The Importance of Listening to Live Music

Samuel Adler

I am a neophyte at this sort of thing because I have taught only one such course at the River Campus. But I'd like to share with you just a few observations about what I have learned. About 12 years ago I was invited to go to the University of South Florida during our break in January. Since the weather is so beautiful down there all year, they don't mind going to school in January. I went down and was told a horrible story. The night before I arrived the Juilliard String Quartet was there in a hall for 3,000 people, and there were only 300 people present. They said, "How terrible, here is this great string quartet and nobody cared; the student body and the town stayed away in droves."

The Guarneris were coming in four weeks, and I said, "You know, why should people go and hear a string quartet when they've never heard a string quartet before, and they were afraid of being bored for two hours. Why should they go and be bored?" I suggested the following. There were four student string quartets in the school. I said, "Why don't we have a daily string quartet concert at a very public place where people are eating lunch. I don't care if they get indigestion or not, doesn't make any difference. You play a short movement, with some kind of string quartet music all over the campus every single day between now and when the Guarneris come." Well, at first everybody said, "No, I don't think we can do that." I said, "Don't say we can't, there's a cafeteria here, a law triangle, and a business quadrangle. Let's play," which we did. Every day there was string quartet music all day. We asked the radio station to have one hour of string quartet music with commentary and all kinds of hullabaloo, a lot of PR. And I'm happy to say that four weeks later, when the Guarneris came, they had a full house.

Now that taught me a lesson. And I said, I'm going to volunteer to teach a course in which there is only live music because it may turn on those people who have never heard live music. Now it's not my fault that they haven't heard live music; it's their fault. But you have to lead them to water at least. So what we have tried to do at the University of Rochester's River Campus is to give a semester course of three hours per week, each time bringing a major component of the Eastman School over there to say, "Here is what music sounds like at its very best, music that is live. You can do whatever you want, ask whatever you want, demand whatever you want, and the music is there." My major concern is that I want to turn on people to music the way I was first excited about music many years ago. We proceed as follows. In the first hour I talk about a topic, not necessarily from a historical perspective but perhaps something in connection with a formal procedure. Sometimes the class performs and, by the way, there are no musicians in the class; so we use all kinds of notations. We prepare listening diagrams of the kind Professor Levy has just described. Then, for an hour and three-quarters, we have the Cleveland Quartet, the Eastman Brass, or the Wilson Winds, for example. We have also used a singer or two, a chorus or a jazz combo. We do not simply play a piece. First, I dissect the piece for them in the presence of our performers. And then we played the movement several times. We'd play parts of the movement, and we'd play the whole movement. The class is open; anybody can ask questions. And I have found that the members of the class are turned on to the music. Now we've done two-piano works where all kinds of events took place. A student said, "I really can't understand this. Would you play this again?" Which we did, twice, and suddenly there was apparent understanding.

An adequate definition of musical understanding is, of course, problematic. I'm not sure I really understand music at all, and I think sometimes that we worry too much about such matters. I always remember what Hindemith said whcm he was asked if he understood a particular piece. He said that he knew how to write a story very well and had often done so: "If I were to tell you exactly what I wanted you to think about this, if I wanted you to 'understand' this piece, I would have written a story. As it is, I wrote a piece of music with the hope that you would have a reaction to it, somehow feel something." I think it is vital to teach music by exposing people to it. I think there is too little performance in music history or music theory classes; and I think one should avoid using recordings whenever possible. Further, there are always arrangements for two pianos or four hands. Ravel almost never wrote orchestral music as a first compositional stage. First he wrote it for two pianos or even one piano. We can do the Rite of Spring in a piano arrangement since that was the way the work was first written.

The idea of what we're trying to do is not to teach a branch of historical musicology. What I believe we should aim at is to have people going to a concert without fearing it. When someone says, "I don't understand the music," it normally reflects the fact that he doesn't believe he can whistle a tune. I'm a composer who doesn't always write whistlable tunes; I have to defend myself because one can overcome this syndrome by exposing people to music that does not necessarily comprise successive melodies. I'd like to end with this idea. Roger Sessions was instrumental in posing questions to performers, composers and listeners. One of those was about what music means, and he said something that I believe is very important: that music is not emotion but that it is so powerful that it can excite emotions of the kind described by Mendelssohn in his famous letter on musical meaning.