Vitalizing Music History – or How (Not) to Teach the Canon

Today’s guest author is Hannah Lewis, a fifth year PhD student in the Music Department, and former Head TF for the General Education course “American Musicals & American Culture.”

Vitalizing Music History Teaching (James R. Briscoe, ed. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2010) is one of very few recent edited volumes on music history pedagogy, and its material is timely. Most of the articles address issues that signal a kind of musicological crisis of identity, at a time of both rapid change in the field and in institutional values in academia more broadly. In recent decades, musicologists have made great strides in scholarship, acknowledging the postmodern, multicultural society we live in, and critiquing the narrowness of the canon as a list of dead white male composers who are “great” because we say they are great. Yet, despite the fact that this limited canon becomes less and less relevant to each new generation of students, there has been little change in how music history is taught to undergraduates. Many fields in the humanities struggle with the same issue: as teachers, what do we do about the canon?

The book’s authors acknowledge that we should expand our teaching of music history to include multiple styles and genres (jazz, rock, pop, etc.) and multiple perspectives (women, people of color, etc.). However, there is not universal agreement over how to accomplish this. James R. Briscoe suggests “teaching by touchstone,” to study music history as something more holistic than a collection of facts. Gavin Douglas proposes that we consider music history teaching from an ethnomusicological perspective, shifting our chronological focus to a thematic approach. But many of these suggestions require changes at an administrative level. If the curriculum of required survey courses remains, it is difficult to enact drastic pedagogical change.

What can teachers do on the classroom level? Western art music most often remains the core of the curriculum for music majors. If we must teach the canon, it would seem that the best we can do is expand the canon, to include different genres and composers, rather than destabilize the notion of canon formation. This approach, however, perpetuates the problem of attempting to cram an ever-increasing number of “facts” into a survey, which can be already overwhelming and rushed as is.

The problems that the book points out, about how much needs to be changed about the way we teach music history to undergrads, seem overwhelming for an individual to take on. However, three pieces of advice stuck with me, providing a feasible middle ground approach. Susan C. Cook’s suggestion is concrete and doable: “Every semester tempt yourself to do one brave, new thing and believe in the power of those single acts” (137). This is very compelling advice. Even if we can’t escape the structure that a traditional survey course requires, we can add our own smaller acts of change.

Secondly, we as teachers have the power to change the approach to the material. Douglass Seaton suggests supplementing classroom discussion with creative assignments, outside-of-classroom learning contexts, and multimedia. Jessie Fillerup described her unique approach to teaching the experimental music of John Cage, music that so radically broke down the parameters of composition and musical experience that no traditional teaching style seems to do it service. She suggests a number of simultaneous performance activities, creating a “classroom of controlled chaos” (180), followed by discussion and debriefing.

Finally, something that several authors articulated in different ways: if we shift our approach, we need to be intentional about it. It is not enough to add a woman composer to the syllabus; this runs the risk of tokenism. Perhaps, instead, it is better to question, in a classroom discussion, why women are so underrepresented in the music history canon to begin with. This begins to point to new directions, while simultaneously providing students with the necessary canonical “facts” that they will be expected to know for their future as performers, composers, musicologists, or audience members.

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