Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Outside the Classroom: Community-Engaged Learning Projects in Music Theory

Janet Bourne, University of California, Santa Barbara

What if students took music theory out of the classroom, rehearsal room and practice room and into a public space? What could that look like? Community-engaged learning (CEL)—or service learning—combines “learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good.” The definition of community is broad. It could be “local, regional/state, national, global.” It is no surprise why CEL has become popular in many higher education institutions considering the many benefits to student learning. One meta-study found that CEL increases student personal growth through identity, spiritual growth, moral development, and personal efficacy and at the same time it builds interpersonal, leadership and communication skills. Not only that, but according to one study, students claim greater satisfaction and report that they learned more about the field in a CEL course than similar students not in a CEL course.

A community-engaged course involves four components:

  • “Uses experiential strategies characterized by student participant in an organized service activity
  • Is connected to specific learning outcomes
  • Meets identified community needs
  • Provides structured time for students to analyze and connect the service experience to learning”

For some disciplines, a leap to CEL seems easy. Urban development, economics, architecture—these have obvious connections to community. As musicians, we know that music plays important cultural and societal roles. Yet, how might we construct a CEL project for an undergraduate music theory course? How could students learn traditional theory objectives and help the community?

The following are two examples of CEL projects that I used in the undergraduate music theory curriculum. While community engagement can span an entire course, it can also encompass one project. For these examples, the CEL component was part of a traditional music theory project. I include the learning objectives, community and course for each example.

Minuets for a Retirement Center

Learning Objectives:

  • Compose model compositions using forms and techniques learned this semester, including a Mozart-style minuet.
  • Explain components of the minuet to an audience, adjusting language as necessary for their audience.

Community: Local
Course: Music Theory II (could also work for I or III, depending upon institution curriculum)

A galant-style minuet composition is a classic project (no pun intended) in music theory curricula. In fact, Nancy Rogers mentions the ubiquitousness of this assignment when suggesting other genres might be more relevant for students today. For those committed to composing minuets, however, Stefan Eckart provides information on structuring this assignment. In my music theory II course, students used early Mozart minuets as models for composing their own short minuets for keyboard (thanks to Olga Sanchez-Kisielewska for sharing her minuet materials). Writing just soprano and bass, students created proper counterpoint and voice leading, chord progressions, used appropriate forms (e.g. rounded binary) and galant schemata (see here for a brief assignment description).

At the end of the semester, students and I went to a local retirement center. During the first week of the semester, I surveyed students on availability and immediately arranged two dates with the retirement center so students had advance notice and could choose one of two dates. Once there, we played a “game” with the residents. Each student minuet was performed with one of Mozart’s minuets, and residents voted on which minuet they thought was composed by a student and which minuet was composed by Mozart. In this case, I was fortunate in that residents at this retirement center were taking a Mozart class, and so they were familiar with his style and pieces (although not minuets). Yet, students who closely modeled Mozart fooled everyone (one student was especially proud of this achievement). In addition to the game, students also spoke about various components of the minuet (e.g. rhythm/meter, form, social context, etc.). By the end of the event, residents had not only heard Mozart minuets and Mozart-style minuets, but also learned about the minuet genre as a whole. Overall, I had twelve students total, and took two groups of six students each. The project could be altered based on the size of one’s class and graduate student TAs (if available) could take students to retirement centers.

Adding this community element was beneficial to both myself as the instructor and the students. Composition assignments are enjoyable in part because students hear each other’s works. In previous courses, I devoted class time to hearing students’ compositions. Here, I could use class time for other material while students heard other’s compositions at the retirement center. Community engagement benefited students as well. It was relevant to the composition’s learning objectives. Students were to practice stylistic modeling, which meant reflecting upon musical concepts related to the style. Students knew residents would listen to their minuets next to Mozart’s. And, so, they were motivated to sound like Mozart more than normal, which also meant they were more motivated to break down features of his style. In a reflection, students recognized that this helped them better develop stylistic competency. They also enjoyed having their pieces performed in front of an audience other than classmates.

A community-engaged project should not only help the students, but also the community. The performances tested residents on what they had learned about Mozart’s style. They enjoyed “applying” their knowledge in a different, light-hearted context. And, not to be shortchanged, the community benefited from engagement and company with others outside the retirement center. Since the retirement center resides in a rural area, they have fewer visitors or performers.

Analysis Papers for Wikipedia

Learning Objectives:

  • Create an argument (think critically) when analyzing music and critiquing analytical methods: write coherently about a position (a thesis or claim) on an analytical interpretation of a piece and use elements from piece as evidence to defend thesis or claim.
  • Explain conventions for writing about music for different audiences; in particular, conventions for writing analysis papers.

Community: Global
Course: Music Theory IV (could feasibly work for any theory course)

Like the minuet composition, the analysis paper is a staple of a theory curriculum, especially in later courses. In my music theory IV course, students each picked their own piece from an approved list. At the core of their paper, they argued for an analytical interpretation of their piece using evidence. They also included some brief historical background of their composer to get a sense of his or her cultural context, ideology, and motivation. In addition to learning how to create an argument, students developed their writing skills: how to write clearly and persuasively about an analysis and how to alter prose for different audiences.

