As I was setting up the recording session for my brother Michael’s graduate school audition, I heard the familiar sound of a jazz trio warming up. Warm tones from the trombone were met with thumping bass and bright piano. While these sounds were familiar, the circumstances were anything but. Usually these sessions are small and intimate with players close together to communicate — 12 feet apart and masked certainly was a strange change of scene. As I was setting up, I couldn’t help but think that as music, the gig economy and the world have changed over the years, music education at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance … hasn’t. At least not at the rate it needs to keep up with the rest of the world.

To put the antiquated nature of some of SMTD’s course requirements into perspective, every undergraduate at SMTD must take at least two semesters of written and aural music theory while many, like myself, have to take at least two full years. The primary focus of these first two semesters of theory are counterpoint, a musical technique for combining melodic lines developed in the 9th century, and figured bass, a technique for harmonic structure developed in the 17th century. After asking a Theory Graduate Student Instructor my freshman year why we are required to learn these techniques from the rather distant musical past, I was met with a laugh and a simple acknowledgement that at this point, it’s tradition, and we’re one of maybe three music schools that still do this. Not a particularly satisfying answer when paying out-of-state tuition for an effectively irrelevant course requirement. 

You may be wondering, how is a technique from the 9th or 17th century at all relevant to any non-classical major at the school? The simple answer is that it isn’t. Beyond reinforcing a sense of Western music supremacy arguably tied to white supremacy, the course does little to help non-classical composition majors at the University. 

Anna Rosengart, an SMTD and LSA senior, reflected on many of these required music theory and history classes, saying, “newsflash: white Western music isn’t the only music, and madrigals and symphonies aren’t the only way to study it. … I wish we learned about other ways to be musical in the ‘real world’ and could get more exposure.” SMTD needs to move past tired curriculum requirements to address societal and educational realities.

University alum Mohan Ritsema, a jazz bass player, expressed his frustration with antiquated aspects of the curriculum taking the space of basic skills and lessons that should be taught. 

“Something I’ve always felt about U-M, that I especially feel now, is that it’s messed up. U-M requires everyone to learn figured bass but not how to use the producing software Logic. We have to take two years of classical piano but never learn how to set up a microphone. I think now, that is really starting to bite people,” Ritsema said. 

Requiring students to take classes like these is a waste of time and money when students aren’t learning skills that will allow them to succeed or sustain themselves in the future. Unless students are going into music theory, knowing figured bass won’t put food on the table. But knowing the basics of sound production or self-promotion may be the difference between making it or breaking it in the music industry.

University alum Brendan Davis, a pianist, said he wishes “we had had marketing classes at SMTD.” While Davis has continued to have gigs during the pandemic, having self-marketing or business skills as part of the core curriculum for SMTD students would help others translate artistic skills into economic security. 

“I know many musicians who have had to retire or step away from music due to COVID. … Learning stuff like self-marketing would’ve been really helpful.” As the music industry has changed across the board both due to the market and recently COVID-19, institutions must change to teach students how to succeed and survive with their craft, not just the origins of a distantly related musical language or history.

SMTD has examples it can and should follow in-house. Programs like EXCEL Lab at SMTD provide students both coursework and workshops about the music industry, music entrepreneurship, social media and other relevant topics. SMTD should cut other undergraduate course requirements and make these courses required. If students want to pursue topics like medieval music history or theory, they are welcome to do so, but shouldn’t be required to. While these opportunities theoretically exist for students, both Ritsema, Davis and I haven’t able to utilize them during our time at Michigan due to the number of other, irrelevant course requirements we have to satisfy.

“Generational gaps in technology definitely exist,” Ritsema said about the faculty and administration. He went on to say that there is a general sentiment among faculty and students that something more is needed, but they are not sure what. I urge students to communicate with the administration about student needs. However, I more strongly urge the administration to look around at the holes that need to be filled in our education, now more than ever. We can’t afford to graduate from SMTD without a better core curricular foundation in how to operate as a musician, no matter how artistically skilled we may be.

If there was ever a time to modernize SMTD, it must be now, as the floor has fallen out for musicians worldwide. Broadway’s doors are closed until at least May 30, 2021, indoor performance venues are closed in Michigan and across the United States due to actions like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders and in-person music education has been greatly affected at schools like SMTD. 

As musicians fight to survive in the ailing industry, it is apparent that it isn’t their required studies in medieval musicology or theory that are helping them survive, but their ability to setup livestream concerts, busk, self-promote, write grants and find virtual gigs; all necessary skills that aren’t reflected in SMTD’s course requirements. SMTD must modernize to address both COVID-19 and education in the 21st century, providing a teaching based on educational effectiveness, not Western music supremacy or antiquated tradition. 

“Even without COVID,” as Ritsema said, “these were things everyone needs to know. These are the skills that you need in the 21st century if you want to make it as a real professional musician.”

Andrew Gerace can be reached at agerace@umich.edu.

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