Monday, September 08, 2008

Day 10 (Round II) "In the trenches" (lineage edition)

Week 03. Raining like sixty here on the South Plains (tail end of Gustav, or Ike looming): usually the Gulf weather isn't able to get up and over the north-south Caprock Escarpment that lies to our east, but today it sure is. Lot of shivery little Texans running around in gym shorts and Ugg boots, soaked to the skin, and exclaiming how cold they are.

It's probably 68 degrees.

Anyway: this is really the "settling-in" week: first week of classes (and, for the freshmen, of college) is over, the long Long Day weekend and shortened subsequent week are past, and now they're actually face-to-face with "Holy crap, I'm in college now!". Which is a good thing--it's about time they got serioused-up. To which end, today was the first Listening Quiz of the five we administer over the semester. It's a venerable, even hoary, approach to mandating that they actually listen and pay attention, outside class, to the music we want them to remember: get 'em all in a room, "drop the needle" (in the new era, it should probably be "drop the laser" or "click the file") on a given excerpt, and ask them to respond with short-answer identifications. The goal is not that they memorize the answers, but rather that they listen critically to and think about the music--but quizzing them on memorized data is a good way to bridge their "memorize and regurgitate" standardized-testing experience from high school into the "listen critically and think about musical/stylistic patterns and identifers" that makes for a mature musician.

It works pretty well: we listen to a piece in class, talk about SHMRG (Sound Harmony Melody Rhythm Growth) parameters and have them fill out worksheets which use the same prompts, have them refer again to those worksheets when they go back to listen and review. The goal is to synchronize the repertoire and concepts they get in their 4-semester music history sequence with the same repertoire and concepts they get in the theory/analysis sequence.

It works pretty well: there really is a synergy that emerges when the same student experiences the same piece of music in two different classes with two different intellectual mandates and procedures. It's like a third "shadow" class in "style & analysis," "content & context," which emerges in their own heads (and, nowadays, in the online webct discussions and facebook chatrooms we link to the courses). The ideal communicative relationship in the classroom is not from teacher-to-student, or even from student-to-teacher, but rather teacher-student-other students--and most ideally at least 1/3 of the communication should be students articulating and communicating insights and ideas back and forth to each other, with minimal intervention from the teacher.

I'm still surprised when I'm reminded--even though I know this intellectually--that students too shy to respond in a face-to-face discussion may be some of the most engaged, curious, and dynamic in an online discussion. Our goal is not to require that they all use the same modes of communication--learning and personality types are too different, it would be like requiring all the lefties to write right-handed--but rather that they all engage in something like the same degree of communication. So far, this year's facebook gamble is working out pretty well. And I continue to be gobsmacked by how much more extensive results and engagement we can get when we employ their familiar and preferred media of communication.

Other news: sendoff celebration/ceremony for our longest-serving faculty member (fifty-seven years!), Dr Mary Jean van Appledorn. The much-loved "Dr Van" began employment at our university in 1950 (as the Boss said in his address "that would have been the year I was born, I guess"), when the faculty totaled five, and seldom saw each other because they were teaching in scattered Quonset huts and converted chicken coops on the stuck-in-the-cotton-fields campus of Texas Technological College. A quite extraordinary lady, remarkably prolific, widely recorded and performed, and absolutely fearless in her dedication to music and to her students' intellectual and artistic development.

But she's taken one or two too many tumbles lately, and everyone in the building, from the colleagues who've served with her for 25 or 30 or 35 years, to the incoming freshmen who've only heard about her in anecdotes from the last four generations (or 25 generations, if you figure a "college generation" is really at most about 4 years), wants her to be safe and comfortable in a place where she doesn't have to climb stairs and drive herself back-and-forth every day. So she made the choice to "retire" (though knowing Dr Van, she'll be just as much in evidence as ever, just more on her own schedule) and so we needed to send her off in style.

Which is an essential part of being an artistic community. It's a recognition that the elders in the village have wisdom that we still need, and that their generosity in sharing it--for 25 or 30 or 35 or fifty-seven years--merits recognition and thanks. And what we, as musicians, do to celebrate our artistic elders is to play their music, sing their songs, and dance their stories. We are here because they were there, for us and for the art that we love, and our debt is incalculable. We can't repay it. But we can damned well acknowledge it.

For a composer, that means that you play their goddamned music. You break the usual "no extra credit offered or granted" rule in the Musicology classes (we don't offer extra credit because it makes for a lot of extra bookkeeping time we could be spending teaching, because typically the students who seek extra credit at the eleventh hour have been blowing off work all semester, and because, as we say in the syllabi "we believe in getting our work done completely, correctly, and on time"), but sometimes you bend the rules, and tell the kids you're bending the rules, in order to provide a more profound insight. So this time we gave the entire Freshmen history class, all 100+ of them, the option of attending the concert, writing up a SHMRG worksheet or a "5 Questions" worksheet, submitting, and using that to replace their lowest Listening Quiz grade at the end of the semester.

This is psychologically much more effective. In this way, it's not "extra credit," it's rather "grade replacement," wherein a student concerned about his/her performance on a LQ has the option of doing some additional work, also focused on engaging critically with music, in place of that problematic quiz. It's also good timing: concert was yesterday, quiz was today, so any kid panicking about SHMRG skills knew s/he could do this work in advance of the quiz date. By our lights, if you do the work in advance rather than scandalously tardily, it's not "extra credit."

And they got to hear some great, very challenging music: in a 57 year career, if a composer has paid any attention to what was going on around him/her, you'd expect the music to change, and in Dr Van's case, her oeuvre is virtually a catalog of American new music in the second half of the 20th century, from serialism to Black Mountain school Cage/Cowell found-sound and multi-media to Carter/Ligeti extended techniques virtuosity to Thomson-esque "Americana" and so on. All the way from 1948 (earliest-dated piece on the program) down to 2007 (the most recent).

And, even more importantly, these young people, at the earliest glimmering starts of what they hope might be their own careers in music, got to see the fruits--compositionally, artistic, and communal--of a long life spent in service to music. To see the other end of that lifelong process. To see the multiple generations of students, friends, an musical descendants, come together in a room, and with rhetoric and ritual, speech and music, joy and sorrow, celebrate the life and work of one of our own particular village's treasured elders. That's why we want them in the room.

Because of what they can learn. Not just about how to be a composer or a musician or a member of an artistic community.

But even more profoundly than that: how to be a human being.

That's why we do what we do.

Thank you, Dr Van, for your great effort. May we all seek to live up to your shining example and keep the flame of your legacy alive.


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