Keeping it fresh: four weeks to go

I’m exhausted.  We’re at that point in the semester where it seems like it will never end.  And, owing to a quirk of the solar calendar, there are THREE weeks of teaching after Thanksgiving instead of the traditional two.  I find myself worried about keeping an appropriate level of energy and excitement in my classes.

One of the weirdest things about earning tenure is that, suddenly, your teaching isn’t critically observed any more. It’s been three years since someone has visited my classroom with the intent to help me evaluate my own teaching (I have had many guests there to observe my so-called “good” teaching, but–for obvious reasons to do with experience and power structures–they rarely offer feedback on what they saw). I invited my long-time mentor and friend to come in last week to give me his outsider’s perspective on two things: (1) how high or low I am setting the bar in my class, and (2) strategies for raising it. Here’s what he thought and what we talked about over lunch after class.

Not surprisingly to me, he thought I put the bar too low in my class. I think a lot of this impression stems from the fact that I often have students do things multiple times in multiple ways in order to focus their attention on something specific (for example, sing on “la-la-la” so they can focus on feeling/hearing harmonic change). One of his points is that the repertoire is easy (folk songs are great for hearing implied harmonic change) and singing these simple songs multiple times without ratcheting up incoming sneaky one! multitasking allows the bar to sink. Me being me, I almost always voice a counterargument. In this case, it’s that a lot of students need less clutter in their brains in order to focus on what I really want them to get. I’m still struggling with how to best walk the thin line between boring my experience (and perhaps more naturally gifted) hearers with my less experienced ones, to challenge the former while still providing good learning space for the latter. I am sure I will struggle with this for my entire career because the different levels of basic skills and experience is the single most pedagogically challenging facet in my aural skills classroom.

In addition to setting the stage for a lot of good reflection on my part, the other great outcome of his visit was some strategies for raising the bar. Here’s some of the ideas I’m going to try and implement over these last four weeks of the semester.

  • more no-stakes individual singing. In my effort to create a space where everyone feels comfortable singing, I have shied away from putting people on the spot. If there’s an assignment to be graded, I have no problem asking them to sing on their own because they know it’s coming, but we can and will do a ton of ungraded drills where everyone is active and learning happens.
  • have them vocally improvise bass lines.  I have the scaffolding for this skill in place because of all the work we’ve done on feeling/hearing harmonic change.
  • have them sing in thirds for as long as they can get it to work.
  • sing on neutral syllables as an early step, not a late step.
  • be absolutely religious about requiring conducting at all times

Finally, I’m also going to work on having them sing softer. I’ve been very focused on us all making a good vocal sound with good breathing support, but I have noticed over the past few years that my classes are loud. And they’re often so loud that they don’t hear or listen to each other.

So, I’ll take 2 minutes at the beginning of classes to tell students about the changes. (3 sentences: they’ll be seeing ideas for keeping things fresh, I will be religious about getting them to conduct, and we will sing softer so we can listen better.)  And then we’ll head onward-ho!!

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