[Smt-talk] Theory impacting performance

art samplaski agsvtp at hotmail.com
Sun Jul 8 09:23:02 PDT 2012

Dear list,

I had intended just to follow this thread silently because, as one of
a number of theory graduates who have been unable to obtain teaching
positions, it could directly and perhaps negatively affect my own job
search. However, I am compelled to object very strongly to Dimitar
Ninov's comments--in particular, his assertion:

> a pure theorist is one who cannot make music in any manner (by
> composing, or arranging, or performing, or coaching, etc.). When
> you are not a music maker of any kind, your insights in theory do
> not come from within the musical process but from speculations
> alone, and this is what you teach your students - how to speculate.

While he tries to mitigate this with his immediately following

> On the other hand, I think that a genuine theorist is one who can
> do things, and can harmonize melodies, because you cannot teach
> harmonization and voice leading without having experienced the
> craft if [sic] harmonization.

he re-undermines that with

> I agree with Schoenberg that [pure] theorists are masters of nothing...
> [and] they feel intimidated among musicians with genuine experience.

There is a LOT that could be said in response here. I will confine
myself to the following, with some elaboration:

___Teaching is a performance venue unto itself.___

I had my moment of epiphany on this when I interviewed at Ithaca
College just after finishing my doctorate, and was doing a teaching
segment. Standing in front of those students, it hit me, "_This_ is
the type of performance I care about: helping students understand
the concepts and how to use them effectively in whatever in music
they intend to do--and NOT about whether I can do, or care about
doing, a recital myself."

Just because I am never going to do a recital of Mozart sonatas does
not mean I am not interested in how someone ELSE might do such, and
what they need to understand about the various structural aspects of
the sonatas in order to make informed thoughtful decisions to shape
their own performance. Secondary-school and undergraduate students
do not yet understand how to analyze the scores for such information.
A theory teacher needs to know both how that information can be found
in the notation, and far more importantly, _how to communicate_ the
concepts involved in said information. That process of communication,
to help someone to the "Aha!" moment, is a type of performance, even
though it does not constitute "making music." That is what I spend my
time practicing, many hours a week. Even though I have not been in
front of a college theory class for several years, I still go through
that process as best I can; and I use every communication opportunity,
in whatever field, to work on honing my ability to teach.

I have for the last seven years been volunteering at an observatory,
and after every viewing night or public outreach event I review as
best possible every question asked me and my responses, to see how
I could improve how to explain the concepts--just as I would do
after teaching a theory class. In this process, I have seen first-
hand just how appalling is the level of science education in the
U.S. (a different gastank of worms of itself), and how -desperately-
hungry people are for good science teaching. I am willing to bet a
moderately large sum of money I cannot presently afford that the
reason why "the level of theory studies is so low today" is more a
consequence of how bad--I would prefer a much stronger term--music
education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools is. That, of
course, is yet another different lengthy topic of conversation.

When Dimitar states that "a pure theorist is someone who cannot make
music in any manner," and that "[pure theorists] feel intimidated
among musicians with genuine experience," I do not feel intimidated--
I feel angry. I am also confident that my sentiment is shared by
other theorists, "pure" or "impure." At one faculty meeting during
which curriculum revision was being discussed, an applied teacher
stated quite bluntly how the amount of time for core theory courses
should be reduced, "because the students are already spending too
much time on ancillary matters." ALL the theory faculty saw red,
irrespective of how much of a performance background they had. The
next day I gave a quick demo to that applied teacher of something
I did Day 1 of all my theory courses (and will always do if I ever
get back to theory teaching):
  "Ok, I am going to do two different performances of a piece." I
  then spoke the start of "To be or not to be," first in a horribly
  bad fashion, then in a decent manner (but a fairly aggressive one--
  the point being not whether one agreed with my performance decisions
  but that I had thought about them and knew why I was making them).
  I explained to him, "The first version was crap because, although it
  'got all the notes in the right order,' it completely failed to
  understand either the syntactical structure of English or how
  Shakespeare manipulated it for his desired effect. You guys are
  working with your students on the equivalents of plot and character
  motivation; but they'll never get competent at that without first
  understanding the underlying grammar(s) and how Brahms et al. might
  'break a rule' to achieve an effect. That's why we're as important
  as you, just in different ways."
He got that "Ah!" smile of realization.:)

I apologize for the length of this post--as I wrote, there's a
lot that could be said here.

I must also thank Donna Doyle for mentioning the example of Dr.
Higgs, who, rated as "a performer" = "can run a lab experiment"
would be considered a failure, but who made what became a very
important contribution to his field. Even though I have no interest
in ever giving a piano recital--there are enough undergraduate
pianists out there already better than I could ever be (and I
say more power to them)--I as a pure theorist do my own type of
performance to facilitate _their_ becoming better at their type.

Art Samplaski
Ithaca, NY

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