About Me

My photo
Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, November 29, 2013

On general education and the liberal arts

*originally published on my website, at popesax.com*

This letter is in response to an opinion column in the JMU student newspaper entitled,
“General Education Classes Waste Time and Effort”

October 28, 2013

Dear Ms. Williams:

After reading your recent column in The Breeze, I am strongly compelled to offer a response to your thoughts regarding the value of JMU’s curriculum in general education.  While I disagree with your assertions, I should start by expressing an understanding of where you are coming from.  I attended a large, comprehensive university, similar to JMU.  I remember not being thrilled about my GenEd requirements.  Many of the classes were frustrating and some of them felt pointless at the time.  Many years later, I can honestly say that I am deeply grateful for my strong background in general education.  Some of those classes had an unexpected impact on my life.  I owe much of who I have become to a broad education in the liberal arts.

You make some assertions that I find surprising.  For example, you use "cashier" as a sample career because it is supposedly the second most common job in the United States.  Is this the second most common career for someone with a bachelor’s degree from a comprehensive university?  Is that what you are training for?  I doubt that anyone has come to JMU, or any similar institution for that matter, to prepare for a future as a cashier.  Furthermore, to say that there is no point in training to be a Renaissance man (or woman) is a failure to grasp what a university is.  You write that "College is supposed to be a place where students can study what they want to."  That is simply not true.  University is not summer camp.  You could study "what you want" by taking private lessons from a teacher, or attending a trade school.  The very word university infers "whole," as in universal or universe.  If you want to simply study whatever you want, and to work on your resume, you have come to the wrong place.  Our country was founded by Renaissance men like Thomas Jefferson and yes, our beloved James Madison.  You accuse JMU of aiming too high, but I fear that you are setting the bar far too low.

My required studies in math and science were sometimes tedious, and certainly not a priority while I was primarily studying music, but I have come to use math and physics to better understand the way that my saxophone works, and the way that sound travels.  My students will surely tell you that this has made me a more effective teacher.  Furthermore, I have used algebra to calculate the proper capacitor values for loudspeaker crossovers, and geometry to know if my piano will fit around the corner in the hallway. (It won’t, which is nice to know without breaking my back and getting the piano stuck in the door.  Hooray, math!)  I even use numbers, and good old Pythagoras, to explain to my students how to play in-tune.

I was recently reminded of the richness of my liberal arts training while preparing for a concert at JMU, given through a conference of the Africana Studies program.  The presentation was called “Freedom in the Air,” and it combined images relating to the civil rights movement with jazz improvisation.  As I was mentally preparing, I remembered a short story that I had read in my creative writing class as an undergraduate.  I pulled my old anthology down from the bookshelf and found what I was looking for: “Going to Meet the Man,” by James Baldwin.  This is a devastatingly brutal story about a racist sheriff, and a gruesome depiction of a lynching.  As a young musician, I had no interest in reading something like this, and I was basically annoyed that my creative writing course required so much reading.  Reading that story changed me.  Reading it again, as an adult with twenty additional years of life experiences under my belt, I was glad that I have been carting that book around for twenty years.  It is important to me, and it has shaped my thoughts about music, race, and the power of great writing.  It added to the emotional power of my musical performance that evening, and I want to emphasize that I would have never read that story if I had not been required to do so.  I wouldn’t even know who James Baldwin is, or why I should care.  It’s only a few pages long, but it shaped who I am.  It was not a waste of time, effort, or money.  It was a part of my liberal arts education.  It was the best money that I have ever spent.  Ever.

I am sorry that you have such a negative feeling about your GenEd requirements, but I assure you that not all of your peers agree with you.  I read your column aloud to a group of my students, and they recoiled in horror.  They quickly started to talk about all the GenEd classes that they have valued, and the ones that they look forward to taking.  They named GenEd professors that they admire, and subjects that have struck up new interests for them.  I have wonderful students, but they are not unusual, at least not in my experience.  They are hungry for knowledge, eager to be pointed in new directions, and grateful for the opportunity to be at a place like JMU.  They don’t expect to love every single class, but they see value in the curriculum overall.

