The Pros and Cons of Teaching World Music as a General Education Course

The Native American music class I teach satisfies the General Education, non-Western, upper-level division requirement for University of Oklahoma students. Over the past ten years, I have personally taught this class to over 2,000 students. In addition to teaching this course, I oversee the World Music Program, which has over 2,000 students per year opting to satisfy their non-Western requirement with a music class. This essay will look at the pros and cons of teaching World Music as a non-music major class. One of the main pros over the years has been that the teaching of World Music as a General Education course has funding support as a result of being a service course with associated course fees. Accordingly, the library and media resource center substantially augmented their print and audio/ visual holdings, a World Music Concert Series was founded at the same time the World Music program was inaugurated, and guest artists have given numerous workshops and class visits to augment these courses. The teaching of these classes has given the School of Music a high profile across the campus, and the concert series is well-attended by the general public in addition to the University of Oklahoma community.

One of the challenges with this program is the difficulty of teaching a music course primarily to non-musicians. While one could argue that the lack of musical training is in one way advantageous (students are less likely to have preconceived notions of a pyramid with Western music on top), one also has to deal with discussing non-Western musical concepts to people without a working knowledge of Western music theory to use as a starting point. Another related difficulty is the tendency to make these classes as large as possible to generate the most money. Fortunately, this is an upper-level division class and the cap was set at 50, which has recently been adjusted downwards and is currently at 35, but even this size class makes discussion and class activities difficult.

Another challenge is ensuring proper training of instructors teaching World Music. Although the School of Music is fortunate in having two ethnomusicologists in tenuretrack or tenured positions, these professors service all the ethnomusicology needs of the school, resulting in only a fraction of the General Education non-Western classes being taught by permanent faculty. As self-support classes, there is an allowance for instructor salaries, and we were recently successful in negotiating a raise. Nevertheless, these are yearto- year positions with a heavy teaching load, and the salary is still under that of an entry-level, tenure-track position. To meet the substantial need for these non-Western classes, the School of Music instituted a World Music Internship Program that doctoral graduate students must complete before being assigned their own class. This includes graduate level ethnomusicology classes, a grading assistantship with one of the ethnomusicology professors, and the development of a course syllabus in consultation with the faculty.

One of the definite pros of having World Music taught as a General Education class is that it has made the university aware of World Music. A welcome outcome has been that the School of Music recently decided to incorporate World Music as a core course for the incoming freshman class of undergraduate music majors. This provides an opportunity to introduce young musicians to the music of the non-Western world in its cultural concept as their first musicology course in the history sequence. Last fall, a non-music major African drum ensemble was formed, and there is growing interest by music majors to take this class as an elective. One of the professors who teaches jazz history as a non-music major course leads two jazz ensembles made up primarily of music majors. There is currently an ongoing discussion about allowing these groups to count as ensemble credit for music majors.

At the graduate level, the ethnomusicology courses that form the basis for the training of instructors to teach World Music have recently been incorporated into the regular offerings at the School of Music (Ethnomusicology, World Music, and Native American Music). The undergraduate Native American music class is one of the core choices for the Native American Studies major and minor degree programs, and the graduate Native American music class is one of the core courses for the newly-formed Masters in Native American Studies.

In the end, the teaching of World Music as a non-music major, General Education course has turned out to be a positive strategy. It has facilitated bringing non-Western music into the core curricula of both (1) the School of Music and (2) the Native American Studies Department at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It also has introduced non-Western music to a multitude of non-music major undergraduate students.

One of the main goals of teaching is to share knowledge. Todays students are tomorrows teachers and leaders. They will carve out their careers with knowledge of musical expressions from a variety of geographical areas and hopefully will develop an appreciation of the beauty and diversity of cultural traditions that create world history.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013

Paula Conlon

Paula Conlon began her study of the indigenous music of North America in the early 1980s for her Master's thesis on the Canadian Amerindian flute. For her doctoral dissertation (1993), she conducted an ethnographic and semiotic analysis of Iglulik Inuit drum-dance songs from northern Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. Since moving to Norman, Oklahoma in 1996 to teach at the University of Oklahoma, she has observed and participated in a wide range of Native ceremonial and social dances, festivals, concerts, powwow singing sessions, and community gatherings. She incorporates these first-hand experiences into her publications, conference presentations, workshops, and classroom teaching. Grounded in personal fieldwork and interviews with Native musicians and dancers, her publications include book chapters, journal articles, and encyclopedia entries, addressing such topics as the Native flute revival, dance ethnicity and Mvskoke Stomp dance, contemporary Inuit music from the Canadian Arctic, and use of Plains powwow song and dance by Native activist groups from the late nineteenth century to the present day. At the University of Oklahoma’s School of Music and Native American Studies Program, Dr. Conlon teaches graduate and undergraduate Native American and world music classes, experiential seminars on Native music and dance, and workshops on Native flute techniques. Because of the low cost and ready accessibility, Native artists make extensive use of the Internet and its services for the creation, collaboration, and distribution of their music. The progress of digital technology empowers classroom instructors and their students to better keep abreast of the activities of contemporary artists.

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