Who We’re From

Jonathan Bellman

Heartfelt sympathies to Phil on the loss of his grandmother, who was obviously quite a person to reckon with. I wasn’t able to get the link to play beyond Phil’s 9-year-old voice, but I enjoyed the comment that his grandmother took him seriously during her “interview.” This reminds me of the exchange between the son of old friends of ours—the boy was at this time a highly energetic, jabbering three-year-old or so—and visiting elderly lady. It was time for dessert. The boy turned to the lady and said, “Sorbet is very cold, you know.” To which the lady—all glory upon her head—answered gravely, “I’ve heard that, too.” Beyond the smile-inducing anecdote, though, is something worth reflecting on.
We’ve all heard the comment about there being no such thing as a stupid question. I, of course, believe there certainly is, but it should only be brought up when the interlocutor really needs a wake-up call, is being deliberately insulting, or trivial. How deep do we have to reach, though, when teaching Music Appreciation or the Music History sequence, to take every question soberly and seriously? Through high school and college, my tongue, insults, and sarcasm were feared by a lot of people, and like a lot of brash young’uns I enjoyed doing the flyswatter bit—appointing myself Hammer of Allah, in other words—on anyone I though stupid and deserving of such treatment.

 
Yes, the word IS “hubris.” The phrase might be “the most impossible person on earth.”
Fact is, though, when you teach you can’t be that self-indulgent; people often really are trying, and you have to somehow, on the fly, restate a clueless question so that it seems as if the person was just a couple of inches away from making a really trenchant point. This can be a real intellectual challenge, and even fun. What’s more, if students walk out chattering interestedly, isn’t that a lot better than having them carried out feet first? We’re not even discussing what will happen when the season of teaching evaluations rolls around.

 
And this brings us back to Mrs. Mary Hingley and the wisdom of certain parents and teachers. (I guess I’ve observed it more in women, but this is a personal observation unsupported by hard data, so don’t bother suing me for sexism…besides, you can’t get blood out of a stone.) The question of the smallest child, or the greenest newbie, can—if treated with respect—make of that person a loving initiate, perhaps forever. The questioner feels, for ONCE, as if he or she is not being condescended to (“That’s enough now; eat your dinner!” or “ [SIGH] I wonder how many times I will have to repeat that a symphony is not a ‘song’…”), and the gratitude is often palpable. When we are taken seriously by older relatives and authority figures, we cherish the memory our entire lives.
Then, much later, you find yourself teaching a seminar with five people in it and everyone asks deep, penetrating, life-the-universe-and-everything questions, and you wonder how it could possibly get better.

 
Besides the salary, I mean.

 
But it is worth saying a silent thank-you to those who showed us patience and respect in the past, because it is that exchange of ideas, that early-childhood or -studenthood pedagogy, that may be more responsible for making academics of us even than the disciplines themselves. And however bitter or burned out we are tempted to get, being part of humanity’s ancient pedagogical chain is a sacred privilege, but one—we must remember—we did earn, to a certain extent, but in a very real way we were granted. Those that answered off-the-wall questions with due measured seriousness, successfully stifling whatever smiles were yearning to reconfigure their faces, were in a very real way the ones that punched our tickets into the Clan. To them we owe…everything.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Who We’re From

  1. Kip W says:

    I was impressed by a math teacher, years ago, who was the most patient human being around. If someone raised a hand and declared that they had forgotten how to add two numbers together, Mr. Smith would have smiled, and put some numbers up on the board and started working with the student then and there.

  2. Roxanne Rieske says:

    I just discovered this blog, and I am loving it. These are intriquing pieces of writing, better than most of what I come across in the blogosphere.
    I have always loved music. I am one of those true audiophiles that just adores sound in general. I listen to and enjoy every genre of music (much to the angst of my peers who have to put up with my wierd penchant for playing Tori Amos one minute and suddenly turning around to something like opera or bluegrass).
    I was wondering: what kind of advice to you have for a grown adult (who’s already done the college thing and now has a full load of adult responsibilities) who wants to learn more about music? I sometimes secretly loath my parents for not forcing me to take music classes or to learn an instrument (but we were poor and when you have to choose between food and music lessons and an instrument…). There are two instruments that I have always loved: the piano and the mandoline. I can’t afford to buy a piano (even a digital one), but I was able to get myself a beginners mandoline, and I have been slowly plucking away at it (and loving it too).
    I live near the Lemont School of Music (Denver, CO), but they don’t have offer music history or theory classes for adults who just want to broaden their horizons with music but don’t want a degree.
    Thoughts? Suggestions for books I should read?
    Thanks and sorry for the bit of rambling!

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