Posts Tagged ‘Composer Study’

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

I have always loved music.  Some of my earliest memories involve listening to my mother play the piano.  I started taking piano lessons at age five, I was sight reading by age ten, and at age twelve I sang soprano in the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Beethoven’s Mount of Olives with a youth choir.  Later, I taught myself to play guitar, and I was involved in All-State choirs and University Chorales.  I still love to participate in the seasonal performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Limestone College Community Choir when I can. I have always fancied myself as somewhat of a musician, and yet composer study is one area where I have always really struggled.  In this blog, I am going to try to deconstruct why I think I have been so unsuccessful with composer study in the past.  Then I will share how I accidentally stumbled upon success during the first term of this year and how that will change what I do with composer study from this point forward.

First, I think I always had a faulty notion of what music is.  Looking back on my musical training, I see that it was heavily influenced (like most other things) by Enlightenment thinking.  Music was a technical skill—lots of drills with scales and chords and vocal exercises, lots of marking dynamics and following the signals of a conductor.  You don’t really have to think for yourself very much when you approach music in this way.  It becomes simply a stimulus-response activity that can be reserved for those who have natural ability and interest.

Second, I did not have a firm grasp on why composer study is important.  I think this was a holdover from the mindset of Cultural Literacy (see E.D. Hirsch).  This rationale goes that it is important to know about things and people that are part of our culture’s shared history.  Any educated person should know about Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and so we study the important facts and listen to the works so that we won’t be left not knowing something that might show up on Jeopardy one night.

Third, I think I had (or have?) an attention problem.  In fact, I think many of us probably have this particular problem, because we are constantly bombarded with music.  It is in the car, in the grocery store, at the movies, and on television commercials.  I have the habit of tuning it out or allowing it to simply be part of the background.  The default mode in my brain is to think about or do something else while music is playing rather than to give it my full, concentrated attention.

These three issues have caused me to fumble through composer study for many years.  Then, about three years ago, I began the paradigm shift in this area when I heard Rebekah Hierholzer say that music is, of course, a language that speaks ideas through persons.  I apologize if that sounds trite to some readers, especially those who are true musicians or who have been immersed in Mason’s teachings, but it was an Archimedes-style “eureka moment” for me.  Of course music carries ideas!  I had been ever hearing, but never listening (which was probably why my mother expressed so much shock when she heard me singing Duran Duran in the back seat of the car when I was nine).  Music is just another invitation for all of us to enter into The Great Conversation that spans time and space, in which humanity grapples with the big questions (see http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/12/the-great-conversation-robert-hutchinss-essay-for-the-great-books/). The beauty of music depends upon the quality of the ideas expressed, not just the technical skill of the performer or the emotional experience of the listener.

After this revelation, I began trying to help my students see ideas in music.  Instead of just playing the music as the children worked during quiet activities, we stopped everything, closed our eyes, and really listened.  Then I would ask the children what they “saw” in their minds.  (Have you ever heard Jerry Clower’s comedic story about music appreciation class?  Yeah.  It was kind-of like that.)  It was better, but it still fell flat, especially with middle school students who had already made up their minds that they didn’t like classical music.

Last year I actually dropped composer study after the first term out of frustration (gasp!), but this year I decided to go back in with a different approach and renewed determination.  First, in order to help my students form a relationship with the real persons behind the music, I decided to only choose composers for whom there were living biographies available.  Since I knew there would be local performances during the holidays of Handel’s Messiah, I chose to study Handel during the fall term using Opal Wheeler’s book, Handel at the Court of Kings.  We read from this book once per week, and it always left the children begging for more.  They quickly formed an attachment to the little boy who was so gifted and who loved music so much, but whose father was determined would study to be a lawyer.  Score: 1.

Next, I decided to study Messiah.  I brought my score to school for the children to see, and I asked if anyone was familiar with it already.  One student (Susanna, daughter of Cindy Swicegood, concert pianist extraordinaire) was, but the rest had never heard of it.  I told them that this work is usually divided, with the first half being performed during Christmas and the latter half during Easter, and that it contained one song that I bet every single child had heard many times.  They were doubtful, but their curiosity was aroused and I was optimistic.  Each composer study lesson began with, “Mrs. Spencer, are we going to get to hear the song today?”  Of course, I saved that one for last.  Score: 2.

