Teaching non-music majors

It seems that, as young faculty members, the task of teaching non-music majors falls to us. My first college teaching gig wasn’t teaching applied flute (even though I have three degrees in the subject) – it was teaching music appreciation. It’s a real eye-opener to go from a graduate program, taking upper-level musicology seminars, to teaching basic music appreciation to students who may never have heard classical music before.

Obviously, this takes an adjustment. And I will take this opportunity to offer my most sincere apologies to the students in my first semester teaching (because that just couldn’t have been a great semester) and sincere thanks to my first boss for hiring me.

So what are some of the challenges that musicians face when teaching non-musicians? Here are a few; feel free to contribute your own.

1 – Terminology. If you think about it, we use A LOT of jargon. Polyphony. Fugue. Arpeggio. Mixolydian. All I have to do is listen to my computer-guy husband on a conference call, using words that are nonsense to me, to understand the effect that the musician’s language must have on non-musicians. I think it’s important to use a lot of the “correct” musical terms because they’re so precise, but they really need to be introduced gradually and with plenty of explanation and context.

2 – Musical Excerpts. Yes, we know Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Wagner. But a lot of times, non-musicians haven’t heard the staples of our repertoire outside of pop culture. The musical elements we can detect after hearing Beethoven’s 5th for the hundredth time will be different from someone who has never heard it other than the opening motive. We both have something to teach each other. As the musical expert, we can point out subtleties. But sometimes I envy someone who is hearing some of the great classical pieces for the first time. A first listen through Rite of Spring? What an exciting experience that must be. Sometimes the non-musician’s reaction to an initial hearing may remind us of elements we may have forgotten.

3 – Level of detail and expectations. Yes, I eventually learned to analyze classical forms and can argue where the transitions begin. I can do a decent Schenkerian analysis. Is this necessary for non-majors? NO. I think sometimes our expectations are too high. This is understandable. We’ve spent so many years studying music on an intense level that it can be difficult to remember what it’s like to not think that way. If one of the goals of teaching non-musicians is to help them enjoy it, our expectations have to be realistic.

I always look forward to the challenge of introducing western art music to a new group of students each semester. Hopefully they take away something useful from the class.

Setting Expectations and Establishing a Culture

As the fall semester is very nearly here, it’s time for me to get my Flute Studio Syllabus together. My goal in creating my syllabus (besides appeasing the administration!) is to set expectations and establish a culture in flute studio for the year. Hopefully, by doing this at the very beginning, all of my students will understand what is expected of them and how to best fit into a group of flutists.

Most of the time, my incoming college freshmen have never had flute lessons before. This is a stark contrast to my own experience. As a freshman, I had had many years of lessons, which included lessons with the professor with whom I was studying in my early college days. Therefore, expectations were quite clear. I knew the score – I was expected to be perfectly prepared for lessons every week and never to miss them.

The culture aspect of the flute studio has been vastly different in my experience from place to place. What do I mean by culture? I’m referring to how the members of a particular studio relate to each other. My experience has really run the gamut. I have been part of studios that were incredibly cut-throat, those that were very supportive, and those where there was really no culture at all. In this last instance, the flute students didn’t really interact with each other very much.

So, looking forward to Fall 2011, what do I want the studio experience to be for my students?

As far as their obligations to me, I expect for them to:
Come prepared to lessons.
Keep lesson times reserved exclusively for lessons.
Participate in ensembles.
Maintain a positive, helpful attitude.

As far as their obligations to each other, I expect them to:
Be friendly and supportive.
Take on a mentoring role to the younger students.
Maintain a healthy level of competition.
Attend each other’s performances.

And their obligations to themselves:
Further develop their creativity by exploring chamber music.
Read. A lot and often.
Listen to quality recordings.
Attend live music events.
Perform whenever and wherever possible, even though it can be scary.
Develop new friendships with musicians.

This doesn’t feel like an exhaustive list to me, and I’m sure I will continue to refine it until the semester begins.

I’m very interested in how those applied college professors out there (of any instrument) set expectations and establish a studio culture. What are your thoughts?