Music Well – Dosia McKay, Composer, Painter, Writer

Reflections on Art and Life

Arts Education Behind the Iron Curtain, Part 2

Conservatory of Music, GdańskIf you have not read the first part of this essay, you might benefit from reading it to establish the context of the following.

The first day at the Conservatory was pure magic. The opening convocation always fell on September 1, coinciding with the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II in 1939. On that day, all students dressed in black-and-white or navy-blue-and-white and commemorated the tragic anniversary by reciting patriotic poems or singing patriotic songs. We opened every school year with the singing of the Polish national anthem. Can you imagine a body of students, grades one through twelve, and the faculty, all gathered in a big auditorium singing in perfect tune? The overtones tingled my skin. I almost cried from happiness because I felt that I truly and completely belonged there.

We loved all Polish and communist Soviet holidays. While everyone else despised them because of the forced allegiance to the Eastern block, to us, they were just another excuse for a recital. The anniversary of the Russian Revolution? No problem, we play Prokofiev and Shostakovitch. Victory Day, Labor Day, what have you – another excuse to play Szymanowski, Bacewicz, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bach.

My music and artistic world opened up further, as the city of Gdańsk, with its medieval old town and bustling metropolitan new town, was a host to a symphony orchestra, an opera house, several dramatic stages, recital halls, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Academy of Music, a ballet school, an early music ensemble, and multiple movie theaters. Since material wealth was out of reach in those years, and even something frowned upon, education, culture, and the arts were worthy of pursuit and gave one prestige and respect. A kind of spiritual substitute for worldly needs, the aesthetic and intellectual pleasures offered a sense of meaning, identity, and worth. And while the government was awful at the sausage and shampoo economy, it was generous in funding the arts.

It became clear to me within the first few weeks that commuting to school by train (one hour each way) would be unbearable and I quickly applied for a place at the dormitory. At thirteen I was on my own again (or still), and this time, without the benefit of the cell phone or the internet, I only saw my parents on the weekends.

Caption goes here

A portrait drawn by a fine arts student at the dormitory during my senior year. I pose (pictured on the left) with my roommate. I don’t recall being a member of the mean girls club…

Sharing the dorm with music students and a few others from the school of fine arts was a colorful experience in itself. It was a lively and crazy place, full of creative noise and adolescent drama. The floor above ours was home to the Academy of Music (college level) which performed a wake-up call of sorts daily at 6:00 am, as the piano students began their practicing rounds. To this day, a cacophony of a cluster of live instrumental sounds brings me a sense of belonging. I never get tired of it and am able to practice my own instrument against the counterpoint of others.

My new school was officially named The Music School of General Education of the 1st and 2nd Level (I call it the Conservatory for short). It combined general studies with all music subjects for grades one (elementary) through twelve (high school). In practice, it meant that my class schedule could look something like this: Polish literature, Physics, Geography, Ear Training, Music History, Physical Ed, and Flute on Monday, and Russian, History, Biology, Harmony, English, and Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday. As in the previous school, I had private lessons with my flute teacher twice a week and a piano lesson once a week.

A “solfeż” (solfège) exercise to be sung alone in front of the whole class.

When I was not in class, I was either practicing or doing homework. There was really not much time for goofing off because the workload was relentless. When the school year started, there was no period to ease in. We were always greeted with the schedule of “technical exams” which meant that two or three weeks into September we had to memorize a virtuoso etude and be prepared to play any scale at random, as well as to sight-read new music. Instrumental exams (mini recitals with piano accompaniment) took place at the end of each semester.

We did not have the benefit of a syllabus. In all subjects, the teachers scheduled their own exams with little advance notice, conducted unannounced quizzes, and routinely questioned students in front of the class. There were no multiple-choice exams and the preferred method of testing was the essay question. One history professor’s approach was to give one-hour one-question exams that were usually formulated along the lines of “Describe the political situation in Europe in 1879”. Reading and listening assignments, essays, and poem memorizations (to be recited in front of the class, of course) were common. If any mercy was shown, it was only about two weeks leading into the instrumental exam period as the individual practice time went into overdrive. I should mention that we were never allowed to play volleyball or other risky sports during physical ed classes, since a finger contusion could destroy a student’s career.

Musicology Textbook Illustration

A typical black-and-white photograph from the textbook on history of music

We did not have pretty textbooks with colorful diagrams and photos printed on glossy paper. In fact, most of our non-musical subjects did not have a textbook assigned, as the teachers modified the curriculum to mesh the requirements of the Ministry of Education with the needs of our school. We heavily relied on taking notes during the lectures. Some music textbooks were printed on recycled paper and had sparse unappealing black-and-white photographs. Musical scores were few, mostly supplied by Hungarian, Russian, Polish, and East German publishers. There were always many tenth-generation xeroxes of scores copied from a friend of a friend who was lucky enough to get hold of editions officially unavailable in Poland. The same was true for copies of recordings on cassette tapes. In other words, piracy was rampant and respect for intellectual property was nonexistent, but, truthfully, there was no other way to access those materials. The quality of many instruments was substandard. I myself played through the twelfth grade on a $300 flute by Gemeinhardt.

