Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

On “scuba diving,” or the advantages of a less-is-more approach

Brian Alegant, Oberlin College

The past fifteen years have witnessed tremendous advances in teaching, particularly in the areas of student-centered learning and course design. Yet, despite the emphasis on designing what Dee Fink calls “significant learning experiences,” one facet of teaching is rarely discussed: how much content to include in a course. Even experienced teachers struggle to balance breadth and depth, to find the right number of pieces to analyze, readings to dissect, or projects to complete. The challenge is to reconcile the opposing philosophies of more is better and less is more. More-is-better, which I think of as “snorkeling,” emphasizes breadth over depth. Conversely, less-is-more, which I think of as “scuba diving,” privileges depth at the expense of breadth. The aim of scuba diving is to cover (much) less content, but to explore it in (much) greater detail, in the spirit of Close Reading and Deep Listening.

Over the past decade I have become increasingly enamored with scuba diving, and I try to apply it in everything I teach: Music Theory 1 & 2, Aural Skills 3 & 4, upper division electives, and private readings. My experience has shown that, for the vast majority of students, the learning that is facilitated through scuba diving is indeed deeper and more significant. My aim in this blessay is quite modest: to sing the praises of scuba diving, and to offer some strategies for instructors to experiment with a less-is-more aesthetic.

* * *

I offer several strategies for scuba diving, one for the entire course, another for self-contained modules, and a third for individual lessons. At the course level, one way to embrace the notion of scuba diving is to shift the focus from input (the content you want to cover) to output (the skills you want the students to acquire, develop, or master). Once you articulate the outcomes—which is often harder than it sounds—the idea is to reduce the material you’ll use to help students achieve these outcomes. At first it might seem daunting to use as little material as possible; it might make more sense to use a little less than you normally would: one fewer reading, one fewer piece, or two or three fewer examples to illustrate a concept or vocabulary item. The point is simply to narrow the content so that you can explore it in greater depth. I invariably take a moment after class to reflect on the balance between snorkeling and scuba diving, and the degree to which I got my money’s worth for the time spent on individual tasks. An anonymous two-minute paper is an easy and effective way to take the pulse of a class. I occasionally ask students to reflect on these (or other) questions at the end of the class. I collect the responses, review them, and report back during the next class. (Readers interested in exploring the role of reflection in  deeper learning and metacognition can turn here.)

At the module level, one way to encourage scuba diving is to think beyond the confines of individual classes, and to arrange courses into discrete, self-contained modules. This way you don’t have to worry about cramming the material into 50- or 75-minute spans. You can spend several classes analyzing a work (say, the first movement of Schubert’s Great Symphony or the last movement of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet), or honing a particular concept or skill (like writing about texted music or creating reductions of development sections). The ability to extend the conversation beyond a single class is liberating.

An illustration. Many years ago I would spend a day in sophomore theory covering the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata. I would lead the class through an exploration of the large-scale formal, harmonic, and dramatic structure. I would highlight the modal mixture, label the chromatic sequences, and touch on a few striking surface events. There was never enough time to explore rhetoric, pacing, registral play, or performance implications; nor was there time to compare performances, listen without score, or confront the twists and turns of the development section and coda. Nowadays, I devote two or even three classes to this movement, so that there is plenty of time to create a road map of the large-scale structure, generate a voice-leading reduction of the development section and coda, listen without score, and compare the merits of modern versus historical performance approaches. The extra time allows students fully to apprehend the movement, and allows me the freedom to explore interesting ideas that arise. The sacrifice of depth for breadth—we could’ve studied two other major-mode sonata forms—is a trade off I am happy to make.

Another word of advice for the module level is to plan a free day into the syllabus at periodic intervals (say, once a module or once a month). There is no new material to cover, so you have can take the time to reflect, reconsider, and consolidate. You might revisit a previous piece and dig deeper, or follow up on a recent teachable moment. In fact, if you’ve been doing nothing but scuba diving, you could always snorkel (for a change of pace and a chance to come up for air).

I close with a micro-technique for an individual class period: the two-thirds rule. This idea, which I appropriated from my middle-school math teacher, helps to prevent cramming. It’s also very sound pedagogy. The bottom line: never introduce new or conceptually difficult information after the two-thirds point of a given class—whether the class lasts 50 or 75 minutes or three hours. In other words, make sure that the hard stuff happens before the 35-minute mark of a 50-minute class. The reason I follow this rule is because, 99 times out of 100, the material I cover after the 2/3 point never “sticks”; the time is wasted. Another example: I used to design 50-minute aural skills classes with four activities, usually a five-minute warm up, melodic work, rhythmic work, and some dictation. Invariably, the melodic and rhythmic tasks took more time than I had anticipated, leaving insufficient time for dictation. In the old days, I’d start the dictation anyway, figuring that any time spent on the activity was better than nothing. Now I won’t even bother; instead, I’ll continue to work on melodies or rhythms we studied earlier, or prepare something for the following class.

* * *

I’m not saying that snorkeling is bad and scuba diving is good. Rather, I’m asserting that many of us would benefit from thinking more strategically about how much material we cover, and how effectively we balance breadth and depth. (As an aside, scuba diving also figures prominently in a national initiative to reform the teaching of biology at the undergraduate level: “Introduce fewer concepts, but present them in greater depth. Less really is more.”) A final thought: Many years ago, I came upon an aphorism about course design that served as a catalyst for my scuba diving adventures. It goes something like this: You know you’ve designed a perfect course not when you can’t stuff anything more into it, but rather when you can’t take anything else away. 

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Brian Alegant and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.