Terry Riley

Is Music Grading a Bad Thing?

Here's a blog post from composer Daniel Wolf regarding the Texas Board of Education's University Interscholastic League.  This is an organization that controls athletics and music in Texas schools.  For those of us in music education, the UIL governs a lot of what we do.  The North Carolina Bandmasters Association uses some of the UIL structure in its own concert festivals regulations.  Now, it may seem strange to combine scholastic sports with music.  Goodness knows the two seem to be in constant competition with one another.  I think there is something utilitarian and super-efficient about this Texan bureaucracy, and I think that's part of what has appalled Wolf.  We artists shun the notion of categorization (at least explicitly), and the idea that some group of jocks in Texas might somehow influence music education around the country is intensely offensive.  I'll leave it to the linked article above to explain the details of the UIL and how this influence is wielded.  I will say, however, that the North Carolina system does not govern marching band festivals, nor is it governed directly by the North Carolina Board of Education. I think there are obvious benefits to grading music for adjudicated festivals--mainly, it is necessary to divide bands by their levels of proficiency.  Comparing bands of greatly differing abilities isn't very useful.  Thus, the bands choose their music from a list that arranges a finite number of compositions by difficulty.  My middle school band is playing Grade I, the easiest because we're a small band with mostly beginners.  It wouldn't make sense to be compared with larger bands with more experience.

However, where I am most interested in Wolf's point is the idea that this set-up introduces bias into music education.  I agree wholeheartedly that it does.  The list is finite.  There is a procedure for adding other pieces, but I haven't looked into it.  The system makes it too easy to buy from the publishers and composers on the list.  I can't see why the list can't be evolutionary and infinitely expandable.  Sure, have a panel of conductors to review new music for difficulty, but not for anything else. There's no reason to exclude any new music; let the individual teachers decide what they want to play.

Not only is there an exclusionary bias inherent in having a list, there is also a bias in the band world against new music, and that doesn't help our students.  I am rehearsing Terry Riley's In C this semester in honor of the groundbreaking piece's 50th anniversary.  The piece has no meter, no key, no phrasing indicated, no dynamics, no parts, and not even any instruments indicated.  A typical adjudicator wouldn't have anything to judge.  But, the notion that music must have all these elements was discarded decades ago--at least outside the band world.  Inside the band world, these are the foundational elements of music.  I'm not suggesting we stop teaching students these concepts, but let's keep going.  Let's show them aleatory music, improvisatory, atonal, music.  That extended techniques and experimental timbres in the music of George Crumb are powerful.  And most importantly, that these new music concepts aren't novel or weird--that you can phrase Schoenberg just like you would Brahms... or Swearingen.

©2017 Joshua Harris