Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Not-Forgotten Professor

- Kenneth Drake

How often, out in the world after college, one remembers a particular teacher, even perhaps never having taken a course taught by that person. One of these individuals of great personal esteem is the late Alexander Ringer, an internationally known musicologist for many years on the faculty of the University of Illinois School of Music. Dr. Ringer was Dutch Jewish and a Holocaust survivor; no situation he confronted thereafter, however dire to one of us, could arouse fear in his being. To my regret I never had a course with Alexander Ringer, although as a fellow faculty member his remarks in conversations or heard second-hand are lodged in memory.

I once asked him whether he thought Bettina von Arnim’s quoting Beethoven in a letter to Goethe, The one to whom my music makes itself understood will be freed of all the misery that others drag around with them, was true – or did she make it up? Alex’s answer was instantaneous, “It doesn’t matter, she got it right.” Of course… the rhythm alone stirs the will to push aside doubts about one’s worth. The harmonic/melodic language and the authority perceived in the mysterious distance of dynamic levels and motivic derivations in Beethoven’s music symbolize the power to vanquish misery; they “speak us” above personal Elend. According to Bettina, Beethoven said to be freed we would need only to believe in the argument made in his music.

There was also a not so gentle reproof of my teacher, “You people teach skills, but you don’t teach what makes the music tick.” Of course… again… applied teaching may take for granted that external playing skill by itself will communicate internal character. If the foregoing accusation were not critical enough of applied study in higher education, telling one of his classes, “Beethoven had one huge advantage over all the rest of us, he never attended a school of music,” would seem to brand Alex as a heretic. Why would so brilliant a teacher bite the hand that gave him livelihood and students? Presumably he wanted to state the difference in the clearest terms: Beethoven was never forced to conform. His was belief indomitable.

In the desire to shape the younger person’s thinking, however laudable, applied study – the lesson – can discourage self-belief, especially if intelligent opinions are not in step with the studio. Belief makes a musician sui generis, a player or composer independent and like no other, the highest mark of success as a teacher. But training great numbers necessitates standardization, permitting scant occasion to entrust taste and judgment to talent. Instead, the exterior comes to define success, and institutional prestige to confer status on its alumni. It is hardly surprising that training that does not reveal to youth its own potential leaves a vacuum in which self-doubt cries out for still further training. If forced to comply with established procedure Beethoven could not have become Beethoven.

Does the typical applied doctorate build upon self-belief or confine still further an independence of thought? Does your doctorate widen the scope of your ability by including organ, conducting, pedagogy, a reading acquaintance with solo and ensemble repertoire, or even practical entrepreneurship? Ethically, does it imbue you with the spirit of a missionary for values? Even with all of these, what is learned in formal study pales beside what is learned in the field of one’s calling.
One last biting remark of Professor Ringer, expressed as a description of faculty composers but no doubt intended to be more widely applicable: “They are parasites, paid by the state to write music for each other to talk about.” Of course… once more… ever the impulse to reach out and awaken a hunger for values that will leave society richer than before.

Like Bettina, Alex got it right.