New Approaches to Music Appreciation
I hold a core belief that art is relational, as we share unique and poetic visions about the human experience. I am filled with joy as a young composer discovers some bit of music that will forever change the way he or she thinks about music. I also desire to elevate the listening experience of the average person so that there is a bit more room in their lives to engage art music with meaning and joy.
My first classroom teaching gig was a music appreciation class at a Jewish Community Center on the outskirts of downtown Philadelphia. The JCC asked for an eight-week course based on the Philadelphia Orchestra concert schedule. For one hour a week, I stood in front of 50 retired adults and talked about music. I loved it, and I selfishly focused on the contemporary repertoire and began to find language to share my love of 20th-century concert music. This was important work. I had a special platform to proselytize the power of contemporary music and to help these non-musicians have a deeper experience when they went to the concert hall. It helped that my students were already ticket buyers for one of the world’s greatest orchestras. They sat with serious interest as we discussed John Corigliano, Claude Debussy, John Adams, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and other master composers who found their way on to the orchestra’s calendar that season.
Fast forward ten years and I am teaching composition majors at the University of Colorado in Boulder. My favorite class— “New Music Styles and Practices”—is a model composition course for undergraduates. We spend two weeks looking at the music of Stravinsky, and then the students are asked to write a piece in the style of Stravinsky. We go on to cover Bartók, Messiaen, Babbitt, Lutoslawski, micropolyphony, minimalism, American nationalism, aleatory, and a host of other composers/aesthetics. It is a semester of discovery for many of these second-year students who have not yet encountered the masterpieces of 20th and 21st-century concert music. I take special delight as they investigate Reich’s Different Trains or George Crumb’s Black Angels for the first time. In some cases, these modern masterpieces shatter the students’ limited aesthetic bubbles. New possibilities or modes of expression open before them like a hiker arriving at a grand vista. I am filled with joy as a young composer discovers some bit of music that will forever change the way he or she thinks about music. By the end of the semester most of the students are different composers. They have encountered brilliance and now savor the seductive invitation to seek new heights and aesthetics within their own music. Like a tour guide, I decide where we stop, which juicy stories get told, and what might be the best angle for a selfie. I am the curator for an exquisite body of music, and my audience is eager.
I paint a romantically rosy picture of teaching, but I think that is important. Teaching has highs and lows, and I need to constantly remind myself of the big picture ideals that put me in front of a class. My voice should convey a conviction that we are studying something important and that I am personally on fire for the subject. I fondly remember Daron Hagen saying that all music classes are essentially “music appreciation” classes. They help us dig into the core substance of musical brilliance and deepen our love of our chosen art form. At least that is how learning and teaching ought to work.
This same passion for teaching music to composition majors fuels my passion for talking to lay audiences. I hold a core belief that art is relational, as we share unique and poetic visions about the human experience. The artist has something important to offer that can nourish and elevate the soul. Life without art is pale. I embrace opportunities to share insight into the richly complex and abstract—but highly expressive—medium of art music. I hope to help build an audience for my own work. More importantly, I desire to elevate the listening experience of the average person so that there is a bit more room in their lives to engage art music with meaning and joy. The cynic in me scoffs at this naively optimistic view. But my optimism brings energy and clarity when I speak to audiences. It is a privilege and a responsibility to embrace these platforms and draw an audience towards great music—whether Beethoven or Monk or Reich or Zappa or Higdon.
After a few years of teaching music majors full-time at my university, I became a bit nostalgic for teaching contemporary music to non-musicians. I missed the delight and challenge of inviting a lay audience to engage with abstract art music. So I began to imagine a class for undergraduate non-music majors that focused on art music from the last 100 years. I wanted to provide a compelling and meaty class, filled with contemporary art music, for the average University of Colorado student who came to study engineering, business, or environmental design. I remembered that often an audience merely needs a great invitation into the heart of a piece before they are ready to drop any bias and listen with open ears. With a good guide, even a contrarian or major skeptic can find meaning in music they once disliked. Over a few years I created two classes—“Tragedy and Inspiration” and “Misfits and Geniuses”—to fulfill my desire to bring art music to non-musicians. These courses have enriched my teaching menu beyond composition students and allow the regular delight of opening ears to music I love.