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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Phone:240-895-4795
Anne Arundel 100

'It Begins with a Sigh of Recognition from the Audience'

Written by Deborah Lawrence, professor and acting chair, music department

The Waldbühne, an outdoor venue in Berlin. This night, the Berlin Philharmonic was playing. (Photo by Deborah Lawrence)

 

One of the pleasures of teaching music is that of introducing students to works that may be new to them but that enjoy a privileged place in the world as generally accepted great works of art.

For example, if teaching a work like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its famous fi rst four notes, it is exciting to explain that − arresting as those notes are − they are a gateway into a longer work that is filled with excitement, beauty, power, and passion. Teaching this symphony is also a means of bringing students into a community of listeners: a community of people who may have nothing else in common other than their love for certain pieces of music.


I was reminded of how special the bond is among music lovers this summer when, while on vacation, I heard the Berlin Philharmonic, with guest soprano Renée Fleming, at the Waldbühne, an outdoor venue in Berlin that resembles Wolf Trap’s concerts in Virginia, although much larger. There, about 20,000 audience members enjoyed a stellar performance of orchestral works, arias, and songs under the stars.

Many of us knew the pieces well and were delighted as each came forth, like old friends, to spend time with us. Yet, there were also many people who were obviously new to the music, but nevertheless seemed to enjoy the experience tremendously. Perhaps the communal sighs that issued forth with the opening of each favored work acted as a mentor to the neophytes that they were about to hear something very special.

And while I was one of the older members of the classical music community, the new concert-goers were part of a solidly happy group as the orchestra ended with a medley of locally popular tunes. Then, I was the outsider, but made to feel welcome to share in the singing and clapping. For all of us, whenever we hear these works again, we will remember and savor the experience of that lovely night.


It is with that in mind that I hope to bring our students into new communities of music enjoyment. Sometimes, one exists already: when I use such pieces in the classroom as “Check On It” by Beyoncé, or Sting’s “Every Breath You Take,” the students’ happy recognition illustrates that they are part of a community that likes rock. Like two athletes who have nothing in common other than their love of a sports team, when my students and I know and enjoy the same piece we have a comfortable common ground. Interestingly, and endearingly, their knowledge of some of the older works has occurred through their parents or grandparents who form part of this community of listeners in absentia.


Some pieces are more accessible than others, and with my success in bringing students into the fold of opera lovers I am almost doing them a disservice: opera is truly addicting and can be frightfully expensive. Yet to be introduced to Mozart and his depiction of the legendary lover Don Juan (in “Don Giovanni”), or Bizet’s alluring “Carmen,” is to become friends with not only the music but also with a world of others who know and love these works. Wherever they go they will meet others with similar passions and they can converse happily about it.


But there are times, too, when the community of music lovers is a smaller one, such as those who become smitten with certain Medieval or Renaissance works. As a scholar of music of the Renaissance, I am accustomed to reluctance on the part of an audience: this music generally lacks the tonal or rhythmic drive that characterizes more commonly performed repertoire. Still, it is very satisfying to play a particularly striking motet by an early master and then, from my students, hear – nothing, at least at first, followed by expressions of delightfully surprised joy at this quiet and profoundly spiritual beauty.

Introducing students to so-called “world music” has brought surprises, and contradictions, regarding which world music communities our students might join. One student fell in love with a 20-minute Indian vina work, and walked our campus pathways with it playing on her iPod, while another made a point of letting me know that 20 minutes was too long for any piece of music. Our robust program of International Education – which sends students across the globe – is a good indicator that most of our students are as ready to try the music of other cultures – classical or popular – as they are to try the language, food, and ways of life. A sweet reward has been to have students return from their experiences abroad and bring me recordings and artifacts, or just come and tell me about their musical adventures. I am developing a worldly collection of pieces and small musical instruments because of this.

I am fortunate that my work allows me to continue to expand my knowledge of music works and then share them with our students. When I am lucky, they introduce me to their own musical community as well. The community of listeners that we are trying to build is one that stretches beyond thousands of miles and hundred of years.

The St. Mary’s College community enjoys a wealth of musical opportunities throughout the academic year that expands these musical bonds of friendship. Students are introduced to certain pieces not through classes but because they go to hear their friends play with the orchestra, or hear it in a Friday afternoon recital. Our summer River Concert Series creates its own community of listeners who not only share the music, but may also share the memory of a particularly beautiful sunset that formed the backdrop to the event. They may hear that work again one day in the Waldbühne in Berlin, and recall hearing it along the St. Mary’s River, and they will feel at home. I always look forward to welcoming students to this community of listeners.