2021-2022 Teaching Award Winner: Tommy Davis

Published: 5 July 2022

Congratulations to Tommy Davis, winner of Schulich's 2021-2022 Teaching Award in the Teaching Assistant/Graduate Instructor Category. 

As Teaching Assistant for MUAR 392 (Popular Music after 1945) and MUPD 235 (Music as a Profession 2), as well as in the Saxophone Studio, Tommy showed dedication, compassion, and enthusiasm. Whether by opening and maintaining the conversation during online classes, marking assignments, or demonstrating multiphonics, it was clear that his goal was to facilitate a positive learning environment. A self-described lifelong learner, he is continually inspired by and learning from his students.  

Tommy strives to create a student-directed learning space where one is both supported and challenged. His natural ability to patiently lead a conversation while imparting knowledge with infectious passion allows all to feel encouraged to voice comments and questions. He uses interleaved practice concepts in his teaching by breaking up lectures with interactive questions, media, or activities. Students have the chance and freedom to express their ideas and be challenged on their understanding, which stimulates an open forum for lectures.  

In the studio students describe how Tommy would offer alternatives uniquely adapted to each of them if they had trouble producing a multiphonic that was asked for. His resourcefulness and knowledge, along with clear explanations and exercises enabled students to gain independence and confidence. By developing strong fundamentals combined with multiple practice strategies for daily routines, students are able to troubleshoot on their own, using the tools Tommy shared. 
Students also tell of their appreciation for assignment feedback, which, despite the size of the class, came quickly and was personal and well-detailed. The insightful and constructive comments were fair to the true understanding of students and would make them feel like the quality of their work was not only recognized but also cared about.  

Tommy uses reflection and review as powerful tools in his teaching as well as his own learning. He is cognizant of authors’ reference, ensuring that he cites sources by authors or practitioners from diverse backgrounds to support different perspectives. As he seeks feedback to improve his own skills as a lecturer, exhibiting the same initiative, care, and willingness to grow that he champions in others.  

In celebration of this award and of his achievements, we asked Tommy to elaborate on his teaching philosophy, share a stand-out moment from this year, give advice to his starting-at-university-self, and more... 

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?  

Students learn, and there are many ways that one can encourage and guide learning, but a student’s learning is their own success. 

Has your teaching philosophy changed over time? If so, how? 

I hope that I have become more patient. If we are going to ask students to deal with challenging information and concepts, then we need to give them the time to consider and formulate answers to these questions. I hope to be more comfortable with silence, especially after asking questions because I know that during the silence is when the students are hard at work, formulating answers and considering the information presented. This relates back to the first question and allowing students time to work through and learn the material rather than telling them the material. Along with learning how to setup these types of questions, I hope I allow the students the necessary time to work through their answers. 

What do you want your students to leave your classroom/studio knowing? 

I think it’s important to have a wide variety of experiences during an undergraduate degree so that one can start discovering the things that are most important to them. All musicians need to be well-rounded to a certain point, but no one can do everything. It’s just as important to know what you don’t want to do to help direct your focus and energy. I’d like students to have the skills to pursue the paths that interest them and which will help them achieve the goals that are the most meaningful.  

Do you have a stand-out teaching moment from the past year? 

I was inspired by how Kiersten van Vliet instructed the Popular Music After 1945 class that I was fortunate to have been the TA for in Fall 2021. Kiersten and I had been involved in the Innovative Learning and Teaching in Music Wellness Initiative at Schulich where we learned about different student-centred teaching and wellness approaches through group projects with faculty members. Kiersten integrated those concepts wonderfully throughout the popular music course so it was a stand-out teaching moment for me and a pleasure to have been a part of. 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self? 

I’d tell myself to trust myself more! 

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what might an alternative career path have been? 

I started out coaching as a teenager in the Sask Rescue Lifesaving and Lifeguard Club in Saskatoon where I was also involved in lifeguarding competitions. Following these experiences, I had considered training as a paramedic before I started my BMus. Reflecting back on this decision, I realize that I’m privileged to have a career where I can experiment with sound in creative ways because even if I fail, it won’t necessarily cause physical harm to other people. Many professions, like health care workers, don’t have that luxury and this is something I try to embrace in my work. 

Anything on your to-learn list? 

The list keeps growing! My research and artistic interests are more computer-music related so I’m planning to learn how to program in Max/MSP, which is a programming environment often used in interactive electronic music. Hopefully this will allow me to troubleshoot computer issues on my own, and also to have fun creating sounds in performance!  

Tommy Davis performs on all members of the saxophone family in collaborative and interdisciplinary settings where he explores the integration of movement, electronics, video, and improvisation. He is a strong proponent of research-creation projects including collaborative co-composition or co-improvisation which blur the lines between composition, performance, and improvisation. He has performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Sonorities Festival (Belfast), Roulette (Brooklyn), World Saxophone Congress, North American Saxophone Alliance Conferences, Society for Composers Inc. National Conference, Interactive Art, Science and Technology in Western Canada (IAST), Codes d’accès (Montreal), Music in New Technologies (Halifax), GroundSwell Winnipeg, and the Calgary New Music Festival. A Prairie Debut and Debut Atlantic alumnus, he has toured across Canada, the Midwest US, France, and the UK. Tommy is currently a doctoral candidate at McGill University researching interactive electronic music under the guidance of Marie-Chantal Leclair. As student co-representative for the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) at McGill, Tommy organizes educational, research, and outreach events for over 250 student members. 

About the Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards

Each year the Schulich School of Music recognizes faculty members and student instructors for their outstanding contributions. The Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards recognize excellence, commitment and innovation in teaching, and the importance of these qualities in the academic experience of students at McGill. Prizes are awarded annually to each winner at Spring Convocation.

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