Teaching Music in General Studies: The Time Has Come For Specialists

April 30, 2006

As dedicated and inquisitive members of the academic community for Music in General Studies, we are interested in discovering what works, what doesn't, and where we should take Music in General Studies in the future. Whatever we decide should be said, the person saying it will need to use the language that our students speak and instinctively understand: the language of passion.


Passion is the consistent link between past and present. It is THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT to get people engaged (hooked!) on the music we love. Over the past fifteen years I have read almost twenty eight thousand course evaluations of the classes I teach. While student opinions in some areas have varied greatly over that time, there is one response that has been consistent every semester of every year: the students appreciate and enjoy a passionate presentation of material, regardless of subject area. The common denominator that ties Bach, Beethoven, Clara, Ella, Loretta, Madonna and Eminem to these students is the professor's ability to create a class setting for the students to experience PASSION.

A passionate General Studies instructor destroys all of the barriers students erect to protect themselves from things they don't yet understand-like Art Music. Students trust instructors who look like they're having a good time and are eager to be part of something that seems engaging. If instructors appear to be having fun, students will wonder how they can have that much fun too. Students know honest passion in their instructor when they see it. They also know instantly when their teacher isn't interested in them or the subject matter.

Teaching without passion is not an option, it doesn't work, and it's not OK. There is a great opportunity to attract a new audience of students who do speak a passion of one type; the composers, conductors, and performers speak with passion of another type, and it is the privilege and responsibility of the instructor to provide the proper translation from one passion to the other.

Imagine what would happen if our MGS instructors could come to work each day with the primary responsibility requiring their time and effort being the transference of musical joy they themselves feel to the non-major? What should we be trying to do for non-majors in their first and perhaps only music class?

Convert Them All

We expect musicians who are performers to be PASSIONATE, yet all too often passionate general studies teachers are accused of running "circus acts" when they do the same. We ourselves got into this business because of the goose bump factor-something happened to us that engaged and addicted us, and that is what we should sell and impart to our students. We didn't enter academe for the wonderful salary; we entered it for the neuralgic high (each in our own way) that only music provides us. A greatest high for the truly devoted general education teacher comes from seeing students have the same type of life changing musical experience that they had. Teachers making a career of this quest will instinctively WANT EVERY STUDENT POSSIBLE to share his or her enjoyment. Why should students take any other class? It's selfish of us to keep the thrill that makes the hair stand up on the backs of our necks all to ourselves when we could share it effectively with the masses. A specialist-free from time consuming commitments in other areas-could concentrate on facilitating passion downloads from the musical past and present onto the hard drives of students' hearts and minds.

A Specialist Might Just Save Classical Music

No business is more in need of voices crying out in the wilderness than is Art music. We could use a legion of John the Baptists to deliver our message so students sense and comprehend the emotional/physical reason for WHY it's in their best interest to turn off the television and buy that first ticket to the Opera. We in the academy are the only ones who go to a Beethoven symphony to analyze the structure or notice unusual harmonic construction. The vast majority of audience members, in Beethoven's time and today, enjoy his music because Ludwig's skillful directing of their emotions feels good. Beethoven doesn't need General Studies teachers to make his music interesting and worthwhile; he needs only to have an army of dedicated warriors capable of inspiring the public sufficiently to get them into the concert hall so the musicians can present and enable Beethoven to make his own case for greatness.

Divided and Afraid

General Studies Teachers who inherit large classes as part of various other duties and responsibilities, who teach to "fill their load," have legitimate reasons why they should be afraid: How many of our General Studies teachers have ever formally studied how to teach large classes effectively or speak well in public? How to design a college class they can enjoy teaching? How to use greatly enhanced (since their student days) tools of technology for the classroom?

A number of General Studies professors are, in a word, afraid of their role as General Studies professors: their preparation in this disciplinary area, the size of the classes, the student profiles. The fearful cannot be effective warriors for the cause.

