Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Making Writing Matter: Two Rhetorical Scenarios for the Music History Term Paper

Scott M. Strovas, Wayland Baptist University

College students are good at and enjoy making surface-level observations. Play them Ives’s Variations on “America,” and they will exclaim of the many different, sometimes irreverent sounds which distinguish each variation. Simple observation is a skill that is innate, Aristotle observes, but all too often, the formalities of turning in a paper blunt the most basic task of jotting down one’s thoughts. When faced with the opportunity to write about even the musical selections they know by heart, students habitually turn to Google, forsaking their intuition for the “correct” account given by some omniscient internet ghost.

Writing in music history courses can be particularly problematic, given the common misperception among students that history has more to do with memorizing names and dates than it does with encountering new ideas, exploring cultural materials, developing new perspectives, and thus maturing intellectually and personally. The result is often an approach to writing that is one of fact-finding—“reports” (information dumps, really) that at best read like Wikipedia articles, and at worst are in fact Wikipedia articles. “Writing assignments can do much more than simply improve a student’s ability to recall dates, names, and other raw and sometimes seemingly random bits of data,” Warfield confirms, and I join Knyt, Hess, and November, among others, in proposing alternatives to the generic music history term paper that are intended to motivate students to approach writing in such a way that is not divorced from their disciplinary goals.

Promoting the acquisition of listening and communication skills in music history courses can excite students about the study of history and mitigate their apprehensions about taking a class that has, they think, little to do with their future careers. Below, I present two rhetorical scenarios for the large-scale term paper which place students in a position to trust in and explore the strong, independent observations about music that they are inherently capable of making. They also ask students to think as music professionals, for, as Natvig writes, “the most practical way to motivate students is to relate the study of music history to their future success as employed musicians.” Assigned respectively during the fall and spring of my institution’s two-semester undergraduate Western music history sequence, the writing prompts emphasize skills that are beneficial to most all careers in music, namely 1) an ability to engage scores and recordings deliberatively, with the purpose of arriving at conclusions independently of published scholarship, and 2) effective communication about music through the consideration of audience.

Readers of this ebook will undoubtedly be familiar with the first writing scenario, in which students create program notes for a hypothetical concert. The writing prompt reads as follows:

You are the new director for a prestigious high school, university, or professional ensemble. One of your responsibilities is to write the program notes for the final concert of the season.

Select a significant composition from the common-practice period that will headline your concert. This should be a large, multi-movement work, such as a symphony, opera, concerto, Mass, or choral cantata.

Focusing on your own observations about the selection’s distinctive musical features and relevant historical background, draft a program note that will complement and enhance the concert experience for your audience.

The culminating paper (compare with Knyt’s program notes project) is a product of a series of pre-writing assignments, due over the course of the semester, that isolates the various tasks of the writing process. Chief among these are the concert “press release,” which stimulates creativity by allowing students to design a flyer, newspaper ad, or Facebook event to introduce their chosen musical selection, and a two-page “discovery report” in which students detail the features of the composition that stand out to them. It is easy to tell whether a student has spent enough time with recordings and scores to acquire a personal understanding of the selection, and my feedback is unwavering in demanding closer examination of these materials, if necessary.

The second rhetorical scenario, a letter to the editors of our course textbook/anthology, gives students an opportunity to “rewrite history”—or at least the chance to confront the historical narrative presented in the text. In the letter, my students recommend one alternative score to include in a second edition of the anthology which, they must demonstrate, potentially leads to a fuller understanding or different perspective of the ways that music has developed. While the assignment is admittedly more artificial than the program notes project, it nonetheless reinforces their individual engagement with a composition, and it encourages intellectual independence by reconceptualizing music history as a malleable narrative.

A primary goal of these writing situations is for students to assume authority over the music they choose to write about. The “discovery reports” require no research and implore students to “embrace the challenge of coming up with something to say from your own perspective (i.e., your brain).” In fact, both rhetorical situations de-emphasize research (something I have argued for in undergraduate core writing courses) in favor of experiences that will more tangibly inform them as future music professionals, namely more time spent with scores and recordings. Excessive research requirements can distract undergraduates from drawing their own conclusions about the music and send them searching—“re-searching,” really, as Allbaugh cleverly phrases it—for the “right answers.” Alternatively, requiring fewer secondary sources allows students to engage both their musical selections and the scholarship more critically. I want my students to become more judicious in their selection of scholarly sources and to introduce each as another voice within the conversation, rather than quote dropping and fact dumping. It is an approach that validates the analytical abilities of those students who come across scholarship that agrees with conclusions they have reached on their own, and thus teaches them how they must next direct the conversation.

