We all know that the job prospects for the 22-year-old Bachelor of Music student are grim. For most, it’ll take persistance and debt in addition to continued discipline in their practice and commitment to excellence. My job is to help them understand better/deeper/differently the music that they have committed to. As I think about how best to help my students succeed, I put a lot of thought into other skills they need. For instance, I try to foreground excellence in my grading systems (see this post). Recently, I have also been experimenting with the skill of asking questions.
My students are really exceptional at answering questions. I am blessed to have smart students who trust me enough to try to answer my questions, and who rise to the occasion for just about any question I pose. But they stink at asking good questions. Part of it is that they’re 18-22 years old and have never really be asked to be critically inquisitive about music. Part of it is that the structure of their training almost always involves toeing-the-line with a private teacher rather than questioning the authority figure or the music. But what good will all their smarts and classroom training do them if they can’t ask their own questions?
Last semester, I experimented with making asking questions a component of their grade in music theory. About once a week, as part of their preparation for class, they had to email me 1-3 questions that arose as they listened and started to dig into the music. I then copied and pasted questions into a document, gave each question a single tag (such as form, context, meter, pitch), and alphabetized the list. The next class started with 1-2 minutes of perusing the list, which I projected onto the screen. I then guided the discussion through the questions that were deep enough to sustain discussion.
This worked, and had a few interesting side benefits.
- I had to do a lot of research on context before class started. I learned a tremendous amount of information about composers, pieces, movements, and times. I’d forgotten what fun this could be and how much more meaningful this makes the study of music. I usually condensed what I learned into 1-2 minutes of lecture.
- The questions got a lot better as the semester progressed. By the third and final project, their work (which could take the form of an essay) did a wonderful job engaging with real issues in the music.
So, this semester, I’m doing this activity again with my Form and Analysis class. I’m trying to make my job a little easier–I’ve used google docs to set up a really basic form this time. I’m not sure if it’ll work better, but it’ll save me from receiving an email from every student, and copying and pasting into a document. The form automatically populates a spreadsheet for me, which makes it easy for me to tag, sort and print! I hope. 🙂
I’m curious where this class will start in the “deepness” of their questions… I’ve linked the prompt for this first assignment here, you can see the google doc form here, and the spreadsheet that is automatically populated by the answers on the form here (I manually added the column called “tag” for sorting purposes).
Update (September 26th, 2012): My class is done with this form for the year. Feel free to enter your own “fake” responses on the form to see what it does to the spreadsheet.