Erinn Knyt, University of Massachusetts Amherst
A great deal of recent scholarly discourse about teaching in the music history classroom has concentrated on strategies for active learning, which allow students more control over their own learning process and render student passivity in the classroom difficult. Numerous scholars have discussed the benefits of active learning in general and also proposed diverse active learning methods, including group composition exercises, peer learning activities, games, debates, and focused discussion sessions, methods which demand student investment and participation (Conway and Hodgman 2009, Crain 2014, Fillerup 2010, Natvig 2012, Seaton 2010).
Yet the ways that student performances in the classroom can aid course goals of discipline specific knowledge acquisition and retention, active listening skills, and critical thinking abilities have received only passing mention to date (Natvig 2012, Grymes and Allemeir 2014, Yang 2012). This essay proposes several active learning methods involving student impromptu performances and role-playing in the classroom as supplements to traditional lectures (live or recorded) to aid the teaching of form and style.
When teaching traditional forms, and their development throughout the eras, student “performances” can play a valuable role in conveying knowledge. More specifically, when students “perform” new forms or styles of music, this can aid student retention of information and critical thinking. By performance in this instance, I am not referring to the mastery of a composition and its performance in front of the class, but rather to the improvised role-playing of the formal structure itself and its comparison with composed musical examples. This approach can be used with virtually any form, such as the fugue or the sonata. For the sake of illustration, I write here about one of my students’ favorites, the performance of Ritornello Form as found in the Baroque Solo Concerto or Baroque Concerto Grosso.
An alternative approach to teaching the Baroque Ritornello Form is to have students improvise their own formal structures. After a brief lecture on the history and structure of ritornello form provided by the professor, the entire class can be given a simple and easily transposable modular melody in common ritornello tripartite format to sing. It can come from published literature, be newly composed and written out in advance (both would be sung at sight by the students) or else improvised on the spot and taught by rote. One ritornello melody that works well for this is the first violin part in the opening ritornello of Vivaldi’s very familiar and singable Concerto in A Minor for Solo Violin, RV 356. One student (or several students in the case of a concerto grosso) is/are asked (or else volunteer) to stand up and improvise a predetermined number of improvisatory and virtuosic modulatory passages with their voice (or on an instrument if they brought it to class) in between ritornello sections. The class listens to each improvisation and responds with the modular melody, singing just one segment (usually the first one for ease of performance) transposed to the new key after each of the soloist’s improvisations. The entrances can be cued by the professor or soloist. It is often helpful for the sake of illustration, to ask the entire class to stand up when they sing their ritornello melody, and to sit down during the soloist sections. The final improvisation moves back to the tonic key (sometimes with the help of the professor) and the final ritornello section is sung complete by the entire class. To aid the exercise, it is often helpful for the professor to briefly describe and illustrate Baroque soloist improvisatory styles before the class improvisation begins and to mention common key areas or else plot the keys out in advance and note them on a board or overhead projector. Depending on the strength of the soloist, the professor can provide a few cues vocally or from the piano during the improvisations.
This group improvisation can be an effective way to lead to more traditional teaching strategies involving formal analysis of composed musical examples and critical thinking about the individual style and formal approach of diverse composers. After this group performance, students are asked to draw a formal diagram of ritornello form on paper in small groups. The diagrams are then used as points of comparison when listening to composed examples of ritornello form by Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. Upon the first listening to composed musical examples, students are not initially allowed to consult scores. They are asked to listen critically—to stand up when they hear the ritornello sections–and to mentally note any unexpected treatments of the soloist and tutti sections in comparison to the paradigmatic formal example they just learned. It is usually helpful to begin with a more paradigmatic composition example, such as the first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for Solo Violin, RV 356, before playing a few that are more structurally unique, such as first movements from Vivaldi’s “Spring Concerto”in E Major, RV 269, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major, BWV 1050. After each example, small groups of students discuss and write down similarities and differences between the example and the paradigm. Finally, using the scores as points of reference, the small groups can discuss the following critical thinking questions, before reporting their conclusions after regrouping as an entire class.
1. What are the unique ways each composer approached ritornello form in terms of instrumentation and treatment of soloist and tutti roles (i.e. motivic material, harmony, length, cadences, etc.)?
