Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Engaging Community in a Twentieth-Century Analysis Class

Crystal Peebles, Ithaca College

While music performances and teaching internships have obvious applications with community engagement, what about aural skills and academic music courses? There are few published models of how one could implement a community-oriented project that directly supports content or skill acquisition (see Hindman 2009 as well as the essays by Bourne and Williams in this collection, for some examples). However, there are many stellar examples of the field embracing public connection. The AMS Musicology Now blog, SMT-V, and a recent conference on Public Musicology represent the growing trend of making scholarship accessible to the community (see Jenkins for a fuller discussion).

An outward-facing discipline enriches our research by encouraging creative connections in order to engage the wider community. Surely the theory and history classroom can also benefit from meaningful community engagement. The graduate course in Public Music Theory recently developed by J. Daniel Jenkins represents one way in which this concept might manifest: students learn to use various media to disseminate theoretical constructs and analyses. Other models could include writing program notes or giving pre-concert lectures for course credit.

Still another model could embrace the service-learning construct (also called community-engaged learning): where students partner with community organizations to meet community needs and then reflect on the activity. The learning objectives include a “further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” (Bringle and Hatcher 1995). Research has enumerated the benefits of experiential, reflective learning, but its implementation can be time-consuming and under-supported by institutions (Eyler and Giles 1999; Zlotkowski and Duffy 2010). Burton and Reynolds (2009) provide an excellent summary of the intersections between service learning and music education, but music theory and service learning seems like a less intuitive fit. How can service learning, or at the very least, community engagement, grow out of music theory and music history undergraduate course work? Of course students can write program notes and give pre-concert lectures, but how about experiences where students and community co-discover content and skills?

This essay describes my experience designing and implementing a service learning activity as the final project for an undergraduate Twentieth-Century Analysis class. Inspired directly from Jenkins’ syllabus for his graduate class on Public Music Theory and from my own positive experiences giving music theory lectures at a nearby retirement center, I replaced my usual analytical paper with a multi-disciplinary project, which culminated with a performance and presentation at that retirement center. For my students, and myself, the most meaningful aspect of the project was not the performance itself, but rather the resulting group discussion with the audience.

The Project

In this project, we partnered with a not-for-profit, continuing care community to provide an evening program as a part of their weekly lecture series. The program was a student-run concert featuring post-1960 music. Students found compositions written since 1960 and approached them from four angles: performance, audience engagement, analysis, and reflection. In order to keep the performance an appropriate length for the venue, students were encouraged to form chamber ensembles. There were very few parameters that outlined this project: the composition must have been written since 1960, the students needed to be able to perform the piece well, and the analytical artifact had to engage at least one analytical tool discussed during the semester (see the supplemental material for a full description). I explicitly encouraged students to think creatively and interdisciplinarily. This project was implemented in Spring 2017 for the course “The Analysis of Music Since 1900,” the final theory course required for all music majors at Ithaca College, which roughly divides into three units: set theory, serialism, and music since 1945.

The content of the final performance was student driven: they formed chamber ensembles, found appropriate music written since 1960, and determined the program order. My role in the preparation was minimal: I provided resources for piece selection, class time for initial rehearsals and dress rehearsals, and feedback during the rehearsal process. This project would not have been successful without further support from my colleagues: musicology faculty taught students how to write program notes in the context of the music history sequence, our music librarian visited class to demonstrate search techniques for recent music, and performance faculty assisted students in making final piece choices and some coached students in their private lessons. As you can see from the final program, the content of the program was quite varied: the compositions ranged from diatonic to atonal, from traditional to graphic notation, and from well-known to lesser-known composers.

Composition Composer Instrumentation

Double Concerto (1969)

Mvmts. 1 and 2

Walter S. Hartley (1927-2016)



Sacred and Profane, Op. 91 (1975)

5. Yif ic of luve can

6. Carol

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) SSATB
Serenade (1996) Peter Dyson (1949)


Horn I, Horn II

Stripsody (1966) Cathy Berberin (1925-1983) Soprano

Five Hebrew Love Songs (1996)

1. Temuna

2. Kala kalla

5. Rakut

Eric Whitacre (1970)




As the concert drew near, several students expressed concern that the program would not be well-received by our audience. In response we had a conversation about using the pre-performance talk and program notes to contextualize the composition and give the audience aural cues through which to engage the composition. We also discussed that approaching these pieces from both an analytical and performance perspective in the rehearsal process could create expressive performances. Some students recognized that their own dislike of modern art music had been softened through the experience of preparing for the concert, and started to “think like a performer” in the context of other analysis activities.

