End-of-Semester Reflections

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Well, my second semester musicianship class on vocal close harmony is over. The students have had 11 one-hour classes on a style that was completely new to them, and have each produced an arrangement which they’ll record in a quartet with three other students for their assignment. Consequently, my last class teaching activity for the year was working with the quartets to refine their performances prior to the recording session – a fine way to end the year in my view!

One of the things I have always enjoyed about this class is the way it combines specialist, technical learning with very holistic, general learning.

As I say to the students at the start: they may never need the specific techniques they use for this assignment again in their lives, but they will almost certainly at some point find themselves in the position of having to get to grips with a new style that has some relationship with their prior knowledge but also confounds their expectations. If they’ve done it once in college, they’ll know they can do it again.

So, they have to get to grips with specific notational conventions, specific techniques for voicing and chord-choice, new vocabulary to describe the embellishment strategies available, as well as the specific ensemble techniques for balance and blend that the arranging style is designed to support. There are lots of technical workings-out to do, and much brain-cudgelling.

But there’s also a leap of imagination to undertake to get the feel of it, to understand the point of it. We listen to recordings and they comment on the distinctive things they hear in them. And I share anecdotes. Quite often at the start of class, there are a few minutes where people are settling in and I’m taking the register, and this is a good time to gossip about the people they’ve just heard on the recordings: tales of how the Suntones changed the world, or Boston Common.

And of course this year we had the arrangers’ day in April at the Conservatoire, and about half the class were able to come along and meet a bunch of people who have been living with the style for much longer than they have. It was great in class next day when several of the examples on the class handout were arranged by people they’d heard other people talking about the day before!

So, the specialist part of this learning experience is about getting enough holistic understanding of a musical culture to make sense of the technical disciplines it involves. That’s already an interestingly balanced learning experience. But there’s more.

The big things that this class really develops are completely independent of the specialist content:

  • Completing a complex project to a defined deadline
  • Organisational skills (i.e. coordinating quartet rehearsals)
  • Interpersonal/teamwork skills (making those quartet rehearsals effective)
  • Sight-singing
  • Flexibility (both the flexibility to change their arrangements in light of the feedback from their quartet mates, and the flexibility to relearn parts as arrangers hone their charts)

These generalist skills are the ones you really go to university to learn. However vocational your degree, you can be pretty certain that twenty years after graduation a lot of what you learned will be seriously out of date, even if you yourself haven’t changed (which is even less likely than the subject not changing).

But – and this is the bit I find really interesting – those generalist skills are only obtainable through the process of doing specialist work. Personal resources of any depth or value need some kind of challenge to develop, and it takes specialist study – in both technical and imaginative dimensions – to present sufficient challenge to help people grow.

Absoluetly agree about the generalist skills learned at uni. Although, I would add that for many people there seems to be a danger of thinking that you stop learning as soon as you stop specialist study. The growth to be found through life experiences can be just as valuable in developing your skills as long as you dedicate the time to stopping and analysing, recording and thinking about every challenge you face and overcome.


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