New Possibilities

Blair’s curriculum evolves to reflect and reinforce student needs in the 21st century

From the beginning, Blair students are placed in small chamber ensembles concurrently with playing in larger ensembles. Playing in small ensembles develops their listening and collaborative skills for playing in the larger groups.

When the Blair School restructured its core curriculum, the new model was understood to be a work in progress. Indeed, three years into the “new” curriculum, Blair continues to discover new ways to teach undergraduates through music literature, music theory and musicianship courses and through a different approach to placing students in large and small instrumental ensembles. The curriculum keeps evolving, and Melissa Rose, associate dean at Blair, has counseled students through the transition.

“We used to have five semesters of music theory and four semesters of ear training and sightsinging, and students started out being placed primarily in large ensembles,” Rose explains. “It was thought that they do large ensembles first and then they’re ready for chamber music. Music literature started with a one-semester survey of Western music and then three specialized courses: one in medieval and Renaissance [music], one in baroque and classical and one in romantic and modern.”

The overhaul of the curriculum was initiated by a conviction that greater diversity of musical cultures was needed, consistant with changes many other schools were making in their curricula. When a planning committee was convened at Blair to figure out how to institute this change, Dean Mark Wait also asked the committee to consider what the students of today would need to know to succeed in their careers 25 years into the future. The new curriculum was approved in October 2009, marking the first major revision of the core curriculum since Blair began its undergraduate program in 1986.

The current course of study now includes writing-intensive music literature courses that place composers and music within the social and cultural context of their eras. Aural skills are being taught through an exciting new musicianship program that approaches ear training and sightsinging as something learned by developing skills in perception as tools to truly hear music. And the ensembles sequence has been revised: Students are now assigned to small chamber music ensembles along with the larger ensembles.

“There is now a four-semester sequence in the music literature, musicianship and theory courses that lines up into [the students’] first two years,” Rose says. “Rather than doing the traditional chronological survey of the periods, we now have a semester called Music in Western Culture, a writing-intensive course that gives them a chronological framework.

Marianne Ploger, associate professor of music perception and cognition, teaching one of her courses in musicianship. She teaches students to identify specific sound markers, much as they would if they were learning a language, within each of the 12 pitches and 11 intervals.

Then they go to global culture, then a semester of their choice and then a course in 20th- and 21st-century music.”

By the end of their sophomore year, students have completed the basic courses, which frees them to take optional upper-level theory and music literature courses, concentrate on their performance areas, get prepared for junior and senior recitals or graduate school, or pursue second majors.

“It’s very front loaded,” Rose says, “but it’s like learning a language; you have to get the sequence of courses in.”

One of the major changes in the curriculum concerns how ensemble work is done. Students had always been required to do chamber music, but being placed in small ensembles first has more effectively developed their listening and collaborative skills for the larger ensembles.

As global music has been covered more in the curriculum, opportunities for students to join world music ensembles have also increased. Above: The Commodore Steel Band performs. The steel band program has grown to include three steel drum bands consisting of more than 45 performers.

“Our ensemble directors have noticed a real difference,” Rose says. “Our program has always been a little different. In our program, they go through different rotations as they go through the semester. They might spend the first three weeks in orchestra, do a concert, then spend the next three weeks in wind ensemble. Even the string players get a combination of string chamber orchestra and full orchestra.”

As with all new programs, the curriculum is evolving. In the chamber music program, Blair has added more concerts every semester. “We used to do one marathon concert at the end of the semester. Now we do three concerts during chamber music time so all the students can come,” Rose says. “We’re also getting a greater mix among the pianists, strings, winds and brass. Last fall we had a Brahms clarinet quintet, and this semester there is a violin-clarinet-piano ensemble. So that’s fun to see.”

The sequence of music literature courses also has been adjusted. Next year, students will start with the global culture course to learn how Western music fits into the world. They’ll follow that with the writing-intensive western music course, then 20th/21st-century music, and end with a special topic of their choice, allowing them to build their writing skills. The theory sequence has been amended to include an accelerated class for more advanced students.

Feedback from students has died down now that the “new” curriculum is no longer so new. “Right after it started, the class right above fussed a bit, worried that the students weren’t getting what they had gotten,” Rose says. “But the current seniors don’t comment much. It’s interesting to see that change. I do exit interviews with the seniors each year, and I’m not sure they’ll mention it. I don’t think they think about it anymore.

“Actually, I think some of the seniors wish they’d had the global music course,” Rose adds.

Bonnie Arant Ertelt