I’ve become a strong believer in the responsibility artists have to invite a lay audience into meaningful dialogue with art. I don’t care which art form any individual chooses to engage in so long as somewhere they are nourishing their lives with art that challenges beyond the delightful entertainment of Hollywood, mainstream pop music, or quick-read books. As full-time artistic creators, we should proselytize for the power of our artistic medium and how the human experience is both defined and deepened by artistic expression. Those of us who engage regularly with our audiences have the opportunity to help them understand difficult but important music. Many of us have had some experience as high school students when a capable English teacher opened our souls to challenging literature such as Shakespeare, Bronte, Steinbeck, or Lee. With a bit of context, questions, and guidance, a new world opened. This artistic nourishing should happen beyond high school, and working artists are in a special position for this task. We have the credentials and passion to stand in front of a classroom and invite people into a deeper relationship with art.
A recent discussion I had with Conrad Kehn, a Denver-based composer and new music impresario, raised new questions about the current practice of music appreciation classes. He shared that a curriculum restriction required that a course he teaches at a community college focus almost entirely on classical music (white, male, European composers). Most of his students, first generation college students, are from non-white, non-European cultures. Is it a form of cultural imperialism to insist they learn only this material if they want to take a music appreciation class? While I love European classical music and hope there is always room to teach these great composers, our world is much bigger. We all have access to music from a variety of genres, cultures, and modes of creative process. Courses can easily include multiple genres and music that falls outside of traditional notation. If the fundamental goal is for a lay audience to have a greater appreciation for music, cross-genre courses are more compelling and inclusive of greater varieties of musical expression. Artists increasingly cross genres and disciplines, and our courses should reflect that.
Through the success of my music appreciation course “Tragedy and Inspiration”, I’ve wondered what other topics would attract today’s undergraduates. “Music and the Civil Rights Movement”, “Music as Protest”, “Composers Who Cross Borders”, “Self-Taught but Brilliant”, “Opera, Sex, and Violence”, “Music as Ritual and Religious Expression” are all ideas that could examine a great body of music through compelling lenses. The organizing construct is the way to draw in students. All teachers have a body of music that they are well equipped to teach. We have to be passionate about our subjects so that we offer our best charismatic voices when teaching. Our diverse interests and expertise will lead to a myriad of topics that invite the lay listener into the art.
“Music and the Civil Rights Movement” could host a variety of styles crossing more than 200 years of American history. The bulk of the class might focus on the core of the Civil Rights era but should include the evolution of African-American spirituals, the early formation of blues and jazz, the emergence of rap and hip hop, and many current genres articulating the ongoing struggle against racism in America. Jazz pieces would include Coltrane’s Alabama, Mingus’s Fables of Faubus, Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” and Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, among others. Gil Scott-Heron, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, and Public Enemy are among many artists who have all used the platform of powerful lyrics to highlight the many forms of contemporary racism. Classical pieces could include Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, Steve Reich’s Come Out, Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio Blood on the Fields, and Frederic Rzewski’s Attica and Coming Together.
“Composers Who Cross Borders” invites a large umbrella of diverse music. From the Beatles’ work with Ravi Shankar to Toru Takemitsu’s embrace of French impressionism to Tanya Tagaq’s integration of throat singing, metal, and Inuit culture – composers thrive with cultural diversity. A host of musical artists have migrated around the world to embrace aspects of their new countries while maintaining a core identity rooted in their place of origin. Composers Gabriela Lena Frank, Tan Dun, Tania León, and Osvaldo Golijov embrace multicultural influences that define the Americas. Classical composers Béla Bartók, Steve Reich, and Claude Debussy pulled key aspects of their musical language from other cultures.
Teaching music appreciation has also helped cultivate or sustain the passion I have for art music. The process of preparing to teach a subject requires a deep dive that may reveal new insights and invite a fresh look. Finding the words to explain a complex subject has expanded my thinking on many topics and is a constant reminder of the richness present in the works of great composers who make up my chosen art form. Preparing to teach forces growth and informs my own composition. The classroom experience is for both the students and myself. I end up loving this music more each time I teach it, and I am always delighted by unexpected comments offered by the students. The greatest compliment is when students tell me they now listen to music with a greater depth.