22 September 2006

The Study: Connecting Non-Music Majors with Applied Instructors

Following up on the comments I've received so far about my study, I want to expand on the idea that public universities could be more proactive in finding ways to offer applied study to the general student body. Here are the considerations: (1) Applied study as a college course is unusually expensive because of the teacher-to-student ratio (1:1) (2) Graduate students who aspire to a college teaching position as applied instructors need to gain relevant experience and to document it in such a way that it makes them more employable Simply opening enrollment in one-on-one lessons as an elective to the entire student body is not feasible for music departments because of the cost and the need to ensure competency in prospective students. Nonetheless, it seems to me that where there are both students looking for lessons and instructors who want to teach them, a solution ought to be possible. The main obstacle is making it "formal." In other words, the graduate students could simply offer to teach non-music majors privately, as they are likely already doing with high school age and younger kids from the community, but this would not necessarily make them more employable in practice: the job descriptions for the positions they aspire to usually contain some statement along the lines of "demonstrated success teaching at the college level," and simply taking on more private students who happen to be enrolled in some college or another, while it may indeed be legitimately valuable to their development as teachers, will not necessarily be recognized by potential employers as a valid substitute for acting as a teaching assistant or adjunct instructor. What I propose is a hybrid system. Instead of enrolling each applied student in lessons for university credit, the teaching assistant would enroll themselves in a 1-credit independent study course with an applied faculty member as their advisor. They would be responsible for recruiting students, scheduling lessons, and setting rates. Free from the financial burden of for-credit applied study, the university could still make two crucial contributions: provide the teaching assistant space to use for teaching (in most cases, a medium-sized practice room would be sufficient), and make the name and contact information for each prospective instructor available to interested non-music majors and the community at large, especially through the course catalog, but also through whatever central administrative unit within the department handles enrollment issues. The teaching assistant's faculty advisor would sit in on the lessons throughout the semester. The total amount of such observation would only need to be commensurate with the number of credits the teaching assistant is enrolled in; this time, however, need not be uniformly distributed, meaning that the advisor could easily work around other commitments. The TA, for their part, would need to ensure that they have or can easily recruit enough students to teach for at least this many hours in a given semester). The advisor would coach the TA, observe their progress throughout the semester, and assign a grade; hence, the TA would not only gain valuable teaching experience but also have it documented on their transcript. The advantages of such a situation over the current one are numerous. Most importantly, it connects supply and demand, which benefits both teacher and student. It also provides the TA with the type of direct supervision and feedback that music education majors are required to receive by way of the student teaching requirement, an equivalent to which does not typically exist in the case of performance degrees outside of the TA system, but which could only be highly beneficial to the performance student. Also, whereas colleges that do allow non-majors to register for lessons typically do so by audition only in order to assure a certain level of competency, the instructor would have the option to accept raw beginners as well, an experience that, while perhaps not directly applicable to their future as instructors at the college level, can only be beneficial and eye-opening overall. There are undoubtedly a few students at every school who have never played an instrument but would like to at least give it a shot casually, and this would create an opportunity for them that does not presently exist in the college environment (piano and guitar are, to my knowledge, the only notable exceptions). Finally, much ink and emotion has been spilled over the fact that music schools (and perhaps colleges in general) do not prepare students for the harsh realities of the “real world.” I have, in fact, heard it suggested numerous times that aspiring performers and composers would be better off majoring in business than in music. Well, here is a chance for students to get in touch with their inner entrepreneur. Although I believe that the college itself essentially has an obligation to fulfill by referring interested non-music majors to prospective instructors, my system is still somewhat dependent on the ability of the prospective teacher to recruit students from both inside and outside of the immediate college environment. This is certainly a demand that is rarely placed on music students, but also one which could only strengthen their pedigree as freelancers. The primary disadvantage here is that the students taught by the TA in this scenario do not receive college credit. It bears mentioning here the unfortunate fact that given the present cost of college credits nationwide, studying an instrument through a college is absurdly expensive in comparison to going through a private instructor or even a music store or independent music school. Before my alma mater switched to a flat-rate credit system, credits were around $270 each. Weekly hour lessons for a 15 week semester were 4 credits, and we were charged an additional fee of several hundred dollars per 2 credits of lessons. I estimated at the time that each lesson was costing nearly $100. Of course, elite musicians who are in high demand do occasionally charge this much or more, and many of the instructors at my school were certainly worthy of being considered as part of this group. On the other hand, one can get lessons from a competent independent instructor for less than half this much (often much less) and I'm assuming that to the students who would be served by my proposal (i.e. non-music majors), the decrease in cost from exorbitant to affordable would far outweigh any decrease in the quality of instruction from world-class to merely competent. Another obstacle I can foresee is the possibility that there are legal problems with a public institution presiding over this kind of system, one where the students are paying the teaching assistant "under the table." On the other hand, the instructor would not be an employee of the school but merely registered for a class. And as mentioned earlier, many graduate students teach independently anyway; could it possibly be illegal for the institution to merely acknowledge that this takes place as long as the income is reported for tax purposes? Finally, it bears mentioning that students tend to be disappointed when turned over to a TA in lieu of a professor as this is often interpreted (and this is probably correct most of the time) to mean that they are viewed as somehow less important. Could this serve as a deterrent to prospective applied students and defeat the purpose of implementing such a system? In a prestigious department, at least, this perception should be easily overcome after the independent study program has been in place for a few years as students will come to realize that they are dealing with instructors who are themselves prepared to assume a professorship. I do, however, think that this system could be implemented quite effectively even where the TA's are undergraduate upperclassmen. I, for one, would have jumped at the chance as a senior in college as I have spent the time immediately following college acclimating myself to the demands of independent private teaching (an activity which most of us performance majors will be taking up at some point whether we initially plan on it or not). This is certainly a topic where I could use some feedback from professors and administrators. Anyone out there?

1 comment:

Matthew said...

The two drawbacks I can think of:

1) Accountability. If the TAs are at least nominally representing the university, then not only is the "under the table" payment structure a legal problem, but so are issues of abuse, harassment, etc. Not that it would be a commonplace situation, but I would imagine higher ed admins would not accept this set-up because it opens them, and not the individual instructor, up for legal liability.

2) Grading. How would the instructor be graded for his independent study? Number of students? Quality of students? I can see both instructors and their students being able to abuse the system far too easily.

I like the general idea, though. I think it would have to involve senior faculty in some sort of supervisory role, and I think the students would have to be taking it for credit. At every school I've been to, this has at least been offered for voice, with grad students doing the teaching. Maybe that's because rank beginner voice students face a slightly less steep learning curve than instrumental students. Or maybe it's because there tend to be so many more voice majors who need to fill up their work-study hours.

By the way, about the previous post: just lately I've discovered the James Brown big band album Soul on Top. I'm guessing you've heard it, but anyone else who happens to read this, you must find this thing. Oliver Nelson is a god.