[Smt-talk] Realizing a figured bass in the curriculum

Donna Doyle donnadoyle at att.net
Sun Dec 14 07:40:24 PST 2014

Yes, chords are more than "concatenated chunks." Jazz players who set out to arrange and compose discover this--what's left up to the players in improv becomes voice-leading for which the arranger/composer is responsible. The quick solution is to turn to the studio for gimmicks and layers. If one wants to develop craft, one learns counterpoint (and the figured bass that emanated from it). That's what distinguished Monteverdi from the Camarata (who listens to their Orfeo?), what Schubert sought out in his last days (one species lesson from Sechter before he died), what Schumann learned from Clara. Why bother? They'd already written glorious music "intuitively." Why did Gershwin go to Boulanger (or Ravel or whoever). They bothered because they knew they needed training to raise themselves to a higher level. Why did Fux write his species method? Because he worried that young composers writing all-the-rage homophonic opera tunes lacked the skill to develop further.

Counterpoint and figured bass are similar to dance barre exercises (which professional dancers do EVERY DAY when they take class). No choreography asks to see someone perform barre exercises, but without them a dancer lacks the physical alignment needed to execute sophisticated formations.

It seems to me that, if we aspire to our best, we'll go beyond what some employer expects of us, or even beyond the mode of the day. And we'll respect our students enough to inspire them to do the same.

Best regards,
Donna Doyle

Aaron Copeland School of Music
Queens College
Flushing, New York 11367

> On Dec 14, 2014, at 2:34 AM, Väisälä Olli <olli.vaisala at uniarts.fi> wrote:
> Darryl White wrote:
>> Figured bass realizations, with few exceptions, are of little value except to historians (including historians of theory). Skills that are more widely practiced today are harmonization of a melody and realization/improvisation on a chord progression. I've never been asked by an employer to realize a figured bass as a composer, arranger, or performer. 
>> If we are considering updating the theory curriculum, it's items like this that require review.
> Seems straightforward, but should curriculums be based on such a straightforward logic? Of course, all this depends on what kind of institution and department you are teaching in and what are its goals. Nevertheless, there are certainly reasons to argue that FB studies have much more general significance than only for historians.
> Practicing FB directly buttresses one’s understanding of the harmony–voice-leading technique of more than 200 years’ era of art music. How lightly should this be dispensed with?
> More generally, practicing FB (or species counterpoint, or other things an employer may not ask one to do) may very effectively sensitize the student to musical phenomena he/she would not be otherwise aware.
> Speaking of personal experience, I was about 12 or 13 when studying FB. Before that, I think I considered myself rather fluent in ”harmonizing melodies” at the piano, but this was the first time I started to understand that chords are not just concatenated chunks, i.e., that there is a such thing as voice leading. I vividly remember how this intensified my relationship to – a Chopin waltz. Hence, FB studies certainly bore on my performing music, and not only music of the actual FB era. (Undoubtedly they also affected my composition, but that’s a more complicated issue.)
> Olli Väisälä
> Sibelius Academy
> University of the Arts, Helsinki
> olli.vaisala at uniarts.fi
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