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Nicole Biamonte

Department of Music Research (Music Theory Area), Schulich School of Music

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

I teach music theory courses, which are typically the least favourite of performance students. However, my research is on popular music, so whenever I can, I demonstrate how one concept can be applied to Beethoven, but also to Miles Davis, or Queen. By introducing pop culture, I try to connect the music to students’ daily activities and lives, and prove to them that what they are learning in music theory can also be applied to their own listening. For instance, in one class, we were talking about chord sequences, so I used some Vivaldi and Mozart, but also Gloria Gaynor’s seventies disco hit, “I Will Survive.” I made the students sing the chorus of the disco hit to the music of Mozart just to point out how it’s a great example of a particular type of core pattern. The other way I engage students is to ask them questions, rather than just presenting the information. This gets them to immediately think about how we can answer that question, and casts them in a more active role than simply listening and taking notes. 

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

I use theory exercises and analysis assignments; however, I try to make them as creative as I can. I also give quizzes, but more as a way to reinforce a topic at the end of the class. We will work with the material for most of the class, and then at the end, I will give a quiz. Sometimes we talk through the answers afterward, rather than grading them, so it becomes a self-assessment tool for the students.

The other assessment strategy is to turn the student into the teacher and say, “All right, tell me, how does this work?” If the class is small enough, then they can give small presentations, if not, I just ask them questions in class. This works well because you need to have a firm grasp of a concept before you can explain it clearly to someone else.

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

I tell all my students that the most important thing they can learn is to manage their time. It’s common to use the last-minute panic of an impending deadline as a motivator and then belatedly realize there’s not enough time to do a good job. In terms of their written work, I give them step-by-step instructions for writing papers and show them how to organize their information. I tell them that they can always come to me, and I’ll let them know if they’re on the right track.

I also teach them to read critically and evaluate their sources. We’ve looked at some articles from Wikipedia, some of which are good and some of which have real problems. Students like being able to use their own expertise and say, “Oh, I know better than that!” It gives them a real sense of ownership of their knowledge.

For music students, when interpreting a piece of music, there is often more than one right answer, although there are still wrong answers as well. So, I also want them to learn to be comfortable with the multiplicity and ambiguity of interpretation. In this way, music theory is as much an art as it is a science.

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

Part of my agenda is to get everybody to recognize that there are some basic rules of grammar underlying a lot of different styles of music, and much of what makes them sound different are just surface elements. I embrace vernacular styles of music and bring those in to show that we can talk about jazz and rock in the same kinds of terms as we do about classical music. It’s easy then to present my own new research to students.

Whenever I go to a conference, I try to bring back at least one new idea from a paper or a handout. At a recent conference, there was a very provocative paper about the ways we approach and achieve closure in music that ended in a big argument. Some of the students find it exciting to realize that what we teach them are not immutable laws set in stone, that some things are still controversial. It teaches them to debate and to marshal and examine evidence on either side, which is also a way to engage them.

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

Don’t be afraid to use what you think of as theatrics—they’re very effective, especially if you have a large class. I change the pitch and volume of my voice, use broad gestures, move around a lot, and teach the students little chants to sing back to me. All of this takes minimal extra effort and is incredibly effective. You shouldn’t be afraid to be silly and goofy because your students will generally respond positively.

In terms of pedagogy, I feel like the best thing you can offer students is a good hierarchy of the information. Say at the beginning and end of the class, “Here’s the one most important thing,” or “Here is the handful of important things,” and give verbal signposts for these during the lecture: “This is an important point. Make sure you write it down” versus “Here’s some explanatory detail” versus “I’m going off on a bit of a digression here, so this won’t be on the test.” You want to very clearly give them a sense of the relative importance of the information.

Also, try to explain things in different ways or from different perspectives. It’s easy to do this in music because you can explain things verbally, show them visually, and demonstrate them aurally by singing or playing the piano or using recordings.

Finally, I think a common mistake is to over-prepare. I think you really have to learn by doing, but I know that when I started teaching, I always made sure that I had the answer to any tangentially-related question anyone could possibly ask me, and no one ever asked any of these questions!

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

Show up and do the work, and the rest is up to me! Also, I think it is helpful if students can recognize that the ways they’re learning to think about music in class can be applied to their own listening, and if they’re musicians, in their own playing. Listen for the musical depth in pieces. We tend to focus on the melody, but there are other layers of music underneath that for the harmony and the rhythm and the bass line, and these layers are just as important to the music as the melody, if not more so. I’m trying to teach my classes to listen to these other layers and hear what’s going on underneath.

Why do you teach?

To learn. To learn to do it better each time. I try to find new examples or a new way of explaining something. I also learn things just from students’ questions—the things that they don’t understand, as well as the things that they do understand. And it allows me to learn new pieces of music every semester. I can study music my whole life, and I will just barely make a dent in knowing what’s out there.

There is something that I think is unique to teaching music, which is that it is a temporal art. The danger that we get into when teaching a piece of music is to present it as a static, architectural blueprint of the structure of the piece, but that’s not the way we experience it. We experience it in time. If you want the second line of the chorus of a song, you will have to think of the first line and rehearse it in your mind to get to the second line. So there’s a temporal coding to be aware of when teaching music. But it’s also a good metaphor for learning. It’s kind of a good metaphor for life.

Email Address: 
nicole.biamonte@mcgill.ca
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