Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Engaging Students in their Own Success: Incorporating Aspects of the First-Year Seminar into First-Year Music Theory and Aural Skills

Melissa Hoag, Oakland University

That many music students arrive at college unprepared for success in academic music classes will come as no surprise to college music theory faculty. As coordinator of music theory at my institution, I have noticed that barriers to success for music majors often go beyond unfamiliarity with music fundamentals—and although the need to master music fundamentals is an important facet of first-year music study, it’s a known issue for music programs, and one that has been widely researched. Non-music-specific skills that prove challenging for first-year majors include:

  • knowing how to take notes and organize information
  • study skills
  • writing skills
  • a need to understand the importance of academics (i.e., recognizing that a music degree will involve writing papers and homework; recognizing that such work is relevant to one’s musicianship)
  • time management
  • stress management and wellness

Many colleges and universities have programs for first-year students that aim to build these vital academic skills, called the First-Year Seminar (FYS). Such programs are often mandatory for first-year students, and have been shown to be effective in increasing student success and retention (more information here). The FYS may range in length from a few weeks to a full semester (or even two semesters), and many FYSs are offered for credit. My institution does not have a FYS program, and even if it did, our music degrees have such high credit requirements, and first-year music-major schedules are so rigid, that music students would almost certainly be unable to participate.

FYSs can range in scope; some are topical and aim to broaden first-year students’ horizons; in some FYS programs, students live in the same dorm, and the seminars may include guest speakers, field trips, workshops, and community service projects; at some schools, each FYS includes a “big question,” described as “broad, important, and timeless problems or inquiries into the nature of things that cannot be quickly solved or easily answered.”

While all of this sounds wonderful, we (myself, and my colleague who teaches first-year theory with me, Michele Soroka) could not institute all of these ideas in the context of a first-year theory curriculum. Our more limited approach aims to address key themes provided by the definition provided by University of Colorado-Denver, which states that FYSs are “[…] intended to enhance the academic and social integration of first year students by introducing them to essential skills for college success and a supportive campus community comprised of faculty, staff, and peers” [emphasis mine]. Because our class sizes are relatively small (15–20 students), I felt that trying to incorporate some of the academic skills germane to many FYSs would work well for our curriculum, and—most importantly—help our students gain some of the vital academic skills they need for success in college, despite the content-heavy and skill-building nature of first-year theory and aural skills. Many of the ideas may seem simple or obvious, but they are often not simple or obvious to first-year students.

Knowing how to take notes, organize information, and study

Instructors advise how to practice/study for quizzes and exams; some advice is theory-specific, but some advice transfers to other subjects, like taking notes by hand and then re-writing them by hand (benefits of taking notes by hand have been widely covered by the mainstream press—see, for instance, here and here). We also coach students on note-taking basics, in hopes of instilling a note-taking reflex, of sorts. We remind them to write down new terms and definitions, and to take note of items that seem to be emphasized by the instructor: terms or bullet points that are written on the screen, repeated, or otherwise verbally emphasized. We also advise that they review (and, preferably, re-copy in their own words) their notes, ideally after every class, but at least once a week, while they still remember the context of what they have written during class. We collect notes twice a semester as part of their binder (described below), but in writing this essay it has occurred to me that it would be beneficial to collect them at least once or twice early in the semester to offer feedback.

An important component of encouraging students to take notes by hand comes in the form of a no-laptop policy, stated in the syllabus. This keeps students on task and focused on the discussion, and, importantly, away from Facebook, Twitter, and other sites; such behavior distracts not only the surfing student, but also everyone around them, and lowers the level of discourse. I have received no negative comments about this practice, and, having observed classes where laptop use is unrestricted (I sat in the back of the room for these observations), I know that off-topic surfing is rampant. Anecdotally, some students have told us that they now see the value of attending classes without their laptops in tow, and that they learn more as a result. (It goes without saying that I would make an exception for a disability situation that required a laptop. Also, a caveat: this works for my institution, because we don’t have highly technologically enabled classrooms; other schools undoubtedly differ on this.)

Finally, we require students to keep a binder, organized by graded work, notes, and handouts. Keeping assignments and quizzes instead of trashing them encourages students to learn from their mistakes. The binder is submitted at the midterm and final for a small amount of credit. Students have reported that they continue to use this system in other academic classes and that it has helped them learn to be more organized.

Writing Skills

In aural skills, take-home projects with a significant writing component are assigned several times per semester. Students partially transcribe a piece during class. After class, they are given a score, asked to write about how many sections there are and how these sections are related, to describe style characteristics present in the piece, and to hypothesize composer and era, based on various factors (instrumentation, style, texture, etc.). If there is text, students are asked to describe in specific musical terms how the music reflects the text (which are paraphrased in the assignment, so that the text cannot simply be looked up). In determining composer and era, students are encouraged to use reference sources. Since most first-year students have not yet been immersed in music history, a well-supported answer is accepted even if it is not correct. Writing quality constitutes 10-20% of the grade, and detailed feedback is provided; students are expected to apply this feedback to the next project.

