Listening with the Eyes: An Approach to Music Teaching

Truman C. Bullard

Everyone who teaches a college survey course in the history of music must be prepared to perform the balancing act in class, and the weights in each hand are the repertoire of great works of music and the history of styles and ideas to which they belong. Can one effectively teach history and music at the same time? I have been greatly helped in my own pedagogy by my participation as a senior faculty member in a series of annual workshops for beginning instructors from Dickinson, Gettysburg, and Franklin & Marshall Colleges. Each spring faculty members new to college teaching meet for two days to share recently acquired perspectives about college students, their teaching successes and failures, and to receive advice from more experienced colleagues about strategies for preparing syllabi, examinations and paper assignments, and classroom learning. The atmosphere at these workshops is refreshingly open, practical, and usually positive, and I always come away exhilarated and well taught myself by younger teachers. Preparation for the workshop involves reading pertinent articles about learning and perception that are applicable to music in exciting ways.

Reading thoughtful essays on teaching and listening to younger colleagues over the years has led me to one firm conviction which underlies my work as a teacher: the human mind is not one mind, but many. We may, out of practical necessity, act as if the mind were a single, functioning unit with one process to perform, and we may believe that an internal governor sorts incoming data and experiences into neat cognitive packages, but these are artificial constructions. Our minds receive an incredibly diverse and complex input through our senses from our external and internal environments in every second of our consciousness, and while one or more portions of our minds is engaged in acts of internal homeostatic activity like digestion, breathing, and motor responses, other "minds" are absorbing sensory data from without, processing connections, siffing input for what is crucial and what is subsidiary, and so forth. The same old cry goes up every year among teachers that "students these days have lost the ability to concentrate." And this observation finds clinical support in the relatively recent formulation of the Attention Deficit Disorder. As teachers we may be placing too high a premium upon concentration and thereby devaluing the rich matrix of cognition and learning that defies linear, deductive thought so much of the time.

If we will accept the reality and potential of what Robert Ornstein has called the "multimind,"1 we may be able to capture in new and effective ways our students' mental attention for a given length of time on more than one level of perception. Learning involves both retention and valuing, and the latter process supports the former. Whatever the subject matter may be, the teacher's goal is to bring an issue, artifact, or experience to life, and to find and share value in it with the students' participation. The most successful teachers are those who recognize the multimind and its functions, and try all kinds of changing strategies to reach various parts of it. The less successful are those who, either out of insecurity or laziness, take an impoverished view of learning, and reduce the capacity of perception and intellection to the absolutely necessary but totally insufficient activities of reasoning and memorization. And this distinction has implications for classroom teaching. It takes far less energy and skill to present a fifty minute monologue than it does to engage in a multi-directional, student-based discussion. We call this monologue a "lecture," the word suggesting in its etymology the vague hope that all our talking will be "read" by student ears. Well, a semester full of lectures, supplemented by the assignment of predigested textbook readings, may give the instructor the comforting assurance that he or she is "covering all the material," but do these things awaken and stimulate the multimind with any efficiency or effectiveness?

One cannot deny that as scholars and teachers we have all learned a lot about musical style by studying it from the parcels of textbook chapters, and the gradually evolving constructs we call historical eras are suggestive. The best one-volume histories of music helped us as graduate students to prepare for comprehensive doctoral exams. But as we emerge from the rarefied atmosphere of graduate school and fly off to a college teaching job, we have to force ourselves to recall what it was that brought us to love to learn about music in the first place. This is different from what may have helped us recently prepare for written and oral examinations.

For years I taught college students with the naive faith that the progression from Gregorian chant to Mozart in the fall semester, and from Beethoven to Stockhausen and Varése in the spring semester was a self-evidently meaningful progression to them, as cumulative as the sequence of chords they learned in keyboard theory: I-iii-vi-ii-V-I. As one combines the march of convenient units of music history with the repetitive experience of teaching the same survey course year in and year out, the result can be truly distorting. After a while one begins to be grateful to the gods that music history conveniently occurred in a two-semester framework—as long as one hurries fast enough! So the course can easily become a lecture series more appropriate to those students who already know the literature of western classical music (and where are they?), which misses out on the richness of the music and forces student minds into ever-narrowing learning channels. And, then, there are very practical things about a liberal arts college music teacher's life that have significant impact upon the streamlining temptations. The music professor on a college campus often includes in one day's schedule classes in music history and theory, conducting an ensemble, piano accompanying and coaching, and playing in the college-community orchestra that night!