The decision to study one work for the entire term instead of sampling songs or movements from different works was made as a kind of experiment.  I based it on the desire to connect with the ideas through the narrative.  The children were already familiar with the story of the fall of man and the plan of salvation through Christ, and that provided some scaffolding in associating music with ideas.  During each composer study lesson, I placed the lyrics to the song where the children could read them as we listened.  (More than one child expressed surprise that the choir was singing words; they had only heard a series of vocal noises!)  As the weeks went on, we were able to have very interesting conversations about how the tones and tempos of the music matched the ideas that the words were expressing.  Music could express joy, despair, or peace, and it could tell a story! Score: 3.

By the end of the term, the children—even the middle schoolers—were so eager to hear the mystery song.  When I finally played “The Hallelujah Chorus” for them, they practically burst with surprise and laughter.  “How did we not get that?!”  On the end-of-term exam, the question on composer study, “Tell what you know about the life and work of Handel,” was by far the best answered by every single child.  When we took a trip to a local college to listen to their choir’s rehearsal for the holiday performance, the children were able to listen with interest, their faces lighting up to one another when they heard a familiar song.  And that, my friends, was Jenga.

What I learned from this term’s accidental success is that, just like with an anthology of excerpts from literature, maybe it is difficult to get the ideas as intended by the composer by listening to a smattering of songs from a compilation CD.  We need the full stories.  The story of the composer’s life helps us connect with the person, while the stories that the works tell put us in contact with worthy ideas through the language of music.  I think this lesson will carry over now, as I introduce my students to purely instrumental works.  And while I am sure this one experience has not turned my students into life-long lovers of classical music, I think it is realistic to say that it has at least ignited a spark that, with time and grace, will grow into warm, glowing embers in their souls as they cultivate an appreciation for this medium.

© Dr. Jennifer Spencer 2012

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Instilling an appreciation for classical music can be daunting for a parent or teacher raised on pop, rock and rap music. But it can be done. I know — as a young mother, I had good intentions of teaching my children to love the best kinds of music. Before my first child was even born, I would turn on the local classical radio station and plug in headphones, then put the headphones up to my pregnant stomach so the baby could hear it, but I wouldn’t have to listen. By the time I had two preschoolers, I had a plan to listen to exactly two hours of classical music every day (for the children’s sake!), but after a half hour, I had usually had enough and needed to turn on some pop music for relief. Yet now, we listen to classical music for quite a bit more than two hours a day, and it’s by my preference rather than because the schedule says so.

I won’t try to convince you of the reasons why classical music is great, or why it’s important to attempt to develop an appreciation for it. For my purpose here, it’s enough that it’s one aspect of a Charlotte Mason education. Others have written about the complexity of its composition and how it utilizes more of the brain (some have even claimed that it can make you smarter!) It has a timelessness that pop music can’t rival. During the first days after 9-11, when a sense of pervading fear was in the air, and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under the world, I had an overwhelming desire to hear classical music — to hear something beautiful that had been written by someone who had lived in a world that knew nothing of 9-11, and that would still be loved and listened to long after 9-11 had faded into distant history. I needed a connection to something timeless enough to take me beyond the horror of “here and now,” and, at that moment, classical music was what I craved.

For someone intimidated by classical music, getting into it can be done in slow, easy steps. You don’t have to cover everything. The goal isn’t a comprehensive knowledge of music history and knowledge of who wrote what, and when. A Charlotte Mason education isn’t about collecting all the facts and information about everything. The goal is personal enjoyment and mental enrichment, to spark an interest that can be continued on into adulthood and bring pleasure and beauty to one’s life even years after school is over. Music appreciation isn’t a chore to endure, like memorizing multiplication tables, or finishing your vegetables; it’s more like a gourmet feast at a buffet table to be tasted and nibbled. If you don’t like one thing, you can try something else. If you find a side dish you love, you can skip the salad and fill your plate with more of that. The point is to try a little of this, a little of that, until you find something that you like. Very often, something that didn’t impress you one way or the other at first will grow on you once you get used to it. That’s even more true of music than of food. Classical music can sound strange to ears used to hearing popular music, but it can be eased into.

