Acting Out: Teaching Music History with Role-Playing

[Editors’ note: In August, Karen and Parme attended the Arts in Society Conference, an interdisciplinary forum for discussion of the role of the arts in society. They presented “AHTR: An OER Community for Pedagogical Practice in Art History,” which served to present AHTR and the new journal, Art History Pedagogy and Practice, to those in the humanities outside of the art history discipline. Many of the panels focused on pedagogy. We were pleased to share a session with Beverly and Ashley who gave a super talk on using RTTP in their class. While their course was not dedicated to art history, we have become such a fan of this engaged pedagogy that we invited them to write a Weekly post on their experience adding to the two super posts, byGretchen and Franny, already published on the site.]

At the University of Oregon in the Fall of 2016, a small group of musicology graduate students gathered during a music history pedagogy seminar to discuss the trials of teaching the music history survey–frequently one of the undergraduate music majors’ least favorite requirements in music schools across the country. This survey not only attempts to teach over six hundred years of Western art music within a single year, but also serves as the typical music department’s primary arena for teaching students to critically analyze, engagement with, and write about musical source material. Ask any music history professor and they will tell you, getting the students excited about this subject is a daunting—if not impossible—task.

During the pedagogy seminar, our professor, Dr. Marian Smith, introduced our group to a new game-based history curriculum known as Reacting to the Past (RttP). It was immediately apparent to us that a role-playing tour of landmark historical events played out over a single semester had great potential to inspire our students. However, a major question loomed: how could this curriculum, designed for 11-28 students and covering a singular historical moment, possibly work in a lecture hall of 80 with 200 years of material?

Undeterred (or possibly just naïvely enthusiastic), our little group worked with Dr. Smith throughout the following 10-week semester to devise a functional syllabus that would incorporate the role-playing element while still functioning as a coverage-based survey course. We quickly realized that the only way it would work for our particular class structure was by holding the role-playing sessions during the survey’s weekly graduate-student-led discussion sections (of which we had four, with enrollment ranging from 6-20 students each). Therefore, with these parameters in mind, Dr. Smith decided to greenlight the project for her survey class in the spring term.

We were fortunate that Dr. Smith treated us more as team-teacher than teaching assistants. As we prepared to implement this brand new, Frankenstein’s monster of a curriculum, our excitement leading up to the first big role-playing debate was only matched by our sheer terror. If even a tiny portion of our discussion sections hated the idea or refused to do the undeniably large amount of independent research, it was very likely the entire semester’s discussion plans (and the myriad essay assignments based around our role-playing activities) would completely disintegrate. So, with trepidation, as well as very obvious bribes in the form of coffee and donuts, our students settled into their seats and began debating as their first characters–composers and critics in fin de siècle France–over the influence of Wagnerism and the status of French Music.

And it worked.

As the students became accustomed to the idea and inhabited their characters, the debates became passionate, articulate, sometimes hilarious, and always informative. Even during large lecture, students were spontaneously speaking as their characters or voicing additional knowledge they had discovered in outside research when they had otherwise been silent. We enjoyed higher rates of discussion section attendance than past terms. Our students showed a clear growth throughout the semester in critical engagement with source documents and assigned readings. In all, our small vanguard cautiously considered the experiment a success.

Of course, not everything was perfect.

First, in our attempts to merge role-playing into the traditional music history survey, final course grades didn’t always give enough credit for the students’ hard work and dedication in their role-playing endeavours. Second, while we were amazed at the buy-in of the students, reception of the game structure wasn’t always 100% favorable. Some students were nervous about entrusting their learning to their fellow students–a valid concern given that shyer students (and especially international students, who made up a small but significant portion of each section) were sometimes intimidated by the fast-paced discussions, and often stayed silent. And finally, and perhaps most glaringly obvious, we learned that time management was critical to success, both in properly managing the (sometimes overzealous) student contributions and in our own class/discussion prep.

Obviously, there are a myriad of ways we can improve our curriculum for next year (and the next, and the next…). Still, these challenges were surprisingly manageable in regards to the overall strengths the game-based methodology offers, and as another school year begins, we are exhilarated at the prospect of trying our program again. By revamping the traditional music history lecture survey through game structures (like role-playing), we believe students will find more than just names, dates, and black dots on a page, but instead real people for whom–just like many of our students–music was life.


One response to “Acting Out: Teaching Music History with Role-Playing”

  1. Ellen Cutler says:

    It’s hard to envision the curriculum but it is a fascinating idea. I recognize both main challenges: 1) getting the students to do the independent research they need to inform themselves of the artist or subject area and 2) getting shrinking violets to participate. My first question would be whether the research was at least in part guided? Was there a list of readings, recordings to listen to? And was there any mechanism for peer evaluation. In my AH classes, I am using presentations and requiring peer evaluations. (5 “on a scale of 1-5” type questions.) This ensures the physical presence of all the students–because students who do not hand in evaluations sustain a significant point penalty.

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