a close-up of a brass musical instrument

An Open Letter to My Students

 Published on January 6, 2014 /  Written by /  22

The following is a letter to my first- and second-year music theory and aural skills students at The University of Colorado–Boulder. This is my second semester at CU, and the music students and I are still getting to know each other. For some, this will be their first semester with me; others are still getting used to my pedagogical quirks. To help frame the semester, I will have them read and discuss this open letter.

My most profound educational experience was not a lecture, or a test, and certainly not a homework assignment from a workbook. My most profound educational experience was playing second horn for a brass sectional for our conservatory orchestra. We were playing Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, a piece full of difficult passages for the brass players. Our principal horn was away for an audition on that day, and our horn professor, Dale Clevenger (principal horn of the Chicago Symphony), played in his place. I sat right next to him, seeing and hearing what he was doing first-hand, and trying to match or complement him as I played. Even though he only talked to me for a fraction of the time, that single two-hour rehearsal was easily worth a year of lessons, or dozens of concerts. And no amount of lectures or readings could have accomplished what was accomplished by playing a hard piece alongside the greatest horn player in the world, trying to match his sound as I heard it.

Now I’m not the world’s greatest music theorist. But I am an expert in the things we will be studying, and I care deeply about fostering the best opportunities I can for you to learn them for yourselves. With that in mind, I’d like to set the tone for this semester by offering a few things to keep in mind as we work together. Though these are not part of the course content, do not appear on the syllabus, and will not be assessed, they are more important than the course content. These things will help us lay the groundwork to be successful in our engagement with the course material, and, even more importantly, they have broad applicability to learning processes in general — in this course, in other courses, and outside the classroom. We will occasionally reflect on these in class, as they apply to specific situations in which we find ourselves.

First, education is more than the transfer of information. Education involves the transfer of information, of course. However, there are things more important, and more difficult, than simply memorizing information. In our class, those things include the assimilation of concepts and the application of those concepts in musical activities. Assimilating concepts often requires engaging multiple perspectives on the same information — multiple theories about the same musical concept, multiple ways to perform the same kind of passage, etc. It also requires attempts at applying the material, such as composing, analyzing, or performing. These things are harder than taking notes and regurgitating them on a test, and often take longer than a single class meeting or homework assignment to figure out. For those of you who are used to courses that “test early and test often,” this may be uncomfortable and may feel, initially, ineffective. However, doing hard things and working to apply concepts leads to deeper, longer-lasting learning than lecture, baby-step homework, and a test you can cram for. That’s a big reason that I rarely lecture and don’t use workbooks: we need to do hard things and engage multiple routes through the material in order to truly understand and master it.

Education is training for life, not just a career, and certainly not just a job upon graduation. You are paying too much money and putting too much time into your education for it to be valuable for a few years of work only. Your education should help you develop skills that will last your entire career (which could be upwards of 50 years). We don’t have all the information that will be required of musicians working in 2060. However, what we do in these classes can help you develop the skills of inquiry and analysis you’ll need to figure out how to work in those new settings. We will also take multiple approaches to a single topic so that you can 1) see that there are always a diversity of ways to understand a single topic, and 2) have more tools at your disposal to choose from when facing something new that was not anticipated by your textbook’s authors or your professors.

Ask your private studio teachers, ensemble conductors, or other seasoned professionals you respect (in any field) what their most valuable educational experience was that has prepared them for their life and career. Was it a series of lectures? Was it a textbook reading? A workbook assignment? Or a hard project — maybe even one they created themselves — for which there was no textbook or how-to guide, but which pushed them to develop new ways of thinking about their work, and led them to create something they didn’t think they were capable of? You will get plenty of lectures and readings in your college education. I want you to find the tools and experiences that will help you develop the ability to do good, hard work when there are no lectures and readings.

In other words, I want you to learn how to learn. That means that at times you will be teaching yourself. This is an intentional choice. One of my chief goals is for you to take charge of your own education. Though I will help set a frame in which this will take place, many of you will feel uncomfortable, even overwhelmed, at this. That’s normal. It’s what independent learning feels like quite often. (Because it’s what teaching feels like.) However, if at any time you feel lost, please talk to me. I have gone through the same process many times before, both as a student and as a teacher. I may not remove the discomfort immediately, or at all, but I will help you learn to manage it and harness it to a positive outcome.

Education is about far more than grades. I understand that grades feel incredibly important. The university puts stock in them, your scholarships depend on them, and many of you are only able to be here because of those scholarships. You’re working hard to make sure you can stay here. Other students are, admittedly, minimizing their workload while maximizing their GPA, so they can spend time doing other things, often very good things. However, in both cases, focusing on grades leads us to miss the best things an education has to offer. Some of the most important things in a class are things that are hard to assess, so they’re not part of the grade. You have the opportunity to work with world-class scholars and creative professionals here, some of whom are your fellow students. Take advantage of that! Don’t think about your education as work for a boss who tells you what to do. You are making an investment. Do what you can to reap the greatest return on your investment (which is not only, or even chiefly, financial). Education is not a commodity that can be purchased; it is a process, and your tuition does not buy learning; it buys an opportunity to learn. That means figuring out what else a professor, or a book, or a piece of music, or a campus, or a city, or a group of fellow students has to offer you besides what is on the syllabus or in the course catalog. Yes, grades can be important, but they are not the goal: the goal is an intellectual, musical, professional, and social maturity that will allow you to get the most out of, and contribute the most to, your life.

