Dr Donna Weston received a 2018 Griffith Learning and Teaching Citation for leading a range of innovative and sustained changes to the Bachelor of Popular Music (BPM) Program.
We asked Donna to tell us a bit more about her teaching practice and some of the innovations she has led at the Queensland Conservatorium.
What motivates and inspires you in your teaching?
Music inspires and motivates all aspects of my life, so it is not surprising that guiding others in achieving their version of a career in music is what drives my teaching. Working with likeminded young people aspiring to make their passion their life work and watching them develop over their time at university is about as rewarding as it gets, I think. Central to my teaching is the provision of an authentic, real world learning environment which is tailored to the specific learning needs of popular musicians, and which emulates the practices of successful career musicians.
How have teaching practices in your discipline changed with the introduction of new technologies, and how has technology changed the way you interact and engage with your students?
The evolution of the music industry, driven by technology, has been a major factor in program developments I have instigated over time, and adaptability to change is one of the most important factors influencing my teaching philosophy. For example, the rise of online streaming services such as Spotify has meant that musicians now draw far more income from live performances than record sales. In response to this, I introduced courses on live performance and stagecraft throughout the 3 years of the program. Another example would be that commercial popular music is now often programmed as opposed to using ‘real’ instruments, and in response we have had to include in the coursework the computer and its related software as a valid instrument and skill to be taught.
How important is it for graduates to develop entrepreneurial skills, and how do you facilitate your students’ development of these skills?
Entrepreneurial skills are essential to all graduates but especially so for music graduates, who will require diverse skillsets to successfully manage what will most likely be a portfolio career, one in which they will engage with a range of parallel income sources related to their practice. One response to this is a project I instigated called SEED – an artist management agency with its own sampler album released each year, which provides all students involved with a unique, authentic learning experience, integrating theory and knowledge in a project which emulates professional practice, through its replication of the structure of the music industry in its entirety, from production through promotion to distribution.
What have you learnt throughout your academic career about creating an engaging learning experience for students, and what have you learnt from experimenting with new approaches that didn’t quite work out?
I’ve learned most of all to engage the students in creating new learning experiences – a Students-As-Partners approach, which recognises the students’ expertise and seeks to break down hierarchical teaching models. Peer learning is also central to popular music pedagogy, as it replicates the real-world experiences of popular musicians. However outside of popular music pedagogy it is still a valuable approach which validates the student perspective and empowers students to direct their own learning. I have learned to embed rather than impose my beliefs and understandings on what I think students should learn. For example, I introduced a course exploring the popular musics of the non-Western world which was met with much resistance from students as it did not directly inform their own practice, no matter how hard I tried to convince them of the value of cultural diversity. It was not until I directed the content to their practice that I was able to engage their interest.
Given it isn’t always easy to innovate within a learning and teaching context, what advice do you have for colleagues looking to try something new in their teaching?
Be daring, push the envelope, involve your students, and always reflect and engage with real world practices where possible.
What is something new you are looking forward to trying in your learning and teaching practice over the next year or so?
Next year is an exciting fresh start for me, as I will be designing new content for a popular music major in a brand-new context, embedded in a Bachelor of Music where there will be potential to collaborate with a wide range of musicians from classical to jazz. It will be challenging to design content that will facilitate this, but potentially, and hopefully, will result in some incredible music experiences for our students and audiences.
What advice do you have for educators looking to enhance their teaching practice?
Engage with all of the Professional Development offered by the University, and with your peers, and never forget what first drew you to teaching. The rest will flow quite naturally.