One of my favorite modes of learning is to follow loose chains of associations that bring discrete objects into surprising conjunction (and this is why academic humanities research is so seductive... there is always another article to read or archive to dig into). Child-led, interest-led learning is all about seizing the fortuitous moment of curiosity, fostering connections among ideas, and building those chains of associations together. As we began homeschooling I enjoyed reading Melissa Wiley's "connections" posts recounting such moments; below is an account of a series of musical associations we followed last week.
Last Wednesday, we listened as we often do to the Piano Puzzler on Performance Today before N. went to bed. The object is to figure out the composer whom the amazing pianist and Puzzler-constructor Bruce Adolphe is imitating and the well-known tune he's embedded in the piece. Last week, he fit "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi into an adaptation of the second movement of Ravel's Sonatine. I figured out the Puzzler tune pretty quickly because it is one of the two ravishing arias sung by Kiri Te Kanawa on the soundtrack to the Merchant-Ivory film of A Room With A View. My mild obsession with that film in college led me to listen to lots of Kiri Te Kanawa's recordings and consequently to come to love opera. When the Puzzler was over, I played "O mio babbino caro" for N., with visions of Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands dancing in my head.
None of us guessed the composer being quoted in the Puzzler, but Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, always plays a recording of the piece being imitated right after the Puzzler, so we enjoyed listening to a bit of the Sonatine, which was new to us. N. said the Sonatine's big left-hand chords in the second movement reminded him of a tune on a CD he likes called "Ultimate Big Band Collection: Great Theme Songs." He put it on: a 1941 recording by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra of "Piano Concerto in B Flat (Tonight We Love)." This is an adaptation of a Tchaikovsky concerto by Freddy Martin and Bobby Worth, so naturally I then had to look for a recording of the Tchaikovsky, but we didn't have one, and it was past bedtime. The next morning, however, I found the 16-year-old Evgeny Kissin playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by von Karajan on YouTube, so we listened to that. N. noticed immediately (although I didn't!) that "Tonight We Love" puts Tchaikovsky's 3/4 theme in 4/4 time. We really enjoyed comparing the two pieces, not to mention Kissin's playing.
While rummaging in our records and CDs for the Ravel Sonatine and the Tchaikovsky, I found a CD neither Tim nor I realized we own and that we may have never listened to: Helene Grimaud playing Gershwin and Ravel piano concertos (with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra). Tim had recently bought a compilation of Grimaud's recordings and we had just watched this promotional video for an album she's released with cellist Sol Gabetta so we were amused to find that someone we thought was new to us was already in our collection. Thursday night after supper I idly started reading aloud the liner notes for Grimaud's Gershwin and Ravel CD. The short essay by Robert Schwarz describes Gershwin and Ravel's relative positions in the music world in 1928 when they met, and then goes back a few years to recount Gershwin's composition of his piano concerto in F major a year after the controversial premiere of Rhapsody in Blue. About halfway through my reading of the Gershwin section of the notes, after stopping to talk about the divides between popular and classical music in the 1920s and Gershwin's anxiety about properly following the concerto form, we realized N. had never heard Rhapsody in Blue so Tim pulled out the record and we listened to Rhapsody and American in Paris, both of which N. loved.
As it happens, our Rhapsody in Blue record is especially interesting because it features the original (and infrequently performed) version of the piece scored for jazz band rather than symphony orchestra and the jazz band on the record (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976) is accompanying a ghostly soloist: a reproducing piano playing a piano roll made by Gershwin himself in 1925. I read N. the record notes describing the process of making this unusual recording and then we hit the encyclopedia and the internet to learn more about how player pianos work.
Part of what makes these associative chains both fun and effective as learning experiences is that we are all making discoveries together. None of us began this particular series as masters of all the material we examined; we each had interests and expertise that helped us make additional, deeper connections. I can hardly think of anything more satisfying than delving into music with my two favorite guys. Besides delving into books, of course.