“Greetings Students. I am Ed Choochoo (Ed like the horse, Choochoo like the train) and I will be teaching this course on classical music with special emphasis this term on the works on Maurice Ravel.” This is how I began the first class at my day job in the continuing education department of Midtown University. I then laid out for those twenty students my qualifications in the form of my credentials, that I had earned a D .t. M. (Doctor of Tasteful Music) degree from a prestigious university and that I had been working here ever since. My style has always been to impart my extensive knowledge to the students through my lectures, supplemented by musical excerpts from my extensive compact disk collection. It is important for the students to understand that all music can be reduced to its analytical structure, and that there is a very respectable school of thought that literally analyzes music in terms of its mathematical patterns. I don’t know to what extent this generalization holds for modern music, which, since it isn’t tasteful, I have no experience with, but I suspect that the same principles would apply there as well.
As I say, I understand my role to be to share my insights with the students and their role to be to listen and to take notes. I therefore found it disturbing when one of them, who identified himself as Paul, appeared to think that the class was some sort of discussion forum, and he interrogated me about some of the facts I had presented concerning particular Ravel melodies. Of course, on matters outside of my area of expertise, such as factual matters on unrelated issues, I am very open-minded about permitting class participation. In particular, one of my pet students is always quick to research any ambiguous issues on his cell phone by accessing Google. I informed Paul that instead of interrupting my lectures to make smart-aleck remarks, he would do well to learn to sit on his hands, keep his mouth shut, and listen, rather than continue to believe that his opinions are more valid than what I have articulated.
And, to his credit, Paul did exactly that. I didn’t hear from him again until almost the end of the term, when he approached me timidly about some noncontroversial point I had made about Ravel’s life.
“Doctor?,” he said before he asked his question.
“You may call me Ed,” I replied magnanimously before dispensing with his question.
“What about the role of subjectivity in music? “ he asked. I must confess, I didn’t understand what he was driving at, so I asked him to clarify his question.
“Well music, like all art forms, is subjective, so that’s why two people can disagree about whether a particular piece of music is any good or not.” I smiled at his naivete.
“Well, those disagreements can always be settled when both parties present their arguments, and it will turn out that one of the two parties is mistaken.”
“But that suggests there are right and wrong answers. Don’t we make a distinction between disciplines like mathematics, where it is not a matter of opinion, so individual views are falsifiable, and the arts where views are subjectively determined”? he countered.
“No, we don’t,” I said, and I reiterated my previous point that our understanding of good music can be improved by an appreciation of the underlying mathematics to which it corresponds.
He left with a puzzled expression on his face, and I didn’t give the matter any more thought. Later, I saw Paul speaking with my pet student, who expressed his appreciation for Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto (the so-called “Rack Two). Paul was explaining that the movie” Brief Encounter” had used the Rack Two as background music when the film listens in on the actress Celia Johnson’s private thoughts, and my pet student seemed quite appreciative of this information.
Ravel was quite a prolific composer, especially during the first half of his career, and he wrote music in almost every genre, including symphonies, string quartets, concertos, and even an opera. Every week I covered a different work and included musical excerpts in addition to my elucidations. My pet student, assisted by Google, would fill in such trivia as the dates of particular pieces, and it was my impression that the entire class appreciated the opportunity to benefit from my expertise. I was therefore shocked when I later discovered Paul and my pet student laughing together in the hallway and singing a song that I recognized as a parody of the1927 Broadway production of “Old Man River,” composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. They sang:
Old Man Choochoo
That old man Choochoo
He must know something
But he don’t say nothing
He just keeps rolling
He keeps on rolling along.
Well, I wouldn’t expect anything better from Paul, but I was stung by the disloyalty of my pet student and I told him how disappointed I was in him after all I had done for him. He looked pretty sheepish about it, so I decided not to formally punish him, since I’m sure Paul had incited him to stray. Later, I overheard Paul telling him he would really enjoy a composition by someone named Donald Byrd called “Cristo Redentor.” I guess he must have learned his lesson, because when Paul asked him the following week how he had liked it, he laughed and said he had been too busy to listen to it.
