Teaching - A Performing Art?

The idea of performance as a suitable model for pedagogy has taken a bad rap lately at my school. An article by Jane Tompkins, entitled "Pedagogy of the Distressed" [College English 52 (1990): 653-60], which explicitly rejects the performance model, has provoked lively discussion in a variety of interdisciplinary faculty groups at Valparaiso University.

Tompkins argues that the graduate school experience, based on ritual imitation of elders and desire for their approbation, perpetuates an outmoded performance model for college teaching, that is "coercive,... destructive of creativity and self-motivated learning." Ultimately, Tompkins rejects the performance model for teaching in favor of two other models: mothering and sports coaching. As one who participates neither in motherhood nor sports, but who has occasionally played music in public, I find this move disconcerting. And, like K Marie Stolba, I have frequently noted with some satisfaction that the teacher's feeling of a lesson well-executed resonates with that known by the performer.

The interdisciplinary conversations I have heard surrounding this issue suggest to me not that the performance model is flawed but that the activity of performance itself is variously (and incompletely) understood by those who do not purposefully engage in it; for them the analogy stops with superficial assumptions about presentational aspects. A conception of performance as a complex activity is more evident in the essay of Stolba, who performs music, than is present in the article of Tompkins, who does not. However, Stolba's and Tompkins's respective endorsement and rejection of the performance model similarly assume that the performance model is primarily about the performer. Tompkins's notion, which may in fact be more based on the histrionics of popular culture performance than on Stolba's concert hall, neglects the fact that the performer of concert music expresses not only for her/himself but for the maker of the score. To defend the performance model requires focus on the action of performing and the communication and understanding it makes possible.

While Tompkins's dismissal of performance as a valued category of activity is mildly annoying, she does have a point. Stolba's and Tompkins's assumptions both seem based on the traditional lecture model. But, at least in liberal arts institutions such as my own, not all teaching is lecturing. There are seminar style classes, classes with non-content objectives, experiential learning formats, interactive video instruction, team-taught classes, and classes in which break- out groups generate positions or solutions and report their findings to the larger assembly at the end of class; and, of course, in music departments there are studio lessons and rehearsals and other "hands-on" teaching situations in which the teacher's role varies. In these and other current pedagogical situations the role of the teacher is necessarily more flexible, more interactive, and more dynamic than that of the traditional lecturer.

Rather than rejecting the performance model as too egocentric, too static, or too coercive, we need to recall that not all musical performances are concert hall recitals. There are other musics and other venues. There are performers in coffee houses and jazz clubs. There are street musicians and those who lead the people in singing at rallies for good causes. There are worship-service players and music therapists. When playing or singing music for others with the intention to express (in Susanne Langer's words) not only what one feels, but "what one knows of feeling," each of these performs. These differ from Stolba's "concert artist" model in the degree of emphasis on the performer's ego, but more importantly on the means by which the message is delivered and how that message is validated by the receivers. Not all teaching is ultimately measurable by multiple choice tests. Notes in musical performance and facts in pedagogy are necessary but not sufficient. The musician who plays "all of the notes but none of the music" and the teacher who disseminates facts without means for interpreting, connecting, applying, and valuing them have everything in common.

Finally, I do believe that the performance model can generate enlivened and effective teaching. But we must focus primarily on the expressing, rather than on ourselves, and be continually attuned to the responsive capabilities of those with whom we are interacting. To Stolba's array of points that link teaching to performing, I'd like to add another: the corresponding importance of "shaping time" for our listeners. And if we are really in doubt whether effective lecturing is enhanced by the performance model, we need only sit through a series of papers at the meeting of any professional society and notice who rehearsed and who didn't. The model of performance can continue to inspire us as teachers if we admit the range of experiences that "count" as performance -- just as Tompkins admonishes us to redefine what counts as teaching. I believe that the performance model holds where the emphasis is on the communicative transactions between performer and listener, and on the values and meanings of what is communicated.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013

Linda C. Ferguson, Professor of Music at Valparaiso University, holds the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Music History and Literature from University of Missouri-Kansas City. She served as Chair of the Department of Music at Valparaiso from 1994-2009, and previously was Assistant Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has chaired NASM Region Five, served on NASM’s Board, and conducted NASM site visits. Formerly she taught in the Program of Liberal Studies (the "Great Books Program") at University of Notre Dame. She studied electronic music at Dartmouth College and the oral literature of Native Americans at the D'Arcy McNickle Center of the Newberry Library, both on NEH grants.

Her publications include articles and essays in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, American Music Teacher, The Cimarron Review, The Yearbook for Interdisciplinary Studies, The Department Chair, The College Music Society Newsletter and American National Biography. She has presented papers at the national meetings of College Music Society, American Society for Aesthetics, Society for Values in Higher Education, National Association of Schools of Music, National Academic Chair's Conference, and Association of General and Liberal Studies, and at regional meetings of American Musicological Society. Her music criticism has appeared in The South Bend Tribune, The Notre Dame Observer, The Cresset.  She is especially interested in the history of music in America, the impact of modern technology on musical composition, the history of musical aesthetics, and the relationships between vernacular and classical musics.

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