Teaching

 

In my mind, music students—whether they are majors or minors, amateur musicians pursuing other fields of study, or students studying music formally for the first time—are defined in no small part by the sheer number of questions that they hold about music, and by the quality of those questions. These inquiries range from the very general ("where did music notation come from?"), to the very specific ("how did Mahler create that striking sound in the slow movement of his Fourth Symphony?"), to questions so startlingly perceptive and precocious (“wait, if the third of the V chord is the leading tone, can you treat the thirds of other chords like leading tones?”) that they incite, for example, deep discussions about tonicization and modulation in only the second week of Theory I. My primary goal as a teacher is to nurture this inquisitive spirit: to help my students learn to ask the right questions, and to equip them with the tools to eventually find answers for themselves—since, if I’ve done my job, they’ll continue to ask big questions long after they leave my classroom. Promoting deep intellectual engagement with music requires both a rigorous grounding in musical fundamentals and advanced compositional and analytical concepts, and a nuanced understanding of the history and cultural contexts that produced those concepts, and how those contexts continue to influence our applications of theory today. This unified approach, a cornerstone of my teaching, helps musical study take its place as a vital aspect of a liberal arts education.

In my classroom, I emphasize the interconnectedness of the various theoretical disciplines. I help my students develop skills in listening to, analyzing, and critiquing music in all forms, whether it is presented to them only in sound (in recordings or live performance), simultaneously in sound and notation, or only "on paper." In much the same way, I help my students produce music in a variety of forms. They use their theoretical knowledge to inform improvisation and live performance, to use notation to express their musical ideas completely and accurately on paper, and also to become comfortable with processes of recording and producing music and sound, using software like GarageBand, Audacity, Sonic Visualiser, and Logic. This focus on basic musical competencies across modalities helps me to generalize my teaching approaches across repertoires and time periods, and to flexibly engage students with varied musical and academic backgrounds.

In order to encourage these skills, I emphasize both the process and the product of musical pursuits. In my classroom, I strive to keep students actively engaged, often asking them to stand and sing the examples we study, or work through musical problems (such as harmonization, figured bass, and analysis) at the board or in small groups. This not only keeps students on their toes and physically engages them, but provides ample opportunity for peer instruction, collaboration, and individual attention as I move around the room from group to group. The time constraints of the class period, and even the physical limitations of the blackboard, can often conducive to bursts of creativity, and I've found that a playful approach to music making and composition helps students to unlock their potential. I took advantage of this, for example, in one memorable lesson that saw my students compose their own variations on a given theme, and perform and critique their classmates' compositions, within a single class period. A collaborative, open environment helps music students of all skill levels to relax and grow. 

The video below describes one experiment in model composition under a time constraint: a lesson for which I won a "Teaching Innovator" award from Harvard's ABL [Activity-Based Learning] Connect Project.

 

 

My work with the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard has deeply affected how I view multimedia in the classroom--as a tool, or rather a set of tools, for thinking. Media assignments should not only be clear about their desired outcomes, but should be tailored to help students take advantage of the particular affordances of, for example, video, photography, or sound production. So too should the instructor's engagement with technology: we shouldn't use digital pedagogical tools simply because they're in style, but rather because we want to accomplish specific tasks and make possible particular ways of thinking, teaching, and learning.

At the Bok Center, I have also been involved in developing, testing, and refining techniques for the rapid production of pedagogical video, such as our overhead camera rig, demonstrated in the video below. See my full write-up of the project and its potential uses in the classroom, in the 2015 issue of the online journal Engaging Students.