You want me to teach what?
Imagine my surprise the first day of my job one year when I found out that I was teaching Music History and that there was no curriculum for the class, no budget for it, and no textbook. The class was used to fulfill the fine arts credit that student needed to graduate, so I could reasonably expect that less than 25% of the students had any kind of working knowledge of music. In fact, most of them would inevitably want to listen to exclusively hip hop music and complain about anything that was produced more than 5 years earlier.
Other teachers who had taught the class explained to me that they just show movies, or spend a semester teaching music theory and then a semester teaching music history along the lines of what we took in college. That’s how I started out the year. I cracked open my Grout and Palisca and began taking notes to prepare lectures.
Somewhere around the 5th week of school when we were finally getting into the exciting world of Organum Duplum and just about to marvel at the innovations of Leonin and Perotin and the 13th Century Notre Dame school of polyphony, one of the polite and attentive students in the class quietly handed me a note that changed everything.
A few quick notes for non-musicians reading
- Music theory is the study of how sounds fit together to make music sound the way it does. It’s a combination of acoustics and physics on one side as well as the way that music is actually notated so that one set of sounds can be reproduced by another performer or performers to replicate the music. It’s basically why music sounds the way it does, and how to write it so that other people can make it sound the same way. Teaching non-musicians a semester of Music Theory is akin to herding cats.
- Grout and Palisca is a huge laborious Music History textbook that many University-level music majors use in their typically two semesters of Music History. Music History I typically spans the Ancient World through 1730ish and is notoriously one of the most difficult courses music majors take because the content is exceptionally dry and most musicians never have or will perform anything from that period. Teaching non-musicians for 5 weeks is akin to herding blind cats with rabies.
- The mere fact that I made it through 5 weeks without passing into the Baroque Era or having to break up any fights or put out any fires is a testament to how far my classroom management skills have developed over the years.
Now back to the story
Initially, it sort of upset me. He told me that the class was boring and that it was making him like music even less. It turns out, this young man actually played some guitar and knew quite a bit about the Beatles already. Making him like music less would not have been a good thing at all. And it got me thinking as well. Honestly, the class kind of bored me too, but it was what I had been assigned to teach. What else could I do? I decided that there must be a better way.
I decided from then on that I was going to treat it more like a Music Appreciation class, and change the focus of our study entirely. We would now focus on the development of American Popular Music rather than just on traditional classical music. After all, understanding the course of Popular Music would allow us to see some things from U.S. History in different lights. In addition, I really had never done any kind of intensive study of popular music, so it would be engaging for me as well.
At some point, we’ll dig into this class quite a bit more, because I had a lot of fun with it and ended up finding some music I never knew existed. And I liked some of it. And I grew a new respect for all music, not just the stuff that I understood. It has since become a primary hobby of mine now, and I know some of the students got a lot out of the course as well.
I suppose in a way I was fortunate that I did not have a curriculum tying me down. It sure would have been a lot easier if I had one, because the time that I spent studying and preparing for that one class period took my focus away from preparation for the other courses I taught that year. But ultimately, it ended up being one of my favorite classes that I taught. Ultimately, the takeaways I came up with were that:
- I enjoyed the class because I took the opportunity to use my class to reinforce what other teachers were teaching.
- I enjoyed the class because I overcame the victim mentality (“I’m bored, but this is what they expect me to do”) and instead forged my own path.
- I enjoyed the class because I was able to find a way to make it relevant to the students’ lives.
- I enjoyed the class because I determined that even if the students didn’t learn everything they possibly could have, I was learning a lot and becoming a better teacher through the process.
I have come to realize that our instruction will never be perfect. That should not prevent us from putting forth our best effort. My future students will get a better education than my past students did. That’s a great thing! It means we are constantly seeking improvement.