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Jazz Chords and Student Essays

Some writing about music lately on various blogs brought back a memory from the first week of University.

I was enrolled in the Department of Music, and all first-year music students were required to study music theory. My professor, the very theoretical Naida Archer, had this test that everyone had to take. I can’t remember whether she, or one of the TAs for that semester, administered it, but I do remember trying my damnedest at it. The test was full of questions like, “Sketch out the harmony for this melody,” and the like.

Well, I had trained in jazz, for a few years in fact, and even taken jazz theory lessons from thi brilliant guy named Bill Richards, who ended up studying composition “down East” (somewhere in Ontario, I think) while I was studying it in Saskatoon. But at the time, he’d recently been my jazz theory teacher and I’d thought I’d be majoring in saxophone performance. I had this crazy half-baked idea that I would study sax in Saskatoon, get better at it, and go study jazz performance in Toronto or something.

Well, that first day was an omen of what was to come. I sketched out the harmony for the melody, alright. But what I sketched out was jazz chords. So not only was it a case of me simply writing chord notations over the melody, but I was also using dominant-seventh chords all over the place, willy-nilly. I suspect the harmony would have been fine in the hands of someone like Bill Evans, but this was not what Naida was looking for, and so my theory course requirements were not waived, and I ended up studying a bunch of really old, really weird musical theory that had, I discovered over time, less and less to do with how music was actually written and more and more to do with, well, rules that someone had formed by boiling famous pieces of music from the past until the meat fell off them, so the bones could be studied at length.

We learned the stylistic rules that described Bach’s counterpoint, the laws which could be found through a careful survey of Palestrina, but… though what was taught in that class sufficed for almost everyone — mostly, people were going to become band teachers, piano instructors, or performers — I felt there was something missing for me, regardless of how good and solid a teacher Naida was. And this matched a lot of my experiences at the Department, most notably my studies of the saxophone. I learned something from that, too… there’s NO point in trying to force a student to do something that isn’t in his or her nature, to force them to do what you think is good for them if they want to do something else. But I’ll get to that in a few minutes: for now, back to music theory instructors.

A year later, a new guy at the department came in trying to teach theory in a new way. The problem was, the new guy kind of, well — he had good ideas, but his execution was… difficult. Gyula Csapo, his name was, and he was a character. Anyway, Gyula, like I say, had great ideas. He wanted people to really look at the source works from which the “rules of theory” had been derived. He wanted us to listen until our ears bled, read scores till they made us go mad… to get a real feel for the “rules” intuitively, because after all, there was a large element of intuition at play in their original creation. I have no doubt that this approach is, on some fundamental level, a solid one… but it takes time. It takes a LONG time. And very few people actually care enough to delve that deep into things. If you truly want to be a composer, I have no doubt that it’s better for you to come to grasp the inherent logic of the work of composers through immersion in their works, rather than through a set of rules. But you know, one person in a thousand is really up for that.

This makes me think of my writing classes. I guess somehow I’ve come to this place where I kind of walk the line. I often remind the students that whenever the textbook offers hard-and-fast rules or guidelines, it’s a form of spoonfeeding and that the real point is something more basic, more logical, more dependent on function than on some prearranged structure. (For example, I really tried to hammer home the function of the introduction of an essay, rather than only tell them what should and should not be in the introductory paragraph… because, seriously, many of them convinced at this point in their educational experience that there is a predetermined right answer for every question. Thats what comes of a rote-learning-focused early education.)

If I had a class of really dedicated would-be writers, it would make sense to continually push them at that higher level, where they’re continually thinking about function and not scrambling their way back to the spoon-fed guidelines and structures and the answers that they’ve already picked up. But this would only be feasible for a group of people who really love the subject — not people who want to write better, and get a good grade, and get nice feedback from teacher, but people who truly want to write excellently, who feel a passion for writing, who have something to say. And that brings me back to that other experience I mentioned about and said I’d get back to: my saxophone studies.

My saxophone professor, a guy named Marvin Eckroth, had been the sax professor at the University for a long time. He had a lot of students who’d gone on to success, whatever that means for classical saxophonists. (It’s a very small village, that world.) Anyway, like I say, he did a lot of people a lot of good in his position as saxophone instructor (and Wind Orchestra conductor/director) during his years at the University of Saskatchewan.

I was not one of those people he did a lot of good, however. You see, he was bent on using a loophole to make me do the recital requirements of a performance major if I wanted to be graded on my applied saxophone class, despite the fact that I had opted to do composition recitals, which was, according to the Academic Calendar, my right as a Theory/Composition Major. Now, you have to understand, I was extremely serious about composing music by the time this started to become an issue, in my third year. I’d written roughly an hour’s worth of music that year, and put on a half-hour recital of original works, as well as having pieces appear in other students’ recitals and a Composer’s Forum. I wasn’t trying to get out of doing work, I wasn’t trying to evade anything. I just was choosing what other composition majors had chosen to do in the past, and being told that was fine, but I’d have to do double the work. I can understand that he wasn’t a jazz musician: I didn’t ask him to teach me jazz. I had accepted the fact I’d have to take classical saxophone lessons from him until the end of my fourth year, and gone out and gotten an alto sax for the purpose, though I considered myself a tenor player. (Alto is the main classical instrument.)