While the minuet project engaged a local community, the analysis project engaged a global community (see the handout for how I scaffolded the assignment). In addition to writing an academic-style analysis paper, which they submitted to me, students improved the Wikipedia article for either their composer or their piece (if the piece had its own Wiki). They took what they had already written in the analysis paper and added this information to the Wikipedia article while altering its presentation for a general audience. In preparation for the Wikipedia edits, students spent time in class reading Berio’s Sinfonia Wikipedia article (a piece we were studying) and completing a “Considering your Audience worksheet.” Also, I referred students to resources Wikipedia provides on editing articles. Students published their Wikipedia edits when they turned in their final paper. They sent me a copy of the original, pre-edited Wikipedia article and then provided a link to the Wikipedia article after their additions, with a brief description of the changes made and the reasons for them. I adapted this from Kris Shaffer, although his students summarized pieces analyzed in class which they published on Wikipedia in groups while my students wrote an analysis paper on a piece not discussed in class which they adapted and published on Wikipedia on their own. Here, all students added onto existing, albeit sparse, Wikipedia articles instead of creating a new one. I would alter assessment standards if students had to create a new article (e.g. make two rubrics for creating article vs. improving one). Wikipedia becomes a community engagement tool because students share what they learn with a global community and develop community-focused writing skills. Students even admitted they were more careful in their analysis since they knew they would publish elements of it on Wikipedia.

This community engagement tool helped students consider how prose changes when writing for different communities. How does one present information to a general audience compared to a specialized academic audience? In class, I asked students to answer questions for the analysis paper and Wikipedia edit (see the table on page 2). For example, what is the purpose of someone reading their document? Why would one read Wikipedia versus a traditional analysis article or paper? Musicians should be able to write about music, which includes recognizing why someone is reading their writing and how terminology and jargon might change depending on the audience. Describing Beethoven’s 5th symphony takes a different shape when talking with a non-musical friend than a seasoned conductor.

This assignment benefited the global community. Many mid to late twentieth-century composers lack substantial Wikipedia articles. Students could fill holes in this encyclopedia source by adding more information, which helps future visitors interested in that composer or piece. From my perspective, students appreciate sharing their knowledge with a global community. Often, they spend time and effort researching a topic that only an instructor reads about at the end of a semester. Here, others benefit from their time and effort.

Alternative Ideas

The following are some alternatives to the projects outlined above and other ideas. Regarding the minuet project, minuets are not the only genre that could tour outside the classroom. Virtually any style or genre could work as well (e.g. Romantic lieder, 12-bar blues, etc.). Even though here the residents were taking a course on Mozart, I think the project would have worked had they known nothing about his style. If that were the case, students could ask residents how they would define musical style (e.g. “Why did you think this piece sounded like Mozart?”, “What do you listen for when trying to identify a musical style?”, etc.). In a reflection, students could discuss others’ awareness of stylistic knowledge and build on it to reflect upon their own stylistic knowledge. Also, pieces could be performed by students, by the instructor, or students from other classes (perhaps coordinating a theory course and a performance-oriented course).

The analysis project could be altered by changing the audience or space on the internet. For example, students could write analysis papers tailored for performers to be published on performers’ blogs. Similarly, students could write analyses tailored for composers. The analysis does not have to be published on the internet either. Perhaps students could write an analysis for a band director of a local school.

Finally, here are other ways that students could practice CEL in a music theory classroom:

  • For campuses that have a lively ensemble life (such as a cappella), ask students to identify needs for arranging, transposition, etc. (local, campus community).
  • Teach music theory topics to elementary and middle school children (local community).
  • Interview local K-12 music teachers and ask what they struggle with regarding theory and help them (local community).
  • Publish videos of analyses on youtube (global community)
  • Engage with state music competitions and offer workshops on theory (regional/state community).
  • Perform in hospitals; have students use analysis to make conscious performance decisions (local community).

A Coda

Usually, first-time projects need some tweaking. Next time, I will encourage students to connect their learning experience to their service experience: either I will make students’ written reflection a larger part of the project or create more time for students to debrief with each other in class. Also, I will ask students to talk to each other more about the CEL component, especially for the Wikipedia edit, which was mostly a solitary task. For example, one could ask students to peer review each other’s Wikipedia additions in class before publishing them.

Incorporating CEL was immensely rewarding for me as a faculty member. I enjoyed seeing students not only connect to others outside the academy, but also help them. They learned material better since the CEL base made projects come alive. And they paid more attention to the assignments since they knew that their minuets would be performed before others and that their analyses would be published on Wikipedia. Also, CEL was a natural outlet to help students develop their ability to write and talk about music. Although musicians learn theory partly to better communicate with others, teaching writing is often ignored in theory courses (although see Bakker and Chenette as well as Miyake). Finally, students sometimes assume that music theory is irrelevant, pointless or uncreative. For me, CEL helped students see that this is not true. Music has the ability to touch the community. Perhaps instructors could help bring music theory out of the classroom and more into the community.

This work is copyright ⓒ2017 Janet Bourne and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.