David Thurmaier about music theory and The Beatles

Lukáš Pavlica Jiří Čevela Rozhovory 1/2018

Foto: James Allison


Professor Thurmaier, I am really grateful you have found a little bit of time in your busy schedule to answer a few of my questions! You have spent some time in the Czech Republic thanks to the Fulbright Scholar Program. How exactly does this work and how long have you been to the Czech Republic?

I spent January through the first days of July in Brno as part of the Fulbright program. I had always wanted to live in another country and apply for a Fulbright award, but my research areas are focused on American music so I don’t usually have to travel far. But in this case, I was able to devise a research agenda and teaching plan in the Czech Republic, and fortunately I was selected to be in Brno at Masaryk University. It is a great honor to be a Fulbright Scholar, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

But this was not your first time here, am I right? How many times were you in the Czech Republic and what made you come back?

That’s correct – I had been to the Czech Republic every year since 2011. My partner, a musicologist named Martin Nedbal, is Czech (from Valašské Meziříčí) and returns to the ČR every year to visit his family and do research. Fortunately, I get to visit as well! I love so much about the ČR; the people, the culture, the musíc, the scenery, the proximity to important European cities, and of course the beer. I especially liked being in Brno because of its vibrant academic scene, its numerous cultural attractions, and the fact that there aren’t many (American) tourists unlike Prague.

You are a Professor of Music Theory and Chair of the Music Studies Division at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, and I also know about your passion for Charles Ives, but what was the goal of your research here in the Czech Republic?

Yes, my main research area is on Charles Ives’s music, as well as the music of the Beatles. But my research in the ČR was different. Another area of interest for me is music theory pedagogy, a course I teach at UMKC. My main project was to examine how Czech students learn music, where they get exposed to music theory instruction, and what sorts of materials they use (textbooks, etc.). I was able to interview five different music teachers from „basic“ school to gymnazium, to the Janáček Academy, and a pedagogical faculty member at Masaryk University. They all were gracious and shared much of their time and wisdom, and I learned so much about how music is taught. I also realized that the US cares far less about how music is taught, let alone music theory.

As a secondary project, I also studied how the Beatles were received and perceived in Czechoslovakia during communism. I met a musicologist at Palacky University, Dr. Jan Blüml, who has written much about the reception of western popular music during communism, so I really enjoyed getting to know him and discuss this topic in depth.

What were the results? Could you compare it somehow to American standards? Did the students here in the Czech Republic were interested in the subject or not really? What changes should or could – from your perspective of view – be made in music theory teaching?

I am still working on putting what I learned together into publishable research. I did present a paper on Czech Beatles cover versions during communism (specifically during the „Prague Spring“) that I am going to turn into an article. My pedagogical research will be a longer, ongoing project.

Everyone I spoke to in Brno was very interested in my project, although at first they asked me why I would be interested in knowing how music is taught in the Czech Republic! I explained that the Czech educational system pays much more attention to teaching the arts (music, art, theater, dance) since children can enroll in programs at such a young age. The US has nothing similar, and the state of music education in much of the country is not good.

Regarding the teaching of music theory at the college level, I am still reviewing different curricula from Czech universities so I will be able to elaborate later. I did donate many recent theory textbooks from the US to the Masaryk University library so that students and colleagues can get a sense of how US music theory is taught.

At how many music schools did your research take you to? Were you interested in the different levels of music theory learning and studying?

As I mentioned, I went to a „basic“ school, two gymnáziums, the Janáček Academy, the pedagogical faculty at Masaryk University, and I spoke to someone who teaches after-school music. I think all levels of music theory learning are important since if a student does not have a good experience or start as a young child, he or she will not do well later. The earlier exposure the better, in my opinion. I was interested to learn that some of the instructors told me that they teach music theory, but they try to make it practical for students; this is an excellent approach and something I try to do in my own teaching.

Are you going to continue in this work and return to the Czech Republic any time soon? And if so, are you going to change the approach somehow?

Yes, definitely! I will be back in Spring 2019 (and beyond) for future research trips to learn more. I am also still studying Czech privately, so I hope to gain access to more materials beyond what has been translated into English. I would like to observe some classes at different institutions sometime to learn more about how theory pedagogy works. And of course, my Beatles projects will continue as well.

From what I came to understand you are a big fan of The Beatles. I have also found yours and Chris Bragg‘s „I've Got a Beatles Podcast“ loaded with the insane amount of information about this great band! How it happens that a Professor of Music Theory and Chair of the Music Studies Division is so much into… lets say „popular music“? Do your students see you as a well educated rock star?

