I recently came across this quote from composer Igor Stravinsky: “I have never understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.” This describes the St. John’s approach to music rather well, or at least my experience of it.
I never sang before St. John’s. In fact, I was terrified of it; I’d wanted to, but singing was always more frightening to me than playing an instrument. I was a rather shy and reserved child as well, and perhaps that factored into it; singing was like exposing some vulnerable, visceral part of me, and I was afraid of being criticized for not having a good voice or something like that. But these thoughts changed once I came to St. John’s.
I can think of no other college that has singing and music as a mandatory component (freshman chorus and sophomore music). While some less enthusiastic students might write off freshman chorus as frivolous and just a thing everyone has to do on Wednesday mornings, it was an incredibly profound experience for me. Freshman chorus was the place that I learned to appreciate a completely different sort of music, and it was one of the places at St. John’s where I felt that found my voice.
St. John’s is frequently described as a “talking college,” where our discussions in and out of class are the cornerstone of our education, what lets us more fully develop our thoughts on what we read. Reading a Great Book only gets you so far; you only have what you think the author is trying to say with his or her book and your own thoughts. But once you discuss the text in class with your fellow students, you gain different interpretations and perspectives that add an invaluable depth to what you’ve already read and thought about the text. The same holds true for the (relatively small) music portion of the Program.
Freshman chorus is in some ways much like any tutorial. In class, you must learn how to listen to others and contribute to the conversation in a productive way; it’s not conducive to be stuck in your own head, only concerned with your own thoughts and not paying attention to the conversation as a whole. In a chorus, it is much the same; you must listen to the other vocal parts and figure out how to work with them. You work within your own vocal section as well as the chorus as a whole, which can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile one.
As far as the actual academic and technical part of the music program, a proficient technical understanding of music is not necessary for freshman chorus. The way in which we just dive in to the songs makes the whole process much less intimidating and more fun (although all freshmen must pass a short music theory test before beginning sophomore year). The sophomore music tutorial is where we learn more about the theory and technical parts about music, and later take in-depth looks at longer works, such as the St. Matthew Passion and various Mozart operas. Like other tutorials, the way we approach music here does not require any previously procured technical prowess; here, as in any other class, it is beneficial to embrace one’s level of knowledge and/or ignorance and use it as a tool with which to unlock a given text.
I’m not sure how many of us come to the College with any appreciation for the works of the polyphony of Palestrina or St. Matthew Passion chorales or the various plainchants we learn in freshman chorus. Regardless, these songs help forge vagabond freshmen into a group, part of the Polity. We learn these songs together every week, and once a semester, we share them with the rest of the College in a concert. Chorus is another part of what makes us Johnnies; whether we love or hate it, it brings us together.
I can recall several memories of myself and my friends employing chorus songs when bored or otherwise in need of something to do; it’s these sorts of memories that I hold dearest as part of my education. The impromptu sing-alongs of songs that only St. John’s kids would know, joining St. John’s Chorus (the chorus that anyone from the College can join that takes on different projects each year), and humming the songs I only would have learned at the College to myself when on break and feeling out of sorts; these are all moments of my life I would trade for nothing, and moments I most likely never would have had if I’d gone to another school. St. John’s is an incredibly special place for so many reasons, and the opportunity for musical expression is but one of these singular and beautiful experiences.