I’m beginning the process of looking for college work, and something strikes me as odd:  the most important classes in music departments are not taught by the most valued or experienced faculty members.

Any music department will have theory and ear training courses required of all majors.  Since these courses are required, departments surely consider them more important than those courses that are not required.

But the ear training and lower-level theory classes are most often farmed out to grad students, adjuncts, or very junior faculty members.  The tenured folks teach optional seminars related to their area of expertise.

I suppose this irony extends across the entire American education system: elementary school teachers are “more important” than college professors–since everyone by law must attend elementary school but not college.  And yet the prestige is in teaching college–not kindergarten.

But, returning to academia, are ear training and basic theory considered so boring by tenured faculty that teaching them strikes these faculty as odious?  I know I’m young and naive; but teaching these “grunt” courses the past three years has been a total thrill for me.  Doing it for the rest of my life would be a pleasure.   I would assume that others interested in music as I am would feel the same way.

But they don’t. 

13 Responses to “More Thoughts on College Jobs”
  1. Robert Jordahl says:

    I first noticed this practice a number of years ago at large universities, and was
    appalled. I was a victim of it myself having been assigned a section beginning
    theory, without ever taking a course in teaching. Needless to say, I was a failure.
    Not only was there no mentoring, but the required text was an antiquated piece
    of writing 30 years behind the times!

  2. David Salvage says:

    May I ask how it was antiquated?

  3. Rob Deemer says:

    In addition to workloads and the number of theory instructors available to teach the upper level courses, I’m guessing at least one answer to your question lies in the reasons why someone pursues a college teaching position in the first place. Some really enjoy the teaching, some really enjoy the research, some both, and others…well, some just end up there through twists of fate. In the case of the classes you mentioned, while there are a lot of folks who get degrees in Theory who enjoy the pedagogy, there’s quite a few who’d be happy writing and leading upper-level graduate seminars and not touch a freshman theory class…of course, it’s the same with composers as well.

    This all ties into one of the most important and difficult parts of academia…finding the right gig for the right person. The more one learns about oneself during graduate school and adjunct teaching positions, the better chance you’ll have to recognize which jobs you’d be great for and which ones you’d be miserable doing. Count yourself lucky that you’re getting the chance to get that teaching experience under your belt now…there’s many folks out there who aren’t getting that chance and it could help decide which pile your CV goes into when the search committee is slogging through 200 applicants.

    Finally, I think this touches on a good point about pedagogy courses – if you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to take a theory pedagogy course which can at least give you some ammunition to work with before you’re dropped into the battlezone that is 8am Aural Skills. Something that’s always bugged me is the fact that these pedagogy courses are emphasized for theory and comp students, when they really need to be a requirement for music education majors – if public school music educators were better equipped to teach even basic music theory & aural skills, those college freshman theory courses wouldn’t have to be as remedial as they typically need to be.

  4. paul bailey says:


    i understand why you point the finger at secondary music teachers, but for the most part they are modeling the pedagogy they learned in college (or what is included in the music theory AP exam)

    having young musicians develop their ears through passive assessment techniques (like melodic and harmonic dictation) is doomed if they haven’t developed their ears in the first place (through singing and playing by ear). every fall the best freshman (ears) in my class are easy to pick out because they have had exposure from the following;

    1. a musical family that plays and/or sings
    2. private lessons with a teacher worked on playing by ear (usually jazz)
    3. exposure in primary school to any of the following methods (kodaly, dalcroze, orff and suzuki methods)
    4. exposure to traditional eartraining (does not guarantee good ears, but does lower their stress level)

    have you read the articles in the journal of theory pedagogy about the history of theory programs at schools like eastman, indiana and northwestern? according to their research schools have been complaining about the level of freshman students since they 1950′s. my opinion is that the current musicianship pedagogy has never been questioned and focuses on strategies to make dictation and sightsinging more successful. i also think especially skills like melodic and harmonic dictation reflect a pedagogy the might have been useful before recording technology was available (as well as the rewind button). an easy fix is to focus on transcription and performance on a primary instrument (piano for vocalists) and eliminate dictation all together.

    the question we should ask is why many folk, jazz, rock and pop musicians have such amazing ears and they have never taken dictation or did any sightsinging courses. taking out the ‘book learning’ and moving toward an oral tradition based on performance (singing and playing by ear) is a more useful path.

    respectfully submitted (i hope you take it that way),


  5. David Salvage says:

    I haven’t seen the star/ jazz/pop vs. classical orientation you have, Paul. But I can certainly second the value of getting ear training when young; it’s those students who have been clearly the best in my ear training classes.

    Here, again, though: there’s actually no news in this situation. If students didn’t have any exposure to doing math while young, they’d be terrible in college-level math courses.

  6. paul bailey says:


    to me the current pedagogy is not helpful for the students who have not been exposed to musicianship before college. i see too many students being given a ‘charity C’ because they show up to class and try hard without actually improving that much.


  7. it’s cuz ear training is scary! i think some people people get test crazy every time they have to go sometimes. I knew a guy that almost had a heart attack during an ear training exam, he got so stressed.

