A Celebration of Humanity

“Putting people of all shapes, sizes, colors…on stage together and presenting them as equals, another critic might have even called it a celebration of humanity,” newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett tells P.T. Barnum in the film The Greatest Showman.  This comment highlights what I love about this movie and two others that share its spirit.  While quite different, The Greatest Showman, Wonder, and The Music of Silence all have this common spark: a celebration of humanity in the face of social stigmas.

The Greatest Showman poster

The Greatest Showman

Celebrates: equality, the value of humans, beauty in all its forms, family

Premise: A man dreams of delighting the world with exotic shows.  With the help of his wife, two young daughters, and a lot of ingenuity, P.T. Barnum recruits social outcasts to join his cast.  Instead of hiding their physical differences, Barnum invites these people to celebrate who they are and to take their differences to new heights (or girths) on stage—to allow their audience to view the “wonders of the world” in a night of entertainment.  Full of peppy music, gorgeous sets, and breathtaking performances, The Greatest Showman brings this phenomenal circus show to life and weaves in themes about the importance of family, human worth, and realizing one’s dreams.

Further viewing: Here’s the song that sums up how The Greatest Showman is a celebration of humanity.

Wonder family

Wonder

Celebrates: kindness, looking beyond appearances, overcoming disabilities, supportive family and friends, inspirational teachers

Premise: Auggie’s dream is to become an astronaut, and he loves to wear his astronaut helmet.  One reason for this is because he was born with a rare facial deformity caused by a tumor on his face.  After 27 surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie is now starting his first day of fifth grade at a private middle school.  While a cheerful little boy with a devoted mother and loving father and sister, Auggie struggles with fear of rejection and being stared at by strangers.  This film explores how medical disabilities and being physically different can affect not only people like Auggie directly but can impact the lives of family members and friends.  I love how the film presents the story from different perspectives and highlights several characters’ personal struggles.

Further viewing: If you want to read a similar story based on true events, consider checking out the autobiographical children’s book Ugly by Robert Hoge, which I suspect inspired Wonder.  Here’s Robert Hoge’s TEDx about owning your face.

The Music of Silence

The Music of Silence

Celebrates: music, overcoming disabilities, family, inspirational teachers

Premise: This is a beautiful biopic about renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.  Born with congenital glaucoma, Bocelli (who goes by Amos in the story) gradually loses his sight and becomes completely blind by age 12.  Bocelli himself narrates the story, and the script is based on his autobiography.  The film depicts Bocelli’s struggles as he falls in love with music and then loses his voice.  His family, friends, and teachers have a powerful influence on his life as he attempts to find a place for himself in the world, fights for independence despite his disability, and tries to follow his dream of being a singer.  The music and cinematography are stunning, and the movie is touching and inspirational as it deals with a mother’s heartbreak over her young son’s suffering, Bocelli’s depression and frustration with his blindness, and what it takes to become a world-renowned musician.

Further viewing: Watch Bocelli’s performance of Nessun Dorma.

A Fine Line of Length and Style

As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction.  What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?

Short Story

Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres.  While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”).  An article from WriterMag.com places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”).  To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.

One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme.  This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).

The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe

Novelette

Short Story, Novelette, and Novella word counts
While there is no set word count for the these genres, these ranges from the Nebula Awards rules may be a useful guide.

While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”).  A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).

The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Novella

A novella is longer and more complex than a short story.  This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements.  In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well.  An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from WriterMag.com puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”).  This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.

Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).

The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.


Works Cited

McEwan, Ian.  “Some Notes on the Novella.”  NewYorker.com, 29 Oct. 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/some-notes-on-the-novella.

Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  “Nebula Rules.”  15 Nov. 2019, nebulas.sfwa.org/about-the-nebulas/nebula-rules/.

“Novelette.”  Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014,            http://www.thefreedictionary.com/novelette.

Sambuchino, Chuck.  “How Long Is a Novella?  And How Do You Query Agents for Them?”  WritersDigest.com, 18 Nov. 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-long-is-a-novella-and-how-do-you-query-agents-for-them.

