I sat down on the couch with the PhD I am examining (yes, this is what you do on long service leave if you don't finish it while on study leave), and half-read; and half-listened.
They started working on Chopin's Nocturne in E flat major, a piece J has only just started to learn. Over the hour, they worked through the right hand melody, but I was so struck by Leon's teaching, as they spent a good twenty minutes on the first phrase. There are some nice performances on YouTube, but the wikipedia page has a recording, plus the score of the opening (scroll down to Opus 9, No.2):
Those first two notes for the right hand feature an anacrusis, the unstressed B flat quaver, that reaches up to the (dotted crotchet) G, which is the first note of the first full bar. Leon described the relationship between these two notes in grammatical terms, as the article before the noun. Yes, it's common enough to think of music as a language, but his analogy has really stuck with me as a way of articulating the relationship between the unstressed and the stressed syllables (sorry; notes). They also did lots of analysis of the chord progressions. I'm sure Leon sensed Joel's nervousness (he normally teaches more advanced students), and was able to modulate his teaching as he worked out what Joel could and couldn't do.
But the slowness of the teaching reminded me of the beauties of close reading, a technique that is often reviled these days as apolitical, overly-formalist and privileging a certain aestheticist kind of writing and reading practice. Yet in medieval literature (and in other forms, too), it can be the best way to teach. I do remember feeling quite pleased, one time, that I had spent a good ninety minutes on the first two stanzas of Chaucer's Parlement of Foulys. Partly because this was the way I was taught, and partly because it was so satisfying to plumb so many depths of syntax, language, classical allusion, voicing, etc. Because I've quoted Chopin, I'm going to quote Chaucer, too.
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Thassay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The dredful Ioy, that alwey slit so yerne,
Al this mene I by love, that my feling
Astonyeth with his wonderful worching
So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke,
Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke.
For al be that I knowe nat love in dede,
Ne wot how that he quyteth folk hir hyre,
Yet happeth me ful ofte in bokes rede
Of his miracles, and his cruel yre;
Ther rede I wel he wol be lord and syre,
I dar not seyn, his strokes been so sore,
But God save swich a lord! I can no more.
But am I becoming hopelessly old-fashioned in my teaching? Is there such a thing as going too slowly? Or being too precious? Certainly in teaching for performance, as with the Chopin, it's hard to imagine rushing through at some global level. Conversely, in some subjects and contexts, I'm conscious of going very quickly, to make sure we can grasp the whole of a text, or a good chunk of it, as the full range of meanings aren't always evident — of course! — in the microscopic examination of two stanzas. But perhaps this kind of detailed explication de texte is not as satisfying to students as it is to me.
I realise, now, as I look at those stanzas, that Chaucer is at one level working through the same problem. Life (or love) is so short, like a text that passes quickly, but the skill of reading and negotiating one's way through it, takes years to learn how to do properly. And the text, like love, like life, that slit so yerne (slides away so quickly) under such examination? No wonder I spent so long on these stanzas: they were insisting I did so!