I have become fascinated by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recently. I am not entirely certain how he came to my attention, but he was a unique artist. He is particularly well known for his rather unorthodox interpretations of standard piano literature. He was known for performing on a tiny broken down chair that his father had made for him, for demanding that his recording studio be kept very hot and for being quite difficult to deal with.
Music critics were very divided on how they felt about Mr. Gould. Some found him to be an incredibly thoughtful artist and others outright hated him. There was one thing though that everyone agreed upon; his interpretations were always interesting. He would at times take a standard piece of piano repertoire and play it at half the speed or twice the speed that it was typically played. When asked why he did this he said that the world simply didn’t need another recording with the same old interpretation. His goal was to get people to listen to this music in a different way; to see it in a different light.
There was a time in my music theory class when I would allow my students to get bogged down in conversations about whether or not they liked the music that we were analyzing or whether anyone would like the music that they were writing. Those conversations changed for the better when I started to ask them to think not about whether the music at hand was “good” or “bad”, but rather the music is interesting or not. It’s a much better conversation to have.
I think that there is a lesson about teaching to be learned in studying Mr. Gould. It can be difficult to come to agreement about what constitutes “good” teaching. I have been involved in this conversation more than ever this year and I’m not sure if I’m any more confident in being able to share what makes a “good” teacher than I was before. What I have been able to identify in the last couple of months is when I see teaching and learning that is interesting. When I see a lesson being taught in an interesting way it almost always correlates with students who are engaged and interested. Isn’t that what we want?
I believe that teachers regularly evaluate whether their content is interesting (as well as being rigorous and relevant). I think we should also be asking if our delivery is interesting and if the ways that we are measuring learning are also interesting. As I listen to the music of Glenn Gould I find myself wanting to seek out other recordings of the music and to try to determine why he made the choices he made. I am guessing that was his intention. If our intention is to have engaged students I think asking the question, “Is it interesting?” when we teach might be the most important question we can ask.