On Teaching Music as a Liberal Art

May 1, 1997

Have you read the "The Eastman Colloquium on Teaching Music as a Liberal Art," published last year as CMS Report Number 10? In 1990 Robert Freeman gathered some marvelous teachers—Samuel Adler, Truman Bullard, Kenneth Levy, George Todd, and Robert Winter—at Eastman to discuss their teaching. Their descriptions of what they have done are inspiring. I commend the report to every member of The College Music Society. Each of us will want to digest those ideas and use them to spur us to enrich our own teaching. Don't overlook the open discussion at the end, in which the audience had a chance to challenge the panelists very penetratingly!

Recently I spent seven hours in a van with eight students returning to Tallahassee from a regional meeting—tired, sometimes punchy, often very thoughtful. Besides contemplating the possibilities of a Ph.D. dissertation on station-wagon songs—and rehearsing much of the repertoire—we discussed teaching music appreciation and music history. We had shared a lively panel discussion on pedagogy at our meeting—a kind of "mini Eastman conference"—and each student had ideas that had come out of that exchange.

One important observation came from a doctoral candidate who is herself a fine teacher—a musicologist with earlier degrees in music education and performance. She had noted the centrifugal directions in which fundamental assumptions about teaching in our discipline seemed to fly. She observed that our divergent premises had been obvious by implication, but that no one attempted to resolve them or even took much notice of them. She worried that we could hardly agree on our best pedagogical approaches unless we agreed on what we intended to teach, and that students would emerge with no common sense of what they should know or be able to do.

She is absolutely right about her first point: how we teach needs to grow directly from what we intend to teach. A few weeks earlier my Pedagogy of Music Literature and Appreciation class had discussed the problems of testing. We began by asking, "Where should we start when we begin to make up a test?" The first answer a student offered—I suspect he was kidding me and knew he would get my dander up—was "Go back to the tests you took as a student and look for good questions there." Fortunately, before long another student suggested, "Review your course goals and your unit and lesson objectives," and we were able to go on to principles of what sorts of tests work best for evaluating difference concepts, knowledge, and skills, and from there to details about each type of test.

The first student's response, though, represents a real problem. What appears as a nifty pedagogical tool, like a good test question, may not transfer well from one situation to another. If we don't keep in mind what we want our students to accomplish, merely adopting flashy teaching tricks may not bring good results. Before we hear that a particular technique or tool is effective, we need to hear: "If one wants to teach. . . ."

In the final analysis, the important quality of the successful teacher will always be flexibility to match students' starting positions to a clear idea ofthe pedagogical goal and to lay out the best particular path to get from point A to point B. Ultimately, we do not teach knowledge or skills—if we did, we could master a set of teaching tricks and be done with it. We teach students, and what we need to know first is not teaching techniques but our goals and our students.

Returning now to my critical graduate student's second concern—that we have not agreed what our goals are—we might feel with her that this puts students at a disadvantage, but we might also argue that it benefits our discipline in the long run. Even if all students did all things equally well, that might not lead to an ideal world. At the college and university level, there are myriad ways in which musicians should be able to develop.

As one reads the report of the Eastman Colloquium, it becomes clear that the speakers and audience represent diverse ideas about teaching goals. Sometimes these are explicit; sometimes, only implied. The variety itself reflects a healthy situation, even though it meant that the participants often disagreed about approaches.

Our first priority should be to decide—each institution and each teacher—what we believe it is most important to accomplish. We should not do this in isolation but should seek and welcome ideas from our colleagues to enrich our goals and sometimes even to alter them. We ought to get feedback from our students and especially from our alumni. Then, after we decide our goals, and always keeping them in mind, we can explore and develop our teaching strategies and techniques.

The College Music Society offers special opportunities to discuss our various ideas about teaching goals with colleagues from other places and from complementary subdisciplines. Because CMS is made up of teachers and students and not of institutions, we exchange thoughts with people engaged directly in this enterprise day by day. Because the Society does not evaluate our various programs, it exerts no pressure toward conformity but freedom to share our most imaginative ideas.

Take advantage of the Society's many opportunities to refine, refresh, or rethink your own teaching goals and strategies. Read CMS Report Number 10. Participate in the Society's workshops and summer institutes. Plan to attend the Annual Meeting in Cleveland in November and the Regional Chapters' meetings in the spring, to meet colleagues and discuss these issues formally and informally. Join the online discussion. CMS can help us all find new ways to help our students achieve even more.


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