An Internal Struggle: Product vs. Journey

I have always prided myself as a band director that embraces music theory. Growing up, in some of my music courses, I felt that the two fields were largely disparate: you learned how to perform on your instrument in ensemble courses, and you pulled out staff paper and learned four-part voice leading in music theory. However, I entered into the music classroom five years ago bright and excited to be the teacher that integrated theory fully into music performance.

However, each year, I find myself caught in my own head. I am slowly realizing that a large part of my anxiety as a director in the band room is product-based. At my current school, a small charter public school, I have somehow become obsessed with the way my program presents to the outer world in the concert setting. In my small mismatched and awkwardly orchestrated ensembles, I push out literature to them and subconsciously keep my head glued to the end-of-semester concert. Who has time to teach about scale construction and melodic dictation when I only have [X] rehearsals until the concert? Are my students going to sound bad? What will my administrators think? Why can’t my violins sound good reading this flute part? Why are my low brass players struggling so much with articulation?

Now that my concert has inevitably come and gone (and went just fine!), I find myself disappointed in the web of anxious thoughts that prevented me from appropriately integrating theory into my classroom. I bet my students would be more confident about their role in the ensemble if I spent time teaching them about how the different parts of music come together; I bet my students would have been better in tune playing chords if they understood which part of the chord they were.

My goal for next semester is going to be an internal soothing: the concert will come and go just fine, and your administrators will love and support you no matter what; however, your students will love you more if you take the time to slow down and just teach!


  • Alex Alberti

Let them eat cake.

There is much debate on which monarch actually uttered the famous phrase “Let them eat cake,” but it is most often attributed to Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France during the French Revolution.  Times were tough in 18th century France and many in the lower class did not have the financial means to buy proper food.  According to the legend, when Marie-Antoinette was told that the peasants had no bread, she shouted out, “Let them eat cake!” to the dismay of those around her who knew that cake was much more expensive than bread.  The Encyclopedia Britannica states that the anecdote may be an example of Marie-Antoinette’s “obliviousness to the conditions and daily lives of ordinary people.”

Are we, as university professors, oblivious to the conditions and daily lives of our students?  Have we asked what is happening and why the change? Over the past few years, I have noticed a steady decline in student health, both physically and emotionally.  Our administration and even NASM are asking us to focus on student wellness and to encourage students to eat and get exercise daily. There are many factors in play here and yes, there are plenty of examples where students do not use time management skills or simply do not want to embrace the challenge of being a music major.  However, I also know that there are students legitimately struggling with the pressures.  We ask our most talented students to be in multiple ensembles when they are only required to be in two each semester.  We tell these same students they need to practice 4 hours daily on their primary instrument, but with the intense class and ensemble schedule, required concert attendance, and the abundance of nightly homework, the only practice and homework time left is 6-8am and 10pm-midnight. I have students who are in class from 8-5 every day with no breaks and I have to look the other way with the “no eating in the classroom” rule because they need my class time to scarf down a PB and J.  Last year a group of sophomores came into my classroom looking particularly exhausted.  When I asked what was going on, their response was “the vending machine is broken so we haven’t eaten today.” (I called Dominoes and had pizza delivered)  In my undergrad days, I went to the cafeteria every day for lunch.  Even if I only had time to grab a salad or sandwich before heading back to the practice room, I still made time to get outside of the music building.  Meals are important.  We say that to our graduate students heading off to their first interview for a TT position and we need to say that to our undergraduates who are working to get through our rigorous degree programs.

So back to cake. I’m fortunate to be a part of the undergraduate instructional assistant (UIA) program at Appalachian State.  Through this program, upper level undergrads have the opportunity to work along side a professor in a classroom environment.  I mentor my UIAs in topics such as assessment, lecture preparation, new technology resources, and grading policies.  This past semester, my UIA for theory 2 was Abbi Fleckenstein, a junior music education major and philosophy minor who, in the past year, has fallen in love with all things research.  At the beginning of the semester, Abbi and I looked through the syllabus and determined which topics she would introduce to the class.  She immediately chose the unit on the Neapolitan and with a sparkle in her eye said, “I want that unit because I have an idea.”

Abbi’s idea turned into one of the most successful units of the entire semester.  She began her lecture with students singing a progression of I-IV-V-I and asked the students to alter the IV chord with a rah and le.  By singing the progressions, the students quickly understood the voice leading and the function of the N6 chord as a pre-dominant chord.  Abbi took it to the next level when she brought in cupcakes for the entire class.