In prioritizing time spent with primary materials, my methodology aligns with that of rhetoric historian and composition theorist Lynée Lewis Gaillet, who insists that primary research is not emphasized nearly enough in undergraduate writing courses. Her composition students sift through library archives, “feeling” and “smelling” the “original documents,” and “coming up with something original to say” that reflects “their own ethos in relationship to the material.” It is a paradigm shift away from the model presented by Hacker, long-standing in higher education writing classes, in which academic writing begins with annotating secondary materials, toward that of the “writing-across-the-curriculum movement,” which Bean writes, overcomes “traditional writing instruction” by giving students “an authentic desire to converse with interested readers about real ideas.” It is obvious to my students that “real life” versions of program notes or a letter to music scholars would be encumbered by too many citations; accordingly, I require only three for the letter to the editor, and just one for the program notes.

Another objective of the rhetorical writing scenarios is for students to learn the value of considering their writing audience. Having formerly become proficient in paraphrasing their “re-search,” it is not uncommon for them to spend more time on style than content, falsely presuming that maintaining an objective, academic tone is more important than what they are saying. Or, students write with the understanding that only their instructor will read their work, and merely demonstrate that they have “mastered the material,” as Walvoord describes it in her book Helping Students Write Well, “In the same way a person might repeat the directions you’ve given for driving to your house.” Increasingly, college instructors are turning to informal writing forums such as E-journals, blogs, and Twitter feeds to isolate students’ analytical abilities apart from academic writing. But these alternative writing environments also succeed because students can more readily conceptualize and relate to an audience of their peers.

The two rhetorical scenarios target two very different audiences, the general public comprising the audience for their program notes assignment. Here, simple, direct statements and uncomplicated musical description are requisite. The writing prompt instructs students to “identify and describe key features of the selection which your audience members need to be aware of in order to enhance their listening experience. In other words, how might you discuss the music if your grandmother was in the audience?”  I want my students to practice talking about music without the benefit of theoretical verbiage. Future educators will become more adept at connecting with their students, and performers, with their audiences.

The letter to the editor is directed to a very different audience, and thus stresses different writing priorities than the program notes assignment. Content and style are more fully refined in the writing of students who acknowledge the authority of their textbook’s authors and editors as informed musical scholars, something I underscore in the writing prompt:

Your successful persuasion of the editors does not depend on the presentation of basic facts and biographical information of which they, as editors of a music history textbook and anthology, would likely already be aware. You are entering into a discussion with them.  But they will only take you seriously if you demonstrate more than a surface-level knowledge of your topic.

Your final draft should be courteous and professional. You are writing to scholars, so the tone, word choice, and grammatical usage of your final draft should be professional and conform to the standards of current academic prose.

Often without realizing it, students are writing an argumentative essay in an academic style, and they get closer to this ideal than in traditional “re-search” papers. For instance, the assignment intrinsically teaches counterargument, as students must consider and confront the educational merits of the anthology’s original selection which they seek to replace. And composition pedagogies have demonstrated that consideration of audience influences a number of other aspects of the writing process, including a more selective incorporation of secondary sources. Successful students’ letters are thus more scholarly because they account for an audience that is itself scholarly.

Providing rhetorical situations for the large-scale term paper facilitates students’ engagement with music and challenges them to address a diverse range of audiences. Perhaps most importantly, in positioning the students to write from a professional perspective, my proposed assignments encourage students to assume authority over their knowledge and ideas about the material. They “become stakeholders and take some of the responsibility for their learning,” a key objective, Major notes, of the trending teaching methodology of problem-based learning. And while assigning writing projects rarely fails to elicit a communal groan in the classroom, writing remains an important medium through which music students can develop the communication skills they will need as professionals. The ability to speak and write effectively about music is an aspect of the profession shared by composers, performers, elementary educators, band, orchestra, and choir directors, music ministers, and college professors. That these disciplines are united momentarily in the collegiate music history classroom compels its instructors to utilize the course as a workshop for our students to explore more fully and learn to express to others just what it is about music that excites them.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Scott M. Strovas and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.