Stephen Hopkins is a music theorist, composer, and professor at Penn State University, and the author of OnMusic Jazz. The digital text teaches aural listening skills, and how to write thoughtful analyses of individual compositions. It also includes access to Spotify playlists, where students have streaming access to over 250 songs from the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century.
The text includes insights from Dan Yoder, Director of Jazz Studies at Penn State, alto saxophonist, band leader, and composer, as well as from Mac Himes, a graduate student and jazz guitarist who is completing his PhD in Music Education at Penn State. In the following interview, Dr. Hopkins describes the inspirations behind the text, as well as the focus of his own teaching.
C4E: What are your favorite aspects of teaching jazz?
SH: My favorite aspects of teaching jazz have to do with the art itself; being able to teach about the jazz musicians and composers of the last 100 years, who are among the greatest musicians and composers of their time. I like to help the students gain a familiarity, a knowledge, and an understanding of jazz that they did not have before the course.
C4E: Do you usually teach music students?
SH: OnMusic Jazz is customarily a general education course, meaning that it’s not for music majors. We do have music majors who take it, though, because they’re interested in jazz. If any student wants to pursue further music study, by the time they’ve gotten through this course, they will have gained familiarity with 150 of the best-known jazz musicians in history.
C4E: Who are your favorite musicians to teach about, and what ideas have you found are most engaging for students?
SH: I play piano and guitar, and I compose on piano for jazz. I’m drawn to pianists such as Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. I could also point to Chick Corea. Those are three of the most-well known pianists who played with Miles Davis. So my tastes are, let’s say, popular. Because if there’s anyone in jazz who’s well known outside of jazz, it’s Miles Davis. He simply had a way of bringing together some of the finest artists in jazz and drawing from them their best performances. John Coltrane also did amazing work with Miles Davis.
I also like Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. My tastes coincide with the artists whom most jazz historians believe to be among the best 10-12 artists in the history of jazz.
C4E: How would you describe your favorite teaching experiences?
SH: When I observe the light going on, and that happens in a number of different ways. When I am teaching online, that experience often comes in the end-of-term written assignment. The student has the opportunity to focus on a particular artist, or piece, and to write about the experience of listening to this artist/piece. It happens on discussion boards as well. I observe a flash of insight that’s taking place for students. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences for anyone who teaches.
SH: Music, like many arts, is highly intuitive. And from that standpoint, we spend time up front familiarizing students with the rudiments of music. It’s also evident that all of us, whether we study music or not, have some kind of aural music literacy.
This is evident in the history of jazz itself. Many of the early jazz musicians did not know how to read music. With that, we see this capacity in musicians, and we also see it in a listening audience. I believe that we gain through study. The most important aspect is listening. It can be enriched through study. Focused listening has the most intrinsic value of any aspect of music.
C4E: What were your main sources/influences for OnMusic Jazz?
SH: I had to do a lot of digging. If I were to point to one source, that would be Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz. It is one of the best comprehensive histories of jazz out there, and it can help anyone who has some background in jazz deepen their understanding. It also provides some avenues for further research.
C4E: How does your webtext improve upon other books that you’ve used in the past?
SH: C4E has all along, from its inception, understood the capacity of an online book to be fully integrated with audio and video media. The integration of all the media components simply creates a more unified approach to jazz, when it’s conceived as multimedia to begin with. Students don’t have to click out of the text to get to the recordings.
C4E: What are your favorite assignments to use from the book?
SH: The listening assignments are fantastic. We have selected some of the best jazz compositions of the past 100 years. The focus is really on the music.
The discussion boards, and the end-of-term written assignments allow students to respond to the music, and to practice the listening skills we’ve tried to help them develop. We want them to recognize the various aspects of a composition, the instrumentation, the particular jazz style, and the particular characteristics of an individual of a jazz artist. These are the most important aspects of jazz. We want to study the music within the context of the American culture—the African-American culture—that has given rise to this great art, and at the same time, really dig into the art itself.
C4E: How did you decide to organize the book in the way you did?
SH: I’ve written three online courses in music, and each has been slightly different in terms of the organization. In this course, I used five units. The first unit is on jazz foundations; the second is on pre-modern jazz; the third unit is on early modern jazz, be-bop, cool jazz, and hard bop; another unit is on modern jazz from ‘59 through the 60’s and 70’;s and the final unit covers contemporary jazz from the 80’s to the present. When I suggested this organization to my colleagues, they were very enthusiastic about it. It allows a fifteen-week semester to be divided into 5 units. It means each test does not have to be that “high-stakes.” For our students, each test counts for only 10% of the final grade.
C4E: What were the contributions of your colleagues?
SH: I am a music theorist; I am a composer, and a performer. I love jazz. My colleagues are more specifically focused on jazz than I have been in my professional life. I have devoted a number of years of study to it, but I am not a jazz musician in the same way that my colleagues are. To have the perspective of colleagues who are both scholars and performing jazz musicians themselves, lends a perspective to the study of jazz that greatly enriches and deepens the pursuit and the examination. Dan brought a lot to the course, especially about Latin Jazz. Mac and I worked on the discussion boards together. Mac brought important content to the final chapter, relating to contemporary jazz.
C4E: What do you think are biggest challenges for students in your courses?
SH: A lot of students think online courses will be easy. But this is a substantive course that requires the student to study, and to work. It’s also the most remarkable in terms of the subject matter for those who are interested in jazz. The pursuit of it becomes a labor of love, and the work itself becomes enjoyable. In any investigation of the arts, if we’re really going to get to know it, we have to involve a certain degree of repetition. For this course, that means repeated listening.
For someone studying jazz as a non-musician, if they really want to grow, learn, and be enriched by this material, it takes commitment and effort to fully benefit from the course.
C4E: What are the best parts of doing distance learning?
SH: There can be a number of advantages. For a lot of students, and for faculty as well, it’s the convenience of asynchronous learning, the flexibility of being able to fit a course into our own schedule. Having the capability of accessing multimedia offers a distinct advantage over many aspects of traditional music instruction. Online learning also allows students to slow down or speed up learning, according to their own tastes.
C4E: Any final thoughts about teaching college music?
SH: In any collegiate arts course, the goal beyond teaching the material is is to help the students become more articulate. That’s why we have writing assignments included. While we want to help students learn to write about the experience of listening to the music, we also want students to look inside themselves, and think, “How am I responding?” We want students to grow by being able to describe an informed emotive response to the arts.