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The status of the B.M.-piano performance degree.

The Importance of Pianistic Diversity in Bachelor's-Level Training

How many pianists do you know who, after college, pursue careers strictly in the field of solo piano performance? I personally know none. Yet, how many undergraduate piano majors spend the vast majority of their college careers studying, polishing and performing solo piano literature? Most! It is exactly this dichotomy that led me to undertake a thorough examination of what a traditional B.M.-piano performance degree requires in terms of curriculum, then pose important questions in terms of the practicality and marketability of these students upon their graduation. A pianist's post-college life is richly diverse and multi faceted--it is my opinion that a pianist's undergraduate training should prepare students for this reality. As a disclaimer: I am not, in any way, recommending that the study of solo piano literature be discouraged or in any way slighted ... doing so, in fact, would negate my 11 years of college study, which includes B.M., M.M. and D.M.A. degrees all in piano performance. The thorough study of solo piano literature creates a refined pianist and forms one's technique and comprehension of style, articulation and pedaling. I am strictly recommending that in addition to this wonderfully rich and rewarding literature, we strive to diversify our curricula to help ensure our students' success upon graduation.

Piano Pedagogy

(A B.M.-piano performance requirement at 89 percent of schools surveyed [73 of 82 institutions])

Teaching is a part of daily life. How many students have you taught that claimed, "I never want to teach" or "Teachers are pianists who are not able to make a living playing"? Sadly, we all have most likely heard one of these misinformed statements at least once. Yet, how many pianists do you know who do not teach in some capacity? Call it "coaching" or "master classes" or "mentoring," every pianist (every musician for that matter!) shares their knowledge and insight in some capacity. Because of this truth, our undergraduate curricula should effectively and methodically train our piano students in the art of teaching students of all levels and ages. A two-semester curriculum is most practical: semester one--preschool through early-intermediate level students, semester two--intermediate through advanced level students. The curriculum at each level should include: study of the history and pioneers of pedagogy research at each level, study of the mainstream (and non-mainstream) piano methods and philosophies, intense repertoire surveys (and appropriate pedagogical grading of repertoire), and the use of technology to aid and enhance teaching at all levels. Students armed with these basics upon their graduation will be more immediately successful in their teaching, and will hopefully avoid many of the "teaching growing pains" many of us experience at the beginning of our teaching careers.

Keyboard Literature

(A B.M.-piano performance requirement at 84 percent of schools surveyed [69 of 82 institutions])

While an intense repertoire survey should take place in the pedagogy classroom, a comprehensive keyboard literature curriculum must exist; the main purpose of the repertoire survey from the pedagogical slant is to characterize appropriateness and grading strategies, while the main purpose of the keyboard literature curriculum is to arm students with the historical and aesthetic impact composers and their music have had on piano repertoire. A two-semester curriculum is recommended: semester one--early harpsichord music through Beethoven, semester two--Beethoven through the 21st Century. The keyboard literature curriculum should include: intense study of the main keyboard composers and their comprehensive musical contributions in each piano genre, a thorough study of the different national "schools" and contributions and cross-fertilization of each, the evolution (and resurrection) of the different piano genres, societal influences on the creation of piano works, an intense and continual listening component, and frequent writing assignments of an extended nature. The information gained in the keyboard literature courses will not only immediately aid students as they study and prepare solo piano literature, but will give them a greater understanding and appreciation of piano literature--and will plant the seed for lifetime learning in their chosen field.

Accompanying and Chamber Music

(Accompanying study is a B.M.-piano performance requirement at 77 percent of schools surveyed [63 of 82 institutions], and chamber music study is a B.M.-piano performance requirement at 60 percent of the schools surveyed [49 of 82 institutions])

I was very surprised to find out how many schools do not have an accompanying and/or chamber music requirement for their B.M.-piano performance majors. The idea of piano being a "lonely instrument" simply is not true; the piano is unique in its ability to display its accompanimental and soloistic attributes within the same piece of music. Students trained in the many unique skills an accompanist must possess have more success and ease than those who are not offered this skill set. A three-semester minimum is recommended for accompanying, and an additional three-semester minimum is recommended for chamber music. The accompanying curriculum should include: individual and group instruction in the media of voice/piano and instrument/piano, diverse performance experience with both vocal and instrumental soloists, opportunities to hear and comment on accompanying performances by peers, an intense listening component and familiarity with prominent and successful accompanists, a repertoire survey and overview to allow students an appreciation of this vast repertory, and an introduction to accompanying techniques such as sight reading, transposition, "damage control," score reading and continuo realization. A chamber music curriculum should also exist, again with a three-semester minimum. This experience should include: survey of major chamber music genres, which include piano (a minimum of two instruments and/or voices plus piano), study and performance of at least one substantial chamber work per semester, opportunities to hear and comment on student chamber music performances, and an intense listening component. Since many piano students are not given the opportunity to perform in an instrumental and/or vocal ensemble during their college years, these accompanying and chamber music experiences are their primary means for gaining an understanding and appreciation for the great vocal and instrumental traditions.