Ha! I don’t know if I am a “rock star,” but being a strong Beatles fan does make me immediately connect with my students. I became a Beatles fan when I was 9 (our music class sang two songs at a concert) and have never stopped learning about and loving their music. As you mentioned, I do a podcast that reaches a wide audience, and I have also published and presented research on the Beatles. I even taught a class on the Beatles while I was in Brno, taught at the Scala Cinema (it was very fun!).

In today’s world, especially in the US, most students come to college with more knowledge of popular music than classical music. In many ways, the Beatles can be considered the Bach or Beethoven of popular music, and students enjoy making connections between genres and different types of music. I also include examples from the Beatles’ music in my music theory classes, since they were very advanced harmonically and melodically. So while I spend most of my time as a classical music theorist, I like to study popular music as well.

Do you have any other favourite contemporary bands? How American scholars receive your enthusiasm for popular music? To be honest, it is not really common here in the CR to study this kind of music on an academical level.

Yes, I discovered that it is somewhat rare for music scholars to study popular music in the CR (apart from Dr. Blüml in Olomouc). The situation used to be similar in the US until the 1990s, when many respected scholars started writing articles and books about popular music in a serious manner. Nowadays, it is quite common that a music theorist or musicologist has a research area in popular music.

I love a lot of bands and artists. My popular music interests usually lie in singer-songwriters, or “indie” bands. To name a few: Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, Josh Rouse, and many more.

What do you think of the state of the music industry nowadays? I mean with all of its variety and differences. Are people eager to listen to classical music? And how well received is the contemporary music in America?

It’s very complicated because technology has changed the way we think of music and its production. On the one hand, it’s amazing to have access to practically every recording available on your computer with a few clicks; on the other, it’s scary to have access to everything available so easily, and this ability has challenged many of our long-held beliefs about what music means to us.

In the US, at least, classical music is still somewhat of a niche genre, though I am continually impressed at how passionate and knowledgeable my students are about the music they study. But while classical music may not have the popularity of popular music, that’s okay to me. We have been predicting the death of classical music for hundreds of years and it’s still here. The music is too good not to keep studying it. And contemporary composition has really invigorated many orchestras and other performing groups because there are so many prominent and interesting composers working now. Where I live in Kansas City, Missouri, we often hear contemporary operas as well as contemporary pieces played by the symphony orchestra, and there are several groups in the city that focus only on contemporary music. So classical music is still alive for sure.

Do you compose your own music? If so, do you play it yourself?

I used to; my undergraduate degree is in music composition, so I did write a lot when I was younger. But strangely enough, since I became a theorist and much more of “scholar” (whatever that means), I find it much harder to compose music because I can’t stop thinking of how my music sounds like someone else’s! Maybe I haven’t found the right approach yet. I did write many pop/rock songs and recorded many of them, so that was another outlet for my compositional interests.

How known is the Czech music in America nowadays? Apart from Dvořák and Janáček of course. Because to be fair, most of our students probably heard only about already mentioned Charles Ives and few other (especially film score) composers.
Apart from Dvořák and Janáček (and maybe some Smetana), I’d say that most Czech music is unknown in the US. There have been some performances of the so-called “Terezín” composers recently (e.g., Haas, Klein) but sadly there is not much Czech music on concert programs and in universities apart from places where there is a specialist on the music working. While living in Brno, I became enamored by the music of two Czech composers from very different periods, Adam Václav Michna z Otradovic and Bohuslav Martinů, and have been trying to interest people in their music since I returned. One Czech (who later became an American) whose music is often performed by bands, in particular, is Karel Husa. But we could hear much more Czech music, in my opinion!

Are there any goals you would like to achieve? On an academical or personal level?

Can’t think of too much at the moment – I enjoy my job, personal life, ability to travel and explore new things, and so on. I would like to write a book on either Ives or the Beatles (I have a few project ideas in mind), but otherwise I’m doing well. But having the Fulbright opened my mind to so many new things that I will be forever changed by it. I can spend the rest of my career exploring what I learned in the Czech Republic.

Oh, I want to become more proficient in Czech. As I mentioned, I am taking lessons and really enjoying it, and I hope to converse more fluently in my future trips to the Czech Republic. Once I get all the case declensions learned, I will be happy!

Professor Thurmaier, thank you very much for your time and answers! I am looking forward for your next trip to the Czech Republic!

Thank you, it was a pleasure and I look forward to keeping in touch with all my Czech friends and colleagues.

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