place holder

Teaching Philosophy, pt. 2

Posted on

This is a follow-up to my last post about teaching philosophy statements. That post yielded some solid advice from my friends Patrick Dell (public school choir director) and Matt Schoendorff (instructor at Wayne State University), the latter of whom was kind enough to send me the teaching philosophy he’s been working on and using over the last couple of years.

I had some time to think about my teaching philosophy statement over the Thanksgiving weekend. I basically have no idea what I’m doing with regard to the length or scope or detail or really much of anything with regard to this document. Basically what I’m saying is this: I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments.

David MacDonald, composer
Teaching Philosophy Statement

Before entering formal music training, we are all used to hearing music and reacting to it on an emotional level. We talk about how music makes us feel. I believe that we all also have the capacity to engage with music intellectually. To put it as simply as possible, this is what I strive to teach students, to think about music, not just feel about it. Thinking about music allows us to talk and write about music in meaningful, objective ways. We can then use those observations to understand why music makes us feel a certain way, or at least what it is about the music that makes us feel that way. This is as important to composers, performers, conductors, educators, and audience members. The goal of any theory course I teach is to give students cognitive tools they can use in any of those pursuits.

To teach that, I try to surround every concept I teach in music theory with thoughtfully selected musical examples. Abstractions, like scales in whole notes or triads in close position, are useful distillations of complex ideas. However, I’ve never lost a class’s attention faster than when I begin and end with abstractions. There are challenges to using real-world musical excerpts. For instance, composers don’t necessarily follow the “rules” exactly all the time. This can cause some consternation in students, but I think it’s worth that small amount of difficulty to present real art in the classroom. It also allows them to develop an appropriately nuanced understanding of music.

When I use examples, I think it is just as important to let them hear the music as it is to look at the score. I am always emphasizing the difference between music, which is made up of sounds, and the score, which is made up of visual symbols on paper. After all, most of the time when we’re experiencing music we don’t have the score in front of us. For example, when I have taught sonata form, I have begun by playing a recording and talking about the sections and cadences as they went by. It is important for students to connect the skills they develop in their written theory classes with those that they develop in their aural skills classes.

I use a broad range of evaluations and assessments, but the ones that I find most valuable and reliable are those that require some creative problem solving. For example, not just writing out a scale, but writing a melody that uses the scale or analyzing pieces that stretch the strict definitions of forms discussed in class. Larger assignments would include small compositions and writing assignments.

The final goal of any theory class is to equip students with the critical thinking skills they need to deal intellectually with music whether or not they have the score in front of them. They won’t always have a conductor or a teacher to explain a piece of music to them. In fact, in many cases, they will have to be the ones doing the explaining. I try to get students to a level of understanding at which they feel comfortable engaging intellectually with the kinds of music they may actually encounter in these situations as they go on to become well-rounded  and thoughtful performers, composers, educators, and listeners.

  • John MacDonald

    Enjoyed reading. Can’t add much on substance, but if you send an e-version,, I would be happy to add a few comments regarding style.