Making changes in my teaching technique

January 8, 2007

For many years I began my 2 year music theory classes with a so-called “commercial.” Very often these were litlle pieces of big-brotherly advice to college freshmen, still adjusting to being away from home. The students loved them as much as I enjoyed telling them. Nowadays, I find I am less interested in giving unasked for advice. To replace this I will be asking every class member to do a “show and tell” which I’ve changed to “show and teach” for the first 2 or 3 minutes of the class. It can be anything, but it must be about music. Each of these mini-lectures are useful to the student by learning to speak in front of one’s peers about something that they are passionate about. We get to peak into their personalities in a way we never would have with this exercise.

Another technique I am looking into is teaching SATB part-writing exercises in groups of two of like abilities in an in-class workshop setting rather than piling on harmony homework. Each will take turns solving harmonic exercises while the other watches and critiques. Then, the two exchange their work with another duo, and the correct each other’s work. The process of working together as well as having to correct and identify errors in each other’s work has great promise.

In the same spirit that many graduate programs require a reading proficiency in a language or two, but are not required to speak it, I think for a general core theory program, a working knowledge of how harmony works and how counterpoint works just might be sufficient. Does every orchestral player need to know how to compose four part harmony in the style of Bach? Composers? Yes. Arrangers and orchestrators? Yes. Conductors? not always. Performers? It can enhance their understanding but it is not always necessary. Scholars? Should have a working knowledge of harmony, but it is not necessary that they compose themselves.

I bring this up because the amount of homework in our burgeoning music theory classes is skyrocketing. We, and many others, are questioning the same old, same old tradition of teaching the materials and literature of music.

Another technique I am trying, is having a syllabus that does NOT have a dateline for the various issues we will be covering. If it takes three classes to cover a particular chapter in our text, then we take three classes. Ditto if it only takes one class. We are moving at a good pace, and knowing that I have the class for the next year and a half, we can explore every topic on the syllabus as extensively as we wish.

In addition to the show and teach, I will have students play excerpts of music they are working on. We will talk about the passage, analyze it to the extent we can, discuss the instruments, illustrating idiomatic writing for them as illustrated in the piece, and have the performers discuss what was exciting about the piece and what was the most difficult (for instance). Music history majors and ethnomusicology majors can bring music or articles of interest to our attention in lieu of performance.

I am trying to keep our eyes and minds in the scores of the music we are studying. We will be looking at music for all ensembles. That being said, I will be playing music that has no score and try to have the class analyze it in the same spirit they might analyze a Beethoven piano sonata.

The musical times have changed so much. Core music instruction needs to update its curricula. I’m not saying that my attempts are the answers, but asking “is that all there is?” is something all music educators might ask themselves.

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Catalysts & Connections
January 16, 2007 at 10:23 pm

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