By John Spilker
At the 2017 Teaching Music History Conference, colleagues discussed two potential trends in teaching music history courses: a content-oriented music history survey approach and a methods-oriented musicology approach. A colleague asked how I would describe “Music History: Gender & Sexuality” and “Music History: The Environment.” I responded that these two required music history courses at Nebraska Wesleyan University are “survey adjacent” and we shared a laugh at this new terminology. I teach topic-based music history courses structured around a limited number of case studies and my pedagogy lies in between the content vs. methods poles described above. My students dig deep with the intentionally selective content to develop research and writing skills, which they apply to a semester-long research project that culminates in a thesis-driven paper on any topic of their choice, including music outside the Western art music tradition. This approach is definitely a very different place from when I first started teaching the music history survey in 2007. In fact, I would have never imagined participating in such a strange new pedagogical landscape ten years ago. For example, as an especially fastidious and overly-conscientious teacher of the traditional music history survey, I assigned the textbook reading and three anthology pieces (early, middle, and late exemplars) for the single 50-minute class period on the Renaissance madrigal. (It’s precious to look back at this.) Some colleagues would point out, “They’re never going to do all that work for one class period.” Nevertheless, I persisted…for a while.
After having taught the music history survey for two years, I used Kay Kaufmann Shelemay’s Soundscapes to teach my first world music course during the 2010–2011 academic year. I wondered, “what if music history courses were structured using a case-study approach similar to Shelemay’s textbook?” With fondness, I recalled Douglass Seaton’s approach to the Classical and Romantic period courses I took in graduate school. Each class session focused on a single piece and an article connected to the composition and/or genre. During the 2011–2012 academic year, my first semester teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University, the exiting seniors suggested it would be much more helpful to learn music research methods during their sophomore and/or junior years. They noted that other majors had anywhere from one to three research methods courses as part of the curriculum. I wondered, “Why do we wait until a senior seminar or graduate bibliography course to teach research methods to music students? Furthermore, why is the approach usually so musicology-centric?” (Consequently, a new book offers a more comprehensive approach to music research methods.) During my three years of experience teaching the survey, I noticed that student papers often lacked a clear thesis and thorough engagement with scholarly books and articles. Some students didn’t know how to find a topic beyond “The History of the Trombone” or “Beethoven’s Symphonies.” Then it hit me: we guide students through an encyclopedic textbook and anthology about the chronology of compositional newness; then tell them to do research with secondary sources and write a paper. Often, there is scant instruction or hands-on workshop time spent on how to read and analyze articles, gather and organize data, formulate a thesis, construct a narrative, and revise prose…largely because “there’s no time” when you feel compelled to cover so much content. Furthermore, students may not want to research and write about art music from the time periods encapsulated by the survey course because it doesn’t seem readily relevant to their professional goals.
Skills and Topics: Lessons Learned from the Liberal Education Curriculum
I learned how to use less content to help incoming students develop skills in analytical reading, research, and writing as part of professional development activities for NWU’s first-semester seminar. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer discusses “Teaching from the Microcosm” as a way to engage students in the practices of the field, rather than merely covering disciplinary content. I struggled with the idea of cutting content to build in time for developing intellectual skills (e.g. research, writing, public speaking, etc.). How could I possibly let go of all this good information that the students need to know? A religion colleague shared a perspective that changed her outlook about coverage and curriculum design: “I don’t need to educate my students as if I’m training my replacement.”
