As I continue to focus on how to bring rock music into your orchestra classroom I thought it fitting to share a little more of my background. The last thing I want people to think is that I’m some rock musician whose sole purpose is to replace Bach and Beethoven with today’s popular music. As I mentioned in my last post, I believe that if done correctly, rock music can enhance your class and can be a vehicle to show how great classical music truly is. As a teacher, it is your responsibility to connect the dots between these two musical worlds.
Before I get into how to do this, I want to establish my background to ensure the reader of my motives. Before I started to play the cello I did not have a huge musical influence in my life. My parents listened to oldies and country music and this music just didn’t flip that switch in my heart. I started playing the cello in 5th grade because of peer pressure from my friends and because of the new cool orchestra teacher that had just started teaching in Moorhead MN. Over that first year of playing the cello, it slowly turned into an obsession. The moment that music changed my life musically happened when I heard a Suzuki student play the Bach Double. For whatever reason, hearing Bach flipped that switch in me and I was hooked. I listened to all the violin concertos by Bach as well as the violin partitas and sonatas. I then turned to the Cello Suites. I purchased the two Yo-Yo Ma recordings, the Rostropovich recording, and the Pablo Casals recording of the Bach Suites all before the age of 12. I had such an obsession with Bach that as an 11 year old I decided that I would play the Bach Double on the cello. I transcribed the violin part and practiced it for months. I then moved to the Bach Suites and got through the first and second suites. My parents, who have no musical training, were probably very concerned over this abnormal obsession.
Bach led to Beethoven which led to Tchaikovsky which led to Shostakovich. I couldn’t get enough classical music. For my birthday and Christmas I would ask for scores to all my favorite symphonies and spend hours listening and studying these great works. When I wasn’t listening to classical music I was learning about the composer’s life. I would read books on each composer and couldn’t get enough of this world. By the time I was in high school I could probably have written my own book on the Beethoven quartets. I memorized every movement, key, opus number, form, year of composition, and purpose for writing each piece. The only thing I did more than listening and learning about classical music was practicing my cello. This obsession has continued until this day. I’m going to have to conclude my history now to get into the real meat of this post.
I felt it important to describe to you a little bit about my background in the classical world. It’s certainly not the complete story, but that’s not the point of this post. I just wanted to establish my credibility to ensure you that I am not interested in destroying something that is so very dear to me. I’m sure more of my story will come out in other posts, but let’s move on and discuss the true goal: connecting the dots between classical music and rock music.
Through my teaching experience, I have discovered that most students hold a belief that classical music and rock music have very little in common. I polled a bunch of students on what the definition of classical music is and their collective definition was slow, relaxing music. This definition was very offensive to me. Clearly they have never heard Bartok or Shostakovich. Similarly, they defined rock music as fast, uptempo, with lyrics and a strong beat. These stereotypical definitions given by the students made it clear that they felt classical and rock music were on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Through this class discussion, it was very obvious that many students felt that classical music was boring.
Let me state that I don’t always blame them. There are many composers and pieces that I find boring. I also find a lot of rock music to be boring. The problem is that teachers often teach what a kid would consider “boring music” and even when they teach great pieces, they don’t work at highlighting the great parts of the pieces that kids could potentially connect with. In other words, that slow relaxing definition of classical music comes from their experiences of classical music. A lot of this stereotyping I believe can be found in orchestra classrooms. Let me offend some more people now and state that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is not the greatest piece Mozart ever wrote. It’s not even in my top 50 of Mozart pieces. It’s elegant, but what 10 year old cares about elegance? If you’re going to teach Mozart why not start with the Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem? Besides, this very piece was used in the movie X-men movie, X2, during an epic fight scene. This piece is not slow or relaxing. Granted, it doesn’t have distorted electric guitars or a full drum kit and the words aren’t in English, but at least students can conclude from this one example that not all classical music is slow and relaxing, especially when you see all the 16th notes the violins are playing. If you want to step up the excitement level even higher, show them the last movement of Bartok’s 4th String Quartet. This is the farthest thing from elegant. It’s gross and dissonant and to me sounds like heavy metal. Did you know there is a facebook group called Headbanging to Shostakovich? You should require your students to join this group and learn headbanging is not genre specific. There is going to be more on headbanging in future posts, I promise.
So here is my point, your job is to change a child’s typical definition of classical music. You need to show them all the greatness that is out there. You need to find those pieces that are closely related to rock music, make a playlist of it and open your student’s eyes by playing these pieces often. As a teacher I often think of myself as Morpheus from The Matrix. My job is to show my students that the classical music world that they know is a lie. There isn’t this great chasm between classical music and rock music. There is a small crack between the two worlds and you just simply need to step over. Over the years I have made it my job to change this stereotype and every year I convert more and more students into classical music lovers. I have had football players listen to Dvorak as their pre-game pump up music. I have had students cruise downtown with Mahler blaring out their car speakers. Classical music is great. You just have to convince kids of it.
My secondary goal with this post is to change the teacher’s perspective. I think many teachers also believe there is a chasm between classical and rock music and are unwilling to connect the dots for themselves and their students. They think serious classical music is the only music that has value in an orchestra program. Here’s my question to the teacher: what’s the difference between playing an arrangement of a Mozart Symphony and an arrangement of a Coldplay song? Can you only work on proper playing technique with the Mozart? Is intonation not just as important with Coldplay as it is with Mozart? I believe that we put classical music on a higher pedestal and shun popular music in orchestra programs. This hierarchy is part of the problem. Doing this in my opinion does much more harm than good. You are modeling with your teaching and your philosophy that there is in fact a chasm between classical and rock music. My hope is that this post can start breaking down walls with teachers and start putting rock music on an equal playing field, while at the same time help teachers with how to show students in a more relevant way the greatness of classical music. What I expect teachers to do is to play great music of all kinds from many time periods that excites, inspires, and motivates students to be better musicians.
As it states above, this is just part 1 of my two part blog. In my next post I will go through more in depth ways of how a teacher can connect the dots between rock and classical music. I will continue to describe how we can break down that stereotype of classical music. To go back to my Matrix analogy, we will show our students just how deep the rabbit hole goes. In the meantime, I would encourage you to share with me your favorite classical pieces that don’t fit within the stereotypical definition of “slow, relaxing music.”