“Short Story.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,             http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“Short Story.”  Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?”  WriterMag.com, http://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/novella/.

The Writer’s Quandary

This poem sums up what forms my writer’s block most of the time when I’m creating stories and poems.  I hesitate because I worry my work isn’t novel, special, or worthwhile.  Instead of pushing my limits, I am paralyzed by the idea that someone else can write my thoughts better than me, tell my stories more creatively.  Or even worse—has already penned and published my idea that I imagine is so unique.

“The Writer’s Quandary”

Have all the poems been written?

Has every story been told?

Are all the metaphors spoken,

And are all the similes old?

 

Can I add to mankind’s canon?

Can I make a new connection?

Or am I merely an echo,

A well-traveled intersection?

 

Am I even the first to have

Thought this, wondering what remains?

I doubt it, yet I continue:

For many great songs have refrains.

 

And perhaps I can add a gem

Of value through the work I do,

Whether repeating a truth once

More or sharing something that’s new.


In this age of ever-multiplying information, is there anything left to be added?  I’ll argue that no matter what, we can always keep asking questions and searching for answers, which is what I love to do…And perhaps that pursuit is not limited to research papers and essays, like I so often assume.  Asking questions and finding answers is one avenue where creative writing, from stories to plays to poems, can also expand our knowledge and our understanding of the world and each other.

Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay from Canva.com

An Introspective Analysis of My Relationship with Pens and Journals

I was on one of those mental rabbit trails where you suddenly look up and have no idea how you got here.  The track behind me veiled in the mist of forgetfulness, I found myself in a clearing contemplating why I don’t like using pens.  Uh-huh.  Pretty fascinating, right?

Believe it or not, I managed to turn this random thought process into an introspective analysis of myself.  But perhaps that isn’t too surprising to those who know me well.  As I started to inspect my dislike for pens, I noted that I don’t mind using them for things I plan to throw away, like sticky notes and to-do lists.  I also realized that I don’t like using beautiful notebooks or journals for anything permanent either.  I never feel anything I write is worthy of them.

One elegant red and gold journal exhibits faint signs of use on its first two pages where I wrote something down in pencil, deemed it unworthy, and erased it.  That’s about the closest I’ve ever gotten to using my favorites of the many notebooks people have given me over the years.  I can use most of the pretty (but not gorgeous) notebooks without qualms, but the special ones are just too special.  I don’t want to ruin them or fill them with something that I will want to throw away in five years.  Childhood experience in such matters has scarred me a little, I think.  And talk about a high bar, one pale blue journal with gold stars scattered on it says in gold letters on the cover “My Bright Ideas.”  Even someone without my authorly commitment issues would probably find that a bit intimidating.

Once I made the connection between pens and notebooks, I looked around the mental clearing and began to notice other patterns around me that all point to a hesitation to commit when writing.  I don’t want anyone else reading what I might write in these journals, and I can’t just delete or revise the content like I can in a computer document.  In fact, I’m even a bit scared of what my future self will think of what I write.  Have you ever read a childhood journal and thought, Why did I write this, or My handwriting was terrible (or worse, My handwriting was better when I was eight)?  Finally, if the content is on the border between awful and sentimentally valuable, you must decide if it’s really worth keeping that notebook as you try to downsize your stuff.  Why set myself up for hard decisions like that?

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, let me stop you right there.  I do not intend to set any grandiose personal goals.  While I’m fond of making lists and setting goals, New Year’s resolutions have never appealed to me, so don’t even think about it.*  I’m going to start small because, as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a bit scared of committing to something in writing that I can’t erase or edit.  But I also know the value of pushing my limits and learning from all the mistakes that come with simply trying, so I want to push my limits at least a little.  After all, isn’t that what Thousand Mile Walk is all about?  We didn’t call our blog Writing Epitome or make any claims that everything we post will be gold standard.  “Writing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey” is our motto, and I should remember that more.

As I headed out from that mist-veiled clearing to explore new rabbit trails, and as I return to the clearing to write this introspection, I have decided to write in pen at least some of the time for things that matter and consider using my beautiful journals if I can come up with a convincing plan for how I can create content that will be at least moderately timeless.

