Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Music Appreciation: Why Do Students Struggle?

I greatly love teaching music appreciation. It is a joy to expose novices to the great music of the Western world. Unfortunately, few of my students have a clear understanding of what the course will entail when they enroll.

As a professor at a community college, I hear the same expectations each semester. "My advisor told me that this course would involve sitting in class and listening to a little music." Sadly, these uninformed advisors give an uninformed synopsis of the class. The course opens with a cursory examination of the general characteristics of music. The majority of the semester is devoted to a historical overview of music history from the rise of Gregorian chant in 450 through the end of the 20th century.

Responses to the course vary, but mostly fall into one of two extremes. Most students admit that the course was more demanding than they expected, but that they have a greater understanding of how music developed over the centuries and became what we have today. Others, sadly, feel as though the course was too difficult and a waste of their time. All they hoped to do was find some music that they liked.

Generally, I find that the students with the negative responses share some common characteristics. Firstly, it seems as though most of these students come from backgrounds that include little (if any) exposure to cultural experiences. I do not expect students in my class to have any formal training in the arts, but I do find that those who have at least been to a concert, musical, play, or museum tend to do better. Often this lack of interaction with the arts is associated with the abject poverty from which many of my students come.

Secondly, connected to the first point, many of these students received their primary and secondary education in settings that did not include arts education in the curriculum. Because our nation's education system is dependant upon tests to verify student learning and instructor success, teachers find themselves seeking additional instructional time to prepare students for benchmark exams. Since there are few questions that relate to artistic concepts, exposure to the arts is one of the first things removed from public education.

Lastly, these students demonstrate remedial skills in reading and writing. Though some may argue that success in the arts is not dependent upon these rudimentary skills, I counter that argument by holding that learning of ANY type must involve interaction with a variety of ideas - ideas generated by others (discovered through reading) as well as the individual's response to these thoughts (worked out in the written word). The student's difficulties in the music classroom is another indicator of the failing status quo of the American educational system.

The question is not whether the content of the course is appropriate (that's another discussion entirely) but how we as musicians can help them succeed. First we must identify the problems and initiate an aggressive plan to overcome the difficulties. To address points one and two listed above, I use as many recordings (both audio and video) as possible during my lectures. has become an essential resource during my preparation. (Sadly, I must contend with the site being blocked by the administration of the school, limiting the interaction my students can have with the music videos while on campus.)

The final issue is much more difficult to address and one that cannot be overcome in a single semester. Because I recognize the importance of language skills in the educational process, I am adamant that my music appreciation class (a general education course!) will be writing intensive. I require students to explore their thoughts about music in several non-research based journal entries throughout the semester. These journals allow students to develop their writing skills while giving me insight into their understanding of the concepts presented in class in a non-threatening manner. Additionally, students attend recitals and compose reviews of their experience as well as the music encountered.

It is frustrating as a teacher when my students rail against the assignments they are given. While they assume that the tasks are intended to make the course more grueling, the reality of the situation is that they are meant to assist the student's understanding of the course content. Will I be able to help every student see the reasons for their struggles and that there is a way to overcome them? Probably not. If I reach one student, though, my efforts are not in vain. That is the hope that keeps me coming back semester after semester.