"Music Appreciation" classes often attract numerous international students who require one-on-one attention. How many of our expertly trained violinists, theorists, conductors, and composers know the subtle differences between the fifteen different groups of international students seated around them in a 300-student auditorium class? Instructors who teach music in general studies must be well-prepared, ready to teach outside of their area of specialization, and able to juggle on-going preparation in multiple roles; instructors who are ill- prepared for all of these roles cheat non-music majors and shortchange music majors. Some instructors "having to teach" classes outside their areas of expertise often end up thinking they are "wasting their degrees" on students "beneath their level of training." This attitude has negative affects on relationships with co-workers, members of the higher administration, and most importantly on the students they are "lowering themselves" to teach. Students treat us and our music with the same level of regard we give to them and to the music they love. Students will believe and love the general music teacher who treats Rap and Rock with the same respect as Bach and Mozart.

What is the outcome for general music studies if we appoint unprepared teachers who feel they are wasting their skills, are technologically challenged, don't understand the cultures of the students, and have no passion for the subject? The kind of Passion we so desperately need cannot exist in the presence of problems this large.


General music students-their friends, families, sons and daughters-are our future patrons. In many ways our non-majors are more important to the department, to the Arts, and to the future of our discipline than the majors-the majors don't exist without the non-majors who have a hundred things to do for entertainment while the major must have an audience - the people - for a performance! We have one opportunity to make fans of these non-majors!

The majority of our first year "Appreciation" students have never been to a wedding reception without a DJ. We could learn many things about passionate presentation from the DJs they enjoy. Instead of dismissing them, we should borrow the brand of passion they create and consider it possible and appropriate to the look, programming, performance style, etc., of Art Music. Times change, and adapting is not "selling out."

The Answer: The General Music SPECIALIST

A faculty member who teaches a studio of 20 is required to hold a terminal degree and be a trained specialist, yet General Music teachers of 20, 200 or 2000 do not have the same requisite preparation and training. The myth of being "automatically qualified" for the General Studies classroom persists.

A sample of qualifications of the General Music Specialist NOT provided by the usual Music Curricula would include:

  • A primary and genuine interest in the Non- Major
  • Extensive experience with classroom and web based technologies
  • Expertise in techniques for teaching large classes
  • A vast knowledge of popular and world music in addition to the usual Classical tradition
  • Special training in areas relating to Diversity and Ethnic Studies to serve the larger numbers of international and multi-ethnic students enrolled

But what would this COST?

Discussion always eventually turns to the cost of the General Studies Specialist to the department. What about the cost to our departments of making our existing specialists work outside their area of expertise? A three credit Appreciation class typically equals a quarter of a load. If Beethoven had been teaching that class, two symphonies and perhaps a piano sonata or two would not have been written because he would have been spending his time working outside his area of expertise. How many great things could come from our pianists, composers, historians, and other specialists if we were to free them from the general studies duties so many of them see as a burden?

Who will teach tomorrow?

Every year countless frightened graduate assistants are thrown into general education classes with no specific training at all. How many potential season ticket holders are dropping their music classes each semester? If every music department had a passionate specialist, our majors would have ready-made instructors who love what they do on staff to teach them the craft. Armed with newfound skills, our graduating music majors could, and should, be able to present exciting and educational "Appreciation" programs anywhere potential patrons of the Arts will give them an audience. If someone would just teach them how . . .

Creating a Benevolent Public

Thousands of properly inspired General Music students graduating around the world each year would create a financial windfall at a time when we desperately need it. Seldom do people donate money for scholarships and concert halls because of some high intellectual purpose; they give money because they have been EXCITED enough to do so. The uniquely trained General Education Specialist immediately becomes the chief source of audience development for the Arts Community in his or her area.

Passion for the next generation: an appreciation teacher in every home

Our non-majors are likely taking the last music class they will ever attend. With the future of funding for music at the K-12 level so uncertain, today's General Music Instructors may be the only opportunity to inspire the next generation of children via their future parents. We can't afford to miss it.

EXTRAS for Music departments

The Specialist becomes the department's full time link to the student body as a whole, creating interest and excitement for ensemble participation, serving as a natural recruiter of majors and minors, and promoting all department concerts and events. A Generalist who "wants them all" immediately becomes a source of needed revenue, nourishing the department, which in turn better services the majors as well.


When the positions exist, the degree will come. There are plenty of people who would happily live their lives as General Music Specialists, but can't do so because too few departments have made the commitment to hire the specialists the students deserve. The day we successfully make the case for a terminal degree in General Studies, the stigma associated with teaching the non-major disappears and we will have begun watering the ground from which superior General Music Teachers will spring.

2085 Last modified on May 7, 2013
Login to post comments