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Teaching Digital Opera and Music History

Larry W. Peterson

Professor of Music
University of Delaware

I use the computer in a variety of ways to teach both musichistory courses (for music majors) and two opera courses (forthe general university student). For the opera classes, I usemultimedia lessons created with Toolbook authorware for Puccini'sLa Boheme, Verdi's Otello, and Mozart's The Magic Flute plus a lesson using a CD to teach vocal timbre. Students view these lessons in a listening lab with Gateway computers (with VideoBlaster overlay cards installed) connected to Pioneer laserdisc players. In class for music history courses, I use PODIUM and PowerPoint presentation software to provide the outline for each class period and to create an electronic chalkboard. I also use CD TIME SKETCH and Cap MediaTools for visual presentations of musical works that combine soundand synchronized texts. Students generate most of the softwareanalyses.

Opera Movie File

For the past six years I have been using technologyin three of my music courses at the University of Delaware. Twoof my courses are in opera; one is in music history. "Opera 103" and "Opera 104", "Introduction to Opera I and II,"have no prerequisites--no need to read music or have had musicappreciation. In "Opera 103," we study six Italian operas; in "Opera 104," we study examples of verismo, opera comique, music drama,singspiel, and operetta. My students are general university students,freshmen through seniors. Enrollment limit is 40, and we turnaway between 70-90 students each semester. Enrollment inmy "Music History 313: Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Music,"is limited to 30 university students, music majors and minors.The course is very "information intensive."

Technology in the Digital Opera Classroom

To understand my use of technology in my classes,it is necessary to know what tools I include.

Technology tools. Iuse Toolbook software (Asymetrix authorware product) to createlessons that combine performances of opera on laserdisc (LaBoheme, The Magic Flute, Otello) or CD (VocalTimbre). The PC computers have a VideoBlaster FS 200 video overlaycard, and a SoundBlaster card. A Pioneer 8000 laserdisc playeris connected to each computer.

Application of technology in the pedagogy.There are three lessons for each opera, each lesson related toone side of the laserdisc set for each opera. These are used outof class for the students to explore small details of creativechoices made by composers, set designers, singers, and directors.In the case of Mozart's The Magic Flute, we explore thevarious aspects of symbolism: masonic, musical, and historical.The first 100 students to complete the lessons kept records forme. The average time for using Lesson I was 1 hour and 15 minutes,for Lesson II was 1 hour and 5 minutes, and for Lesson III was45 minutes. I used the lessons in class only for an introductorysession to explain how to use the lesson and again, for exam purposes.

Technology in My Music History Class

Technology tools. In this class, I use PODIUM and PowerPointpresentation software, CD TIME SKETCH and Cap Media Tools Software,and the Internet (World Wide Web) using a multimedia PC computerin the classroom with two large NEC monitors for the student andone small one for the instructor. I also use a Pioneer 8000 Laserdiscplayer. I have a video splitter cabability to allow students toview only the laserdisc video or to see the computer screen projected.Laserdiscs are used with the Cap Media Tools Software.

Pedagogical application of the technology. The presentationsoftware is used (University of Delaware's PODIUM and Microsoft'sPowerPoint) to organize the students' notes by indicating thesubject under discussion, as well as for terms, for spelling,and for orientation. Foreign words are common, so presenting theterms is useful both for spelling and pronunciation purposes.Using presentation software replaces the chalk board and the frantictime before class to get everything on the board and the equallyhectic time after class erasing it. It is much more convenientto have the information prepared before class and then simplyto copy it from computer diskette. Also, these materials are availablefor later use for exam review sessions and for future course offerings.This certainly makes the entry and exit to and from class morepeaceful. PowerPoint allows for handouts either for class useor to assist students who were absent; it also allows the instructorto generate overhead transparencies.

CD TIME SKETCH and Cap Media Tools allow for analyses of musicalor dramatic works to be projected in a bubble or bar format; synchronizedtext pops into view at the appropriate moments as the piece plays.This approach provides visual presentations of a musical work,which aids most students to better understand the form or structureof a work.

I used the Web to present Laurie Anderson and performance art,printing her biography from one of four websites devoted to herwork. We explored the websites in class to demonstrate how theWeb could be used to learn more about music and I printed an articlefrom one website for the students to study before the exam.

Lessons Learned

I learned that students really like the lessonsand, surprisingly, do not mind coming to the music building'scomputer lab to spend about 3 hours to complete the lessons. Ialso learned not to put the multimedia lessons at the beginningor at the end of the semester. They work best and are receivedbest in the middle of the course. Also, students claimed thatthey do not need a glossary or help section. Only a few studentsuse the Notes function to print their notes.

For myself, I learned that with the use oftechnology in my classroom, I can teach in greater depth thanbefore.

Students liked the presentation software. They claimed it helpedthem organizes their notes better, especially since the courseincludes much material each class period. They found that theanalytical software greatly assisted them to learn a piece andrecognize its structural components.

I have also had positive feelings about the software use. It hasenabled me to hold more in-depth conversations about musical workswhen students had to produce an analysis using CD TIME SKETCH.Unfortunately, I have also learned that if I have the studentsdo analyses, it requires about 2 hours of my time per studentto assist them and to grade their work. Thus, I can require studentsto create analyses only if the class is small (e.g., 10 to 15students). If the class is larger, I use the analyses from previousclasses to assist them to learn the works but do not requirethem to create new analyses.


Based upon student suggestions for more lessons,I am preparing more lessons so that each course will study twooperas with three lessons each, instead of the current practiceof studying one opera with three multimedia lessons devoted toit. The rest of the operas we study have no multimedia lessons.Also, I will have the examples published in a CD ROM format thisyear by ECS so that other schools can use these lessons more easily.I recommend a CD ROM format rather than the laserdisc-computer platformI am currently using. I will print my own CD of vocal timbreexamples so that I am not limited by what CDs are on the market.No commercial CD has an example of each vocal timbre on it. (Interestingly,secondary school students are using these lessons at two New YorkCity High Schools this year.)

I recommend presentation software in any course that includesan extraordinary amount of information. It not only assists studentsin the learning process but, as in the case of music, when combinedwith graphics or music, can make the course more interesting. Ipersonally preferred PODIUM to PowerPoint because PODIUM was quicker(for me) to learn, and it has MIDI capability, which PowerPointdoes not. However, PowerPoint has a slide-viewer component plusthe ability to generate handouts and transparencies, which PODIUMcan not do. I also highly recommend the two software programsthat allow one to present an analysis of a musical or dramaticwork. If the instructor has the time, it is a great aid to havethe students generate the analyses.

Opera Movie File