The performance and presentation took place two weeks before the end of classes. The concert was well-attended, and the students did an excellent job discussing and performing each work. Following the performances, I invited the audience to ask the students questions about the music. However, what resulted was a lively discussion about the music (especially the Berberin piece), twentieth-century musical aesthetics, and the purpose of music that can be challenging to digest on a first hearing. Both the audience and students were equal partners in this discussion: it wasn’t just the students bringing their expertise to a community group; instead, both the students and audience debated some of the main themes of the entire course. At the conclusion of the formal event, several students lingered in the auditorium and continued conversations with audience members.


In the class discussion following the concert, several students expressed their surprise regarding the positive reception of the concert. Their initial misgivings about the programmed music revealed a stereotyped bias regarding our particular audience: older audiences would only appreciate music from the common-practice era. One audience member made a comment that particularly stuck with the students, she stated that she didn’t particularly like the music, but she was glad she came. Other students recounted stories of personal connections they made following the concert: the euphonium student met a resident whose own son played the euphonium and a couple of the vocalists chatted with a former concert pianist and a former opera singer.

In their written reflections, a few students recognized the different learning communities that emerged over the course of this project. One student discussed how working collaboratively with peers to learn an ensemble piece without a professor’s guidance was a new experience for her.

“This project gave me real-life skills that I will need in the field. … It forced me to figure out how to research for music, something I’ve never had to do. This project had me collaborating with my peers, figuring out the logistics, and performing for audiences. All of which, I want to continue doing after my degree is done.”

Other students commented on the conversations in the larger learning community that included the students and audience:

“I also really liked the discussion that these pieces provoked at [the retirement center], and that discussion was surprisingly in depth. The breadth of topics and ideas covered was truly wondrous and it was really cool to have the discussion that we had been having in class, but out in the real world with people that aren’t required to take a course. The coolest part was the fact that they . . . almost summed up the whole idea of the class within that single discussion.”

Logistically, this project took much more time than my traditional final paper at the end of this course. We started preparing for the final project the third week of class with analytical assignments and presentations specifically geared to practice the skills needed for this project. I initially decided to begin the piece selection and preparation following the midpoint of the semester, but several students expressed concern that there would not be enough time to learn the music. In response, I accelerated the timeline for this project: we met with the librarian the fifth week of classes, students determined their repertoire and groups before spring break, and the concert occurred five weeks later. I dedicated five instructional periods to this project for our librarian meeting, rehearsal time, and in-class reflection. In order to accommodate this time needed, I had to cut content. While students missed some of the breadth I usually cover in this class, I believe the deep experience with a single work within the context of a survey of twentieth-century analytical techniques was valuable. Student statements from the reflection further attest to the richness of this deep experience.

“In my past experiences, as a saxophone student, I have rarely engaged with music that has my instrument in it or played the music that we analyze. … I find that being able to connect my musicality and my instrument into the theoretical side of the music we are studying connected with me much more than any past theory experience. I loved making music with other classmates that I wouldn’t normally make music with…and engaging community members with new sounds.”

What started out as an opportunity to present our work to a convenient and receptive audience in the context of a simple service-learning activity, became an experience where students were challenged to creatively connect with the course material, each other, and our audience. Further, the students specifically confronted their perceived audience bias against modern music, and in turn, their own bias. In their discussion with the audience, the theme emerged that one could not like a piece of music, but still enjoy the aesthetic experience of listening to it. Through their concern with the audience reception of their concert, students began approaching pieces in class with open ears and minds in the second half of the semester.

While the rich audience discussion in this first iteration of this project was unintended, there are opportunities to build off this initial success. For instance, it may be possible to facilitate a more sustained relationship between the students and residents with collaborative composition projects or informal listening sessions. By sharing this positive experience, I hope to encourage other educators to seek out experiences that allow students to engage with the course material with the wider community and to share best practices.

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