BENJAMIN ROBERT BIDWELL portrait
  • Associate Instructor, School Of Music
801-587-1566

Current Courses

Fall 2020

  • MUSC 1340-003
    Intro to Music Tech

Spring 2020

Teaching Philosophy

My philosophy about the teaching of music theory stems from my philosophy about music itself, that it is a visceral language that speaks to the core of every human being.  It conveys pure truth without words (even songs have a layer of meaning deeper than the lyrics).  Regardless of whether it is shallow or profound, music is a driving, indelible force in and of human existence, a vital lifeblood that feeds, motivates, and inspires the creative intellect of our souls.  

Bearing in mind that this need for music is written somewhere into everyone’s genome (even the deaf are moved by vibrations), I believe that every student’s personal connection with music is also the key for unlocking their greater comprehension.  The ideal purpose of music theory is to translate musical truths innately understood in one portion of the brain into a form that makes sense in another.  Theoretical exercise thus serves a critical developmental role: it expands cognition by engaging interactivity between these different centers of the brain.  The “light bulb” moment happens when logical explanation can be powerfully reinforced in a student with their embedded emotional tie to music. As a teacher, I live for the “light bulb,” and it is my goal to help facilitate this synapse connection in everyone I teach. Thus, I strive to know my students well and cater my instruction to fit their individual learning styles, identities (social, racial, religious, orientation, etc.), experiential backgrounds, and personal reasons for loving music. 

The result of good musical training accompanied by sound theoretical practice is improved comprehension, keener emotional/intellectual connectivity, enhanced pattern recognition, and greater retention, all of which lead in turn to better performances, better musicianship, better compositional output, and a broader/deeper arsenal of resources to nourish the creative need.  The study of music theory should not only accomplish these outcomes in students’ musicianship, but also improve their life skills.  Students who have internalized skills of 1) analysis, 2) voice leading/part writing/harmonization, 3) listening/sight singing, and 4) theoretical writing are likewise prepared to be good critical thinkers, problem solvers, competent and contributing citizens, and lifelong learners.  It is my personal goal that my students leave my classes not only having assimilated the four aforementioned skills specific to theory, but also exhibiting a greater passion for their art and confidence to live life by translating these skills into everyday applications. 

In order to attain this outcome, the curriculum, the atmosphere, and the student/teacher relationship all need to properly inspire a desire to learn in students.  Let me share a few points about my personal teaching style and my values that I believe will help students to catch a love of learning. 

First, I believe strongly that a teacher’s effectiveness is interdependent with a commitment to research.  A professor’s active pursuit of learning is not only necessary for staying current and being adaptable, but fuels one’s passion for teaching and engages active learning in kind within students.  A teacher’s own learning should include involvement with the greater college community as well as extra-academic professional work so that the music curricula and teaching methods can evolve in relevant ways to be of most use career-seeking students.

Second, I believe that a teacher must establish the relevance of his/her discipline to affirm good rapport with the students.  Often the subject of music theory is met with resistance from students because they find it tedious, obtuse, or too abstracted from the “real” music they play with their ensembles, in their garages, or on their iPods. Therefore, an effective music theory course should incorporate a balance of current popular music examples along with classical literature excerpts.  If students can be shown how theory, through its insights on the phrase model and structure vs. embellishment principles, actually informs performance decisions, they will not dismiss it as a mere irrelevant brain exercise. 

