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6 minutes reading time (1249 words)


She always wore a cherry-red coat...

She always wore a cherry-red coat. At least that is what I remember she wore, whether that fact is true or not. Her gray hair surrounded her head in a fluff that looked like a halo pushed slightly askew, and she walked quickly, her back bent slightly forward in what looked like anticipation, but was probably osteoporosis.

My guess is that every music student who attended Northwestern University in the early 1970s will remember this woman. I was too shy or too self-absorbed to have talked to her long enough to learn her name or her story, but I did know that she lived in one of Evanston's versions of public housing—a kleenex-and-spit-built set of apartments that still stands a half mile from Northwestern's Lutkin Recital Hall.

Dedicated listening

For years this woman attended every single student recital and master class. I doubt she missed even one. When we, as aspiring musicians, walked onto Lutkin's formidable stage, we could depend upon her bright-coat presence, usually in one of the back rows. Whether a certain student's long hours of practice attracted an audience of a hundred or just his mother and one best friend, the lady in red joined their ranks.

Today's classical music world sorely needs audience members who are as dedicated as she was. If only we could have cloned her. Yet I wish we had more people like this woman for a related but different reason: for her presence as an unconditional witness to our young, emerging musical voices.

She always stayed until the end of every performance and always told students' relatives how much she enjoyed hearing us, often commenting on our musical growth over the years she had been listening to us. She didn't critique the performances; she simply took pleasure in being there.

As graduate students dedicated to life as classical musicians, we were seeking initiation into that world. We chose difficult war-horses of the "serious" repertoire and then practiced long hours in an attempt to play them note- perfectly and up to the standards of the icons of our day, such as Rubinstein and Horowitz. Our teachers judged how close we came to that benchmark, and we rarely measured up, despite our faithful listener's compliments to our relatives. 

Today, forty- five years later, the audience for classical music is dwindling. More and more people feel classical music requires arcane knowledge, and they fear they are not capable of listening to it "correctly." I doubt the woman in the back row would have had that worry. In addition, I am certain she knew an enormous amount about classical music emotionally due to her continual exposure to it.


I have been teaching since 1969, and fewer and fewer of my students now make classical music their priority even though, at my insistence, all of them learn classical pieces. At my most recent recital, eleven students played thirty pieces that I allowed them to choose. The program included the works of only three classical composers: Bartok, Bach, and Gurlitt. Compositions by John Williams, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Billy Taylor, Henri Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, and the original songs of fourteen-year old New Trier freshman Jordan Xidas (already a presence on YouTube) took up most of the program. The younger students chose jazzy pieces by Bill Boyd and Phillip Keveren, along with arrangements of songs like "Bingo" and "Shortbread Boogie."

Is this a bad thing? I don't know. As I sit writing this column, I am floating along with a performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and thanking my piano teacher, who would have fainted at the program of music my students presented, for initiating me into the life-sustaining classical music world and for holding my feet to the fire of its rigorous standards. Is classical music too difficult and too rarely heard for today's students to want to speak it? I don't think so. I think the problem lies elsewhere. 

Minutes before my recent recital began, I started staring at the word "recital." It suddenly felt like the wrong word for what we were about to hear. I jettisoned the opening remarks I had prepared and introduced the afternoon's performances by saying that no one would hear what the word "recital" implies: a mere reading or repetition of music from memory with the goal that it be note-perfect.

Emerging Voices

Instead they would hear their children's own musical voices bringing the notes on the page to life. Many of the students created their own arrangements, two improvised their own B sections of jazz pieces, three composed their own pieces and songs, one joined several method pieces into a medley, another played a duet, once with the student part and then again playing the teacher's part. Even two performances of the same piece, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," sounded vastly different due to the way the students decided to present it. The first student played it as a mystery tune and made the audience guess what the song was and then sing it with him a second time. The other student added lots of filler notes to the melody "like I hear at a Cubs game." 

That afternoon I listened carefully to the three classical performances. The students played the pieces well, but the music sounded a bit stiff and had more near-misses than the other repertoire did. I wondered if the children would have played and loved their classical pieces better if, in addition to playing them as is, they had been allowed to make their own arrangements, compose pieces in their likeness, make medleys of them, and so on. 

All music requires rigor. My student Corey's performance of Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," with its four-part harmony and quirky rhythms, took him hours of intense work. In addition, he had to understand the piece well enough harmonically and structurally to create a worthy improvisation. His own arrangement of the "Mission Impossible" theme had come from listening to the original soundtrack and reflected all the color of that version's orchestration. 

If I had asked Corey to improvise on his Clementi sonatina, I think he would have ingested that music with more vigor and interest. If we had listened to a classical symphony and tried to instill that orchestral color into his sonatina, I know he would have been excited. If I had challenged Corey to write a sonatina, I think he could have done it!

Rethinking "recital"

I sat there during the recital thinking, "It isn't my students who have a dusty, antiquated view of classical music—it is their teacher." I have celebrated my students' voices as they have emerged through their jazz and popular music, but have retreated to a "recital" view of their classical pieces, asking them to revert to being puppets, who perform note-perfect renditions of music frozen in time. 

The woman in the cherry-red coat had a talent few of us celebrate or revere: listening. She came so vividly to mind all these years later. I sat listening to my students' performances, not with the ears of a teacher, but with the ears of this unusual woman. I listened as an unconditional witness to my students' emerging musical voices, and the way they played their jazz and popular pieces showed me a new way to present classical music to them. 

By the way, if anyone remembers the woman's name or has stories about her, I would love to hear from you.

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