Why Write My Own Book?

After guiding the development of first-year experience courses for college students and years of teaching Intro to Music, a music appreciation course, I decided to write my own book.

In a book by Ken Bain titled "What the Best College Teachers Do," Bain gives examples of great teaching, and some not so great. Of the many ideas in his book, three things stand out.

Those three statements helped me decide to plan my book backwards with a single goal tied to life. I had continued the on-going assessment of my own efforts, the efforts of other faculty in teaching Intro to Music and the standard textbooks available for such a music appreciation course. Bain would ask: "What is the promise of the course?"

I finally decided that my promise would be that "each student would have better listening skills after taking my section of Intro to Music." The outcome is not simply to listen once to the standard repertoire, learn some musical terms or definitions—definitions that can be written on demand but not necessarily heard in the music. Learning musical repertoire is an important goal, knowing who composed the music is as well, but these are not the only outcomes for the course and book. The goal is "to improve the skills of listeners for a lifetime of listening." Making that choice liberated me to take a new approach.

Most music appreciation textbooks take the historical/developmental approach. I do not question the validity of organizing a textbook by historical periods, but I doubt that such an organization in itself helps students become better listeners. Approaching music in a chronological and developmental way is logical and easy, but is it necessary for students to experience music that way? Does it help them become better listeners and prepare them for a lifetime of listening to music?

There are those who start such an appreciation course, not with Antiquity or the Middle Ages, but a more recent stylistic period, the Romantic Period for example. That approach works for some, but to sum-up, it still is an historical approach. Nearly all the standard textbooks take that approach, and most even use the same musical examples. Schubert wrote over 600 songs, but find something other than the Erlkonig in a music appreciation textbook and I will be surprised. We have literally ignored 599 other songs of Schubert in favor of one—that seems ridiculous to me.

We who teach students about some of the greatest artistic creations are anything but creative in our approach to teaching basic music appreciation, or music history. If we are to prepare students to experience the great works (and music as yet unwritten), I believe we need a new approach. Perhaps we as musicians should first consider our own experiences that led us to devote our lives to music and to music teaching. I became interested in music after hearing music, especially jazz and marching band music. My interests spread very rapidly from there to more symphonic works, but I still had not been introduced to any historical perspective or set repertoire. My real passion for music history came decades later after traveling to Venice and other important musical locations, but years after I had made the decision to be a music teacher.

That said, how do we help students become interested in music? How can we help students improve their listening skills and their desire to attend concerts? There has to be something beyond the extrinsic reward of a grade in an appreciation class, which may be attained in some classes by very little actual listening. For many decades music appreciation classes have seen millions of students make the grade, but where are they when the local orchestra or band or other musical organization performs or when the school board meets to drop music from the curriculum?

Some of my basic beliefs

My favorite quotes from "What the Best College Teachers Do" by Ken Bain

Teaching is not something that we do to students. Teaching is creating an environment where learning occurs.


Updated May 21, 2014