While most of my recent teaching has focused on the skills of analysis, writing, and musicianship, revealing the context of the repertoire and creating a community for learning are central to my teaching philosophy. In an upper-level seminar this year, one of my students asked if art song was popular. I responded, “What do you mean by popular?” I explained that the meaning of the term has changed from the 19th century until now. It could mean that many people engage in writing or performing a particular genre of music. It could refer to music by and for lower classes instead of middle and higher classes. It could have implications for the style, instrumentation, or distribution of the music.
Furthermore, by acknowledging techniques of more recent musicians and presenting multiple styles of music as worthy of analysis, I hope to avoid the perception that classical music is “good” while other music is “bad” that tinged my undergraduate and graduate studies. “Our goal is Mozart,” I often say to students on their first day of commencing the music theory course sequence. I explain that while some of the curriculum’s principles apply to music from many genres and eras, the focus of our study will be Western classical music from the Renaissance through the late-19th century. As students begin counterpoint and part-writing, I mention that parallel tritones in Gershwin, parallel fourths in Aaron Copland, parallel fifths in Chuck Berry and other rock music, and parallel sevenths in Debussy and jazz can be beautiful sonorities–some of which I love–but we are not studying harmonic and voice-leading concepts from the 20th century. On the other hand, lead sheets by Bill Evans and by Rodgers and Hart have facilitated students’ practice of recognizing tertian chord members, embellishing tones, melodic contour, and motivic development.
I consider the classroom a community of human beings whose presence and individual contributions are valued and whose physical or mental absence impacts the learning ethos. While curricular expectations are a priority, I also want students to develop professionalism as they navigate their responsibilities to school, work, family, and friends and to exercise self-care by making use of campus health and wellness resources. “Life happens. Just communicate,” I say when explaining syllabus policies about late assignments and make-up work. Regardless of how specifically or generally students or campus offices express their situations, I remain open to accommodating their needs.
I want students to feel comfortable with making and correcting mistakes rather than feeling intimidated or inferior because of them. Guided practice predominates my teaching style. I often write on the board and talk through the steps of an analytical or writing technique then have students try it individually or in small groups. Sometimes I make intentional mistakes on the board for students to notice and correct; sometimes I make unintentional mistakes and model calmly and gratefully accepting their negative feedback.
Beyond the college classroom, I have seen how the study of music can promote societal restoration through self-expression and collaboration. Elementary school students in summer camps where I have been a counselor or music specialist achieved more in their performances than they thought they could in a few weeks’ time. A senior citizen realized a childhood dream for the first time by performing a song from Fiddler on the Roof for her community center where I led a grant-funded musical theater club. Homeless men in a residential recovery program respected and helped each other in choral ensemble rehearsals in ways that would not have been initiated in other contexts. “You are a beautiful audience,” I told an intergenerational and multicultural crowd who came to hear my lecture-performance-singalong about being a classical musician who resonates with laments about the society’s brokenness and efforts toward truth and healing found in African-American spirituals, Billie Holiday’s versions of “Strange Fruit,” and Charles Mingus’ original “Fables of Faubus.” I believe a change for good in one person’s life is a change in the world, and I am committed to making spaces where music can foster this change.