I resolve to be a braver, bolder writer.  At least a little bit. 🙂


*(Side note: Why wait till a new year to start your new project?  If it’s that worthwhile, why not start right now?)

Photo credit: by Jaymantri from Canva.com

A Christmas Book Trio

Winter has so many aspects that I love.  While I don’t care for the longer nights and sometimes dreary cold for their own sake, I do appreciate the juxtaposition they create with the indoors.  How cozy wintry weather makes home seem!  I love cuddling up with a book in a warm house with a cup of cocoa when it’s cold outside.  I love the colors of snow, ice, evergreens, holly bushes, migrating birds, and Christmas decorations.  One of my favorite parts of winter is singing and listening to Christmas carols, and I am always tempted to break family tradition and listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, in spite of my sister’s objections.

What truly makes winter wonderful, though, is Christmas and the story of Christ’s birth which we celebrate during this season.  Christmas is a story that mankind has been commemorating since before it even had the name “Christmas” or the date December 25th.  This true story began with Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds and for over two millennia has continued with the young and old, men and women, around the world.  We continue to celebrate it in many ways, from decorations and traditions to music, movies, and books.  And as is my tradition, here are three Christmas books I have discovered over the past year.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

A Child’s Christmas in Wales / Dylan Thomas (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman)

This children’s book is my most recent Christmas discovery.  A Child’s Christmas is essentially a collection of Christmas memories and scenes.  Dylan Thomas writes in a very poetic, stream of consciousness style that is sometimes confusing and at other times creates a vivid picture of what is happening.  The book captures the quirky, unfiltered reality of life at Christmastime in Wales.  However, although I appreciate the realism and the artistry Thomas displays, the content and tone don’t seem to suit a young audience.  While the book is packaged as a children’s story, contains “child” in its title, and follows a child’s perspective of Christmas, I think adults would appreciate the story more because of its complex writing style and nostalgic tone.  That said, I would definitely recommend the book for its art.  Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite children’s illustrators, and her artwork fills the story with character, expertly bringing to life the scenes Dylan Thomas paints with words.

The True Gift

The True Gift / Patricia MacLachlan

Liam and Lily are visiting their Gran and Grandpa for Christmas.  When Liam finds out that their grandparents’ pet cow no longer has her donkey friend, he worries that White Cow will be lonely and sets out to find her a new companion for Christmas.  This story resonates my Christmas memories and family visits in surprising ways.  From making snowmen cookies with red cinnamon buttons to debating how many books to pack for vacation, Liam and Lily’s experiences are funnily similar to my own.  I found this little book charming and hope you do as well!

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree / Julie Salamon

What’s your Christmas tree story?  Mine isn’t all that glamorous.  First, my father or brothers climb into the attic and haul down the artificial tree (version 3.0 since I’ve been around).  Then, my mother, siblings, and I shake the dust off the needles (and shake off some needles too) and spread the stiff branches.  After swathing the tree in strings of lights, topping it with an angel, bedecking it with ornaments, and swaddling it in a rug and a pile of presents, the journey is done.

Keeping this in mind, you can imagine my surprise and curiosity when I discovered in The Christmas Tree a story about the journey of perhaps the most famous Christmas tree in the world.  I had never thought much about where the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas tree comes from each year.  But in a beautiful story filled with fascinating characters, sweet illustrations, and Christmas themes, Julie Salamon crafts a delightful Christmas narrative that gives me a whole new perspective on Christmas trees.  I would say more, but it’s been a while since I read the book—and I want you to enjoy it for yourself!

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?  Or have you discovered any new ones this year?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Rise and Fall of Rain

Rain is one of my favorite themes for poems.  Consequently, a small portion of my poetry collection is dedicated to rain and its different aspects that I’ve noticed and enjoy.  Perhaps inspired by my recent nighttime driving in the rain, I decided to dig these up and share one of them today.  This particular poem focuses on the onomatopoeic quality of rain.

