The popular musician, poet, and activist Bono is quoted as saying that “music can change the world because it can change people.” While the ethical qualities of music may be indisputable to some, those who place a high value on the liberal arts educational system understand that the word “music” in this sentence could just as easily be substituted with literature, art, or philosophy and elicit an equally profound effect. This is because schooling in the liberal arts builds a foundation of knowledge in the individual that is intrinsic to understanding and wisdom. The liberal arts foster the development of the intellect and the strengthening of the mind that enable the student to evolve the skills of critical thinking and analysis that are so vital to human interaction and productivity in the world. I too believe very strongly that the enjoyment and study of music can change people. Through my teaching of music I seek to nurture in the student a love of learning and to help him or her to reach their highest potential of educational achievement and understanding.
Educational theory gives credence to the concept that each student has unique talents and modes of learning. As a teacher I wholeheartedly embrace this diversity and endeavor to cultivate those individual talents that inspire new and varied learning experiences. Therefore, I utilize classroom techniques that cross the boundaries between recognized instructional approaches or models to provide an optimum environment for each student to achieve established learning objectives.
One way that I have been able to vary my teaching techniques is through the use of technology resources. An indispensable complement to nearly any presentation these days, and necessarily expected by students, are the now ubiquitous digital slides that are used as a two-dimensional guidepost to emphasize main points in a lecture, and to clarify terminology. While this is a standard part of my lecture, I also use them as a locus of discussion and informal assessment of student comprehension of material. For example, after discussing the types and forms of Gregorian chants and the church modes, I will display complete chants on a slide (an entire chant will fit nicely on one slide), and engage the class in a discussion of the formal and technical aspects of the pieces. The goal here is to get the students to apply principles previously presented. While the students are analyzing the examples I am silently assessing their knowledge of the material and emphasizing main points and providing clarifications when necessary. This approach both facilitates meaningful review of the material and begins the processes of synthesizing what the students have learned. It is also one strategy to get student actively involved in the class and in the learning process.
Of course, not all students are always as eager for, comfortable with, or respond to this sort of participation, or the class size may not always be conducive to a significant amount of in-class discussion. In these circumstances I have found the judicious use of an audience response system an effective tool in getting students used to the idea of interacting in an anonymous and non-threatening manner. This technology is also valuable for providing a no-pressure and low-stress way of gauging the students understanding of the course material.
Another area of frequent anxiety by students is the aural recognition of the musical literature requirement. Here again I use the positive reinforcement and review of practice quizzes. The post-quiz review is another good opportunity to reiterate stylistic features or analytical points. A variation on teaching aural recognition is to utilize a video of a performance of a piece that is on the listening list. In this way students who may be somewhat intimidated by strictly aural study or those who are more inclined to visual learning have another pathway to obtaining the material. In addition, this can open up a discussion on certain aspects of performance practice such as gesture or conducting.
Primary source material is a valuable and necessary component to historical studies on any level and I widely incorporate them into my teaching. They comprise such materials as excerpts from theoretical writings, literature, and quotations by composers as well as images of musical manuscripts, paintings, architecture, and musical instruments. By integrating these elements into the study of the history of music creation and performance I also fulfill the important mission of interdisciplinary studies within the liberal arts. I feel that this approach also brings to students a dynamic and vivid aspect to historical study and stimulates creative thinking about musical culture. One such example of a piece of artwork that I utilize is the Renaissance painting known as Portrait of a Musician, which is often attributed on stylistic to Leonardo da Vinci. This work provides an interesting way to introduce students to the artist’s contemporary Josquin Des Prez by not only illustrating by comparison the stature of this composer in this period, but also by demonstrating similar issues of attribution in the work of the musician.
As an educator in a field that incorporates liberal arts studies into the curriculum it is incumbent that I foster the development of critical thinking in the students. This is why I cultivate critical expression in oral and written communication. In the past I have had music majors write short essays or research papers on a subject related to the course. However, the results were at best mixed and, in all honesty, at times dreadful. Determined to produce better outcomes in this area I took a different approach by getting the students to first express their ideas in discrete cells of thought. For example, in discussing the musical rhetoric of late-sixteenth century music I have students express their opinion about what emotion they feel is portrayed in each musical phrase of a piece. I then ask them what specific musical qualities they believe were responsible for creating the attributed affection. The objective is for the student to be able to relate compositional techniques to musical affect, while at the same time begin to constructively organize his or her thoughts. This is a first step in developing the apparatus to articulate one’s critical thoughts about a piece of music in a cogent and direct manner. The next stage is for the students to write an abstract of a few hundred words that clearly encapsulates a concept discussed in class. Using an incremental approach the students better learn the process of writing in a concise and thoughtful way as well as develop the ability to synthesize their knowledge of a subject. In addition, they learn a model of how to present their own research ideas.
If I have done my job well when they leave my students will not only possess a thorough understanding of musical history, literature, and culture, but they will also have enhanced their ability acquire new knowledge and have gained the ability to discern that knowledge with a greater vigor than before they stepped into my class. This is a strength that will guide them in all future endeavors.