2. Are there any identifiable motivations (i.e. programmatic, instrumental, etc.) for the deviations of form?
This lesson can be profitably condensed or expanded to fit into two or three 50-minute class sessions, depending upon time constraints. The first session can be devoted to the mini-lecture, group improvisation, the creation of the diagram, and listening to a paradigmatic example from literature. Subsequent class sessions can be devoted to discussion and analyses of less paradigmatic examples and composer comparisons. By the end of the module, students should not only be able to understand basic ritornello form, but also to have improved listening skills, and to be able to better understand differences between the approach of Vivaldi and Bach.
Performance can also be used in the classroom to teach historical developments in style and to help students differentiate between the approaches of diverse composers. This is aptly illustrated with an activity I frequently use when teaching students a module on Italian comic opera. Even after a thorough grounding in Italian serious opera, the stylistic and plot /character type differences of Italian comic opera in the 18th century are not readily apparent to or easily remembered by many students. These formal and plot changes can be effectively taught through role playing and improvisation. After a short lecture on the development of Italian comic opera and the commedia dell’arte tradition, the professor can play a few musical examples related to each character type (i.e. the bumbling bass servant, the cunning soprano servant, etc.). Students can then be divided into small groups; each is assigned a stock character type for which they are given a few minutes to write out a brief character description for the role, including a description of musical styles associated with the character in the early classical era. If class time allows, students can sketch out several musical motives for the character. One student from each group can then volunteer or be selected to improvise a mock comic opera in front of the class with the professor or other student keyboardist improvising an accompaniment. If the players are advanced enough, they can improvise a plot related to the character descriptions and sing it in recitative style. If this proves too difficult, students can act out the comedy using spoken prose and discuss how they would sing the text and where they would insert arias. Most of my students have felt more comfortable choosing the latter option, and it is helpful if the professor outlines an initial plot idea before the improvisation begins. Some of the most successful improvisations in my class have been based on adaptations of a “Barber of Seville” type plot.
After this role play, more traditional teaching approaches can follow quite effectively. Students can return to their small groups to analyze and discuss the role and musical treatment of their character type in two contrasting operas or intermezzi, such as Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, or W. A. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492. Students analyze the form, texture, harmonies, vocal treatment, and vocal range. They can then select and compare and contrast their individual character type with a serious opera character type from an opera studied in the previous class sessions (i.e. two strong female characters, two servants, two strong male character types, etc.) in terms of the following:
1. Voice types
2. Treatment of affect
3. Treatment of style (phrase structure, harmony, texture, accompaniment, etc.)
Once again, this module can be condensed or expanded to fit two or three class sessions, with the lecture, small group character descriptions, and role playing occupying the first session, and the analyses occupying subsequent class sessions. By the end of the module, students should not only be able to grasp major plot differences between Italian comic and serious opera in the 18th century, but also to understand major stylistic differences, such as new treatments of texture, phrasing, dynamics, and form.
In-class performances can also help students understand stylistic differences between major composers from the same era or stylistic movement. When discussing Minimalism, for instance, performance enables students to better grasp composers’ various approaches to sustained tones, pattern repetition, phasing, and gates. La Monte Young’s composition, “1960 #7” is easily performable by dividing a class in half and having each group sustain one tone, and Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” provides a perfect introduction to phasing. Using Terry Riley’s “In C” as a model, a group of student volunteers can improvise simple “pattern” music in front of the class by selecting personal patterns and coming in at regular intervals of time. An improvisation produced by eight students in a course I taught in spring 2014 on the topic of classical, world, and popular music from 1900-the present, provides a great example of this. All of these serve as memorable illustrations of and introductions to the different approaches to Minimalism and should be followed by comparisons to the scores and recordings of composed pieces employing the diverse approaches by these composers.
It is always a delicate balancing act between comprehensive coverage, which is more readily accomplished through lecture, and more focused active learning case studies, which take more time. Yet having students perform, especially when the class is comprised of a majority of performance majors, can be highly effective in stimulating student interest and aiding student retention of knowledge in music history classes. Moreover, these activities can contribute to critical thinking skills by helping students arrive at their own conclusions about pieces or concepts instead of being “fed” the information in a lecture.
These ideas are just a few of the ways that in-class performances can bring musicking and music history together for a memorable and meaningful learning experience. Many of these methods could be applied to other repertoires and to other types of classes (including theory/aural skills/analysis classes) and guided by the particular interests of the students in the class to help them achieve the greatest level of learning possible.
This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Erinn Knyt and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.