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Counterpoint texts and student struggles

I have three questions that I'd like to put to the community to get a sense of larger trends in counterpoint pedagogy:

1) What texts or materials do you use for an 18th century counterpoint course? Textbook publishers are notoriously difficult to get this sort of information from, and although asking this question here will certainly not give me a complete answer, I'm hoping to at least get a feel for what's being done out there. If you're not using a textbook, what materials (handouts, readings, scores, collections of exercises or examples) are you using?

2) What do you feel like are the most common issues that students struggle with? In other words, what trends regarding skills that are hard to master do you see across a large group of students? 

3) Specifically, what have you seen with regard to struggles students have learning how and when to use a tonal answer instead of a real answer? Do you find that your students successfully intuit or learn when to use a tonal answer by the end of a one-semester course? What are the most common patterns of difficulties that you see relating to this skill?

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  • 1. I use my book (with Christoph Neidhöfer), not surprisingly, and lots of scores.

    2. They can't play the piano and they need to review harmonic progressions.

    3. That's hard, and I've even had some complaints about our discussion of it. I think it's best not to start with the WTC, where the tonal answers are not intuitive, but start with a two-note subject 1-5, then answer 5-1, all the way up and down the keyboard, then gradually lengthen the subject (5-6-5-1 vs, 1-3-2-5), etc.

  • (1) There are obviously a number of good textbooks out there, and each of them has different emphases.  Whether you do Schubert/Neidhöfer, Gauldin, Benjamin, Kennan, etc. depends more on your pedagogical style and how you want to approach various issues.  I'd encourage anyone to spend time looking over various textbook options and see which seems to line up closest with your way of explaining things.  (Also, the kinds of exercises found in each book differ significantly.)  I will always end up supplementing with customized handouts anyway.  Regardless -- the textbook usually "takes a back seat" for me in tonal counterpoint; it's mostly there for students to have another source for reading and review. 

    The main thing for me is repertoire, and that will depend on what genres you want to emphasize.  Usually, I'd choose our main scores based on major projects I'll have the students do.  Obviously many people focus on J.S. Bach's inventions and WTC, but I've also done projects based on variations/ground bass, organ chorales, trio sonatas, etc.  I know people who spend an entire semester on one genre (perhaps culminating in a 2-part Bach invention), though I like to mix things up and have 3-4 major projects, usually with preceding assignments that get students started on the composition.

    My experience is that students will learn most quickly when given real composition exercises, whether it's only a phrase or a major project to create an entire piece.  "Canned" exercises from textbooks and workbooks are fine early on and for introducing a basic idea, and they're inevitably easier to grade.  But unless students have to write their own stuff, they'll rarely understand even the basics of such things as pacing phrases, harmonic rhythm, knowing how to use standard cadential idioms appropriately, entering and exiting sequences (especially for modulating ones), creating good motives and subjects, etc.  It's a lot more work and energy to grade, but exercises with more freedom will allow you to target each student's weaknesses more directly.

    (2) I agree with Peter that keyboard skills and fluency in harmonic progressions are problems (though I'd expand progressions to include all sorts of basic idioms of tonal music from sequences to standard cadence motions).  But even for students who understand harmony, I find the harder problem is getting students to realize how to imply strong progressions (with idiomatic rhythm) in only 2 or 3 voices, particularly if they're used to 4-part chorale type exercises.  I'd also list all of the things I put in my last paragraph, unless students have been forced to do more free composition exercises in an 18th-century style in earlier coursework.

    (3) This is a specialized question, and there are lots of approaches to it.  I think it's perfectly reasonable for students to pick up basic common patterns in a semester.  From my perspective, you can either try to teach a bunch of "rules" (that inevitably have exceptions), or you can approach the problem by trying to get students to understand tonal syntax and harmonization in a broader sense, so they have an "intuition" about why a real answer won't work in a particular case.  I personally use a mix of both.

  • 1. I use a “something old, something new” mélange of readings that includes parts of Fux’s Gradus, Schenker’s two books, and recent MT-article-based scholarship. The rest (the other 50%, I suppose) is all homespun.

    2. Making the jump from strict counterpoint to free composition.

    3. With a nod to Steve Rings, I’ve found that a scale-degree mapping of 1-->5, 2-->6, 3-->7, 4-->1, 5-->1, 6-->3, 7-->4, with the appropriate skews (as Rings calls them) that guarantee that all the transpositions use perfect intervals, works pretty well for a tonal [dominant] answer.

  • "What texts or materials do you use for an 18th century counterpoint course?"

    Regarding  "recent MT-article-based scholarship," teachers well might consider assigning Peter Schubert's "Contrapuntal Thinking in Haydn," SMT-V 1.2 (2015), an extraordinarily lucid discussion that students and scholars alike will enjoy.

    Poundie Burstein

    CUNY

  • Not exactly an answer to your questions, but I took my counterpoint (16th, 18th, and 20th centuries) course over summer, which allowed for a daily saturation compressed over half of the summer.  Probably a better way to dive in.

  • With regard to question 2, my students always struggled with seeing the link between species counterpoint and "real music." To that end, I wrote an article in MTO describing a method of applying species frameworks to music both contrapuntal and homophonic in texture. Its in MTO 19:3, and entitled Species Counterpoint with a Moveable Tenor (SCAMET). In essence, I use the longest note at any point in time as a   cantus note, and reckon the counterpointed voices against it according to species rules (with a certain flexibility... certainly flexible). It worked for me, when I taught counterpoint analysis.