Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Teaching Philosophy

I've been updating my official Teaching Philosophy for my tenure file. It may be of interest to you gentle readers, especially after the good discussion that followed my post on teaching contemporary music theory. So here it is, feel free to critique or comment:

This statement of my teaching philosophy is organized into four sections. In the first section, I describe my approach to teaching music. It will cover why I teach music, and my views on the whole discipline. The second section discusses the purpose of music theory in the curriculum, and how this governs the techniques I use in the classroom. The third section details the purpose of musicianship in the curriculum, and again will show how this purpose governs my teaching strategies. The last section outlines my philosophy of classroom management, regardless of the topic being taught.

I live and breathe music. I can’t imagine a more perfect melding of emotion and intellect, sensation and intuition, than the artistic organization of sound. I teach to spread the gospel that music can feed the mind and the soul, and that we can discourse on music at very high levels of thought. If students can learn to organize their thoughts on the abstract and ephemeral aspects of music, those skills will aid them in any discipline. They are learning a discipline that teaches problem solving, a mighty work ethic, creativity, and self-expression. Schopenhauer called music the most direct expression of the Will, our inner being. Hence the study of music is very appropriate in the liberal arts curriculum.

In the music theory curriculum, students should learn how music is organized into different languages and styles. Because of the emphasis on tonality in performed literature, this language receives more attention than modality or post-tonal languages, though in today’s markets I think more time should be spent on contemporary music styles than one half-credit course. As a practical extension of learning how these different languages work, students should also learn the basics of composition. This introduction should be extensive enough to encourage interested students to continue composing. Students who are not interested in composing music should still gain an appreciation for the discipline and artistry that goes into any musical composition. Students also need to realize that music is a living art, constantly being recreated. It is very easy to regard art music as a static canon, museum exhibits to present as we marvel at the genius of our ancestors. Students need to learn to compose and improvise music so they can feel how it continues to grow and change.

Communication is very important for musicians. They need to explain performance decisions to each other, whether it is coming to a consensus in a chamber group or giving orders as a conductor or section leader. Teachers need to tell students how to play, and why it is important to perform a piece a certain way. Audiences need to be cultivated, through critical reviews, liner notes, and pre-concert lectures. This communication requires terminology. Music theory provides terms and concepts for the communication of ideas about music, from the simplest ideas about pitch and rhythm to the complex ideas of set theory and Schenkerian analysis. Without this vocabulary and these varied views of how music works, musicians would be mute, unable to express in words what they truly think about the music they love.

Analysis is not just about expressing a musician’s current views about a piece. Analysis, like good writing, is a process towards learning about a piece, altering opinions as knowledge grows. A good music theory curriculum teaches students to identify the confusing, amazing, sublime, and faulty within a musical work. It teaches students to interpret what they hear and feel, and to link it with the languages and styles that songs and symphonies float in. Analysis also reveals alternative performance and listening opportunities. A performer that is adept at researching a piece to find the either/or’s will always be able to turn out a fresh and moving performance, even at the fiftieth repetition. A student that is able to identify different listening strategies will never get tired of his/her favorite music, even at the thousandth hearing.

The academic and artistic rigor of music theory is coordinated with the physical and mental skills of musicianship. Musicianship teaches students to become fluent in hearing and performing the relationships between different pitches and rhythms, melodies and harmonies, and form at both small and large scales. A standard musicianship curriculum is mostly about tonality and standard meters, though in Musicianship IV I do lead students into modality, atonality, and asymmetric meters. Musicianship improves sight reading, and allows musicians to approach their performances from an organic rather than mechanical perspective. Musicianship gives them more awareness of what they are hearing and feeling when they listen to music or perform music. Most music majors already have a sense of tonality and meter, they just don’t realize what it is, or how to describe what they are hearing/feeling. Musicianship also provides a language of solf├Ęge and metrical/rhythmic terms to improve communication with other musicians in rehearsals and lessons. Improvisation is a major element of musicianship, “speaking” the languages of tonal or atonal music in extemporaneous ways to demonstrate facility and to express emotions and aesthetics.

I believe in a combination of humor and strict policies in managing the classroom. Strict and clear policies on homework, exams, and attendance show the students that I will treat them fairly, equally, and that I will determine their grades through clearly defined and objective standards. No policy will envision all situations, so I do allow the possibility of relaxing rules if an unforeseen event warrants it. Fair and clearly communicated expectations are always my goal. Using humor during lectures tells me if students are listening. If the students are not laughing, I need to re-establish connections so the students won’t miss important ideas and facts. Alternatively, the joke bombs, but it still sparks attention. Dictation and sight singing can be scary activities, and humor can help to reduce the tensions that are natural in a musicianship classroom.

I have been moving away from strict lecture formats in recent years, preferring to use small group discussions, the Socratic method, and other means of student involvement. It takes longer to cover the same material, but I feel the students absorb the concepts more deeply. Thus overall the non-lecture formats are more effective. Sometimes lectures are still necessary, especially when a particularly difficult concept is first introduced. But ultimately the students should lead their own education, with me as a guide and resource.


Peter (the other) said...

"But ultimately the students should lead their own education, with me as a guide and resource."

I like that, and much else in your philosophy. As someone who is trying to work out the plan for the first course I will ever teach (this fall), I appreciate your writing on the process very much. If you get a chance, perhaps some of your experience with what works and what doesn't would also be appreciated.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

At some point I'll try to do that. It is difficult, since most of my failed experiments in teaching tend to be very specific: bad jokes, badly planned lecture, badly designed assignment (many of those).

Where will you be teaching (from your blog post I gather it will be a film music course)?