MTSU’s School of Music distinguishes itself by offering a truly retro musical education
by Drew Ruble
Music historians would agree that the creation of the electric guitar and amplifier changed modern music. Out of the centuries-long shadow of the plucky, acoustic sounds of a wooden guitar emerged a cacophony of sounds ranging from crunchy to throbbing to shredding. Plugged in, musicians could now play loud enough to reach the ears of listeners far across a field or sitting in an arena’s upper deck. But for all that electric guitar innovator Les Paul contributed to music (and culture) through his creation, the electric guitar was by no means the first evolution of an instrument that ushered in seismic change to the world musical landscape. As George Riordan, director of the MTSU School of Music can attest, the evolution of instruments including the violin, the oboe, and the piano three centuries earlier had just as seismic an impact on the music and culture of earlier generations as plugging in did on this one. And at MTSU, the study of that evolution has become a thread running through the education of music majors.
A Change of Tune
In the 18th century, or the late Baroque and Classical periods, orchestral music was the privilege of, well, the privileged. Composers like Haydn earned their living writing and performing music for dukes and duchesses and their private audiences. But as the middle class began to rise and the aristocracy exerted less economic dominance, the patronage system began to wither. Composers were pushed out of the palaces and down more entrepreneurial musical paths.
Artists such as Mozart and Beethoven not only wrote symphonies and concertos but also booked theaters and even sold the tickets to their performances. And since playing to bigger and bigger audiences meant making a better living, such performances moved into bigger and bigger concert halls, which required revolutionary changes in the instruments—and a change in the roles of some instruments—to adapt to increasingly larger performing spaces, which simply demanded louder playing.
Consider the oboe, which in Baroque times was used mostly to double the string section. With the new demand for volume, the oboe’s function (and thereby its design) changed in order for it to function as a prominent solo instrument above the orchestra for brief intervals, then to duck back into an accompanying role. Similarly, the violin emerged from its role as a quiet instrument used primarily for dance and was refashioned to produce a brighter sound with a raised pitch, making it more dominant. Alterations in bows, in particular, produced more volume and sustained phrasing. Significant change also came to the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument, which plucks strings to make a beautiful but modest sound. The early pianoforte, which we know today as the piano, used small hammers instead of a plucking mechanism.
Musicians then could play soft (“piano”) or loud (“forte”), and composers had many new ways to incorporate nuance into keyboard phrasings. These changes (and others) led to the modern orchestra.
Riordan, an oboist equally deft with Baroque, Classical, and modern models, emphasizes that such change—while needed—did not necessarily mean improvement of the instruments.
“All this change was great in terms of reaching larger audiences, but it also required tradeoffs,”
Riordan says. “You’re solving one problem but maybe creating another one. For instance, you add volume but lose something of the expressive nature of the instrument when you change it to fit different circumstances.”
Riordan says altering the basic sound and response of instruments also changed the musician’s approach to the music.
“This meant performers altered the way that they played the older music to better fit their modernized instruments. In the process, many stylistic elements from the 17th and 18th centuries were lost, and performance of older works became profoundly different from the original conceptions of the composers.”
How does all this history apply at MTSU’s School of Music? Due to the wealth of period instruments—and faculty specialists—at MTSU, the University has an unusual advantage over many institutions with similar music schools in that its students get more exposure to the “root” instruments that apply to their chosen concentrations.
For instance, trombonists at MTSU can experiment with the sackbut, a Renaissance instrument, and might even get a chance to perform with it.
Others might perform on Baroque trumpet or horn.
“In doing so, they begin to understand what it felt like to play these instruments 300 years ago—and there are profound differences,” Riordan explains.
“Old brass instruments didn’t have valves. Everything you did, you had to do in the mouthpiece—for example, blow harder to play an octave. When our students get a chance to pick up and play around with these period instruments, it gives them fresh ideas to apply to the modern instrument. That’s why we’re interested in it here.”
Similarly, MTSU students working on a Haydn or Mozart sonata can experience the very light touch that was needed on a 1780s fortepiano (the term used today to refer to an early piano), or how brass performers used an entirely different range of harmonics.
“Once you play a period instrument a little while, it teaches you to phrase in a certain way,” Riordan says. “The instrument teaches you what is possible. Then you can take that knowledge and experience and apply it on the modern instrument.”
The use of historical instruments by faculty members is a research tool and pedagogical enhancement to the study of modern instruments—it’s not really an end in itself at MTSU.
“Our main mission in terms of our students’ applied music performance is to help them become the best performers on their “native” instruments that is, the modern versions, but older instruments can help inform performers about the stylistic intent behind older music,” Riordan explains.
Is such an infusion of period instrument knowledge common at other music schools? While programs like the Juilliard School in New York and Indiana University have whole divisions devoted to period instruments, most universities boast at best a faculty member or two who might be interested in period performance (usually a pianist who might also play harpsichord).
“To have all these Baroque instruments in our instrumentarium at MTSU, the faculty members who play them, and students who can use them and to have it all integrated into the curriculum is unusual,” Riordan says. “We have several faculty members who regularly perform with period instruments. Here at MTSU, it is seen as something that goes along with the modern instruction—that is parallel and enriching.”
What is most unusual for music schools the size of MTSU’s (perhaps even unique) is that there is a significant number of individual faculty members (ten) who have experience performing on old instruments, although this is still very much a minority of the faculty. Some students do get a chance to play and even perform on old instruments while at MTSU, but all music majors (and many nonmajors and community members) have a chance to experience period-instrument performances.
Such period-specific instruction is a trend in higher education, and it’s also shifting the classical music landscape. According to Riordan, performers today are certainly capable of creating compelling performances of Baroque and Classical music on modern instruments, but many now choose to perform on instruments typically in use at the time the music was composed.
“The thinking of these period-instrument performers is that the old versions of instruments more readily allow for the re-creation of the music in the ways that the composer intended, resulting in a more historically informed performance,” he explains.
Partially due to the period-instrument movement, instrumentalists are increasingly taking a more sophisticated approach and attempting to perform the music from various periods in historically appropriate ways on modern instruments. Given their significant exposure to period instrumentation, MTSU School of Music students can be considered to be on the leading edge of that movement.
A Band for All Time
Some 10 full-time MTSU School of Music faculty members play on 17th- and 18th-century period instruments and are able to re-create the style the composers would have expected, so that their music may be heard with all its original color and passion.
The horns do not have valves of any kind but do have interesting extra tubing called crooks. Angela DeBoer, horn, uses a (valveless) Classical period natural horn to introduce the harmonic series to all first-year music theory students, so all undergraduate music majors are being taught a theoretical concept using a historical instrument.
Trumpet professor Michael Arndt (also incoming president of the Faculty Senate) has all his students play the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on natural trumpet and then on their modern instruments, to inform their playing.
A few students study Baroque flute with adjunct professor Jessica Dunnavant, and trombone professor David Loucky has had interested students perform on sackbut and ophicleide.
Of interest to Andrea Dawson, violin, and Christine Kim, cello, are the tip and frog (the lower end) of the modern and Baroque bows; the strings, which are gut; the bridge, tailpiece, neck, and fingerboard; and the lack of a chin rest on the violin and the lack of an end pin on the cello.