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Chapter 2: Issues with Classical Pedagogy – Examinations, Theory Harmony, Improvisation

There are institutional, individual and perceptual issues at all levels of classical music. The rectification of these issues may lead to a keener understanding of music theory, and a proliferation of classical improvisation at amateur and professional levels of performance and education. I shall deal with those issues which may be resolved through the integration of Partimento.

  • Practical examinations, particularly the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)
  • Theory and harmony
  • Improvisation at all levels of performance and education

Practical Examinations

Instrumental examinations usually consist of four components: repertoire, technical work, aural, sight-reading. Some exam boards, such as Trinity College London (Trinity) offer the performance of a student’s own compositions at an equivalent level to the listed repertoire, or improvisation as an alternative to aural or sight-reading (Kemp, 2017). However, to take the ABRSM as an example, for Grade 8, (the highest grade achievable before diploma examinations) 445 combinations of scales can be asked (ABRSM, 2019, p.29).  C-major scale (similar motion an octave apart) can be asked in six different combinations (see Table 1):

Table of scales

This is despite all scales, except from thirds and sixths and other combinations, being covered at Grade 6. As a contrast, Trinity’s Grade 8 exam offer 254 scales including dynamic alterations (Kemp, 2017, p.72). This may provoke the question to the ABRSM, why one would need to be examined on a C-major scale, legato in the right-hand, four octaves at the highest grade? It may be conceded that scales can always be improved and refined, and they show the examiner insight into the technical proficiency of the student. But these scales are being chosen by the ABRSM in place of other important musical skills, such as improvisation.

This is an issue I have encountered in my teaching practice. It is clear that exams are an integral part to classical music’s education, and Making Music (ABRSM, 2014, p.21) detail the correlation between “structured progression routes” and “ongoing learning” (although there may be many factors explaining this correlation). Students, teachers and parents benefit from the clear deadlines and goals necessary for adequate preparation of the exam. It also introduces students to some key aspects of music. However, when preparing a student for an exam, there simply is not time in the lesson to cover other musical skills in an efficacious way. Furthermore, the student is less inclined to practise these other skills as they do not view it as necessary for exam success – which may be their focus. Thus, the year (or less) of preparation required for an exam is spent almost entirely on practising what appears in the exam. After the exam, students may have between 6 months and a year before deciding to start preparation for a further exam. In my teaching practice, this is where I teach exercises beyond scales and arpeggios (Hanon exercises, chordal exercises, broken chords) improvisation, reading from lead-sheets and theory (beyond what is tested in theory examinations; mostly that which relates to improvisation or chords). This is echoed by Andrew Eales (2018), who notes the proclivity of some teachers to view a grade as a curriculum, rather than a starting point. The lessons in between exams can be a musical limbo, and feel less regimented and less structured, which can be beneficial. However, were resources to exist which enable classical improvisation through Partimento (discussed in Chapter 4), or a Partimento exam, this may allow students to engage with practical musicianship and theory in an embodied way combined with the benefits which exams bring.

When considering the statistics available for the practical and theory exam results, there are several trends to note (Liyanage, 2013).

  • Higher failure rate in theory exams
  • Higher attainment rate in theory exams 1-5 compared with practical grades 1-5, but lower attainment rate for theory compared with practical 6-8
  • Much lower intake of theory candidates
  • Significant increase of candidates for Grade 5 theory
  • Large drop-off between practical grades 5 to 6

There are a multitude of reasons for these trends, of which I can email a copy of if you get in touch. It is worth considering these trends and to take responsibility in mitigating any potential causes attributable to current teaching methods, learning resources or examination specification issues.

Theory and Harmony

Job Izjerman (2018), in his recent textbook Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento notes the difficulties of the traditional harmony exercise (a four-part realisation of a melody using consistent note values and harmonic rhythm). He mentions the “’atomic’ procedure of chord choice: each stage of a harmony exercise seems to bring up a number of options” (p.xii). This atomic procedure causes the student to painstakingly work out the myriad options available for the harmonisation of B-C in the soprano, before eventually determining that it is V-I in C-major. Thus, chorale harmonisations are taught in a manner akin to reinventing the wheel for each crotchet. The utility and benefits of the harmony exercise are, of course, substantial; however, Izjerman highlights the price that is paid “is an abstraction level that seems too high for many music students, practice-oriented as they are” (p.xii). This cognitive, disembodied approach has been criticised by Peter Schubert (2017, p.184) who mentions we have all known people who wrote their counterpoint exercises “whilst watching television or even listening to Chopin, as if it were a crossword puzzle. This kind of abstract intellectual approach is very limiting: it is very slow, it doesn’t engage the ego, and it often bears no relation to composed music of the same period”. Callahan (2017, p.203) notes student’s responses about counterpoint “they frequently report having learned its rules, but not feeling musically invested in it, seeing it as a puzzle to solve”. These comments align with experiences of many students who have been taught music theory with a closed piano lid or shut violin case.

