Some thoughts on Roger Graybill’s article, “Looking to Europe: In Search of a Praxis-Based Music-Theory Pedagogy” (Music Theory & Analysis 4/2, 2017): 283-298
In the latest issue of MTA, Roger Graybill (New England Conservatory) has published an article that reflects on his experiences from visits to five European music institutions, which included a visit to the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (the others were to Berlin, Freiburg, Luzerne, and Rostock). Among other things, Graybill experienced a strong praxis-based educational approach at the European institutions visited, which he contrasted with the more conceptual approach present at most North American music institutions. In part, this has to do with the strong emphasis on keyboard pedagogy, as well as with the small class sizes one encounters in European conservatories. In Amsterdam, I can certainly attest to the strong emphasis on praxis, not only through the extra keyboard training that many students receive (primarily the keyboard players, but also string players), but also the emphasis on solfege and written musical skills. Up to just a few years ago, almost all bachelors students were even required to take arranging in the third year of study (this has recently been expanded to include a choice between counterpoint, advanced harmony, model composition, and arranging).
At the end of his essay, Graybill hits in my opinion on one of the crucial issues facing European music theorists today, especially those working at conservatories: does European music theory go the way of the Americans and try to procure more professionally-oriented careers, with far more time for conducting research across the board? Or does it double-down on its “praxis-based” approach and stave off the conceptualizing and generalizing tendencies (as Graybill describes it) of North American scholars, which are generally more amenable to academic research? But perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. A better one might be: is the “praxis-based” or “particularizing” approach of the European schools incompatible with the kinds of research agendas and programs of our North American colleagues?
On more than one occasion in his article, Graybill cites the work of Robert Gjerdingen, whose research on schemata theory has had no small impact on music theory research and pedagogy, including in The Netherlands. Could a European conservatory, with the current structures in play, have produced the kind of research that Gjerdingen has achieved, which requires gargantuan amounts of time for data collection and assessment, for writing (conference papers, publications, grant proposals, etc.), for editing, for creating a website, and above all for the time to reflect on the topic in all its complexity? Obviously, many theorists value the research produced by Gjerdingen, so it would seem obvious that theorists with similar ambitions and capabilities would hope to achieve a comparable level of research. But I do wonder if the praxis-based approach to theory, which requires working with small groups of students and consequently devoting many hours to the classroom, allows for the kinds of research that is valued highly by many.
I’d be happy to hear reactions and expansions of this problematic from colleagues.