Academic journal article Honors in Practice

The American Musical as an Honors Course: Obstacles and Possibilities

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

The American Musical as an Honors Course: Obstacles and Possibilities

Article excerpt

Music courses are often problematic for the general undergraduate student as they focus on abstract concepts, employ a specialized vocabulary, and examine compositions not part of most people's everyday listening repertoire. Many will acknowledge that while they enjoy listening to music, their background and experiences are limited and steeped in the familiar. Appreciation is based on personal taste and often fails to consider historical context, structural components, and stylistic trends. Despite these obstacles, it is possible to construct a meaningful and challenging course for students, regardless of their major, as long as one is willing to use music not as an object for analysis but as a lens through which other topics are viewed, studied, and examined. Such an approach lends itself especially well to a discussion-based class and, in particular, an honors seminar.

How does one create a class that seriously considers some aspect of music when a majority of the participants have little or no prior background in the subject? The trick is to identify a genre that is accessible to students on first hearing and allows them to work with the medium in a critical manner. The American musical provides an attractive possibility because it is familiar enough that most students are not immediately discouraged by "new" or different sounds, the subject matter is sufficiently varied for extensive discussion, and the genre is one with which nearly all have had at least some personal experience. This article explains my positive experience teaching an honors seminar focused on this popular genre.

I began the planning process acknowledging that those enrolled in the course would have little or no background in music theory and/or history and would be able neither to examine a composition using traditional means of analysis (harmonic, thematic, rhythmic, structural, etc.) nor draw on any historical perspective. How then could I get them to consider a musical beyond something that is fun and entertaining (a la Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's That's Entertainment)? One approach was to start by examining the texts, both the original sources (plays, short stories, or novels) and the resultant libretti. Not only would this approach provide an entree for those students who might initially have problems getting beyond the "basic plot," but it also offered opportunities for comparison between the initial work and its transformation into a play set to music.

While students could thus begin looking at a work via the text, they still needed assistance in developing other skills: how to listen, analyze, and evaluate. In particular, their aural skills would require attention. Learning to think about the quality of sound, the relationship between various parts, the interplay between lines, and the function of the orchestra required a realignment of the students' standard practice of listening, which generally consisted of focusing almost exclusively on the lyrics and vocal parts. I have often found that non-musicians label lyrics as "the music" with everything else relegated to "the instruments." I needed to train the students to become aural learners. Previous classroom experiences revealed that many students listened passively; when a visual component was added, their passivity became even more pronounced. In those situations, music was peripheral to costuming, movement, and spoken text. As a countermeasure, I determined that listening to a musical's sound track would necessarily have to come prior to viewing a performance.

Constructing a methodology for analysis was also a challenge. While students traditionally developed insight into characters, relationships, motifs, moods, and emotions through a careful reading of the text, I expected them to gain the same information through active listening to music and close observation of choreographed movements. They would have to examine a work with respect to structure, texture, function of vocal and dance numbers, quality of sound and movement, and vocal and dance style. …

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