In the final class of the term, I played and lectured on Ravel’s only opera. I thought it went pretty well, and I thought the opera itself was pretty interesting and quite representative of the other selections I had covered throughout the term. Paul stayed behind to speak to me after the rest of the class had left, this time approaching me not so timidly, in fact somewhat angrily. He informed me that what I had played was not opera, but “mere drivel,” as he put it, and that true opera, such as the works of Verdi and Puccini, must inspire us by exposing us to great beauty. He then went on to say that the one piece that Ravel had done which was inspiring, but which I had chosen not to include in the course was “ Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte,” which translated from the French, is known as “Pavane For A Dead Princess.” Now, I’ve heard that particular composition, and I never paid it much heed, as I judged it to be overly sentimental, reminding me of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” which, in my opinion, is more appropriately used as the ringtone on one’s cell phone. In contrast, Paul described it as a luxurious, nostalgic and ceremonial dance for orchestra and solo piano, in which the soaring melody evokes feelings of inspirational courage and freedom. He added that if he had known that I had no intention of covering it, he would have never taken my course.
As I listened to him, I began to realize that, while music was clearly important to him, he understood it in very different terms than I did. I also realized that I knew very little about him, so I asked him about his background.
“You and I have actually been in the same racket,” he said, telling me that he had been a professor at the same university where I earned my doctoral degree. Afterwards, Paul had moved to Wall Street, where he had worked first as an economist, and later as the head of new product research in a derivatives trading business. I responded with what I thought was the self-evident observation that those later jobs must have been something of a letdown after having been a professor, but he denied this, telling me that those positions in the private sector were much more challenging than the academic world, where the professional journals were managed by very unimaginative editors. His observation prompted me to ask what field he had been in, and he answered Finance. When I told him my impression that the subject consisted of largely descriptive material, Paul corrected me again by pointing out that Finance was actually a branch of Economics, whose literature was very mathematical.
“Just like Music,” I ventured.
“Not really,” he answered.
That afternoon, I asked Paul where he had acquired his propensity for his strong opinions, and he told me he had always been that way, but he was also taking another course that term on film studies, which was organized very similarly to mine in that it covered a different film each week; and the professor had encouraged class participation. He told me the man’s name and asked how well I knew him, but I had to confess I had never heard of him.
Several weeks passed uneventfully, but then one day I received a registered letter in the mail from the Board of Regents of the university which had granted my doctoral degree, explaining that they had reviewed my course evaluations from Midtown University and they were now instituting recall proceedings against me. The letter listed a twenty- count indictment of the form and content of my teaching style, and it ordered me to show cause why they shouldn’t revoke my doctoral degree on the serious charge of demonstrating bad taste in music. “We don’t want our good name sullied by characters like you,” the letter concluded.
Talk about your worst nightmare coming to pass! I tried to imagine what could have been the source of this miscarriage of justice, and then I remembered that last conversation with Paul. Was he somehow connected with this misfortune? I know he was resentful of me, but how would he have been able to wield such influence with the Board of Directors so as to produce this result? I tried to reconstruct in my mind that final conversation we had. I remember he had been upset that I hadn’t included that silly, overemotional Ravel piece on the syllabus. What was the name of it? Oh yes. “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” He talked about it inspiring courage. Who knows? Maybe I should listen to it.
Here’s the thing, though. If the charges are valid, this isn’t just a criticism of the way I taught a class or two, but an indictment of my whole being. Am I arrogant, self-serving, high-handed, and resistant to constructive criticism from others? If so, this isn’t something I can just “fix” by making a few small changes in the syllabus. Maybe it goes to the heart of how I understand the nature of music and my relationship to it. Do I really have bad taste in music? I remember another verse of that sendup of “Old Man River” that Paul and my pet student were singing that time:
I get weary
And sick of trying
I’m tired of living
And scared of dying
But old man Choochoo
He just keeps rolling along.
I’m fearful I may have a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching to do. But the thought of all that honest self-criticism just defeats me, even though I know in my heart there’s no avoiding it. So, it seems that whether I feel like it or not, I’m going to need to get on with this unpleasant task. But I’m really just not in the mood to deal with this matter today.
Maybe I’ll revisit it tomorrow.