The right ingredients

Much to my dismay, I have found myself in the unfortunate situation of needing to educate 150 mostly freshman at once in the early morning. As I have gotten more savvy with my power point, visual aids, entertaining quotes and musical selections, asking penetrating questions and requiring attendance, I have begun to feel like I don’t exactly have their rapt attention, but at least fewer of them seem to be falling asleep in class.

This week the equipment wasn’t working, and I stood in front of a bunch of disinterested looking undergrads with nothing but a piano, a white board and my own ability to improvise. With no bell and whistles, I had to rely on my own knowledge of the material and ability to relate on a human level to the students. It was exhilarating and very challenging, but I made it through, and there was a level of intimacy and connection that I had not felt in other classes, though my lecture was a bit disorganized without the aid of my power point notes. Nonetheless. I felt extremely grateful when I saw the tech support people come into our building.

After all, how could I expect the students to have any attention span for something educational when their world is broken into such short segments of flashy information. How different our culture must have been 100 years ago for simple lecturing to work.

Then something struck me with a profound irony; every time I walk before an audience with my instrument I am doing exactly that, expecting 19th century attention and sensibilities out of a 21st century audience. Wouldn’t you rather go see Avatar with 3D glasses? On the other hand if you lived 150 years ago on a small estate and you had nothing but the bird song and each meal to look forward to, wouldn’t the sound of live instruments add tremendous color and life to your days? No wonder our audience is often white haired. They grew up and lived long enough before the current tech explosion that they have the ability to listen. So what happens when the current generation grows old?

Something I have never doubted is my ability to please people’s palettes with my culinary arts. I can almost guarantee many emphatic exclamations of joy during the consumption of my meals, an instantly gratifying feeling of success that the performer in me relishes. I am often drilled about WHERE did I learn to cook and what makes my food so good. I always say the same thing to them, that I use good organic herbs and vegetables, high quality meats, and that is half of the trick. The other is growing up with a parent, in my case my Mom, who knows how to cook.

I have always been accused of being a “food snob” because I prefer my food with the most minimal amount of, or preferably no pesticides, processing, traveling, preservatives, MSG, sugar, GMO’s, etc. .But wouldn’t this make me a food peasant? Simple, as nature intended!

And again, ironically what is considered the most “refined” music, Classical, is the most simple and close to nature: a wood instrument, a score-though the skill required to perform is highly refined. But no light show, no amp, no msg. If high and low class are all mixed up, as it seems, then stop already with accusing me of being a snob because I value quality and skill in what I do, buy and consume! This was true of peasants and royalty alike who valued quality craftsmanship and generations of collected knowledge.

But is Classical music just not modern enough for our current sensibilities? The truth is that you really can’t “update” a cello performance without leaving the genre. The most we get as far as props are sparkly tops, and sexy dresses. One would hope that we could still value and recognize skill and the ability to relate on a human level, no matter how much technology we get accustomed to as a culture. So the question is how do we keep classical music relevant to contemporary society, besides performing works by living composers? I personally believe that we need to transcend the outdated packing and cultural stereotypes associated with the art form, expressing this in how we present, package and program in addition to perform.

Last year I played in a tiny town in Western Massachusetts. The audience of farmers, teachers, administrators, cheese makers and homemakers were practically in my lap. The old man in the front closed his eyes and sighed in rapture several times during my performance. I am sure that he could see the sweat dripping down my arms, feel the intensity of my concentration. Many of those people had never attended a classical concert before. I am not sure they really even thought about what they were attending, their friend and fellow community member with the grand piano had invited them to an afternoon social with music at her house. Once I had them there I steered clear of wall to wall Beethoven, or the typical classical/modern/romantic programming. I played music that shared a common thread or cultural background. Not just a catchy “theme”, but a meaningful narrative that ran through all the works. And I kept the playing under 45 minutes. Before I went on stage the hostess laughed at my high heels, to which I replied “don’t worry, the music is barefoot”. We had a good laugh!

After a standing ovation, and 60 hugs and thanks, I knew I had done something right. I had all the right ingredients.

As for my students, I will be using even more technology today: the Iclicker, which is a device with which they can vote, answer questions and share an opinion all with the click of a little remote thing in their hands. Pretty cool technology, and I am hoping that this will add to the human engagement, keep them connected and intrigued.

So maybe it isn’t unfortunate after all that I am teaching this class. I could not have thought up a more perfect method for educating myself on how to inspire the young generation to recognize and value the beauty in the classical music art form. Most of these students are not the population that would normally make up my typical audience, and hopefully I am about to find out why!

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