Five years ago, Pete Carney and a friend wrote a little textbook and got it printed up at Kinko’s. Within a few months, it was adopted by the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It’s now used in more than 200 schools, several colleges and universities, and is up for adoption by the Los Angeles school district and the state of Florida. That’s not bad for a guy with zero credentials in education.
Q: Your bachelors degree is in what?
A: It’s in music performance.
Q: And your masters degree is in…
A: In jazz performance.
Q: You don’t have a degree in education.
A: No. That’s right.
Carney is a saxophone player. But that doesn’t always pay the bills. So in 2006, he took a day job at City Colleges of Chicago, teaching Music Appreciation 101.
It’s the kind of class students take to fulfill some requirement, and hopefully get an easy A. The existing textbook was your standard history of orchestral music, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and other ancient Europeans. As a musician, attuned to audience feedback, Carney could sense that the kids were not into it.
“I had had that experience maybe as a performer on stage,” Carney says, "trying to reach out to audiences to make sure they could feel the music. So for me going into the classroom, it was sort of a natural step of, ‘Wait, if you guys aren’t feeling this, then I know you’re not enjoying it and you’re not learning anything.’ I think the system that I walked into was just a flat approach of teaching what’s in the book.”
The book presented a couple of barriers. One was its chronological approach.
“It was like starting in the Middle Ages. That’s like, you’re just like, I mean you’re trying to kill people when you do that, you know?” Carney says. "I wasn’t comfortable with it and my students weren’t responding to that format…. It’s too far back in the time machine.”
But the bigger problem, Carney realized, was that nothing in the book could compete with the bottomless well of information students could access on their smart phones.
“It was a discovery for me that, with the evolution of Wikipedia, and using the internet in general, my students all had access to the information that we used to only have access to as the teacher,” Carney says.
"So if everybody has the same information, how do we change teaching?”
This is where many teachers adopt the simplest change possible: banning cell phone use in class. Carney took the opposite approach.
“I started with just creating worksheets,” he says. "I started with just one exercise at a time. Where I found out that i could get my students to do their homework if the homework was on YouTube.”
The standard textbook the class was supposed to be using -- it provided all the music on a CD.
“But nobody will listen to the CD, for whatever reason,” Carney says. "It’s always been like that. But by asking them to listen to YouTube, they could access it on their phone, it almost didn’t feel like homework, and they were more interested in doing it. … And it was just that change in the delivery method of the homework that opened up my classroom.”
Carney had students learn to identify the sounds of various instruments by finding samples of a bassoon, a viola, a Moog synthesizer and a flange pedal online. He had them analyze pieces by Count Basie, Jimi Hendrix, Claude Debussy and Astor Piazolla. He had them watch videos of famous conductors presiding over rehearsals. This method changed the class from an exercise in memorization and regurgitation into something deeper.
“You’re asking them to participate, you’re asking them to construct knowledge, you’re asking them to do their homework on YouTube and listen and bring stuff back to class,” Carney says. "Bring your observations. It’s not a one-way street. It’s a two-way conversation.”
The beauty of this method is that it works with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — and even the Middle Ages.
“I always try and start with: There’s a way for people to be curious. You know, there’s a way for people to be interested in this," Carney says. "So how do I make that bridge to these people -- to the dead white guys? There’s a way, because they had tough lives too. The hard part is just the bridge. It’s not the music. You can’t change Beethoven. It’s beautiful stuff. You just have to change the way for people to get over there, to get across to the music.”