Busting Music Myths: Teaching Music History with JSTOR Daily

In the fall of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I taught my first asynchronous online course: Myths, Music, and Manipulated Realities (1750-1880). Here is the course description:

The 18th and 19th centuries brought a renewed interest in ancient myths, fantastical magic, and otherworldly experiences. Music was increasingly exploited to manipulate perceptions of everyday life. In this course, we will inhabit the space between myth and reality, traveling from the new worlds of CPE Bach’s interiority to the devilish legends of Paganini and Liszt, from Gluck’s stark depictions of ancient gods to Wagner’s obsession with the dramatically mythical. During the semester, we will ask ourselves: how is music used to evoke fantastic feelings and manipulate perceptions of “reality”? What does this reveal about the social, political and cultural landscapes of the time? And finally, what myths from the classical and romantic tradition still persist today?

A survey of the Classical and Romantic eras, the course introduced the fundamental concepts of music history to conservatory students at the Eastman School of Music. Teaching in a conservatory has its own challenges. The students are musicians and composers, in training to enter a competitive profession. In the mindset of the conservatory, every minute spent in class or doing homework (or eating or sleeping…) is a minute wasted in the rehearsal room (this mindset is found in the music schools around the world and is a legacy of the German Romantics, who often equated musical genius with poor health and general suffering). Students must therefore be encouraged to keep their attention on the work in class.

T-shirts and stickers with “Eat, Sleep, Music” are sold in the Eastman Bookstore.

The pandemic has only compounded the usual challenges of teaching. Like educators around the world, I had concerns about student engagement when I designed my classroom. Even at the best of times, music history is often seen as meaningless, a conglomeration of esoteric “facts” through which one must grudgingly tread to access the beautiful sounds beyond. Moving discussions from the classroom to the complex landscape of digital learning systems (Blackboard, in our case) and ensuring asynchronous access increased the likelihood of students being disinterested and avoiding classroom work, especially in light. higher priority activities such as rehearsals and performances.

This is where JSTOR Daily comes in, providing entertaining and thought-provoking topics for my talks. I directed students to the website during the planning stages of their final project, an argumentative research paper that students delivered in written or podcast form. Throughout the semester, Daily served as an important teaching tool, a versatile reference on how interesting history can be and why we should care.

Debunking and classical canon

The goal of my class was to “bust the myths” of music history. Each week, my students would watch a series of three short asynchronous lectures focusing not only on mythical subjects (like the tale of Orpheus, Arthurian legends, or the haunting story of the Flying Dutchman), but also on classical music myths. itself that still persist today – the myth of the musical genius, for example, or the fictions surrounding musical child prodigies like Mozart. This goal grew out of a broader shift in education to “decolonize the curriculum,” to cover topics beyond the canon while emphasizing the social, political, and economic conditions that led to the creation cannon first.

Beethoven staring at the students from above an exit sign (“You should practice!”).  One of many busts of canonical figures spread across the Eastman campus
Beethoven watches the students from above an exit sign (“You should practice!”). One of many busts of canonical figures spread across the Eastman campus

The mission of decolonization is delicate in today’s conservatory. At its core, the conservatory is an institution beholden to the creation and maintenance of the canon of classical music (pdf). This indebtedness is expressed in different ways. Many conservatory buildings are quasi-sanctuaries for canonical characters. In several places in Eastman, for example, marble busts and portraits of composers like Bach and Beethoven stare sternly at students. Some members of the classical world have more systemic objections to going beyond the canon in the classroom, expressing discomfort with conservatory students completing their undergraduate terms without a thorough knowledge of Beethoven’s three periods or theoretical foundations of a classical cadence. According to some at my institution, the purpose of my class is to prepare students for the multiple-choice music history entrance exams they might take at the start of their graduate performance programs. For music history teachers, there is a thin line to cross: how to sufficiently prepare your students to encounter these states of mind, to pass these exams, while moving beyond the increasingly outdated notion of the canon of music. classic?

Mining the archives

My solution to these problems was to teach the core materials my students needed to learn by contextualizing the works and composers we covered in the socio-political world around them – and for that, JSTOR Daily’s mission to blend scholarship and topicality with an offbeat twist proved invaluable. Rebecca Rego Barry’s article on Paganini and his bleeding kit became a lecture on the important role that active marketing strategies played in the rise of virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt. Amelia Soth’s article on professional clapping at the Paris Opera offered a context for a discussion of the myth of objectivity in musical taste. Karen Rile’s article on whether or not it is acceptable for audiences to distract performers has become a discussion of how certain conditions considered inherent in classical music are instead the result of individuals economically and politically motivated hundreds of years ago. (You can thank the likes of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who wanted audiences and performers to stop interrupting and altering his operas, for the fact that composers are now seen as the ultimate “owners” of a musical work. the audience is now a passive listener instead of actively participating in a performance.)

“But what should I write about?”

Some students need more direction and thematic guidance while generating potential topics for their projects. For this too, Daily was a useful tool. During one-on-one brainstorming sessions with students, I directed them to Daily articles for inspiration and research. For example, inspired by Emily Zarevich’s article on Tchaikovsky’s epistolary patronage, a student wrote an essay exploring the connection between parasocial relationships, modern bullying, and 19th-century patronage. The Daily’s website and story structures were ideal for students who otherwise had difficulty selecting historical topics that interested and excites them.

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Students regularly noted that the surprising and “offbeat” nature of my weekly classes considerably facilitated their concentration in an asynchronous context. One even commented that the lectures were more like podcast episodes and that she was looking forward to the new “season to drop” (i.e. Blackboard releases the new module). Daily’s archival and signature style made it easy to find interesting viewpoints on fundamental topics in music history, which then made it easier to write entertaining (but still rigorous) lectures. During a chaotic and stressful semester for educators and students alike, JSTOR Daily felt like a secret weapon, an ever-reliable medium to rely on for inspiration and topics to excite a general love of learning.

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