These Neopolitan cupcakes were created to show proper doubling of the chord.  Notice the two layers of chocolate (yum!) for fa and the single strawberry layer (the most complex flavor) for the rah.  Not only did the students in the class completely understand how the chord was built from this, but they also devoured the cupcakes.  Win Win.  We took the last 15 minutes of class to just enjoy our cupcakes and to refresh a bit.  I think a few of the students even took the extra time to head to the cafeteria for lunch.  They had already had dessert. It is also interesting to note that this was the first semester in at least 30 semesters of teaching where students aced the Neapolitan questions on the final exam.  I give full credit to Abbi for this one.

My take away from all of this.

  1.  The undergraduate instructional assistant program is outstanding and creates an environment where everyone benefits….the students, the UIA, and and the mentor.
  2. Neapolitan chords are really nothing more than a layer of vanilla, two layers of chocolate, and a splash of strawberry.
  3. Meals are important.  A 15 minute break is important. It’s ok to take time away to energize yourself with some good food and conversation.
  4. In all of the pressures of today’s world, we all need to step back and enjoy some cake.  Let us all eat cake.

Experience Ranges as a Treasure (Not a Curse!) in the Aural Skills Classroom

Today, I was discussing with my colleague our classroom experiences in aural skills—she is currently instructing the third course in the sequence, while I am instructing the first. She mentioned that is was just difficult to have students who seemed so bored in the class when other students are so clearly struggling. In reference to one student, she noted that she’d almost rather excuse him from class than make him attend because he seemed to not need the class and she worried about his engagement and needs.

I shared that, in contrast, I, too, had students of varying levels in my class (from students who probably could stand to skip to the course ahead to those that require consistent tutoring and help during class) and that I loved the challenge. For her, the students who required less of her were the problem, but I saw it a different way. What the conversation ended with was this thought from my experiences: “What I find more difficult is the students who are not practicing enough to be at the appropriate level; for advanced students, the teacher can always add to the activity, increasing the difficulty for the individual student. It is nearly impossible to ‘take away’ skills and help the student advance.” And thus, I was left with an interesting thought to mull over for the remainder of the afternoon.

At my university, we are fortunate to have a strong music production and recording arts program, which generates many majors and much interest from non-majors across campus. We additionally have performance, music education, and a degree called “Music in the Liberal Arts” meant to pair easily with a double major. Because of our varied program offerings, though, the students that are recruited to the program have a varying degree of strength and experience reading and playing from a score, understanding musical notation, and sometimes even playing a primary instrument. However, over the course of my career at this university, I have come to be aware of what an advantage it is for me as a pedagogue to have to improvise for the benefit of my students with those varying experience ranges: it forces me to critically assess in the moment what the imperative skills are for these students to be taking away from the activities. What is it that I need them to know, and how might I plan ahead so different students are accommodated?

An example from class is pertinent. I am fortunate to host one aural skills class a week in the Music Department’s keyboard lab—this affords me opportunities to give the non-singers a rest from exercising their voices, especially because those students are often somewhat bashful about their singing quality. It also gives the students an opportunity to practice at a keyboard, exercising different strategies for playing, imitating, improvising, and group performing that are sometimes less successful when students must rely on weaker or bashful singing. More to the point, though, the use of the pianos in the classroom gives me an opportunity to engage with activities that are scalable in terms of content: often play-and-sings, rhythm duets, or improvisations can be made easier or much more difficult through the addition of other elements.

On this particular day, I was having students work with quadruple subdivision rhythm duets in meters other than 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 (they had shown some difficulty with changing beat values on the midterm). While I’ll often have the students tap the two lines between hands (one side with a pen, one side flat on their desk), I am aware that this style of performance engages potentially only kinesthetic learners—the students do not have to intone Kodaly, Takadimi, counting, or Gordon syllables in order to succeed. Additionally, students with piano or percussion background are often unchallenged by these exercises because of the nature of their instrumental background. That being the case, at the pianos, the students can engage in tapping in the hands, counting with their mouths—this tends to be more difficult as it’s engaging two different parts of the brain (speech and motor regions), making the experience multimodal in nature. The advantage here is that the connections for the students as they perform will be strengthened because of the association networks being activated between more parts of the brain. Students that find this activity challenging when it’s just two hands find it equivalently challenging in this iteration, and it has been scaled for difficulty for those instrumentalists who need the multimodal variation.


However, as the students, particularly those who were pianists, got comfortable with the activity, I noticed that they engaged less. While the students who found the activity challenging continuously expressed a parallel level of continued engagement, those who acclimated to the difficulty of the activity began to practice less or more lazily. For those students, I introduced one more level of difficulty: add conducting in the hand that is not playing the piano. For each of the students who had been resting/disengaging with the activity, this was a sufficient challenge to help them continue to practice. One student even found himself growing frustrated because the activity became too difficult for him, and decided he had not practiced enough at the second stage of difficulty—this to me was a very satisfying moment, because the student was demonstrating a high level of metacognitive awareness about his abilities and strengths.

