JENNA ORKIN of wtceo.org
remembers her days teaching at Juilliard

The first version of this article was written more than twenty years ago. I'd stopped teaching classes at Juilliard because in order to continue, I would have had to embark on a PhD thesis. Not even my dream job, which the Juilliard gig was, could conquer my revulsion at the thought. But I still tutored at the school so before submitting the article for publication I sought permission from the PR department. They responded that if it got published, I wouldn't be allowed back in the building.

The article dove under the bed where it's remained til now.

Juilliard has always had superb PR but it's of a glossy kind that was not compatible with the backhanded praise that the article offers. In fact, as a teacher I was smitten with the school's creative students, brilliant faculty, historic productions. Perhaps the current administration will understand that.

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I fell in love with musical comedy at the age of five and with 'concert music' (the pianist Rosalyn Tureck insisted that the term 'classical music' referred only to the late eighteenth century) at the age of thirteen. By the time I got to college I wanted to teach what I loved.

That shouldn't have been too much to ask. But as everyone knows, to teach college (the level I wanted) you need a PhD. Much as I loved teaching, I hated being a student more. So I turned to Plan B. As there was no Plan B, I waited on tables.

This episode requires a story in itself. Suffice it to say here I was fired from two waitressing positions: the first, for 'allowing' a couple to skip out without paying their bill (for which I had to fork over my tips); the second for not being able to do that circus trick with plates up the arm.

So when a Fellowship opened up in the Music History Department at Juilliard to teach music of the 19th and 20th centuries, I went through the motions of applying but forgot about the job as soon as I returned to my real life of getting nowhere. However it was a few days before school was to open so only one other person had heard about the position. He was a better trained musician than I but with an expertise in a branch of theory considered too rarefied for undergraduates. He also had a thick Russian accent. [Identifying details have been changed.] I was hired.

Thrill soon gave way to terror. I'd gone to Juilliard for one misbegotten year of college and had been glad to be rid of the place. In those days, unlike today when the school is more open, the core of the Juilliard experience lay in the practise room. In that sanctuary, nothing was supposed to come between the student, her instrument and the score. I had wanted things to come between us. The practise room was for me a vacuum. So I had left, gone to Hunter College and Oxford which offered more normal college experiences with conversation, other people, subjects beyond last night's performance of the Mozart 23rd Concerto.

But now I drew on that year at Juilliard for solace.

'They're not all exprodigies,' I reminded myself. 'And only a few are full-fledged virtuosi.' The reassurances rang pathetic. I envisioned lecturing to an audience that saw right through me to a core of incompetence.

But there was a core of energy too. I was twenty-five, not so long out of college myself, with the memory still dewy of boring classes. My driving mission was to do unto my students as I wished had been done unto me. I might be ignorant but I would not be boring.

However, there was still the problem of preparing an hour and a quarter's class (to be repeated four times a week) for a whole year -- the predicament of Scheherazade but without recourse to imagination. How to do this when I wasn't exactly brimming over with information?

'Keep them busy,' I decided. 'Exploit them: Get the singers to talk about opera' (the subject I knew the least about). 'They may resent it but at least they won't be bored. Or if they are, it'll be their own fault.'

The Socratic method would be an indispensable tool in this process. Instead of imparting information, I could ask questions. Of course I'd have to know where the conversation was going. Then again, maybe not. The ultimate goal of the Socratic method is for the students to ask their own questions while the teacher does nothing at all, disappearing like the Cheshire cat, with a grin and a wave.

Armed with a volume of Beethoven Sonatas, I greeted my first class with enough questions to fuel an hour and a quarter's discussion. I hoped.

'Was Beethoven a revolutionary?' I began.
It was 9.05am. (Five minutes down to take attendance. Seventy minutes to go.) The class looked back blankly.
'Let's say, in the harmonies he used.'
'Yeah, OK,' the looks said. 'Harmonies, whatever. So, tell us. Was he a revolutionary or not?'
'Well, let's see,' I went on with mounting dread. 'Open your scores to Opus 2 No 2. What's the relationship between the key at the beginning of the movement and the key at the beginning of the development?'
Someone shifted in his chair. I looked sharply in the direction of the sound.
'Yes?'
But no, it had been just that; someone shifting in a chair. The class stared back like two rows of tombstones.
'Well, what is the key at the opening of the movement? Hello? Anybody home?' I felt like an explorer trying to humor his captors who don't speak the same language.
'A Major,' a voice offered and it seemed indiscreet to try to identify it.
'Oh, I get it,' somebody else said, 'it's a mediant relationship?'
There is a God.
'Wait a second, isn't it supposed to be dominant?'
Pay dirt.
We were talking about the far-flung keys within the development when I asked for a volunteer to play the piece.
The joyful noise of Youth At Work stopped. The pianists looked down at their shirt cuffs. ('Who, me? I play tuba.')
'Let's see ... My cards tell me ... Hei-Kyung Park, you're a pianist?'
'Yes.'
'Would you like to try sight-reading this?'
'I have tendonitis.'
'And who is ... Robert Greene?'
A boy in the back row raised his left arm with a smile of faux regret and underlying triumph. The arm was in a cast.
There was nothing for it but to read the work myself.

