Sunday, May 2, 2010

Down in the Valley

I was practicing my métier today, allowing myself to sink into the morass of nostalgia, and found myself thinking about the final exam I gave to my first voice class of non-music majors, three years ago right around this time.  I had started teaching part-time as an adjunct at my university just after my son turned one -- shortly, in fact, before I began writing this blog -- and it was the end of my first semester.   I had twenty-three students, from wildly divergent backgrounds:  one, an art major from Queens, was the great-great-granddaughter of Mikhail Fokine; another, S., was the Canarsie-bred child of civil servants, who spoke French and Japanese and was teaching herself Urdu (I later designed a one-on-one tutorial for this student, funded by a grant designed, perhaps wrongheadedly, to attract minority students into the field of academic musicology).

It turned out to be an eventful semester.  In March, I had to be hospitalized briefly for an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured, costing me not only the baby but also one ovary (I was pregnant again the next month, but lost that baby over the summer).  Then one of my students, a waifish Chinese-American girl whom I'll call K., disappeared from sight.  I was planning to give her an unofficial withdrawal from the class, which is tantamount to an F, when suddenly she showed up in tears one day after class had ended and confided in me that she had had an abortion and was not functioning well in its aftermath.  Another student, a young Orthodox Jewish girl, was in the last trimester of her own first pregnancy, and K., post-abortion, could not bear to be in class with her.  This was sort of my territory, and I tried to comfort K., and cast around for ways to help her.  K. had told me she was a Christian, and so I totally overstepped the boundaries of the student-teacher relationship in a secular public institution by talking to her about God's mercy; a friend of mine even offered to pay for K. to attend a Rachel's Vineyard retreat, but K. never followed through.

Then another student, a beautiful, upper-class West Indian girl, had a psychotic episode that kept her out for many classes.  I didn't know the cause of her absences, and I was about to fail her too, when the Office of Disability intervened. Then we had torrential rain in April, which resulted in school closings throughout the New York metropolitan area -- except at my university, which never closes, the theory being that the subways keep running through rain and sun and sleet and hail, so everyone had better suck it up and get there on time.  My babysitter, however, assumed that the university was in fact closed, since every other school within twenty-five miles was, and so she didn't show up, which led to the realization of one of my worst fears when I had to plough my stroller through the five-inch-deep puddles to the train and take my toddler to class with me. The girls went crazy for him, but I had to end the class after just twenty minutes, because, after a few minutes of running around in bewilderment while I sat at the piano and tried to teach, he began crying inconsolably.  I didn't want to nurse him in class, and it didn't seem fair to designate one of my students babysitter.  And then one of my favorite students, a mature, compassionate graduating psychology major whom everyone loved and respected, plagiarized his final paper.

I had assigned each of my students two pieces that semester.  Everyone got his own individual piece, and then they all got "An die Musik," Schubert's famous paean to music itself:

(Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!)

I also assigned each student a singer to study and listen to throughout the semester.  I picked the singers based on my students' voice types, but also tried to suit them to the inclinations the students seemed to demonstrate.  S., for instance, was curious about twentieth-century music, so I assigned her Jan DeGaetani.  Some of the students ended up feeling profoundly connected to their study singers:  Jimmy, a lanky, ponytailed Puerto Rican bass-baritone, took to signing his papers "Hans," after Hans Hotter, his assigned singer.

For the final exam, my students had the choice of singing either their assigned individual piece or "An die Musik."  For extra credit, they could sing Brahms's setting of the folksong "Da unten im Tale" -- Down in the valley -- in English (though it may sound like it, I didn't assign only German Lieder; their individual songs spanned styles and languages, from Handel to Irving Berlin.  I just thought that they  needed to know some Schubert and Brahms in order to know what was truly beautiful in this world).

Although food and drink were forbidden in the classroom, I spent the night before exam day making dozens of sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies, since the exam period was two hours long and spanned lunchtime, and I picked up bottled water and coffee on my way to the university.  I had arranged for the music department to hire my friend and colleague J, a Korean-born monster pianist and vocal collaborator, to accompany, so I could focus on my students' performances.  I let students who were unhappy with their performance start over, and everyone encouraged each other.  At the end, I got up and sang "An die Musik" for them myself.  I will never forget how touching it was to hear Jimmy (a.k.a. Hans) and S. sing "Da unten im Tale" as a duet, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did on their legendary 1966 recording of Brahms's folksong settings.  The text:

Down in the valley there
the water flows so sadly,
and I can't tell you
that I love you so.