A class is a negotiated space. Every class is full of students — and an instructor — whose backgrounds, goals, and attitudes differ. Even when students’ goals are congruent, the “best” route for each student towards those goals is different. Thus, a class activity is always a compromise that seeks to enable as many students as possible to make as much progress as possible towards those goals. And even though this means more freedom for all of you, there will be times when I have to make decisions for the group. But they will be made with this need for compromise in mind.

Teaching is not performance. My goal is not to dazzle you with my intellect or to blow your mind with the course content. Nor is it to entertain you or to charm you with my personality (though I may). Instead, my goal is to create an environment that is conducive to your musical and intellectual growth. While I do have some tricks up my sleeve that will help you “get it” quickly, and I do have some class activities that may be entertaining or inspiring, much of our work will look like your daily work in the practice room. Mastering something new is like that, as you know from the hours you’ve spent composing or practicing. However, I will make sure that everything we do, whether mind-blowing or mundane, will have value.

Finally, I am not perfect. Nor are any of your other professors. We are experts in the fields we teach, and some of us are experts in the art of teaching. However, we make mistakes. We also have an imperfect university structure to work within (semesters, grades, class schedules, etc.), and each pass through the material brings new students with different experiences, backgrounds, skills, sensitivities, prejudices, loves, career goals, life goals, financial situations, etc. There is no one way — often not even a best way — to teach a topic to a student, let alone one best way to teach a topic to 15 or 40 (or 400) students simultaneously. So even when we do our jobs well, it won’t fit everyone. And even if it did, you will have bad days, too. This is why I will provide you a variety of resources and tasks to help you learn. If you take charge of your own education, make full use of the resources most helpful to you, and make full use of the people around you (myself and your fellow students), you will make significant strides in your musical growth.

Most of you did not come to music school so that you can make lots of money. And I doubt any of you came here just to get good grades. In fact, I bet all of you are here because you love music. And most of you enjoy making and talking about music together with others. That’s exactly what these classes are about. If you focus on making and exploring music collaboratively in this class, deep learning will happen. (And, yes, good grades will follow.) You will also grow as musicians who can continue to educate yourselves when you leave CU. So let’s make the most of our time together not by seeing how much information we can get from my notebook into yours, but instead by learning how to make music, and to make insights about music, in new ways.

[photo by Kontramax]

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22 Responses
  1. Loved this, Kris. I’m torn between making up one of my own each semester (wondering why I haven’t been, actually!), or sharing it as is, because it captures so many important aspects of teaching philosophy and approach

    1. Kris Shaffer

      Thanks! Keep in mind that all articles on HP are Creative Commons licensed. Feel free to rework this text for your students (and share the results!), as long as you attribute the original. I’d love to see what you come up with, and how your students respond.

  2. I read it as if I were a student and found it irritatingly vague. The author needs to learn the value to the reader of specifics. There was not one example of how things would be different, just endless promising that they would be different. In a way, it is quite threatening: the message is “I am upsetting the apple cart and your scholastic survival strategies are no good here, but more I will not say. Tried and true regurgitation on tests is out, something hard and challenging is coming, I am writing a tediously long note to say so so it must be really bad, see you in class.” Wait, what?

    1. hey Kenneth, I know I should leave Kris to reply… but I thought maybe I could give my two cents (I loved this open letter). I suspect the syllabus has those specifics you ask for, and am sure students will see them. This read more like a teaching philosophy addressing students, explaining why the teacher will do certain (unspecified) things – it is about his thinking behind all that he does, rather than any specific thing he will do. You know what, though, I’ll let my students read it and see what they think :o)

      1. Kris Shaffer

        Maha, thanks for jumping in! Yes, the syllabus covers the details, but this letter explains the “why” for some of the things that are important, but that some of my students aren’t used to. Also, Kenneth, I wrote this letter for students in three different classes, where the details are, obviously, different.

        1. I should have added that it sounds like a great class. 🙂 My sense is the better students will be psyched and the regurgitators will be sweating bullets. In fact, now that I think on it, I stumbled into a class like this in my undergraduate days, in English Lit. Turns out we were supposed to think like folks staging a play and not just read a play and make like a director or set designer or lighting director. That must have been heaven for those — well, I had never even seen a play! I was in the wrong class for sure. I did awful but I did admire the prof for the approach he had taken.

  3. Matt Johnston

    Kris, I think this is great and will certainly share with my photography students though I think it could be shared with most all art based course students. I am keen to hear a little more on your thoughts about the lecture – you say you rarely use it, yet you still use it occasionally. As someone who really values the lectures potential I would like to know why you use it when you do, and whether it is used for knowledge transfer or perhaps more as an accelerant or fire-lighter?

    1. Kris Shaffer

      Matt, thanks for your comments. In general, I follow the “inverted” class model. I co-authored an article introducing it here, and I tend to follow the inquiry-based (or project-based) model most closely. On my blog, I’ve written a number of posts about how this works in specifics. I normally lecture only when it becomes apparent in the middle of a class that some whole-group clarification is necessary for a concept they are working on. In those cases, it is pretty short (5–10 minutes). We also have whole-class activities that I lead from the front, especially on the smaller (12–15 students) classes, but a lot of their work, particularly in my large class (30–40 students), is in small groups.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the inverted class for courses in photography.

  4. This is amazing. These are things I think and say to my English students, in a bit of a different way of course, but didn’t think about writing them in a letter in this way! Kudos, and I am also going to write my own version of this. Thank you!

    1. Kris Shaffer

      Thanks, Holly! I’m glad you found it valuable. Please share your version, if you are comfortable. It would be great to see how you express your philosophy to your English students.

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