Sunday, January 23, 2011

Singing in English class

I've posted before on a general reluctance to sing, which is to say I'm aware of it. My theory is that people think there's a group of people who are "singers," who are allowed to sing because their voices have been approved (by somebody) as not dangerous to the natural order of the universe. Everyone else is "audience."

I have a parallel theory, that everyone actually wants to sing and hopes that someone, somewhere, will let them into the group of approved singers, because singing is really damn fun. This is the desire that drives karaoke, American Idol, and the like. The trials of shame are worth it if perhaps one day you'll be allowed to sing without shame. Sometimes you'll see friends casually sitting around singing, or somebody singing in her car with the window rolled down. It's as though they're getting away with something.

For my Didactic Modernism class on Tuesday morning, I made my students sing. I wasn't sure I was really going to do it, up until that very morning.

Nearly first thing, I asked them to sing a major scale, which they did, being good sports. Then I had them sing the scale in parallel thirds, which they again did. Finally, I taught them to sing the first four measures of this song (the whole song only being eight measures anyway), in four-part harmony. The bass situation was a little pathetic, especially since I categorically cannot sing bass, and we sounded terrible, but I gave them to understand that sounding like angels wasn't really the point. Wonderful students that they are, they gave it a shot, and we muddled through pretty well.

The point was this. By making my students sing scales, and then learn from scratch a piece of music they'd never sung before, I put them in the position of beginners, including those who happened to have a lot of musical training. Perhaps they were feeling mildly insulted and not a little frustrated. Perhaps they felt that, as advanced English majors, they knew what they were supposed to be doing in an English class, and this was not it.

Modernist poetry, I argued, will do this to you. You think you know how to read, but it makes you start over; it puts you in the position of someone who has to go back to fundamentals and learn from the ground up. It addresses you as "ephebe." It tries to teach you the A B C of Reading. Hence "didactic modernism." As Julie Andrews would say: "When you read, you begin with A, B, C; when you sing you begin with do, re, mi."

Modernist poetry, I argued, is most difficult precisely when it seems simplest. So we spent some time looking at a snippet from Tender Buttons, and then a bit more time reading that often-read Williams poem, "This Is Just to Say."

I had one more ulterior motive with the singing, which was to set a tone for the class. They've all sung in front of one another; nothing they wish to say about Pound's Cantos could possibly be more risky. (This was of course a brilliant segue into my draconian course policies.)

I can't tell yet whether it was just a funny first-day gimmick or something that will produce a difference in the way the course operates--actually, there's no way I can ever tell. But if my students were traumatized they've hidden it well, and they were terrific discussing I. A. Richards on Thursday, so I'm calling it a success.


Gladys said...

this is awesome, n! i wish i could do something similar, but i'd need a piano in the room (or a pitch pipe i guess) and the skillz to lead a choir. i hope it was fun. maybe you can repeat the exercise halfway through the term.

Natalia said...

Thanks, Gladys! I assure you this whole thing was done entirely without skillz. Under certain circumstances, enthusiasm is a fine substitute for talent and training.

Gladys said...

i'm a fan of enthusiasm, myself (students sometimes interpret it as "passion," i think), but i bet your experience with shape-note singing helped, no? skillz, indeed.

Natalia said...

You should see my "conducting" -- it's good for a laugh. I think my crappy singing and flailing motions actually helped students understand that this was not a high-stakes performance situation, though.

Margaret said...

How come I have just now discovered your blog? I am slow, slow, slow. I loved reading about your singing students. Hope all is well with you these days. I will be in Berkeley in mid-March--let's get tea.

Natalia said...

Hi Margaret! Thanks for reading. I'm too caught up in the semesterly whirlwind to post lately, but perhaps I ought to.