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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


What If Every Class Was a Version of "Music Appreciation?"

What happens when we put "appreciation" at the center of a course?

January 24, 2019

I chose Music Appreciation as an elective course freshman year of high school because word in the hallways was that it was easy. 

Sure, I liked music fine, but mostly, how ‘bout that easiness!

From the outside, judged by standards of “schooling,” Music Appreciation was indeed un-rigorous. I recall a report on a single artist we had to write at the end of the semester, probably to satisfy some administrative edict, but provided you attended class, the assistant band director’s grading was, let’s call it lenient, and as I recall, nearly the entire class got A’s. 

It was a great class, and not because it was “easy.” In fact, it wasn’t necessarily easy at all. 

Class primarily consisted of listening to music while watching the assistant band director stare wistfully into the distance as he tapped his foot in time, or mimed the fingering if an imaginary brass instrument, followed by talking about what we’d just heard. We listened to music, and we “appreciated” it. We did some classical, some popular music (like The Beatles),[1]but the assistant band director was a jazz head, so we got lots of jazz, a genre my father listened to, but which I’d been steadfastly against, possibly for that reason.[2]

At first, the class was almost painfully awkward. We would listen, the assistant band director would smile at us, ask what we heard, and we stared back at him, near silent. 

Uhh…a saxophone?

We had nothing to say. What had we heard? Uhh…music…we guess? 

But he modeled responses for us, pointing out particular phrasings or how instruments might interact inside a piece. Maybe a little overarching theory was sprinkled in, but I don’t remember any specifics, necessarily. I do remember after listening to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and having the assistant band director tap out the time signature on the desk, experiencing a literal moment of “appreciation.” The roiling sense of movement, its peculiar swing is driven by the 5/4 beat. He played the song again and we tapped along. I didn’t know my fingers could do that.[3]

Later in the semester the assistant band director played Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and while it was playing asked us about the time signature. Someone blurted out 5/4, but before the assistant band director could answer someone else said, “No, it’s 9/8.” We tapped it out. He was right.

My personal epiphany was listening to a Django Reinhardt recording and hearing the very faint sound of his fingers scraping against the guitar strings as he was playing. You had to listen closely because it was underneath the music, but that was the point, I realized I was listening closely, more closely than ever before.

What were we learning in music appreciation? What weren’t we learning in music appreciation? 

Let’s start with what we weren’t learning. The class was light on “coverage.” We were not learning information about music and recreating that learning on exams. I don’t think there were any exams at all, just that final paper. If the goal was to arm us with background about things like the phrygian scale v. the mixolydian mode, the class was a failure. We did not learn dates and timelines from Mozart to Miles Davis, even as we listened to both Mozart and Miles Davis. 

We were often given context to help our listening, but we were not quizzed on the trivia. 

What we were learning is that we possessed the powers to observe (listen to) the world and interpret that world for ourselves. I’m confident we made no discoveries not already known by many before us, but we were being taught to believe in ourselves as creators of knowledge, self-knowledge above all. We were learning a lesson about rigor, namely that a course is as rigorous as you’d like to make it, and that the rigor which lives within the person is much more powerful than that which we attempt to impose from the outside.

Hindsight, and many years of teaching have allowed me to see what a gift this was, to be exposed to an approach which made space for students to practice their own values. If the goal was to appreciate music, the goal was met. We not only appreciated music, we appreciated our own abilities to appreciate music.

Not long after, I started learning guitar, then later, drums, even performing in a band with my childhood buddies that once got to play a weekday show at Chicago’s Metro,[4] one of the greatest rock clubs in the history of the world, and a place where I’d seen quite literally hundreds of shows. We were (very briefly) on that stage.

I was not and am not any kind of gifted musician, but I’ve benefitted from that experience of listening ever since in many different ways.

Which brings me to the main thrust of my argument, far too late by standards of convention, but I wanted to tell the story of music appreciation first.

Here goes: Every course would benefit from having “appreciation” at or near its center.

In some courses I’ve taught, this has been easy to do. A class on the Theory and Practice of Humor meant I could share lots of things which would engender laughter, after which we could ask why exactly we were laughing, the same way my music appreciation teacher could ask why we were bopping along to the music at our desks. Students could also bring humor to me, expanding the palate of what we discussed beyond my own preoccupations. Later, they would attempt to write their own humorous pieces, bringing their understanding from observation, to self-generated theory, to execution.[5]

It’s pretty straightforward in fiction writing as well. Most of the students in that kind of class already love stories and reading, so to set aside some time for me (or one of them) to read a story out loud in class and spend a few moments afterwards marveling about how it worked its spell on us is as natural as anything.

It can be somewhat harder in a course like first-year writing. In fact, when I was primarily focused on student “proficiencies,” I now see how appreciation was almost absent from the course. As my pedagogy evolved, however, and I disaggregated some of the component parts of thinking through writing, we found ways to observe and interpret and allow students to make knowledge for themselves and their audiences. These are the experiences I’ve included in The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing

That word “confidence” in the title is not accidental, and I believe it is rooted in the experience of appreciation. When students appreciate how to target an audience, how to craft a message that matters, how to refine their own process for maximum benefit, how one writing experience may translate to the next, unfamiliar one, they are gaining a kind of confidence.

This was true in music appreciation, where the early semester silence became late semester cacophony as we tried to be first to notice something in a new recording. 

As instructors immersed in our fields, it’s easy to take appreciation for granted. We wouldn’t be doing what we do if we didn’t appreciate it on a marrow-deep level. I know I’ve been mystified as to why students aren’t as awed as I am by a subject I’ve presented.

Isn’t that awesome? I say. If I’m greeted with silence, it is not because students are philistines. How could I expect them to appreciate something they’ve been studying for weeks when I’ve been studying it for years.

If they are mystified, or indifferent, I simply haven’t yet established the groundwork of appreciation.

The assistant band director didn’t yell at us for being cretins when he played Miles Davis’s “Bitches’ Brew,” and we declared it noise.

Keep listening, he said. It’ll come.


[1]In my memory this class was the first time I heard Frank Zappa music that wasn’t “Valley Girl.”

[2]Fast forward 35 years and I now like jazz, including much of the music my father listened to. 

[3]Years later, hearing the song “15 Step” by Radiohead, I recognized the 5/4 beat, employed at a tempo that gives the song a propulsive, yet jittery energy. It doesn’t quite swing like “Take Five.” Employed by Radiohead, it sounds sinister to me.

[4]I still think of it as its original name, Cabaret Metro, but it changed to just Metro in 1992. Chicagoans of a certain age will understand. It was a Wednesday. We opened for the opening band for the openers for the opening band for the headliner. Still…Cabaret Metro!

[5]One of my explicit learning goals in the course syllabus was to both “ruin” and “enhance” their understanding of what makes something funny. They’d still laugh – laughter is reflexive – but they’d never laugh again without also asking and seeking to understand what they were laughing at.


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