Byros (2015, p.18) succinctly highlights some of the issues with the teaching of music theory. Modern teaching of music theory disseminates “know-what” knowledge, rather than “know-how” knowledge. This may lead the student to be able to correctly analyse a score with labels for chords and formal functions; however, the same student may be unable to create a phrase themselves or recompose the piece which they have analysed (Schubert, 2017, p.182). Byros (2015) notes that “description and explanation” are prioritised over practice and creation (p.18). Even when being educated on practical musicianship, the purpose is focused on analysis and understanding of “inherited … repertoire” (p.18). This can be seen in the ABRSM grade 6-8 theory exam where a student has the choice of writing a realised figured bass. However, due to the purely written and theoretical nature of this test, the exercise’s aim appears to be to use figured bass to demonstrate a student’s knowledge of intervals, rather than intervals being used to demonstrate a student’ practical realisation of figured bass.

Furthermore, harmony exercises are, by nature, harmonic rather than motivic. Students may be able to harmonise a melody proficiently, even by sight at the piano; however, there seems to be a lack of integration of imitation and diminution techniques in compositions or improvisations. Instead, students tend to produce a ‘block-chord’ texture. This purely harmonic approach to theory raises issues highlighted by Robert Gauldin (2001), students carrying out harmony exercises struggle to see chromatic possibilities, secondary dominants and sequential patterns (p.91). Further to this, the students can carry out note-against-note harmonisations but are challenged by the harmonisation of melodic phrases (p.96).

Improvisation

Improvisation in classical music is notable through absence (I am not dealing with contemporary free improvisation, but improvisation in common practice styles). The subject of the decline of improvisation within classical music is a vast one, which I shall not go into here. Instead, I shall deal the current situation of improvisation, of which there are several issues:

  • Unhealthy perspectives on the conceptualisation of improvisation
  • Few resources (method books, videos, classes throughout various educational strata) for classical improvisation
  • There is no reason to improvise classical music when it is interdicted in practical exams or competitions
  • Improvisation is uncommon, there are very few classical improvisers, so there is little to inspire, or aspire to
  • Recordings and performances of, for example, Mozart’s sonatas by world-leading pianists feature no improvisation or note changes in the repeats
  • The standardisation of pre-composed, rather than improvised or originally composed, cadenzas for concertos

Problematic perceptions of improvisation are that of spontaneous, unprepared expression which is wholly original both to the performer and audience. The instrument acts as a conduit to expression, with the performer bypassing the 3rd party composer; the performer is the composer. This aligns with Alperson’s (2003, p.253) definition “the action of creating a musical work as it is being performed”. William Porter’s (2013) keynote address (originally delivered in 2011) summarises many of the issues associated with improvisation with appropriate levels of humour and vitriol. Porter notes some perspectives which “seem to have a habit of labelling as ‘improvisatory’ musical passages that call to mind the words in the book of Genesis describing the universe before the first day or creation: ‘without form and void’” (p.13). This viewpoint is uttered by Davies (2003, p.494) “The player simply doodles, or improvises, making music freely on the spot … her spontaneous efforts are to be evaluated more with regard to the way she pushes the limits of what she can do routinely than by reference to the structural integrity and unity of what she creates”. These descriptions of improvisation create perceptions of innate genius granted only to the select few, rather than craft (Porter, 2013, p.9; Gjerdingen, 2013, p.129). This may disenfranchise those who may wish to improvise, or those who claim not to be able to improvise, despite never being shown how (Goldman, 2016, p.13). Furthermore, these perspectives are ahistorical and unhelpful regarding music and composers of the past (Deprés et al., 2016, p.168). Instead of improvisation being in opposition to preparation, Porter (2013) terms improvisation as being “practised spontaneity” (p.11). In fact, the accounts of Liszt, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Mozart’s improvisational capacity “simply expressed on a very high-level ways of music making which were normative for everyone”. Whereas the average (or even gifted) performer today may “find improvisation not only difficult, but downright scary” (p.7).

