Cultural and Communicative Approaches to Teaching Music

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mathew Gelbart, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000

Music 27 is a large lecture class, with well over 400 enrolled each semester. As a basic survey, Music 27 satisfies a curriculum requirement for many, so students in the class always have vastly different levels of musical preparation. Some have played two or three musical instruments seriously since they were very young; they read music and are familiar with musical terms and repertoire. Others have no practical knowledge of music or instruments — in a couple of extreme cases, I have had a student who did not listen to any music, and one who did not even “like” music. The teaching “problem,” or challenge, comes when people with such different levels of preparation are thrown into very large sections (sometimes 40 students), and expected to participate constructively together.

In my experience, this class setting almost automatically makes those with less musical background feel threatened or disadvantaged. Of course, there are different skill levels in any class, and some students are simply better prepared than others. But I feel strongly that a course of this nature should not give musically experienced students an unfair advantage, especially since it is nominally geared toward those with little to no musical background. I want the less experienced students to come away not with an inferiority complex, but rather, with a new interest in some exciting music, and some new approaches to music in general. At the same time, it is important to keep the musically experienced students from being bored. This is my fourth semester as a GSI for this class, so I have had the opportunity to experiment with different means of redressing this situation. Here is one particular activity that worked well for me, and variations on this idea might be useful toward the same end.

Near the end of one semester, when we had studied a good number of musical styles or genres, I broke the class into several groups and asked each group to spend fifteen minutes actually writing and rehearsing a “piece” in one of the styles we had studied. For example, one group was assigned “expressionism”; they had to write a short piece mirroring fairly extreme emotions. Another group did “impressionism”; their job was to emphasize surface effects and moment-to-moment nuances. One group had to write a “program” piece, attempting to tell a story in sound without words. Yet another created an abstract formal piece focusing on balance and the “architecture” of the music. In most cases, specific pitches and rhythms were unimportant; it was the approach to organizing and performing sound that mattered. The students used no instruments, only their voices and objects around the classroom. They sang, hummed, banged things together, and made other creative sounds. After the preparation, each group “performed” its piece — they lasted about one to three minutes. Then the performers “analyzed” their pieces, with input from the rest of the section. This discussion focused on comparing the students’ own pieces to works we had studied in each style. The idea was to approach the pieces on the syllabus from a new angle: shifting the emphasis onto how the music worked from cultural and communicative angles, and away from technical terms.

I assessed the outcome of the activity from several standpoints. First, I could see immediately that it relaxed the general atmosphere and removed the sense that answers must be “right” or “wrong” on a technical basis — a sense that is otherwise often present, even when the GSI attempts to pose open questions. Also, I found that this activity was different from many other “group” activities in section, in which groups often come to be dominated by one scribe, reporter, or leader — often a student who tends to speak up in class anyway. Here, everyone had to participate in front of the class. It seemed to bring out of their shells some students who were normally quiet, and I noticed that some of these students remained more active in subsequent sections. Especially affected were students who were earnest and interested in doing good work for the course, but who did not have much musical experience. These were precisely the students I had wanted to target. Some students also commented specifically on their evaluation forms that they had enjoyed or benefited from the activity.