I also use these scalable techniques with play-and-sing piano exercises, wherein advanced students may be encouraged to add conducting, add figuration patterns, improvise a countermelody, or add a percussive element with a pen or pencil against the melody/accompaniment pairing. For those students without piano background, a simple example like that shown below can be made even easier: they might choose to only play the bassline notes, or play block chords instead of the accompanimental pattern. They may also choose to simply tap the rhythm against their vocal part if piano proves to be overly difficult for them.


These examples show how helpful being forced to think ahead about the larger objective of the lesson is: in the end, the students needed to be gearing toward tracking two parts at once. If they could only do simple tracking of two parts (where they only play one note against a moving vocal line, or tap a rhythm against it) or are able to integrate three separate tasks at once (conducting, tapping, and intoning syllables), each student in these scenarios is satisfying the objective. Being prepared either with multiple iterations of material or having the ability to improvise harder or easier material around that which I have planned has become an invaluable tool for me, as I hope it will be for other teachers who struggle with varying experience levels in the classroom.

Polling in Context

Ah….the return of students after fall break.  Two days off of classes may seem like a short time, but I always notice that my students come back looking rested and ready to finish the semester.  I also notice that I come back to the classroom with a few new ideas based on reading I was able to catch up on with a break in my teaching schedule.

Over the break, I used the time to prepare for two presentations which led me to focus on interactive technology.  My first request for information went out on social media.

“I want to gather responses from the attendees in real time and have those responses visible on my presentation during the discussion. I know that google docs would allow this but I worry about the long link and what would happen if 100 people were signed on to the same googledoc. I basically need a platform like kahoot but with text input instead of shapes and colors. (I only need 4-5 short text responses to my question) It would be great if all of this could easily be done from a smart phone. I also need to be able to save the responses. Any ideas?

The response was immediate and I heard from all facets of my professional and personal life, from teachers on the K-12 level, to administrators, to high school friends I haven’t spoken with since 1997.  One of the applications mentioned several times was padlet, a platform that enables participants to type in text or submit graphics on a wall for everyone to see in real time.  I wanted to use this app immediately with my aural skills class, so today I posted the following QR code on the screen as students were walking into the classroom.  Students used a regular camera app or snap chat (which I don’t have, but still, it worked!)  to access the link. Go ahead and try to go to the padlet by using your phone with this graphic.

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 4.24.07 PM

As I was just testing the software today, I asked one simple question to my class.

Give two adjectives to describe your thoughts about sight singing.  

Students were able to quickly input their responses and we talked through a few of them in class.  The responses were also anonymous and immediate.   I could also drag musical examples directly on to the padlet and students could open the file up on their own devices.  In this case, I  demonstrated a 4 part arrangement from sight reading factory. (which you will also see on the padlet above).  Students simply clicked on the graphic from the padlet and could see the entire graphic on their phones.  On Thursday, we will quickly sight singing through this example without me handing out a piece of paper or without showing graphics on my screen.

For homework, my students will be writing a six chord progression in SATB voicing.  When they come to class on Thursday, I will ask them to take a picture of their SATB setting and post that picture to padlet. (They just need to click the pink + sign in the bottom of the screen to post)  All the students can follow along with the example on their own devices while I  purposely miss a note or two to check their understanding of error detection.  Of course, I will also ask them to sing!

I’ve started another padlet to collect your thoughts on this application and how you have used polling software in your own classes.  Feel free to follow the QR code or simply click in the padlet below (just double click and your comments will be loaded on to the padlet!)

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 4.44.26 PM

Made with Padlet


Kazoos and Improvisation

In May of this year, over 100 dedicated pedagogues gathered at Lee University for the Pedagogy into Practice Conference.  So much has been written about this event, so I won’t go into great detail here, but I would encourage you to check out the various reports through Music Theory Online and the E-Journal of The Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy. This event was, and continuous to be, a game changer for some of my pedagogical approaches.

