Blackboard Jungle

Blackboard Jungle

Why am I always surprised, every year, by the beginning of the school year? I’ve been in school long enough; one would think that after the fifteenth such revelation, I’d get wise to these annual ambushes. Not so. But this year is worse than usual: In addition to being a student this year, I’ll also be a teacher.

I’ve somehow gotten through four years of graduate school without having to teach; however, that lucky streak ends next week. I’ll be guiding ten or twenty (note to self: check enrollment numbers before next Monday) budding musicians through their first semester of college music theory. Since receiving this assignment, I’ve been doing a little preparation—although probably not as much as I should—and I have a few things I want to keep in mind as we begin:

  • My grad student colleagues and I have been studying music for years and years, and there are a lot of important things—things that are second nature to us now—that were very difficult for us to grasp back when we started. Western music theory is crammed with complicated, counterintuitive things to learn. I’m going to have to be patient, which anyone who’s ever watched a production of Wagner with me knows won’t be easy.

  • Based on conversations with my seasoned TA friends, it seems that not all freshpeople are 100% ready for the time-management demands of higher education right out of the gate. This characterization is dimly familiar from my own undergrad years at UMBC; that particular U.S. News and World Report No. 1 public national university in undergraduate education no doubt set my bar pretty high. It’ll take some self-discipline on my part not to be a martinet.

  • First-year music study is a great time for young musicians to broaden their horizons in a major way. This is a chance to help breed the music student of the 21st century: Intellectually curious, devoted to self-improvement, mindful of the artist’s responsibility in society. This is a tall order, of course, but the anvil’s hot!
I’m sure I’ll be keeping you posted as the semester continues; I’m hoping for a lot of good news. If you all have any advice for a greenhorn TA, please don’t hesitate to share!

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One thought on “Blackboard Jungle

  1. jbunch

    so right you are…
    It seemed inexplicable to me when I was an undergrad that it took us two or three weeks to talk about spelling/”analyzing” Major/minor scales, but things look different from the other side. There are a lot of concepts that aren’t there yet for most students; concepts that would make theory a breeze if they had them. This is my experience – teaching the concept behind the concept. Also, not framing discussions of harmony in a way that they have to unlearn later to understand Schenkerian if they wanted to, etc. It’s like the opportunity to clear out the theoretical minefields that your own instructors left so that your students don’t get their heads blown off.

    TAing is also where I learned that the most important cultural force in our musical world is the grade school band/choir teacher. You win them, you get all their kids. I taught some junior high/high school kids at a summer camp here at Illinois. They where from all kinds of little Illinois rural and suburban paradises. At the end of the week I got comments like “My favorite piece you showed us was Ligeti’s Aventures,” or “Is L’s G A on iTunes?” !!!

    Thanks for opening up this discussion – I hope this gets a lot of teachers talking…


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