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Developing Curriculum

As we approach the new school year, I’m bumping up my efforts to acquire some private students for studio instruction. This necessitates that I at least have a rough idea of what sort of curriculum I’m going to pursue. Obviously, since I’m not going to be teaching this private lessons out of a dedicated Royal Conservatory institution or college, I don’t have a prescribed curriculum, but being the teacher I am, I feel the need to at least think about it.

For reference, I’m using a couple of things to help sketch out my goals. The first is the current RCM syllabus – it may not be the best guideline (after all, RCM levels are awarded based on the performance of a couple of repertoire pieces and some scales, hardly an exhaustive examination of all the necessary musical skills), but it certainly shows me what a large number of institutions are looking towards for examinations. Secondly, I have the current Music curriculum used in Alberta’s schools (although this, too, is not definitive, what with it being twenty-plus years old at this time), since in my experience many students will also participate in their school’s music program in addition to their private activities.

What I find the most daunting is the aspect of decision-making that comes with developing curriculum. What do you cut? Where do you focus your efforts, and at the expense of what else? Intellectually, of course, I know that there will be a very organic flow to the sequence of lessons – all musicians develop differently, different students will have different goals, and most importantly, no government will come breathing down your neck if it takes 6 extra months to internalize a set of concepts for whatever reason.

I remember opening the Google Doc that I’m using to collect my thoughts on what sort of things I’d like to put an emphasis on in my lessons, writing the words ‘Technique’ and ‘Musicianship’, and then just sort of staring at the page blankly for a bit. I don’t realize until I really have to try and sum it up how much sheer volume of knowledge and experience I have collected over my playing career. The scale of it stumps me.

At the summer camp I regularly work at as a supervisor, we had a Q&A session after a recital that all the supervisors gave for the students. One student’s question was the typical ‘How long have you all been playing?’ To realize as I considered the answer that I have been playing the trombone almost as long or longer than many of them had been alive, and certainly taking music lessons longer than any of them had been alive was a very weird moment for me.

In any case, trying to filter out the various condensed pieces of ‘how to play brass’ from my brain is a time-consuming, painstaking process. A lot of it, you see, is bundled up in experiential learning. I have no idea how to explain the correct ‘feeling’ of a lip slur, but I can certainly tell you when it sounds wrong. ‘How do you get such a fast double-tongue accurately?’ ‘Practice, o student mine.’ ‘How should it feel when it’s correct?’ ‘Uh, well, it’s sort of like… but it could be different… here’s what NOT to feel, okay?’

It occurs to me that this is probably the reason it takes so damn long to actually get a new curriculum of any kind off the ground. Talk to any teacher of any kind, and they will have a slightly different conception of, one, what is important to teach, and two, how to actually teach said stuff in a way that is helpful to students. Then you have to somehow assimilate the collected opinions regarding said important knowledge into a rough consensus, package it in a form that everyone can at least understand, and then deliver it without causing so many headaches on behalf of teachers, students, and parents that you have to go back to the drawing board (if you’re a math teacher in Alberta, you feel the true pain of that statement right now).

Finally, I also should confront the spectre of the fact that, in all likelihood, I will settle on a rough curriculum that I’d like to impart, discover with my first two students that I’ve missed crucial bits, and by the way, they have goals that aren’t entirely compatible with said curriculum, and I’ll go back to teaching one experiential step at a time, and hope they turn out to be decent musicians in spite of their teacher’s over-preparedness. Still, I am enough of a type-A person to feel comforted by the mere act of trying to think all this out.

It makes me wonder how we ever got an education system to work in the first place, much less have a world-class one like we do where I live. And also, thank heavens I wasn’t one of the people who had to wrestle it into place like so many wet cats in a burlap sack. Although I have definitely been in groups of teachers that feel like that.


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