Jazz and Improvisation

(A B.M.-piano performance requirement at 5 percent of schools surveyed [4 of 82 institutions])

An overwhelming majority of the B.M.-piano performance degree curricula in the United States do not include any jazz or keyboard improvisation component. Though it is unrealistic to expect all of our piano students to be fluent in both the classical and jazz idioms, we are doing our classical piano students a disservice by not exposing them to the world of jazz notation, nomenclature and performance. Each B.M.-piano performance degree curriculum would be made more practical and timely by adding a one-semester minimum jazz piano course. Even the most serious and determined classical pianist can benefit from studying this form of musical expression. Classical piano students who study jazz for a semester or more look at music differently; for example, voice-leading in a Bach fugue can be viewed with the same skill set as examining a jazz solo transcription, and theoretically based memorization techniques are further strengthened by an intense study of chord structures and progressions in a jazz course. Each introductory jazz piano course should include: a mix of individual and group instruction, a study of elementary voicing and comping techniques, an overview of chord structures and chord extensions as they relate to jazz performance, a variety of improvisation strategies, and frequent opportunities for jazz performance and feedback. Upon graduation and admission into the "real world" of piano teaching and performance, pianists will rely upon their jazz experiences during their college years to feel at ease to discuss, advise and teach, and maybe even perform in the jazz medium.

Functional Keyboard Skills

(A B.M.-piano performance requirement at 24 percent of schools surveyed [20 of 82 institutions])

The vast majority of the B.M.-piano performance degree curricula in the United States also do not require a functional keyboard skills course. Again, I believe this is a disservice to our students, who will invariably graduate and live more musically diverse lives then they are able to realize while in the sheltered world of academia. A one-semester minimum keyboard skills course would prove extremely valuable to all B.M.-piano performance students. The curriculum in this course should include the study off sight-reading strategies and techniques, score reading (both choral and instrumental), harmonization techniques and varieties, improvisation strategies (non-jazz), transposition (of both accompaniments and orchestral instruments), and play-by-ear exercises (primarily folk-song based). Functional skills courses such as this prove extremely useful to music therapy and music education majors; since B.M.-piano performance students are not required to take any class piano courses, because of their advanced piano standing in the department, they miss out on many of these most practical and useful keyboard skills.

Other B.M.-piano performance Degree Curriculum Considerations

During my curricular study of schools throughout the country, I was impressed with a number of additional offerings required of B.M.-piano performance students at some schools. These additional requirements include: harpsichord, organ, keyboard sight reading, introductory continuo playing, introductory piano technology, vocal literature, class voice, concerto performance, and art song repertoire. Including one or more of these courses either in the B.M.-piano performance "required course" list, or in the "directed electives" list, would prove useful to the budding professional pianist.

Our B.M.-piano performance curricula in this country do not always accurately reflect the lifestyle and requirements of the post-college pianist. We live in a continually evolving and diversifying society in which pianists are expected to wear many hats. I truly believe that a few simple changes and additions to our B.M.-piano performance curricula throughout the country would not take away from the great traditions of studying classical piano, but would, in fact, enhance this study and provide a greater service and more opportunities for our students enrolled in these programs.

It is our responsibility, as teachers and mentors to make sure we are equipping our students with all the tools necessary for them to lead productive and successful musical lives as they carry the pianistic torch to future generations.


For further information, including a list of WIU's 166 peers (public "Master's Large (L)" institutions), and from that list, a list of WIU's 82 peers that offer the B.M.-Piano Performance degree, and the B.M.-Piano Performance degree requirements at those 82 institutions, go to, click on "Publications," then "American Music Teacher," then "Bonus Bytes."

Research Origins and Background

This research, which took place in the Fall 2006 semester, was the result of a sabbatical leave from Western Illinois University. Unhappy with, and in many ways unclear about, the practicality of the piano performance degree we were currently offering, I decided to undertake a comprehensive survey of all of our peer institutions. Western Illinois University is classified as a "Master's L" University by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and is one of 350 schools across the country with this classification. For the purposes of this project, I studied only "Public not-for-profit" institutions (which narrowed the list from 350 to 166), then zeroed in on the institutions that offer the B.M.-piano performance degree (which narrowed the list from 166 to 82). I researched B.M.-piano performance degree requirements in the areas of: keyboard literature courses, piano pedagogy courses, accompanying and/or chamber music requirements, and jazz and/or improvisation requirements. After gathering this valuable information, I went a step further by directly contacting the keyboard area coordinators at each of these institutions, asking them about their B.M.-piano performance enrollment numbers their acceptance policies, their jury require-their practice room situations, and their students' post-baccalaureate academic and professional paths. The information, opinions, and suggestions in my article are a direct result of this research.

Tammie Walker has a B.M. degree in piano performance (summa cum laude) and M.M. and D.M.A. degrees in piano performance and literature. Walker is an active clinician and adjudicator and is coordinator of the keyboard area at Western Illinois University.
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Title Annotation:Bachelor of Music
Author:Walker, Tammie
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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