The faculty is once again rethinking the distribution requirements, the obstacle course of varied classes every student has to take to make sure they all have a more well-rounded education than I do. So we’re having meetings about how to pitch courses to non-majors. I enjoy these. My colleagues in literature, the sciences, and the social sciences are so brilliant, so eloquent and thoughtful, that I’ve come to realize that I’m not all that smart – I’m just really smart for a musician. Today they asked what one thing I would want a non-music-major to get out of one of my classes. As so often happens, my mouth started rattling before my brain was even engaged, and what it said was good enough: “I want every student to realize that it is possible to fall completely in love with a piece of music that he or she didn’t like at all the first time they heard it.”
Because this is what I’m having a lot of trouble with. The closed-mindedness of some of my students seems like the worst thing about my life these days, and if that’s the biggest tragedy I’ve got to deal with, I guess I’ll survive. I’m talking about my composition students. I am prepared for our opera singers to turn up their noses at Stockhausen and Nancarrow, but these are young composers refusing to give modern masterworks a third hearing (actually, one of my singers is bugging me for the most dissonant Ives songs I can give her). I’ll play the Concord Sonata, or Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, for a student, a music major, and they respond, “No no, I don’t like that, and I’m sure I never will.” Or I’ll play some astounding microtonal music, and they’ll say, “Oh, that just sounds out of tune, no one’s ever going to accept that.” No curiosity whatever, no openness, no wonder. Worse: it’s like, if they spend three hours listening to a 20- or 40-minute piece a few times, that’ll be three spoiled, precious hours of their life they’ll never get back. Or, maybe, if they learn to enjoy some peculiar-sounding piece, it will split them off from their peers, to whom they would have trouble relating the experience. I don’t get it. No one has ever called me un-opinionated, but when I was 18, I was going to be damned before I would admit that there was a piece of modern music in existence that I couldn’t understand. I’d listen to the same record a dozen times in a row until the piece started to make sense to me. I wasn’t committed to liking everything I heard, but I was going to understand every single piece well enough to understand why somebody liked it, even if I didn’t, and I was going to be able to articulate why, of all the complex and opaque pieces ever written, I’d decided I didn’t like this one. I withheld judgments for years, decades, until I felt I had done sufficient analysis to come to an opinion. After 20 years of full-time teaching, I’m still waiting to come across a student as totally committed to understanding the entire classical repertoire as I was at 18. Haven’t found one.
Part of the problem is that “the canon” carries no weight anymore (and little enough with me). Students come to school already knowing everything worth knowing, or so they think, having heard the first minute of thousands of mp3s, and with a calcified, corporate-determined idea of what is musically acceptable. With so many alternative histories of music available, why should mine be privileged? I like Giacinto Scelsi, but they like some hiphop artist I’ve never heard, so we’re even, right? But I’m the 59-year-old professor, and I can look back at the opinions I firmly held at age 20 with embarrassment and condescension. It alienates me from them. When they refuse to consider, despite detailed argument, that there may be incredible qualities in modern works that they haven’t understood yet, attempting to teach them becomes a tedious bore. What the hell are they in college for? Why am I baby-sitting people who aren’t impressed with my experience and opinion? Is this a generational thing? a product of iPod and internet culture? Why would smart, likable, upscale students be so determined that no one’s going to educate them?
And while I’m at it, get off my lawn.