You write about JMU’s mission to create “productive citizens,” but that isn’t quite correct.  We are not aiming to make “worker bees.”  We are preparing students to be educated and enlightened citizens who live productive and meaningful lives.  That mission statement gives my career purpose, and frankly, it gives me goose bumps.  I am a benefactor of such an education, and I live a life that is rich with meaning.  Yes, I am valued by my university for my somewhat deep and narrow expertise, but my performance skills would be empty if I didn’t have something to say – something worth saying.  I owe the depth of my intellect to a comprehensive education in the liberal arts.  I didn’t fully appreciate the totality of my education when I was a young man.  Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.  In fact, I am grateful to find myself teaching at a public, comprehensive university, completing the poetic circuit that I began so many years ago.  I strive to be a model for my students, and to demonstrate what it means to be an educated and enlightened citizen who leads a productive and meaningful life.  I hope that you will reconsider your thoughts about your GenEd requirements.  If you happen to find yourself stuck in a narrow hallway with a sofa that you never should have tried to get around that corner, I hope that you will remember Pythagoras, James Madison, and me.  I wish you a productive and meaningful life.


David Pope
Professor of Saxophone (and aspiring Renaissance man)
James Madison University

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The conservatory model of education (and why it works)

Public education in America is struggling, and the surrounding debate is often focussed on assessment and finger-pointing.  We blame the students, the parents, the teachers, the administrators, and the legislators.  I am grateful to be a part of a system of teaching and learning that is flourishing.  The conservatory model is incredibly successful, and I think that it contains some wisdom that would well-serve education in general.  Here are some lessons that I wish to share about how my job sets me up to be a successful teacher.

Small classes

My office is also my studio and classroom.  I do over 90% of my teaching there.  I see each of my students once a week in a private session and once per week in a small group (usually of four students).  We also meet weekly as a large group.  75% of my teaching is one-to-one.

I get to know all of my students in a very personal way.  The emphasis on private teaching establishes a sense of trust and my students know that I care about them as human beings.  They feel safe to share their insecurities with me in a way that they would not be able to do in a large group setting.  The calm of a private lesson allows me to diagnose their needs in a very focussed manner, and to try various solutions.  Students ask questions that they might not ask in front of their peers, for fear of being embarrassed about what they don't know.  As a teacher, it saves time when a student can blurt out the words, "I don't understand."

The small group sessions present a regular opportunity to apply the skills learned in the private sessions.     In my teaching, we work on basic music skills and saxophone technique in the private lessons, and then we apply those skills in a chamber ensemble.  Again, this is done in a safe environment, away from the pressures of an audience.  The small group coaching format provides opportunities to teach individual responsibility and teamwork.  Chamber performance also instills independence, as there is no conductor.  We spend time working on drills, running through small sections of music, and refining the details that will lead to a quality performance.

The final piece of the puzzle is the weekly studio class.  This flexible time with all the students together allows for everything from specific lectures to coached performances by soloists or chamber groups.  In these sessions, the students are free to offer constructive criticism.  They share in the responsibility of teaching, actively participating in the learning process.  This progression from individual sessions to larger groups is an important part of building the necessary skills and confidence for public performances.  The studio class is the last stepping stone before taking the stage.

Individual pathways to success

I have a set of semesterly standards that my students must demonstrate.  These proficiency levels are an important part of my teaching, but they are only a guideline.  I recognize that every student is different and that they will not be able to achieve similar goals by taking the same path.  Every student is unique, which is why efforts to standardize education are doomed to fail.  In my opinion, the better approach is is to work towards discovering the best ways to help each individual to learn.  This is a time-intensive process that often results in hitting dead-ends, being forced to double back, changing tactics, and the occasional spectacular failure along the way.  The failing is probably the most important part - but more on that in a moment.

