Tag Archive | teaching

Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom

Yes, it’s that time again, readers. You are going to have to stop pretending the “Back to School” aisles haven’t been appearing in stores for the past few weeks.  We at SO! are here to ease your transition from summer work schedules to the business of teaching and student-ing with our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy.”  Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, this forum blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa).  We hope to inspire your fall planning–whether or not you teach a course on “sound studies”–and encourage teachers and students of any subjects to reconsider the classroom as a sensory space. We also encourage you to share your feedback, tips, and experiences in comments to these posts and on our Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit sites.  As I said in the Call for Posts for this Forum: “because teaching is so crucial—yet so frequently ignored at conferences and on campus—Sounding Out! wants to wants to provide a virtual space for this vital discussion.”  This conversation will be ongoing: we will also bring you a “Spring Break Brush-Up” edition in 2013 featuring several more excellent posts by writers selected from our open call. Right now, the bell’s about to ring–so take a seat, open those ears, and enjoy this shiny auditory apple of an offering from D. Travers Scott in which he discusses how the sounds of #Occupy invigorated his classroom.  And, yes, it will be on the test. —JSA, Editor-in-Chief

In the late fall of 2011, I was teaching a class on cultural studies of advertising. I presented the Occupy Student Debt campaign, a subcategory or spinoff of the larger Occupy movement, while we were examining ways people challenged consumer culture. We discussed education as a commodity and students as consumers. Unsurprisingly, my seniors were dissatisfied consumers. They expressed that what had been advertised to them was a product that guaranteed or at least would strongly increase their chances for quality employment (of course, it was also a product they had worked for years in creating, and one they couldn’t return.) If higher education really did land you the lucrative job it had been advertised as guaranteeing, in theory, then, you would be able to more easily pay off student loan debt. To address this dissatisfaction, I showed them two artifacts: a video from the launch in New York City on November 12, 2011,  and the OSD debtors’ pledge*.

In the video, OSD founder Pamela Brown reads the pledge one line at a time, with each line chanted back by others.  I played the video in a dark classroom. I also projected it on the room’s main screen, but I didn’t use the room’s amplification system because it sounds too much like an authoritarian public address and disperses the audio in a dominating way. External speakers connected to my laptop made the sound feel, to me, more localized and objectified, something we could focus on rather than an institutional part of the room. The students’ first reaction was, not to the words, but the sound: the verbal relay used at the public demonstration. Brows furrowed and heads cocked quizzically, they asked, “Why are they all repeating the speaker like that?” I explained how this provides additional amplification, but the students’ listening experience was instructive to me. Their unfamiliarity with a sonic practice of vocalization indicated their unfamiliarity with larger practices of collective, public social action.

Listening to OSD, and paying attention to how my students listened to it, informed me of larger contexts they needed to understand and discuss it, in ways that the object of the text did not suggest to me. It made me think about the experience and process of my students’ encountering OSD. I immediately noticed its ambient sounds of city life, which I no longer hear. These sounds of traffic, the acoustics of being surrounded by buildings, etc. gave several urban dimensions to the movement the pledge text did not. From the perspective of Upstate South Carolina, “urban” is not a simple thing, an identity or geography category, but intersectional:  our largest city, Greenville, has a population under 60,000. City noises feel not merely urban, but un-Southern, and thereby alien. (I say un-Southern rather than Northern or Yankee because another thing I’ve learned here is the inadequacy of that binary: Los Angeles, for example, is not a Northern city but most certainly is as un-Southern as New York. Cities also carry a class dimension.) Even though my school is one of the elite institutions in this area, this region is still worse off economically than the rest of the country and has a generally lower cost of living. Cities require money to live in. In spatial, class, and urban dimensions, OSD felt alien.

Opening of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, Image by Flickr User JohannaClear

The experience of listening to the ODS rally illustrates how a sound studies perspective foregrounds experiential processes over exclusive categories of things and ideas. For example, when I read the OSD Debtors’ Pledge aloud to my students—vocalizing the text and sounds and listening to them— it brought the text into my body, making it an action. It also made students uncomfortable. Even just a round-robin reading of theory seems to make then anxious and fidgety. While I try to understand and accommodate anxieties around public speaking, I think the way sound makes a text enter the body can be a powerful affective experience. And no one ever said the classroom always had to be comfortable.  For me, reading the text aloud personalized the OSD pledge. It evoked sensory memories:  “Pledge of” evoked saying the pledge of allegiance in public school; saying “We believe” took me to attending Lutheran church services with my husband at the time where they collectively recite the Apostles’ Creed.  These associations evoked emotional disidentifications from organized religion and mandatory collective professions of patriotism. It also temporalized and spatialized OSD for me, positioning it in relations to Dallas, Texas in the 1970s and Greenville, SC today.