I still love to read the history of music as unfolded in the classic texts, and to follow the dialectical models of action and reaction in music evolution, and a course in music history is quite rightly going to draw upon these issues constantly. But the years have taught me that to students in the early stages of learning, history is fundamentally inaudible. To make history audible, such that a person can, for example, actually hear in musical tones the 14th-century cultural framework of a madrigal by Landini and contrast it to the cultural and historical background that informs the sounds of a 16th-century madrigal by Philippe da Monte, takes far more time than a single course will provide. And the pay-off in the felt love of music, even when one has succeeded in teaching the facts and concepts, is by no means assured.

Though we may be forced by the curricular system to cover a large sweep of music history within a semester or a year's time, we must bring students to the music first, and let the ideas about music history in all their complexity and rich associations follow the richest possible listening experience. This has long been recognized in good music appreciation courses. The transformation in my courses from an imperious western historical framework toward a more open, multi-faceted phenomenological approach is all to the good, I believe, and is irreversible. These days I am more prepared than I used to be to pass over many historical details as well as theories of historical evolution, for these things seem to have few "link-ups" in students' fund of knowledge, and are forgotten. And the lines that join musical era to musical era and composer to composer can hardly be memorable when they have been boiled down to fit into the space of a class hour, which is also devoted to an assigned symphony or opera!

The purpose of today's colloquium is to open up some fresh avenues to teaching and learning. I would like to share with you in a moment some very specific ways in which I try to take fullest advantage of the richness of our multiminds in teaching the musical repertoire of past and present. But I would like to conclude this sketch of my working assumptions by returning to the insights gained at those teachers' conferences. It is abundantly clear that all talented teachers care deeply about the integrity and complexity of their subject matter, and they also care about their students. Graduate study in musicology and theory typically fosters the love of inquiry and research, but nowhere on the agenda of graduate work is the other source of teaching inspiration acknowledged or cultivated: the immense potential and challenge of undergraduate students' minds and sensitivities. Bringing these two commitments together is the challenge of the happy teaching life, and as musicians we have a precious opportunity to expand the general horizons of learning and enjoyment through the beauty of our material and its unique visceral as well as intellectual impact. Feminism has quite rightly opened up the musical canon and revolutionized thinking about music history. So, too, must college teaching methods evolve beyond the familiar verbal description of pieces, diagrammatic analysis, and disc jockeying. The tuning of our listening ears to all kinds of music through the cultivation of all kinds of pathways of perception can lead to the expansion of all our learning horizons.

The human mind is a multimind. In the words of Robert Ornstein,

Our mental apparatus is an amalgam of different circuits, of different priorities, and even of the evolutionary developments of different eras. The human brain is a compendium of circuits piled atop one another, each developed to serve a short-term purpose in millennia past. Evolution does not, unfortunately, work for the long term, but rather for the immediate exigencies of survival. The brain developed over a period of more than 500 million years. It is composed of quite separate structures that seem to be laid on top of each other like a house being remodelled.2

Upon hearing such a description of a many-chambered mind, we may instinctively wish to posit the existence of a controlling figure at the switchboard, one who activates the most appropriate kind of cognition and appreciation called for by circumstances. But much evidence suggests that in learning the impact of external sense experience itself may be far more potent than our rational ordering of it, and that our senses work together on a three-dimensional level if we simply allow them to. The felt need for sorting and organizing should be entirely secondary to the rich and immediate apperception taking place.

This observation underlies my teaching of music. The musical event, from a single note and timbre to a phrase, a parallel period, a section, a movement, an entire work, reaches us in a rich matrix of ways through our ears. We have at our command many different ways to listen effectively, and in given works of music the sensitive teacher makes space for an emphasis upon the character of the listening activity. He or she creates this emphasis for the time being on the basis of wider experience than the students', and invites the student to allow this way of listening to predominate over other potential listening/cognitive resources. As the students are drawn into the specific experience of one piece of music, they also learn to recognize the appropriateness of applying this particular multimind activity to other works like it.

As I plan out the syllabus of works that I include in a two-semester music history sequence, I try to find four or five distinctive listening techniques to join with other sensory experiences, particularly seeing, since sight is the most potent of the five senses. These four or five styles of listening change from year to year, and the potential tedium of returning time and again to some of the same musical repertoire is avoided as I experiment with new mental and emotional capacities with which to hear it.

