In the midst of the Middle Ground

Today, my Form and Analysis class visited our wonderful museum and received an introduction to visual analysis. Everyone attended, everyone spoke, and everyone was engaged (a 12-student class). I am curious to hear what they think they took from the visit when we meet again on Friday. I’m equally curious to see if, at the end of the semester, they find that they took more than expected from the visit. We engaged with four works, and I described some of my and the museum’s educators’ preparation in this post.

I took a lot from the visit and plan to refer back to the specific works and observations we made today.  I was particularly intrigued with the ways we physically needed to be close and far away from the object to notice important aspects, how the ideas of motive and recursion arose multiple times, how line binds the form of a painting, how stating the obvious is a fine way to start analysis, how examining surfaces led to insights, and the importance of size, orientation, light, space, and color.

To prepare for the visit, we had a great brainstorming session on Monday–the same day they turned in their first paper/projects.  I provided them with a list of questions from the museum’s standard visual analysis assignment. We looked for analogues in musical analysis and found many, some of which were a stretch and most of which were quite natural.

The most important thing I took from our preparatory discussion was a reminder of how many great questions there are that we can investigate. These questions go far beyond labels of formal parts and harmonies. Those labels, however, are crucial because they provide us with data/information with which to answer some of those great questions.  So, while it’s very exciting to engage with questions, we will always be trying to strike the right balance between our 300-level terminology and our growing ability to ask and answer the more difficult questions of affect and meaning.

Today I definitely felt like a student and not a co-teacher. In a small way, I had special privileges because I knew what artwork was coming next and had a personal connection to every piece (I picked pieces that spoke to me on a personal level). I participated in conversations a few times because I had questions and comments that felt like they naturally fit into the discussion. And, I didn’t feel that my presence in those conversations were viewed as an expert’s opinion from the students’ point-of-view; there was still give-and-take, and the museum educators’ response treated me just like my students (which was wonderful). So, the “middle ground” concept was in full force and we were learning, thinking, brainstorming together. I also think that doing this learning outside of the classroom will cause it to imprint more firmly on all of our brains.

On Friday, we start work on Brahms’s Op. 91, No. 1, “Gestillte Sehnsucht.” There are many beautiful details in this piece that will benefit from today’s class. I almost wish I had a control class to compare this class with to see if there’s a distinctive difference in the quality and content of observations!

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