I'd practised for such an emergency. But one of the reasons I'd left Juilliard as a student was the minor problem of rampant stagefright. My hands shook or segued into alien keys as in a nightmare.

Performing in a class at Juilliard wasn't a gentle first step in overcoming fear. Juilliard students do not make a merciful audience.

As it turned out, though, my performance was met with expansive pleasure; not of admiration but of relief. Never again did I have trouble getting volunteers. The students had nothing to fear; the teacher was in no position to think harshly of their abilities.

The performances the kids did in class were among the high points of the year. Once I asked Joanna, an ultra-cool habitue of the cafeteria, to play the accompaniment to a Brahms lied She got up with as much enthusiasm as someone boarding the bus to go to work at the Post Office. Like a moody Dryad, she wove her way through the thicket of desks to the piano, scanned the song she would be playing for the first time, and began.

Her instinctive sympathy for the music was apparent from the first phrase. The rest of us were aware we were witnessing something like the first meeting in what will become a love affair.

When we studied Schumann lieder and Michael D sang part of a cycle, the songs fit perfectly in that setting of twenty people. The sense of drudgery that can sneak into classes vanished and the class transformed into a single organism, sensitive to every nuance.

But sometimes we talked about subjects which had nothing to do with scores, like the art of the period we were studying. I couldn't elicit the students' ideas on the subject; they knew nothing about it. It was time to fork over hard information.

Students do not realize the extent to which their teachers suffer the syndrome commonly attributed to cockroaches: They are more afraid of you than you are of them. Although I boned up for these moments of truth, that wasn't the same as being a seasoned expert. Suppose someone asked a question? But still, my overriding fear was of being boring.

So I tried to deliver these mini-lectures with the eloquence which enthusiasm bestows. This approach backfired when I spoke so fluently that after twenty minutes, I had nothing else to say. Fifty-five minutes remained to the class.
Several courses of action lay open:

  1. Ask a general question -- preferably one that can stir up fifty-five minutes' controversy.
  2. Ask a difficult question for them to ponder while I think of my next move.
  3. Repeat the lecture.
  4. For the two years I taught classes at Juilliard these insecurities never let up. But behind them lay another problem: that of ambition. I didn't want just to get through the year without disgrace; I wanted the students to take away knowledge they would remember, use in their performances, pass on. What each student learned would be unique to him or her. It wouldn't be found in our textbook, stalwart and reputable as that was. They would learn directly from scores which must be conceived anew by each musician who studies them as long as the music is to remain alive.

    I also wanted to learn from my students, since that would be a sign I was doing my job right.

    Occasionally, this happened. From one student paper, for instance, I learned that the professions of Rossini's parents had been those of trumpet player and slaughterhouse inspector. The paper didn't say which parent was which.

    The most startling observations came from students who knew the least for then they had to invent. Asked on an exam about Luisa Miller and The Sicilian Vespers , both operas by Verdi, a bassoon player identified them as 'friends of Liszt'. (Along with La Somnambula and The Flying Dutchman ?) On another exam I gave ten terms to be identified: Idee fixe , cyclic form, the sort of thing that comes up in Music 101 courses. As a bonus I put the term 'roller skates' which had been used to simulate ice skates in a Meyerbeer opera. Somebody cited them as an example of cyclic form. I gave her an extra point.

    The students also had a certain stylistic flair, however inadvertent. In a paper on cello music of the Romantic era one student said of the great composers who'd written solo works for cello, 'These giants were largely responsible for the growth in the cello literature ...'

    Never had I seen such consistency of metaphor. How appropriate that giants had been responsible for growth and that the way they had been responsible was 'largely'.

    Then there were the kids who by the end of the year came through, writing papers from the heart: the percussionist who wrote about Beethoven's Ninth and who is now himself on the percussion faculty of Juilliard; the pianist who ended a paper on Chopin's Nocturnes with the words: 'It is impossible to imagine a world without them.'

    There were other redeeming features, too, to staying late, slogging through seventy-four essays on traditional form in Wozzeck : Dropping in on a play on the third floor; or simply hearing the pure tones of balanced winds filtering through the walls of a practice room.

    One evening, I followed more distant sounds to their source two floors below the Music History office. Slipping in through the back door of the orchestra rehearsal hall, I stood inside for twenty minutes -- a moment in which an impression was fixed in my mind of the palpable quality of a childhood memory -- as the elegant gestures of Copland described in the air the phrases of Haydn.