In identifying and addressing each student's weaknesses, it is vital that I have the freedom to temporarily forget about the standard proficiency levels.  When a student is unable to meet a certain standard, there is often an underlying cause that might not be easily measured by the usual assessments. For example, imagine that a student must meet a standard involving the ability to read certain pieces of music at-sight, and that a particular student cannot demonstrate the proficiency because of a difficulty in executing rhythms.  No amount of practicing sight reading would ever lead to a successful outcome without first tackling the rhythmic deficiency.  There might be nothing specifically in the standards about rhythm for that particular semester, but the "long road" approach is the only way to eventually acquire the desired skills.

Students progress on different curves.  Some will be moderately diligent in the practice room and easily meet the standards, while others will work much harder and spend a majority of their time on what might appear to be plateaus.  As an expert teacher, I am able to recognize the difference between a student that is not working, and one that is working hard to get through a period where progress is difficult to measure.  I need my supervisors and colleagues to trust me, so that the student and I can complete our work together, even if the standards of measurement fail to show what is happening.  Every student is unique, and for many, it is a long and winding road to success.

Deconstructing failure

Standardization is about measuring success - finding the correct answer.  Failure is not easily quantifiable, but anyone who has ever worked hard to succeed knows that failure is where the learning happens.

"I think it's important to have a good, hard failure when you're young.  I learned a lot out of that."  
-Walt Disney

In my teaching, I frequently use a technique that I have come to call "the guided crash landing."  Frequently, a student needs to experience failure, so that they can assess what went wrong and invent some practice strategies that will lead to a better outcome.  Sometimes the student must be allowed to stumble through a poorly prepared etude in a lesson, but a more extreme situation might call for a poor performance in front of their peers.  Failing is difficult and disappointing, but it is not the end of the world.  In fact, failure is not so much an outcome as it is a new beginning.

If my teaching was assessed only by successes, I would not be able to let my students fail.  This would completely change my profession.  I became a teacher because I love helping students to solve their problems, to deconstruct their failures, and to learn to be their own best teachers.  If my salary, or my job security was connected to a rigid form of assessment, I would be unable to really teach at all.  You can't measure how hard someone failed at art.  This brings us to the next important point.

Beauty is a cloud of possibilities

Art is about beauty.  Beauty is easily experienced, but difficult to measure.  Beauty happens in the spaces between people and art.  When we attempt to standardize beauty, we are left with skinny fashion models with bodies that don't exist in nature, clothes that nobody wears, and regular people in regular clothes feeling totally inadequate.  As each person is unique, their experience of beauty is equally personal.  In my own teaching, I have learned a lot about beauty from my students.  Interpretation happens as we perform and create, and as we observe.  Music can take us to places that we have never been, or show us an unexpected reflection of ourselves.  Art does not exist on a sliding scale of crumby to great.  A rating of beauty depends on what is being measured, why it is being measured, how it is being measured, and most importantly, who is taking the measurements.  Beauty is a cloud of possibilities.  You cannot completely contain it, and the more you grab at it, the more it slips between your fingers.

Interdisciplinary by design

My students will tell you that we take frequent side-trips into areas outside of music.  I have never seen Pythagoras on a music syllabus, but I can't teach my students to play in-tune without teaching some math.  It sometimes takes a full lesson to thoroughly explain the math of tuning, and why it is important. We also spend time exploring philosophy, literature, and culture.  Just this semester, I took several students over to the physics lab to participate in a collaboration with some physics majors.  None of that is on my syllabi.  The time invested in these excursions would be hard to justify by looking at my proficiency standards, but we are planting the seeds of intellectual curiosity.

There is no single destination for every student.  One might become a high school band director, another a music therapist, and another might leave music entirely and go to law school.  One of my graduates is a math teacher, some are freelance performers, and some are in the military.  They benefit from exposure to a wide variety of perspectives.  Again, it is the cloud of possibilities that will somehow point them in the direction of their dreams.  In many cases, they haven't even dreamed the dream yet.

Long-term accountability

I frequently hear the argument that assessment standards are used to keep teachers accountable.  As a professional educator, I obviously am not without bias, but I cannot imagine how anyone can believe that standardized testing of students can possibly paint an accurate picture of a teacher.  If test scores in a certain classroom go up or down in two subsequent years, just how useful is that information?  The situation worsens when we see that standards, and the tests are constantly changing.  In many cases, the specifics are politically motivated, influenced by lobbyists, and put in place with very little input from teachers.  I doubt that there is a single person on earth that went into teaching because they wanted to help students to improve their test taking skills.

