While discussing music with Roberto Pace, the most dangerous place to be is between him and a piano.
In the span of just a short conversation, he darts back and forth between his seat and the piano bench repeatedly and plays bits of memorable melodies and illustrative examples as they come to mind. He draws on works by Bach, Brahms, Chopin, and Stravinsky, among others, from memory.
Pace says he plays examples in exactly this way in his Musicianship classes, sampling widely from music by classical music’s big names – “those enormous sages of tone,” as he calls them – as well as from popular favorites that students know and can relate to. He lists “Uptown Funk” and “Happy” alongside works by Bartok, Beethoven and Schubert as potential sources for teaching material.
Musicianship, formerly known as Fundamentals of Music, introduces students to concepts in harmony, counterpoint and ear training. “I don’t like to call it music theory,” he says. “It’s a way to enable the student to master any musical story that’s being told.”
Students who are especially interested in music reach a point, Pace says, where “they realize it’s not enough just to play their instrument.” At Settlement, students might take Musicianship at the recommendation of their teacher after several years of individual instruction; other students, after studying music elsewhere and looking for a new challenge, might come to Settlement in order to take Musicianship and deepen their study.
The goal of Musicianship, which has been part of Settlement’s core instruction for decades, is to develop a good ear and the ability to sight-read or sight-sing; the adage Pace has devised for the class is “see what we hear, and hear what we see.”
Though Pace’s musical knowledge is formidable and the students in Musicianship may take their studies seriously, the class isn’t a dry, formal exercise. “I’m giving them the tools to grasp it without making it too academic,” he says, adding that his favorite moment of teaching is “seeing recognition and depth of understanding… this ecstatic surprise, like ‘I never knew… whoa.’”
In addition to teaching Musicianship, Pace also provides individual instruction in both piano and music composition. He’s a composer himself and has written pieces for a number of his fellow faculty members, in addition to Settlement's Gleeksman-Kohn Children's Choir and other ensembles such as Mélomanie, Chamber Music Now!, and the Elysian Camerata. He has several composition students each year, and with each of them he aims to help them develop “a consistent musical language, and to create their own idea and follow through with it.”
Pace used to tour and perform widely as a pianist, and he stresses the importance of live performance to his students. “When you see people play, and when you see the focus and intensity and hear the extreme range of dynamics and color, it’s much more meaningful,” he says.
In the classroom, though, when the situation calls for music that’s bright and clear, or deep and rich, or hazy and complex, Pace heads to the keyboard to supply some meaningful and mind-blowing performances himself.