Teaching Philosophy

A few days before graduating from Vanderbilt University, I sat one-on-one with Mark Wait, dean of the Blair School of Music. During our conversation, I asked him what he looks for when hiring a teacher. His answer was these three characteristics: “Mastery of craft, a passion for teaching, and being unique.” Over the years since that conversation, I have aspired to achieve those qualities.

With my focus on composition combined with experience in performing, I have developed a clear understanding of how music is constructed, of what elements distinguish one composer’s music from another’s, and of what historical context contributes to style, form, and subject of music. In my graduate courses, my research ranged from Schoenberg’s pedagogical methods to Berio’s use of text, from representations of Eva Peron to interviews of Mexican sound artists. In classes that I teach, this background translates into students reading Wagner’s essays and Mozart’s letters as well as writing musical analyses of jazz arrangements and heavy metal shows.

I first discovered my love of teaching when I gave a review session for Jim Lovensheimer’s American Music class at Vanderbilt University. I was nervous as I placed on the lab table my four-page outline of people, dates, genres, and terms because I had never been in a 200-seat science lecture hall. As the students filed in, filling 60% of the seats, I felt like an unprepared singer at the opening of a major league baseball game. When I started to speak, however, I became poised and assertive. I clearly explained the material while allowing students time to take notes. I enjoyed making eye contact with individuals as they asked questions toward the end of the session.

To this day, I usually feel the same poise and assertiveness when I start a class day, but I also incorporate creative and diverse ways of presenting material. I often invite my students to discuss literature as an introduction to musical periods, such as The Canterbury Tales for the Middle Ages and Renaissance or A Christmas Carol and Alice in Wonderland for the Romantic Period. Sometimes I ask them to analyze portraits of composers or paintings of historical figures and events. I also provide opportunities for students to work in groups, whether to observe a particular musical element in a score excerpt, to examine meaning and style in song lyrics, or to perform exercises that embody tonality, texture, and form.

What is unique about me as a teacher is my interdisciplinary passion for the relationship between art and society. The effect of rhythm on form in Machaut’s Notre Dame Mass and the motivic unity of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire fascinate me as much as the architecture of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims and the imagery of Giraud’s poetry. I am as excited when highlighting vocal counterpoint as when talking about the stirrings of class struggle in Mozart and da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro or discussing the cultural relevance of Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story. I remind my students that composers are people impacted by the world around them, whether Ellington and the development of radio technology or Haydn and the rise of publishing for amateur musicians.

Beyond music history, I also have an appreciation for how study of music can promote societal restoration through self-expression and diverse interaction. One college student emerged from his general in-class lethargy to enthusiastically choose and perform a sound during a texture exercise. An average student made insightful remarks when comparing New York Times articles about classical and popular concerts. A senior citizen realized a childhood dream by performing excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof at a community center. Fogel, former president of the League of American Orchestras, marveled at how a concert I helped the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas produce brought together an audience of all ages and varied socioeconomic backgrounds to listen to Piazzola, Donizetti, and Beethoven at El Museo del Barrio. Whether rehearsing a song at The Bowery Mission for homeless men or at Laurel Hill School’s Summer Arts Academy for elementary school students, I have seen how preparing for musical performances enables people to respect and help each other in ways that would not be initiated in other contexts. When Steve Reich spoke at the Music08 festival at the University of Cincinnati, he said of being a composer, “You’re not going to change the world.” Because of my experience as a musician and a teacher, I would respond,  “Maybe you can’t change the world, but you can change one person’s life, and that is a change in the world.”

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