This semester I’m teaching two separate sets of classes at the University of Miami: Fundamentals for music minor and musical theatre majors, and aural skills for freshmen and sophomores. Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the way the Frost School of Music at UM handles music theory, we have a slightly different approach than most traditional institutions. The Experiential Music Curriculum here heavily incorporates things like composition, improvisation, and small ensemble playing in courses so that every lesson gets put into a context where the student is actively playing their instrument. It’s a great system that I really enjoy; nothing helps you learn the concepts quite like the kinesthetic involvement of playing them on your instrument.
Every once in a while, though, I get a question from a student or two—usually around this time of year, where everyone is bogged down with midterms and having to prioritize their energy. It’s a question every teacher gets, and a question every teacher dreads:
“When am I ever going to use this?”
This is a question so pervasive in education that even some teachers fall victim to it. A colleague of mine once refused to teach certain parts of the course material because, in his opinion, they were useless and focusing on them was a waste of the students’ tuition dollars. Though I strongly disagreed with him, I could still understand his mindset and where it originates.
Let’s think about all of the jokes we make about our high school public education on a regular basis.
It’s funny, I know. I get that wholeheartedly. My high school tutelage was very AP-class based. I was the guy who took advanced math all the way through calculus, two years of Latin, JROTC for three years, and only the small handful of vocational classes like Speech and Document Creation. Forget computer keyboarding classes (a skill I wish I had developed further), I’d rather take AP Chemistry (a class I have used maybe twice since 2003).
As an FYI, this was me in calculus:
This will probably come as no surprise, but I have not once written a composition based on the structure of a hyperbolic curve. The quadratic formula has never been useful to me sitting on the organ bench. And I’ve never talked to another composer about how the mitochondria is [sic] the powerhouse of the cell. Learning about these things was, as some would say, a complete waste of my time and tuition dollars (or in this case, tax dollars).
But just because I don’t use these particular skills… does that really mean the course was a waste of time and money?
There’s a trend in layman’s educational philosophy that high school = trade school, and that college should be the same way. And I think that’s one of the worst things that can ever happen to education. It’s a mindset I’ve never personally identified with and can’t even begin to understand—why would anyone ever pass up the opportunity to learn something new?! We should be learning, if anything, for the sake of learning. The trade skills we pick up along the way are just a great bonus.
With each class I’ve ever taken, there’s been a crossover that takes place in my critical thinking. It shapes the way I approach problem-solving, communication, and even political or religious views. I couldn’t give a damn about mitochondria and the role they play in the cell, but learning cellular structure as a whole helped convince me that life and the human body is ridiculously complex, which helped shape my views on hot-button issues like mental disorders or gender identity. I’ve forgotten most everything I ever learned about derivatives and integrals, but having to work through them longhand taught me the value of formulaic reasoning and simplifying real-world equations to their most base levels. I doubt I could crack open the Aeneid and read it in its original Latin at this point, but immersing myself in the structure of that language helped me to understand my own better, which has made me a much more effective communicator, even if I can’t conjugate fourth-declension verbs anymore.
Wait, declension is nouns… shoot.
So what does any of this have to do with music education?
Well, just like high school, there are a lot of skills factoids we learn in college that we’ll never, ever use in our everyday lives, but still have a profound impact on our focused development. Eurhythmic exercises come to mind… when will I as a performer ever have to clap one rhythm while stomping another? I’m not a drumset player… but I am a keyboardist, which means I need to think about multiple rhythms at once most of the time. Even as a vocalist, I’m usually having to think about multiple rhythms at once.
How about something grander, like ethnomusicology? I had to build panpipes modeled on Quechuan tuning systems in my undergrad ethnomusicology course. “Useless,” right? Well, it taught me a lot about how that culture approached music—given the tuning systems of each set of panpipes, you need two players passing notes back and forth to play any concrete melody. Music was and is a collaborative social art. What if I structured music theory exercises with that same mindset of collaboration? Encouraged students to do practice routines together in innovative ways? Perhaps it would engage them more with the material. That was a very valuable lesson, even if the panpipes themselves ended up collecting dust.
And improvisation? The classical players who think they will never have to improvise a day in their lives still underestimate its value in aural skills. It’s hard to make up a line that you don’t understand, and improvisation is the hands-on approach to testing your understanding of the material. You need to approach it with a plan, understanding all of the ins and outs of the progression you’re playing over. What notes want to resolve where, and when? And which ones of these am I most suited to hit? It requires command over your instrument, knowledge of chord tones and scale degrees, and applying all of the above in real time. In this increasingly cutthroat world of classical music, these skills are paramount—and even if they weren’t, they’d still be worth knowing.
So no, perhaps you never will use that skill you’re struggling with in that class you hate. So what? There’s more to life than applying every single skill we ever develop. And in the heat of the moment, before hindsight kicks in, we can’t always fathom just how much those seeming “useless” skills are impacting every other facet of our education, worldview, or state of being. They’re often things we appreciate later when the opportunity presents itself, if we keep aware of all of the grander implications.
If I didn’t want that sort of development, I would have gone to a trade school.
And there would have been absolutely nothing wrong with that. College is not for everyone.
But to diminish education into nothing but developing your trade? That’s the real waste of time and tuition dollars.