REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PASSED AND FAILED
JENNA ORKIN of wtceo.org
remembers her days teaching at Juilliard
The first version of this article was written more than twenty years ago. I'd stopped teaching classes at Juilliard because in order to continue, I would have had to embark on a PhD thesis. Not even my dream job, which the Juilliard gig was, could conquer my revulsion at the thought. But I still tutored at the school so before submitting the article for publication I sought permission from the PR department. They responded that if it got published, I wouldn't be allowed back in the building.
The article dove under the bed where it's remained til now.
Juilliard has always had superb PR but it's of a glossy kind that was not compatible with the backhanded praise that the article offers. In fact, as a teacher I was smitten with the school's creative students, brilliant faculty, historic productions. Perhaps the current administration will understand that.
I fell in love with musical comedy at the age of five and with 'concert music' (the pianist Rosalyn Tureck insisted that the term 'classical music' referred only to the late eighteenth century) at the age of thirteen. By the time I got to college I wanted to teach what I loved.
That shouldn't have been too much to ask. But as everyone knows, to teach college (the level I wanted) you need a PhD. Much as I loved teaching, I hated being a student more. So I turned to Plan B. As there was no Plan B, I waited on tables.
This episode requires a story in itself. Suffice it to say here I was fired from two waitressing positions: the first, for 'allowing' a couple to skip out without paying their bill (for which I had to fork over my tips); the second for not being able to do that circus trick with plates up the arm.
So when a Fellowship opened up in the Music History Department at Juilliard to teach music of the 19th and 20th centuries, I went through the motions of applying but forgot about the job as soon as I returned to my real life of getting nowhere. However it was a few days before school was to open so only one other person had heard about the position. He was a better trained musician than I but with an expertise in a branch of theory considered too rarefied for undergraduates. He also had a thick Russian accent. [Identifying details have been changed.] I was hired.
Thrill soon gave way to terror. I'd gone to Juilliard for one misbegotten year of college and had been glad to be rid of the place. In those days, unlike today when the school is more open, the core of the Juilliard experience lay in the practise room. In that sanctuary, nothing was supposed to come between the student, her instrument and the score. I had wanted things to come between us. The practise room was for me a vacuum. So I had left, gone to Hunter College and Oxford which offered more normal college experiences with conversation, other people, subjects beyond last night's performance of the Mozart 23rd Concerto.
But now I drew on that year at Juilliard for solace.
'They're not all exprodigies,' I reminded myself. 'And only a few are full-fledged virtuosi.' The reassurances rang pathetic. I envisioned lecturing to an audience that saw right through me to a core of incompetence.
But there was a core of energy too. I was twenty-five, not so long out of college myself, with the memory still dewy of boring classes. My driving mission was to do unto my students as I wished had been done unto me. I might be ignorant but I would not be boring.
However, there was still the problem of preparing an hour and a quarter's class (to be repeated four times a week) for a whole year -- the predicament of Scheherazade but without recourse to imagination. How to do this when I wasn't exactly brimming over with information?
'Keep them busy,' I decided. 'Exploit them: Get the singers to talk about opera' (the subject I knew the least about). 'They may resent it but at least they won't be bored. Or if they are, it'll be their own fault.'
Copyright © 24 May 2005
Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA