Blog: The Jigsaw

My Composer Interview Project

At the recent Teaching Music History conference, I presented a research project that my Music History III (1900-present) students complete every year. In this post I will describe the project and speak briefly to my objectives. I have had great results, and I encourage anyone who is interested to give it a try.

In the first week of class, I pair students with professional composers whom I have recruited to participate in the project. Each composer has previously submitted a piece of music and agreed to be interviewed by phone or Skype. Here is the assignment—complete with my deadlines for the coming semester—that I distribute and review on the first day of class:


 Music History III Research Project

  1. Listen to the pieces of music linked at the end of this document. Choose three that you think are especially interesting and/or enjoyable. Submit your choices, along with a 100-word reflection for each choice in which you explain what you find attractive about it. Due August 28.
  2. Based on your selections, I will assign you a piece of music and give you the contact information for the composer.
  3. Prepare for your composer interview.
    • Read his website thoroughly. Google her. See if you can find any additional information about the piece.
    • Prepare a list of questions (although also be prepared to move beyond it). What do you want to know about this person’s biography? Her interest in composition? His reasons for composing this piece? Her ideas about this piece? We will also brainstorm questions in class. Due before your interview, October 2 at the latest.
    • Give some careful thought to how you are going to document this interview. (Don’t forget to get permission from the subject.) I recommend putting your phone on speaker and recording on your computer, but be sure to test it out first.
  1. Complete the interview via phone or Skype.
  2. Reflect on your composer interview. What did your composer tell you? What did she NOT tell you? Do you feel like he had any sort of agenda? Was she downplaying any issues, or overemphasizing others? Is there more to know about the piece? Was he trying to push a limited interpretation? Etc. Write a 300-word reflection. Due October 9.
  3. Outline your paper. You are free to structure the paper however you please, but keep the following things in mind:
    • You must craft a thesis and state it in your outline.
    • You must include details about your composer, but please restrict yourself to information that enhances our understanding of the piece.
    • You must discuss the context in which the piece was conceived, composed, and premiered.
    • You must place your composer and the piece in the context of recent compositional trends and the New Music scene. What does this case study tell us about art music composition today?
    • When you discuss the music, have a clear idea about what points you want to make about it. Refer back to your reflection from Step 1. Why is the piece interesting? Due October 16.
  1. Draft your paper. This is a conference-style paper that you will read aloud before an audience. It should be about 3000 words. Remember, the introduction is really important. You need to do three things: capture your audience’s attention, tell them what you’re going to do, and explain why they should care. End with your thesis statement. Due October 30.
  2. Revise your paper based on feedback. Due November 13.
  3. Create a PowerPoint or Prezi to go with your paper. Include images. Limit the text you display on screen—outline what you have to say clearly and simply. Decide which excerpts from the piece you want your audience to see or hear, and then embed video and/or sound clips into the presentation. Due November 20.
  4. Rehearse your 20-minute presentation for our afternoon symposium. You will read your paper and display your slides, complete with audio or video clips. The symposium is Saturday, December 3, 2-5 pm.

I explain to my students at the outset that this is a substantial and ongoing assignment that will require their attention throughout the semester. The progressive deadlines—most of which are accompanied by feedback, either by email or in person—are meant to keep them on track and ensure a polished final product. This is the first year that the presentations will be public, but I have been very happy with the quality of work produced in the past and I expect to assemble an appreciative audience. I also encourage students to submit their papers to undergraduate research conferences both on and off campus, and I hope that the symposium experience will increase their confidence. In addition to the presentations, I plan to arrange for performances of some of the pieces discussed.

My top objective for this project is to promote awareness of living composers and their work. At the very least, I want my students to know that there is a diverse and vibrant New Music scene, and that the history of art music does not end with the survey sequence. It is my hope, however, that my students will make personal connections with the assigned composers and develop a lasting interest in New Music. I am in the middle of completing a survey-based study to assess the project’s success in achieving these ends, and I intend to publish my findings next year.

This project was first inspired by my concerns about our textbook, the Oxford History of Western Music: College Edition. I chose this text, and I’m terribly fond of it. I worry, however, that it leaves my students with the impression that contemporary composition is in a state of hopeless disarray. We start the semester by reading the last chapter, which offers a whirlwind tour of recent compositional trends. While the textbook offers necessary context for the research project, it inevitably endorses a problematic view of recent history. The (mostly old) composers are included because each has contributed something to the development of art music, with the implication that we must value progress above all else. At the same time, the inclusion of recent works in the Anthology promotes a canonic view of contemporary composition, whereas I see canon disruption as being a great strength of the New Music scene.

