Third-Level Music: A Reply to Barra Boydell

A reply to Barra Boydell's article in the last issue of JMI on music education at third level.

In his article ‘Third level Music and the Leaving Certificate’ (JMI Vol. 1 No. 4), Barra Boydell opens and examines the can of worms created by the institution of the new Leaving Certificate Music syllabus, and its effect on entrance levels at third-level music programmes. However, in doing so, I believe that Mr Boydell opens another can of worms — one which he doesn’t seem to be aware of.

Mr Boydell bemoans the lack of preparation of students entering third-level music courses, and lays the blame directly on the ‘easiness’ of the new syllabus and its weakness in preparing students for the study of music at third-level. However, the reality is that what this new syllabus has done is to throw into sharp focus the fact that what is broadly called ‘music education’ by Mr Boydell, and no doubt many others teaching the subject at third-level institutions in Ireland, is in fact a ‘classical music education’ — or to use Mr Boydell’s, probably more accurate term — an education based on the European art music tradition.

With the exception of the University of Limerick’s traditional course, Ireland offers no alternative to the study of classical music education at third-level. The abrogation of the simple term ‘music’ by the classical music establishment to describe the European art music tradition (while other forms of music labour under labels such as ‘pop’, ‘jazz’, ‘traditonal’, etc.), is typical of the proprietorial attitude taken towards the subject of music by this establishment.

Mr Boydell’s concerns vis-á-vis the readiness of third-level students to study classical music are very real — I would agree that the new Leaving Certificate does not prepare students adequately for the study of classical music at third-level. But at the base of this concern is the assumption that anyone going on to study music at third level should be studying classical music — an underlying assumption of Mr Boydell’s entire article. This is an assumption that is completely outdated, and has long gone from the mind-set of every other country in the EU bar Ireland.

Essentially, the problem that Mr Boydell and his colleagues are encountering is that the Leaving Certificate no longer focuses exclusively on classical music, and as a result applicants for entrance to third-level classical music programmes are not prepared for the demands of these programmes. This is absolutely true — but it also raises the question, why are the third-level institutions not providing alternative serious music courses that are NOT necessarily based on classical music? The new Leaving Certificate syllabus, though far from perfect (and I would have a lot of reservations about it myself), does at least recognise that classical music is not the only music worthy of study. And in doing this the Department of Education has created (probably unwittingly) a trojan horse in music education terms. The real question here, to my mind, is — how can certain aspects of music be worthy of study up to second level, but dismissed at third-level?

Again and again in Mr Boydell’s article there is an assumption that classical music is the only musical form worthy of serious study. For example, he asks, ‘is the present Leaving Certificate music course suitable as a preparation for further study?’ However, the real question being asked here is: Is the present Leaving Certificate music course suitable as a preparation for further study of classical music?

Mr Boydell also demonstrates that he is patently out of his depth when discussing other musical forms when he states that ‘Music literacy may not be an essential part of traditional music, of jazz or of popular music’. As we enter the twenty-first century, it is extraordinary to see an academic cling to the belief that jazz musicians do not read music or that the reading and writing of music is an inessential part of their education. The use of written music has been widespread in jazz for over 60 years and in the past 40 years has been a fundamental requirement for all jazz musicians. The lack of knowledge about something as basic as this is, I’m afraid, symptomatic of the myopic and out-dated outlook of the present music education establishment.

He also asks — ‘why struggle to master the complexities of four-part harmonic writing if you have the option of demonstrating sufficient knowledge of harmony by merely writing the names of a handful of guitar chords under a given melody?’ Why indeed? Ignoring for the moment the lofty dismissal of chord symbol terminology (a form of harmonic shorthand that is similar to figured bass and is relevant to all instruments, not just the guitar), I would contend that the ‘complexities of four-part harmonic writing’ are so idiomatic to the practices of classical music that there is indeed no reason for anyone studying any other form of music to spend months or years mastering the practice. It would be as wasteful of a serious non-classical musician’s time to do that, as it would be for a classical student doing a masters degree in performance to transcribe John Coltrane’s solos. However, Mr Boydell sees the avoidance of such specialised areas as being the avoidance of the ‘more challenging options’.

And herein lies the nub of my argument. The new Leaving Certificate has shown just how inadequate the range of options for students of music at third level really is. The third-level institutions in Ireland allow for only one music form to be studied — this is not only an out-dated philosophy, but one that makes no sense on economic grounds for someone wishing to have a career in music. As I mentioned in my previous article in the JMI (‘Third-Level Jazz’, Vol. 1 No.4), there is a very good, comprehensive, and serious alternative to a classical music education. The jazz education system has been in existence in third-level institutions around the world for over 40 years and has achieved great success in training students for life as professional musicians and creative artists in contemporary society.

All over the world young classical musicians are facing a crisis because there are simply far too few employment opportunities for far too many musicians. The Irish situation is no different. There should be an alternative option (and in every other country in the EU there is this option) for the serious music student other than studying classical music. There is no reason why jazz courses should not exist alongside classical music courses in Irish third-level institutions.

Instead of bemoaning the perceived inadequacy of incoming students due to the new Leaving Certificate syllabus, third-level institutions should be examining ways to expand the courses they offer to include the study of non-classical music. And perhaps looking at ways in which the new Leaving Certificate syllabus could be adjusted. To me, and I would agree with Mr Boydell on this point, it seems that there is an obvious need for an adjustment in the Leaving Certificate syllabus to take into account the fact that some people may wish to study classical music at third level. These people should have the option of a different course of study from those who wish to study non-classical music, or those who wish to do music, not as a career choice, but as part of a comprehensive education.

Perhaps a case could be made for a two-tier system? In one — Pass Level music — students would do a similar type of study to that which they’re undertaking now — a general broad based music education. In Honours Level there would be two options — classical (studying the traditional skills necessary for this music — part writing, aural training, technical skills, etc.) and non-classical (improvisation skills, technical skills, contemporary harmonic practice, etc.). In this way the needs of the third-level institutions, the serious students, and those interested in music without necessarily wanting to make a career from it, would be all be catered for.

The domination of the classical tradition over the study of music at second level is finished, it’s only a matter of time before it’s finished at third level also. The problem of how the Leaving Certificate trains musicians for entry into third level needs to be addressed on a much broader level than that of simply bemoaning the lack of study of specialised classical techniques. This debate is a welcome symptom of Ireland at last beginning to move towards a contemporary music education system that takes the needs of today’s serious musician into account as well as giving everyone the opportunity of a rounded music education.

To quote Mr Boydell again, ‘Everyone who calls him- or herself educated should have some informed familiarity with the music of Bach and Stravinsky, just as they should with the writings of Shakespeare and Yeats, the paintings of Rembrandt and Cezanne, and the architecture of Palladio and Le Corbusier.’ Agreed — and the music of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane — if one is to be truly educated in the musical arts of the twentieth century and beyond.

Published on 1 July 2001

Bass-guitarist Ronan Guilfoyle is a performer and composer and head of the Jazz Degree program at Newpark Music Centre, Dublin.

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