[Smt-talk] Theory impacting performance

Chris Bonds chbonds1 at willy.wsc.edu
Thu Jul 5 08:38:56 PDT 2012

On 7/5/2012 6:55 AM, Kris Shaffer wrote:
> On Jul 4, 2012, at 10:40 PM, Steven Rosenhaus wrote:
>> I've long lamented the switch to hiring folks with theory-only 
>> degrees to teach music theory at the expense of composers, who more 
>> often than not know the practical application of what is being 
>> discussed. And a theorist who composes is not the same as a composer 
>> who can explain theory/analyze music.
> Dear Colleagues,
> I'll refrain from joining the well worn debate over the relative 
> merits of composers and theorists in teaching music theory, which I 
> hope has not been newly ignited by the above comment.

Probably a wise thing. It's a little bit analogous to the situation of a 
young couple going to see a counselor because they are having problems 
keeping their kids in line. But the counselor is a young, unmarried 
woman, and the couple has no confidence in her ability to help them, 
because they think that only someone who has reared kids herself would 
be qualified to help.

It's also similar to asking whether it's better to study with a concert 
artist or an artist-teacher. There are plenty of incredible performers 
who seem to be unable to teach effectively, especially to students who 
aren't very good at learning on their own.

It's probably a poor question to start with. For one thing, it 
incorrectly assumes that a Ph.D. in theory automatically means one is 
more likely to be an effective theory teacher than someone with a DMA in 
composition (for example). (It also leaves undefined the meaning of 
"theory teacher," but that's another story.) When I was an undergraduate 
(sometime in the Jurassic era, I think), none of my theory teachers was 
a "theorist"--they were all either composers or performers first.

Here's another thought. Since I'm retired, I really don't know whether a 
course in theory pedagogy is required in most graduate composition 
studies. I am of opinion that it should be, since most composition grads 
will seek academic positions and will probably be assigned some theory 
courses. It's my view that undergraduates, especially in the first two 
years of study, often fail to understand why "theory" -- that is, 
traditional harmony, ear-training, and all the rest -- is necessary. 
Theory pedagogy should address that and similar issues.

My bias is that theory study is justified only to the extent that it 
improves the practice of music -- composing, performing, and today we 
have to add producing, I think. The most important outcome of the study 
of theory is the deep understanding of the creative tension between 
constraints (which define style) and freedom to innovate (which fuels 
stylistic change over time), and how to use that understanding to 
advantage in one's career. The person who is able to pass on that 
understanding is a good theory teacher, and he or she could be a 
composer, performer, or theorist.

Christopher Bonds
Wayne State College [retired]
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