Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Attempting a Thematic History

As Phil Sr. says, happy academic new year! Since both he and my co-blogger Kariann are talking syllabi, I thought I would pitch in as well, especially since I could use some advice.

One of my classes this semester is a three-fold challenge:

1. It is a one semester history of western music. That's a lot of history.
2. It is required for music majors, and in fact is the only history requirement--we offer the whole sequence of course, but those courses are electives. So this is one chance to make sure the music majors know their history.
3. At the same time, it is open to all students in the school, regardless of musical training, and fulfills various general education requirements. So there is a big chunk of people with no musical experience.

You see the challenge--conflicting needs, and a surplus of material. But it is also an opportunity for me to rethink how I've been teaching history sequences. We all face the challenge of wanting to teach our students how to think critically about music, when in reality they usually don't yet know the basic facts of its history, facts that are necessary to know before you can do much else. I've seen approaches that take both sides of that coin--for example, just plowing ahead with advanced stuff hoping that they have learned history and repertoire somewhere else or will do it independently on their own, or the opposite approach of just sitting down and going through Grout, chapter by chapter.

I've decided to bite the bullet and attempt to find a middle ground by doing a history thematically, rather than chronologically. So instead of starting with Charlemagne and plowing on through the next millenium of music, we're having units on specific topics, like "notation" or "colonialism" or "classicism" or "sexuality." In the "notation" topic, for example, we'll look at early chant notation, ars nova, an example of common period music, and end with Earle Brown's graphic scores in Folio. Obviously there will be lots of interesting notation we won't look at it, but I think that's enough to get one thinking.

What makes this possible, I hope, is that the first unit, taking place over the first two weeks, is grandiously titled "Organizing Sound." In this unit we'll do a little philosophical "What is Music?" stuff, but mostly it will be a quick overview of the major periods and their stylistic characteristics. It will necessarily be a quick, glancing overview, but hopefully it will them a context into which they will be able to fit everything else we're doing.

The semester has started, the syllabus distributed, so no turning back now! Any advice is welcome. On the plus side of all of this is that my students are very smart, and work very well independently. And although it might at first seem like a lot more work for me, in reality it more closely matches how I tend to think about music in the first place, so I'm hoping it won't be so bad.

I'll let you know how it turns out.


rrb said...

Sounds like a great course, Phil. Good luck!
I agree that there needs to be some sort of middle ground in courses such as these. I like your idea of approaching the subject through units.
I'm tasked with a similar situation in a course I'm teaching at Northeastern. Slightly smaller subject: American Music History, rather than the whole of Western. Slightly more advanced students: Majors, but I don't know much about their training.
Anyway, I face the same problem of laying out the history--this is one of two historical music courses they take--while getting them to critically engage with the material. My solution is to use a regular textbook (Crawford), but complicate it with readings from Judith Tick's new source-readings book. The source readings agree with the textbook's narrative sometimes, but sometimes not. Also, we're not starting at the start, but rather in the middle with the rise of classical music in the USA, which I think is an important pivot point for talking about all other traditions in the context of this course. We'll get to psalmody...eventually.


PMG said...

ooh, I'll be curious to know how yours goes as well; I'm teaching the same course in the spring here. I was also thinking of using the Tick collection, and was even hoping that maybe I could get away with not using a normal textbook.

Maybe we can trade notes at AMS!

rrb said...

Yes. Let's trade notes for sure. I look forward to catching up in full in Philly!

KG said...

I really like the unit idea myself. I have heard of other courses that go through a straight through standard history at a rapid pace (i.e. 2-3 weeks) and then slow down to investigate themes. Two scholars I highly respect suggested doing something along these lines for classes on more narrow swaths of rep such as History of Rock 'n' Roll and History of Jazz.
Let us all know how teaching to such a breadth of students goes. Thus far, my students look like your standard interested non-majors...

Meredith said...

as a music undergrad myself i find thematic organization really helpful--good luck with it!

just wanted to let you know that i added you to my blogroll over at meredithaskamcbride.wordpress.com

MMR said...

I know Julianne did it this way last year at Reno and she said it was awesome and made way more sense and was more fun and let her include stuff she might not have gotten to include in a chronological course. I think it sounds really exciting! But anyway, you might ask her for her syllabus or something.