Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

Table of Contents

On Standards and Assessment

Anna Gawboy, The Ohio State University

I took a syllabus-writing workshop while in graduate school. Even though I’d had a lot of teaching experience, I’d never designed my own music theory course. I found I was stumped by the most fundamental question posed in the workshop: what do you want your students to be able to do after taking your class?

I looked through old syllabuses of my professors and peers for inspiration. The course descriptions often focused on content: “this course begins with a thorough review of fundamentals, followed by an introduction to species counterpoint and four-part voice leading . . .” “you will learn the general syntactic principles of late common practice chromatic harmony . . .” So, following the models, I consulted the textbook, figured out what I’d cover in the first term, and used that as my course description. In so doing, I substituted content goals for learning goals, and managed to sidestep the most profound question facing every theory teacher.

I later learned that my error was not uncommon. Michael Rogers observed that, in many core undergraduate theory curricula, “too much emphasis on narrow course content and acquisition of knowledge . . .obscures the more far-reaching goals of theory instruction—goals that should spill outside the strict boundaries of the courses themselves and affect serious musicians throughout their lifetimes.” For Rogers, these larger goals include “learning how to ask questions as well as how to answer them” but perhaps even more importantly, “discovering which questions about music are most worth asking in the first place.” Rogers’ emphasis on inquiry dovetails with the standards articulated in the 2012-2013 NASM Handbook, which prioritize creativity, communication, and synthesis as long-range goals for all undergraduate music majors. In addition to achieving entry-level mastery within their chosen specialization, “students are expected to have the ability to form and defend value judgments about music, and to communicate musical ideas, concepts, and requirements to professionals and laypersons related to the practice of the major field.” Under Section VIII-B, “Common Body of Knowledge and Skills,” NASM outlines five areas of professional development: 1) performance; 2) musicianship skills and analysis; 3) composition and improvisation; 4) history and repertory; and perhaps most elusive, 5) synthesis. Music theory directly supports areas two and three, but contributes significantly to all of them. Elizabeth Marvin, reflecting on the NASM standards, described the role of music theory instructors in achieving these goals:

“We aim to teach our students to think in music
To read, write, and perform music with understanding
And so to contribute to artistry.”

In this integrated vision of the undergraduate curriculum, music theory is ultimately not a theory at all, but rather a practice. Its acquisition is cumulative, requiring consistent application and careful mentoring. Doing music theory well involves myriad interpretive decisions based on intuition, experience, and knowledge. It is a form of musical development, like learning to play an instrument.

If this is the case, why is theory pedagogy often so different from performance pedagogy? Let’s imagine a piano lesson in which the teacher welcomes a student into his studio and seats her at a desk. He asks her to take notes while he lectures about playing Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata for forty minutes. Then he plays through a few short passages of the sonata while the student observes. The teacher concludes the lesson, satisfied that he has “covered” the Waldstein, even though his student did not play a single note. He gives his student a worksheet to assess how well she has learned the sonata. The worksheet consists of multiple choice questions and some partially-completed passages for the student to fill in on her own.

Most of us recognize this as ineffective pedagogy in the applied studio, yet a similar succession of events is frequently the template for music theory class. The theory teacher lectures, performs a few examples, and sends the students off to do their figured-bass realizations. In this scenario, how do we know whether our students are using their theoretical skills to achieve a deep, integrated musical understanding? How do we know whether our students are learning to think in music?

It seems that, for the most part, we don’t know. We don’t know because the typical exercises and assessments in music theory workbooks are oriented toward more rudimentary tasks: part writing, Roman numeral analysis, labeling, and so on. Perhaps the first two years of an undergraduate curriculum should be dedicated to fundamentals so that synthesis may occur in later years. Yet, all too often, acquiring the preliminary skills becomes an end in itself, resulting in a pattern of theory instruction described by Rogers as “an extended introduction that leads nowhere.” If the final integration never occurs, the typical tasks of undergraduate music theory can seem irrelevant and far removed from the act of music-making.

I’m frequently dismayed by the performance of incoming graduate students on their theory entrance exams. How could such important knowledge and skills be so poorly retained, even among a population of ambitious, talented, professionally-oriented musicians? I can only conclude that many students don’t use their music theory beyond the boundaries of the classroom, and so it decays quickly.

Why is this the case? Perhaps students have never experienced the practical applications of theory firsthand. I believe that we could do better at encouraging our students to employ theory toward critical and musical ends, and do so earlier in their undergraduate careers. One way theorists can help students internalize and apply their knowledge is by adopting a model of instruction that looks less like traditional lecture and more like an applied lesson or studio class. Instructional time is used to assess the students’ progress and allow them to try out new techniques, while teachers and peers provide guidance and correction as needed.

Another way we can help our students understand the practical relevance of theory is by making our assessments more authentic. In contrast to artificial, contrived exercises, authentic assessments seek to replicate the types of problems faced by professionals, ensuring that students apply their knowledge directly to real-life situations. This shift can have profound implications for curriculum design, as explained by Jon Mueller:

In the [traditional] model, the curriculum drives assessment.  "The" body of knowledge is determined first.  That knowledge becomes the curriculum that is delivered.  Subsequently, the assessments are developed and administered to determine if acquisition of the curriculum occurred . . . In [authentic assessment], assessment drives the curriculum. That is, teachers first determine the tasks that students will perform to demonstrate their mastery, and then a curriculum is developed that will enable students to perform those tasks well, which would include the acquisition of essential knowledge and skills.

So, what do we want our students to be able to do? And how do we know if they can really do it? We can’t assume that figured bass and Roman numeral analysis will naturally lead to the development of “sufficient understanding of and capability with musical forms, processes, and structures to use this knowledge and skill in compositional, performance, analytical, scholarly, and pedagogical applications according to the requisites of their specializations” in accordance with the NASM standards. If we are to meet these standards, we must help students apply their knowledge in contexts that are relevant to their musical and professional development. 

The Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and other publications (including this volume) contain creative approaches for moving students toward higher levels of integration and application. For example, Peter Schubert cast the McGill curricula as “ultra-integrated theory/aural skills courses where ear training is theory,” focusing heavily on improvisation, sing-and-play exercises, and stylistic analysis. Brian Alegant designed a seven-week unit to teach students how to recognize the rhetorical patterns of sonata form in real time through listening without the score. Michael Callahan taught a semester of baroque counterpoint as a hands-on keyboard workshop. These authors engaged theoretical concepts through activities done in class, emphasizing application through listening and performance. While many other approaches could be cited, the publication of these articles signifies that they represent instances of exceptional pedagogy rather than the norm.

Under the heading “Synthesis,” the NASM Handbook states, “students must be able to work on musical problems by combining, as appropriate to the issue, their capabilities in performance; aural, verbal, and visual analysis; composition/improvisation; and history and repertory.” While theory instructors can help students use theory to decide creative, aesthetic, and interpretive problems, responsibility for ensuring a larger synthesis lies with the music faculty as a whole: theorists, (ethno-) musicologists, studio teachers, skills instructors, ensemble conductors, coaches. The best applied teachers encourage their students to be independent learners who engage constantly with their musicianship and assess their own progress. For many music majors, playing their instrument isn’t only a skill, it becomes a lifestyle. Only when music theory is fully integrated into this lifestyle will its lessons be retained.

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This work is copyright 2013 Anna Gawboy and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.