I never liked history. Maybe it’s because I never really had a good history teacher or maybe it’s because learning about history seemed more like a lesson in memorization than anything else.
As a music minor in college, I had to take a music history class, and as you can imagine, I was less than thrilled. However, the minute my teacher walked in the door on the first day of class, I knew I had something more to learn from him than just the boring history of music.
He was a professional trumpet player in both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and various local jazz bands. He showed up on the first day of our 8:30am class looking completely disheveled. His hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in weeks, his shirt was wrinkled and smelled of smoke and alcohol, and for some reason, I instantly liked him.
I remember him saying:”I don’t take attendance because I’m getting paid to be here whether you show up or not. I have a lot to teach you and you can’t learn it if you’re not here. I will give a mid-term and a final and that’s your grade. So if you want to pass, you should show up.”
Though there was a history book that we had to read for homework after each class, most of our lessons consisted of listening to music and trying to identify what instruments were being played, who the composer was and what period the piece was from. I learned what baroque music was and I had a new appreciation for Gregorian chant. I read all about Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and more.
The best part was, I wasn’t just reading about the history of their lives and when they composed their music, I was learning about what inspired them. Each class we listening to the intricacies of their compositions and talked about the stories of their lives. It made the music come alive. It was enchanting and wonderful and gave me a new appreciation for how it all began.
To this day my quest for learning music has never stopped. Last year I was lucky enough to visit Ireland and the very places most of the tunes I play, are named after. What I am most struck by is that the traditionalists who know this music well, know not only who wrote the tunes, how they play it and how it differs from others rendition but also where, when and why they composed it. Most of these tunes have been passed down from generation to generation by ear and learning the stories behind them makes it that much more powerful.
So although you can learn a tune and its history from a book, there is nothing like really listening to music and learning what inspired the composer, that really gives the music life.