In the music of the Western world, a huge portion of the repertoire is appropriately heard as a progressive experience through time from the exposition of musical motives and themes, through developmental manipulation of them, toward climactic fulfillment, dénouement, and closure. We recognize this musical curve as the province of the fugue as it evolved from the motet, and sonata form as it developed from binary dance forms. As intricate and complex as these forms are, I find fugues and sonata form movements pedagogically the easiest to share with beginners, for the students can follow the musical discourse using that mind which also reads a wellreasoned essay, a detective novel, or listens to a joke for its punch line. In the developmental forms born, for the most part, in Germany, the time span is laden with expectancy as we know from Leonard Meyer's classic text, Emotion and Meaning in Music. In this repertoire the instructor can accompany the student through the series of events in the movement or work in a sequential fashion, and the student soon learns to ride the bicycle him or herself. Indeed, suggesting that one listen to developmental forms with the same attention one brings to reading an argument can be very helpful in training the mind to follow and enjoy contrapuntal development and resolution.

But there is much music in our tradition which is better received as an act of contemplation—where progression of ideas is just not the foreground listening experience. When a composer chooses to present a theme with variations one has the mental experience not of following the arrow to its target but of being in the presence of a thing of beauty which is heard from various vantage points. Thus another multimind is called into play. This is traditionally more difficult music to teach. Take, for example, that staple of the first year music history course, Haydn's Symphony #88 in G Major. We know that it is inspired in every measure, and that in a brief twenty minutes it presents to perfection (1) sonata form (2) theme and variations (3) minuet and trio, and (4) ABACABA rondo form. Now the quick tempo and jolly contrapuntal excitement of the first movement holds students' attention in the teleological and developmental framework which I have just described, but just watch their eyes glaze over as the solo oboe and 'cello begin in the second movement to play at a Largo tempo one of the most poignant melodies ever composed.

The mind taught to listen to music for its meaning always in terms of developmental schemes is the "wrong mind" to bring to this, and many other slow movements. We need to use instead that mind which savors sense experience with little reference to moments elapsed or progress to be made. This is the mind that is active as one walks slowly around a work of sculpture, and enjoys its slopes and facets from various points of view. We link the unfolding of the variations to the experience of the calm walk around the object of beauty in a gallery. The art of listening is here akin to the gentle art of looking. As I introduce Haydn's slow movement from this symphony, I draw a wheel with six spokes on the blackboard, and suggest that the theme rests at the hub. Each of the six variations can be enjoyed as a moment's pause in the circular procession around the sculpture. On the projection screen I then show six slides of a classical work of sculpture from various angles during a recorded performance of the movement, changing the slide at the moment Haydn moves from one variation to the next. On a second hearing of this movement, one's attention is drawn more deeply into those dramatic musical extensions which follow each presentation of the theme. These change more than the theme itself, and may be taken in as moments of pause on the periphery of the wheel, moments of absorption before the return of the eye to the thematic center. The multimind is thus encouraged to engage the meditative form of thought interwoven with the direct "drinking in" of the beauty of that which is central. The musical experience is thereby suggestively akin to the aesthetic treat to be had in a sculpture gallery.

Having had this encounter with Haydn's music, it is fruitful to go directly to other appropriate repertoire, and to enjoy the same kind of mental and emotional experience. I turn off the slide projector and encourage students to simply look at the wheel on the chalkboard as they hear a second work composed in the same spirit, but from a radically different time and place in history—the "night music" movement from Bartók's Out of Doors, for example, or a Baroque chaconne, or the "Dance of Furies" from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Obviously, such works have little to do historically with the classical symphony, but they draw upon the same listening skill. Is this really, then, typical "music appreciation" pedagogy? In part, yes, but in part, no, because one will return to that second work in an historical framework later in the course.

Another type of music familiar to the syllabi of music history courses , but neither developmental nor contemplative in approach, is the music of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russia. Russian repertoire, particularly the music of Musorgsky, Rimsky Korsakov, and Borodin, leading to the early Stravinsky, defies the linear, rational analytic tools and listening skills developed to unlock the "meaning" of German-Austrian music. Yet concert audiences have been following Russian music with every bit as much enjoyment as they do the symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. What kinds of multimind are they bringing intuitively to Russian music?

