© Tilman Skowroneck 2011
Fellow wordpressers know this, of course: somewhere in the functions that only can be accessed by the blog owner there is a little window that lists all the search terms that people used for finding one’s blog. Last week, someone found my website by searching for the words nobody needs a harpsichord.
Of course, one cannot but wonder what circumstance prompted someone to type these words of wisdom into a search window. But words of wisdom they are, at least almost: we, the harpsichordists, have to make a dedicated effort of making our music accessible to listeners who often didn’t even know that they needed us. It is possible; the ubiquitous manifestations of (positive, to be clear) surprise after a recital (“I didn’t know a harpsichord could sound like that!”) are ample proof that a single person playing old music on a box with strings and plectra can, in fact, provide true listening pleasure to audiences.
The harpsichordist largely depends on getting the entire package of her or his recital across “as is.” Dancing, for example, funny costumes, grimaces, dramatic monologues, cigar juggling or walking on one’s hands don’t really do the trick to make a harpsichord recital more palatable to the audiences. The times that the use of an “exotic” instrument in itself worked like a hat trick are long gone. At the end, it is the programming, the choice of venue and instrument, one’s sparing but informative spoken introductions, one’s stage demeanor and finally the quality of one’s playing that together “make” a recital. We are telling the audience something about the music and the instrument and ourselves by (ourselves) playing music on the instrument.
The mechanics of a good delivery in a pedagogical setting are different from this. Take university lectures on music, for example. Some troupers of the trade, I am hearing, pride themselves of needing no other resources for their lectures than their own voice. Electronic support media, picture or sound files, even handouts, are sniffed at by these people. Those colleagues who teach by flipping from sound file to video to high-def picture projections and back elicit a laugh of unbelieving recognition: “But you are basically entertaining them!”
But a lecture is not a harpsichord recital. University audiences rarely come for the melodious voice and the profound wisdom of the professor alone, and they almost never leave their own backgrounds, worries, and learning difficulties at the door of the lecture theater, as they perhaps would do when they went to enjoy a concert. The idea that the act of delivery and the matter that is being delivered live in some kind of symbiosis that may not be upset by notions of listener-mindedness is not just short-sighted, it defies some basic tenets of good pedagogy. Lecturing is pedagogy. Pedagogy by definition takes into account the background and disposition of her or him who must be taught.
Of course, a lecturing style that nervously aims to please a diverse crowd of students without reflecting the lecturer’s disposition may not become a true success either. So we should certainly ask ourselves which lecture techniques and resources suit our ways best, but we should also assess what we reasonably can expect of the students we teach, in terms of background information, interest, even attention span, in order to accommodate them as far as the situation allows (or alternatively, nudge them gently toward finding ways to assemble some lacking information or skills for themselves).
But nobody can tell me that one approach is inherently better than the other. If the students are prepared to listen to an old-school monologue à la Göttingen 1775, by all means let them have it. But if multimedial fireworks, interactive web tools and what-have-you are the better way to make a music-historical topic stick, fireworks it should be. As a harpsichordist, I sometimes would like to use some fireworks…