Anyone who enters the field of instruction does so naively. Nothing can
prepare the new teacher, fresh from recently completed doctoral research
and full of exciting ideas, for classroom confrontation. In time, the nagging
question: how do I discover what they [the students] do not know?
In twenty five years at UCLA, two at the University of Pennsylvania, and after countless guest lectures and lecture recitals, I finally feel up to a partial answer to that question. It is a question which must be answered by any effective teacher, because teaching is not merely the exchange of information and concepts, it is the establishment of a permanent communication link built on trust.
The Music Department just hired a new instructor this year, wide eyed and glazed with pride; he came to see me for advice. The first thing that came to my mind was: "Whatever you do, learn the names of all the students in your class immediately." By this simple mechanism the self respect of the student is assured in class. No classroom is a democracy; yet, no classroom can function without the mutual respect of teacher and student. Once this respect is established, students will be more at home asking questions about lapses in their understanding. An extension of this principle would necessitate that all papers submitted by the students should be graded by the professor, if at all possible; and the professor must be available for personal feedback and discussion. In my own teaching I have extended this service to include a "hotline" which students may call at practically any time for questions on assignments. I have found that this service has made me eminently approachable, especially for students who have trouble with the confrontation of "office hours." One last bit of advice that I gave was that any good teacher works on the art of teaching: only by constant refinement of explanation is the skill renewed, because everyone in the field knows that the terminal illness of classroom dialogue paralysis first strikes the instructor who has gone stale (the "yellowed notes" syndrome).
In every course I make a detailed syllabus so that students know what is
expected of them, not just for the quarter, but for each class. Especially
in music where multiple acquisition of skills is cumulative, the long range
goals of a course are then broken down into reasonable chunks. This technique
has the added advantage of making it easy to remember the lecture for the
instructor: I feel that any good teacher should lecture from memory (as
the composer Richard Wagner said, "have the score in your head, not
your head in the score."). I even structure the lectures so that not
too much time goes by when the main points are reprised: each lecture is
really a series of sublectures, presented in readily digestible bits. The
dynamic reality of large concepts is then reduced to small, static events.
While I organize the content and goals of each course, I always allow for
flexibility: students may make suggestions which could alter the plan; or
a student might even present an alternative point of view in extended treatment.
I also never teach the same courses or even subject in consecutive years.
The material must be fresh and exciting to me or it will never be so to
the neophyte musician.
The assignments themselves must also be tailored to the student so that
what is performed is appropriate to the larger career goal. For example,
an assignment on a Romantic song cycle might have an element of choice:
style composition or hard analysis. Another consideration is the simple
fact that many students never develop careers in fields which are allied
to their college major; then, it is quintessential that the methodology and
discipline of one academic subject be applicable to real-life situations
or to another subject: e.g. the absorption of general principles of musical
analysis or composition should serve any student who switches to English
literature or, perhaps photography. The intellectual basis of any course
must be sound. It also puts a heavy responsibility on the instructor to
present materials against a broader cultural, historical, or artistic tapestry.
Tunnel vision in instruction too often is a reflection of the professor's specialized research which may or may not be apposite or interesting to a young mind of a newer generation.