(Note: skip to the bold section if you don’t have time to absorb the non-bold material.)

First, I love teaching this class, and I appreciate the contribution each of you makes to it.
Nothing has changed my life as a musician (and as a person) than improvising.  Improvising, expressing your genuine emotions, using the musical vocabulary you have right now is so powerful;  it’s being authentically who you are.  And it is definitely not about being or doing what other people want you to be and do.  Introducing other musicians to this kind of music making is one of the most wonderful things in my life;  I know that it changes other people’s lives as it did mine.

Another thing that changed my life was being introduced to the ideals of humanistic education, of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation (in learning as well as the rest of life), and coming to understand how much of our current educational culture is shaped by behavioristic ideas of shaping behavior through rewards and punishments (such as grades).  I’m acutely aware that a lot of what happens in schools and colleges about navigating a system and pleasing authority figures, and I honestly believe, as I’ve told you, that most of what happens in such a system is temporary learning meant to trigger a desired response (figure out what the professor wants, give it to him or her, and get your A).

You can read an excellent overview of humanistic education by clicking here.  And, from that site, here’s a summary of its key features:

According to Gage and Berliner (1991) some basic principles of the humanistic approach that were used to develop the objectives are:

  1. Students will learn best what they want and need to know. That is, when they have developed the skills of analyzing what is important to them and why as well as the skills of directing their behavior towards those wants and needs, they will learn more easily and quickly. Most educators and learning theorists would agree with this statement, although they might disagree on exactly what contributes to student motivation.
  2. Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge. In our present society where knowledge is changing rapidly, this view is shared by many educators, especially those from a cognitive perspective.
  3. Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student’s work. The emphasis here is on internal development and self-regulation. While most educators would likely agree that this is important, they would also advocate a need to develop a student’s ability to meet external expectations. This meeting of external expectations runs counter to most humanistic theories.
  4. Feelings are as important as facts. Much work from the humanistic view seems to validate this point and is one area where humanistically-oriented educators are making significant contributions to our knowledge base.
  5. Students learn best in a non-threatening environment. This is one area where humanistic educators have had an impact on current educational practice. The orientation espoused today is that the environment should by psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, non-threatening. However, there is some research that suggests that a neutral or even slightly cool environment is best for older, highly motivated students.

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times about a man named Loren Pope.  He champions education at small, liberal arts colleges that are not too selective.  DePauw, he believes, “has become too big, too prosperous and too selective.” “He even argues that B students ask more probing questions than A students, who he thinks are too caught up in trying to curry favor,” says the article.  No offense to you if you are an A students, as I was, but that rings true for me.

Mr. Pope wrote a book about 10 years ago called Colleges That Change Lives.  Isn’t that what college should do?  In talking about our class the other day, I said to one of you that I’m really not interested in how many facts you temporarily learn.  All I really want to do is to change your life, if you are willing to have it changed.

I want to change it by giving you the opportunity to participate in certain kinds of process.  One is the process of creating your own music.  The other is the process of engaging with particular set of subject matter in a way that is genuinely engaging.  In a way that you have a lot of choice over.  In a way that isn’t about jumping through the right hoops the right way (we’re all good at that already) but is about connecting to the material from your own passions and interests and using your own learning style(s).

A colleague in the English department and I were talking with other members of a committee yesterday about good teaching.  He has his students write him a letter every two weeks telling him what is and isn’t working in the class and giving him suggestions.  Based on that feedback, he sometimes completely overhauls the course mid-semester, and he’s constantly making less significant changes.

There’s a good idea, I think, especially in a course where the focus is on process and the experience of the students.

So, keeping in mind the ideals I’ve listed below (and discussed above) for the course, please ADD A COMMENT or EMAIL ME  about how you feel the course is going, how the balance between music-making, history, and philosophical discussion is working, and sharing any suggestions you have for structuring class time, etc.  (And if I’m doing anything you don’t like or think is counterproductive or annoying and ought to stop, tell me that, too.)

Here is what we’re trying to accomplish together: 

  • develop your own abilities as a creative musical artist;
  • use the phenomenon of improvisation as a starting point to think about the nature of music, of musical performance, and what classical musicians do;
  • really “get” that improvisation has always been an intrinsic part of what we call classical music, even though we’ve forgotten that;
  • develop some in-depth knowledge about improvisation in classical music that connects with your musical passions and/or is relevant to what you are preparing to do professionally;
  • participate in a collaborative learning environment in which you feel free to express your ideas and engage and debate with others; and
  • have the opportunity to absolutely be and express yourself.