Teaching Large General Music Classes: Suggestions for Lessening Anxiety

October 31, 1999

There comes a day in the life of all college music teachers when a task or assignment is given for which they are truly unprepared. For many, that dreaded assignment is the instruction of a large section of General Music. How is this done? Will it be "unenjoyable"? Can students really learn in this atmosphere? Can the large section prove to be as effective as the small class alternative in the hands of a properly prepared instructor? How does one conquer the huge class of 200, 300, or more? Consider the following suggestions for making the task easier.

First and most important, a large group needs a leader. Be that leader. Set the mood you desire or your crowd will choose its own. Give direction loudly, clearly, concisely and briskly. If there is a handout, instruct them to get it. Place them in seating areas exactly where you wish them to be, and do so with cheer, a smile, and fearlessness. Remember that it is the students who are first timers-freshman perhaps in their first day, attending their first class, and seeing their first college instructor. They are used to guidance and need it desperately, so give it to them immediately. Fear is deadly; if they sense you are unsure of yourself, they will quickly become a restless, unruly crowd. Remember that many thoughtful, quiet, peaceful people scream at sporting events every day without any second thoughts. Crowds foster their own type of energy for both good and ill.

Arm yourself with the proper equipment before you start. Blackboards are useless and dry erase boards almost as bad; they cannot be seen from the rear or sides of the room, and they cause you to turn your back on the crowdsomething that should be avoided whenever possible. Only the boldest students will talk out of turn, sleep, etc., when the instructor is facing them. Large screens and overheads work well. Have all terms, spellings, and diagrams prepared on overhead-ready sheets, or better yet, consider the use of computer-based technology. Programs like Power Point, used in conjunction with video projection, can liven up your presentation and effectively cut down the size of your room. With projection, bigger is better. The larger that you and your imagery appear, the smaller the overall room space will seem in comparison.

Get more sound system than you need and know how to use itbefore the first day of class. Put lots of short, illustrative examples on tape or minidiskin the order you need them and with a few seconds of space in between. You can easily play or pause the machine without having to sort through CDs, find specific tracks, etc., which, to a crowd, makes you look disorganized and not in control. You are far better off using a larger number of short examples to "tease" their interest rather than relinquishing control of pace and class tempo while a long selection is played. If you are not sure what examples you will be using when each day of class begins, then you are not prepared enough for a large section.

Get away from the desk or podium! Arm yourself with a cordless microphone and move throughout the room. A huge room can effectively be broken into smaller areas. Spend a few seconds making eye contact with students in one area, then glide to the next, sweeping your vision across as many students as possibleteaching as you walk. You will keep the attention of those you are looking at as well as those who are following your movement. Place your lecture outline on a music stand; prepare it in large, easy to read letters with important items highlighted in bright colors. Put it where you can pass by it easily. With this set-up, a mere glance can guide your thinking.

Think big in all you do; subtle gestures are lost on the masses. A simple, factual account of Beethoven's deafness may stir some, but not most. Picture a teacher on hands and knees holding an ear to the floor and pounding on an imaginary piano keyboard. The piano legs have been sawed off by a desperate Ludwig, the great composer willing to do somethinganythingin order to bring sound to his useless ears. This is a picture that will create an indelible vision for all, even those in the distant back rows .

Combat waning attention spans by focusing students' thinking and note taking with simple commands, such as "place a large arrow by this next itemit's that important"; or "underline this definition three times, please." Your students, like most students who may occasionally be prone to drift, will be clear on what is important for them to know and will have study guides built into their notes from day one.

Be prepared to "jump start" yourself and your students with something completely different from the subject matter you are discussing. Even your best lesson or lecture may fall flat on occasion. Keep abreast of the news. If it is a famous musician/composer's birthday, spend a few minutes in your history books and put together a quick outline. Pull a few recordings off the shelves. A quick ten-minute trip through the life and career of Madonna, Garth Brooks, or other pop culture hero can reenergize a groaning class lost to yawns. Then, go back with abandon to the previous subject, this time with the class following you.

Give up on the idea of taking attendance each day. It is a huge task that will become a true logistical nightmare. Remember, these are adults in those hundreds of seats. Those who want to learn will be there each day and those who don't will stay away. It is our calling to motivate, educate, and inspire all those who are capable of receiving our message. You are far better off as an instructor if the small percentage who feel "caged and held" in any educational setting are elsewhere, rather than in class serving as instigators of disruption in your classroom and thus altering the good chemistry that you are carefully crafting.

Use the simplest, shortest, cheapest, most basic textbook you can find and forget the optional videos, tapes, CD ROMs, and 50-page study guides. Consider content carefully. Will any of your students ever hear a concert of Medieval Organum Duplem performed at their local concert hall? Does it really matter to your general music student whether they can tell the difference between a slow movement of Brahms and one of Schumann? Will a business major from the Midwest find himself needing to distinguish between Webern and Schoenberg in the real world? Plan your lecture material; then cut it in half. The large section is no place to prove your musicological prowess. Spend your precious class time covering the important basics with an overload of exuberance. This is what will remain with the student long after the expensive text has been returned to the used book racks.

Finally, avoid saying things like "finally" that allow a crowd mentality to take over. Phrases like "the last thing we will discuss today" or "we'll finish up with" will ruin the last ten minutes of each class meeting. Students who would never dream of packing their bags, putting their coats on, or closing their books in the close quarters of small classes, will do so en-masse when gathered anonymously in large lecture halls.

Everything is bigger in the extra large section, including your rewards. The lack of fear among your students that can pose special challenges for you is the same lack of fear that will bring them to your office in large numbers in search of materials for further study and armed with extraordinary comments and questions. With twice the effort, you will inspire ten times the number of students. Few teachers get that unique opportunity. The assignment to teach a large section is nothing to fear. On the contrary, it is an assignment to treasure.

4789 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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