[Smt-talk] response to "The Craft of Harmonization

Laitz, Steven slaitz at esm.rochester.edu
Sun Oct 6 11:09:45 PDT 2013

Dear Dimitar,

I too strongly endorse the idea that those teaching music theory, analysis, composition, etc., have the best academic, performance and skills training possible.  They should be expert in the history of our discipline yet at the same time visionaries, always looking forward to new, best practices.  They should have a vast understanding of the repertoire, and not merely the common practice, but the remarkable repertoire from Dufay to Dutilleux, and further (since Prof. Dutilleux passed away four months ago).  The teacher should be creative and compelling in the classroom, sensitive yet rigorous, and available outside of class to provide help and enrichment for all levels of students.

However, several practical obstacles stand in the way, three of which I'll mention:

1.  Many schools have but one professional music theorist (i.e., a "specialist") on its faculty.  Given this common situation, s/he will be saddled with basic, more general classes:  fundamentals of music, music appreciation, first and second year written theory and aural skills (sight singing, conducting, dictation, etc.) , one or more upper level courses (form and analysis, counterpoint, etc.), keyboard proficiency classes, etc.  It would be, then, quite difficult for the "disciplines of harmony, counterpoint and musical form [to] emerge on their own right, freed from the umbrella of a generalized theory sequence, and taught creatively by professors who have specialized in each of these disciplines." Further, given the trajectory of music theory in the past 30 years, specialists must necessarily focus their research on areas that expand the field, whether it be semiotics, mathematics, philosophy, cognition and perception, and any number of important and emerging areas, areas fertile for publication, but not particularly applicable to undergraduate teaching, especially given what many in the field now view as the rise of  students entering schools as music majors with less background than even ten years ago.  Remediation has become a common term in music theory circles.

2.  Many schools do not enjoy the presence of even one professional music theorist.  All theory and aural skills classes are taught by the applied faculty, those who play and teach their instrument at an artist's level, but who have little background in music theory save for two years of undergraduate work and the occasional one or two graduate courses in the analysis of tonal and post-tonal music.  They teach in theory and aural skills classrooms in order to fill out their full-time faculty loads.  Thus, those folks who can "harmonize all kinds of melodies, play harmonic progressions and modulations idiomatically, work out skillfully canonic sequences in invertible counterpoint, and analyze musical forms creatively, going beyond the limitations imposed in most books." are sadly few and far between.  Rather, these teachers are filled with a sense of success when their students write IV to V in four voices and in E minor without parallel fifths or octaves (although in all likelihood, ^7 will not be raised to create a leading tone in V).

3.  Finally, I would hope that theory teachers be much more than a specialist, especially in an area that isn't even offered at their institution.  I would hope that music theory faculty  are able to demonstrate concepts fluently on an instrument, teach model composition, analyze creatively and powerfully, unearthing the connection between analysis and performance, write a fugue, take dictation with ease, sight sing fluently in at least four clefs, explain hexachordal combinatoriality effortlessly and musically to mediocre students, and all of the rest that is required to provide a full musical education.  I'm not for one second speaking of "jacks of all trades but masters of none" but rather a complete, functioning and flexible musician, able to negotiate the myriad requirements imposed on today's faculty.   The 18th century conservatoire model that you espouse ("The most important factor here is the realization that a theory teacher will become a professor of harmony, or a professor of counterpoint or a professor of musical analysis - he/she does not have to cover all of those disciplines at a dilettante level, but specialize in one of them and bring real professionalism to the school!")while laudable, is today not feasible.

I too believe in deep knowledge and expertise, but the person who can move deftly from such a variety of crucial activities I list in #3 above is, at least in my opinion, worthy of praise: any school would consider such a person a real asset to their faculty.

Steve Laitz
Professor, Music Theory
Eastman School of Music
University of Rochester
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