As NWU worked to create a new liberal education curriculum, we discussed the idea of scaffolding skills across the curriculum. Accordingly, both of my music history courses are upper-level writing instructive. Music History: Gender & Sexuality is diversity instructive. George Kuh identifies writing and diversity as high-impact educational practices. The integrative core of our new curriculum requires students to take courses in “threads,” cohorts of courses from various departments organized around a single topic or issue. A senior music colleague inquired, “could you re-design your music history courses so they will simultaneously satisfy the requirements for specific threads?” He likely expected a surface-level fulfillment; however, musicology has been moving in the direction of engaging deeply with interdisciplinary topics like, ecomusicology. I could offer music history courses that connect with concepts from environmental and gender studies, while remaining connected to the context of the music history survey by constructing each course from case-studies. Furthermore, a topic-based case-study approach freed me to select repertoire that represents the diversity of music that extends beyond “art music,” which is laden with issues of race and socio-economic status. My new courses include blues, hip-hop, pop music, Broadway musical theater, film music, monophonic secular song, the madrigal, opera, and varied 20th-century art-music genres, some of which reference genres from earlier time periods such as the mass, symphony, and piano character piece.
The Case Study
For my new courses, each case study typically focuses on a single musical work and a related piece of scholarship. Each case study comprises two to three seventy-minute class sessions, during which students develop musicological research skills associated with historical social/cultural context, stylistic analysis, and current scholarship. Students apply these skills by completing required reading, listening, watching and/or analysis before class, engaging in activities and discussion during class, and working on the scaffolded research and writing assignments that culminate in their research paper. The case study on Edgard Varèse’s Déserts from “Music History: The Environment” illustrates the construction of a single case study. First, the “historical social/cultural context” class session addresses information about the historical period, genre, performance practice, intellectual history, and developments across disciplines including music. Students are assigned to read “Prelude to the Twentieth Century” from Mark Evan Bonds’s textbook and “Second Half of the 20th-century” from Douglass Seaton’s text. Students also research information about Transatlantic U.S. modernism, experimental music, and electronic music. Second, for the “stylistic analysis” class session, students have access to the score and a recording of the work. They guide their listening and score study by taking notes on salient features of each element of music: scoring, dynamics, rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, and form. Third, the “current scholarship” class session requires students to understand, analyze, and critique the content, research methods, and writing found in a scholarly publication. For the Déserts case study, students prepare notes on Denise Von Glahn’s essay “‘Empty Spaces’: On the Conceptual Origins of Déserts” in Edgard Varèse.
“Survey Adjacent” (Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.)
Although NASM accreditation guidelines do not require coverage of the six historical periods, both of my new music history courses provide students with a foundation rooted in the music history survey. “Music History: Gender and Sexuality” includes concepts and genres from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods and “Music History: The Environment” addresses the Classic period through the present. This information complements content from other required music courses ranging from theory to ensembles and applied lessons. It also provides a helpful frame of reference for students who need to prepare independently for graduate school entrance exams or the Praxis II exam for music education certification. For these students, process remains paramount: they need to apply their research skills to approach the task of studying for a comprehensive exam. One colleague, who teaches graduate students at a R1 institution, helped me see the big picture as I swirled in insecurity and self-doubt about doing something new: “Your new courses are actually preparing students for the things they will need to do in graduate school, not just exposing them to the information that could appear on the music history entrance exam.” At the end of the day, my courses use discipline-specific content to help students build the skills they need to excel in any career and lifelong-learning endeavors, whether or not grad school beckons. After all, even I can say to my students that my current job routinely requires me to do many things that I never learned as a part of my degree coursework, pedagogy being chief among those.
John D. Spilker holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from The Florida State University and is Associate Professor of Musicology and Gender Studies at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He serves as the co-coordinator for the campus-wide liberal education assessment initiative, a project sponsored by the Higher Learning Commission’s Assessment Academy. He has received the United Methodist Church Exemplary Teacher Award (2014-2015), NWU Faculty Advocate for Diversity Award (2017), and the Margaret J. Prouty Teaching Award (2016-2017). At the 2016 national meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Dr. Spilker presented his work on music history curricular revision and integration with NWU’s new liberal education program. He has presented his scholarship on writing pedagogy, care pedagogy, and alternative approaches to the music history survey at national meetings of the American Musicological Society. His research on dissonant counterpoint and Henry Cowell has been published in American Music and the Journal of the Society for American Music.