition with codified rules that often drains the style of much of its life, vitality, and relevance. I would hope for a future where instead of performance courses devoted to one or another historic repertoire, we develop performance courses that approach aspects of music making such as rhythm, improvisation, timbre, counterpoint, etc. in general. The concepts “learned” in these courses could then be applied by a given student to the performance of any kind of music. These courses would be in addition to first, and perhaps, second year, “musicianship” classes, which would also not be tradition-specific but instead would work on developing the student’s ear, time, pitch, and vocal facilities in ways that could be applicable to the performance of any kind of music. I would also encourage the continuation of introductory “world music” performance courses which allow students to explore traditions that are essentially foreign to them, the idea being that few if any of these students will become masters of these traditions but that they could, if they desire, use various aspects of these musics in whatever tradition in which they do perform.

Outside of classes where one or another aspect of music making that is theoretically relevant to any musical tradition is being studied, or where students are introduced to “foreign” traditions and ways of making music, rehearsal and performance spaces should be available for students to use for student-generated performance ensembles. These ensembles should be actively encouraged as a vital and essential but ungraded part of the life of a student in a university music program.

Linkages need to be made with the wider community outside of the university and, where possible, the introductory courses to various “world” musics referred to above could be taught by community-based practitioners. Perhaps the student-generated ensembles referred to above could also be encouraged to link up in various ways with community-based musicians outside of the university.

It is hard to know what to do with the idea of “composition” as part of the university music curriculum. I would think that practical courses should exist which teach students the mechanics of composing music for film, television, and commercials, and I am not against student-based composition workshops that would treat the writing of a fugue, a piece for a jazz quartet, or a pop song as having equal value. Such courses would probably have to be “supervised” by various faculty members who have expertise in different traditions.

I think that the ideal music department of the future will also have courses that actually prepare people for lives as professionals working with music. Such a curriculum would include courses that offer a thorough grounding in the practices of the music business and teach students how “the business” works differently for musicians performing within different traditions. It would also include courses that address the needs and skills of studio session musicians and would include courses that address such pragmatic skills as grant writing, touring, and cobbling together a living from various kinds of music-related activities helping to develop alternative and parallel careers to music performance (via radio work, DJing, writing about music, working for record companies, teaching, music therapy, etc.). I also think all music departments should have a professional level recording studio and all students should at least be exposed to the recording arts with a variety of courses being offered to allow students to develop the skills necessary to become professional engineers and/or producers. Perhaps music programs should actively attempt to place students each summer in apprentice-like work situations that would allow them to gain experience and make connections that might prove useful upon graduation.

Finally, in the future, music education courses will essentially provide the student with the skill sets necessary to develop and offer music programs for students in Grades K-12 that are modeled on the same values as the university curriculum outlined above.

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