Students spend much of the course (at least 50%) performing music and talking about their performances. Anything they write or create, we listen to and discuss. My presentations get smaller and smaller as the semester goes on. Because students perform their work in class, the quality of their work continually improves over the course of the semester. No one wants to look bad in front of his or her peers! I don’t have to be a hard grader because knowing that they have to push “play” on their piece and that 20 people will be listening is much more motivating for students. It’s gratifying for students to have an experience like this—but it also means the course is much more work than they anticipate.
In the first half of the semester, students do not use software at all. They reflect on paper, perform music, and complete group projects. Later in the semester, I demonstrate how to use software, such as Audacity and SPEAR, and students then incorporate these, along with other software applications, into their work. There's this sigh of relief when I finally allow students to use software! Using software is easier than collaborating with others to make music. But my timing of the introduction of software is intentional: As the semester progresses, and work levels in all of their classes increase, it becomes more difficult for students to find time to get together outside of class, so it makes more sense to do group projects during the first half of the course.
When I first taught the course, I invited many guest artists to perform for students, but quickly realized that this practice left us too little time to cover all the content that we needed to during class. To address this challenge, I moved the guest artist contact outside of regular class time, into required attendance at some Composer Forums and concerts.
The Composer Forums are a series of lecture/demonstrations presented each semester by the MIT Music program. These are public events in which composers discuss their work; they’re not specific for my class, so I don't direct the composers in how they present their work. This semester, there were four composers in the forum. Two were from MIT, and two were from outside the university.
One of the Forum presentations with which a lot of students resonated was that of Roger Reynolds. Reynolds, who is now 80, is a composer. As an undergraduate, he majored in Engineering Physics. That training stuck with him and has influenced how he creates his work. He’s a very technical type of composer and certainly there were technical aspects to his presentation, but MIT students found they shared his Engineering language.
Along with the Composer Forums, I assign attendance at several concerts, responding to the culture of what’s happening on campus that semester. The MIT Music program and Arts at MIT have a lot of music-making, and I will focus on the more contemporary events.