As teachers who are engaged in improving curriculum and instruction and making learning meaningful to our students, we are often looking for new pedagogical methodologies and new teaching techniques. Some of these involve ample use of digital media and other efficient tools afforded by the development and diffusion of technology.
Yet, in my teaching of music-theoretical courses grounded in history, such as counterpoint (a sixteenth-century, Renaissance compositional technique), I have been trying to incorporate historical texts into our classes. Yes, techniques from the past! Perhaps, this could be influenced by my predilection for music history, given my background as a historical musicologist. Nonetheless, in spite of this bias, the results have been fascinating.
In teaching counterpoint this term, I have made Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum (1725) one of the main required textbooks for this course (Mann, 1971). Despite many recent textbooks on the study of counterpoint at a post-secondary level available today, Fux’s Gradus is unique in at least two ways. Firstly, the textbook is a thorough and comprehensive pedagogical treatise written specifically to teach Renaissance counterpoint to advanced students. Its design is simple and it is based on acquired competency, practical development of compositional skills, and an increasing level of difficulty throughout the teaching process. Secondly, it is written in an organic and friendly dialogue format.
The dialogue takes place between Alouysius, the master, and Josephus, the pupil. The former constantly engages his student by means of probing questions that encourage critical thinking and reflection. Assessments are completed as the instruction progresses and are always formative, in that both Alouysius and Josephus provide one another with feedback on the instruction process.
Fortunately, Burman University’s small classes afford the possibility for a similar format of instruction, which I adopted completely throughout this term, namely that of engaging students through a dialogical process of lesson and assessment similar to the methodology in Fux’s text. Although our classes are not one-on-one, as portrayed in Fux’s Gradus, they function like a lesson and allow for a direct application of the dialogue format suggested in that book. I have treated our class as a “writing lab,” in which we converse about the material and course content, share examples with one another, and provide peer feedback and critical perspectives on one another’s compositional work. As a result of this formative process, my students have been successful in completing within an average of four months (during a Winter-term course) what I have myself completed in four semesters of counterpoint classes as an undergraduate student.
This is to say that, by simply adopting a simple, welcoming—and rather ancient—dialogical technique, our class has been achieving results that I did not consider possible before this semester. In our constant pursuit of new effective pedagogies and doubtlessly strong teaching methodologies grounded in innovative ways of thinking, we may lose sight of the simplicity and efficacy with which masters taught their expertise in the past, centuries before the concepts of curriculum and instruction were broached—at least how we how we understand them today.
My experience with this dialogical process in class also points to Jesus’ teaching style, which features a teacher that engages students by means of questions and critical thinking. In approaching teaching in this way, Jesus was able to instill in His students the rewarding experience of a dialogical exchange that involves deep reflection, personal involvement, and, consequently, a practical, lasting, and meaningful understanding.