Music Pedagogy Question: How do I teach about eras in music?

I had a conversation with a friend and fellow private teacher some time ago and, in the course of our discussion, she asked how I had learned about the various eras of music, and then how I approach teaching them to my students. The question caught me a little off guard because the knowledge that I have in this area isn’t something that I have labored long and hard for, the way I practice a four movement Beethoven Sonata. Additionally, I would be the first to admit that, not having worked intensively on this subject, I am not equipped to teach it on the same level I am to teach difficult pianistic techniques or literature. In a sense, because of the many wonderful teachers with whom my siblings and I have studied, it seemed that this sort of information was “just there.”

“Uh, um, I don’t know…” was my initial reaction. But then I realized that I did know how this knowledge was acquired: our teachers talk about it. Sometimes a large percentage of a lesson will be spent in discussion about a particular composer and the times surrounding his life. Maybe we talk about his family, his favorite instrument, his most commonly known works and more interestingly, the forgotten ones. They talk about the particular musical elements of an era: what types of ideas were popular at that time? How were their instruments different from ours, and how did that influence the music that was written? What are the technical (physical) elements required to recreate that musicality?

It was a lightbulb moment for me as I realized that anything I knew on the subject was due to intentional conversation on the part of my several teachers. They each in their own way have made a habit of discussing eras and composers with us throughout our lessons, especially when we begin to study a new piece. And then, they acknowledge our responsibility as the student. One teacher in particular strongly encourages us to look things up for ourselves when we have a question. After all, you are your own best teacher (more on that at a later date).

After several years of struggling to develop the disciplines of observing and intentionally looking for information beyond the notes on the page, it has finally become habitual for me before commencing the study of a new piece to observe the composer and the dates of his life. From there, I should know, or have enough information to research, what era I am dealing with and what the stylistic elements are of that era.

 “All of this is good and well when I’m the student, but what about when I’m the one responsible for training the minds and hands of the next generation of musicians?”  That’s a great question, and one it has taken me years to articulate so I could discern what was missing in my teaching and then work to find solutions.

Here’s a quick-start checklist of things to know as you introduce eras to your students:

  1. Memorize the dates of the four primary eras: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.
  2. Familiarize yourself with 2-3 commonly-known composers from each era.
  3. Learn 3-4 descriptive adjectives to describe the style of each era.

Make a point to just talk through these things in the lesson as you study a piece. You don’t have to talk about all three points at one time if you aren’t comfortable jumping into it all at once. If it’s a moderately challenging piece, the student will probably be studying it for a few lesson periods and you can research and/or brush up what you need to have ready for the next lesson during the week. Be natural, and don’t try to say what you don’t know. Those things can keep until the next lesson when you’ve collected your thoughts. At the same time, don’t be afraid to pause and look something up in your music dictionary during the lesson. It’s okay for your student to know that we are all learning and growing together, and seeing you use your resources could be just the example and encouragement they need to become excellent musicians and teachers themselves.

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