“Rise and Fall of Rain”

Tap, tap, tap at the back door.

Slap, slap, slap it goes again.

Rap, rap, rap a growing din.

Crack, crack, crack—open the door.

Whoosh, crash, bang there is a roar.

Of rushing rainy torrents pounding,

Lightning cracks, and thunder sounding,

Then the rush recedes to dribble,

Pitter, patter, then to trickle.

Exploring “It”

Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent.  The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”).  What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success.  After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago.  My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken.  And that is where true talent often shines through.  Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.

Examples of “It” in Action

Fahrenheit 451 movie image
Fahrenheit 451 (2018)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Why “It” Works

Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform.  However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects.  Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance.  I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.

In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim.  If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds.  The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.”  His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word.  Because clocks don’t strike thirteen.  And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.

Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it.  Make it count.  Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard.  This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim.  In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered.  Dark and stormy nights are commonplace.  Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.

Summarizing “It”

Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible:  Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).

Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature.  Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments).  Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.


References

Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm

Circumnavigating the Globe

At least in literature, adventure often surprises the least adventurous and the most unsuspecting people in their ordinary lives, dragging them off and away to save the world, to do daring deeds, or to travel the world in eighty days.  And that is exactly what happens to rich, gentlemanly Phileas Fogg, a man who does the same thing every day for years, until one day.  In Around the World in Eighty Days, author Jules Verne spins an extraordinary tale of how Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout cast Fogg’s life of routine out the window and embark on a trip to circle the globe in eighty days.

The adventure begins in an unsuspecting manner.  Phileas Fogg is dwelling in late nineteenth century England and, as usual, goes to his club.  However, when Fogg tells his friends at the club of a newspaper article which states that, thanks to the modern transportation system, the entire world can be crossed in eighty days, his friends deny the article’s accuracy.  Fogg says that the feat can be done and enters into a wager with them, promptly setting out from England with Passepartout to prove them wrong at the risk of £20,000 (for the curious, approximately $650,000 by today’s standards).  Without any forewarning, the unadventurous pair find themselves thrown into a journey through exotic countries full of dangerous people and treacherous paths.  And to top it all off, they are being secretly trailed by Detective Fix of Scotland Yard who suspects Fogg of being a bank robber.

Without Phileas Fogg as its main character, Around the World in Eighty Days would be an entirely different book, for Fogg is most unusual.  First of all, he is very honorable and sticks up for his views, no matter what the risk to himself or his fortune—hence the wager with his friends and the venture around the world.  In addition, Fogg is timely and very particular, but the best aspect of his character is that, beneath the indifferent and meticulous outside, hides a good, generous heart.  One of the few characters who delves deeply enough to discover this heart is Passepartout, Fogg’s French valet.  When he enters Fogg’s service, Passepartout thinks he has found the ideal master and is ready to settle down in a quiet, well-ordered life.  Consequently, the journey around the world, which begins the very day Passepartout starts working for Fogg, delivers quite a blow to Passepartout’s ideas of an easy life.  Passepartout is a likeable man who makes friends easily but is also careless and absentminded at times.  After resigning himself to the hectic journey his master is dragging him on, Passepartout eventually realizes that he is enjoying himself and that perhaps a quiet life can wait for the moment.  The story’s third character is Detective Fix, and he is determined to apprehend “guilty” Phileas Fogg.  However, this requires Fix to tag along with Fogg around the world, and Fix finds himself participating in many of Fogg’s and Passepartout’s adventures.

Van Gool's Around the WorldAround the World in Eighty Days is a delightful adventure story.  Tagging alongside the main characters as they traverse Europe, India, Asia, the Pacific Ocean, America, and the Atlantic is a fun pursuit, and Verne’s book is a well-woven tale that has certainly earned its position as a classic in the library of fiction.

P.S. A fun version for children that has forever shaped how I imagine Vernes’ characters is Van Gool’s adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days (see picture on left).  The illustrations are  engaging, and I would highly recommend it for kids!  I loved it as a little girl and still feel nostalgic just thinking about it.

