This semester, I’ve been teaching at two different campuses, SUNY Purchase and CUNY Queensborough Community College. The student bodies are quite different, so this has been an interesting experiment in essentially teaching the same course to three different classes of students. I’ll reflect on this properly at the end of the term, but this week there was a presidential election.
(And seemingly no blogging for the past year, but I've been blogging pedagogically. This semester it's run the gamut--on women in classical music, on ballet, on thinking of composers as real people, on conducting, on the notion of musicking, on the physiology of music—and also curating a couple of student-run blogs.)
This week, the scheduled in-class topic—set out in the idealism of August when my as-yet unseen students had no idea that they were going to LEARN EVERYTHING—was music making during World War II. Because the Purchase course description requires that we approach music through the lens of its intersection with the other arts, economics, philosophy, and politics, this week’s class easily fell into place as an intellectual exercise around politics and pieces of music I already admired (and had already taught): Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 (1937) and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1940). It comes in the 10th week of the term, by which point I expected my students to have mastered (did I really think that 3 months ago?) usage of music-specific vocabulary (melody, polyphonic texture, clarinet vs. oboe, etc.). By now we would have successfully romped through the ideals of the Enlightenment and Classical string quartets. We would have digested the behemoths of Beethoven and Wagner and their repercussions for German nationalism, musical canonization, and Romanticism. We would have already sagely noted salient differences not only between the musical styles of Debussy and Schoenberg, but also the styles of their painting and literary counterparts (Monet and Munch, Baudelaire and Stefan George, respectively). At the very least, things resembling these ideals happened.
Last week, we broached the topic that classical music wasn’t necessarily welcoming to everyone: emigrants and musical nostalgia (Chopin), careers of female musicians taking backseat to those of their husbands (Clara), and racial minorities in the US (Scott Joplin, Robert Johnson, and Billie Holiday’s recording of Strange Fruit). In class we touched upon issues of censorship. In the guided online discussion, students grappled with the residual effects of sexism in the classical music world.
It was so neatly laid out, a logical intellectual progression, that suddenly aligned with the 2016 presidential election. I sat in my office on Wednesday, with gnawing anxiety over unfinished lectures for Thursday and Friday quietly growing, listening to my 20-something female coworkers crying—sobbing—during Hillary’s concession speech. Sitting in a dour talk-our-feelings-out impromptu staff meeting full of references to Canadian emigration. Imagining the world through my students’ eyes, and our planned lectures no longer seemed so intellectual.
I started classes this week asking my students how they felt—How are you guys doing today? No really, how are you feeling?
Shock. Fear. Anger. Disbelief. Some tears. Confusion: over why people would vote for Trump, would choose hate, would think that his credentials made him qualified for the job he sought. Panic leading trans students to secure passports, proceed into marriages they thought were eventual rather than imminent, and withdrawing their money from the stock market. A sense of betrayal: as women, as people of color, as immigrants, as Muslims, as students who had been told they needed to go to college in order to succeed. Uncertainty: their family member’s undocumented immigration status, their access to health care, going to war, rioting or other violence, laws that would be passed or undone.
I treated the day as an open forum, creating space for them to articulate their feelings, but I couldn't let them stop there without a sense of what they as individuals with agency could do to shape the world around them.
They felt uncertain about how to react with anything other than crippling fear or frustration. And unsure about their role in what happens next. Uncertain about the process by which the Electoral College could be changed. Unaware that they could contact their state and federal representatives. Unsure what purpose protesting serves. Not sure what community organizations they could be a part of. (These questions were all eventually answered, for what it's worth.)
My students are mostly aged 18-20, were voting in an election for the first time, and have lived their adult lives believing that a Black president is just a totally normal thing. This was an uncomfortable whiplash moment for most of them to realize that limits of their world are not the limits of the world.
The lecture portion of the day was short, but I kept it in because I thought was important to talk about musicians who, in the face of the shittiest, grimmest realities, did what they can with what they had.
But before that happened, I told my students why I teach and why I think meaningful music appreciation courses are a necessary component of the degrees they’re working towards:
I’m playing the long game. I’m not going to change my students' lives today or this semester, but the work we do in class—becoming more attentive listeners, learning to unpack different people’s perspectives, understanding the kind of talent required to produce a piece of art, appreciating the myriad impulses and social structures and inspirations and human desires that create a piece of art—makes them more empathetic people. Our work sows the seeds that I hope will make it impossible for my students to look at another person as an “Other” or as a caricature rather than a human being ever again because they'll be able to sensitively and meaningfully notice, infer, and appreciate the wholeness of that person. And that will make them the kinds of citizens I will happy to share my world with in 20 or 40 years.
(Part of this final paragraph made it into a pitch my boss gave at a successful fundraising event we held on Thursday—it was both thrilling and odd to hear my words in another person’s mouth.)