Expanding Content

When does content matter?

I ask the question because I’ve been utterly convinced by a mentor and friend that it makes a significant difference in my teaching when I make a distinction between content and skills.I’m a big skills person. As in, I teach skills to my students. I should be able do this using any content my department asks me to use.  But it’s the skills they acquire that really matter. Ideally, I teach skills that help them be better musicians. After all, that is why they choose to attend Conservatory. (On days that I live in Utopia, I teach them skills to be better people….)

Do I want my students to remember the content from my class? Do I want them to know what a French Augmented Sixth chord is in five years (much less after a summer)? Kind of. After all, I care about French Augmented Sixth chords… shouldn’t they? But, I’d much rather they retain the skills I try to teach; to be able to say – “gosh, that spot in the music feels more intense than this similar spot.” And then to ask the bigger questions like “Why is this spot more intense (answer: more chromaticism)?”, “Why this spot instead of the similar one later?”, “Should these answers impact my performance?”, “What effect does that more intense chromaticism have on me?”, “How might I perform this differently from this recording?”, “How would this moment feel with a diatonic setting?” Etc. If they have the skills to ask those kinds of questions and then to answer them, I’m going to be one happy camper (teacher…).

But, I find myself obsessing a little bit over the content of my aural skills 1 class this semester. I know/buy into/believe in/champion the skills we teach in this class, but the content we use to teach these skills—and, honestly, almost all of our skills in Conservatory music theory classes—is limited to the canon. You know, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and maybe Brahms, if you’re lucky. There are a few things motivating my obsession:

  • the biggest and fastest growth I’ve had as a musician has happened when I explored different musics. Can’t I find a way to share that experience with my students?
  • The music (read: content) that we traditionally use for aural skills 1 is boring: folk songs devoid of context, phrases (if you’re lucky to find something that long) that only use a few chords and the simplest of note values.
  • The music our students listen to, practice, and rehearse for hours on a daily basis is far more complex than the music we study. They’re often bored and even insulted by the content of aural skills 1.
  • I am bored with the content of aural skills 1.

So, one of my new teaching goals is to include other musics on a daily basis. I want to avoid tokenizing them. “Oh, here’s a really cool not-from-the-canon example that I’m going to show you to prove I care about teaching music that doesn’t necessarily come from dead white men.” It should be a daily experience that I imagine will stick out at the beginning, but they’ll get used to it.

5 thoughts on “Expanding Content

  1. This is a constant debate in any field. One mantra – “teach less better” –another 21st century process skills. I like teaching skills too….but I think of content as the language of skills. Why teach them how to give a good oral presentation if they don’t have anything to say? In my field of ecology, one can analyze the “numbers” or data – but any conclusion lacks meaning without the ecological context or content. People like to present skills and content as inversely related but I would rather see them as complimentary.

    • Interesting–One of the first times I was introduced to this idea was in a teaching seminar that included two chemists who taught CHEM 101 and 102. Needless to say, content plays a huge role in those foundational classes. But, having something good to say doesn’t just depend on content, right? It also depends highly on their critical thinking, which definitely qualifies as a skill. I don’t think I can teach skills without content, for sure. So, there’s definitely some kind of give-and-take relationship there.

  2. I don’t know anything about aural skills or teaching music. But could you make a specific connection to the music the students in your course like/listen to (apart from the canon)? You could ask them to tell you what music they listen to, then challenge yourself to teach a skill or lesson using one of those pieces of music. (Or possibly ask them to apply the skills they’ve learned to a piece of music of their own choosing, but I don’t think that makes sense for aural skills?)

    • 🙂 well… now the posts will all come out one at a time instead of five or six ready to go… The dare game was fun. But it was really open-ended—I could draw on a huge slate of things to win. What you propose is a little more high stakes because I think it’s harder: given a specific topic, what piece can I find that illustrates it *and* is outside the canon? I’ve thought about offering extra credit for those kinds of things, because it really is cool and shows that students transfer (in a Bloom’s taxonomy kind of way) their knowledge from on example to an other. That leap of transferring is a big deal and rewardable. But I just don’t believe in extra credit (and can’t yet articulate why I don’t believe in extra credit).

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