The Accidental President

How often do the “normal” people and moments in life capture national fascination?  After all, the public and the media like to focus on stories that deviate from the norm, that are bigger than everyday life, and that take the audience away from their typical lives.  However, a person or event occasionally becomes extraordinary by being quite ordinary and yet surprising the world in some unusual way.  Harry S. Truman was one of these people.

The Accidental PresidentIn the biography The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, A. J. Baime provides insight into Truman’s life, career, and the national and international impact of his time in office after FDR dies.  This story is fascinating as it shows how a Missourian with little money and almost no public presence rises to the highest seat of power in the United States.  What makes Truman’s career even more remarkable is that he was extremely ordinary.  Baime writes about Truman and his future wife Bess, “Bess Wallace was everything Harry was not.  She was fashionable, athletic, and popular.  Harry, in his own words, ‘was never popular.  The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists.  I was never like that.  Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.  If there was danger of getting into a fight, I always ran’” (44).  Humorously, Baime explains that even though “Harry sat next to Bess Wallace in church school…[i]t took him five years to get up the courage to say hello” (44).  These descriptions sound more like a depiction of Charlie Brown, not future president material.

Despite his ordinariness though, Truman wins against all odds time and time again, and his honesty and hard work appear to have been key to his success.  Also important to Truman’s character is his continuous dedication to his family.  He always makes time to look after and stay in touch with his mother, sister, daughter, and wife.  When his family is most concerned about the huge responsibility that has been thrust on him, Truman is worried about how being president will affect the privacy and lives of his family.

Dewey Defeats Truman headline
Truman surprised the nation by winning the 1948 presidential election and proving newspaper headlines wrong.

In contrast to his unimpressive personality and ordinary origins, Truman’s life is anything but ordinary, and The Accidental President is a fascinating biography.  Baime packs the book with interesting details and narrates events in a story-like manner that makes the biography very readable.  Thanks to Baime’s skillful juggling of places, people, and events, the different scenes of the story tie together smoothly and help the reader grasp what is happening simultaneously around the world.

While the title The Accidental President appropriately captures how unusual Truman’s career turned out to be, I think perhaps a more fitting title would be The Providential President.  As much as people may criticize or disagree with Truman’s policies and decisions, he turned out to be the right man for his hour.  Truman faced difficult decisions and stressful scenarios with courage, honesty, and dedication, and I think succeeding generations should take care before passing judgment on Harry S. Truman.  After all, he had to make some of the hardest choices and deal with some of the greatest challenges any American president has ever confronted, and he did so without the clear support of the American people that an elected president would have had and without the history-making charisma that most world leaders have possessed.  President Harry S. Truman proved a common man could become the leader of a world power and accomplish the extraordinary.


Works Cited

Baime, Albert J.  The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That  Changed the World.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY: 2017.

Discovering Diversity

Today, Caroline Bennett discusses music periodizations, pedagogy, and more, while highlighting the importance of studying a variety of musicians and musical styles.


Whenever someone tells a story, reads a textbook, writes an essay, or participates in a discussion, this person inevitably employs a set of preconceptions and a view of the world. In a discussion of periodizations in music history, historian James Webster notes that “periodizations serve the needs and desires of those who make and use them…This is so whoever ‘we’ are, and whether we conceive our historical intentions as ‘objective’ or interest-driven.”[1] Webster’s claim also pertains to the current push to diversify the study of music.  When historians or teachers decide which composers to talk about they have certain objectives, and the attempt to diversify music history is a direct result of the value that American society currently places on inclusivity and diversity. Although this is not necessarily a wrong approach to music history, musicians should be conscious of why they study certain people or compositions. Musicians can actually achieve greater diversity in their view of the past by not making diversity the ultimate objective. Rather, musicians should strive to study and perform music that was impactful at the time that it was written, that serves an important pedagogical function, or that is timely and appropriate in a modern context. This goal, though daunting, is achievable if historians, teachers, and performers expand their knowledge of music and apply it to their respective disciplines.

