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.