When puritanical members of his congregation criticized the jovial temperament of his music, do you know who replied, “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving him cheerfully”?1 Do you know who penned S.D. G. (standing for Soli Deo Gloria, meaning, “To God alone the Glory”) at the end of his compositions?2 Surely you can guess who cried out, tears streaming down his face, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself,” when he’d just finished writing the movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.3
These are a few of the questions that could have found their way onto the tests I administered in the music and poetry appreciation class I led in my home for teens this past year. I found it entertaining to surprise the students with random pop quizzes now and then and watch them struggle and search and sweat a little bit. You may call this cruel; you may cry, “Foul!” at the mention of the T-word. But, criticisms of standardized testing aside, tests are a good thing—even when failed, like most of the tests I gave this year were.
Let me tell you what I told my students one day as they alternated between embarrassed groans and horrified shouts of shock over their low scores: These tests were just for “fun.” These were not tests to determine personal value. None of the test questions will be asked at Judgment Day; the answers are, in many ways, trivia, and not eternally significant.
This announcement relaxed the students and helped them to breathe again. It also then begged more questions. First, if the tests didn’t truly matter, why give/take them? Second, if this material isn’t eternally significant, why study it?
We tend to narrowly think of a test as a stressful “do or die” situation involving a pencil and paper, a timer, labels, and a future hanging in the balance. That is one type of test. Let’s not forget that this life is a test, involving many earthly years of learning as we go to prove that we have mastered principles by the way we finally apply them, and more importantly, by proving faithful. A test is simply a measurement. When you leave your oldest child in charge of his younger siblings for the first time while you nap, you are testing him to see if he’s ready for the responsibility while you’re away from home. When you finally let go of the back of your child’s bike while she’s learning to ride it, you’re testing her ability to ride on her own. Tests actually come in many forms.
In the context of my teen class, I used tests to demonstrate more than proficiency in music history and theory or literary terms. If a student couldn’t answer the questions, it was due to one of three things: lack of attendance, lack of attention, or lack of memory (which could also be due to lack of interest). After the reviewing of answers and scores, I tried to help the students draw on the experience by pointing out that they are responsible for what they know. While musical definitions may not be essential knowledge, there is crucial information in other areas of life that they may not be paying enough attention to as well. In some ways, this class was a practice round for a much more serious world out there. If they “practice” with poor attitude and effort, they’ll perform the same way later on. Are they where they need to be, when they need to be there? Do they take responsibility for listening and understanding those things that are vital, so that when the stakes are higher, they succeed? By testing what they could recall from our class discussions, I was helping them measure their individual level of responsibility.
Course of Study
Bach once walked over 200 miles, and risked losing his employment, to hear the famed Buxtehude play the organ. He was a musical machine, working and working, even into his blinded agedness. He wasn’t appreciated in his time, but his diligent, proficient magnificence blesses our lives today. Beethoven couldn’t even hear what he gave the world. Desiring to be a great pianist and being well on his way, the adversity of his deafness was a nearly fatal blow (he contemplated suicide). He rose above, and his best music came out of that adversity—music he’d only hear in his mind.
Why do we study history? It’s not so that we can rattle off dates and places and events like rote machines. We study men and women of the past so that we can see what made them great, and rise to the occasions of their lives, and to see what made them fall. We learn about them so that we can be inspired and emulate what was good, and so we can be warned and avoid what was not.
I told my students that what we learned this year wasn’t about naming and describing the four musical periods and all the great composers, nor was it because they just have to know the difference between a sonnet and a limerick, though these are nice facets to the educated person. We learned about these composers and poets because there is power in music and language. Everyone has a voice and leaves something, whether they know it in their lifetime or not. We chose this course of study because people blessed with both genius and adversity have gone before; it’s good for us to see what they made of themselves and gain an understanding of how they did it. When we hear magnificent music and then realize that the composer was always passed up for employment that should have been his, that his contemporaries were mean and jealous, that though he was gifted with glorious brilliance he died a very ill pauper, we appreciate the music all the more and can examine what we know of him and evaluate and compare our own efforts and shortcomings and improve ourselves. Add to that a study of the composer’s faith, and statements such as, “God is ever before my eyes. I realize his omnipotence and I fear His anger; but I also recognize His love, His compassion, and His tenderness towards His creatures.” 4 Is this not a worthy course of study?
What would the world be like if no one had to pass a driver’s test? What if physicians and pharmacists could go into business without proving their knowledge and understanding? Tests are an essential measurement of learning, skill—and personal responsibility. But what if the only thing we were ever tested on was memorization of inert facts? Would we grow and change and become? Walker Percy said, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” My hope is that we can find the right balance between how we learn and prove what we’ve learned, andwhat we learn, taking responsibility for both. The final test is what we do with what we know.
1. Franz Joseph Haydn
2. Johann Sebastian Bach
3. George Frederic Handel
4. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh
User Friendly Classics series with Michael Ballam
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