Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 20 (Round II) "In the trenches" (visual synchronicity edition)

Bit of visual synchronicity in today's shot: across the table, Dharmonia; next table, Mac Tire; beyond that, Flute Colleague (who burned the house down Sunday evening and then got up Monday morning to teach her "Yoga for Musicians" 8am class). I am surrounded by brilliant people who work their asses off and I'm damned glad of it; kinda makes the job feel worth doing.

Freshman skills class today. Title is "Introduction to Research and Style Analysis" (basically, how to do research, and how to listen and speak critically and precisely to music) but the kiddos all call it "SHMRG Class." I've blogged before about the LaRue style parameters and the way we teach their usage as a tool for listening consistently and comparatively to a wide diversity of musics, though the class also implicates a lot of other skills: library, writing, reading, note-taking, etc, etc, etc.

But the fact that the kids all call it SHMRG Class reveals what they perceive to be the central mission of the class, and it's not-inaccurate summary. After the very first iteration of the class, back in 2004, we learned that students really hate repeating skills stuff that some (a small percentage from magnet- and home-schooling situations) learned in secondary school. Even if the vast majority of them don't know how to use a modern database or construct a bibliography, the small minority who already did were very very irate--and, being the particular demographic they are, very very vocal--about having to "repeat" stuff (not really "repeat"--rather "have reiterated reference made to stuff to which they were introduced in high school" but of which they don't have a whole lot more command than the rest of the population) they'd "already had." And parents, especially the parents who churn out magnet- or home-schooled kids, have a Pavlovian reaction against any course with the term "skills" in its title. Somewhere along the line, "skills" came to mean (at least in TX secondary-education-speak) "remediation"--and parents of such kids don't like being told their kid needs remediation (even if, in many cases, it's true). So we learned pretty quick that we needed to change the titular language to something which placated parents' dislike of "skills" (shit, back where I come from, we call "skills" good things to have), while still credibly reflecting the actual content and purpose of the course.

So we came up with the title listed above. And we still teach all those other "tools" that parents don't like hearing about as "skills" (because most of their lil darlings still need 'em; see the link above), but the straw that stirs the drink, the thing that we staff, the parents, and the students all agree upon, virtually without argument from any constituency, is the value, merit, and necessity of learning to listen critically.

I've mentioned in prior posts this week the "critical thinking-reading-writing-speaking" model the university requires, and our own adoption of a fifth "critical listening" component. At the time, we didn't really think too much about that adoption--I just learned years ago that, if there is a skill or topic you feel adamant about including, then employing upper administration's "preferred nomenclature" (cf Big Lebowski) is a wise political strategy for getting the green light.

But I also believe that it does accurately reflect what we actually are teaching them to do: to listen to (or look at) a piece of music, to actually see/hear what is there, to recognize the stylistic patterns that those details reveal, and to make informed, intelligent, accurate, and articulate links between those musical/stylistic patterns, and the contexts from which the music emerged, and comparisons with music of other periods or geographical points of origin.

What is rather remarkable is the degree to which all the different constituencies (including those cited above, but also the National Organization that certifies Schools of Music, and our own upper administration, and the state) likewise agree that this is an essential and central skill. It actually makes our job far easier, that we have now found a central activity, aptitude, and skill set--the art of critical listening--which all constituencies can agree upon. So we chunk out the boring busywork of "skills" (bibliography, research, reading, etc) to homework assignments which take the bright bulbs five minutes and the underprepared kids enough time so that they actually learn the unfamiliar skill, and we reserve the class time for critically listening--together.

Which the kids seem to have bought-into with remarkably little resistance: consistently, semester-after-semester, no matter the resistance that some one or another sub-group may have to some one-or-another component of the course, there is virtually unanimous--and typically very adamant and effusive--support for this central activity. Even the most rebellious or ennui-ridden type can recognize that learning to listen better is a necessary developmental area.

Hence, "SHMRG class." I can live with that.

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