Teaching by daydream

Between failed drownings and chord progressions, a professor teaches music in another key of life.

By Chris Colin
Published February 12, 1999 10:28AM (EST)

Tchaikovsky jumped into the Moscow River one day. He was depressed but
the river was too shallow for a drowning. He stood for 30 minutes,
frigid water lapping around his waist. Pneumonia followed and
Tchaikovsky spent the next months in a hospital bed, where he was
informed of his first commercial success.

I was told this one spring, my music teacher leaning forward with the
story's drama. A cold, shallow river was something moving but far away,
anecdotal. What was true was cut grass, and sudden crocuses, and looking
out the window in the last minutes of class in the last semester of
college. My future was suddenly relevant, and it loomed wide and empty
like a parking lot. I looked straight out the window. I didn't see
visions or answers or my life, but I didn't see crocuses either.
Crocuses were pretty, and the dull, gray weight of a parking lot future
crushed prettiness like a flower.

This was music class. This was for freshmen, maybe sophomores. I was a
senior and an British major, feeling great, sad things about Proust and
graduating. I had found an exciting life in the English department,
sometimes in the philosophy department, the sublime and quick worlds
where life itself seemed to be under the microscope. Things that
mattered were what mattered. I had a half credit to fill.

Music class was not my life. It was far from things that had to do with
me. With its worksheets and quizzes, it seemed oblivious to the
classrooms across campus revering truth, or poking at it, forming words
for the sad, rich, best parts of life. It was a funny room with linoleum
floor, on the quiet end of school property near the woods, something
tacked on to my life at the edges.

But those days I was sometimes out at my own edges. Graduation hovered
nearby, its threat pulling me from the life I had and turning me back to look. Is this me? Is that me? What do I do? Sometimes I didn't mind a music class looking out at flowers.

Mr. Rowe was English but not charming. He spoke earnestly and intently
but also stared off into space sometimes. He didn't appear to be staring
at the idea of music. Usually it was a bee or a fly. He would stare and finally swat at it, or back away a little, then resume his lesson.

So he was fine, and good. He did not speak about things relevant to my
soul, so far as I could tell, but I learned my scales and chord
progressions. I enjoyed class the way stoners do in movies -- the
pleasantness of sitting quietly, the joy of disengagement. In March, he
told the Tchaikovsky story. I liked it -- the jumping, the cold, the
shallow, the pneumonia.

But in May he told it again. It was the last day of classes. He used the
same words and put the same pauses in the same places. Everyone in the
room seemed to feel the same question: Why is he saying this again? A
few students shrugged, some smirked. Mr. Rowe, if he noticed, paid no
mind. It was very much spring outside. He finished the story and soon we
were reviewing pentatonics. People stopped shrugging and smirking.
Still, his repetition of the anecdote -- senility? a joke? a test? -- had
given me pause. I looked out the window some more and then the semester
was over.

Grades came the following week and I received an A for the class. Surely
he'd seen that I was often elsewhere, that my attention was sincere but
peripheral. Surely he saw it because he was like this, too. There were
moments, after all -- at the chalkboard, watching his own hand trace a
bass clef for the 2,000th time -- when he, also, seemed to leave briefly.
He had bigger things in other places. Why is one at a chalkboard when
one is thinking of a symphony or a lover or a bee?

Walking home after getting my grades, I saw my mind wander. I thought
the things that people graduating think about. I looked at the campus
the way people graduating look at a campus. I ran into friends and we
walked and talked and worried some. I was with these friends when I ran
into Mr. Rowe near the library. He looked strange outside of the music
room, lost and small.

"Mr. Rowe," I said. "Mr. Rowe."

He stopped and looked around. I reminded him of my name and he shook my
hand. We discussed summer plans, him looking at his watch once or twice.

"Well," I said. I looked at him and thought of him staring off into
space. There is comfort in a face that will launch itself into a
separate world now and then. Executed in the right way, it's the brief lull of moments made simple. "I enjoyed your class."

"Yes," he said and smiled.

I caught up with my friends and we walked home. I told them about
Tchaikovsky, though I'd told them before, because it was a good story.
It had suspense, and intrigue, and closure. These are things that lift
one out of more complicated places -- periods of confused futures, moments
of time passing too fast. I thought about how complicated places puff
themselves up, and how a twice-told story with a man in a shallow river
can be just pretty.

Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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