The Wingspread Conference on Music in General Studies and the ensuing report focused attention on matters of vital concern to everyone involved in college music teaching. Certainly, the future of music will be as dependent upon the existence of appreciative audiences as upon the availability of composers and performers. Music departments, therefore, should be as committed to the development of perceptive listeners as to the training of skilled musicians.

The problems relating to general music courses can be reduced to five interrelated questions:

  1. How can students majoring in other disciplines be attracted to music courses?
  2. What should be taught in music courses for non-majors?
  3. How should general music courses be taught?
  4. By whom should these courses be taught?
  5. What can be done to assure that the contributions of successful teachers of general music are adequately recognized and rewarded?

The Wingspread Conference addressed these questions. It was an auspicious beginning. The following comments are submitted not as definitive answers but, in response to the report's invitation, as a continuation of the dialogue.

Music classes have a distinct advantage when it comes to attracting students, because it can be safely assumed that everyone likes some kind of music. Students frequently elect a music class simply because they like music and a class is available at a convenient hour. Enrollments are enhanced when word-of-mouth comments and faculty advisor attitudes are favorable. Ideally, teachers of music appreciation should cultivate a reputation for courses that are enjoyable but not lacking in substance. The pleasure derived from such courses can be maximized and the tedium minimized without jeopardizing the quality if the question regarding the what and how of teaching them are answered properly.

It is impossible to define a universally acceptable content for general music courses. The styles of music are too diverse, tastes too different, and the available time too limited. There perhaps would be consensus that students should be exposed in meaningful ways to a wide range of musical styles, including those of Western art music. Since the styles from Gregorian chant to Stravinsky provide a rich and inexhaustible repertory, the question becomes one of breadth versus depth. Electronic music and the other avant-garde styles must be represented to bring Western art music up to date. If the music of other cultures, folk music, popular music, and jazz are all included, the breadth versus depth option has been decided in favor of breadth. There are intermediate and alternative positions.

If the objective is to increase student awareness and appreciation of styles that are unfamiliar or unappreciated, popular music can be eliminated from consideration, but it should not be disparaged. Western folk music can be considered almost as an adjunct of Western art music, but jazz and the music of other cultures are more problematical. Some colleges offer separate courses in jazz and ethnic music intended for or available to general students, and these are areas of music with wide appeal and worthy of exploration in depth. In the absence of special courses, a brief history of jazz and some representative examples of ethnic music probably should be included in the survey. What is taught, in the final analysis, is less important than how it is taught.

Listening to music is the core of any general music course. The challenge for teachers is to find objective means for evaluating listening experiences. Being present in class assures that the examples played in class will be heard, but it is important to encourage attentive listening to specific features of the music. Classroom listening should be augmented by outside listening assignments, completion of which can be easily verified. Reading and writing assignments relating to listening experiences can be required. Students can learn to identify instruments; to distinguish between duple and triple meters, fast and slow tempos, homophonic and polyphonic textures; to recognize the repetitions and returns of themes and the various structural patterns of music; and to respond to questions regarding form and style. The secret of success in motivating listening and measuring musical perception is to do it without recourse to notation.

A common fallacy is to assume that students can read music or that music reading skills can be developed to a functional level within the context of a general music class. A National Assessment of Educational Progress study found in a random sampling of the U.S. population that fewer than fifteen percent could read even the simplest line of music. Anyone who has taught music fundamentals to beginners knows that the ability to read music is still at a very elementary level after a full semester of concentrated study. Starting an appreciation class with a crash course in music reading is futile and guaranteed to alienate students. Furthermore, the use of notation gives the few students who can read music an unfair advantage and those who cannot an inferiority complex.

Teaching substantive musical concepts without reference to notation requires the kind of ingenuity that is more likely to be possessed by experienced teachers, but according to the Wingspread report, "More often than not, these classes are assigned to the youngest, most inexperienced instructors." To make matters worse, young instructors in these times of financial exigency frequently have only temporary or part-time appointments. When general music courses are, or can be, the lifeblood of music departments, it is a grave error to have them taught predominantly by the least experienced members of the faculty. To prosper, they require the prestige and continuity that can only be assured when they are taught, at least in part, by tenured professors.

Tenure traditionally has been acquired by those with graduate degrees and demonstrated teaching competence in a recognized area of specialization. Not everyone with these credentials is willing to teach music appreciation, but many would welcome an opportunity to teach one section per semester or quarter. There is a certain exhilaration in teaching a large class of students who have freely elected the course and whose careers do not depend on it. The teacher enjoys a sense of freedom in a course that neither serves as a prerequisite or has prerequisites—that does not fill a precise niche in a major and in which there is no possibility of student deficiencies. Teaching a large survey class can be a refreshing change from graduate seminars, and it has a marvelous effect on faculty-to-student ratios that is certain to please administrators.

If, instead of assigning two or three sections of a general music course to a junior faculty member, each senior faculty member who volunteers is regularly assigned a single section, the problems of recognition and rewards for the teachers of general music are automatically solved. Faculty members can excel in their specialty, make an added contribution to the university community by sharing their expertise with general students, and have the best of both worlds.

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Last modified on Sunday, 05/01/2014

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