As the co-coordinator of this conference, I found myself running from session to session, making sure that everything was running smoothly and plenty of coffee was available for break times.  However, on the second day of the conference, I was finally able to sit through an entire session and found a seat in Jeff Lovell’s presentation entitled “We Know It’s Important, But How Do We Do It? Engaging Beginning Aural Skills Students in Meaningful Improvisation Activities.”  Throughout the presentation, Jeff demonstrated multiple ways he integrates improvisation into his aural skills classroom.  And he supported his discussion with videos taken from his actual aural skills classes.  I have tried to implement improvisation in my classroom, but I was met with grumbles and sighs from my students.  Jeff’s videos made it look like the students were actually having fun in the process.  The students seemed to be, dare I say “excited,” to experiment with various solfege syllables while creating a melody.   What was happening in Jeff’s classroom that I wasn’t implementing in my own?  After the presentation, it hit me.  For this to work effectively, all of my students needed to participate in the music making.  It wasn’t going to work with me sitting behind the piano playing chords, while other students were sitting in their desks listening to the one student singled out to create a melody.  In the videos presented, Jeff showed his students standing in a circle all singing a simple, repeated bass line loop using a syncopated rhythm on do and sol.  The students were out of their desks moving and all ready to participate.  And this was an introductory aural skills class!

I immediately began to implement Jeff’s ideas into my own classroom as soon as the semester began.  At first, the students were a bit apprehensive, but when they started to sing the bass groove and snap along and move, they were all creating musical moments on improvised melodic lines.  I took it a step further today and introduced a basic blues pattern with a rhythm of quarter, quarter quarter, eighth-eighth for each line :

Do-do-do-fi-sol x4

Fa-fa-fa-ti-do x2

Do-do-do-fi-sol x2




We sang through the bass line a few times and then I challenged them to sing the bass line using their kazoos.  Students who were extremely imitated before were thrilled to improv using the blues bass line.  A saxophone major added a multitude of chromatic pitches to her melody while one of our classical voice majors began to experiment with lower pitches in his register, amplified by the kazoo. (I’m pretty sure there are snap chats and Instagram posts floating around the internet tonight with pictures and videos of this class).  I physically moved to sit down by a clarinet major who was nervous to even try.  With just a few measures of support from the bass line, he was improving using pitches from the entire major scale.  (And later admitted to me that this was his favorite day ever).

This activity went on for the first 8 minutes of class followed by a quick assessment of scale degrees and intervals in the context of both major and minor keys.  Students that had struggled for the first few weeks were saying things like “yes” and “got it” under their breaths as I went through the answers.  My take away from this activity is that while singing prepared melodies is an essential skill for the musician, perhaps it is the creation of our own melodies in real time that helps one master aural skills.

My thanks to Jeff Lovell for inspiring me to try something new and to his class for showing me how fun it could be.

Return to Aural Skills I

Since I started teaching as a faculty member, my teaching assignments have comprised graduate courses and teaching in the second year of the theory & aural skills sequence, mainly in the third semester. In recent years, increasing service commitments have cut down on the number of classes I teach, so that my undergraduate teaching has disappeared entirely. As I think about it, I haven’t taught the first semester of Aural Skills since I was a doctoral student, *many* years ago!

One of the graduate classes I teach is Music Theory Pedagogy, mainly to doctoral students who are majoring in a performance area but who have chosen music theory as their secondary emphasis. We spend a great deal of time on best practices in teaching, especially for the first year of the undergraduate sequence, since that is most likely what our students will teach when they are hired. So much exciting material is available now, especially on such forums as this blog, the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and its online component, and the Engaging Students series. Reading about innovative strategies, activities, and games makes me long to try them in a classroom myself.

This semester, in an effort to lower our Aural Skills class sizes, our school added a fifth section of Aural Skills I at 8 am, a very popular time to offer such a class. So popular, that all of our instructors were already teaching then…except for me! I told our administrator that I was eager to teach it. Finally I have a chance to start the students with (I hope) a good foundation.

Some of the strategies I’m bringing to the class this semester are the use of Glover/Curwen hand signs, a LOT more improvisation games, and discussing how to hear dictation exercises rather than constant practice. I am new to the hand signs, and so far the students get a kick out of me messing them up (I tend to mix up mi and sol). One student says she’s used them since grade school, so she is my error detector for the semester. I am using the signs for two reasons. The first is practical: I can quickly give them a pattern to sing using the signs, without having to sing or say the solfege; they have to come up with the pitches themselves. Secondly, I’m hoping that attaching a kinesthetic element to the syllables will help the students internalize them; some studies suggest this is the case (Killian & Henry 2005 is one).

The improvisation games have been fun but challenging. I have had the students conduct in two and improvise two measures of any rhythm; the next student in line has to begin on the downbeat after the previous student ends. One student improvised two measures of rest; I could tell he was engaged because his mouth was tightly shut, his eyes were wide, and his head bobbed to the beat! Another game we played was moving freely among the members of the tonic triad to a given rhythm. Next week we’ll incorporate the hand signs in our improvisation.