Understanding the importance of academics through a positive classroom environment

Two goals of UC-Denver’s FYS program are germane to this topic: to help students transition to a new learning environment and community, and to transmit the culture and expectations of the institution. Certainly, a major part of our goal is to help students learn to succeed in college, and to introduce students to what it means to be a music major at our school. This is necessary in first-year theory, because a certain percentage of music majors seem to operate under a misconception that does them no favors: that because music is a performing art, they won’t have to write papers, take exams, or study. There is also an assumption that academic music classes will be easier than other classes. These perceptions lead some first-year students to not take coursework seriously, therefore leading to academic troubles. We make concerted efforts to engage students, and show them the relevance of first-year theory and aural skills, so that they will want to learn music theory and take it seriously. (While these approaches constitute good general teaching, it’s especially important to incorporate these ideas in first-year theory.)

We consciously encourage discussion by approaching student contributions respectfully (part-writing or counterpoint attempts, analytical insights, feedback on peer counterpoint or part-writing), even if responses are off-base at first. A skilled instructor can take one correct element from an incorrect or confused answer (even if only a nugget!), and invite further discussion from the original respondent and/or others, often leading to a more correct answer and a more keen investigation of the process involved in coming up with the right answer. There are many times when a student’s process is partially or completely correct despite their incorrect answer, but some detail has gone awry in their process that has ultimately led them to the wrong answer. Instead of saying, “Nope, wrong answer; does someone else want to try?”, the instructor might build on what the student got right about the process. To use an extremely simple example, perhaps a student spelled a DbM7 chord when they were asked to spell a Db7 chord. The instructor can point out the correct part of the answer (they got the Db major triad right!) and keep asking questions about the rest until the student discovers what they have missed, or ask another student to explain how to get the rest of the correct answer—not to simply supply the right answer. The same technique often works for harmonic analysis, sequence analysis, and many other topics, and is most appropriate when the topic is fresh and students are still getting comfortable. An open-minded, positive attitude toward student responses builds confidence and encourages students to find their voice.

We maintain a constant effort to show students that what they are learning is relevant and useful for improving their musicianship. For counterpoint or part writing, for example, asking the class to sing student-submitted examples with errors shows that awkward or dissonant leaps are harder to sing. Discussing student work as a class teaches students the art of tactful critique and builds camaraderie. Students who protest that their solutions aren’t perfect as they put them on the screen are hastily reminded that perfect solutions aren’t much use when it comes to learning! I begin to foster this classroom environment on the first day of class, by using myself as an example, in a self-deprecating fashion; for example, in an attempt to disarm students who are terrified of singing in front of the class, I admit that I’m not a singer, and I promise them they’ll hear me sing pitches I have no business singing at some point in the semester. The point, as I explain it to them, is that they must learn to use their voices as tools, not to become “singers.” Additionally, I explain that we’ll all make at least a few mistakes during the semester, including me, and that there is no expectation for perfection; I like to say that an understanding of music theory is, like excellence in the realm of performance, a lifelong pursuit. Finally, I remind them before we discuss student work as a group that everyone’s work will be subjected to class discussion at some point, and that we should be sensitive and respectful in how we phrase our critiques. The sense that we are all in it together and that everyone makes mistakes seems to contribute to a sense of camaraderie.

Finally, some FYSs aim to broaden student perspectives by assigning books for students to read and discuss. Our quick, informal version is to play music while students enter the classroom, and ask a few questions, culminating with a discussion of possible composer and compositional era. This activity injects a wider variety of repertoire than is usually covered in first-year theory (Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire; Crumb’s Black Angels or Apparition; Penderecki’s Threnody; Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna; Reich’s Tehillim; and, of course, tonal repertoire, jazz, musical theater, and pop songs, which I often use in teaching first-year theory). Sometimes my goal is just to pique their interest; few students know the aforementioned pieces or composers. Sometimes I play music before class that exemplifies a given technique (cadences, sequences), and after our initial discussion, we do a quick aural analysis before segueing into the day’s work. (Chris Stover has even suggested incorporating short texts for students to read and/or engage alongside the listening, an idea I plan to begin implementing this fall.)

Time management

First-year students in all majors struggle with time management. A variety of factors, including the newfound abundance of “free time” and being away from home, contribute to the problem. I would argue that time management is an even greater concern for first-year music majors, who must not only schedule study time, but also hours of daily practice time. To make matters worse, some music courses are worth one or two credits, but meet for more hours than their assigned credit implies (for example, aural skills is often a one-credit course that meets for two hours a week; ensembles are often one credit each and meet for three or more hours a week—and some students are in three or four ensembles!). At my institution, where many students commute and work (some full time), time-management is often a problem. Few students grasp the importance of scheduling time and working ahead, and they underestimate the time it takes to improve in aural skills, learn music theory, participate in ensembles, write history papers, and perform to their studio teachers’ standards.

