It’s All in the Cards
By Matilda Jane Kraemer
Once upon a time, I taught Music History in a college that charged enormous fees but would accept any student, regardless of academic background. Consequently I met groups of forty (mostly young) people who drove to campus in their Beemers and upscale cars, but who were afraid to ask questions or participate in class. I assumed that they had learned in their earlier years in school that it was safer to be silent rather than make a mistake in front of their peers.
Freshmen at this college were obliged to take two semesters of either Music History or Art History, and most of them opted for the music, feeling, I guess, that it would be something more relevant to their lifestyles and not the challenge that Art History might be.
The Music Department, like all music departments, it seems, was housed in the basement of an old building, and on rainy days – and there were many! – the water would seep under the door, to the delight of my students. We would then gather up our belongings and flee to the higher ground of a larger room of indeterminate function with bleachers on three sides.
I knew I had to do something to encourage my students and stimulate their interest as they sat huddled behind A History of Western Music, and I remembered something I had read in a professional journal: index cards!
The technique was simple: during the last five minutes of class, each student would answer two questions on a 3 X 5 card: first, “What one thing have you learned today in this class?” and second, “With what question do you leave this class today?”
Bringing a 3 x 5 card to class was a challenge for some. I insisted on this: no carefully torn loose leaf paper. There was one young woman who had a collection of colored index cards, and I always knew who was sitting near her because of the rainbow I received from that area. Yes, I want it written in ink. And your name at the top. Every day that I received a card, the student received a checkmark in my “magic” record book, and that was motivation for everyone.
Every night I would go through the cards – I could see if the lesson had been learned – and I wrote comments on each of them. Every two weeks, before I gave the cards back, I would select some to discuss (no names, of course) and everyone settled back with great anticipation. It was exhilarating to see the smiles on their faces.
I would like to share some of the comments I received from these students, comments written in good faith and brutal honesty
Concerning the Basics and Form:
- I learned that you can take any sound and change it and say that you wrote it.
- My question is, is this going to become easier because it is hard for me.
- I understand about movements now. I am not lost at all.
- Why your [sic] only famous when you’re a prodigy or when your dead.
- The most important thing I learned today is to bring index cards.
- Were there ever any great women composers besides the men’s sisters?
- I would like to know who invented the first orchestra ever.
- I learned that in a symphony there are 100 – 120 people and in the sonata there are 25.
- Did they ever keep records or charts, like “this song is # 1, 2, 3 on the charts”?
- Who wrote the Flight of the Wounded Bumble Bee?
- What kind of extra credit can we do?
- I do not understand the through-composed and the strophic. You were talking too fast.
- I expect to learn something about music and get a good grade at end of the semester.
- Is it true that lefties can’t play the piano?
- My question is how long have you played the piano? You are a very good player.
- I learned that you go from one key to another on the piano, which sounds really nice.
- My question is about Bach’s other kids.
- What was Bach thinking when he wrote toccata and fuge [sic] in G#.
- I learned how Rococo music is different from Baroque. Music can get confusing.
- What I learned today is that I don’t like Scarlatti’s music. Could we listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata?
- Why are all the composers wearing wigs? I don’t understand.
The Classical Period:
- I learned a lot about a subject I never thought would be interesting: the “Enlightenment”.
- I’m beginning to enjoy this kind of music! I want to get Haydn’s “Surprise”.
- Did Haydn and Mozart compare pieces while writing them?
- Today I realized that no matter how many times I hear that Mozart Sonata I never get bored with it.
- I enjoyed the Requiem very much. I have to get one of them.
- Where are all the women in this period?
- What happened to Mozart’s sister, and how many times was he married?
- Are there composers today who have the potential to be as popular as Beethoven?
- I learned that Beethoven became deaf. I also learned that our classroom doesn’t do well when it rains.
- How come Beethoven only wrote 9 pieces. If he could get a lot of money for them, even though they were long, he could have made more.
The Romantic Period:
- How did Chopin die? It certainly wasn’t of old age.
- Why did Paganini live twice as long as Mendelssohn and Chopin?
- I learned that Mendelssohn wrote the wedding song. Was it used right away in church?
- Bugs Bunny plays the Hungarian Rhapsody in a Looney Toons cartoon.
- Today I was exposed to 3 operas which I have never seen before. This opened my mind to new cultures.
- Who do you think is the better opera singer Pavrotti or Carreas [sic]?
- Did Wagner use the piano at all? Did he purposely set out to make his works that long?
- When was La Boheme and can you get it at the library?
- When you go to an opera, do they tell you the story on the pamphlet?
- That piece Wozzeck was really spooky but catchy. I liked the story.
- Where [sic] there any operas with happy endings?
- Were operas only sung by big (fat) people or anyone who had the voice for?
- I learned that opera stories sound a lot like soap operas.
- Today I learned that Impressionism is very relaxing.
- Were the impressionism and expressionism at the same time? I’m a little confused with the time line.
- Who originated the strange sounds of classical music in the 1900s?
- What I learned today is that the old can become new again.
- Sprechstimme is pretty tweaked. What did people like about it?
- I like the music that was played today except for Sprechstimme. It was retarded.
- Aleatoric music is chance music. Whatever happens, happens.
- What was the reason for Penderecki’s unique style of sheet music?
- Why did this type of weird eerie music come about?
- Did these people enjoy dissonance in music? It sounds horrible.
- I learned how modern composers can take the most horrid sounds and turn it into music.
- Who was the first composer to use the plucking of the piano strings? Why didn’t they just use a harp?
These are just some of the comments I received on the cards. But the one I remember with gratitude is the one from one of my returning adults: “When I get my degree and am a teacher, I shall definitely use cards with my students. Thank you.”