                     "Education is a process, not a product."

We tend to force teachers into a defensive posture before they even begin to teach.  Teachers need to be trusted and given the room to take chances.  Almost every teacher that I know would like to be able to take a chance on an unlikely student, but they don't always have that kind of flexibility.  I worked very hard to earn tenure, but that tenure is not a suit of armor.  Tenure is the protection that I need to be able to take some chances, especially on students that might not succeed.  Those students are the ones that really need me, and they are the reason that I teach.  The super talented kids with tons of support and resources are headed towards careers, with or without my help.  It is the kid that needs teaching that I live for.  Some of those students are not going to make it, but they deserve a chance to try, and as a society, we should offer them that chance by supporting the teachers that can make a difference.

I am not held accountable from year to year, as measured by the course evaluations or some kind of multiple choice exam.  The university steps back and lets me work.  I am evaluated in the long-term, according to my body of work, and the successes of my graduates.  Success takes time, more than anything else.  Education is a process, not a product – it is best evaluated as such.  Many of my more successful students were fairly mediocre in the middle of our work together.  They bloomed later, sometimes years after graduation.  If I had been evaluated on their junior-year jury examination, I might have lost my job, but they turned out to have terrific careers.  It took time, because education is a process, not a product.

Contextual assessment

Every semester, my students are required to give a final performance for a panel of professors.  They are expected to demonstrate the work that they have done, over the course of the semester.  Each professor grades the student individually, and the average of those grades becomes twenty percent of the student's final grade for the semester.  This is a standard form of assessment in music.  The student will perform music from the standard repertoire, and different students will often perform the same compositions.  In some ways, this is a pretty standardized method of evaluating a student.  Each student is assigned music that is considered to be playable by a musician at their level of expected competency, and that repertoire provides an effective measuring stick.  If the student cannot successfully perform the piece, or the student has difficulty with certain passages, or even aspects of that piece, it calls into question whether or not the student should be assessed positively.

There are a few things built into the process that provide context into each unique situation.  First of all, each student fills out a form that lists everything that they have worked on, over that semester.  Every exercise, every ├ętude, and every piece of music.  This often reveals an overarching theme to the work, giving insight into what might seem like a subpar final performance.  It can also show the opposite, and point out that a student is coasting on talent.  So this form of contextual assessment provides some accountability, but the review of the teacher/student is only twenty percent of the final grade.  This balanced approach works very well, which is why it has been used by conservatories for a long time.

Moving forward

I am certainly not implying that we can easily integrate any of these elements into a K-12 classroom environment.  Private instruction is expensive, and the research isn't totally conclusive on class size (although it arguably points towards long-term benefits for smaller classes.)  Teachers are continually expected to do more with less, all while aiming at the moving target of standardized testing and ever-shifting assessments that are tied directly to funding, and ultimately, to the security of their own jobs.  With that said, I know some amazing teachers that are already doing some of the things that I suggest, and more, even if it means swimming against the tide.

I have a number of distinct advantages, most notably that I choose my students after an audition and interview process.  They must also be accepted into the university at-large.  My studio is a group of accomplished young people that have already demonstrated considerable academic and musical success.  I can flunk a student out of the class if they aren't making it, and my job is not in jeopardy when a student drops out (as long as I maintain my target class size, which is easy because eager prospective students are lined up out the door).

It is also worth pointing out that I am the only saxophone professor at my university of approximately twenty-thousand students and a thousand faculty members, and only one of a handful of saxophone professors in the entire state.  I had to win the position in a national search process, and if I left my job tomorrow, there would easily be a hundred applicants to fill the spot.  Professors in the humanities tend to work more hours for less pay than faculty in other disciplines.  No matter, I feel very fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to work hard in a field that I believe in, and in a system that works.  If anyone tries to break it, they will have to get by me and Practice Monster first!