Friday, January 25, 2008

The Consolation of Music

My semester begins next week, and I'll be teaching my writing class for music majors again, as well Introduction to Music, a 101-level class. My department offers twenty sections of Music 101, all of them taught by adjuncts; teaching 101 is a necessary rite of passage for anyone aspiring to the tenure track. As I prepare my syllabus, however, I feel daunted and overwhelmed. I've never taught a survey course to non-majors, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to find the right language to introduce Western classical music to students for whom it will be completely new. How do I explain to them how important the standard repertoire is to the soul and conscience of late-modern humanity, as I believe it is? How does one "eff" the ineffable? Those of us who work in and with music are, I think, incredibly fortunate: we hold a small but powerfully-honed tool that is capable of extending the consolation of beauty into an often bleak world. I hope with all my heart that, in some tiny way, I will be able to do this for my students this semester. I'll certainly be calling on all the musical saints for help.


Maclin Horton said...

If I may offer the experience of someone who was introduced to classical music many years ago by just such a course: I think your best, or maybe only, hope, is to try to get them to hear that there's musical pleasure to be had here. I was something of a pop-music hound (still am) and took the course thinking "hmm, so many people say this stuff is good, I think I'll check it out."

So I would de-emphasize cultural importance and history in favor of enjoyment. You still probably won't reach that many of them, but those who are actually attentive to pop music for its own sake (as opposed to wallpaper and/or fashion) may find themselves wanting to hear more.

Your enthusiasm can be contagious, too, so don't be afraid to show it. I had the good fortune to take my course, and a two-semester music history follow-up, from a great teacher. (God bless you, Dr. Hyde.)

One other note, which as a singer you may not appreciate: a taste for the trained voice often does not come readily to the unsophisticated, so it might be a good idea to lean a little more on instrumental works. Good luck! (and by the way I enjoy your blog.)

Pentimento said...

What great advice. Thank you so much! I still think my work is cut out for me. I'm especially grateful for your tip about introducing the trained voice. That would not have occurred to me, but I can see that you're right; the sound of a cultivated voice seems so irrelevant now. When I talk about song repertoire, I'm thinking about playing "Grechen am Spinnrade" (Schubert) along with the Beatles' "Day in the Life" and something by Joni Mitchell, to put it in context. I suppose I'll have to get a little hipper myself, since my musical expertise stops at about 1987. I will post my progress on the blog. Thank you for your kind words!

Anonymous said...

Dear Pentimento,

As someone with a decent education in the humanities, a weak education in music, and many years of teaching experience, I suggest you take St. Mark's approach.

Sit down sometime soon and read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting, two or three at the most. It's not too hard because St. Mark writes with the passion of someone who just saw something absolutely lifesaving but might run out of breath before he finishes telling you about it.

St. Mark's Gospel is not as detailed and reasonable as St. Luke's. It is not as theologically sophisticated as St. John's. It is not as interwoven with Jewish history, scripture, and prophecy as St. Matthew's. Nonetheless, if you had to tell someone the Gospel story during an artillery barrage, you'd read St. Mark's.

Your students will appreciate it if you talk a little faster than usual and bubble over with enthusiasm, even if they barely understand you. I once had an English teacher who was asked if he preferred American literature to British literature. He paused and gave it a bit of thought:

"In general, I prefer to read American literature. However, Shakespeare has no equal in the English language. There is simply no human emotion that he did not explore thoroughly."

I still remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the birth of my own love for literature, reverence for language, and respect for those who labor to put inutterable things into words.

One last point: chronology can be the enemy of good teaching. Church history, for instance, is usually boring if taught through a chronological list of councils and popes.

Just as a good novel usually begins in the middle or the end, I suggest you start in the end or middle of Western music and work your way backwards. Just as Jesus taught through parables, let analogies weave your tapestry. Take some well-known modern works, including some pop music, and show how they are built of ancient stones.


Veritas said...

What good sound advice from friends.

I wish you every success and I will pray that your students find in you an enthusiasm for music that will be thoroughly and delighfully infectious.

Pentimento said...

TQ,Your advice thrilled me when I read it. I love your interpretation of the Gospel of St. Mark. I had never thought of it that way before; Mark always struck me as bleak to the point of near-despair -- no resurrection, for instance -- but I love the idea of St. Mark's breathless urgency. I certainly prayed to him today before teachng my first 101 class. It was a semi-disastrous first day of classes: photocopiers broken, printers down, long lines at the one working xerox machine in my department, and on top of it all, I lost a rosary bracelet from Medjugorge that a friend had given me after my recent miscarriage. For all of that, it wasn't entirely discouraging. I will blog more about my students later; they're a pretty interesting bunch. All the same, I wish you were teaching them and not I; I think you would do an amazing job.

And thank you, Veritas, for your support. I am grateful for it. It makes me feel like less of an impostor in my job!

Anonymous said...

My blog is not scholarly in nature. Why don't you just put my real name among the many in the Acknowledgments?

Email me at franksarsfield at excite dot com. (Frank Sarsfield is the main character in Russell Kirk's short story, "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.")