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. Matthews was a graduate student.

The other students were:
Kathleen Brown, undergraduate, University of Colorado
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.


Part of what makes an effective teacher is the department in which he works. A strong and well-balanced department can minimize individual weaknesses while allowing its members to develop their strengths. On the other hand, a weak and insecure department can distract a good teacher and nullify his work with a whole battery of subtle and overt pressures. The department should develop some sense of common purpose. Graduate work in music, at least in our school, involves contact with teachers in as many as four general areas: historical musicology, music theory, performance, and music education. (My own experience has been mostly with the first two, slightly with the third, and not at all, except elsewhere as an undergraduate, with the fourth.) The larger the department, the more specialized each teacher can be, and the more informed and informative about his specialty; but the more he can ignore everyone else's, at least in his own classroom. Thus, the performer who has been stung by a musicologist may cultivate permanent immunity to his suggestions; the theorist, enamored of his structures, can remain blind to their social and historical context; the musicologist may pursue his minutiae while the living music languishes; and the educator can apply his considerable pedagogical skill to every trendy crumb from the "media" table and avoid altogether the labor of exercising critical judgment. Of course I overstate—I haven't met all these people, although I hear they exist. But the message to all of them is clear: each division needs to be enriched through insights from all the others. The musical work, on paper or in performance, is interesting and worthy of study from many points of view. The teacher who knows this is the one worth going to school for.

Equally valuable is the teacher who can size up his students. Modern musicology, for better or worse, has made it impossible for the performer or the music educator to ignore the idea of music study as a branch of the humanities. If he is going to teach in a college, he must somehow acquire academic skills, and his teachers will have to show him the way, even though many of the necessary insights will seem irrelevant to him. The specter of "relevance" haunts the campus. The emphasis on the here and now in secondary and undergraduate general education has helped produce graduate students who lack skills and techniques important in humanistic studies (foreign languages are an example), as well as a certain depth of knowledge of history and literature. Historical and literary references which should strike a response somewhere in the graduate classroom fail to carry their point. I am not trying in some roundabout way to say, in effect, "no teacher ever erred by underestimating the ignorance of his students"; I am saying that graduate students today know perhaps more about politics, psychology and sociology than their predecessors, but less about art and belles-lettres and the historical process. So the college music teacher today must be prepared to lead his students by the hand along paths which he expected would be familiar. For example, from a class I took over one day recently: what could be more of a standard literary device than the deceived husband as a figure of fun—the cuckold? Yet he is hardly a contemporary figure, and the symbol associated with him (the pair of horns) is not frequently found in modern American literature. Therefore, the teacher who wishes to consider the significance of certain ritornelli for pairs of horns in the aria "Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino" from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro had better find out first how much non-musical explaining he will have to do and be prepared to fill in the gaps.

The effective teacher of a musical skill, such as the performance of an instrument or the aural-analytical perception of the musical language, must understand two aspects of that skill: first, how it is to be used; and second, how it is acquired. His own teaching should exemplify both aspects. But the ability to analyze learning processes comes very hard to some naturally adept performers and theorists. Their very facility works against them. They may have worked hard, but never really had to struggle, and thus they lack faith in the effectiveness of good teaching. It is not too much to ask that the teacher work through, for himself, the processes he will be asked to teach. This may require as much patience and diligence from him as it does from his students.

Any graduate student expects his teacher to have a strong grasp of the material of the course, but sometimes it is difficult for him not to feel inadequate, even incompetent, when faced with the overwhelming erudition of some of his teachers. We like to be impressed, even awed, but not to the point where our minds boggle and our eyes go glassy. This probably happens most often during introductory or survey courses designed to cover a predetermined body of material. Everyone likes a teacher to cover the material; I like the one who knows when to let it go. Digressions probably cannot be planned, but a short trip down a side road can yield unexpected treasure. For example, no one expected our survey course in chamber music to devote much time to musical historiography, but one day some chance remark led us to a consideration of certain aspects of politics and music scholarship in the 1930s and 1940s, much to the interest and enlightenment of the many students who were not even born until after the period in question. We did not cover all the scheduled material that day, but the session was lively and interesting. After three years, I still remember it.

A book could be written about the games teachers play. Every teacher brings a certain amount of psychological baggage to his job, but one hopes the load is never so burdensome as to disturb his relationships with his students. One trait is certain to cause trouble: the inability to say "I don't know" as often as necessary. In the interest of scholarly accuracy and the formation of proper scholarly habits, a scrupulous honesty must underlie every word spoken in the classroom. The teacher who forgets this is playing a dangerous game. In any reasonably informed graduate classroom, if he makes something up, someone will probably notice it. If he makes many things up, everyone will know it before long. There is a corollary operating here. No shame attaches to derivative knowledge. If the teacher's brilliant classroom presentation is derived from some outside source, let him credit the source before his students come upon it on their own. A review of the sources is a necessary step in considering any musicological problem. If it is good pedagogy to illustrate concepts with musical examples, it is just as important to show how, and by whom, those concepts themselves have developed. One more game deserves mention. A teacher can promote his own sense of power by keeping his students off balance and uncertain of their worth. This is counter-productive; most students are anxious enough without it. A good teacher will let his students know where they stand.

If my ideal teacher sounds like a cross between a saint and a boy scout, then it remains only to suggest the boy scout's motto—"be prepared." Each encounter with students should be organized to proceed with a sense of purpose towards some preconceived goal. I have said that fear and anxiety are counter-productive. But students will work hard for a hard worker. We recognize and respect diligence on the part of our teachers, and our diligence is a measure of theirs.

2169 Last modified on April 17, 2018