The Student View of Teaching, or What Students Expect of Teachers in the 1970s

October 1, 1973

Teaching is always a focal point of interest in Symposium. For Volume 13, six essays were commissioned from students by selected professors to provide a forum for those who are still on the receiving end of teaching. At the time of this writing, Ms. Brown was an undergraduate.

The other students were:
Ramona Hadgis Matthews, graduate student, University of Maryland
Katherine Rohrer, undergraduate, Emory University
Rosalie Schellhous, graduate student, University of California, Santa Barbara
Anne Trenkamp, graduate student, Case Western Reserve University
Loretta J. Wood, graduate student, Indiana University

Their essays were also included in Symposium Volume 13.


For many young music students, the jump from an informal high school program to an intense, formal college music curriculum is a difficult one. Part of the problem is caused by college professors who make certain assumptions about the past and future of these students. Unfortunately, these assumptions tend to cut the student off from essential musical understanding and experiences. Acceptance by a musical institution is thought to mean that students have already acquired a solid understanding of the basic elements of music. Professors now expect new students to have been previously involved in a wealth of musical experiences. Presupposing an extensive background in basic musical skills, professors are eager to introduce the future musicians to the more subtle and technical aspects of music. Thus the basics that many students have missed are often omitted and disregarded. Students find themselves reading about and discussing music rather than actively participating in musical experiences.

Instead of trying to refine and specialize the student's intellectual musical interest, the college situation should blow the field wide open and broaden the student's awareness of the infinite possibilities of music. A total education should also include opportunities for a student to develop a healthy, sensitive approach to performance. To make this possible, music schools need a creative program that will nurture and encourage the growth of individuals. In preparing students to become teachers, professors delight in espousing the varying theories of aesthetic education. When the field of aesthetics is held in such esteem, why is it not practiced at the college student's own level of learning? If an aesthetic rather than a "bring-home-the-bacon" philosophy were held by professors, music school would be viewed as the building of a base for a lifetime of continual musical learning and experiences. Unfortunately, however, many students succumb to the intellectual narrowness of musical training and come to view a degree in music as an end in itself.

In order to avoid this self-limiting outcome, it is essential that students acquire an understanding of music at its most basic levels. Contrary to popular belief, entering freshmen are not aware that musical elements such as melody, rhythm, texture and dynamics are the factors which contribute to the expressiveness of a composition. As untrained musicians, we listen to pieces at the most superficial level and tend to let musical sounds pleasantly wash over our minds. Therefore, the first and most crucial responsibility of our professors should be to teach students to listen with discrimination and awareness of specific musical elements. Until this most basic level can be achieved, it is useless to force-feed the learning of the "finer" points of music. What a burden could be lifted from students if music theory could be learned as a result of listening to and performing music rather than plodding through the detailed discussions found in most textbooks. A great deal of time is spent learning all the chord forms and their resolutions, but the student rarely learns to recognize their use in actual music. In an art that is said to be "sound in time," listening is the most important tool with which students build their musical skills. The ability to listen must be developed before real perception and understanding can be expected to take place.

After the student has become a more sensitive listener and has acquired an objective base of understanding, it then becomes essential for a student to become involved in the act of creating. This allows the student to manipulate his understanding of the basic elements into an expressive form. This self-expression will strengthen a student's awareness of texture, harmony, form and other elements of music, and will in turn further enhance his ability to listen with discrimination.

A third area which is generally the focal point of music school training is the art of performance. A large proportion of the student's time is spent improving his technique and thereby furthering his performance abilities. What many students and professors fail to realize, however, is that performance skill does not automatically generate musical sensitivity. For example, in singing a great deal of thought must be given to the text, the musical line, the dynamics and the relation of the accompaniment to the overall meaning of the song. If these areas are ignored or done carelessly, the total expression will be incomplete, no matter how magnificent the voice or how masterly the technique. In order to produce good performers, professors must be certain that their students learn to combine technique with the basic considerations of musical expression.

My last plea concerns the molding of students' interests. When attending a music school, students have the opportunity to become acquainted with many diverse aspects of music. Tuba majors can attend voice concerts and voice majors can become familiar with wind instruments. Unfortunately, students inevitably lock into their own narrow field instead of broadening their experiences. The tragic thing is that this limiting occurs before students become aware of the vast potentials of music. Part of the problem is that professors have specialized in their particular fields, and they in turn push students to choose an area and achieve certain standards of proficiency. However, in order to meet the proficiency goals, a student soon discovers that he has little time for any other exploring. Ironically, this result is exactly what should not happen when attending a school of music. Professors and students alike should learn to see beyond the four years of training. It is imperative that music school be viewed as the beginning of a lifetime of learning rather than as a specialized training experience. This specialization approach may bring glory for the moment, but it robs the student of the basic foundation which he will desperately need if he continues his art.

Finally, I wish to commend the professors who are teaching with an eye towards the future. They are bypassing the easy road of immediate rewards and are giving the students the means with which to discover their own paths to musical expression and understanding. In order to do this, a teacher must feel secure and confident of his own musicality. To insure the students' continuing growth, a professor must resist any temptation to mold the student in his own image and to use the student's talents to further his own professional career. Instead he should strive to create an independent, musically aware individual.

According to Bennett Reimer in A Philosophy of Music Education, "Music education is the education of human feeling through the responsiveness to the aesthetic qualities of sounds. The deepest value of music education is the same as the deepest value of all aesthetic education: the enrichment of the quality of people's lives through enriching their insights into the nature of human feeling." As future teachers of music education, we are taught to hold this goal as our guiding light. But as students of music today, this philosophy does not seem to apply to our own learning. When such an open-ended and beautiful aesthetic philosophy is available, why do we deserve anything less? In the interest of the total musician of tomorrow I would implore all professors of music to practice what they preach, today.

2224 Last modified on April 17, 2018