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UCLA’s top teachers: Music composition prof hits all the right notes

UCLA’s Academic Senate has awarded the campus’ highest teaching prize, the Distinguished Teaching Award, to six Academic Senate members. UCLA Today has been profiling the 2011 winners throughout the summer; this is the last in the series. To see the entire list, which includes non-Senate members and teaching assistants, go here.
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Music Professor Ian Krouse is a 2011 Distinguished Teaching Award winner.
"Dr. Krouse is the god of music theory. I love this class. I’ve gotten so much out of it. I’m glad I get to study with him for another year. Is there some award you could give this man?"
The prescient student who wrote those comments in his Music 20C course evaluation would be happy to know that Ian Krouse, professor of theory and composition in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, was appropriately honored this year with a 2011 Distinguished Teaching Award. The wildly popular teacher is revered by undergraduate and graduate students alike, and has been praised for his fair-minded and caring treatment of all students.
"I still remember my first experience as a student in Professor Krouse’s lecture," wrote undergraduate student Yliana Gomez in support of Krouse’s nomination for the award. "After an intense lesson about Roman numeral analysis, I left the class intimidated." Concerned about her future in the class, she decided to meet with Krouse in his office hours.
"After informing him that I did not feel I possessed the knowledge to be in his class, he alleviated my concerns by letting me know his expectations and his goals for the class," the music history major continued. "He sought to make us better students and, therefore, better musicians. Bracing myself for what would be an intense year, I left content, knowing that I would learn a lot from his class."
Kwangsun Hwang, a second-year Ph.D. student in music composition, was encouraged by Krouse to submit a piece to an international competition. Hwang wound up being selected as a finalist. "Every time he listens to my music, his face tells me that he is very curious about the music and he wants to hear it, although it is not [very] enjoyable," Hwang wrote. "As you know, sometimes we see a teacher who is not willing to listen to a student’s music and is insincere about teaching. Professor Ian Krouse, however, is not a person like that."
Music Department Chair Roger Bourland, in a letter to the Academic Senate’s Committee on Teaching, called Krouse UCLA’s top teacher in music theory and composition. Krouse is in demand, Bourland said, by UCLA’s own composition students and by students around the country who come to Westwood specifically to study with him.
Bourland noted that Krouse, who has never taught large survey courses, prefers to be "in the trenches," as Krouse calls it, teaching smaller classes where he can train students more closely. "He does not teach using computers; he has students with their noses in the music, singing or playing along," Bourland wrote. "He is a gentle, yet demanding, teacher of music. His students sweat in his classes, and they cherish the challenge."
Even though Krouse spends countless hours with his students — in his classes, in his office hours and through the private lessons he gives both on campus and at home — he still finds time to be a successful working composer. He has several CD and DVD releases of original works, many of which are performed around the world by his peers in concert.
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That blackboard with the music staff? It was used by Arnold Schoenberg, namesake of the music building.
How does one "teach" composing, when it would seem to be a talent that one either has, or doesn’t? "That is the big question," Krouse said, laughing. "Part of it is sharing the experience and wisdom that I have, simply because I’m older than they are. I’ve been doing it longer, so it’s easy!"
With a mother who was a pianist and a father who was a serious stereo buff, Krouse was surrounded by music early on. At 10, the budding musician took up the guitar and would listen to Beatles songs on the radio, figure out the chords and teach his friends how to play the songs. In his 20s, Krouse became a concert guitarist, pursuing a double career as a composer and as a performer, but was forced to jettison the performance part after damaging his hands from "overuse syndrome."
Krouse continued to learn how to play several other instruments, including the piano ("very badly"), percussion, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, violin and cello — realizing that he would have to know what it was like to play those instruments if he was going to be a successful composer. He gives that advice to his students today.
"How does one make it in a field like this? A lot of the work I do with my young students is practical in nature," Krouse said. "You know: ‘Where are we headed with this? Do you want to be a concert composer and write symphonies and string quartets and operas and songs? Or do you want to go into the commercial field and write for movies and video games, commercials and TV programs?’
"Most students want to be both, which is very good and very possible; far more possible today than it was when I was a student. There used to be a sort of stigma that was attached to those who wanted to go into the applied fields. Sort of like art and commercial art. Thankfully, that nonsense is pretty much gone nowadays."
His goal, Krouse said, is to help his students understand and envelop their artistry. "I really want them to try and develop their own individual voice. This is something I’ve spent a long time thinking about as a teacher, in part because I do it with myself.
"I’m a practicing composer, not just a teacher of composition," he said. "So a part of that is sharing with them my own struggles. And the struggle is really a piece of it. It’s not something to shun or be afraid of; it’s something to embrace. The struggle becomes your friend."
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