Overall, the reading aloud of the pledge staged a tension or dialectic of identification and disidentifications. Although I agreed and identified with the sentiments of the movement, several alienating and unsettling aspects of the pledge came through as I read aloud: the blithe collapsings of “we” and “as members of the most indebted generations” made me wary (collectives always do, but so do easy historical assertions. Really? Are we more indebted than indentured servants who came to America, or people born into slavery?), and the sudden shift to first person singular at the very end seemed jarring: (After saying “we” six times, suddenly it’s ‘I’ now – what happened?). Lastly, the numerous alliterations also had an alienating effect, making the text seem sophistic and manipulative, artificial, composed.

The auditory experience of OSD can also provide insight into how we create texts. A video of Andrew Ross shows him presenting the first, “very rough draft” weeks earlier at an OWS event. Listening to him read this different, earlier version underscores the text as process. The pledge is something that developed. While his flat tone and straight male voice do not appeal to me, they do complexify and dimensionalize Brown’s reading, giving it depth. They also show that some things that bothered me in the final version – the collectivity and alliterations – were not there. This intertextual, diachronic listening does not erase troublesome aspects of the ‘final’ text, but it mediates them. I am moved closer to it by listening to its different origin.

Arguably, any of these points could have been arrived at by good ole’ textual analysis. My point is not that listening always should supplant visual modes; sound studies tries to break that false dichotomy by not denigrating or replacing the visual but by elevating the sonic to complementary – not superseding – status. I argue that reading aloud should be a fundamental, basic component of sound studies methodology, as it allows anyone to hear, voice, embody, and experience a text. I not only noticed these aspects sooner through listening – my first time speaking it aloud, despite having read it at least a dozen times before. Moreover, I didn’t just notice them: I felt them on a personal, emotional, level, which spurs thinking and analysis that is, if not completely new and unique, definitely qualitatively different in its potency and urgency.

Listening to OWS, and the OSD in particular, brings insights affective and personal. Yes, I can read a statistic from a survey stating that a certain percentage of participants in OWS feel angry or betrayed. That doesn’t mean anything to me in a specific, personal, and empathetic way – and empathy is crucial for a social movement to garner support. Listening to both Ross and Brown, I am reflective and conflicted over my professional role – no longer a grad student, but certainly not an established scholar like Ross. I feel connected to OSD in ways beyond the literal facts of my debt. Listening draws me into a contemplative, reflexive space beyond a sticky note on my office desk saying “OWS: teachable moment.” I can see a map with big, red OWS circles over Washington D.C. and New York, but I don’t feel the distance from myself and my students in the same way—and this is crucial for my teaching and engaging them in dialogue about what could be the most significant social movements of their lifetimes.

*Even though OSD punctuates it “debtors’ pledge,” I believe it should be debtor’s pledge  because it is a pledge an individual, not group, makes. However, here I defer to the original.
Featured image by Flickr User  Sasha Y. Kimel
D. Travers Scott is Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Clemson University in South Carolina. He researches cultural and historic studies of new media, communication technologies, gender, and sexuality, often drawing on feminist and sound studies perspectives. Recent publications include a chapter in The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order and “Intimacy Threats and Intersubjective Users: Telephone Training Films, 1927–1962,” in the sound studies issue of American Quarterly(book version forthcoming). Current projects include co-editing with Devon Powers a special issue of the International Journal of Communication on critical historiography and revising his book manuscript, Sick: Constructing Users in Pathological Technoculture, under review with NYU Press. His former lives include advertising executive, novelist, and performance artist. You can find him at http://oneofthesethings.blogspot.com/

Classical Singing: Cradle for Sorrow and Healing

J. Stoever-Ackerman’s recent exploration of the complicated relationship between classical music and social class in America raised some provocative questions for me personally. I am a professional classical musician with a doctorate in voice, as well as the daughter of two working-class white ethnics who became professional intellectuals. My family’s origins, curiously perhaps by today’s standards, did not place classical music out of reach on the far side of the class barrier: my father played in the legendary Hempstead High School Orchestra on Long Island, while my mother, a single teen mom, took herself to the Philharmonic for a Christmas gift every year while she worked in a factory and attended college at night (this was, however, before music instruction was gutted from the public school curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s). As a result, classical music was a very present part of my early life, and, without overstating things too much, I can realistically say that it has helped to form me as a person, and has provided me not only with bread for my body but also, and more importantly, with breath for my soul. I feel like the study and practice of classical music gave me not only my career, but even my life. Coming from this position, then, Stoever-Ackerman’s slighty gulity bemusement at her pleasure in the orchestral concert she attended, and her assertion that “where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated,” sat uneasily with me.

