My pedagogical experience has ranged widely, from teaching undergraduates enrolled in music courses at a Research I university, to tutoring middle school, high school, and university students with learning differences. My pedagogical values, strategies, and goals have been shaped by a similarly broad background, from my public school K–12 years in a diverse, largely working class part of a Midwestern town, to my undergraduate liberal arts education at an Ivy League college, to my graduate training at a London conservatory and a large, top-tier U.S. university.
These experiences—as both student and teacher—inform my approach to teaching in different instructional settings. I have relished, of course, instructing the eager, dedicated student, whether it be an undergraduate music major or a tutoring client striving to overcome learning disabilities. But I have come to relish equally the particular challenges attendant upon teaching students of wildly different levels of preparation.
In my undergraduate music classes, I’ve had students who’ve studied piano since age five—who may well have learned to read music before the written word—sitting next to students for whom pitch and duration are entirely new ideas. I’ve had long-time musicians sign up to satisfy a distributive credit, and beginners, to test out a major. Serving both ends of the spectrum well can be a tall order. Less prepared students can feel intimidated by their peers, while better prepared students may feel impatient; both may question their place in the classroom.
But whether teaching the advanced or the beginning student, I try to convey that an education in music offers more than technical proficiency. I ask my students to consider that music is fundamentally about listening—listening as a gateway to sound, but also as a social practice. When we work on chamber music skills, for example—even just a basic rhythm—part of what we are learning is to find ways to coordinate with others. Entering at the same time, singing in tune, blending with other voices—these are direct as well as theoretical kinds of learning. Through music, we train students to engage with community, think critically, practice self-reflection, and recognize their ability to enrich culture and effect social change. Through music, we are training the whole person.
My commitment to teaching is really a commitment to share with others the richness music has brought to my life. One needn’t have played piano from age five or intend to pursue a career in the arts. In my experience, it’s appetite that matters, and an open mind and inquisitive nature that open doors.
Mentoring, Evaluation, and Curriculum Enhancement
I’ve had the privilege of working with many highly motivated students and enjoy the opportunities mentoring offers. I have routinely offered small-group meetings for students interested in learning about graduate school where we discuss areas of study, programs to consider, application strategy, portfolio design, and a step-by-step plan for their remaining undergraduate years. I have written letters in support of applications for study-abroad and graduate programs; arranged readings and performances of undergraduate work as a means of enhancing student portfolios; and built undergraduate involvement into residencies, offering students exposure to major figures in the world of contemporary music, as well as free concerts, performance opportunities, and resources for projects of their own design.
I make a regular practice of soliciting feedback early in the term, allowing students to express confidentially what’s helpful and what’s not, what they are struggling with (whether content or delivery), what’s receiving more attention than necessary. I find that inviting feedback at this stage makes a critical contribution to student success. I’m also on constant lookout for ways to enhance offerings already in place within a curriculum. For example, in TA’ing an upper-division theory sequence, I hit upon a way to provide an opportunity rare for undergraduates, but still aligned with the curriculum: I took advantage of the class’s increasing musical proficiency to constitute them as a choir and then invited the aspiring conductors in the class to direct the ensemble. We worked all term to prepare a single choral work, videotaped from start to finish and culminating in a public performance. All students gained from the experience, and the conductors were given a valuable addition to their portfolios for application to graduate programs.
Critical Thought Through Multiculturalism
As an educator—particularly one of Eurocentric background—I try to responsibly present a historically Eurocentric curriculum to a diverse student population. The answer is a moving target, one in constant need of reevaluation. But I believe that on a fundamental level it involves critical thinking—the ability to dissect a topic from a variety of perspectives. To take one example, in teaching about absolute music, I not only address the genre’s role within canonized Western Art music history, but also invite students to debate its philosophical underpinnings. What is the origin of meaning in (non-programmatic) music? Can “music for music’s sake” avoid implicit programs of taste, politics, and social attitudes? How to reconcile the notion of intrinsic “purity” with Duchamp’s conviction that the viewer completes the artwork? Or Schopenhauer’s assertion that “beside the history of the world . . . art is guiltless and unstained by blood” with the role of music in 20th-century fascism?
Similarly, I examine practices of cultural appropriation and Exoticism within a frame of postcolonial theory, challenging students to identify examples in both past and present-day media. What influence do these have in shaping our perceptions of other cultures? What are the historical and current power dynamics between those cultures and our own? How might music participate in maintaining (or dismantling) cultural exceptionalism?
These are just two of a multitude of ways that multiculturalism might inform music pedagogy. In whatever way the perspective is brought into the classroom, my aim is neither to exalt nor to demonize, but rather to cultivate broader understanding of music and those who create it, within and between cultures over time.
My experience, as both student and educator, is that a less ambitious agenda often yields better results. This conviction shaped my approach to Formal Analysis.
Having TA’d the course twice before being appointed as lecturer, I had the strong sense that an academic term was too short for students to metabolize all that the topic seemed to warrant. Rather than comprehensive exposure, empowerment was what I sought for my students—a sense of confidence diving into scores, no matter the form. Of course, for this one needs an initial vocabulary of models as well as familiarity with issues of balance, repetition, development, and the like. But I wanted to ensure our ambitions were modest enough to serve the broader agenda, and so chose to frame the course purely in terms of the classical string quartet.
Restricting focus, the question becomes: how to keep students interested? In a world of multitasking and media saturation, changing things up is crucial. I broke classes into periods of lecture, demonstration, question and answer, group discussion, and private meetings. Activities ranged from collaborative analysis to weekly musicianship training in sight singing, dictation, and keyboard skills—all based on the week’s quartets. Assignments included further analysis projects, concert attendance, and the composition of an original sonata form exposition.
By limiting the curriculum to the string quartet, I was able to devote substantial time to four principal forms of the classical period—sonata, variations, minuet and trio, and rondo—providing students the opportunity to get exposed, confused, reoriented, and eventually become proficient with the material. By approaching the curriculum from a variety of perspectives, we cultivated nuanced understanding. Though limited in immediate scope, the course offered utility well beyond the string quartet, as the same forms carry over to symphonies and chamber music of the period. Further, our models illustrated basic tendencies of the Western art tradition that inform music up to the present day. Should students later be inclined to broaden their vocabulary of forms, this course will give them a sturdy foundation.
I introduced my seminar on composition with the statement: “In this class, I invite you to be as open to failure as you are to success.” It was a nod to the essential role of risk taking in creative work, encouragement to push beyond the safe and familiar. I made clear that I was open to all aesthetics and that no background was required. Rather, I proposed that students view the course as a laboratory for experimentation. Students’ first assignment was designed to address precisely this issue: “Write a new one-minute sketch every day this week. When the day is over, your sketch is done, at which point forget all about it. We just want to get the music flowing. Do not worry about quality; this is simply an exercise.” At the end of the week, students were asked to bring in their results. I sat down with them individually and discussed the qualities of each sketch, asking them to choose one to expand into a piece. In this way, we were able to sidestep “masterpiece syndrome” and, by virtue of lowered stakes, open to creative risk taking.
The approach reflects a more general agenda I have for my students, which is to let go of grades as a primary concern. The tone struck during the undergraduate years can have a lasting impact. My goal is to convince students that they can afford to let their guard down, that relinquishing a sure-fire approach in favor of curiosity can be transformative, and that they can trust that vigorous pursuit of knowledge for its own sake will lead to a good outcome.