As Michael Rogers writes in Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, “Spending thirty minutes in highly directed classroom dictation work with a skillful teacher on just two or three melodies can be worth more than hours of undirected” work on dozens of melodies (111). It is my hope that by the time the students finish this semester, they will aurally understand types of cadences, phrase forms, sequential patterns, and basic bass-line harmonization, some topics that are not introduced until later in the sequence. Also on his advice, I’m abandoning the practice of associating interval recognition with commonly-known songs in favor of recognizing intervals by scale-degree combination (106).

In the context of “Bridging the Gap,” I am concerned about two things. The first is that the students would be shy about singing in class, even as a group, since this is not often expected of instrumental students in high schools. I decided to make it a non-issue, and had everyone sing together without bringing it up, as though it was a given. That approach seems to have worked. For solo singing, I have only asked for volunteers yet; I will be calling on them soon, however.

My second concern is that the class will be too easy for some of the students. The improvisation games mitigate the boredom for the skilled students somewhat, and I also try to add a challenge for them that is optional for the rest of the students. In order to determine their level of ability, I gave a dictation pre-test with identification of scales, intervals, triads, and a melodic dictation. As an optional challenge during the scale portion, I told them the tonic of the first scale, then asked them to write down the tonic of the next scale from the location of the first, and so on. Another tactic is to suggest that they view the class pedagogically: how would they teach this topic differently from what I am doing? Hopefully these added challenges will keep these students engaged.

I’m looking forward to this semester, to trying new strategies, and to my return to Aural Skills I!


Killian, Janice N., and Michele L. Henry. “A Comparison of Successful and Unsuccessful Strategies in Individual Sight-Singing Preparation and Performance.” Journal of Research in Music Education 53/I (2005): 51–65.

Rogers, Michael R. Teaching Approaches in Music Theory: An Overview of Pedagogical Philosophies. 2nd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Setting the Tone

It’s the first day of the semester here at Casper College–one of my very favorite days of the year! Courses have been tweaked, syllabi rewritten (more about course design in another post soon), and I’ve (hopefully) managed to learn the names of all of our new freshmen. I’ll see if I remember them all tomorrow!

There are a few things I like to do on the first day of freshman theory to set the tone as my new students embark on their two-year journey through the theory sequence (in addition to reviewing the syllabus with them–my objective-based grading system inevitably needs some explanation to new students who have likely never encountered a similar system). I start by introducing myself and telling them some interesting things about me, then have them go around the room and introduce themselves in a similar fashion. Not only does this give me a chance to silently repeat their names in my head over and over while they’re introducing themselves (few things let people know they are important to you like remembering their name), but it also helps them start to build those bonds of friendship that are so strong in a cohort of music majors–after all, many of us still regularly communicate and collaborate with our own peers from back when we were in music school!

I next begin the process of breaking them out of the public-school mindset with all of its emphasis on checklists and standardized tests by pointing out the following key points of my personal educational philosophy:

  1. There are two types of questions in this world. Most of my incoming freshmen have generally encountered questions of the first type; an example is “What is 2+3?” These questions have one correct answer, making them popular on standardized tests. I observe that I consider these questions to be relatively boring questions, and then introduce them to the second type; an example is “What two numbers add up to 5?” Obviously 2 and 3 are one answer, but 1 and 4 is also correct, as are 0 and 5, 6 and -1, 2.5 and 2.5, etc. Most of the questions that we encounter in the real world are of this type; there are definite wrong answers (3 and 4 do not add up to 5), but there are many, many right answers that differ from each other. These are the types of questions that we frequently encounter in music theory.
  2. Next I ask my students how they learned to walk. Did any of us one day get sick of crawling and just stand up and start walking successfully? No, of course not–most of us fell on our bottoms a whole bunch of times before we finally managed to successfully walk a few steps (and we still manage to trip, to our great embarrassment). Similarly, how many of us can pick up a new piece of music and perform it absolutely perfectly the first time? We generally need to practice and work out the mistakes before we can play the piece to the level we desire. Learning consists in trying something new, making mistakes, and then fixing the mistakes over and over until we finally get it right. I don’t want my students to be afraid of making a mistake in my class! It’s an essential part of their learning and progress as musicians and as human beings.

Finally, I give my students a chance to practice answering the second type of question (the one with multiple right answers) by asking them what at first seems to them a simple question. “Since we’re studying music theory, let us begin by answering the question: what is music?” I collect and read their answers to them, and that’s generally the end of the hour; they leave with faces full of excitement about their new collegiate experience, eager to return and begin learning and practicing music theory with the proper mindset.

