Thoughts on an Appropriate Curriculum for Undergraduate Performance Majors in the 21st Century

An interesting dichotomy that exists in current, music-related higher education institutions is whether the emphasis should be on the "craft" of performance or on the knowledge that is deemed necessary to carry out an enlightened, successful career in music. Of course, most successful music departments and schools attempt to make sure that undergraduate performance majors can both perform well and think cogently, but all too often one side gets neglected along the way. In other words, the central question is whether musicians are being trained to go out in the "real world" as musicians or whether they are being trained to be academics.

Performers are usually thought of as being conservatory-trained; academic training is often coupled with the image of an Ivy League-type university. Perhaps not surprisingly, training for these two divergent yet parallel career paths are often found in both conservatories and universities, albeit with different amounts of emphasis in each area.

Although I am a composer, I was an undergraduate performance major at a conservatory (the Eastman School of Music) and then obtained a Master’s degree at a state school (the Indiana University School of Music); I then went on to earn a doctorate at an Ivy League school (Cornell University). Having been through a variety of schools, I think I have an informed, above average perspective on the dilemma that many music departments face when training undergraduate performance majors.

Often, I think the issue of an academic education versus performance training could be better dealt with if departments worked together more closely. For example, if students learn how pieces that they are performing are constructed in addition to analyzing the usual major works, they will be better able to integrate the academic and practical sides of their music education. This will enable students to go out into their communities with a better sense of how to educate the public and even on how to educate music students they themselves might teach.

Of course, educating the public and playing well will not necessarily entice audiences into coming to concerts. Along this line, one important course that I think many music schools neglect to offer to students—or neglect to require—is a business of music course. I think most undergraduate students would benefit from learning the intricacies of how the music business works. Taking this course will give students the tools to accomplish unique and interesting goals in the music world and also to be entrepreneurs. In today’s world, business skills are crucially important to having a successful career in music.

In our increasingly integrated, international music community, I think it is also very important to teach students about music outside of the Western art music tradition. Students should be given the opportunity to learn about other types of music that are not are direct part of their culture. This could either be done by integrating this material into pre-existing theory and history courses or by creating entirely new and independent courses. This is not to say that music from the Western tradition should not be taught, only that it should be supplemented.

Regardless of how the actual courses are organized or constructed, performance majors need certain, basic skills before they leave undergraduate school. Appropriate course offerings could consist of the following:

  • Private Lessons
  • Ensembles (Orchestral and Chamber)
  • Written Theory
  • Aural Skills
  • Sight Singing
  • Music History
  • Keyboard Skills
  • Writing Skills (if necessary)
  • Business of Music

In addition, seminars could be offered each year in the following areas:

  • Basic Recording Techniques for the Performing Musician
  • Music Performance Pedagogy
  • How to Build a Basic, Music-Related Website
  • Relaxation and Tension relief, i.e. Alexander Technique, etc.
  • Fund-Raising and Grant/Application Writing Skills (this could also be covered in a Business of Music course)
  • Financial and Other Organizational Techniques for Musicians
  • Public Speaking Skills
  • Study Skills
  • Time Management Techniques
  • Various Career Paths for The Performing Musician

Students often neglect to take advantage of valuable seminars and lectures that might be offered at their school. As an incentive, the seminars mentioned above could be offered for 1/4 credit and listed on their transcripts. Then students will have written documentation that they attended the seminar and can tabulate what they have attended and what they have not at then end of their undergraduate training. They might also be able to look at this final list of what seminars they took with their advisor and be able to better choose a career path that is exactly right for them, whether it is a career as a professional performer or not. Also, by documenting their attendance, they will be able to theoretically add up to 2 1/2 credits to their transcript just for attending.

Some of the seminars I mentioned above could be full courses (and already are in many music schools), but if students are required to take all them, they might run the risk of being overloaded. Areas such as basic recording techniques would be useful if only because it is quite simple to make a high-quality recording with a portable recording device. Many music students do not know the fundamental basics of recording, so their audition tapes and demo tapes are not as impressive as they could be. A few key pieces of information might make the difference between a music student landing a gig or a job.

Although basic humanities should be covered in high school, music students should be tested when they enter undergraduate school to make sure they have a minimum writing ability. This is obviously crucially important; perhaps many students from lesser high schools would fail a basic writing entrance exam in college, but I believe that making sure students have an adequate writing ability should initially be the job of high schools, not higher learning institutions. However, offering a general literature course to fill in the gaps that high school education might miss is a good idea, as long as it does not go overboard. One year (two courses) should be plenty, unless the student is particularly deficient.

I think if you have spent time in the professional music world, you realize that it should definitely be a priority to make sure that practical issues are addressed in undergraduate schools. It is quite common to listen to a performer who cannot speak clearly in a public setting, or to hear about an ensemble that is having major trouble raising money and bringing in audiences. It is also quite common to sit through a concert that is not programmed well and even to read program notes that are poorly written. All of the aspects effect the audience’s perception of the concert experience.

For better or for worse, not all performers will go out into the world and become orchestral musicians. Some will have fruitful careers in administration; others will start their own ensembles and a few will even become executives in the music business. I think that it is important for educational institutions to offer a variety of courses that attempt to address as many of these concerns as possible. Of course, this is more easily said than done.

My experience has been that all too often, different departments or fields are not aligned the way they could or should be. This often causes materials to be either covered too much or not covered at all. For example, if twentieth century music is covered well in a written theory class but not in a listening skills class, the student will have a good sense of how the music is constructed on paper, but might not be able to understand how the music works when hearing it.

There are a few areas of music education that are constantly neglected in many major music departments and schools, one of these being contemporary music. It is an interesting coincidence that many orchestras these days are folding and/or having problems, and arts funding has been drying up for many years. I think this has a direct relation to whether the public resonates or not with the music that is being played. Perhaps the issue here has even less to do with the actual quality of the performances—although this is extremely important—but with the selection of works and the marketing techniques used to draw audiences into the concert halls.

As a composer, I obviously believe that all music students should be exposed to contemporary concert music and play it before they leave undergraduate school. All too often, performance majors are taught by professors who stubbornly avoid teaching any modern music. These professors often want to get through all of the "classics" first. Students are forced to play through various cycles and books of older, major works, and in turn they are never given an opportunity to play much contemporary music.

Ironically, contemporary music might resonate quit well with modern audiences, but music business types are frightened of programming any for fear of alienating the public. I often wonder if this is the result of the residue left over from the amazing, yet difficult serial works of the last century. The fact that students, even today, are often not educated on the performance of contemporary music does not help. It is important that undergraduate music performers work with composers: they should learn how to play new music and also learn about how to figure out how this music is constructed in their academic classes as well.

In closing, I think the overlying issue here is how to combine the practical issues of making a living as a performing musician with academic know-how. I truly believe that both agendas need to be—and can be—successfully combined and covered in a modern, undergraduate music curriculum.

[January, 2002]