Mary Natvig on Teaching Music History

This is a guest post from Mary Natvig, author of Teaching Music History


Teaching Music HistoryI am honored and delighted that Ashgate has selected my 2002 essay collection, Teaching Music History, as one of its works that has made the most significant impact on the author’s field.

Considering the long-term effects of its publication, the genesis of Teaching Music History is comparatively paradoxical. It was not the result of calculated thought or scholarly introspection. The idea came in a flash—an impulse that once voiced, was impossible to take back. Early in my career, I attended an evening session on “Diversity in the Classroom” at the 1996 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Baltimore, MD. As I listened to the panelists, I was suddenly inspired and motivated to do something about the lack of pedagogical writing for those who teach music history and music appreciation. Most of us who become musicologists end up teaching; and most of us spend much of, or most of, our time on that activity. The semester before, I had just received my first smattering of “bad” teaching evaluations. After several years as a TA, an instructor, and as a young professor with very good evals, I wondered what had gone wrong. So during the session’s Q&A, I stood up and announced that I was editing a collection of essays called Teaching Music History, and anyone who would be interested in contributing should see me. At that point I had been editing the collection (in my imagination) for about five minutes—fueled by a scholarly intoxication (that only a conference can produce) and hubris (that only inexperience can excuse). By the end of the meeting I had four or five contributors and sobriety set in; I was now the self-appointed editor of a collection of essays on music history teaching, a project that no one had ever attempted and one that I had no idea how to get published.

Perhaps the above anecdote explains why I’m still slightly bemused when I hear the book cited as the beginning of a “movement,” or as Ashgate has deemed it, “having made the most impact in the field.” Of course I am honored beyond belief, but I am more delighted that the collection has sparked a discourse among musicologists that teaching is a topic to be discussed out loud and in print. Although several in our field had written previously on pedagogical issues (mostly in College Music Symposium), the publication of Teaching Music History in 2002 created something like a communal “happening” that attracted others to go public with their ideas and activities concerning pedagogy. The year after the book was published Kathryn Lowerre organized the first and now annual conference called “Teaching Music History Day.” Soon after (in 2005), Jessie Fillerup, Peter Burkholder, Alice Clark, and Jim Briscoe spearheaded the formation of the American Musicological Society’s Pedagogy Study Group, leading to regular pedagogy sessions at that society’s Annual Meeting and eventually to a prize, sponsored by the AMS, for innovative teaching projects. Matthew Balensuela founded the Journal of Music History Pedagogy in 2010 and Jim Briscoe published the second collection of essays that same year (Vitalizing Music History Teaching). Two years later Jim Davis’s The Music History Classroom appeared. This is just the tip of the iceberg. So many scholars have been involved in delivering papers, publishing articles, and organizing conferences, that music history pedagogy is now “a thing.”* Who knew? And who could have predicted that in 2013 the venerable American Musicological Society would change its Object statement—for the first time in history—to include a reference to teaching alongside its traditional mission of promoting and supporting musicological research.

Many scholars, in addition to the ones named above, took part in the transformation of “music history pedagogy” from quiet, after hours discussions in conference bars to public sessions, a journal, and new publications, but the fourteen contributors to Teaching Music History, some of whom were my own marvelous mentors and all of whom entered the project with expertise and enthusiasm deserve mention here: Maria Archetto, Noël Bisson, J. Peter Burkholder, Susan C. Cook, Vincent Corrigan, Robert Fink, Carol Hess, Mary Hunter, Ralph P. Locke, Patrick Macey, Russell E. Murray, Kenneth Nott, Michael Pisani, Marjorie Roth, and Pamela Starr. Thank you all, and thank you to Ashgate Publishing for taking a chance on a new idea.

*For more on the twenty-first century music history pedagogy movement, see Scott Dirkse’s recent dissertation, Music History Pedagogy in the Twentieth-First Century:The Pedagogy Movement in American Musicology (UC Santa Barbara).


Mary Natvig is Professor of Musicology and Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the College of Musical Arts, Bowling Green State University. Her areas of research are: the sacred music of the 15th century, music and social reform, and music history pedagogy. She is the author of Teaching Music History (Ashgate, 2002) and co-author with Steven Cornelius of Music: A Social Experience (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011).

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