As for those little mini-essays on the question “What is music?”: I save them in a file, and reread and return them at the end of their sophomore year, on the very last day of class; tears are inevitably shed as we all realize how much we have grown and learned together. I also use the last day of the theory sequence to point out to my students how much they still DON’T know about music–but that’s a topic for another post.

My name is Jenny Snodgrass and I’m a music educator.


Contrary to popular belief at my institution, I was never awarded a degree in music education.  All through college, I supported my friends who were music ed majors, but I never really took the time to understand the field.  After all, I was too busy copying my part writing over for the 3rd time to get involved in the discussion of teaching high schoolers. My first music education course was an elective during my doctoral work at the University of Maryland, a class called Learning Theories taught by Marie McCarthy, currently professor of music education at the University of Michigan.  This class required me to rethink everything in terms of teaching and pedagogy, and I began to question my own philosophies based on the challenging and insightful reading assigned.  I was the only person in the class who had not taught in the public school system, and I listened intently as my colleagues shared their stories of triumphs and challenges in the classroom.  I was in awe of my fellow students’ creativity in their teaching approaches and watched them give evidence-based results on what worked well and what didn’t. They were never afraid to try something new.  NEVER.  I’m not sure if Dr. McCarthy knows the impact she had on my professional life due to that one class. Following that semester, I began to try new methods of movement and creative approaches in my own aural skills classes I was teaching. Immediately, my connection to my students changed and the last year of teaching at Maryland was by far my best based on what I had embraced from the Learning Theory class and from the students in that class. A chapter of my dissertation was based on my final paper for McCarthy.  But more importantly, this class instilled within me the following thought that I still embrace today:


I received a text this morning from a former student who went on to graduate school in music theory.  After receiving her masters she decided to not pursue the Ph.D. and go teach public school instead.  Her text read, “You are SO a music educator who happens to teach theory rather than chorus or band.” There was a time I might have been offended or frustrated with this statement as I was proving myself as a theorist, but I think this might be one of my highest compliments.

As theorists, composers, musicologists, applied faculty, ensemble directors, and classroom teachers, we all are educating students in any given field of music.  But somehow we have separated ourselves from our “music educators,” especially our high school educators.  Several years ago I decided to give a clinic at the state level music education meeting.  Because I didn’t want to be away from my classroom twice that month, I didn’t attend one of my disciplinary conferences.  I received numerous phone calls inquiring why I would ever miss a national conference to talk to a “bunch of music educators.” Without saying it out loud, it felt like my colleagues were saying that the music education conference was “lesser than” our discipline conference.  I must admit I gained so much out of the music ed conference that year that I have continued to give clinics and collaborate with both university and high school music education faculty.  (If you have never been to a music education conference, I highly encourage it.  The clinics are presented in such a manner that everyone participates and everyone asks questions. While my clinics may include bits and pieces of research, the audience is anxious for any hands-on guidance to help make their classroom more effective.  And the passion is real and contagious.)

Over the past three weeks I have been teaching the theory IV class at Cannon Music Camp, a music camp for high school students held here at Appalachian State.  The camp is in its 49th year and was attended by over 200 students from 28 states. Unlike some other music camps, the students have theory every day during the week and the growth is just exceptional.  The teaching is rewarding as these students are inquisitive and just hungry for music theory. I team-taught this class and in three weeks, we were able cover most of the material I would typically teach in 6-8 weeks of my university theory II class.  I can not put into words how excited these kids were about music theory and we analyzed everything from folk songs to hymns to Beethoven to Queen.   My main goal was to make my classroom a musical experience.  And just like my colleagues from that Learning Theory class fifteen years ago, my camp students were never afraid to try.  The video below shows my class playing along to the melody of We Are the Champions before we began to talk about the modulations.


At the final camp banquet last night, the director of the camp and the current president of NCMEA, James Daughtery, talked to us about the importance of music education and the necessity of musical experiences like Cannon camp. Not every student in the room last night will go on to pursue music as a career, but the skills that they learned at camp will impact them in any of the numerous professions these talented students may be drawn to.  I even gave the theory award to a student who will enroll in an engineering program this fall.  I have no doubt he will be an advocate for music and will continue to play.  Daughtery shared the following video with those in attendance and asked us to think carefully about how we can advocate for music education in our own lives.  For so many of us, it started with that one teacher in elementary or high school that instilled within us a passion for the arts.


My takeaway from all of this..

First of all, I would highly encourage university faculty to spend some time with high school students and teachers.  Over the course of the three weeks while I was at camp, I had meaningful discussions on pedagogy and curriculum with some of most talented educators I know.  They are true heroes. Some of the comments brought up in those discussions are already on the agenda for our first theory meeting this fall.  In terms of music theory and aural skills, how can we best serve our future AND current music educators?  Remember, those high school teachers are preparing students to enter the university classroom.  There’s only 1 month before those high school students at the banquet are sitting in my 8 am aural skills class.

