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ISSUE 119 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/12/2006

Music major stifles

By Joe Mignano
Contributing Writer

Friday, May 12, 2006

One ordinary morning last semester, I was falling asleep when my impossibly enthusiastic counterpoint professor asked the class, mostly out of his own curiosity, “Why do you all think we study counterpoint?” My head popped up. “Why is it that in music we learn techniques and styles of the past, where in the visual arts, you’d never practice Baroque brush strokes, or try to repaint a Monet? Why do we put so much emphasis on emulation of the past in studying music?”

What happened the following class period was probably the most memorable day I ever had in a music class at St. Olaf. But more than what we actually discussed, what I remember most about that day was that it was the first, and only, genuine discussion I ever had in a classroom in Christiansen Hall of Music.

Every academic department has little flaws that bug its majors, and the Music Department is no different. But it seems that the music major mysteriously happens to create more students who are more bitter than most Oles. Now, if you don’t believe me on this account, stroll through the music library the night before an Alice paper is due and ask someone what they think of the Music Department. Your doubts will be put to rest. I believe that there is a correlation between this frustration here.

The music major lacks a forum for majors to ask the bigger philosophical questions about music. What, exactly, makes music (or art for that matter) a worthwhile human endeavor? What makes “good” music? Why should we study theory? Why is it that we play so much more Classical and Romantic music? Is that good? These are the kinds of questions that don’t get asked. And in an environment that is meant to challenge students’ intellects, these are the kinds of questions we must be asking to truly understand our trade.

The Music Department strives very hard (and very fruitfully) to create a conservatory-like environment in which students can hone their talents as musicians. This is the department’s greatest strength – at the end of the day, we crank out some damn fine musicians. The deeper, cultural, liberal arts connections, however, that are such an essential part of St. Olaf’s goal, are left entirely up to the rest of the school.

This obviously has to do with the nature of the department, whose goal is based in refining skills, not necessarily philosophical understanding. And maybe that’s more efficient, especially when there are so many skill-based classes we “ought” to take to be excellent musicians.

But the cost is that we are not challenged to be independent thinkers. The closest music majors get to examining the deeper meaning of music is history class, and that is dangerous. We're not challenged to really question and tussle with, for example, what really caused the blues to be so bitter. It's extra credit. Outside work. Not important enough for class.

Instead, we are spoon-fed our knowledge. Independent thought is not valued intrinsically in the music department. Professors make sure we are proficient, not wise, and this mindset leads to the huge disconnect between music staff and students. Students want meta-musical stimulation, but with knowledge and normative judgments going in one direction, students often feel they are not intellectually respected.

This tendency is exacerbated in an environment where people must constantly be rejected for ensembles, struggle through ear-training and suffer through Alice tests. But it’s little things, like the fact that lying about a pink card is taken more seriously than cheating on a test, or that almost no music professors give class evaluation forms (my final count is four out of 37), that widens the rift even further.

If students and faculty gave ourselves the formal opportunity to be more open and conversive about the larger values surrounding our discipline, I believe we might understand both it, and each other much better.

Staff Writer Joe Mignano is a senior from Des Moines, Iowa. He majors in American studies, in music theory/composition and in music with an emphasis in history/literature.

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