While our school focused on music, there were other schools for gifted students with different concentrations. I previously mentioned the ballet school but there was also a school of fine arts, and a school with an emphasis on mathematics and physics. We felt inferior to the math students because, while they studied full-blown calculus, we only went as far as pre-calculus.

The relentless pace of the study I mentioned earlier can only be understood in the context of the teaching style within this system, and it cannot be described as other than totalitarian. The teacher was always right and his or her authority was never to be questioned, and no, we never heard about such a thing as teacher evaluations. When one was disappointed with an arbitrary grade given by the professor of Polish literature (there was no point system or a bell curve), her favorite saying was, “there is no fairness in life”. (I live by her words to this day). The student was seen as the servant of the ideas and the system, knowing that he or she could be disposed of and replaced at any moment. Indeed, students who were failing at any subject (a failure at one subject meant repeating all subjects with the lower class next year) often mysteriously disappeared, that is they transferred to other, less demanding schools. If a student was not getting along with his or her instrument teacher, they were simply out of luck, but to be shouted at, scolded, or thrown out of a lesson, could also be taken as a sign that the teacher cared and expected more of the student.

Harmony Assignment

A typical harmony assignment to be spelled out through music notation and played on the piano. Notice letters instead of Roman numerals preferred in America. Music theory students, read my nerdy note below.

Newcomers were always warned about Harmony lessons with Ms. W. (For those unfamiliar with the subject, the study of Harmony examines the relationships of the chord structure within music, how they properly connect – oh yes, there are thousands of rules – and how they build a progression.) It was said that Ms. W. knew how to make grown men cry. I have witnessed it with my own two eyes and even cried in her lessons myself, publicly, of course. Harmony homework was most treacherous. It took several hours to write out a progression correctly and memorize it at the piano for the public show-and-tell in class. Three major structural mistakes would usually land you an F, and while you were pounding at the piano with your sweaty adolescent awkward hands, Ms. W delighted in altering a voicing of a chord which rendered the remaining progression completely useless and expected you to improvise on the spot. Did I mention it took several hours to prepare this homework? Yes, we cried, all of us.

Harmony Homework

A typical harmonic progression. I did quite well here. Only one parallel motion – a big no-no!

Our choir director kept us in complete terror. New students who chit-chatted during the first rehearsal never did it again after they were publicly reprimanded (yelled at) and thrown out of the class. To be thrown out was most humiliating. You were not even sent to the principal’s office. You felt cast off, disposed of, useless, and worthless! We had to memorize the entire choral repertoire and gave recitals frequently. We regularly sang music by contemporary Polish composers and loved it! I think we even liked the teacher, after the school year was over, that is.

Another illustration of the teaching style could be drawn from one of my flute lessons. I was required to listen to a recording of a famous flutist and report back with my observations. I won’t say which one because it is not my goal to critique him here, but I did not enjoy the style of his vibrato and I told my teacher so. To this she replied, “Could you play better than him?”, and, of course, the answer was “No”. This simple exchange proved that there was no room for independent thinking or discussion. I was to do and play the way I was told. One would think that an artist’s vocation is creativity, but for us, there was little room for experimentation as we were to excel at imitation.

As I write these things, I question whether it is fair of me to examine these attitudes from my current perspective. I am now a mature woman and a practicing independent artist, reminiscing on something I experienced during my adolescent years in another country, under a different regime, in a different cultural setting. What kind of teacher would I have been then, in those circumstances? And what if those disciplined and constrained practices produced successful artists, which they did? And why are American orchestras full of string players from Eastern Europe? Could it be their training had something to do with it? I am not quite ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But it pains me to recall that when I was secretly writing arrangements for a woodwind quintet or composed my own songs at the piano, I had no outlet and no mentor to take interest in what I was doing, and it took me over a decade and a move to another continent to finally claim the right to my own artistic expression. I know there were other students who forged their careers playing in jazz clubs against the will of their professors who preferred Chopin, and others who kept their creative activities private for fear of offending the classics.

There are times I wish I could do it all over again but differently. And then, at other times, I realize that I am who I am today precisely because of the way I was brought up and trained. I don’t know whether there is one best singular way to teach music, to shape young lives, or to mentor artists. Perhaps the conservatory system cannot be and should not be everything to all students. Perhaps the best place for creative minds is between colliding worlds and I think this is where I find myself.

A note about the harmony notation: We learned harmony from the writings of a Polish scholar Kazimierz Sikorski. His analysis of music goes much beyond what I have seen in American textbooks. He also interprets certain progressions differently, forbidding certain motions, while allowing others. The symbols T, S, and D obviously stand for the Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant. The SII (subscript II) stands for Subdominant of the second degree (American Supertonic) and TVI (subscript VI) stands for the Tonic of the sixth degree (American Submediant). Where it gets funky-nerdy is where the chord built on the third degree (American Mediant III), depending on the context, can function either as the Tonic of the third degree (TIII) or the Dominant of the third degree (DIII) and must be interpreted accordingly each time. Other degrees can be interpreted in various ways as well, for example, the VII can function as a Subdominant or a Dominant. In the printed assignment above, the Arabic numbers above the letters signify the soprano line, and below – the bass. The first letter of each exercise designates the assigned key. “r.” stands for open voicing, “sk.” means closed voicing, “obn.” means lowered.

©2015 Dosia McKay

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