Music notes: department chair discusses art, education

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview professor David Heller.

Heller, among other things, is a renowned organist and head of the music department here at Trinity and kindly agreed to an interview.

In this first interview I discussed everything from the evolution of hip-hop to musical education in a college campus to his unique musical problems stemming from how much music he listens to (and plays) every day.

What do you think the role of musical education is on a college campus like this for students who may never pursue a major in it?

I think it plays an integral role in a liberal arts education. Even if an individual doesn’t major or minor in music or even continue on with the study of music after they leave Trinity, music does a number of things for that person.

For one thing, it’s a thinking process, a creative process, that’s correlated to an individual’s ability to discern, to use logic, to hopefully enhance their lives. An individual doesn’t want to be sitting in an office for the rest of their lives or behind a desk, but I find it interesting that law schools, for instance, love music majors because they have to think logically. So they can apply those skills they learn in a music theory class to practicing law.

There’s also a strong tie between musicians and the study of medicine for the same reason.     

Frankly, from a practical standpoint, I think that being involved in music at some level creates an appreciation for the future, so that these are the individuals who will be sitting out in our audiences, going to our converts, hopefully helping to fund things like a symphony or a city-wide chorus.

Can you tell me a little bit about the current status of music, curriculum-wise, for first years? Pathways, creative genius, those sorts of things? The first year of college seems like a major area where students are, maybe for the last time, exposed to music in an academic setting.

That very well could be. Of course in Pathways we have a number of our courses that fit into the different components. So it isn’t actually within the first year, necessarily, but actually they can experience a course such as Music Cultures of the World, or the Foundations of [Communication] through Music, a theory class, or the Intro to Music History. They’re able to take those classes at any point in their curriculum. These are things that fit into the Pathways curriculum and are quite flexible.  

Within the first year, of course, anyone who wants to major or minor is encouraged to get involved into music theory or ensembles. And remember, the ensembles are like the classes, they carry through the entire time at college.

WIth regard to the [First Year Experiences], there are two that are involved in music, but in the one I am involved in, Creative Genius, we look specifically at the idea of genius in different facets of culture, for instance Hemingway as a writer, Beethoven as composer. Because Beethoven was clearly a genius at what he was doing at the end of the 18th, early 19th century, so it seemed like a natural inclusion for someone like Beethoven who has somewhat of a cross-cultural attraction, people have heard about him.

That was a natural choice to include him. We showcase two very popular pieces of his during the course.

I was wondering about that choice of composer. There is a reaction by a lot of people to art music, “classical music” to most people, they hear a couple of bars of Beethoven’s 5th and choose not to listen to that type of music. How would you respond to that choice by, I would guess, most people, to not listen to art music?

You can compare music to reading literature. If all you are going to do is immerse yourself or allow yourself to read a certain type of literature, that doesn’t give you a well-rounded education. It certainly, with regards to literature, the more you read the better your vocabulary, the better your sentence structure, the better your syntax, is. I’m a firm believer in “you are what you read.”

Well, the same is true in music. If all you want to do is marry yourself to one specific type of music, your ears are going to be very narrow. Sometimes I find with novice listeners that the visuals help them, they see the orchestra, they see the musicians there, they see a pianist, how they’re working at the keyboard, they are fascinated by it. It’s sort of like what we say to you with regards to a liberal arts education: broaden your horizons. While you’re in college you have a great opportunity to go to these concerts, to broaden your horizons.

I personally don’t listen to classical music all the time. I can’t, because my brain analyzes what I hear. I cannot turn the analytical part of my brain off, I have perfect pitch. Therefore I can actually see the score in front of me. So I have other types of music I listen to, so that I can kind of escape from it, I have to. I do want to have a good melody, I want to have a good set of lyrics.

I wasn’t alive when rap and hip-hop grew into maturity as dominant popular music forms. Do you have any thoughts on that evolution?

Well, some of those genres are very text-oriented, because they’re really telling a story, they’re saying something. A lot of hip-hop and rap, which was, yes, coming out long before you were born, started in the 1980s, is social commentary.

When I taught [First Year Seminars], I did a unit on censorship in the arts. I used a number of samples of NWA, groups like that, to talk about how these things were sort of shut down. That type of  music has a strong presence in our culture, and I think we can acknowledge that, but there many types of music in our culture and you shouldn’t focus on one dominating the other. Risque/sexual innuendos that are made, that’s not anything new, you see that all over the 18th and 19th centuries. The rap artists have not opened up something completely new, it has been around in different guises for centuries.

You said you have to take breaks from classical music. What kind of music do you listen to otherwise?

Oh, I’m a big James Taylor fan, always have been since the 1970s. Eagles, big fan. Glenn Frey, may he rest in peace. Garth Brooks. Trisha Yearwood.

If you could have one instrument besides the organ, of course, survive a nuclear apocalypse, what would it be?

Oh, the piano. There’s so much you can you do with the piano, and there is so much music for the piano. Easy answer.