Stoever-Ackerman’s objections to longhair music are based not only upon class affinity, but also, perhaps unconsciously, in her standpoint as a twenty-first-century American intellectual. As UCLA musicologist Richard Taruskin has noted, it has been au courant since the 1960s for intellectuals to eschew classical music in favor of the various genres of what he calls “commercial music:”

and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and “literary” fiction, between commercial and “fine” art, between mass-market and “art” cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.

If, as has already been discussed extensively at this site, pop and its various genres make up the (only?) legitimate musical repertoires of the American working classes–both white and of color–I believe it’s time for a word from the trenches of musical praxis: this is not necessarily so, nor should it be.

While earning my doctorate at the City University of New York, I taught for two years as a graduate assistant and for another two as an adjunct at two of CUNY’s senior, i.e. four-year, colleges. In the heart of an urban metropolis, I taught studio and class voice, that is to say both individual lessons and singing classes en masse. My students, with very few exceptions, were from the outer-borough working classes, traveling long distances on public transportation to attend college while working and in some cases parenting, and they represented a variety of races and ethnicities, with whites solidly in the minority. Most of my private-lesson students were older than I was, returning students who had been sidetracked by life and various dead-end jobs from finishing their bachelor’s degrees at a more usual age. Since I am a classical singer, I taught everyone the same thing: classical singing. My voice students studied classical musical practice and classical music repertoire not only because I believe that healthy classical technique is the basis of good vocal technique across genres — that is, if you can sing well in the classical style, you can sing anything well — but also because I know, in the depths of my being, that the experience of making classical music is healing and transformative for the person who undertakes it, an experience that should be denied to or refused by no one. In this sense, classical music praxis was, in my studio, a tool for self-transformation, self-empowerment, and self-expression that ignored distinctions of class and race. This might suggest that classical music is in fact a subversive practice for the working classes and people of color, and perhaps it is, though I see it more as a human right.

In teaching these diverse classes, I tried very hard to discern what sort of a person each of my students was, and to choose the right repertoire for each based not only on vocal characteristics but also on everything the student presented to me: his or her ethos, if you will. The truth is that I loved and respected my students, and I felt a heavy responsibility for making their experience as fledgling classical musicians one that would enrich their lives. They were, as I mentioned, from wildly divergent backgrounds. One was the daughter of a famous Puerto Rican bandleader who had discouraged her from a career in music, her true love; she made a living selling gloves and hats from a table outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was a Haitian Seventh-Day Adventist, a highly intelligent, spinsterish woman who spoke German as well as French, and whose singing revealed hints of a magnificent natural instrument — if only she had been physically and psychically free to the point that she could have accessed it. Another was T., a shy, socially-awkward man in early middle age who worked as a paralegal, and who confided after three lessons that he was a recovering alcoholic. Many of my students, I perceived, were profoundly wounded and heartbroken people. Though occasionally they spoke of their traumas and difficulties, words were not really necessary; the dynamic of the private voice lesson is so transparently revealing, and the rough areas in the voice provide such an accurate mirror of the catches in the soul, that I didn’t need to look hard to grasp their woundedness, if not always the nature of their wounds. This is why, as every classical singer and voice teacher know, tears are a commonplace in the voice studio. And this is why it is so essential that a voice teacher be compassionate. The voice — that intangible, ethereal instrument played by the passage of air over two threads of gristle in the throat — can be not only a diagnostic gauge of the inner singer, but also, ideally, a means of healing for both the singer and her audience.

T. surprised me in our first lesson by bringing in a song he was working on on his own. Occasionally students did this, the song generally being from the Broadway repertoire. T.’s choice, however, was Robert Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.” This piece is number 5 of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, a song cycle based on poems from the Buch der Lieder of Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of German Romanticism (and also a notable Jewish convert to Christianity, who famously declared on his deathbed in Paris: “I know that God will forgive me my sins: c’est son métier“). This was an ambitious choice. I usually started my students on one or more of the shopworn Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. But T.’s German was excellent, and he even directed me in how he wanted me to accompany him in the piano part; he had rather well-formed ideas and opinions about how the piece should sound, one of the hallmarks of a true musician.

“Schöne Wiege” starts off as a gently-rocking lullaby-like song (what we in the biz call a “strophic berceuse”), then turns quickly into a rhapsodic, though brief, through-composed quasi-operatic number (a “scena”), with the off-kilter rhythmic phrases and the melodic angularity typical of Schumann. Its subject, and the subject of the song cycle in which it is the pivot, is that great theme of German Romanticism: unhappy love that forces the wounded lover on a journey which, in some treatments, ends in death or madness. My translation follows:

Beautiful cradle of all my sorrows, beautiful tomb of my repose,
Beautiful city, we must part: “Farewell,” I call to you.

Farewell, you holy threshhold where my beloved wanders;
Farewell, sacred spot where I first saw her.

