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.

Concert Dress (for the Audience!)

So many students ask me about proper concert etiquette.  If you’ve never been to a classical concert before, I can understand your anxiety.  Probably you’ve been to a popular music concert, so let’s start there.  What’s the appropriate dress for a popular music concert?  It depends.  You probably wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to a Green Day concert.  On the other hand, guys probably won’t wear eyeliner and a Marilyn Manson t-shirt to a George Strait concert.  These are typical concert conventions, and I think we can all accept them as generally true.  Let’s apply these same ideas to a classical music concert.

Say your professor has given you an assignment to write a paper about a classical concert, and you’ve never been to this type of concert before.  Or maybe you have, but it’s been a while.  Before you open your closet, consider a few things.  If you’re attending a concert sponsored by your college, you’re probabaly appropriately dressed right now.  Since these concerts are held on campus, they tend to be somewhat more relaxed than you might imagine.  I wouldn’t recommend wearing sweat pants, but if you’re wearing jeans, you’ll be in good company.

For a more formal concert, which might include an orchestra concert, you’ll probably need to pay a little more attention to your attire.  Even here, you’ll witness a fairly wide variety of dress.  A Sunday afternoon orchestra concert will most likely be full of people in business casual.  A few might wear jeans, but they will be in the minority.  The opening night concert of the season is the most formal night of the year; on this occasion, there will be people dressed formally, but it isn’t required.

If you decide to attend an opera production, the attire is much like that for an orchestra concert.  The opening night is the most formal in terms of dress, and there will be people in tuxedos and cocktail dresses.  However, you’re free to wear whatever you’re most comfortable in.

One more point to consider — most likely, the performers will be dressed more formally than you will be.  Even if you attend an informal concert on campus, the musicians will be wearing tuxedos, black dresses, or formal gowns.  Please don’t assume that, because they’re dressed formally, you should be too.


An Introduction to Music Appreciation

If you’re reading this particular post, you’re most likely a student of mine, in some capacity.  This blog is for you.  The purpose of it is to add an additional perspective to the material we cover in class.  Some of it is to help clarify lecture topics, and some of it is to give you ideas — about classical music, popular music, the fusion of the two, composers, trends, instruments, technology, and so forth.  Enjoy!

So where do you fit into class?  As is the case in most classes, I’d wager, my students fall into three categories: those for whom the class is moving at the right pace, those who are more advanced, and those who are struggling with some aspect of the class.  These differences can be intimidating in a music class because, hey — it’s music!  The vast majority of us listen to music every day.  How hard can it be, right?  Those with no prior musical experience approach all the new vocabulary with trepidation.  Polyphony?  Counterpoint?  Dissonance?  What?!  These words are part of a new layer of musical knowledge that can provide a deeper level of appreciation and enjoyment of the music that you listen to every day.  Students who are inexperienced with this vocabulary can also be really intimidating by those students who have been playing an instrument for a while.

Those of you who have musical experience — great!  You have a great background from which to work.  However, let me offer a word of caution.  In my experience, most of you with prior knowledge of music have been either in band or orchestra in school.  A smaller percentage of you have your own bands and play something like guitar or drums.  Either way, I’ll bet you that your middle school band director never used the term “tintinnabulation” in class.  Not his fault — these advanced terms just aren’t generally necessary in middle and high school.  There’s a lot more information that we’re going to cover in class, so please keep an open mind, apply your prior knowledge to the new information, and never assume that there’s nothing more to learn.

If you’re cruising right along and feel like class is moving at the right pace, you’re most likely in the majority.  You can still profit from this blog, though.  If you’re enjoying the class and want to learn more about music, this is a great place to come for some new ideas.