It was a Puccini aria playing on an old victrola that made my grandfather's face redden as he strained to match the high, held note sung by the tenor. It was the picture of the purple-and-black-robed Lord High Executioner that transfixed my gaze while sitting next to my mother at the piano as she played and sang excerpts from The Mikado. It was the liner notes on the jacket of Jascha Heifitz's recording of the Bach Double Concerto that told me I was listening to this virtuoso playing both solo parts! (It eventually became clear to me that my astonishment was due not only to the beautiful playing but also to the engineering feat that mixed the two separately recorded tracks.) These are some of the images that come to mind when recalling music from my childhood, and I can—we all can—go on and on telling the story of the memorable music in my life.
If you think about it, you will realize that each of us has a mental album of "ear stories"—an archive of lifespanning aural memories as rich as the family photo album. This is what I told my freshmen theory students during the first week of classes, as I asked them to write an essay reflecting on their own "hear histories." I had returned to teaching freshmen after a hiatus of many years, and I was looking for ways to help students connect the study of musical process and structure with their other musical experiences. One way to do that, I thought, was to have them write about music they remembered most vividly from their pasts—music that seemed to influence them significantly, as a prelude to their theoretical study.
The first time I read these ear histories, I was unprepared for the results. I had not expected that students would give such care and attention to their essays, and I was continually impressed and moved by their efforts. It occurred to me later that the best time for them to gather such thoughts was likely the very beginning of their college years as budding musicians. I remember my own first few weeks as a freshman and how preoccupied I was with comparing my past (short) life with those of my dorm mates: How did the relationships I had with my parents and siblings compare to theirs? Did our musical tastes differ widely? What did God mean to them? And, of course, what about girls, girls, girls? (There were no coed dorms in those days.) I can also call up the feeling of vulnerability—with its veneer of scariness—that accompanied immersion in an environment with an unknown future and with no connection to a personal history for any of us. In such a frame of mind, looking back was intriguing and profound. It was just about all we could do to get a meaningful sense of ourselves at the time.
What then was so impressive and moving about my students's reminiscences? First, they showed a tremendous eclecticism of taste. It was the rule rather than the exception to find music from the Top-40, from a place of worship, from a parent's collection of old LPs or tapes, and from first experiences hearing or playing in an orchestra or a jazz, marching, or polka band—all mixed into the early part of the ear history stew. Second, the music most fondly remembered was often linked to intimate experiences with family and friends. This music formed a soundscape for the daily drive to school by a mom or dad or the visit to a favorite uncle, aunt, or grandparent. Or it was at the core of a friendship that excluded family entirely, a friendship that may have been an expression of an essential growing independence from family. Third, some students took a more Cageian view of music and rhapsodized on the immense variety of meaningful sounds in their lives. It is pleasing to read this quote slowly enough to imagine the succession of sounds it conjures up:
I've heard construction noises, cars honking, doors slamming, and children laughing. I've heard water running and fingers tapping. I've heard alarm clocks ringing and dogs barking. I've heard the sound of eating and the sounds of the wind blowing through trees. I've heard birds singing and rain dropping on pavement. I've heard stairs creaking and printers printing. I've heard people cry out in pain and I've heard babies giggle.
Finally, most students mentioned performing some particular kind of music, or even a specific piece, that swept them up in its magic—that focused their interests, called up reserves of discipline, and helped them make the commitment to pursue music study seriously. We are, of course, very thankful that such epiphanies are embedded in the ear histories of those who otherwise may not have become our students.
On the last day of the final term of my class, I handed back copies of their essays that I had made during the first week. You can imagine their reactions when asked to think about the change in their ear histories after nearly a year of concentrated study as music majors!