My research project serves as an antidote to the text. The pieces represent a wide range of styles and ideologies, while the composers offer a variety of perspectives on their craft. One of the pieces on my list was composed as an exercise by a woman who is primarily a musicologist; another was premiered by the New York Philharmonic after its author won a prestigious competition; and another was commissioned by a college choir from a composer with an academic post. Some of the works have political or personal content; some are intended to be weighty and groundbreaking; and some are simply beautiful. My roster of composers also introduces diversity into a curriculum dominated by White men. Anyone who implements a project like this one has the opportunity to seek out underrepresented voices and promote a broader concept of the “composer” in Western art music.

If you are interested in implementing this project, you are welcome to use all or part of the assignment included above. I continue to refine the assignment as I seek to inspire deeper engagement and better presentations. I designed this project for use with small classes in an undergraduate-only program, but it could be adjusted to suit a variety of circumstances. Please let me know how it goes!

Host/Hostess with the Most/Mostess: The Importance of Conference and Classroom Introductions

By Trudi Wright, Regis University (Denver, Colorado)

I come from a long line of hostesses.  All of the women in my family are seasoned party-throwers and like nothing more than a house full of people in which to serve food and drinks.  That is why when I was asked to chair the opening session of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group meeting in Denver (my home town!)  I saw it as a chance to act as a conference “hostess,” if only for an hour.  It is my feeling that the first minutes of any group interaction, including a scholarly session or the opening of a class, are crucial.  These precious minutes set the tone for what is to come and have the ability to create a feeling of openness for a safe, energizing exchange of ideas.

The opening panel at the AMS Pedagogy Meeting 2016 focused on some excellent research by Andrew Granade (University of Missouri at Kansas City) on the state of musicology pedagogy throughout the country.  He invited Anthony Bushard (University of Nebraska), Gayle Sherwood Magee (University of Illinois), and Patrick Warfield (University of Maryland) to join the discussion. Together, these four scholars share an impressive list of publications, awards, and knowledge to use in a traditional introduction.  Thankfully, all were game to share something a bit different in Denver.  Two weeks before the meeting, I wrote to each panelist asking for their most recent accomplishment(s) and a brief thank you to a mentor who taught them the most about teaching. This simple act of reflection on good teaching hopefully reminded everyone in the room why we fell in love with teaching music history and who ignited this passion for us and set the tone for an open dialogue of ideas.  Who was it that inspired you to become a music history pedagogue?  Have you taken the time to thank them for this gift?

This more personal approach to introductions could be modified to work at any session of any scholarly conference.  The theme of the conference or session is a great start:

  1. For musical theater historians: What musical first influenced you to begin your scholarly work in this field?
  2. For musicologists: Which article first inspired you to begin your musicological work? Or Which scholar most inspires you and why?
  3. For researchers: Where is your favorite archive and why?  What is the most interesting/important thing you have found in the archives?  If you could publicly thank one archivist, who would it be and why?

I’m sure that many of you reading this blog also use these types of questions at the beginning of each semester with your students.  It is a great way to invite everyone to begin their scholarly journey through the subject matter of the course.  Here are some possible opening questions:

  1. Who do you think is a good musical artist and why? Or, Can you give me the definition of a good musical artist?
  2. What does the label “American music” mean to you?
  3. What is your definition of a good teacher? (Thanks to Louis Epstein for this one!)

Asking these questions is the beginning of a search for answers, which can and should happen as a community.  It is the teacher-hostess inviting the students to commence their learning journey together.  What questions do you ask your classes at the beginning of the semester?

This idea of teacher as host/hostess has been percolating in my mind throughout the summer, and, like many good ideas, I was not the first one to have it.  My religious studies colleague reminded me that activist Parker Palmer writes about hospitality in The Courage to Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).  (To learn about Parker Palmer and his Center for Courage and Renewal, visit his website at http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/#bio.  It contains a bibliography of his published works, podcasts of his ideas, blogposts, and much more.  This is a great resource of inspiration as you prepare for the fall semester!) Palmer believes, “Hospitality in the classroom requires not only that we treat our students with civility and compassion but also that we invite our students and their insights into the conversation.  The good host is not merely polite to the guest—the good host assumes that the guest has stories to tell” (p. 79).

We all have good stories to tell, scholars and students alike, and we all have the ability to make others feel comfortable enough to share their lives and knowledge with us.  I will continue to do this as a hostess—at home, at school, and even at conferences.  If this doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, I invite you to let me know what does and why.  Know that you are welcome at this virtual pedagogy party.  We can’t wait to hear your stories!