David E. Schneider, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music

How did you first become interested in music?

I had a completely revolutionary music teacher, Phil Hardymon, one of the first educators in the country to teach jazz to elementary school students. Playing under his direction felt akin to being famous. We traveled all over California playing in front of jazz educators from across the country to show what could be done with elementary school children and jazz. We were on television, and we got a free trip to Disneyland. It was an incredible experience that made music so exciting.

How did you decide to become a teacher? 

After college I played clarinet professionally in New York City. I began to notice that most professional musicians didn’t share my intellectual interest in music. I decided to audit a music class at Columbia University, and I remember sitting in that classroom and thinking, this is where I belong. I had taught clarinet all through high school, so I knew I loved teaching. I knew I loved music, and it seemed like the clarinet, which first got me interested in music, had become this bridge to being a historical musicologist.

Students are treated to a live performance by local musicians in Schneider's course “Discovering Music: Listening Through History”

How has your teaching changed, or stayed the same, since you arrived at Amherst?

Over the years, I’ve tried to make live music an integral part of my teaching. One of my courses—“Discovering Music: Listening Through History”—begins with 11th-century Gregorian chant and includes at least a few pieces of music from every century up to the present. In previous years teaching this course, we’ve followed a straight historical timeline. But the topics we were covering often didn’t correspond to the actual performances taking place on campus. Gradually, I shifted the emphasis away from the timeline, and instead coordinate the syllabus with performances on campus, like the Music at Amherst concert series and the student chorus, orchestra and jazz ensembles. Experiencing live music is a now a big part of the course. 

The past few semesters I’ve had a lot of athletes in the class. There are many similarities between what it takes to be a professional performing musician and an athlete—both are  physical endeavors that take discipline, time and practice. Also, the dynamics of professional orchestras are not that different from the dynamics of professional sports teams. So in this class I’ve often drawn out comparisons to athletics a bit more than I otherwise would have.

What’s a test like in your class?

An example test question would be listening to a minute-long excerpt of piece, identifying it, discussing key features that make that piece what it is and connecting it to developments in music history. I think tests can be very useful in solidifying what you know, and helping you make connections between things that we’re studying the first week through to the end of the course. I’m a big believer in exams being an impetus for people tying threads together and seeing connections they wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Experiencing live music is an integral part of Schneider's course “Discovering Music: Listening Through History”

What would you say to a student who’s considering taking a music class for the first time? 

First, that we offer many courses for students who have no background in music, ranging from courses on reading and playing music to courses that teach you how to think about, experience and appreciate music.

Second, that music is unbelievably important to humans. We know this because some of the oldest artifacts we have, from 30,000 years ago, are musical instruments. On some level—and I think this is what makes it continually fascinating to people—music seems to be a more direct communication with the soul than a lot of the other ways that we express ourselves. It’s the most abstract of the arts. It isn’t verbal—reducing it to words often robs it of its potency. You can’t see it visually and then describe it that way. It’s a performing art, so it only exists in that moment of performance. It’s amorphous; it comes to you through your ears, which you can’t easily close off the way you can close your eyes or mouth. The nature of this abstractness tends to correlate to emotion. And I think that’s the kind of thing that gets under your skin, and makes some of us [musicians] as fanatical as we are.