Who’s Got the Blues?

I woke (E) up this mornin’ and didn’t know what to teach in class…yeah-yeah-be-dah-daw-de-daw (E7)

I woke (A) up this mornin’ and didn’t (Am) know what to teach in class (E)…yeah-ye-yeah-ye-yaw-be-bah-be-baw (E7)

So I got (B7) to just remember not to be (A7) that ol’ bumblin’ ass (E-E7-F#m11-Go7-E9-F13-E13)

This past spring faculty at my institution gathered in a development workshop on “performance learning,” which reminded me of an activity I regularly build into my courses for non majors. But the organizers of the workshop defined “performance learning” in more specific contexts than the familiar expression “performance-based learning.” Performance meant a public performance with an audience and the student in the spotlight, and the goal was learning how to harness the motivation that drives student athletes before the big game. A significant event, such as a final exam, was not the only factor; it was the public exposure in front of teammates, fans, and family. How can a public performance bring the best out of students and their learning?

For several semesters of music appreciation, I’ve engaged students in a compositional activity to learn the blues. After studying examples by Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, and W. C. Handy, students are to author several stanzas of blues text, sequence the characteristic harmonies, and describe the musical expressions of the text with each line. I italicize “describe” because before this workshop I never actually expected the non music majors to demonstrate their understanding by actually performing their compositions. I was wrong.

Thank you Garage Band and iPad for making this possible. The new version of this assignment now requires teams of students to perform the blues for the class. In addition to the steps described above, students choose instruments on Garage Band (drum set, guitar, piano, string bass, etc.) and along with a singer play their compositions. The “smart” function for instruments in the iPad app allows students to preset chords in the harmony so they can easily simulate the act of playing the instruments. In many ways this resembles the level of difficulty one experiences in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Everyone in the class can participate.

The added benefits of this experience are noteworthy. For one, students are pushed to act outside of their comfort zone and to demonstrate some level of competence in the area. Second, students must have mastered basic musicianship skills of counting measures and staying with the beat, both crucial to developing active listening habits. Outcomes such as these go beyond the “content knowledge of blues” to demonstrating relevant skills that will assist them throughout the course and will likely have a lasting impact on their interest in the music.

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