And secondly as music theorists, what is our main goal in the classroom?  Is it to produce mini versions of ourselves? To create new music theorists?  Or is it to give students a particular skill set that they can use in multiple facets of their life?  And what skills are applicable for the music educator?  I’m beginning to ask those questions and will start with the alums of my institution.  Because while I may be sitting in an office on the 4th floor reading the latest findings of a research project, the band teacher down the road is having to arrange a piece for 4 trombones because his school couldn’t afford a tuba. That’s the reality and I want to make my class as applicable as I can.  I want to be part of the story, I want to be an advocate, and I want to bring musical experiences to others. And I’m beyond proud to be a music educator.

Providing Support when Life Unexpectedly Happens

I had planned on writing my first blog post on the importance and joy of community. As the only music theorist at my institution, which is located in a fantastic but relatively isolated community in the middle of Wyoming, I had the most wonderful time discussing music theory pedagogy when Jenny Snodgrass and Tim Hamilton came out to Casper College for a site visit. It’s so much fun to have deep and inspiring conversations with good people who are as enthusiastic about music, music theory, and quality teaching as I am! The visit left me even more excited to attend the recent music theory pedagogy conference in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I planned on writing my first blog post to THIS music theory pedagogy community about that experience.

Life unexpectedly happened to me, though, and instead I’m going to be writing about community in a slightly different fashion than I had originally planned—community ended up mattering to me even more than I had thought it would. The morning I was supposed to fly to Tennessee for the conference, I found myself instead in the University of Utah hospital with my wife, who was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia; to save her life, we were forced to deliver our firstborn son too early in the pregnancy for him to survive the birth.

I cannot thank my fellow music theory colleagues at the conference enough for the support that they subsequently provided me, both logistical and emotional. Jenny printed off copies of my poster and the handouts for my workshop presentation. Austin Patty worked to make sure my poster got put up and coordinated with IT to give me the opportunity to give my workshop presentation via teleconference. When I realized that I was simply not going to be in a state where I could give a coherent presentation less than 24 hours after the death of my son and after two nights of poor sleep in the hospital, Johnandrew Slominski instead read a summary of the presentation that I sent him on short notice and made sure the handouts were distributed. Many more colleagues who were at the conference sent me kind expressions of their love and concern. I am still disappointed to have missed what must have been the most awesome conference ever, but I am deeply grateful for the caring response of all of the communities I am a part of (including the music theory pedagogy community).

The whole experience got me thinking about how we can apply this to the communities of our theory classrooms. If life unexpectedly happens to one of our students (whether it be something as serious as a death or something much more common such as a breakup or illness), are we willing and able to provide the same comfort and support to our students that my colleagues provided me? What can we do to minimize the negative impact of an unexpected life event on our students’ success?

I use an outcome/competency-based grading system in my classroom, a practice I developed after reading a series of blog posts on music theory assessment by Kris Shaffer. (His writings on criterion-based assessment are well worth tracking down on Google.) As long as my students demonstrate proficiency or, preferably, mastery of each outcome by the end of the semester, I am very flexible about how long it takes them to do so—some students nail an objective the first time I give them an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of it, while other students need to fail and practice and fail and practice again and fail and practice yet some more before they finally master the objective. This grading system provides a good deal of flexibility for a student experiencing an unexpected life crisis; they can hunker down and focus on dealing with the crisis, and then come back and catch up on assessing objectives introduced while they were kept away from my classroom. Until the very end of the semester hits and I am forced to put final grades into the book, none of my students is ever left missing out on opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of class material.

I think I can do better, though, at making sure students with life crises don’t fall too far behind in my classes. While my method of assessment is flexible enough to accommodate life’s surprises, my method of content delivery could be more adaptable to unexpected circumstances than it currently is. I have until now followed the traditional method of introducing and explaining new topics in the classroom, supplemented with a second perspective provided by the author of the textbook. Students who miss class for whatever reason end up missing out on that day’s discussion and rely instead solely on notes taken by their classmates (with the all-too-rare office visit from a student to go over what they missed). I would like instead to flip my classroom (another idea I got from reading Kris Shaffer’s blog), posting short video introductions to class topics that students can watch when their schedule permits, with the added bonus that they can pause it, rewind it, and rewatch it as many times as they need. Class time can instead be devoted to answering student questions, discussing student ideas about the material, and workshopping their musicianship skills. Students missing class will still miss out on the discussion and in-class practice, but this will be easier for them to make up on their own as they get their questions answered outside of class (via email, an office visit, or from their peers) and practice independently as needed.