Time-management advice often extolls the importance of establishing goals, identifying needs vs. wants, and allocating time to fit those parameters. This advice is helpful, as it applies to school-related versus extracurricular activities. But music majors must be successful in all aspects of their school-related lives; they cannot decide that private lessons are unimportant, or cut out aural skills practicing. Helping students navigate these difficulties is key to improving outcomes.

We explain the weekly music theory/aural skills schedule, which has been designed to allow students time to ask questions in office hours before homework is due, and to receive graded feedback before in-class assessments. First-year theory meets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. New topics are usually introduced on Tuesdays. Homework is posted on Thursdays, and due on the following Tuesday; if they begin working on the assignment on Thursday afternoon or evening, or even Friday morning, they can ask questions about it during Friday office hours. Most Fridays are quiz days. If they submit the homework on Tuesday, they’ll get it back, graded, on Thursday, thus providing vital feedback in time to prove useful for studying for that week’s quiz. (In Hoag 2012, I describe our method of allowing for percolation time in more detail.) Such logic is not obvious to students, and needs to be spelled out clearly by the instructor. I also emphasize the importance of actually scheduling practice and study time. We also advise studying and practicing without distractions so that the time they spend is focused and efficient (i.e., turning off phones and closing social media), as well as using prioritized to-do lists, with deadlines. Few students enter college having established these habits.

Designing projects that involve what students are already performing in ensembles and private lessons is one way faculty can help students save time on tasks; while doing their theory homework, students can learn about what they are performing, which should make their performance work go more smoothly. Last year, we used numerous excerpts from the student opera, Die Zauberflöte, in the second semester of first-year theory, which worked particularly well because we were learning sequences the week it was performed. (We also used class time to go see one of the morning performances.) This fall, we will use examples from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because many of our students will perform it in the spring. (In the past, I have also assigned music theory scavenger hunts, in which I’ve asked students to bring in examples of sequences from literature for their instrument, but it was immediately obvious that a few students—not many, but enough—simply used Google and discovered lists of such devices on the web. While I’ll concede that these students were demonstrating an impressive level of resourcefulness, their resourcefulness circumvented the point of the activity, which was to get students to analyze music in which they were already invested.)

We have a consistently enforced late homework policy, the purpose of which is not to be punitive, but rather to encourage students to internalize and practice newly learned skills by the time a new topic is introduced. We are also, of course, teaching students about professionalism and consequences. (Our policy includes a 24-hour late pass a student may use for any reason. If something drastic prevents submission of a homework assignment[s], we work with the student, of course.)

Stress management and wellness

Students at my institution suffer from higher anxiety and stress than the national average. Reasons for this are complex, but likely relate to the fact that many of our students commute to campus and work (often full time). Our ability to improve this situation is limited, because we cannot remedy the root causes of student stress. However, we have made some efforts to help students cope with stress.

One such effort is to provide links to health and counseling services on the course management system, and students are reminded of these resources at fraught points in the semester.

We also emphasize that one important strategy for avoiding academic stress is working ahead: starting on assignments well before they are due, and getting help as soon as they need it, instead of waiting. Learning time management has been shown to be effective in reducing student stress, and we do have several assignments that are designed in just this way; composition projects, for example, require several drafts.

Finally, because I also teach graduate students, I know that many students leave their undergraduate studies with a hefty load of theory baggage—in other words, with nothing but dread for the subject. My goal is to do everything I can to avoid that fate for my students, while still maintaining an appropriate level of rigor. I try to foster a classroom environment in which students feel safe to take risks, and in which students can laugh at themselves and with each other. I am kind to my students. Quizzes and exams will always bring a degree of unavoidable angst for some students, but my hope is that they will see any stress brought on by music theory as ultimately worth it—if not now, then perhaps years later, when they are memorizing their music with ease. Many of the techniques I have discussed earlier in this essay contribute to this goal.


Of course, our attempts are necessarily limited. The first-year music theory and aural skills curriculum cannot serve as both a full FYS and a rigorous first-year theory curriculum that serves students with widely divergent skills. For instance, we don’t have time to take a library tour; this occurs in a first-year music history class. We have yet to incorporate the community engagement and citizenship aspects that some FYSs include. Additionally, I want to ensure that the grades a student receives in first-year music theory are reflective of their skills in music theory, and that they are not diluted or inflated by too many non-theory-specific tasks, like collecting notes more than twice a semester, or requiring students to submit a to-do list before final exams. What I have offered here simply represents our attempts to improve student success and engagement in ways that are about more than pitches and rhythms.

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