[Smt-talk] Simplifying theory books--comment

David Bashwiner david.bashwiner at gmail.com
Fri Apr 27 10:42:45 PDT 2012

Dear Colleagues,

Once, in the midst of a class Rick Cohn was teaching, for which I was a
teaching assistant, Rick (I hope he doesn't mind my quoting him here)
commented that Aldwell and Schachter, the authors of the textbook we were
using and presumably of the workbook exercise we were discussing, were "two
of the smartest minds in the field." I remember being struck by this
declaration: here was one of the smartest minds in the field himself giving
credit to the writers of a lowly textbook. The textbook became not so lowly
at that point, and the exercise we were working on became not elementary
but advanced. And we ourselves became real musical thinkers.

That was a moment when I became conscious of how valuable a textbook can
be. Of course, if it's written by someone I wouldn't want to learn from,
it's not so valuable. And if it's written at too basic a level, it's not
going to be of interest either. But books by Laitz, by Aldwell and
Schachter, and so on, I find to be incredibly valuable sources, because to
me they're as good as having Laitz, Aldwell, Schachter, and so on right
there in the classroom as fellow teachers.

The notion of the complexity and depth of a text, I feel, is being somewhat
misrepresented in this thread (although less so in some of the more recent
emails). I am reminded of a passage in *Gödel, Escher, Bach*, in which
Hofstadter talks about "levels of message." He suggests that a work by Bach
or Mozart can be thought of as having a simple enough surface that even a
first-time listener can engage with and appreciate it—and long to hear it
again—while the multiple levels of depth underneath will promote multiple
return visits from the listener, even a life-long process of engagement.

I feel that a textbook such as Laitz's *Complete Musician* (which we use
quite happily and successfully at the University of New Mexico) provides
complexity and depth of the sort Hofstadter describes. Admittedly, students
find it difficult to come up with the money to buy the book at the
beginning of their studies - but then they don't need to buy another one
for two years. And, admittedly, and without my help, they find the wealth
of material overwhelming. This is when I recall the a-ha moment that I
described at the outset of this email. I remember that if I show the
students that I respect the teachings of the textbook, and Laitz as
"fellow" teacher (or whomever is its writer), they might be inspired enough
to go beyond the superficial message of the text, and of my lectures, and
actually *read* the text. This is my ideal: that they become readers of

Paul Siskind's email voiced this sentiment: that reading — learning to
self-learn — is a skill that we as theory teachers really should be
fostering. I do think it's possible to simplify material in such a way that
everyone can get an A, but I also think we end up *restricting* freedom, *
restricting* creativity, when we reduce the complexity of a chapter, say,
to a single-page hand-out (unless, of course, it's review). Music is
complex, and we're at a wonderfully rich historical moment in music theory
teaching. I personally see my goal as teacher to be one of *getting the
student's hands dirty* with all of this richness, all of this complexity,
and showing them the basics of how to find their way around in it. In other
words, I try not to just give them the melody of the Bach or the Mozart,
but rather to give them the whole piece—even if the first time through
they're really only going to hear the melody.

*David Bashwiner*
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
University of New Mexico
Center for the Arts, Rm 2103
MSC04 2570
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM  87131-0001
(505) 277-4449
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