There are various ways of acclimating oneself to classical music. Combining music with relaxing sounds of nature may make true afficionadoes cringe, but it made a comfortable introduction to some of Bach’s more well-known works for us. “Bach Naturally” (by North Sound), with bird songs, rippling brooks and rain in the background became a favorite CD. We also loved a similar CD of Beethoven’s music by Lifescapes. There’s nothing like Moonlight Sonata with soft, rolling thunder to add drama to a lovely piece of music.

Another non-threatening way to ease into music listening is with CD’s intended for babies — relaxing pieces that are deliberately selected for their accessibility for infant ears, and played in a soothing way. Collections labelled “for relaxation” and Adagios are also nice for playing in the background to get your ears used to the sounds of classical music. As a bonus, many of these types of collections are offered as budget CDs (or even as budget mp3 downloads). We also have a collection of Famous Marches (think John Philip Sousa), a collection of famous opera overtures, and “Fortissimo: The World’s Loudest Classical Music.” Those aren’t as relaxing, but they were fun for the kids.

Books can also spark some interest. We read Kathleen Krull’s “Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought).” It was a fun, light-hearted way to aquaint ourselves with some of the world’s most famous composers. Now that I’ve put a little more serious study into the lives of some of these composers, I realize that many of the “biographies” in this book are collections of some of the weirdest, quirkiest habits and incidences in their lives, some true, some legendary enough to be questionable. Still, it’s a fun way to know who’s “out there” in the world of classical music.

Local symphonies usually have at least one concert a year for the general public, where they play pieces most people will recognize and enjoy. We took advantage of those when we could. Often, they were a mix of classical music, popular music and show tunes. These are done as outreach events and appeal to a public who might not be ready to sit through two hours of Mahler’s Third Symphony, but who would enjoy part of one of Mozart’s popular symphonies followed by some foot-tapping tunes from West Side Story. We’ve been to some in auditoriums as events offered to schools and homeschoolers, and some outdoors, as a free public concert where you could bring a picnic dinner.

With modern technology, classical music can be enjoyed without leaving your home, and without spending any money. Before we started our collection of music, we listened to the radio. It was a painless way to get the music into our home without having to figure out which composer to choose. When we heard something we liked, we would listen for the name of the piece and the composer, and write it down. After a while, we had a list of classical pieces we liked, such as Faure’s “Pavane,” Bach’s “Air on a G String,” Satie’s “Gymnopodie,” Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise,” Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E minor,” and Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre.” That led us to pay attention to other music from the same composers, and we slowly started a list of composers we liked. Classical radio stations are disappearing as public interest declines, but there are many stations that stream over the internet. In fact, the station that played a big part in our early music education (WDAV) is gone from our airwaves, but we listen to them online now. YouTube is also a great (and free!) resource. We’ve looked up specific pieces of music and almost always found someone playing it on YouTube. We’ve been able to watch some of the greatest musicians of our era – violinists such as Joshua Bell and Jascha Heifetz, and pianists such as Alfred Brendel, Valentina Lisitsa and Vladamir Horowitz.

At one point in our music journey, I discovered that I loved Chopin. I think we spent two years listening almost exclusively to him. It’s not exactly the strict CM formula of studying one composer for a term, but it grounded us by providing a main focal point from which other composers expanded – Chopin led naturally to Liszt and Mendelssohn, who lived at the same time he did, and then to Schumann. Another year we spent on Mozart, taking time to really get to know his Requiem and a few other pieces. Although we covered less, familiarity with these few pieces has grown into love as we’ve gotten to know them better.

Did all of that translate into a love of classical music? Yes and no. As my sons have grown up, one of them loves classical, one likes it, and one prefers popular music. For myself, it was just a beginning. From the mom who couldn’t take more than a half hour of classical music, I now have a long list of music and composers that I’ll probably never have enough time to get to know as well as I’d like. Currently, I’m back to Chopin, devoting this year to getting to know his Ballades. Maybe next year I’ll listen to his Mazurkas, or maybe I’ll have to put those off to listen to his Nocturnes again. Then there’s still Tchaikovsky and Schumann, and I haven’t even touched Mahler yet. I’m starting piano lessons, and my youngest child is just starting school, so we have twelve more years to continue discovering what else is out there, and finding new works and composers to love.

She’s already telling me she prefers Satie to Chopin.
(Leslie Noelani Laurio is a homeschooling mother of four children, and an Advisory member for Ambleside Online, a Charlotte Mason curriculum.)

© Leslie Noelani Laurio 2012

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