The dearth of classical improvisation throughout all levels of performance and education results in a pointlessness of learning. There is nothing to aspire to regarding classical improvisation. There are currently some improvisers such as Gabriela Montero, Robert Levin and John Mortenson (who is producing much practical content on this topic), but they are the exception rather than the rule. World-leading pianists such as Mitsuko Uchida, when recording the complete Mozart sonatas (2001) made no note alterations throughout any of the repeats. Frequently, the repeat markings at the end of a movement are not taken. This may be due to there not being a point. The purpose of the repeats in a classical sonata is to provide different musical content by the performer, demonstrating their improvisational prowess (Levin, 1992). If the performer does not improvise then this renders the repeat markings useless, particularly of those works familiar to audiences.

To summarise, there are several issues currently in place regarding instrumental, theoretical and improvisational pedagogies. Theory is frequently taught in a cognitive, rather than kinaesthetic manner. There is lack of holistic teaching putting theory into practice. There is a dearth of classical improvisation due to perceptual and institutional challenges. In a following essay, I shall outline strategies to deal with some of these issues and why they are issues that require dealing with. I present a case for how and why Partimento may be a remedy for many of the challenges facing theory, performance, improvisation and pedagogy today.


Bibliography

ABRSM. (2017). Annual Review 2017. Retrieved from https://gb.abrsm.org/fileadmin/user_upload/PDFs/ABRSM_Annual_Review_2017.pdf.

ABRSM. (2018). Theory: Grade 4. Retrieved from https://gb.abrsm.org/fileadmin/user_upload/PDFs/Theory_Syll_Master_2018G4.pdf.

ABRSM. (2019). Piano Grade 8. Retrieved from https://us.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/piano/piano-grade-8/.

Alperson, P. (2003). Creativity in Art. In J. Levinson (Ed.) The Oxford handbook of aesthetics. (pp. 245-257). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Byros, V. (2015). Prelude on a partimento: Invention in the compositional pedagogy of the German states in the time of J. S. Bach. Music Theory Online, 21 (3), 1-26. Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.15.21.3/mto.15.21.3.byros.php.

Callahan, M. (2017). Learning tonal counterpoint through keyboard improvisation in the twenty-first century. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 185-203). New York: Routledge.

Davies, S. (2003). Music. In J. Levinson (Ed.) The Oxford handbook of aesthetics. (pp. 489-515). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deprés, J.P., Burnard, P., Dubé, F., & Stévance, S. (2016). Expert improvisers in western classical music learning pathways. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 22, 167-179. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2016.10.006.

Eales, A. (2018, September 2). Graded exams: Friend or foe? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://pianodao.com/2018/09/02/graded-exams-friend-or-foe/.

Gauldin, R. (2001). An intersection of counterpoint and harmony. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 15, 91-102.

Gjerdingen, R. (2013). Review: The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice/the Italian Traditions and Puccini: Compositional Theory and Practice in Nineteenth-Century Opera. Journal of Music Theory, 57 (1), 119-129. doi: 10.1215/00222909-2017124.

Goldman, A.J. (2016). Improvisation as a way of knowing. Music Theory Online, 22 (4), 1-20. Retrieved from http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.4/mto.16.22.4.goldman.html.

Ijzerman, J. (2018). Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento: A New Method Inspired by Old Masters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kemp. (2017). Piano syllabus: Qualification specifications for graded exams 2018–2020. [Brochure].

Levin, R. (1992). Improvised embellishments in Mozart’s keyboard music. Early Music, 20 (2), 221-233.

Liyanage, L. (2013). ABRSM Music Exam facts and figures!. Retrieved from http://www.se22piano.co.uk/abrsm-music-exam-facts-and-figures/.

Porter, W. (2013). Why is improvisation so difficult?. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 27, 7-18.

Schubert, P. (2017). Teaching theory through improvisation. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 175-184). New York: Routledge.

Uchida, M. (2001). Mozart: The Piano Sonatas. [Recorded by M. Uchida]. [CD]. England: Decca.

By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.