Being a graduate student AND a full-time employee at a university can be both inspiring and frustrating. I’m constantly surrounded by information and knowledge and books and all manner of wonderful things associated with learning: one of my colleagues just published a book he’s been working on and it’s gotten very favorable reviews; a favorite professor of mine is off giving papers at conferences left and right; I’ve been given the opportunity to present my own work at a conference in Georgia next month. These things make me feel invigorated and blessed. But I’m also surrounded by bits and pieces of university life that leave my heart frowning: I overhear bits of conversations in elevators that include the word "like" more than a dozen times; I help out in classes sometimes and I see students slouched in their seats, looking completely and utterly Uninterested In Being There; students come to my office asking for "that book thing" that their teachers asked them to buy, but they can’t remember the names of the courses they’re in or even the names of the professors who are teaching them. In those moments, I ask myself, "Why are they even here in college?"
And then the PSO comes into the picture. And my heart smiles again.
I work in the History Department at Duquesne University, and one of the courses our department offers is called The Arts and the Human Experience (AHE). This course is part of the University’s Core requirement and is co-taught by two instructors each semester: one instructor who teaches about art history for part of the semester, and another teacher who teaches about music for the other part of the semester. This semester, the course focuses on the music portion first. John Marcinizyn, one of the Pittsburgh’s premiere guitarists, teaches two sections of our AHE course. And a recent class assignment included attending a PSO performance this past opening weekend. I wanted to hear students’ reactions to their PSO experience in the hopes that I would be inspired and rejuvenated by their words. So, I attended John’s classes on Monday afternoon to get some answers.
I was hoping–praying–that at least one or two students would say they really liked it. I was prepared, though, for what I feared their responses would be: Classical music is boring and I hate it. I was thrilled, though, to hear that some of the students really enjoyed the concert. A couple of them even said they would go back another time! Of course, there were still the students who, when I asked if they liked it, slouched in their seats and shook their heads an emphatic NO. But hey–that’s okay. I don’t like heavy metal. Or folk music. We can still be friends.
I asked the students if any of them played any musical instruments, as I always find myself interested in The Secret Lives of College Students. MANY of them raised their hands. Upon further investigation, I learned that many of the students played instruments such as the piano, the violin, and the guitar. In fact, one student was actually playing the piano in the classroom before class began. Some students even sing (hey–the voice is most certainly an instrument!).
Another question I asked the students centered around the preconceptions they may have had about attending a live classical music event, such as the Pittsburgh Symphony. Many of them raised their hands when I asked, "How many of you thought that the Symphony was only attended by older people who wear suits and evening gowns?" Then, when I asked them if their preconception changed after attending the performance, many nodded and raised their hands. A couple of students mentioned how interesting it was that children were at the concert. Another student mentioned that people were dressed very casually, which was a surprise. (I confessed to them that I attended the concert in a pair of my favorite jeans.) I also asked the students if any of them had been to classical music performances before, and a few of them indicated that they had. One girl said she goes all the time–she’s a pre-law student who plays the violin, viola, and she sings. Very Refreshing Indeed. And another student said she called her uncle in Wisconsin, who happens to play the violin, and she said that he was shocked that she was going to see Joshua Bell perform and that he was very excited for her.
While the students’ responses were interesting to me, so were the questions they asked. One student, in the back of the class, instantly raised his hand when John asked if there were any questions about the performance.
"What’s the guy in the front do, you know, when he’s waving his arms back and forth like this," he asked, his arms moving up and down, in and out from his chest. John explained the role of the conductor to the class, and many of them nodded and replied "Oh!" as everything began to make more sense to them.
Another student asked about the percussionists, particularly the timpani players. This student wanted to know what the timpani players were doing when they leaned down closely, ear to the top of the drum during the performance. John explained that this is a discreet way that the timpani players could tune the drums and make any adjustments to them before their next part. These students’ questions reminded me just how visual an experience attending the symphony really is. So I decided to do a little shameless promotion and point out to the students our fellow blogger Doug Bauman’s recent post on "seeing" the music.
All in all, my visits to the two classes were enjoyable. I learned from the students, and I believe they learned in return. I also felt reassured that our college students are embracing new experiences in their educational lives, opening themselves up to different worlds that may have once seemed untouchable to them. Not all of them just want to Party Hard at the bar on the weekends. Some of them actually want to Party with Mahler and Tchaikovsky instead.