Congratulations to Professor Nicole Biamonte, winner of Schulich’s 2019-20 Teaching Award in the full-time category!
An invaluable asset to the Schulich community since 2010, Prof. Nicole Biamonte is known by all for her energetic teaching persona, ability to present material in a variety of ways, and dedication to advising and mentorship. Prof. Biamonte’s classes focus on inquiry-based learning, helping students to understand the music’s internal logic and structure, instead of simply labelling notes, chords, and progressions. Much to her students’ delight, she demonstrates topics with examples from jazz, pop-rock, and classical music, and frequently incorporates selections from underrepresented groups. Her strong commitment to teaching is seen in her interest in lifelong learning, self-reflection, and study, and is well documented in letters of recommendation where students praised her engaging discussions, determination to assure her students’ success, and caring demeanor.
In celebration of this achievement, we asked Prof. Biamonte to elaborate on her teaching philosophy as well as her interest in music theory pedagogy.
How has your teaching philosophy changed over time?
I lecture less in class than I used to, although I still do more of the talking than I’d like. When I first began teaching, I thought that the most important thing was to cover the course material thoroughly. I focused on explaining concepts or techniques, demonstrating them, and then having the students practice them for themselves. This is not a bad strategy, but it gives the teacher most of the control over the pace and direction of classroom activities. I’ve found it very rewarding to give up some of this control: students are more engaged with the material and learn it better when they are more actively involved. These days, I lecture less but ask more questions, and encourage the students to ask more questions, coaching them to discover concepts for themselves. Teaching this way takes more time but results in better learning outcomes. An oft-quoted adage of education theory describes this shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning as a move from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.”
Why is it important to you to continuously work to improve your teaching through self-reflection and study?
My intrinsic motivation is that I feel like I owe it to my students to be the best teacher I can be. I think that working at teaching is especially important at research universities, where teaching is sometimes undervalued or seen as a less prestigious component of our jobs. But it can take years for other scholars to engage with your research; the pace of scholarly discourse can be glacially slow. Teaching is more immediately rewarding: it’s a pleasure to watch students learn and develop, and satisfying to have some small influence on the next generations of musicians and music teachers. My extrinsic motivation is that I teach a seminar in music theory pedagogy every two years. Keeping the course materials updated ensures that I remain current with the most recent scholarship in pedagogy and can apply it to my own teaching. I chose a career in academia because it offers the opportunity for lifelong learning, and I set an example for my own students by practicing what I preach.
What do you want your students to leave your classroom with?
At minimum, I want students to gain a deeper understanding of whatever music we are studying and its typical patterns and structures. Ideally, they will also come away with some idea of the larger context of the music. One of my strengths in the classroom is my generalist background, with training in musicology, piano, and choral conducting as well as in music theory. I draw connections among music theory, music analysis, musicianship, composition, history, and performance. I would like for students to relate what they learn in my classes to what they learn in their other music classes and bring this enhanced understanding to the music they listen to and perform. Beyond this, I offer some coaching on two general skills that are important both in academia and life more generally: managing your time efficiently and thinking critically about information that you encounter. A student once commented that the title of my undergraduate theory class should really be “Music Theory…and Everything Else”—which is exactly what I want to teach.
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.