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UM Faculty Team Reimagines Arts Elective Intro to Music

UM music faculty members meet via Zoom to discuss changes to one of the university’s core arts electives, Introduction to Music, focusing on how students experience music by building listening skills and critical thinking. They are (clockwise from top left) Nave Graham, instructor of flute; Christine Kralik, instructor of cello; David Carlisle; adjunct instructor of percussion; and Michael Rowlett, associate professor of music.

When Michael Rowlett put together a team of music faculty members at the University of Mississippi to rethink the basic arts elective MUS 103: Introduction to Music, he knew he wanted to find a way to connect the process of learning about music to his students’ experiences.

“I’ve been teaching Introduction to Music for over 15 years now, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to listen to students talk about the ways they interact with music,” said Rowlett, an associate professor of music. The team wanted the course to focus on “exploring how music interacts with our lived experiences,” he explained.

Rowlett, along with fellow faculty members Christine Kralik, David Carlisle and Nave Graham, received both a FACT Institute grant and a Critical Thinking Redesign grant from the university’s Thinkforward program, which helped them identify strategies for reimagining this important course.

Josh Eyler, UM director of faculty development, guided the team through the course redesign process. 

“I am very excited about the redesign of MUS 103, first and foremost because the faculty who have worked diligently on the course for months are extraordinarily dedicated to student success and to the development of critical thinking skills,” Eyler said.

“Secondly, though, the class is focused on helping students to develop their own interpretation of music and to do so in the context of how others, including their peers, have interpreted these same pieces of music across time. The redesigned course allows students to take ownership of their ideas as they learn about music thematically, rather than chronologically, which in turn will help them to see how music is a beautiful and elegant engagement with the world around us.”

Working with the FACT Institute and Eyler helped the team refine their thinking and realize their goal: to help students sharpen listening skills and critical thinking for a deeper understanding of music of any genre, said Kralik, an instructor who recently took over from Rowlett as Music 103 coordinator.

The course looks at various forms of music, including art music, classical music, popular music and world music – often in the same class session. This is possible because the class takes a topic-based approach. 

Last fall’s pilot run of the new design included modules such as Music of War and Tragedy, Music of Nation and Nationalism, Music and Virtuosity, Music and Oppression, Music and Love and Loss, and Music and Justice, Kralik said.

Students are enthusiastic about the new course design. The course is especially relevant because music is so ubiquitous, said pre-med student Ember Suh, a sophomore from Southaven who took it under Carlisle last fall. 

“Music can be heard in concerts, videos, musicals and more; Music 103 helped me understand the common themes and features of instrumental music, popular songs – like classic rock – and works of musicals and operas,” Suh said.

“Music 103 helped me connect music with artworks as well, which I enjoyed as a lover of all types of arts. I can now visualize Monet’s impressionist painting ‘Seaside’ while listening to Debussy’s impressionist work ‘La Mer.'”

The course’s new focus encourages engaged music listening, said Carlisle, an adjunct instructor. 

“Students develop their ability to articulate informed interpretations of music works regardless of style,” he said. “They can see that differing interpretations are not disagreements. Multiple perspectives can coexist to enrich a music work.”

Freshman psychology major Dreanna Leake, of Memphis, Tennessee, who took the class under Kralik last fall, loved the critical thinking approach: “I’ve always had a passion for deciphering and analyzing different genres of music; this course satisfied that curiosity.”

Students also appreciate that they don’t have to buy a textbook for Music 103 anymore. Listening journals and activities tailored to different types of music replace a required textbook. Grading, therefore, is based more on student responses to the music through listening journals and creative assignments that ask students to engage with the music.

The faculty team is thrilled with the outcomes of the new course design. The students who take Introduction to Music are not music majors, so this class is sometimes their first – maybe their only – chance to dive into the elements of music that will help them listen to and discuss music of any genre with more confidence, Carlisle said. 

“This is about experiencing live music of any kind with enthusiasm and understanding,” he added.

Attending music events is a regular part of the Music 103 experience in non-COVID semesters, but even in the midst of safety protocols, faculty were able to provide a range of experiences for their students, Kralik said. 

“Most of us do perform for our students at least once during the semester,” she said. 

Kralik and Rowlett performed a Beethoven duo for their combined classes last semester. Seeing them perform at the end of the course was “truly astounding,” Leake said.

The Music 103 faculty hopes the impact of learning to think critically about music stays with their students throughout their lives. 

“We want to inspire students to participate as audience members long after they’ve finished the class and their degrees,” Carlisle said.

By Lynn Adams Wilkins

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