But I was not prepared to do two half-hour recitals in my third year when everyone else only had to do one, and I was not prepared to drop my composition recital, because I’d put in well over a hundred hours of work on all that. So I appealed to the appropriate committee about it. They upheld his demands. I found out soon after that he sat on the committee and that this was why the appeal was summarily ignored, despite the fact other theory-composition majors weren’t required to do this. Fine: I did the second recital, to get the grade in my saxophone course. And then, during my last saxophone lesson, he started telling me I’d be doing the same — a one-hour classical saxophone performance recital in my fourth year. I told him, no, I might do a small performance recital in my fourth year but I’d be spending the summer composing pieces for my fourth year composition recital, which would be at least an hour of original works. When he insisted that I would be doing a performance recital, or getting no grade for my required saxophone lessons, I asked myself: do I really want to spend another year studying classical freaking saxophone? And after that I asked myself, is anyone in the world going to recognize the difference between a B.Mus (with a highly restrictive program) and a B.A. Honours in Music (with very few restrictions involved)? That question took about two seconds to answer, and after that I went straight to the University Academic Counseling office to find out whether I had enough credits to transfer out of the B.Mus program and get a BA in Music — no required lessons, no required anything anymore. It turned out that I had already fulfilled all the required credits in music for an Honours degree, so I started taking Comp Sci and English Lit classes, plus one composition course on the side with a wonderful teacher named Robert Lemay, and, well, the rest is history.

Well, except that I never forgot how weird, and messed-up, and pedagogically worthless it was, the way Marvin forced what were essentially unreasonably over-the-top, arbitrary demands on me. All that happened in his trying to force me to do things his way was to lose my respect — and I did have some for the man until he started telling me I, as a Theory/Composition major, had to fulfill the same requirements as a Performance major, and that composition was just something to do on the side. Here I was, full of passion and energy and drive, and it felt then — and still feels now, all these years later — as if the only response he could find to it, because my passion was for something different that his, was to try to force me to his way of thinking and his way of doing things. And it was his way: the Academic Calendar, despite a minor loophole in the wording of one clause, made it clear that Theory/Composition majors could do Theory/Comp recitals if they wanted… just as Music Education students could do lectures on pedagogical theory if they wanted — and occasionally, one did.

I want to say I’m not really annoyed about it anymore, but of course, if you read this far, you can tell I am, a little. Not because it’s screwed up my life — I think I’m a much happier, better-off person having gotten out of music, or at least, far off the course I’d long ago set for myself — to be honest. And what irked me then — a sense of this being a personal attack — has given way to what irks me now, which is that it was bad teaching, just fundamentally crappy teaching, to do that. No matter how well you teach a student to perform necessary tasks, no matter how much you model skills for them, if you screw them over on expectations, or if you change the game unfairly, or if you try to force them to do things the way you want, or minimize their passions instead of encouraging them to apply that energy and excel at what they want to do, when it’s obvious they’re already passionately chasing something else, you’re being a bad teacher.

And all of this makes me think of Naida’s job, all those years ago, a little differently. At the time, when I felt like I was just having rules wired into my head without enough context, or meaning, or, you know, significance beyond, “These are the rules of music” — when I was coming from a place where those obvious weren’t the rules of music — I was missing the big picture part of her job. She was teaching Freshman Music Theory in that room where I was sitting, wondering what the point of all this was. Her job was then what mine is now: to serve adequately the officially-accepted rules of theory to the largest majority possible from among that small subset of the students who were there paying attention… it’s what they need to learn in place of the deep, profound, passionate pursuit of learning because, frankly, most human beings seem not to have it in them to have that passion, at least not about writing. This can be discouraging. Teaching, when it necessitates standards of, “Well, good enough,” and sacrifices the grand adventure of learning and of trying new things, is a hard job indeed.

Thinking of my old professor Marvin also makes me think of the Drama classes I’m teaching this semester. I tell you, people who sign up for a class in which they’ll be acting, and for which they’re told they’re going to have to do acting, and are warned that if they don’t, they won’t pass, who then show up and refuse to try anything at all like acting, including even a single laugh from their seats… and the killer is when a student gave me this excuse: “Well, but we’re Korean.”

I mean, I may not have a TV, but I know that Koreans can act. I’ve seen more than my share of Korean TV melodramas and films. Perhaps she meant to say Korean students have trouble acting in English, but I don’t think laughter depends on any linguistic ability, and the hardest thing so far has been getting people to do things like laugh when reading out from the script. For every student who just does it, or tries, there are three who get embarrassed and refuse to “laugh grimly”). Or maybe she meant to say, “We’re more uptight about this sort of thing because we’re Korean.” Which, frankly, isn’t an excuse given the class selection they have at their disposal.

But then I think, okay, they’re not used to trying new things in a classroom, they’re used to being terrified in front of classmates, they’re used to being encouraged — or even expected — to be passive in learning situations. I have to be flexible. I have to find a way to make the class accomodate them, right? But… how do you accomodate people who refuse to try to act in a class they were told from the get-go in no uncertain terms will involve acting? A class in which the midterm exam is a monologue and the final exam is the performance of a play? I swear, I have no idea what they thought that actually meant. (Though I spent an hour on the syllabus pointing this out in the first week, and repeating myself in the second class, even. At least, unlike Marvin in my third year, I didn’t change the rules of the game a few months in… that’s just fundamentally unfair.)

Ah well… I keep mentioning participation grades, and at least some people are getting on board. And that’s what sways me back again from being too eager to just give in an accomodate: that some people are trying, are taking it upon themselves not to be lame about this. The same guys from my writing classes who couldn’t write as well as they’d hoped, last semester, but blogged their participation grades up to a B (or was it B+?) through continuous hard work, are in my drama classes now, reading just as passionately and loudly as they can. Of course, everything they says sounds very, very forced, and they’re still not getting the hang of how to stress keywords in a sentence, but it’s still something. At least they’re trying, instead of making excuses.

Anyway, I think of all the teachers in my past a lot, these days. It’s strange.

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