Dublin School Residency – Day 7: Teaching Musicianship Outside of Walden

During my first week of teaching musicianship classes in an environment other than Walden School, I am making some surprising discoveries.

At Walden, so much of what our students learn in musicianship class (reading rhythms, Solfege, taking dictation, using their voices, applying concepts at the keyboard and in their creative work) is reinforced throughout the day, not just during their practice time, but in other classes, chorus, evening music, dinner and dorm conversations, etc. Dublin School, of course, is a fully academically diverse high school program. Students taking Musicianship are also taking five other classes, none of which reinforce the material they are learning with me (excepting an extra-curricular choral group called Dubliners). In relation to this, I am finding that I need to recalibrate my sense of how much material we can get through in a class period and how much they can handle in the evening for homework, reducing my scale of lesson planning by as much as a third or half each day.

I’m also thinking about the age old (in our community) conversation about the relationship between Musicianship and Composition instruction and materials. I am accustomed to doing much planting of seeds for creative process, giving small assignments that have students engaging materials compositionally or improvisationally, but trusting that more thorough creative work will be going on in a separate composition class. In this context though, the creative application they’re going to get will be in class with me. As one of my biggest goals for these classes is for students to have quality time developing contact with their creativity in relationship to musical materials, this means budgeting in much more creative application time than to which I am used.

Classes are on a block system here; six blocks, A through F, with each day’s schedule having a different configuration of blocks. (Yup, classes are at different times each day of the week; weird, huh?) Wednesday is a half day, with three blocks meeting one Wednesday and the other three meeting the next. At first I was thinking that this would keep my two classes (technically two different sections of the same class) perpetually out of sink with each other, as they meet on opposite Wednesdays; but, I’m realizing that I can use this Wednesday time for unadulterated creative indulgence. Yesterday in C block, we were doing group improvisations with perfect fifths: some mood pieces, some layering of rhythmic ostinatos (ostinati? I’ve never been sure about the pleural of that word…), and question and answer phrase pairs. This was pretty fun. Thinking about things inversely, I’m realizing that at Walden, I’ve never, or almost never, devoted an entire Musicianship class period to improvisation / creative work with a single concept before. Perhaps I should think about this more.

At Walden, being an intensive program in which every student is studying Musicianship, we have the advantage of having many class sections into which we can very mindfully place and group our students. Indeed, one of the biggest priorities of curriculum placement is getting kids into the “best fit” musicianship class. (Of course, as a consequence of this, we as Musicianship teachers often don’t get a real sense of the lay of our classes until after students arrive on campus, half a day before we start teaching – which happens to be one of my favorite days of the year, no joke.)
In a high school program, class placements are so much more dependent on how the rest of a student’s schedule comes together, leaving little or perhaps no flexibility around which of the two Musicianship class sections, say, a particular student will be placed in. As a consequence, in my E block class, I have a student who has been studying piano for ten years along side a student who wasn’t sure (before today) what a quarter note looks like. It’s hard to find the academic “center” in a class like this.

On one level, it would feel entirely ridiculous to complain; I mean, I’m describing a class with five students in it. It is likely any teacher’s dream to have classes this small. And yet, given that three fifths of the class are closer to the place of not recognizing a quarter note, I’m really not sure what to do except teach the class from there, giving the other two students a bit of extra out-of-class attention if need be. It’s a pickle, to be sure.
(Mixing the pot a bit more, the other two students have deeply internalized the fixed-do system, to the extent of using Solfege syllables in place of letters to name notes, and use English as a second language; so even when we are discussing a concept that musically would be quite familiar, we are working through a variety of translational filters. I love teaching!)

I mentioned all this to Ben yesterday on the phone, and he laughed with a bit of unanticipated glee, expressing joy that a member of Walden’s Teacher Training faculty was experiencing this first hand. (As a public school teacher for many years, this kind of challenge is second nature to someone like Ben; it’s new for me.) Ben, I hope to always experience greater humility when I ponder the bigger picture challenges of music education. Boy do we have it good during the summers!
Jess Harrison (Dublin’s full time music teacher) and I are reflecting together about how the music offerings here at Dublin could be structure to support not just a range of music electives for the general student body but a quality college-prep experience for students wishing to continue in music seriously (setting up second and perhaps even third level classes with concise prerequisites and the like). The sense that I have is that there is interest both in the arts department and amongst the school’s administration to support such an initiative. Indeed, I get the sense that part of the interest in deepening the Walden School / Dublin School collaboration springs from a desire to clarify the structure of the music offerings here. As this is the kind of thing that I love to muse about, the possibility of being able to contribute something meaningful to this process is exciting to me.