    Picking stuff out at the piano or your guitar, just for fun and then getting better and better at it is why I think Paul’s onto something. It’s supposed to be fun cuz it’s like magic! Hear a tune and see the score in your head – weird!

  8. Brian Vlasak says:

    “it’s cuz ear training is scary! i think some people people get test crazy every time they have to go sometimes. I knew a guy that almost had a heart attack during an ear training exam, he got so stressed.”

    Precisely. This is exactly why I had my students perform in duets the majority of the time. This was done for two reasons: first, to alleviate the stress issue and, secondly, to reduce the amount of “Shoot! What’s the sol fege!? What’s the tune!?” If two people were to perform, the odds are in my favour that one of the two would continue to carry the tune when the other fumbled. Pedagogically it worked well. :-)

    … but it’s TOUGH and, quite frankly, a great deal of work. I think that this problem could cast a harsh light of reality on the tenure system: why teach something difficult when I could sit back, dig out notes from grad school, and enjoy my guaranteed paycheck. :: grins ::

  9. Rob Deemer says:

    Hey Paul,

    I totally agree with you…the typical aural skills regimen is out-of-date and ill-suited for students at that level. My thinking wasn’t as much for giving music educators teaching techniques, but rather more general pedagogical concepts (getting students to hear when a chord change has happened, being able to hear something in your head without vocalizing it, etc.). I started out transcribing jazz solos and big band charts years before I even dreamed of composing and had no idea I was preparing myself for college AS classes.

    The list you gave was important – especially the private lessons. The primary reason why most A.S. classes are so damned difficult (and usually somewhat ineffective) is because of the disparity between skill levels between students – some have perfect pitch but no clue about context, others are still working on their ears and others have a really hard time matching pitch. It’s a challenge when one has to teach 25 of these students two or three times a week in a classroom environment – which is why private instruction early on emphasizing playing by ear and transcription exercises (in a non-test environment) is a very good thing.


  10. While I certainly agree that the tenured professors should have to teach intro-level courses once and a while, I don’t feel that way about the ear training labs. Farming out ear-training to grad students seems entirely valid to me, in part because often there are enough grad students that you can break theory classes out into smaller groups for ear training, which works well. Large seminars are fine for the lecture/discussion portion of theory, and it’s a good place to give students a little access to senior faculty, but ear-training labs really ought to be much smaller. I do think it’s crucial for undergraduate music majors to have access to senior faculty. On the other hand, if senior faculty really doesn’t want to teach intro courses and grad students and junior faculty still finds it exciting, it’s probably better for the students to be taught by the people who are happy to be there.

    The most basic problem, I think, is that the hiring criteria for faculty, especially at major universities and schools with graduate departments, underemphasizes teaching. The entire academic industry suffers from divided loyalties between their teaching and research missions. Great researchers (I’m using a very broad definition of this term to include composers, poets, etc.) aren’t necessarily great teachers, and great teachers are not necessarily great researchers. Striking the correct balance between these often conflicting missions is tricky business, and I don’t really have any good ideas about how to eliminate the conflict.

  11. phil fried says:

    “..I suppose this irony extends across the entire American education system: elementary school teachers are “more important” than college professors–since everyone by law must attend elementary school but not college. And yet the prestige is in teaching college–not kindergarten…”

    David you have this reversed–In education its the teachers who teach the fewest students that are deemed the most important. Even with the same salary level those with fewer contact hours have the “better” jobs. Jobs and fellowships where you don’t have to teach at all are considered the best.

    Phil Fried

  12. Cary says:

    While I trained for the traditional theory/comp job (DM, Indiana 1994 or so), jobs like this were just damn scarce when I graduated. (I currently work in public radio with several other degreed composers, but I maintain an active career as a composer and musician.) I still give visiting lectures at schools all over the world now and then. This perspective allows me to give an “outside” opinion without fear of academic retribution.

    Most teachers are dedicted and talented, doing the best they can, often under adverse conditions, and helping students to catch up to where they should be for a professional or academic career. But many of these teachers have had not nearly enough experience in the “real” world of music, having gone from their doctorate to their first gig to tenure.

    The world has changed, and while sight singing and theory are (imho) still essential training, some of my best teaching experience was gained as a grad student while teaching these under the guidance of expert teachers at North Texas and Indiana–and several of these were student instructors themselves. That said, I have always encouraged my students, both private and institutionalized (take that however you like) to apply there newly acquired skills, again and again. That’s ultimately the best training, though tests are a helpful measuring device.

    And a bit off topic, students should really take some good marketing, software, programming, and business courses along the way. I gave a lecture at IU last year, and saw 150 or so student composers in the audience. I couldn’t help but wonder where they are all going to teach theory and comp when they graduate. I hope the job market has improved. Good luck, David!

  13. Marie Incontrera says:

    I agree! I too am a young and naive adjunct and love these two courses, would love to teach them as well for years to come. I just got finished teaching my first course, a “Music writing 101″ of sorts, and I have to say it was one of my most valuable musical experiences to date.