I believe that effective teaching at the university level develops students into motivated, independent learners who can connect what they know with what they discover. By doing so, students not only become more engaged with the learning process, they are also able to more deeply understand their own prior knowledge and experiences. For music students, this prior knowledge includes not only their skills as a musician, but also their emotional connection to music as individuals, which may include their favorite composers, pieces, artists, genres, as well as their community of musician peers. Thus, effective music teaching empowers students to cultivate a deeper appreciation for their own musical identity.
In my teaching, I achieve this goal by asking students to: 1) reflect on their prior musical knowledge through an analytical perspective; and 2) master new analytical skills through practice and feedback. I begin by identifying the music that students are currently interested in, regardless of genre. Next, I guide students as they listen anew to these examples to discover a specific analytical concept (e.g. the major scale, intervals, cadences). Afterwards, students practice this new concept and receive feedback on their performance by analyzing additional examples on their own and in small peer groups. Finally, students demonstrate their mastery by composing original music using the same concept.
At York College, I apply the above strategies in different ways. In my recent Fundamentals of Music Theory course, I introduced the major scale by asking students to listen to singer-songwriter Jon Bellion’s Hand of God (outro), a song that one of the students listed on the course survey as her current favorite. After listening, students analyzed a notated transcription and played excerpts on the piano keyboard. By analyzing the pitch content of the vocalist’s melody and rearranging the pitches on the staff, students discovered the intervallic pattern of the major scale. Similarly, in my upper-level Form and Analysis course, students listen to examples in both classical and popular literature to discover similar phrase structures and cadences. Students further practiced these new concepts by analyzing additional examples from both popular and classical repertoires. Finally, students created short pieces for piano that demonstrate a given concept (e.g. a contrasting period) by using the web-based notation program Noteflight and listening to a playback of their pieces.
I discovered that this strategy of connecting the unfamiliar with the familiar helps students become more proactive learners. Before applying these strategies, I prioritized the ability to practice and learn music theory terminology (e.g. note reading, chord identification) by emphasizing the use of internet-based exercises and flashcards. However, students soon began equating music theory with the ability to perform computer drills, and it became increasingly difficult to relate these drills back to the music itself. As a result, I revised my courses to instead prioritize the students’ own musical backgrounds, critical listening, and composition. Since making this change, I can see students listening more deeply to the music that they love.
To conclude, students become engaged and independent learners by developing the skills necessary to connect the unfamiliar with the familiar. As a result, students not only see the common connections that exist across musical genres and styles, they also cultivate a deeper understanding of their own unique musical identity.