As a new teacher, I wanted to make a good, positive impression when entering my first lecture class, just like, I imagine, all new teachers do.  One of my most successful courses, and one in which I always had high evaluations in, was Music Fundamentals (a basic music theory course for non-music majors and music majors who needed that grounding).

No, I wasn’t ready.  Although I majored in music composition and music theory, I had not taken any music education courses nor had I any student-teaching semesters, and I had never been a teaching assistant.  Obviously, I couldn’t just go in and wing it, so I did a lot of reflection on how I remembered my professors taught their various courses.  Luckily, my own Music Fundamentals professor was one of those good professors.  He knew the topic inside and out, was engaging and funny, and he expected the best from us without beating us down (this is a good person to emulate).  (It’s also important to have a logic class in your undergrad arsenal because there will be students who will argue.  About anything sometimes.)

Step one: Acquire a textbook.  Luckily, my predecessor taught the course recently and recommended that I use that same text.  It was already in the bookstore?  Problem solved!

Step two:  Create a syllabus and lesson plans.  How hard could this be?  As I mentioned before, I majored in music theory and composition.  I had taken a butt-load of music theory courses BECAUSE I WANTED TO.  This was only Music Fundamentals which was not even a music major course.  Said predecessor gave me her syllabus, but no lesson plans.  For the lesson plans, I decided to look at the table of contents and align my weeks accordingly.  Done.

Step three:  Get in the classroom and teach.  I was ready.  I knew what I was talking about.  I could answer any question that a non-music major could put to me.

On the morning of my first class, while still at home, I had other concerns:  What should I wear that would make me appear relaxed and approachable, yet professorial?  I even spent quite a lot of time thinking about the first thing I would say.  “Good morning”?  Lame.  It had to be light, but, well, professorial.  For the first few years, I toyed with the idea of pretending I was a non-traditional student waiting for the professor to come in and grumbling when he was late, but I could never work out the finer details.  Also, I think I ended up greeting my first lecture class with, “Good morning.”  Lame.

I don’t remember what I finally did, but it was apparently good enough that I got to teach it again the next year (and with higher enrollment).

After the roll call, I explained the syllabus and I immediately got bored.  I hoped that my boredom was because my personal education was way beyond talking about just white keys and black keys, half steps and whole steps, and so on, but when I looked up, I saw that they were not as engaged as I had hoped.  Still, I plowed on, assuming it would take a little while before the subject matter began to seep in and music theory would be as fun for them as it is for me.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the semester that two or three non-traditional aged students came to my office.  I think it was a Friday.  Our conversation went something like this:

Them:  “It’s not you.  We like your energy and you’re funny sometimes, but the class is boring.”
Me:  “I know.  I’m bored, too.  I’ll fix it.”


So, what would make the course less boring and still satisfy the outcomes of the course?  Let’s review:

  1. This is not a music major course.
  2. This is an introduction to music theory for non-music majors and, importantly, non-musicians.
  3. Every student needed to come out with a basic idea of music.

My new objectives were to make sure that non-musicians understood each concept.  I also felt that as long as the concepts were covered, non-musicians should have an idea of what it’s like to be a musician.

My new format was very simple.  In the first half of the semester, I presented the basic material (half steps and whole steps, scales, chords, the circle of fifths, keys, and rhythms), introduced the piano and showed them how to play four major scales and chording in four keys.  Both the scales and the chords were the same: F, C, G, and D.  The chording was simple:  I, IV6-4, V6, and V6-5.  I taught them how to play the recorder in the keys of F, C, and G, and I also taught them how to conduct two-, three, and four-beat patterns.

Their mid-term exam was to play two of the four scales and chord progressions, a recorder piece that they’ve prepared and sight-read another, and tune one timpano to a pitch that I played for them on the piano and tune a second timpano to a perfect fourth below – the classic I-V-I.  Each exam took no more than ten minutes depending on the delaying or calming tactics used, and often took only three minutes for each student.  For me, of course, it took two or three days, depending on the number of students in the class.  Although it was short, it did test part of what they practiced in the first half of the course.

We’ll be back after a well-deserved break

After the midterm (spring break!  Woohoo!), I assigned the students into groups of between five and seven students, depending on the size of the class.  Each student had to come up with a song that she or he would arrange, rehearse, and conduct for the final exam concert.  For the songs by their groupmates, they had to play piano in at least one song and recorder in at least one other song.  When the students satisfied these requirements, they could use any other instrument they found in the band room.  The cowbell was a favorite.

In the first class period after the break, we spent some time discussing the songs so that the groups wouldn’t double up on “Twinkle, Twinkle”, for example.  After I had a list of all the songs in each group, we went to the band room where I introduced and demonstrated the various percussion that was available to them.  Sometimes, a student had experience in some instrument such as the clarinet or the guitar, but to keep things as equal as possible between them and their groupmates, I discouraged their use.

The concert

Stage fright is real.  My students began to experience this when they were told that they would have to stand up in front of people and do something about which, at the beginning of the semester, they had no idea.  To their credit, not one of them in twenty years dropped my class because of this.  I didn’t want my students to think they would be making fools of themselves so I came up with a different kind of audience:  Kindergarteners.

This was an elegant solution because I knew that my students would make “mistakes”, but I also knew that Kindergarteners were just happy to be somewhere and would clap at everything.  There was never a time when, after performing a song, the audience would not applaud.  Kindergarteners have so much energy that all applause was enthusiastic applause.  Usually, after the first song or two, my students would realize how much fun they were having.  In fact, in every semester, several students would always come to me afterwards to tell me how much fun they had!

Another bonus was that the Kindergarten teachers had a field trip for their kids.  I was told that it was usually the older grades that took the field trips and these teachers were grateful.  More on that later.  In West Bend, where I taught this course, I had one school that consistently came to these concerts – twice a year!  Sometimes the auditorium had only about 80 kids and chaperones, but one time I had over 160 kids and chaperones!  With six schools, each having at least two Kindergarten classes, I was afraid that I would have over 240 Kindergarteners, but, thankfully, that never happened.

My final Kindergarten Concert was very memorable.  My students did everything they were supposed to do.  I did everything I was supposed to do.  I welcomed the students and teachers, told the teachers what this concert is all about, introduced the students and their songs, had my students demonstrate each instrument (the especially loved the gong and the slide whistle.  Not so much the recorder.  Just wait, kids).

This turned to be my best course.  It was so often high-enrolled (the bean counters really liked that) that when a building project came up, the music department got an overhaul.  The final result was a larger classroom and new and more pianos for this course.

Lesson learned:  Listen to your students and your gut, but make sure that you have a good semester/weekly/daily plan, and make sure you and the plan are flexible!

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