Friday, January 30, 2009

Learning from Daydreaming from Learning

This year, I have a couple of Music Appreciation discussion sections, adding up to about 50 students per semester I'll see once a week. I'm very relaxed speaking in front of people. In fact, I'd venture to say I am much more nervous speaking one on one than I am speaking one on 25, or--better yet--one on 500. The more faces there are out there, the less likely I will be to find the person who is tuning out or giving a skeptical scowl. It's the same way in my trumpet-playing. Although I have some physical nerves, I don't become mentally unravelled in front of hundreds of people. Now, stick a microphone and a handful of people--no matter how friendly--with clipboards in their hands in front of me, and three or four years of trumpet progress goes down the tubes. Likewise, it's much easier to interact and feed off of a large group.

I'm a fairly positive, upbeat person, for the most part, but I've found one thing in basic college teaching, a skill that nobody seems to talk about: how to read the blank stare.

Now, I won't say which one, but last semester, I taught one section that--as a collective unit--stared blankly week-in and week-out. I would ask questions that I'd thought up and phrased, preciously, days before. Two students were always ready to bail out with the right answer. I had another section, at a different time during the day, that was fairly gregarious, engaged, and ready to volunteer answers and explore more complicated questions.

Class #1 (the starers with the right-answer knowers) actually seemed to score absurdly well on examinations. When there were questions, they tended to be of a concrete variety: Whose death date must we know? What operas did Verdi compose? For what Renaissance composers must we be responsible? I began to think that I was doing something horribly wrong about the way I was asking questions. Sure, I may have had an acute case of open-ended/rhetorical-questionitis. Because I suspect that maybe a few undergraduates have had the experience of an esoteric TA and a few TAs have had the experience of being an esoteric TA, I'll post my most egregious instance of open-ended/rhetorical-questionitis:HOLY "SMALL LIBERAL ARTS SCHOOL," BATMAN! Wow! I sure was on a roll when I wrote those questions! I made a mistake--a few of them, actually.

I had some points I wanted to make, and should have just made them rather than asking a bunch of vague, wordy, questions in my most thoughtful "voice." I had a whole handout for the rest of the class period that was very nuts-and-bolts, but I thought a thoughtful way to frame it would be to step back and think about just how improbable the evolution of absolute instrumental music was. And if you think about it, it really is weird, sitting in a room, listening to noises, and getting some sort of deep, inexpressible pleasure out of it.

Because really, candidly, actually... that's rarely my experience, as a musical listener. My experience listening to music often deviates from that great ideal I'm teaching my students so potently that that deviation itself seems more interesting to me than that ideal. Is it wrong to admit that, sometimes, I don't always jump on the Schopenhauer Train to Neverneverland and losemyself among a sea of adjectives welling up within me from a place in the heavens? I just can't seem to lose myself in music like the creator of this video evidently can.

(You may notice that I'm posting this on January 30, 2009 while the very-serious Schopenhauer Youtube video was posted January 28, 2009. I assure you, I'm not ProteanOcean, and, lest I seem too mean, I'm sure some stranger will someday find my blog and use me as a strawman. The internet food chain is alive and well.)

Sometimes, I just fall asleep. Other times, no matter how compelling the performance, I completely tune out and flesh out some tangentially related thought in my mind--or, you know, my grocery list--as the music goes on. Every once in awhile, one set of sounds will catch my attention, and, in my mind, I'll begin thinking about those sounds, leading me into more tangentially related thoughts, and--before I know it--everyone around me is clapping and so I clap too.

Being inclined to empiricism and aesthetics rather than ideals and analysis, I have a lingering suspicion that some of you "tune out" at concerts too. And yet, this is one of those ideas people are afraid to express in front of people. Or, maybe I'm just weird, and the only musician who doesn't escape into The Magical Fairyland of the Ideal Listener everytime I hear a German Masterwork, let alone every time I hear myself or one of my peers hacking away at one overplayed piece or another.

And yet, all of these compulsory concerts we attend are not unlike going to a class you have to take, you like it alright, but it's not really a big deal in your life: you don't want to confront all of Life's Important Questions in it. You just want to know why Sonata is both a form and a genre, how many movements are in a symphony, and when Haydn died. And that is okay! On the same token, it's not always my responsibility to not-bore students, just as a performer cannot be absolutely "responsible" when someone falls asleep during his performance.

