Hank Knox

Performance (Early Music Area)
Schulich School of Music

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

A lot of what I do involves sending students back to look at the instruction manuals that were provided by composers and players back in the 17th or 18th century. There’s no way to actually go back to listen and hear how Bach, for example, played. So you have to imagine it by looking at how the composer wrote about what he did. The interesting and wonderful part is that a student can read something that I read and come up with a different solution. And then we have a good, long debate about it, which I love.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I teach the harpsichord one-on-one to six or seven students per year, and what I’m always watching for is how their technique evolves while they’re here. We look at their technical issues and the strategies they can use to improve those particular problems. At the final recital, the music passages have to flow convincingly or it will not result in a good grade. For students learning a primary instrument, they have to do a performance exam at the end of every year, which is graded by a panel of three or four musicians. In the first year, the recital is about 25-30 minutes, and by the third year, it’s a full hour.

I also coach chamber ensembles. In Early Music, students must play two recitals or two concerts each term. They don’t play an entire concert by themselves, but everybody plays 15-20 minutes twice a term. Another part of the evaluation is how well prepared students are for each coaching lesson. Some of them come in and they’ve thought about the piece, they’ve practiced it and can play anything that you like, while some are still sight reading it after three weeks. Those ones won’t necessarily get a great grade.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

For students who are in Early Music, what I really want them to come away with is a sense of what resources are actually left from the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. They need to engage with these sources and apply them to their own playing or their own performances. There’s also a tremendous body of secondary literature written by musicologists, music historians, and performers about specific issues and they disagree all the time. So students need to know the sources, but they also need to know what people have said about them, how they interpret them, and if a student has an original idea, then I want to hear about it. I think that’s really the most important thing.

But it’s not just enough to know the scholarly disputes. Students have to actually be able to play their instrument because this is a performance degree. I want the students to surprise me or touch me, to move me when they play. There has to be some kind of effect when you’re listening. It can’t just be, “Oh, you got all the right notes.” If I want that, I’ll get a machine to play!

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

We bring research into the classroom all the time, particularly in Early Music, where a lot involves original research on an ongoing basis. Also, the musicology department offers courses in performance practice, where students look at sources for a particular period and look at the secondary literature. In Early Music, I will have the students bring in something that they’ve been reading, for example, a treatise by the composer Couperin, and have them look at what he says and bring it to their instrument. I want to cultivate this obsession with the craft so that students really understand what it is they’re doing. For example, if their finger moves this way, what does that do? Or why does it sound bad? Or why does it sound ordinary or maybe not so interesting?

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

Our job is to take students with raw talent, lots of passion, and a lot of energy and help them focus their efforts so that when they get on stage, they know what they’re doing and how to produce a professional result (almost) every time. Performance instruction is really labour intensive, and the students don’t get better if you don’t invest a lot of your time in them. You have to be there for them, and you have to keep your door open.

You also have to do your own thing. When you work with professional ensembles outside, you see other ways of doing things, of directing and of explaining things, and that’s the stuff that you bring back to the table. It’s really important to have that outside stimulus.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

If students want to really profit, they have to engage and practice a lot. Between lessons and coaching, they have to invest a lot of time. If they are taking a performance practice class and it’s talking about how to improvise the accompaniment, they should read that material, try it out, and see what it does! They shouldn’t just coast from week to week because they will be wasting their time.

Why do you teach?

I started teaching because I was broke! But it turns out, I actually really like working with students. When you teach, you have an opportunity to pass along what you think are good ideas. And the energy that students bring, you don’t always get that in the professional world. Students come in, and they really want to do this. I love that part of it. I don’t say this to students very often, but I probably learn more about my craft by teaching than they learn from me!

Photo by Owen Egan

Contact Information
Email address: 
hank.knox [at] mcgill.ca

Our job is to take students with raw talent, lots of passion, and a lot of energy and help them focus their efforts so that when they get on stage, they know what they’re doing and how to produce a professional result (almost) every time.

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