Maple Leaf Rag coverGiven the immensity of music history, it may appear unfeasible for music historians to talk about music that is not only excellent but also demonstrates diversity. However, this should not be the primary goal of historians. Instead, while conducting research historians should notice any information that is thought-provoking or could potentially connect with other facts.  If the name of an unknown composer is mentioned in a document, a historian should consider going off on a tangent and seeing where else the composer is mentioned or what pieces the person wrote. This may lead to exciting connections between the unknown composer and more famous composers, or occasionally result in the discovery of a truly great or influential artist. Additionally, historians have a second task: they should notice the time periods, countries, and societies that did not have many composers of diverse ethnicities or genders. For example, a prevalent reason why there have been fewer and less-well known female and African-American composers in music history up into the 20th century is because they did not have good educational opportunities.[2] Although this makes it harder for historians to include diverse composers in their writings and presentations, it is wise for historians to inform their audiences of these reasons because it gives context to the narrative and highlights the composers who did manage to overcome racial prejudice or social inequality, such as Scott Joplin, Ethel Smyth, William Grant Still, or Germaine Tailleferre.

Supplied with the wealth of resources that music historians share, music teachers can expand their knowledge of their instrument and its repertoire. It is important for teachers to be familiar with an assortment of pieces that not only come from various time periods but also have different purposes, contexts, and styles. This gives teachers an arsenal of works with which to inspire and challenge their students. Although a majority of the pieces that teachers assign their students will be by standard composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, if teachers are intimately familiar with their instrument’s canon they will have the freedom to choose pieces best suited to their student’s interests and abilities. Likely this will lead to more and more students studying works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, and the like. For example, if a piano student expresses interest in learning a blues or jazz song, a teacher might assign “Saint Louis Blues” by African-American composer W.C. Handy. The benefits of this are twofold. Not only will the student likely be more motivated to practice the piece because it is appealing, but it will also present an opportunity for the teacher to introduce the student to a specific segment of music history. Indeed, teachers ought to always seek to incorporate music history into lessons and expect their students to become well acquainted with the story and repertoire of their instrument.

Amy Beach
Amy Beach

When musicians receive a well-rounded education and are knowledgeable of their instrument and its repertoire, concert programs are more likely to feature unique and lesser-known works. A performer who remembers that she enjoyed studying Amy Beach songs in high school will be more likely search for more good pieces by Beach and include them on concert programs later on in her career. This will in turn introduce audience members to pieces and composers that they may not have been familiar with before and inspire other musicians to study new works. Though not overtly related to diversifying music studies, this process will certainly affect people’s understanding of music history and eventually make a mark on musical canons. The story of how Mendelssohn’s performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the mid-19th century helped instigate renewed interest in Bach’s music,[3] though not an example of diversity,  certainly demonstrates the power of performing uncommon pieces. Even one concert can prompt more and more people to study music by an unfamiliar composer until that composer becomes an established figure in music history.

If music historians are diligent in following tangents in their research and discovering new composers and pieces, and if teachers assign a variety of works to their students and encourage their students’ curiosity about their instrument’s history and repertoire, and if performers constantly present the most innovative, interesting, and compelling works on their instruments, then music history and music canons will naturally become more diverse. Instead of making a conscious effort to change the way people view the past, and in the process imposing current values or agendas, musicians ought to encourage diversity and inclusivity via a different route. They should study and teach and perform the music that is most impactful, most influential, most imaginative, most intriguing. And although this approach demands much from musicians and requires a well-rounded education, the results will be invaluable. Historians, teachers, and performers will have a deeper, richer understanding of music, its history, and the world, and this in turn will make them better able to share music with their audiences.

Further listening: Seeger String Quartet 1931 Mvt IV and Williams Walkin’ and Swingin’


Footnotes

[1]. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.

[2]. Laura Artesani, “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers into General Music Classes,” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).

[3]. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, Ninth edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), 461.

Works Cited

Artesani, Laura. “Beyond Clara Schumann: Integrating Women Composers and Performers Into General Music Classes.” General Music Today 25, no. 3 (2012): 23. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2018).

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Ninth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.