Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Day 25 (Round II) "In the trenches" (investing my life edition)

October 1 (yes, it's Oktoberfest Month but that's the half of my cultural heritage that I am not particularly committed to); officially entered mid-semester now. Many classes across campus have entered post-Exam-I mode, and the kids have entered the concomitant shell-shock when they realized that yes, partying for a month instead of going to September classes actually will show up on your GPA, and that Mom 'n' Dad will (belatedly) drop the hammer when it's they themselves, rather than school districts and property taxes, are paying the costs for Junior's infantile alcohol-fueled effort-intolerant lifestyle. So there's a lot of whiny cell-phone conversations in the Starbuck's line about "but I really tried hard for this exam" (unspoken subtext: "I didn't try hard before the exam, and I'm personally offended that having 'tried' doesn't count the same as having 'succeeded') and a lot of kids walking around pale and resentful.

Which same, thankfully, is not mostly the music kids. In contrast to the general run of Business-Admin or Marketing or Mass Communications or "Undecided" majors, undergraduate music kids have mostly already learned both the craft and the merits of doing your damned work on time. You can't fake your way through a middle-school band part, must less a junior high choral part or a high school jazz band chart. You either know it or you don't; you've either put in the hours on your skills or you ain't. Mostly--and it's a great blessing to us as teachers at the university level--the music kids already freaking know how to work in a consistent, disciplined way in order to achieve final results. Makes our jobs a lot easier.

Undergraduate freshman history class's first exam doesn't drop until next week. I don't like hitting them with an exam in our class during the same week they're dealing with them everywhere else. And, further to the whole premise of incremental work toward long-term goals, we have smaller week-by-week assessments such that we already know, a week before Exam I, who's where in terms of the keeping-up stuff. And, those three first-third Listening Quizzes also provide the kiddos a good lab/jump-start experience in the content, format, etc they can expect on the examination.

Here are two examples, based upon the repertoire list I posted previously:

Of course the primary concern is not necessarily that the student remember the specific title, or even the specific composer, or composition date, of the piece in question--though those data points can be very useful mnemonic tools upon which to hang more complex interpretive understandings. But remember that the goal of any exam, and especially of these week-by-week quizzes, is not primarily assessment, but rather focus: forcing/pushing/encouraging them to do the week-by-week and day-by-day concentrated, focused listening and familiarization with repertoire. I don't really care if they remember the composition date of Beethoven 3 or Brahms 4 (though, as I say, that would be nice), but I damned sure do want them to recall both content (e.g., style characteristics and specifics) and context (e.g., times/places/people from which the works emerge)--and I damned sure do want them to be able to link the two. This is all part of the "critical listening" and "critical thinking" that are fundamental parts of our mandate.

But most importantly of all, I want them to feel that they know those pieces. Part of the craft--and art--of being a functional, intelligent, self-actualized musician is knowing why the music is the way it is. Our conviction is that such knowing, such "ownership"--that is, such ability to say, "the notes are this way because the context was that way"--in turn creates more powerful, insightful, accurate, and convincing performances. And not just on stage: not just in the moment of performing a composition. But equally importantly and even more frequently, in all those "teachable" moments when, in our post-industrial technologically-saturated passive-consumption-driven North American environment, we can be advocates for all people to take back the sources of their culture. To make it their own.

That's why we do what we do.

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