A good theory curriculum should include: 
       1) Readings that foster controversy, interest, and provocative thought in order to generate discussion (where appropriate);
       2) Assignments that target learning outcomes (and not just busy work for work’s sake), that—
              a) give students tactile active learning experiences (for example, writing harmony to an existing solo piece for their personal instruments)
              b) students can relate to (such as analyzing a favorite popular song or music from their culture)
              c) get them to collaborate with each other both in and out of class
              d) give opportunity for students to do as much written work and active learning as possible during class time (using flipped and hybrid class models, for instance)
              d) are a good balance between tried-and-true methods and innovative ideas
              e) give them a sense of ownership (like a paper on an approved topic of their choice, or an original composition);
       3) Exposure to culture and diversity (concert attendance, listening to recordings, demonstrations of ethnic instruments, field trips if relevant, discussions of larger social issues behind the music, etc.)
       4) Effective integration of practical musicianship skills (singing, playing, melodic and harmonic hearing identification skills, etc.)
       5) Beginning with a good grounding in fundamentals, especially in meter and rhythm, followed by spending some time with modified two-voice tonal species counterpoint, establishing the outer-voice framework (from which harmony arises as the natural byproduct) and providing early exposure to principles like non-chord tones, consonance v. dissonance, and hierarchical accent, well before writing in four voices. A proper beginning ensures less confusion and better part-writing and voice leading later on.
       6) Assessment for mastery of class-related skills as well as for acquisition of life-long skills in a way that not only measures but also shows whether I have met my goals as a teacher. For instance, a part-writing exam should not test simply to see whether students can regurgitate the rules of species counterpoint or identify roman numerals in an analysis, but should measure whether they use logic coming from an understanding of the overarching musical principlesbehind the rules (which translates into compositional prowess).

As an outcome of theory and aural skills training, students should be able to confidently identify harmonic context, melodic intervals, rhythmic figuration, structure and form, and all other essential musical dimensions almost universally through the repertoire, both aurally and visually.  This outcome is an aim of my teaching and assessments, but the real proof comes down the road when students transfer this skill set into their performance or music production careers.

Third, I believe in maintaining a conducive learning atmosphere. It should be free of distraction, intimidation, and offense, but should also be a place where all feel free to express individual ideas and opinions in civilized discussion without fear of embarrassment or retaliation.  The spirit of diversity and inclusion should be readily perceptible in the classroom. Where music is concerned, students should not be afraid to sing aloud or play their instruments, or share analytical solutions or personal compositions, so, as a teacher, I strive to show open-mindedness, praise to others even when they make mistakes, and willingness to be transparent about my own musical blunders with a good-natured sense of humor.  

In the classroom I strive to boost the effectiveness of learning by incorporating multiple senses and getting students to teach each other; the more students can see, hear, and play musical examples, the more tangible the learning experience, which makes for better retention.  I also incorporate technology in my teaching, using hybrid flipped class models wherever practical (providing video lectures in a “Facebook live” format, switching between face, keyboard, staves, and prepared slides as needed).  Learning should be engaging and also fun, and I use a wide variety of innovative ear training games and activities in my teaching approach (such as “hot potato,” “telephone dictation,” “name that tune…in complete silence,” “round robin,” “tempo training,” “handbell-choir style singing,” “duet and trio dictations,” and sub-vocalization/proto-notation techniques, to name a few).  

Fourth, and most important, my teaching focus is on the individual rather than the group. I hold private one-on-one meetings periodically with students who exhibit need for extra encouragement and coaching.  Everyone is made uniquely, with personal talents and tastes, so not only do I strive to get to know students personally, but I hope to relate music theory concepts to students’ already-vested interests (for the physics geek, I’d approach theory with acoustics; for the art lover, I’d show how visual art elements correspond to musical ones; for the video-gamer, I’d ask for an analysis of a video-game theme).  The most unforgettable lessons are those where cognition connects with emotion by way of personal experience.  In that process, I make myself as available as I can to students, whether their needs are academic or emotional.

In sum, it is my purpose as a music teacher to prepare the rising generation to make our world a place in which humankind can thrive.  I realize that as my career grows my philosophy will adjust to incorporate new ideas and student feedback, but regardless of change, I will always have these same ultimate goals.  As a teacher of music theory specifically, I hope to simply infect my students with the awe and the joy that I have always held for this powerful language of truth. That is why I teach:  to share with others that which has enlivened my own life, and to see the world become a better place for my having lived in it, whether through my own music, or through the music of those I have taught.  I intend to see my students flourish in society and, hopefully, to achieve their innermost aspirations.

Courses I Teach

  • MUSC 1110 - Music Theory 1
    Music Fundamentals, Intro to Species Counterpoint, Tonic and Dominant Functions of Diatonic Harmony: part writing and analysis
  • MUSC 1340 - Intro to Music Technology
    Basics of amplification (microphone, mixing boards, speakers, cables), working on the OSX platform, music-related software (QuickTime Player, GarageBand, LogicPro, MuseScore, AmadeusPro, Transcribe, Word, SublimeText, etc.)