You always speak of love,
you always speak of faithfulness,
but a little bit of falsehood
is always there too.

And if I tell you ten times
that I love you,
and you do not want to understand,
then I will have to move on.

For the time that you have loved me,
I thank you kindly,
and I wish that somewhere else
things might go better for you.

Jimmy and S, like Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, sang the song as a conversation, trading off the verses in a he-said-she-said dialogue, which gives the song a rather different feeling from the solo piece that Brahms had originally conceived -- less gallant, more resigned, and more moving.  Here is the excellent German tenor Werner Güra singing it.

And here is a less-polished but heartfelt and lovely performance by a group that calls itself Tre Sorelle -- I assume they are indeed three sisters.

At the end of the semester, I picked up my packet of anonymous student evaluations.  Some students were unhappy with the fact that I didn't dedicate the entire class to teaching vocal technique, but tried to present the art of singing in the context of music and social history, and also made them write two papers. Some felt they didn't belong in the class at all (this was not my feeling; it was a beginning voice class, and was open to everybody).  But some students were genuinely excited by what they had learned -- S. switched her major from English to music, is graduating this month, and hopes to continue on to her Ph.D. in musicology (the grant bore its intended fruit in her case) -- and I'll never forget the one evaluation that contained the highest praise I've ever received as a teacher, or perhaps as anything else:  "She's cool."


eaucoin said...

I just wanted you to know that, by sharing your appreciation of beautiful music and poetry, you are enriching the life of myself and your other blog followers, so you are still teaching. I have five grown daughters and some of my best moments as a mother were spent watching them perform together in a choir (fresh scrubbed and in the uniforms that I had helped to design and had sewn myself). Voice had been our lesson of choice with our limited resources, because our daughters had raw talent and you carry your instrument with you and it introduces you to a wide range of music that you otherwise might not really listen to or appreciate. Without more money, I knew we would be dabblers in some sense. But one of my daughters made me a CD for this Mother's Day of some songs she recorded just for me (she has taught herself how to play the guitar, and singing remains a passion for her), and I have had no end of pleasure as an ongoing bounty from those brief years of voice lessons. The last time they performed together in choir, I sat in tears the whole time in bittersweet sorrow for the beauty and harmony of their voices, and I still cry when I hear anyone sing Laudate Dominum or Lovely Moon (or almost anything else they sang in those years). Music is in every sense a gift that keeps on giving.

Pentimento said...

I'm so happy to read this, Eaucoin. Thank you.

Pentimento said...

And I think that's exactly what Schubert and his friend, Franz von Schober, who provided the poem, had in mind when they wrote "An die Musik."

Anonymous said...

You are cool! This is my first visit in a while.

Ora et labora, TQ

Pentimento said...

Thanks, TQ! :)

Good to see you!

Otepoti said...

What treasures you've put our way this morning, Pentimento.

Thank you.

(I have young home, pale as milk and sick as a dog, so we listened together. He likes Tre Sorelle the best.)

Rodak said...

Wow. Never a dull moment! I agree with the others that your reminiscences are enriching. Your love for your fellow man shines through. Thanks again.

Pentimento said...

I hope he feels better soon! Tell him I liked Tre Sorelle a lot too.

Pentimento said...

Rodak, I really loved my students SO much. This was true in all my classes. Loved and admired them. Some senior faculty, including my dissertation advisor, thought I was hopelessly naive in this regard.

Rodak said...

Yes. Well, that tends to be the way of the world, doesn't it?

Emily J. said...

Can I sign up for your classes, too? You're a wonderful teacher! I'm amazed at your ability to glean youtube for so many treasures.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Emily!

Youtube is a veritable treasure trove of old recordings -- and I learned this from my students!

Anonymous said...

May you remain naive forever!

mrsdarwin said...

Oh, this makes me wish you'd taught my college voice class. I would have come out both with a better education and having learned something about singing.

Pentimento said...

The cookies were pretty good too, Mrs. Darwin.