I’ve been lying in bed–it’s 7 am now–thinking about the trouble I’m having creating and capturing my ideas for Popular Music. It’s my teaching style that is both my strength and my weakness. I’m a power of now teacher. I need an audience. I improvise. I take my building blocks and add something that comes to mind from them. Like Louis Armstrong, I never give the same lecture twice. Or should I say, give the same class, play the same class twice. When I am cooking, I’m playing music, showing documentaries, and sharing my stories. Then, during those occasional magical teaching moments, I bring in individual students for solos.
Building a classroom community is similiar to building a great band. If the students know their parts, if they have stories to share and can express them orally, the solos are brilliant. We start off small, going around the room sharing small pieces of our musical selves. This allows the students to add their voices to mine, and for me to identify the listeners in the room. I assure the listeners that they too have an important role, but that I would like them to strengthen their voices by the end of the semester. Some students can barely express themselves in English, and I use the opportunity after the exercise is over to warn them that this course demands a good comprehension of oral English, because there is no textbook. There are playlists which I post on my.Seneca, DVD excerpts, and my in-class commentary. After years of teaching the course, I still have new insights and an awareness of current events, musical and otherwise, which bring the music into the current day. Barack Obama’s election contrasts with the racism of the 20th century that produced a Louis Armstrong, yet reminds us of the power of music to overcome social injustice. American Idol helps us to appreciate the old songs. Teaching music means that I’m always preparing for my classes. Even when I’m reading for pleasure, something musical will jump out at me and I’ll want to add it in somewhere. Popular music is everywhere, and connected to every aspect of culture and also to technology.
The downside to improvisational teaching is that both the teacher and the student really have to be there. As Trevor Owen pointed out when he took over my classes, much of my course is in my heart. That is a good thing as long as my body can transport my heart to work. Similarly, attendance becomes critical for students. I can post the playlists and have the dvd’s in the library, but the chemistry of the classroom cannot be duplicated.
How do I adapt this course so that students who will be absent can still succeed? When I inventoried my existing resources, I saw that there is no need to add more podcasts to the mix. What students need is a study guide that includes written materials and a clear bibliography, discography, and guide to excerpts from DVD and audiotape material.