I remember the time on a trip for a grad school audition when I saw the New York Philharmonic perform Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and a concert-opera setting of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. I had just taken the red-eye from Des Moines to New York after spending the night in the Des Moines airport after visiting Iowa City (and traveling via Greyhound). I had no problem staying alert during the second half, which was Bartok's expressionistic masterpiece that has regularly-scheduled, totally unsubtle blasts of brass. (And, the next night, I had no problem staying awake when I heard the awesome Meridian Arts Quartet, an experience I blog about here.) The first half, though, was the Schubert--a piece I, along with the rest of the music world, know well--and, according to New York Times reviewer Bernard Holland:
Mr. Dohnanyi translates this music from Biedermeier intimacy into a full-blown, fully manned Brahmsian orchestra sound. He does it very well, and so fine was the section playing that Schubert's counterpoint emerged as clear as chamber music.
I do vaguely remember about two minutes of sumptuous, Brahmsian orchestra sound. It washed over me in waves before--just as I decided to mark signposts in the sonata form in order to stay awake--my thoughts on deciding to mark signposts in the sonata form in order to stay awake coupled with the full-blown, fully manned Brahmsian orchestra sound put me fast asleep. I was an incredibly rude waste of a student rush ticket. Something tells me, however, that if Christoph von Dohnanyi had turned around and fixated on one sleeping bum, he may have been offended, but he would not have second-guessed his tempoes on my account.

Maybe some of the blank stares I get while teaching aren't because I'm not clear (although, you can be sure, on October 7, 2008 for the first ten minutes of my first class, that had something to do with it!) but because--gasp!--some college students don't get enough sleep, or have trouble maintaining focus, or sitting still. Heck, I'm 25, and I fall asleep in classes I enjoy, even, when I haven't slept enough. And some of the students I originally pegged for blank-starers were actually the ones who were the most prepared. They were bored because they'd gone above and beyond what they had been asked to read and prepare, so they already knew the answers, but didn't feel like showing off in front of their peers.

This semester, I feel like I'm already much more comfortable engaging blank-starers or sleepers without throwing myself off my game or picking on them. I got some practice Friday night. Karma intervened, and I had a couple of sleepers in the second row. I was playing a cornet solo from memory, and so was able to make a great deal of eye contact. I tried to vary my phrases up and throw a little wrinkle or two into my phrasing while looking at one or the other of these guys--I even took an optional octave up that I wouldn't have at one point to try to stir one of them, and it was a fun little game.

I had a little chuckle while I was playing knowing how many recitals I have slept through, but didn't take it personally. You see, there are decent odds, in Iowa City in January, that one of those guys had himself just spent the night in the Des Moines Airport or the day on a Greyhound Bus. And, candidly, there are decent odds, in Iowa City at 6 PM on a Friday, that one or both of those guys had between five and ten beers in him already, and that's something that I can't control!

Now, earlier I was talking about how I'm an "empiricist" by nature: I use the term kind of broadly, but I think what I mean is that I take special account of the subjective experience in art, because that is, in actuality, what is "happening." That idea, ingrained in me by a dear mentor, an old American literature professor of mine, lay at the root of those very fussy questions I wanted to ask my students that one day.

My professor, now retired, was a loud iconoclast who would spend roughly half of his lecture time raging at the blank stares, before yelling to himself, "Gotta try again, gotta keep trying!" His ideas were fussy and fine, and tended to engage some students very acutely (there were a handful of us), while others simply wanted to know the plot of Huck Finn without daily excursions into phenomenology or self-awareness. Many very intelligent students found him unfailingly pedantic and histrionic. As for me, even though I can't quite remember all that much about Natty Bumppo, Fritzell seemed to offer me a new set of lenses through which I could experience everything from literature to a symphony to eating a hamburger to watching a deer and think about how crazy I must look to that deer while I look at that deer. While I can't tell you about what Natty Bumppo "did," that's okay: I learned plenty from how "Natty Bumppo" itself is spelled. During the 19th Century, the compulsion toward American language veered our culture into some embarassing and unintentionally humorous locales, an idea that has informed my forays into the wonderful, occasionally awful, world of 19th-Century American Music.

His point, though, is simple: you construct a fiction; the "action" of reading takes place internally. As you read Huck Finn, you are composing Huck Finn, choosing to read forward, to react, to convert words on a page to mental images or sounds. If that's what reading is, then it's a bit silly to take his actions all that seriously. Of course, the corollary to this is that just because it's "your fiction" doesn't diminish its reality anymore than realizing that biological classification is an artificial construction makes species extinct...

Okay, even through the Internet, I can see you staring blankly, but I'm gonna keep trying.

To prove his point, Fritzell would always try to find someone who was daydreaming, because--if his or her eyes were moving across a page during the daydream, his or her "Huck Finn" plot would be far different from the rest of ours. It would have nothing to do with race relations, but more likely have something to do with what's going to be served for lunch, or about someone of the opposite sex, or about any number of more compelling topics than "Huck Finn" was able to supply at the moment, just as sleep was a more compelling physical need for me than Schubert was "A Great Work of Art."

"Gotta keep tryin'.... Keep tryin'.... Looking for a daydreamer here..." he would say, scanning the room, legitimately hoping someone would be drifting off for the sake of his argument. Those times, however, every back in the room would snap stiff and every pupil dilate.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I've figured out how to stop my students' daydreams once and for all. If only it worked in recital. And, to answer your last question: 1809.

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