Finally, I want to make sure that my students feel the same emotional support from my classroom community as I felt from my own communities. I want to be better at promptly sending emails to check up on students who missed class on a given day to see if everything is OK. I want them to know that I and their classroom friends care about them and want to help support them when things are hard.

Life can be very hard sometimes, but being connected to a strong and caring community makes the hard times immeasurably easier to deal with. Let’s do what we can to make sure that our classroom communities provide the strongest level of support possible to our students.

Student Empathy with Process in Post-Tonal Music: some Preparatory Activities

A fantastic thing happened to me recently.  My son came home from his kindergarten music class talking about throat singing and Stockhausen!  It turns out one of my music education students spread word of some of the activities I’m doing in my post-tonal theory course to my son’s music teacher, and everything came full circle with this wonderful outcome.    This circle of events made me realize that some of the activities I’m doing, in addition to giving students empathy with certain post-tonal works, works that many of my students are experiencing for the first time, are simple enough that they could be applied, at the very least, at the high-school level if not kindergarten.  Yet, they are quite effective at the college level.

Before describing what I do in my class to prep students for experiencing Stockhausen’s Stimmung, let’s discuss this term “process.”  It is often a term we use to describe minimalist compositional procedures.   Reich or Riley set up a field of parameters around a limited set of gestures, and the performing forces work through those given gestures in a “process”-like way.  The process may be “phase” oriented, involving working through the various rhythmic alignments of pulses given a 12-pulsed figure, as in Reich’s Clapping Music or perhaps one of his phase-shifting works such as Piano Phase or Violin Phase.  Or, it may be working through a set of musical gestures with loosely guided but still very open-ended parameters, as in Riley’s famous In C.   As instructors, we often have our students engage in impromptu performances of portions of such pieces in class to get them inside of the piece, so to speak.  But there is certainly no reason why we need to limit such positive learning activities to just minimalist works.  “Process” is part and parcel to many  minimalist works, but is by no means exclusive to that compositional trend.

Stockhausen’s Stimmung is a great example.  It’s a work based in great part on a constantly sustained B-flat dominant 9 harmony, with various phonetic sound shifts indicated to the performers so as to create colorful overtones.   Before explaining the various ins and outs of that work’s background and score, I do a simple and fun task.   I ask my students to softly sing, in slow repetitions, a B-flat on the prolonged word moooo-aaaaahhhhhh-wwwwww-rrrrrrrrr while gently plugging their noses, all the while attempting to hear various overtones as they slowly change the shapes of their mouths in order to accommodate the phonetic shifts. A layman’s exposé to throat singing that captures the harmonic and static essence of this work.

Another process occurs in Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, that being a kind of free-form prolation canon, whereby a single melodic contour with identical pitch classes is assigned to each voice part, but at various paces and with contrasting rhythmic content.  Before we listen to the work, I write out the first 17 or so pitches on the board and divide my class into four or five small vocal groups.   As I freely point to one group and then another, they begin to sing the contour on the syllable “Loo”, shifting from one note to the next with each conducted finger wag.  Voila!  A crude, freely-improvised emulation of the soundworld that Ligeti magically creates in this work.

Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is another work that is not necessarily minimalist but that comprises a limited set of gestures that are unfolded through time in what one could arguably describe as a process.  They are 1) a tolling tubular bell on the pitch A, 2) a descending A natural minor scale, and 3) a descending A minor triad (as discussed by Paul Hillier in his book Arvo Pärt and excellently summarized by Miguel Roig-Francolí in his texbook Understanding Post-Tonal Music).   As an introduction to this work, I again divide the class into four groups and an additional pair of students.  Those two students (perhaps a baritone on A220, a soprano on A440) are assigned the role of sustaining the pitch A.  Two of the larger groups are assigned the gesture of singing down through the notes of the A minor scale, and the other two down through the triad.   Again, free-form finger-wave conducting, with each wave instructing the given group to descend to either the next scale degree or chord tone.   In emulation of the actual Cantus, I usually end the activity by finger-waving to the point where the larger group arrives on an a A minor triad.   If time allows, a student or two can also take a crack at leading the ensemble in yet another crude but fun depiction of the essential soundworld that is at the backbone of this wonderfully powerful work.

There are certainly a number of works that lend themselves to such activities (share them with me if some come to mind!).   Just thought I’d share a few.   As we know, a fun and interesting exposé of a post-tonal work can go a long way in paving a path to a deeper understanding, enjoyment, and/or appreciation of it.