Preparing to Listen

In 1946, after waiting sixteen months for return transportation from Okinawa, I was finally discharged to civilian life, with just a weekend of "family leave" before the beginning of classes at Wellesley. Though Wellesley had "saved" my job (an instructorship, at $1800), after nearly four years in the army, my reappointment carried the munificent salary of $1900. Even at that time, the raise seemed a bit meager, but one could buy a loaf of day-old Wonder Bread on sale for $.19 -- if one liked Wonder Bread. More nutritious breads cost more.

At college my teaching load was six sections of the survey course and two courses of my own: "Bach to Beethoven" and "History of Opera." Donald Grout's lifesaving surveys had not yet appeared, and many days I fought off sleep trying to teach what I had learned the night before. Fortunately, I quickly discovered that after two or three survey sections I could produce the remaining repetitions in a curiously restful state, a syndrome known as "talking coma." Life progressed until December, which, as all teachers know-T. S. Eliot to the contrary-is the cruelest month except for May. Toward the end of any semester, make-up classes, extra committees, and obligatory concerts seem to cluster inexorably. To all of these, Wellesley tradition had added an abominable requirement, the course review. In the survey course a subtradition had ordained that the review would consist of playing unidentified recordings to be revealed by various interrogations in an ensuing discussion.

 If I had properly prepared these three-hour reviews, it would have required a full day of work, checking the material, choosing recordings, and listening to at least half of each to generate some rational comments. But that was a time when all available moments beyond teaching were occupied by inescapable events. Sleep and food happened when possible; McDonald's had not yet emerged.

 As you have correctly foreseen, I walked into my first review unprepared except for a miscellaneous pile of 78s. In extremis (while playing the first example), even without preparation, a few appropriate remarks began to occur to me, as if by magic. This flash of panic insight gave birth to SHMRG (Sound-Harmony-Melody-Rhythm-Growth Processes), my lifelong framework for observing musical style(1). At least forty generations of students have discovered how much more they can say about a piece if they have some such outline in mind. Also, for writing concert reviews and approaching problems of adjudication, composition, and performance, I have found SHMRG consistently helpful. There is nothing sacred about this particular choice of perspectives, but they ensure a comprehensive review of a composer's style. As such, they have survived all sorts of testing, with continued success.

The SHMRG order of observation attempts to retain as much as possible from any listening experience by following an approximately natural sequence of aural memory:

  • Sound comes first, owing to the relative ease of noticing and remembering features of instrumentation and orchestration.

  • Harmony comes second, because it requires so much attention to follow tonality that one must reserve a special area of memory to keep track of it. One must learn to listen to bass lines, feel instinctively the tension of dominant, the relaxation of subdominant, the color changes to and from minor modes.

  • Melody is easier. Fasten some memorable feature of the line in mind, and collect other characteristics around it, so that recurrences almost signal themselves.

  • Rhythmic observations that go beyond meter and tempo may be too difficult to retain in the swift flow of performance, but look for motives and the rise and fall of other intensities.

  • Growth processes require the sharpest penetration of analysis, but events of SHMR serve as reminders. Any of these elements may help to clarify punctuations in the structural process: phrasing, phrase groups, balance of sections. Even with a generalized shape in mind one can recall points of intensification and climax disposed among areas of relaxation and transition.

From a single framework many thoughts can grow. Like the spreading roots of a tree, each ramification develops naturally from preceding root-ideas, joined and unified from the trunk. By a fortunate paradox, outreach can often develop insight, and in my earliest years, this self-evolving framework organized my ignorance into acceptable teaching.

(1) For expansions of this acronym, see Guidelines for Style Analysis, 2d ed. (Harmonie Park Press, 1992)

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

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