Monday, September 15, 2008

Day 13 (Round II) "In the trenches" (boot-camp edition)

Sluggin' away up here on the South Plains. Into the fourth week of classes and the focus from the undergrads is really pretty good; course, a three-day weekend initiated by a Friday "flood day" doesn't hurt their morale. It's really been a hell of a stretch for some of these freshmen: at least a couple of them thought that the way to express their admiration for Mark O'Connor's "new American classical" music was to diss other kinds. Which diss I don't despise, but which at the same time I damned sure, in a freshman class part of whose charge from the national accrediting organization is to enhance students exposure to diverse musics, I want to try to nip in the bud and/or re-educate. And so far, the content of this freshman "Introduction to Research and Style Analysis" class has included close listening analysis and reportage on the following repertoire:

  • Tuvan singer, Throat-singing with stream water
  • Ellington, Daybreak Express
  • Fiddlin' Bill Steep, "Bonaparte's Retreat"
  • Copland, "Hoe Down" from Rodeo
  • Shakti, Le Danse de Bonheur
  • del Tredeci, "Speak Softly, Speak Gently" from The Alice Symphony
  • Public Enemy, "Don't Believe the Hype"
  • Charlie Parker, "Now's the Time"
  • King Curtis, "The Hucklebuck"
  • NRBQ, "Twelve Bar Blues"
That's a lot to ask an eighteen-year-old to relate to, partly because they (most of them) have spent most of their developing life as musicians trying to figure out the particular agenda of the particular adult authority figure (choir director, conductor, band director, youth minister, whatever) has power over them. "This" music is good, while "that" is bad, etc, etc, blah blah blah.

I don't have that agenda, but they don't really yet know or understand that. As I say in class, "You don't have to like anything we play--that's not our business. But your business, as an educated musician, is to understand why it is the way it is and how it works." I say it, but they don't yet know how much I mean it. So to that end, we model--something I've spoken about before--an attitude of professional, critical thinking and listening, and we seek every opportunity to reinforce that modeling.

So the wide and diverse playlist is just another way to send that message: to engage the youngsters in the questions "how do I listen, what can I hear, and what can it tell me?" and to encourage them to keep up that self-questioning--this is how critical thinking develops.

This practice "how do I listen (to a recording or, in the mind's ear, to a score), what can I hear/see, and what can it tell me?" is something we continue to address throughout the undergraduate experience, in the upper level courses, in placement exams for admission to the grad programs, and in the comprehensive exams for those exiting the various grad programs.

Second half of the day brought the second installment of the two-part "qualifying exams boot camp" that we run at the beginning of every semester in which grad students are expecting to take the comprehensive music history exit exams. We developed this practice after (a) realizing that many students had no idea about how to study for a comprehensive, repertoire-driven, essay style exam; and (b) realizing that providing a set of strategies, practice points, methods, and target goals could be better done in a group than in a succession of one-on-one interviews (there were a few years there where I was spending 1 hour/week x multiple prepping students for months). It also lets us codify the approach, articulate it as driven by a set of assessment goals which are in turn driven by a philosophy of of preparing them for their eventual jobs (and job interviews).

We need to assess and confirm their ability to employ a grasp of Western classical music history as it is likely to be necessary in a given job. So a choral conductor will require a different set of music history skills than a flute soloist than a band director than a composer than a music theorist and so on. However, the way we teach music history here, both musical content (the actual notes written or played and their sonic results) and musical context (the times, places, and peoples from which the musics emerge) are treated as essential. This is for three reasons:

(1) because, philosophically, I believe it to be a profound and meaningful truth of the history of any art--that its technical construction and intended expressive impact is both driven by and revelatory of its originating contexts (this is the hsitorical performer and ethnomusicologist in me)--and, as chair and current senior member of the musicology staff, I get to decide;

(2) because, pragmatically, I believe that understanding content as revealing context and context illuminating content also vastly aids retention: this is why I often explain the goal of an answer to an essay question (or, in the future, to a question from a prospective student) as a "coherent and defensible narrative"; to say "this is what happened over time, and this is why it happened";

(3) because, empirically and as a result of fairly extensive observation and experience, I am convinced that teaching music history as the interaction of content and context--of transformations of music style as reflecting and reflective of changes in social, cultural, economic, political, ethnic, and aesthetic contexts--makes sense to young students and helps them learn, retain, relate to, and use the information. So, if we're going to give a master's or doctoral degree to a candidate, I really do need to know that s/he can convey music history knowlege of sufficient comprehensivity and coherence that a youngster will understand, retain and use that information.

This is what I want to see from an exiting grad student: can s/he use data and interpretation, content and context, narrative and analysis, to help his/her own students understand the direct impact of events from the past upon the present. I will not abandon the conviction that knowing and understanding the past can help us better survive, thrive, and make art in the present.

It's the most revolutionary thing I know how to do.

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