Lindsay Brazell

Music Educator and Creative Professional

6 Tricks To Not Have Your Music Appreciation Students Hate You

Teaching Music Appreciation, regardless of grade level, can be a daunting task. Or for some, it may feel like a punishment. If your first time teaching the course is upon you, you may have similar sentiments to mine when I was assigned to teach it: “This could be really fun!” 

Then, of course, 3 weeks in you are like, “This is the absolute worst. These students hate music and me and probably all things in the world.” 

For me, those statements were probably true at that time. They were not engaged in the music I was sharing with them, therefore, they were not amused by me and my lessons, and because it was their first class of the day at 8:30am, they probably did hate all things in the world. I used to joke that I could bring in Beyoncé herself who would give them each a million dollars and they still wouldn’t be interested.

After teaching Music Appreciation twice, both to high school and college students, I learned a few things that made my third time teaching it an absolute joy and success. I figured out the things I was doing that was making students hate me and the class, and I learned how to help them, or at least trick them, into loving the class.

I want this for you. Music Appreciation can be SO FUN. I promise. Just be mindful of a few things.

The course is not music history, so don’t make it a history course.

If students wanted to take music history from 1400-1750, they would have signed up for that. They signed up for Music Appreciation, or Enjoyment of Music, or some other vague course title that doesn’t quite fit the content of the course, but I digress. If you spend an entire semester on the musical periods and composers and sonata form there will be no appreciation or enjoyment for anyone. With that said…

Teach them a little bit of history.

The majority of students will have little to no background on where music came from and how it developed and that there are music periods at all. Here’s the key: show them WHY each musical period is significant. Medieval and Renaissance music brought us some pretty sweet polyphony, so show them how profound that compositional style is, and how much of a genius you need to be to write quality polyphony. Show them the key characteristics and key composers from each musical era, connect it to something familiar to them, and then MOVE ON. They don’t need to know about the Notre-Dame School, and they don’t want to.

Students really dig live music.

If there is a way you can have live music in the classroom, DO IT. Whether that be introducing them to instrument families, having a school ensemble perform, you performing for them, bringing in guest artists, or even having students perform, they will eat it up.

When I realized I had a few musicians (both trained and untrained) in my class, I organized a Performance Day, where they had to sign up to perform, and the class could use it for one of the concert reports they had to write. (FREE concert during class time…they didn’t have to go out of their way, and their peers were performing…it was seriously the best day ever for everyone!!) I performed, I had a student who wrote his own original raps with his brother and they performed, my co-teacher performed, and an anonymous student sent a video to be played since he didn’t want to be recognized. It was super cool.

You know what else they really enjoy but they pretend to hate? When THEY have to sing or perform some sort of music task: clapping, snapping, humming, dancing…etc. It gets them involved, and while they will roll their eyes, they will remember it!! I like to divide the class into 3 parts and make them sing major and minor chords. They love it, especially when I “yell” at the groups of kids who aren’t singing.

If you are only going to play youtube videos, or give no examples at all, you are doomed. If you can provide a live experience, go for it. Otherwise, youtube and audio examples are great.

Figure out what you are passionate about and TEACH IT.

I really enjoy songwriting and learning about the music industry, so I did a unit on that. We talked about what goes into writing a song, how artists make money off of digital sales, and their favorite, learning about little money an artist makes from streaming services like Spotify. We debate whether being a musical artist is about making money or gaining exposure and sharing their art. It’s super fun.

Before you create your syllabus, figure out what YOU are passionate about. Maybe you love musical theater, or opera, or sound design, or world music. You are definitely an expert on something, so TEACH THEM. Even if it isn’t a traditional topic covered in the course. We teach much differently about topics we love and are dear to us than we do a general curriculum of things we “have to teach.”

Smile a lot, and be entertaining.

I know that sounds a little superficial, that teaching shouldn’t be a song and dance number, but I promise you, Music Appreciation needs to be light and fun or they will shut down. I didn’t realize this until I read some student evaluations, but I had a few students tell me that it helped that I smiled so much while I talked about the course content. It made them feel like I was actually happy to teaching them and enjoyed the content. Smiling can go a long way. But don’t be weird and do a fake smile….that will just be awkward for everyone.

And be entertaining! Make some jokes. Show them videos that connect to your content but may be a little ridiculous. (I like showing Jimmy Fallon videos, particularly this one that demonstrates a canon!) If that isn’t in your personality, my advice is to channel your inner talkshow host. The more interesting you are, the more interested they will be in what you are saying.

In my student evaluations, I had some students tell me that they invited a friend or roommate to class (which was hard to tell in a class of 190…) because they told them how fun it was. While this at first seemed a little weird to me, I realized that a college student attended a class that they were not enrolled in of their own volition, which is just wild.

Have a central goal for the class.

Think about what you want your students to know or be when they leave your class and move on to a new semester. They are not going to be classical music converts, so what DO you want them to be? These were my 2 goals:

  • Listen to music INTENTIONALLY. I wanted students to become active listeners, being able to determine the instruments they were hearing, the texture, the time signature, the form, the meaning of the lyrics, the mood of the music, etc. We often passively listen to music, but it becomes much more interesting, impressive, and real when we can break it down into ideas and concepts.
  • Talk about music INTELLIGENTLY. I told my students that I would take off millions of points in their assignments if they used the phrases “sick beat” or “vibe” or anything else ridiculous like that. Those terms don’t tell me anything about the music they are listening to. I wanted to equip them with vocabulary that allowed them to 1) Accurately describe what they were hearing, and 2) Have the ability to tell me why they like or dislike certain music with actual reasonings, rather than “I just don’t like country music.” WHY? Maybe they don’t like country music because they don’t connect to the lyrical content. Maybe they don’t like the timbre of acoustic or slide guitars. Or maybe they prefer instrumental music rather than music with lyrics. Whatever the case, I wanted them to have real reasoning behind their opinions.

 

By doing all of the above things, or not doing some of them, I learned how to create a classroom environment that was engaging, informative, and made a lasting impression. Teaching Music Appreciation can be extremely rewarding, and even fun! What is most important, is that we are advocating for a field we love, and hopefully we are fostering a love in our students that will last a life time! Whether that they become avid concert-goers, or just excellent music conversationalists, the course allows students to experience music in ways they wouldn’t have had they not enrolled in your class. Make it count!

 

Are you teaching music appreciation for the first time? Have you taught it already and have advice? Feel free to continue the conversation on Twitter or on my FaceBook page!

 

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/83633410@N07/

About Lindsay

I’m Lindsay, a choral music educator by day, a singer-songwriter by evening, and a writer when time allows. You can find my latest album, The Room I Found – Lindsay Morelli on iTunes.

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