Drew McManus of Adaptistration posted a hilarious video excerpt this week from a Steve Martin comedy special, Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever (1981). In the sketch, the brilliant and talented Martin struggles to find a way to incorporate a performance of a Bartók string quartet into his comedy special. Hilarity ensues.
If you take anything away from that clip, I hope it’s this: we’ll be better off with relevancy when we stop trying so hard and just learn how to laugh at ourselves.
I ask my Music 100 1 students to attend one concert during the semester and write a written response. I’m sure there will be some interesting responses, but that’s a topic for another post. In preparing my students for this assignment, I asked them to read an excerpt from Jonathan Bellman’s A Short Guide to Writing About Music on reviews. I also gave them some links to recent NY Times classical music reviews. The last thing I did was explain the ritual that is Orchestra Concert. My explanation when something like this:
While the audience is finding their seats, the members of the orchestra will gradually find their seats on the stage. They will be playing and warming up during this time. When the lights go out, the hall will get quiet. The concertmaster 2 will come out. Despite the fact that he or she has yet to do anything at all, the audience will applaud, and the concertmaster will bow. The concertmaster will turn his or her back to the audience. The oboe will play a note, and the ensemble will join. This may be repeated. Then, the conductor will come out and receive the same treatment as the concert master. He or she 3 will then begin the concert.
At this point, I was unsure of how to proceed. I think that in general, not clapping between movements is kind of dumb and arbitrary. Do I tell them the custom and perpetuate it? Do I tell them to be sure to clap despite the disapproving stares they will inevitably get? Or do I tell them nothing about this custom and let the chips fall where they may? My cop-out was something along the lines of “I think this custom is kind of arbitrary, and it certainly isn’t how Mozart and Beethoven heard their music performed. However, it’s important to me that you feel comfortable attending as many concerts as you want to.”
Did I do the right thing here? What would you/have you told your friends and students attending an Orchestra Concert for the first time.
Introduction to Music Literature, AKA Music Appreciation ↩
We’d just finished talking about sections of the orchestra and what the concertmaster does. ↩
And now it’s time for another installment of our sporadic series “Sh*t My Texbook Says.” 1
Let me share with you the first paragraph of Dr. Wright’s excellent essay “Understanding Poetry” on melody:
A melody, simply put, is the tune. It’s the part we sing along with, the part we like and are willing to listen to again and again. TV pitchmen try to entice us to buy a CD set of “The Fifty All-Time Greatest Melodies,” but not a similar collection of rhythms or harmonies. Rhythm and harmony are merely supporting actors; melody is the star. The more the melody shines, the more beautiful is the music.
Had I not been sitting in a public place when I read this, I may have thrown the book across the room. First off, saying that the melody is the tune is completely useless. They are synonyms, and it’s important for students to know that the words are more-or-less interchangeable. However, if we’re trying to teach students to listen thoughtfully and make empirical observations about music, we’re going to need a better tool.
Second, rhythm cannot be separated from melody. We like to say that melody is a sequence of pitches. That’s a nifty saying, but it is most certainly not true. It isn’t just the order of the pitches that defines a melody, it’s also the rhythm in which those pitches occur. Rhythm is also more fundamental to the way we perceive sounds. You cannot hear a pitch without it occurring in time (rhythm), but you can definitely hear a rhythm without a definite pitch. (Take a moment here to clap a clave rhythm for yourself. You’ll feel better. I promise.)
Finally, Dr. Craig-M-Wright-PhD’s last sentence might as well end “…and therefore is better and more valuable than music that does not emphasize melody, but that stuff’s not really music anyway, right?”
Reading this book always reminds me of this:
The textbook in question is Listening to Music by Dr. Craig M. Wright, Ph.D. ↩