A Show Like No Other
By Michael J. McKenna
We were amazed!
But our amazement at our teacher’s brilliant performance would soon be quelled by his teacher’s comments.
In 1982, I was a college music student, a piano major. My piano teacher was Edmund Battersby, an accomplished performer and teacher in his own right. Mr. Battersby was preparing for a solo recital at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. (You may not know of the 92nd Street Y, but I assure you, having a solo recital there is a Bid Deal.) He had invited his students to a preview concert of sorts at his home in Westchester County, NY. His teacher, Barbara Holmquest, was there as well. (Mrs. Holmquest called him “Eddie.”)
That afternoon, Mr. Battersby had chosen as his first piece Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor. As this hauntingly beautiful and emotionally charged piece of music came crashing to an end, we, his students, broke into exuberant applause, wildly cheering our approval.
As I said, we were amazed!
Mrs. Holmquest on the other hand, sat still, smiling politely, her hands only barely rising to perfunctory applause.
When our exuberance died down, Mrs. Holmquest spoke up. “That was very nice, Eddie, but I’d like to hear it again when you know the music.”
You could have heard a pin drop. We were shocked at her less-than-enthusiastic approval of this performance. What did she mean that the performance was “nice,” but that she wanted to hear it again once Eddie learned the music? We thought he had played the music beautifully. She, on the other hand, thought…something else.
Now that I’m a little older and (hopefully) a little wiser, and have spent years teaching music, theater, and drama to countless students, I understand precisely what Mrs. Holmquest meant all those years ago.
The classical model of learning—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—corresponds perfectly to the stages of preparation in any performance, whether that be a recital at the 92nd Street Y, or a Variety Show at Paratus Classical Academy. Allow me to explain.
Let’s say we’re talking about a young girl’s tap-dancing number which she’s going to perform at her school’s upcoming Variety Show. (As I write, I have no idea if there is such a performance in the offing. I chose “tap-dancing” completely at random.)
First, she has to learn the grammar of her dance. She has to learn the fundamental “facts,” or steps, which need to be performed. Toe-heel, heel-toe, right ball-tap-tap, left ball-tap-tap, etc. And there’s no way around it; this has to be memorized. You can’t give the final performance with the directions in your hand and your teacher on stage, whispering in your ear what comes next. You have to learn the grammar, and it has to be memorized.
But knowing the grammar of the dance is not enough. You have to understand why the grammar is what it is, why it fits together in the way that it does. There has to be a logic to the dance. In order for the performance to “make sense” to the audience, the dancer herself has to demonstrate a clear understanding of how the dance “works,” and how the individual parts of the dance logically fit together.
So there’s the grammar of the dance. There’s the logic of the dance. But it’s still not enough.
The dancer has to add a level of beauty and winsomeness to the dance in order for the audience to be fully convinced. She has to persuade us during her performance. She has to smile, hold her hands and fingers just so, tip her head at just the right angle, wear the proper costume that adds to the effectiveness of the dance, and so forth. In short, she has to dance with refinement, wisdom, and persuasiveness. We could say that she has to dance using proper rhetoric.
And this three-level performance standard adheres no matter what the performance is: a tap dance, a comedy routine, a musical number, solo or ensemble. It is always the case.
That’s why a Variety Show is just as much an opportunity to teach according to the classical model of the Trivium as is a math class or a football game. Virtually everything we humans learn to do, if it is to be learned well, must be learned according to the Trivium.
And here’s what Mrs. Holmquest meant when she told Eddie that she’d like to hear the sonata again once he learned the music. According to her high standards of piano performance, Eddie had only learned the grammar, and maybe the logic of Mozart’s piano sonata. But as far as she was concerned, Eddie hadn’t yet learned the rhetoric. He knew the notes. But he hadn’t learned the music.
So, contrary to how any progressive, modernist school might approach their variety show, Paratus Classical Academy puts on a variety show so that our students may learn to apply the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—to the fine and performing arts. Our variety show is not an opportunity for kids to “show off” or “strut their stuff.” It’s an occasion for them to learn, and to learn according to the Trivium.
And since this is a Christian school, it is also an opportunity to create something beautiful to the glory of God, and not to the glory of man. Since we recognize that we are creatures made in the Imago Dei—the Image of God—it follows necessarily that we are to be creators after Him. As He created a world full of beauty for beauty’s sake, we, as His image bearers, are to seek to create beautiful things too, so that we may approach what it means to be fully human.”
Any school can put on a variety show as an opportunity for their kids to show off their num-chuk skills, their musical skills, their dance skills, or what have you. Such a show is child-centered and limited in the scope of its overall purpose.
In a Christian school, there is no such thing as a “child-centered” classroom, basketball court, or performance stage. Every classroom is a Christ-centered classroom. Every football game is a Christ-centered competition. And every variety show is a Christ-centered performance.
Or at least they ought to be.
A classical Christian school puts on a variety show so that our children might learn about the fine and performing arts in light of the Trivium, and so that God might be glorified in the midst of the beauty we seek to create.
And that makes all the difference.