In Praise of Studio Class

I love seeing my students interact with each other as peers and musicians, hearing them develop the skills of critical listening, and marveling at the connections that they are able to draw. And this is why studio class with my SFCM Pre-College students has been such a joy for me this year.

We were a small group last Sunday—only four students were able to make it on account of pre-Thanksgiving travels and such, but everyone had pieces ready to play. I try to put together at least a loose structure for the 2-hour block of time, based on the music being presented that day. With a somewhat random assortment of repertoire, it is fascinating to see where the discussion will lead and what threads will bind the whole experience together. We started by hearing a performance of the Grieg waltz from the Opus 12 Lyric Pieces followed by Tchaikovsky’s Song of the Lark from the Album for the Young. With both pieces, I asked my kiddos to listen for form. The “A B A Coda” was very clear in the Grieg, but took a little longer to notice in the Tchaikovsky. Realizing that the similarity of thematic material obscured the contrast between the A and B sections, my helpful students gave suggestions to the performer on ways to emphasize the structure using timing and tonal color. A performance of Christopher Norton’s “Play It Again” led us into a discussion on what makes a piece sound “jazzy”. Cue the clapping of syncopated rhythms and writing out of blues scales. Another student played the Bartok Rumanian Dances and Robert Starer’s “Pink” from Sketches in Color. I had found some of Bartok’s field recordings from the Hungarian countryside (thanks YouTube!) so we listened to those and tried to pinpoint the stylistic qualities that give this music its special flavor.

Oh, and how could we talk about Bartok without hearing some of the Concerto for Orchestra (2nd movement)? With its “presentation of pairs” it is a perfect piece for identifying orchestral instruments!

Having started with a discussion of form, we came back to it with a performance of the first movement of Diabelli’s Sonatina in F, Op. 168 No. 1.  All of the students in attendance already had some experience with sonata form, but class was a great chance to get a better understanding of this ubiquitous structure and connect it with the simpler ternary forms we heard earlier. After the Diabelli, I let Leonard Bernstein do the talking. We watched excerpts from one of the marvelous Young People’s Concerts, in which he effortlessly explains sonata form using Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the Beatles and finally Mozart’s K. 545 (Video 2 of 4 is below–this is the one with the priceless rendition of “And I Love Her”). We then heard the Diabelli again—with totally different ears!

Ultimately, studio class is about conversation and community, a space in which my students can learn to trust their musical instincts and develop curiosity and independence. And it is really fun (especially for me.)

Can’t wait for our next class in January!

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