Imagining their own Lives in Music


Much of what I teach is a hard sell to students, given their diverse expectations. Everyone loves music, so a course about it should be easy and fun; alternatively, it could be a boring monolithic chronicle of repertoire that has little bearing on their own lives. How well I know their pain; in college I once cut classes during an entire unit on opera! I recall what my horn teacher quipped, when I began student teaching: “The biggest mistake teachers make is, they think they are going forth to impart knowledge.” Sure enough, experience revealed the truth of his words. The “creativity angle” is not an intuitively-derived pedagogy that comes with a degree in the Fine Arts. This was evident in my first years as a teacher, and later, in some graduate seminars where I labored to comprehend the pedagogical logic of professors content to merely present the supremacy of their field of expertise. “No wonder students hate this stuff,” I thought, “I hate it too, and I’m getting a PhD in this discipline!” For every “sage on the stage” moment I endured, I vowed never to teach that way.

Several amusing anecdotes and degrees later (and, ironically, a masters thesis on an opera topic), I have become an unlikely ambassador to studies I once deemed tangential to my own career plans. However, it would be a weak pedagogy that simply bears witness to "how I learned to stop worrying and love music history."

Authentically charismatic in my manner, I can’t help but share my passion for music as a performer, as a teacher, and as a scholar, all in ways that invite students to imagine their own lives in music. A thorough course syllabus, replete with ambitious learning outcomes, dissipates any notion that the course will simply explore how much students like or dislike songs. However, the rigor of my teaching to these outcomes elicits curiosity as to the source of my enthusiasm for studying music so deeply. Therein lies my first opportunity to engage students, by suggesting that they find themselves in the stories of others. Ultimately, I use music to show them the complexities of human experience as articulated time and again through the arts.

It takes diligent and deep listening skills to recognize all the ways that human beings have crafted sounds beyond speech, to express that which we call “music.” It also requires rich contextual frameworks to interpret musical sounds as influenced by sociological, political, cultural, and historical factors. Learning how to balance context and sound is the stuff of music history. The most effective approaches to finding that balance, I have learned, encourages students to use their creative selves in learning the material.

Learning to listen critically and contextually begins with attentiveness. We all process musical sounds on an initial sensory level, filtering them into basic classifications of like/dislike or familiar/unfamiliar dualisms that stem from our own sonic preferences. To move students beyond this surface plane, they study several representative works from an era, developing vocabulary and discursive methods to explain style characteristics they hear as consistent with generic parameters, from the Delta Blues to Renaissance motets. Thus, they create an aural map of expressive gestures that reference the societies that cultivated those sounds as representing their ideas, facts, values, and belief systems. Contextual listening facilitates an awareness of relationships between musical ideas that, on the surface, seem historically and culturally discrete. From this new knowledge emerges questions of students’ own making, a desire to know more.

Students probably don’t really expect to be entertained in music history courses, but many are often surprised at the rewards of learning deeply. For example, I ask students to evaluate textbooks and popular websites about the course topic; they conclude that these offer near-complete coverage of it. Why then, I query, can’t everyone teach themselves for three months and then take a big test on it all? Their overwhelming response is, “That isn’t real learning.” Their explanations of why this “all-Wiki method” fails underscores what they need in order to learn something of value: peer interaction, sequential learning modules, guidance on developing critical listening and reasoning skills, a competent teacher. Most of all, they seek a sense of meaning to all the facts they read on the page or computer screen.

Some learning tasks I assign give students teaching authority, in order to cultivate a sense of ownership over the material. Simple team-teaching activities (definitions or concepts) build their confidence. In my advanced music history courses, students record dialogues about selected works from the 19th and 20th century, all posted on a UST Blogsite. In preparing these scripts to demonstrate their knowledge and speaking skill, they often discover an enthusiasm for directing their own learning. That’s when I know they have arrived at the threshold of embracing an ethos of lifelong learning.

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