My Musical Conversion, Part 1

NaBloPoMo Day 6!

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned a few of the seminal composers and musical movements that developed during the 20th century, and that, depending on your point of view, either a) advanced the field of music in exciting ways, casting off the shackles of outmoded 19th-century Romanticism and opening up whole new worlds of boundless possibility, or 2) ruined music entirely. 😛

I could expound on this subject at considerable length, as it touches on many issues of vital importance to the field of music in general, and my life and livelihood in particular. But I think it’s best to approach this topic the same way the wisdom of the ages recommends eating an elephant: One Bite At A Time!

Whenever I think about the modern music issue, I’m reminded of what I call my “conversion experience,” which happened during my second year of college — not surprising considering the hotbed of radicalism I attended! 😉

As a music major, I was required to take four semesters of a course called, simply, Musicianship. The course developed our ear-training, sight-singing and keyboard skills (and thus was pretty rough going for students who weren’t already accomplished at singing or playing the piano — though it was hard enough for those of us who were!). Some of the course activities included:

  • Dictation: the professor plays a short bit of music on the piano, and you write it out in musical notation just from hearing it
  • Sight-singing: singing a melody you haven’t heard before after looking at it for a minute or so
  • Score-reading: slogging your way through the score to a string quartet, opera, symphony, etc., by singing one part and playing one or more parts on the piano, sometimes with a partner, who you would hope and pray was better than you, but not too much better.

In short, it was nerve-wracking, being-put-on-the-spot torture 3 times a week. 😛

I loved it, though. I was pretty good at it, and even when I wasn’t, I enjoyed the challenge of it. It’s actually one of my favorite subjects to teach, and not only because you get to be mean. 😉 It’s a set of skills that enhance a person’s overall musicality in ways that just practicing an instrument doesn’t. And it’s fun to watch the students improve; they go from shock and whiny indignation at what they’re being asked to do (“I have to sing in front of the class? That’s not faaaaaiiiirrr!”), to sight-singing like champions a few weeks later. It’s a beautiful thing.

Hey, that gives me an idea — American Idol: Musicianship Edition! That would be just about the nerdiest thing ever! Maybe PBS would pick it up… 😛

But I digress.

Once in awhile, our Musicianship profs would give us a break from the hot seat and play recordings of music, which we would then discuss. My second year, I had an amazing professor named John Swackhamer (R.I.P.), affectionately referred to as “Jack Swack.” He was simultaneously loved and feared, which is a mark of a great professor, if you ask me. 😉 He also told really funny stories, and if we got him going, we could reduce the amount of time available for our public musical humiliation.

Once in awhile, he would put on a recording without telling us what it was or saying anything about it, just to see how we’d react. On one occasion in particular, his doing so changed my life.

Here’s a 30-second sample of the recording he played:

Click Mr. Readmore to find out what it is and why I’ll never be the same!

Now, I have to give a little bit of background to make it clear exactly how this music hit me at that time, at the tender age of 18 (Yes, I turned 18 at the start of my 2nd year of college — I was a smartypants!). My idea of modern classical music before then was, basically, Gershwin. My piano teacher tried to get me to play something by Bartók at one point, but I wasn’t having it. If the Music Teachers’ Association’s guidelines hadn’t required students to play repertoire from four different time periods (Baroque, Classic, Romantic and Modern), I would’ve happily just played Chopin all the time! (He’s still my favorite composer of piano music… some things never change! And, for the record, I still love Gershwin, too.)

You could say I was ripe for the kind of mind-opening experiences that college provides!

Oh, speaking of Bartok, it’s his music that you heard before the jump — his String Quartet no. 4. But I didn’t know anything about that when I first heard it.

Swack played the piece during 3 class meetings in a row, actually. The first time I heard it, I said to myself,

That’s not music.”

Too aggressive, too raw, and most of all, too dissonant. Shoved me right out of my comfort zone, and I didn’t like it one bit.

The second time I heard it, I thought,

Well, it would make a good horror movie soundtrack.”

(Little did I know that it was the classical composers who influenced the film composers, not the other way around!)


The third time I heard it, I thought,

THIS IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF MUSIC EVER WRITTEN!”



And it all went downhill from there! 😉

Tune in tomorrow, when I’ll explore both the immediate and lasting effects of my musical conversion!

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    3 Responses

    1. I had a similar experience at CCM (Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music), but for me the piece was “Nacht” from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, sung by Cleo Lain.

      It’s still one of my very favorite pieces!

    2. I love Pierrot, too. But I took a friend to hear it live one time, and he referred to it ever after as “that German appendectomy you made me sit through!” 😛

    3. LOL! I love Cleo’s version of it — and she does sing it in English, which makes it a little more accessible to English-speakers, go figure.

      BTW, on the same LP are 2 songs by Ives.

      Why yes, I *did* say LP….

      It was hard to find, too! I saved a search at Ebay & I think it took 6 or 7 months before the LP finally showed up. It’s not available on CD.

      Luckily, my husband is an audiophile so we have a very good turntable.

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