And had I never seen you, beautiful queen of my heart,
The wretchedness I now endure would never have befallen me.

I did not wish to touch your heart; I did not seek your love —
I wished only to live a quiet life near the place where your breath flutters.

But you yourself drive me from here; your mouth speaks bitter words.
Madness takes hold of my mind, and my heart is sick and sore.

And I drag my weary, weakened limbs away, leaning on my wanderer’s staff,
Until the time I might lay by tired head in some cool, far-off grave.

I was astonished by T.’s innate feeling for this difficult piece, and we quickly came to the point where I felt like I was serving him badly by accompanying him on the piano myself. I hired a student accompanist, an excellent pianist from Sweden, to come to our lessons, paying her out of pocket. Once out from behind the piano, I could work with T. more intensely on his breath and his phrasing. This ushered in one of the most thrilling times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Working on “Schöne Wiege” in the studio with T. and the accompanist, I felt as if we were riding a cresting wave together as three musicians. T. achieved moments in which there was a synergy between his vocal line and the equally important piano part, and when not only the melody and the meaning of the text, but even the sounds of the words themselves created multiple layers of meaning in his performance. Especially stunning was the way that he was able to sing each repetition of “Lebewohl!” (farewell!) differently, drawing one out with rubato, clipping another. I would leave these lessons feeling elated, as if I had finally found what I was meant to do with my life.

T. wanted to audition for the B.M. degree at CUNY, a more prestigious program than the B.A. he was pursuing, so we started working on an audition program. I gave him an Italian piece, a piece by French late-Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, the aching tenor showpiece “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s 1947 American opera Street Scene (often performed by university music departments because of its plethora of ensemble roles), for which Langston Hughes wrote the libretto:

And, finally, “Der Lindenbaum,” the best-known piece from Franz Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise. “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) also treats the theme of being made to leave home forever, driven on by the unforgettable pain of love gone wrong, and it has become a kind of folk-song in the German-speaking lands:

In one stanza of “Der Lindenbaum,” the narrator describes how, in the course of his journey, the cold wind has blown his hat away, and yet he does not stop. T. mentioned something that I hadn’t considered: that in Europe in the 1820s, a man outdoors without his hat would have been committing an unthinkable social transgression; the fact that the narrator doesn’t turn back for his hat, T. suggested, showed the desperation of his plight, and was a clear foreshadowing of the madness into which he almost willfully descends at the end of the song cycle. I realized that T. was the kind of student I had dreamed of teaching, one who gave serious thought to the meaning of the text and the music, and to the reasons composers might have had for writing as they did.

When the time for T.’s audition came around in the spring, he clutched. I had instructed him to start the audition–at which I was not allowed to be present–with one of his best pieces, the Weill or the Schubert, but he second-guessed the audition committee and decided that they would probably want to hear the Italian piece first. A mistake. He wasn’t admitted, and the following year switched his major from voice to music composition.

Near the end of the school year, I organized a recital for my students. T. was to sing “Lonely House” and “Lindenbaum.” He rushed in just as the recital was starting with an etiolated, sickly-looking man whom I realized was his boyfriend in tow. He told me at the intermission that he almost hadn’t come. His beloved cat was near death, and he was beside himself. He got through his pieces, though he didn’t shine.

This made me think about all the dreadful times in my life when I had kept on singing. There was simply nothing else to do; many times singing had seemed the only thing left to me. In our next lesson, one of our last, I mentioned obliquely some of these occasions in my own life, which included abortion and divorce. An artist, I explained, has to be cool-headed even in the face of great personal suffering. C’est son métier. It’s her job to sublimate her suffering into a balm that might touch those who hear her, and give them the healing that she seeks for herself. Arising out of our nonetheless-shared western cultural heritage, classical music is a gift to us twenty-first century Americans across race and class, and, in some small way, those who practice it can use this gift — the gift of beauty — to transform our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.

I never saw T. again after that, except once by chance, as I was heading to a pub in Midtown to meet my boyfriend. He still had a CD I lent him, the wonderful Tryout, which features recordings of Kurt Weill singing and playing his own songs in rehearsal for the Broadway shows he wrote.

For a final treat, here’s an excerpt from that CD, Kurt Weill singing a snatch of his famous song “Speak Low” from the 1947 musical “One Touch of Venus,” for which American poet Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics. In Weill’s performance, the great tradition of the German art song — the tradition of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” and “Der Lindenbaum” — meets the race-and-class-fraught American popular music scene; the song became a beloved standard, and was sung by the great jazz triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Here, Weill’s fragile-sounding vocal delivery and heavy German accent embody the world-weary European composer (Weill was a refugee) delivering himself into the capable and vital hands of a musical culture built by immigrants and former slaves.

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