Classical Q&A with John Hodges

On cultivating patience, developing music appreciation, and learning an instrument as an adult
Sep 30, 2014

Back in July we solicited your questions for Mr. John Hodges, a longtime CiRCE conference speaker and the director of The Center for Western Studies, a gap-year program that offers young people a Christian view of the world, and a study of the ideas that shaped Western civilization (along with some amazing comaraderies and world travel).

Mr. Hodges is a conductor and composer, holding degrees in Music from the University of Maryland, and Indiana University.  He served as Music Director for various symphony orchestras and church music programs in Memphis from 1983-2009.  He also held the position of Associate Professor of the Arts and Cultural Apologetics at Crichton College where he taught art and music history, philosophy of the Christian Faith, directed theater, and founded and directed the Institute for the Arts and Cultural Apologetics.  

I presented a few of your questions during our conversation back in August. Unfortunately, due to some technical problems the video of that conversation didn't turn out, but the following is a transcript. 


In your talk at our 2014 conference you commented on the fact that our society wants the bottom line and that we rarely have the patience for the beauty of form. How does one create art that might draw people into a willingness to behold, to suspend impatience, and actually be changed by art?

I guess the immediate answer is do it well. People respond to excellence in art, even if they don’t agree with it. If you see an excellent film or read a great poem or hear a piece of music that’s well thought out you’re moved by it in a way that simply doesn’t happen when it’s second rate. And it grabs our attention. We’re far more willing to consider what a piece of work is saying if we are aware of its excellence in form. And really the art is the form of it. In the church, a lot of times, we have content that we know we agree with, so we’re already willing to hear it, but the form of it isn’t necessarily very good. When you’re trying to hold a hearing, so to speak, with a crowd that doesn’t agree with the message you need to do excellent work.

Isn’t it true though that’s there’s lots of great art being made all over the world, but that people are too impatient to pay attention to it? How can people suspend that impatience? Is there something that an artist can do to help people grow in patience? Especially as a teacher or parent working with a student. How do we develop the skill of beholding, beyond just saying, “This is good art”?

Yeah, that’s a good question. A lot of times those who would be willing to be patient have learned not to be because of bad form. But how do we teach patience? Well, patience is part of the fruit of the spirit, so, praying for it is a good thing. And being aware of the fact that we are an impatient bunch and that many things repay our patience.

Firstly, knowing that it’s inherently worthwhile and praying for patience. We can unlock the secrets of the universe far better when we are willing to wait for God or the artist or the speaker.

Next, exercise with good works. Pick good pieces of music and art and film and so on. Walk through it with them and let it speak to them at their own pace, whether they are two or fifty years old. If you can wait a little longer before you jump to conclusions your patience will be repaid with a good work of art.

So would you say that it’s like playing a sport or learning an instrument, that the more you practice the better you get?

Absolutely. Patience is like a muscle that needs to be trained, you need to work it.

I’ve been reading about how people are so used to reading things in bite size categories (whether it’s a blog post or newspaper article or 140 characters on twitter) that when they sit down for an hour to read a book it seems so long because we haven’t exercised it in the same way as people in years past. Or maybe it’s always been a challenge for some people. I’m sure it has.

I think it’s a human condition kind of problem. We are impatient in general. What we have today that’s really different from in the past is an electronic, technological age that is bent toward popularity; so instead of saying “it’s a good thing to stretch people’s attention spans” they say “what will sell?” and what will sell, of course, is something that doesn’t stretch the patience. And so we reinforce the bad behavior instead of the good behavior.

The next question is along the same lines. Tabitha asks [via our website] how you would suggest training K-12 [students] to appreciate and understand music/harmony in the context of history and in light of the fact that it’s part of the quadrivium and being fed from the trivium?

Two things come to my mind right off the bat.

First of all, you have to overcome this patience thing. And I think it’s this way: you teach the students as early on as possible that their personal preferences are actually damaged by the fall. That idea cries in the face of just about everything else they’re taught in the world; that is, that their personal preferences are who they are, the things that should guide them and things to admire and so on. But those are purely subjective. You have to explain that even your personal preferences, what you find beautiful and all that, have to be held up to God’s standards and adjusted as necessary. It’s the whole “ordo amoris” thing: we have to order our loves. Augustine and Plato and Kirk and many others talk about being called to order your soul’s loves first.

The second thing is that music is actually a larger concept than we as a popular culture like to think of it these days. Music in the past has been referred to as a whole lot more than our favorite tune on the radio. It has to do, first and foremost, in the quadrivium, with mathematics. It has to do with the way the world is wired and works in harmony. And so to first understand music you have to understand that it’s ordered vibrations in the air that are in association with the created order. That harmony is not something that you make up. You can see how these two fit together, this idea that your personal preferences internally are not the highest authority, and your preferences outside of you - the music you listen to - is not the highest authority either. They’re actually both referring to things that are beyond them. Knowing that puts us in a more receptive mood.

And beyond that it’s good to start teaching them what music has been done in the past; you need to know the various traditions in music and the more you get that the more you will get what composers are doing with music. And suddenly you realize you’re being discerning.

Follow-up question: Are there any specific highlights or major themes, contexts, or elements of music that you consider especially helpful for them to ponder or study? Particularly elementary students.

My instincts tell me that you want to teach them how to actually engage with music. They should sing. Teach them to read music so they can actually see it on the page and understand the grammar, the basic building blocks, of music. The elementary school years is the best time to do that. It’s always fun to give them a little graphic illumination about the composers that are well known. Then introduce them to the elements of music - melody, harmony, form, tempo, texture, and rhythm. Give them examples of each of those things and they’ll begin to analyze the music somewhat subconsciously and start thinking about what’s actually going on in the music instead of thinking, “Do I like this music?” And that’s what you want to do. You want them to be asking, “What is this music doing?”

How would you approach students who, especially when younger, don’t display particular gifting for music or singing? How to do you teach them to love music and identify with it?

We live in a performance culture where if you don’t sing perfectly well you shouldn't sing at all. But you sing for reasons other than impressing other people. Sing anyway. Sing hymns in church and all of that.

Matt asks, “What do you recommend for an adult who wants to learn an instrument. How would you approach the study?”

True, like other languages it’s harder when you’re older, but I don’t know that there’s ever a time when you can’t start learning. I would suggest getting a good piano teacher. Learn how to play scales, how to read music if you can’t [already], so on. No matter how old you are you have to start in the same place. Eventually you’ll learn to play pieces. It’s a slow process. People, again, are not patient enough to want to do things slowly but that’s what it takes, and I wouldn’t let your age stop you from doing that.

Thank you! Lastly, can you tell us a little bit about the Center for Western Studies?

Absolutely. It’s mostly for students who are taking a year off between high school and college (or homeschoolers near the end of high school). We take students to live here in town [in Memphis, TN] for 9 months and they study two things with us: the history of the world in general and the history of great ideas through the great books - art, music, some philosophy along the way. We travel to Greece, Paris, London. So they walk away with a foundation that they can take to any college they want to.

Nota Bene: This transcript has been edited slightly to make for an easier read. 

David Kern

David Kern

David is director of our multimedia initiatives (podcast host, web-content manager, magazine editor, etc). He often writes about film, television, books, and other culture-related topics, and has been published by Christ and Pop Culture, Think Christian, Relevant, and elsewhere.  David and his wife, Bethany, have three young boys and they live in Concord, NC. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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