As an educator, my primary goal is to engage students by sharing with them what makes music so fascinating to me. My broad experience as a composer, scholar, and performer, coupled with my wide-ranging musical interests, help me to expose students to a diverse body of musical works, analyses, and histories, each of which I am truly excited to share. A core principle of my teaching is to allow students to take ownership of their learning through student-led activities and creative assignments. I intend to instill my students with a spirit of independent learning that will follow them outside of the classroom. I’ve had the opportunity to teach and be a teaching assistant for a variety of different courses, including music theory classes, survey courses, and specialty classes, which have included both non-majors and music majors. I also have experience with private instruction in composition, music theory, and piano.
One constant in my course design is a desire to share examples of music that represent the diverse offerings available both within and outside of the classical canon. This principle is best illustrated by a course of my own design called “Classical Goes Pop” that I recently taught to Duke freshmen and sophomores (non-music majors). In this writing-focused course, students developed a nuanced understanding of the issues surrounding art classification, including the concepts of genre, high/low art, and aesthetics, by exploring a number of case studies of significant pieces and artists, ranging from Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde to Björk’s Biophilia (see syllabus here). Students’ final paper topics demonstrated broad applications of concepts learned in class, including an analysis of progressive social ideas in Johnny Cash’s lyrics and an exploration of world music techniques used in Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices.
I also find that students become more invested in their work when assignments allow for creative license, even within relatively standardized courses. For example, as the instructor for an Introduction to Music Theory class for beginners (see my syllabus here) I assigned two composition assignments over the course of the semester (see one of them here). While these assignments gave students the opportunity for some freedom, I find that they do their best creative work when there are very clear guidelines and expectations. In this case I gave a limited number of chord progressions for them to choose from, along with a specific minimum number of non-chord tones to use. The submitted assignments exceeded my expectations, and proved to students who might have only known how to read music in one clef at the beginning of the class that they now were able to succeed in four-voice part writing.
In order to effectively engage diverse groups of students, I employ a variety of creative teaching techniques, with an emphasis on student-led activities. A great example of this comes from an intensive three-week course for gifted high school students called Bach to Rock (see syllabus here) that I taught as part of the Duke Talent Identification Program. I had my students read Milton Babbitt’s famous article “Who Cares if You Listen?,” assigned half of the class to each side of the argument, and held a debate. The students passionately defended their positions, revealing a nuanced understanding of the different arguments. I find that when students lead these types of activities, they tend to take stronger ownership of the material, becoming responsible for their own learning.
One challenge that I have faced multiple times is teaching and assessing students of vastly differing ability levels. I encountered this problem acutely while I was the instructor for a Music Theory I Lab, where I was responsible for a wide range of musicianship skills, including aural skills, sight singing, and keyboard skills. Some of my students had been taking piano lessons their entire lives, while others could barely read music. To get an understanding of the students’ differing backgrounds, I asked them to fill out a survey at the beginning of each semester (see it here). To address the problem, I found it more beneficial to assess students on their level of effort and improvement, rather than on each student’s ability to reach some artificial threshold. Musicianship courses like this have the additional challenge of requiring individual assessment of a large number of students on performance skills that take a considerable amount of time. My solution to this problem for this class was to randomly select a few students in each session to perform the homework assignment for a grade. Students never knew if they would have to perform in any given class, and would therefore come to class prepared more often than not.
In an effort to improve my teaching I often seek feedback from peers, students, and faculty. As part of the Certificate in College Teaching I have observed and been observed by a number of graduate students from outside of my own discipline. These observations led me to specifically reflect on leading discussions and creating syllabi. Most of the feedback that I received regarding my ability to lead discussions was positive, with the one suggestion that I should try allow students to converse with each other a bit more, rather than responding to students’ contributions myself. This was particularly challenging to implement in my class that semester, due to its small size, but I attempted to incorporate it into my teaching methods and found promising results. In most of my classes I also ask students for anonymous feedback on my teaching mid-semester. I find this to be helpful in adjusting my teaching methods within that same course to best suit those students’ needs. For example in student feedback for my Introduction to Music Theory course I received a comment that I had moved too quickly through the section on intervals. As a result, I made sure to take some time at the start of the following two classes to review that material and ask students for confirmation of their understanding.
To prepare myself for a job in academia, I applied for and received a fellowship to participate in the Preparing Future Faculty program over the 2016-17 academic year. Dr. Lance Hulme, an active composer who teaches music theory at North Carolina Central University, was my mentor for the program. I observed a number of his classes, attended faculty meetings, and engaged in discussions about how to thrive in an academic setting. Through the program I also made site visits to other colleges and universities in the area in order to understand the different types of institutions that I could encounter. After participating in this program I am confident in my understanding of what it takes to flourish in an academic job.
In the future I plan to continually hone my teaching techniques, whether relating specifically to music theory and musicianship pedagogy or to broader teaching concepts. One hope of mine is to have the opportunity to re-teach the one of the same music theory courses I have already taught, in order to compare different teaching strategies and their effectiveness. I also would love to expand my repertoire of classes to include more advanced theory classes and other specialty topics, such as separate seminars on the music of Béla Bartók and Thomas Adès.