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For the two years I taught classes at Juilliard these insecurities never let up. But behind them lay another problem: that of ambition. I didn't want just to get through the year without disgrace; I wanted the students to take away knowledge they would remember, use in their performances, pass on. What each student learned would be unique to him or her. It wouldn't be found in our textbook, stalwart and reputable as that was. They would learn directly from scores which must be conceived anew by each musician who studies them as long as the music is to remain alive.

I also wanted to learn from my students, since that would be a sign I was doing my job right.

Occasionally, this happened. From one student paper, for instance, I learned that the professions of Rossini's parents had been those of trumpet player and slaughterhouse inspector. The paper didn't say which parent was which.

The most startling observations came from students who knew the least for then they had to invent. Asked on an exam about Luisa Miller and The Sicilian Vespers, both operas by Verdi, a bassoon player identified them as 'friends of Liszt'. (Along with La Somnambula and The Flying Dutchman?) On another exam I gave ten terms to be identified: Idee fixe, cyclic form, the sort of thing that comes up in Music 101 courses. As a bonus I put the term 'roller skates' which had been used to simulate ice skates in a Meyerbeer opera. Somebody cited them as an example of cyclic form. I gave her an extra point.

The students also had a certain stylistic flair, however inadvertent. In a paper on cello music of the Romantic era one student said of the great composers who'd written solo works for cello, 'These giants were largely responsible for the growth in the cello literature ...'

Never had I seen such consistency of metaphor. How appropriate that giants had been responsible for growth and that the way they had been responsible was 'largely'.

Then there were the kids who by the end of the year came through, writing papers from the heart: the percussionist who wrote about Beethoven's Ninth and who is now himself on the percussion faculty of Juilliard; the pianist who ended a paper on Chopin's Nocturnes with the words: 'It is impossible to imagine a world without them.'

There were other redeeming features, too, to staying late, slogging through seventy-four essays on traditional form in Wozzeck: Dropping in on a play on the third floor; or simply hearing the pure tones of balanced winds filtering through the walls of a practice room.

One evening, I followed more distant sounds to their source two floors below the Music History office. Slipping in through the back door of the orchestra rehearsal hall, I stood inside for twenty minutes -- a moment in which an impression was fixed in my mind of the palpable quality of a childhood memory -- as the elegant gestures of Copland described in the air the phrases of Haydn.

Copyright © 24 May 2005 Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA




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