26 July 2013

A Teaching Philosophy

The core of my educational philosophy is an emphasis on achieving “functional” musicianship, defined as the possession of skills and experiences which directly serve students’ inclinations and aspirations as creative music-makers. Ultimately, music is not an object but an action, something that people do. It is hence through the ability to “do” that the facile music-maker is uniquely empowered to create, learn, and collaborate.

The pursuit of functional musicianship is necessarily:

(1) integrative of many different modes of music-making. A true balance of emphasis is sought between aural and written skills, pre-composition and improvisation, expression and experimentation, collectivism and individualism, and between cross-disciplinary and uni-disciplinary projects. The flexibility to operate fruitfully at any point along these respective continua presents a compelling model of citizenship and a powerful blueprint for a fulfilling musical life.

(2) style-neutral and pan-stylistic. The musical skills with the broadest stylistic applications are emphasized first. As students are introduced to a range of musical styles and ideas, active participation brings them into immediate touch with essential affinities and disjunctions among musical cultures.

(3) dignified. The instructor treats children as whole people, addressing them without affectation or humor unless it is appropriate. His willingness to be vulnerable and “on a level” with students ensures that they are comfortable constructively challenging his viewpoints. He comports himself in accordance with the values of “core” academic instruction, modeling respect for music and the other arts as indispensable aspects of human existence and worthy, dignified academic pursuits.

(4) rigorous. To emphasize functional musicianship is to recognize that the extrinsic benefits of a musical education are reaped in direct proportion to student achievement in core music-making activities (i.e. performing, composing and recording). In other words, meaningful context in the form of self-directed musical endeavors is the necessary prerequisite for the making of cross-disciplinary connections. When a concept becomes self-evident through an emotional investment in music-making, it is learned forever. A rigorous grounding in foundational musical skills facilitates such connections by enabling the most direct interface with a diversity of musical ideas.

The aversion in cross-disciplinary, arts-centered learning environments to conservatory-style, pre-professional musical training is warranted, and the pressure, competitiveness, and rote learning styles for which the conservatory is infamous have no place in a humane, functional education. Ambivalence towards nitty-gritty music-making is, however, an equally sure recipe for underachievement. A deficit of tactile and emotional engagement with sound in space and time virtually ensures minimal retention of cross-disciplinary connections and cripples students’ ability to engage in social music-making going forward. Insofar as those two concerns are of primary importance, a healthy degree of rigor in foundational skills and concepts is not merely desirable but in fact indispensable. The task of precise calibration must be undertaken anew for each group of students and frequently reevaluated thereafter as group and individual identities continually emerge and evolve.

(5) grounded in taking the long view. The best musical education is the one which keeps on giving. It breaks my heart to work with middle-aged and older adults for whom functional musicianship has remained elusive for years or decades, frustrating their deeply-held desires to “just play” with friends and pick-up groups. By imparting the foundational skills of social music-making at an early age, we not only empower children to live more fulfilling lives, but also condition them to aim high in any and every area of endeavor.


Nick Z said...

Looks like someone has started applying for jobs. I like it. I will probably directly plagiarize most of this for my own philosophy of teaching. Don't worry though... I'll buy you a beer for your trouble.

Stefan Kac said...

Actually, Nick, I was just checking to see if you were still reading.

Nick Z said...

You know I am ALWAYS watching...

Nick Z said...

I'm always watching... listening... scheming... plotting...

Stefan Kac said...

from Ericsson and Pool
Peak (2016)

"Most people, even adults, have never attained a level of performance in any field that is sufficient to show them the true power of mental representations to plan, execute, and evaluate their performance in the way that expert performers do. And thus they never really understand what it takes to reach this level—not just the time it takes, but the high-quality practice. Once they do understand what is necessary to get there in one area, they understand, at least in principle, what it takes in other areas. That is why experts in one field can often appreciate those in other fields. A research physicist may better understand what it takes to become a skilled violinist, if only in general terms, and a ballerina may better understand the sacrifice it takes to become a skilled painter.

"Our schools should give all students such an experience in some domain. Only then will they understand what is possible and also what it takes to make it happen."

(p. 255)

"Some domain" certainly could be music. Certainly it need not be. But if it is, let's go hard or go home.

Stefan Kac said...

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd
("Abridged edition with a 1969 preface")
(orig. 1950)

"Heavy Harmony. The head of a progressive boarding school in the East recently addressed the parents of its children as follows:

The music department at X School wishes to provide for every child as rich a musical experience as possible.
We believe that music is a necessary part of life and its influence is felt in every phase of living. Singing and playing together can bring understanding and good-will and it seems to me that this world needs more of this kind of harmony.
At X, we try to provide some kind of music participation for [154] every child and wish to encourage more musical activity, especially that of playing with a group in an orchestra.

This letter does not betray much interest in music as such. It sees music primarily as a way of bringing people together locally and internationally too. Music as a way of escape into one's individual creative life—a private refuge—would strike many such school authorities today as selfish."

(p. 153)

Stefan Kac said...

George J. Sánchez
Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (1993)

"...efforts to alter the immigrant generation itself were abandoned in favor of school-based programs which sought to teach American-born children a culture different from that of their immigrant parents. ... The increased application of I.Q. testing, always administered in English, invariably segregated Mexican children in special classes for the mentally inferior or mentally retarded. Main Street School, for example, located just east of the Plaza, developed a curriculum at the primary level in which two-thirds of class time was spent on "decorative subjects" such as music, dancing, art, needlework, cooking, and other manual arts. The pedagogical impetus behind this curriculum was that the "Mexican genius expresses itself through activities rather than abstractions." At the secondary level, citizenship classes were integrated into vocational training for laundries, restaurants, garages, household work, and agriculture." (105)

Neatly tucked into this standard-issue racism are two specific ironies: (1) a Hopscotch-related irony given the STPLA position on "bourgeois art," which is to say art which entails abstract thinking above and beyond mere "decorative subjects" or "activities;" (2) the irony that the intervening century of wheel-spinning in the sub-sub-area of Arts-Centered Learning appears against the particular backdrop of the old Activities vs. Abstractions trope to betray, actually, a deep-seated fear-and-loathing of the Abstractions orientation and a desperate, almost neurotic search for a Third Way. The so-called Far Left has always been uneasy on this point specifically because of the historical association with racism, but I have often detected a Mainstream push in this direction which is not easily attributable to post-colonialism, etc. The aim seems, in the terms used here, to be something like: an exclusive Activity/Decorative orientation towards the arts themselves; this is leveraged toward learning, perhaps even Abstraction, in all the other core subjects; the given Arts are seldom pursued for their own sake because of triple phobias of (a) competition and (b) formalism/arbitrariness/nothingness, and of course (c) limited professional prospects in the arts themselves.

[from a notebook, 2017]

Stefan Kac said...


Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The Culture of Narcissism

"Beginning with the Irish in the 1840s, the immigration of politically backward elements, as they were commonly regarded, sharpened the fear...that the United States would regress to a hated old-world pattern of class conflict, hereditary poverty, and political despotism. ... From this time on, the problem of acculturating the immigrant population never wandered far from the center of the American educational enterprise. ...[hence] the American school, in contrast to the European, placed heavy emphasis on the nonacademic side of the curriculum. The democratic aim of bringing the fruits of modern culture to the masses gave way in practice to a concern with education as a form of social control."
(p. 132)

"The introduction of courses in homemaking, health, citizenship, and other nonacademic subjects, together with the proliferation of athletic programs and extracurricular activities, reflected the dogma that schools had to educate the "whole child"; but it also reflected the practical need to fill up the students' time and to keep them reasonably contented."
(p. 136)

"In the long run, it does not matter to the victims whether bad teaching justifies itself on the reactionary grounds [of racism]...or whether, on the other hand, pseudoradicals condemn academic standards as part of the apparatus of white cultural control..."

(p. 145)