Teaching Basic Musicianship: An Ode to Chaos

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Emily Frey, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2011

Of all the classes I’ve taught at Berkeley, the most challenging ― and by far the most fun ― has been Music 20B, Basic Musicianship II. This class is the music department’s equivalent of pre-calculus: it’s intended not to introduce new concepts, but to shore up existing skills in preparation for more advanced coursework. 20B is not a popular teaching assignment among Music GSIs, in part because the main course objective, helping students to improve their sight-singing, is so abstract, and in part because the course, neither strictly academic nor strictly practical in orientation, calls for a rather ad hoc approach to pedagogy. Proficient sight-singing, after all, involves an incredibly diverse skill set: the ability to a) parse musical notation; b) “hear” the notated pitches, rhythms, and performance indications in one’s “mind’s ear”; c) produce those pitches and rhythms accurately with the voice; and d) monitor and (when necessary) correct the output in real time. Because a natural facility in one of these areas does not imply proficiency in the others, it’s impossible to predict from the outset what a given individual or class will struggle with, or which exercises and teaching methods they’ll find most helpful. Add to all this the fact that 20B grants the GSI an unusual (and intimidating) level of independence: not only must she design the course syllabus on her own, but she must also do it without the benefit of her peers’ insights and experiences, since the department offers only one section of 20B per semester, compared to six of 20A. The lowly sounding course title is thus deceptive; teaching Basic Musicianship II is a baptism by fire.

Desperate times, I thought when I received the assignment, called for experimental measures. With its mélange of skills, requirements, and student backgrounds, 20B is chaotic by nature, and it seemed unproductive to try to work against that. Sight-singing is usually taught by having students prepare melodies independently, with class time devoted to critiquing individual performances. This seemed backwards to me: in my experience, musical learning ― like most learning, I think ― has come less from having some expert tell me I went flat on the third note than from struggling with material, attempting to make sense of something that seems utterly unruly and impenetrable. Why not make that struggle, that chaos, the point of the class ― why not make process the goal and product the reward? The obvious pitfall to such a method was that it would be impossible for me to give sustained attention to individual members of a class of 30 – but here the wide range of abilities and experience levels in the class could be turned to an advantage, as the students could use their differing skills to assist each other in producing vocally what they saw on the page.

I decided to divide the class into quartets, with each student assigned his or her own part to sing. Every Tuesday, I’d give each quartet a different choral piece relating to some central musical theme (be it songs in the Dorian mode or sea shanties), and the students would spend half of class on the knoll behind Morrison Hall, sight-singing through their assigned pieces in foursomes. I’d float around these little islands of cacophony, offering a helping ear and some practical or conceptual guidance as needed. Then the students would take their pieces home to work on them independently, recombining on Thursday to polish and finally perform their quartets in a mini-concert at the end of class. Each week I’d amp up the difficulty of the quartet selections, and each week I’d be shocked at how well the Thursday performances turned out. Unusually for a two-credit course, the students seemed actually eager to practice their assignments outside of class time: not only was working with “real music” (as opposed to workbook exercises) fun, but nobody wanted to be the slacker responsible for letting his or her quartet down.

At the end of the semester, I tried an insane project: I led my class ― most of whom hadn’t been able to tell minor from major just six months before ― through a performance of the entire Mozart Requiem, one singer per part. No, ours will never go down as one of the great interpretations of that sublime and demanding piece. But honestly, I can’t remember a prouder moment in my entire musical life.