Back to basics

By Mary Mattingly | 4/16/14 8:32pm


Courtesy / Bill Ryan

From the prominent Opera Theatre to the acclaimed Symphonic Wind Ensemble, the Performing Arts Center at Grand Valley State University seems to be synonymous with the concept of classical music. But with the changing nature of today’s music industry, how does this prepare music majors for the professional world?

“To be a musician today is to know something about multiple idioms,” said John Schuster-Craig, a music professor at GVSU. “You don’t get to be a musician in the 20th century by focusing on one narrow topic. You have to (come from) a broader background.”

In an age when the public’s support of the arts is seemingly waning, universities across the world continue to train their students in the classical tradition of music. At GVSU, music majors learn classical technique, theory and music history while working toward a Bachelor’s of Music, Bachelor’s of Arts in music and Bachelor’s of Music Education. To contend with the modern professional world, the question of expanding GVSU’s curriculum to include other genres more prominently has been raised.

The classical model consists of Western music that was composed from the mid 18th century to the mid 20th century. While studying this tradition helps students understand other genres in a broader context, some worry that focusing on it can cause other genres to be overlooked.

“In recent times, with the pluralistic society we live in, there’s a great deal of overlap and fusion. It goes on between classical and current classical music, music from different cultures and music that is more popular,” said Lisa Feurzeig, GVSU professor of music. “Present-day composers may be writing classical music of today and dip into rock or jazz…. It’s getting harder to say there’s good and bad music, or high and low art. That’s where I see an argument for changing the curriculum in some ways.”

As the department has expanded to more than 200 music majors, the program has also grown to include jazz combos, musical theatre productions and the New Music Ensemble.

“We diversify as much as we can but make sure students are prepared at a base level,” said Kevin Tutt, associate professor of music. “Whether it’s classical or not is irrelevant to me. We start at the beginning (of music history) because it makes sense. I certainly don’t have a bias against (other genres of music). The notion that one genre is better than another, I always ask, ‘Good for what?’”

Curriculum changes are proposed by faculty members, which are then voted upon and implemented appropriately. Next year for the first time, the program will offer a history of opera course and a history of rock course.

“The positives (at GVSU) are the New Music Ensemble, the Early Music Ensemble — we recently had some curriculum changes that gives students more exposure to chamber music,” Schuster-Craig said. “It’s not that we’ve done absolutely nothing. The jazz program has been allowed to languish. We are in desperate need in some areas… (for instruments such as) saxophone, percussionists, brass and keyboard. All of these people ought to have more exposure to jazz or more opportunities to play jazz. What we’re doing in that regard is very frustrating for many of our students.”

In today’s world, big ensembles such as symphony orchestras and opera companies have run into financial difficulties. Technology is also changing how music is created, distributed and performed. In order to keep up with these changes, the curriculum must be flexible.

“There’s no administration that says, ‘It must be this way,’” Tutt said. “The curriculum is more like a garden that has been planted. And we are replanting each year. (The curriculum) certainly is preplanned but can be changed.”

There is also the issue that a non-diverse education limits students’ job potential.

“We used to have a faculty jazz quartet that would go out and try to recruit jazz students; they’re not doing that anymore,” Schuster-Craig said. “That’s my biggest frustration because there are certain performance areas where, if you don’t have the basics of how that style works, it’s going to be a negative for you when it comes to finding a job.”

GVSU student Dutcher Snedeker believes that diversifying education falls largely to the way teachers present it and the opportunities that students seek out. A pianist, Snedeker is comfortable within the classical tradition, but is also an accomplished jazz pianist and accompanist. He credits his proficiency in many genres to his interest in them.

“There is a way to get a well-rounded musician,” Snedeker said. “It’s up to the student not to take everything at face value. I’m glad to see student musicians who put groups together.”

Rather than dismissing classical music as irrelevant, an appreciation for it can introduce students to different genres.

“Classical music still has a place besides new music,” Snedeker said. “People can get really jaded and they’re like, ‘Why are we looking at Mozart? He’s dead’…. People need to appreciate it more; they don’t have to like it.”

While budget limitations affect what the department can expand, it is hoped that, armed with the basics, students can meet today’s professional world head-on.

“It’s not that great music or great art is dying,” Schuster-Craig said. “People’s tastes are changing.”

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