Students need no help at all to be swept up in the brilliance of Russian orchestral favorites, but one would like them to develop, as they do for western European music, a deeper and transferable understanding and appreciation for the bases of Russian musical culture to complement the direct experience of its audible richness and refinement. To this end, the best way to grasp the aesthetic value and character of Russian music is to experience the tradition of Byzantine art, specifically mosaic portraiture which underlies the traditions of both decorative art and icon painting in Russia. In the West, portrait artists from the Italian Renaissance developed skill at line drawing, figure and feature modeling, and landscape perspective to provide realism in three dimensions. These achievements are analogous to the interplay of melody and harmonic progression in western music. There is a clarity and photo-realism in portraiture which balances the coordinates of line and perspective in the same way that melody and harmony are complementary in just about any work of western tonal music. In the East, the materials of portraiture are tesserae—colored stones, which are amassed without the illusion of perspective on a flat surface to create, through juxtaposition, a portrait of a different, but equally expressive, style. As I teach the music of Russia, I reach for this visual analogy and combine it with two auditory experiences: the sound of Russian choral and folk singing and the sound of Russian bells. In both the choral style and the bells, tone and musical mass take precedence over linear progression, and the emergence and dissolution of texture is in the forefront of the listening experience rather than the interaction of periodic musical phrases delineated by cadences. The same impact of emergence from silence and return to silence as heard in Slavic music can be seen in the spectrum of transparency to density as achieved through the placement of tesserae in the mosaic.

The contrast between a western portrait and an eastern mosaic can be extended to both the sound of Russian music and the look of the score. I place before the student both experiences. A mosaic has its areas of intense color created by the close juxtaposition of darkly hued tesserae, and places of light created by the wider placement of lighter stones. These stones are "visible ostinati." Their function can be compared in an auditory way to the familiar changing background of Russian orchestration, and visually to any two pages from, for example, Stravinsky's score to the Rite of Spring, one showing spatially thin scoring, and one showing the large mass of strata which make up the more complex dances. The western partnership of theme and accompaniment is largely irrelevant to Slavic music. The timing of climaxes and sequence of phrases is largely non-directional. But the quest for infinite gradations in sonic texture through the manipulation of ostinati, thematic cells, and borrowed chant and folk song idioms is of supreme importance. Above all, there is a consistency of national idiom throughout both Russian visual art and music that is, paradoxically, limited in materials but almost unlimited in originality and power of expression. Concert audiences have known this on an instinctive level for over a century, and the student's multimind makes the connections more deeply and in a lasting way. Once again, a gallery experience opens the ears as well as the eyes.

The experience of the materials and texture of music through analogies with Byzantine art leads as well to a better grasp of much repertoire within the western tradition, music traditionally very difficult to teach. I have found that students exposed to the aesthetic bases of Russian music on an experiential level, can also find beauty and meaning in the music of Ives, Varése, and Elliott Carter, where the planes of musical sound are often more spatially than temporally organized.


It will be clear that my teaching of Music History to college students these days is fundamentally shaped by their capacities to perceive it as well as by the patterns one sees in the historical evolution of musical styles. The course we may call "Music 101-102" offers a good place to deepen capacities already present in the student's marvelously complex mind and imagination. In time, all the facts and connections that we as teachers know and love about music will become accessible to our students. Our job in Music 101-102 is to contribute to the ongoing process of learning, not to presume to finish it. We need to engage the curiosity and respect of that person at the switchboard within, who governs the amazing potential of multimind.

The balancing act of teaching music history is, when you come right down to it, not a problem at all. It is a privilege and a joy. It is just that we have to harness the powers of analogy, and place in the background some of the categories, immutable truths, and values that we came to cherish with almost religious fervor as graduate students: fidelity to the text, to history, and to sources. I say this with some trepidation in the halls of The Eastman School of Music where I learned so much as a graduate student years ago. Anyone who is now going through this musicology program, or has once passed this way, will know forever the value of accuracy, consistency, and fidelity to tradition and to the emerging perspectives of scholarly research. But in the world of undergraduate teaching, there are other values of equal importance. Frankly, the greatest thing I took to the classrooms of Dickinson College from my years as a student at Eastman was not the graduate seminars, not the Sibley Library, not my preparation for comprehensive examinations, not even my dissertation. It was my own living experience of the mind of Professor and musicologist Charles Warren Fox. There was a multimind in its highest evolutionary state, a zig-zagger of a man, whose course through any topic of discussion whether in class or in conversation was rarely a straight line. His greatest gift as a teacher was not to inform, but to suggest. In my twenty-fifth year of college teaching I am sure that new ways can be found, and must be found, to bring the extraordinary capacities of the human learning mind and emotions to the infinite riches of musical expression. And what is well begun by us will be faithfully continued by young men and women who have their own experiences to cultivate and share with others.

1Robert Ornstein, Multimind: A New Way of Looking at Human Behavior. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986).

2Ibid., pp. 33-34.