The day this post goes on line I will be starting my next class at the Center for Lifetime Study, where I have been a “presenter” for about 20 years. Teaching has almost always been part of my adult life, although I’ve seldom been paid for it. But I do it because it helps to keep my brain alive and working.

My parents were both teachers. My father was a high school teacher when my mother met him. Although their immediate connection was musical–she accompanied him at a performance, and he understandably loved her playing–I’m sure that one of his attractions for her was that he had a well-paying, steady job during the worst of the Great Depression. After they were married and their two children were born, my mother went back to college to get her Master’s degree in Education, and she became a kindergarten teacher.

Since I was a bright kid, my parents always told me they wanted me to become a college professor. It might have happened, except that I fell in love with a family–my first wife and her three daughters–and left college to marry them and support them. Although I eventually returned to school and got my B.A. in Creative Writing, I never tried to make any use of the degree. I went into the classical record business and, although semi-retired, I’m still in it.

My father, having failed to inspire me to fulfill his ambition for me, decided to fulfill it himself. After he retired from his high school job, he became a college professor, a writing instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. And my brother, the “dummy” of the family (he isn’t really dumber than I am, just younger) became an elementary school teacher, at which he had a long and successful career.

I did my first teaching in the early ‘70s. We learned of a new alternative school, The Ark, opening in our area of the Catskills, and it sounded like a good place for the girls. I couldn’t afford full tuition for the three of them. The school director offered reduced tuition for anyone whose parents could teach subjects they needed, so I wound up teaching writing there for the two years it lasted. My oldest daughter was one of its three graduates.

In 1980, I began my career as a classical music radio broadcaster. Although radio is primarily an entertainment medium, I always thought of my programs as being educational. I developed a style of introducing music that was brief and breezy but always included some interesting information. The formula worked, and my classical program became improbably popular and lasted for more than a decade.

The radio show opened more venues for me, including an invitation to do pre-concert talks for my local orchestra, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. People who heard me do those talks invited me to do other relatively informal teaching jobs. I did a series of classes on Music of the 20th Century for the Dutchess County Jewish Community Center, which was well-liked but poorly attended because it started in September of 2001! I was also asked to be one of the initial teachers at the newly-formed Center for Lifetime Study, a project of Marist College in Poughkeepsie.

CLS is a credit-free, all volunteer program for senior citizens and retirees. Most of the teachers there are college professors, active and retired. But there is room for other people like me who have expertise in various useful topics. I actually have no academic qualifications at all in music. But I’ve been an active music critic and writer for decades, and apparently I know enough to be able to give worthwhile information to others. Our classes currently take place at Locust Grove (photo above), home of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and a highly respected artist. The place is a pleasure to visit!

At CLS, I have done a wide variety of music classes, mostly concerned with classical music (Bach, Mahler, Dvořák and His Followers, etc.) but not always (Ragtime, Music of New Orleans). I’ve usually selected topics I was interested in exploring, and CLS has never turned one down. I’ve also responded to a few requests, including the Mahler class. Attendance at my classes is usually robust. Surprisingly, the largest enrollment ever, almost a hundred people, was for the Mahler class. I really should use the term “classes” in quotes, because I try to do a minimum of “teaching.” Instead, I do something close to what I used to do on the radio, playing a lot of music and introducing it as concisely as I can. So I never “lecture” if I can help it, although I do encourage questions. Answering them is an interesting challenge.

My current class is a follow-up to one I did last year. I call it “Mornings with the Great Pianists.” We have 75 minutes a week. Since CLS has good video projection equipment, I have been playing videos of great pianists in performance, from my extensive collection. So I’m not a DJ in this class; I’m a VJ. This series is even more entertainment-oriented than usual. I plan to play at least 60 minutes of videos in my 75 minutes, leaving only a little time for questions (although I do hang around after class to take more).

For every one of these classes, I have to drive an hour each way, paying my own gas and tolls. It seems like a burden. But I’ve been finding my work at CLS so stimulating that I doubt I’ll give it up as long as I’m able to continue. Since CLS opened there have been several similar programs started in my area, most of them closer to me than CLS. But I’ve had so much fun there that I stay there.

Like most of my “teaching,” CLS pays me nothing. However, my work there led directly to my being invited to do “Lunch and Learn” introductions to local presentations of the Met Live in HD broadcasts. They’re done at good restaurants near the theaters, ensuring that my wife and I eat well, and I’m paid well for doing these talks. It’s ironic that I should be posing as an opera expert. Although opera was a part of my childhood, and I was frequently taken to the Metropolitan Opera when one of my parents couldn’t use a subscription ticket, I haven’t been a great opera afficionado during most of my adult life. I’m learning fast, though, and discovering that I can even enjoy sitting through Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” twice in a couple of weeks–once to prepare, once at the broadcast–with great enjoyment. I can think of some people who’ve known me for years who would find that very, very surprising.

2 Responses to “Why I Teach (and How)”

  1. Laurence Vittes Says:

    Very inspiring – have you ever taught a class on how to write about classical music?

    recent posts:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laurence-vittes/the-cellists-high-drama_b_1354721.html
    http://tinyurl.com/6svabyj
    http://tinyurl.com/6o3zlcu
    http://tinyurl.com/8y72vts

    Cheers,

    Laurence

  2. Leslie Gerber Says:

    Interesting question. I don’t know how many people out there are interested in writing about classical music! I was asked to be guest speaker (a paid gig!) at a class at SUNY New Paltz on writing music criticism. I think the students were all music majors. I spoke and answered questions. Told the class about my own background and experience, some of the places I’d written for, how I tried to evaluate or not evaluate depending on the purpose of the article, etc. At the end I invited any of the dozen students in the class who were interested to send me a sample review and that I’d gladly critique it–kindly. I was expecting one or two but got none.

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