Crossed Modes of Listening: Francisco Tárrega – Gran Vals

I had never heard of this piece of classical guitar music when Simon, the A-level music student I was teaching, sat down to rehearse his performance infront of the small class (three other students, me; a green-horned trainee teacher, and the supervising teacher). Unbeknownst to me, I had heard its most famous brief snippet (albeit in shocking reduction) an uncountable amount of times; it has been weaved into the fabric of our daily lives (or at least was in the mid-2000s); a perfect example of the theory of Anahid Kassabian’s ‘ubiquitous listening’.

So when Simon – a quite, well-mannered lad – mumbled the title of the piece in a mild South-London accent “Gran Vals”, it scarcely registered. I sat at the back of the class, glad of the momentary rest bite; he would assume the role of performer, giving me a break.

I had been teaching for about two or three months; I was still extremely self-conscious when ‘teaching’, often aware of the strange arrogance of ‘performing authority’ to a class full of students who must have known I was not a ‘real teacher’; aware, too, of the precariousness of the situation. ‘What would I do if a pupil tests this assumed authority?’ It was a question which, in those early days, terrified me. By the end (or temporary hiatus, maybe?) of my brief teaching career, it was a question I relished. I hoped they would, in a way; it made teaching more difficult, but kept my feet on the ground, and made lessons much more interesting. I would often deliberately sabotage my own position of power in the classroom, just to see what happened!

Simon sat down, got out a really beautiful, if understated classical guitar – the varnish almost crimson – and a footstool. He arranged the music on the stand and, with a nervous cough, launched into the first few bars.

Immediately, my role providing constructive criticism on his performance was rendered obsolete; he, at 18 years old, was a better guitarist that I could ever hope to be (I was only mid-twenties). Though I settled back into the sort of detached, half-listening that usually accompanies ‘classical music’ for me, that nagging feeling of unwarranted authority came back to me again.

That is until the thirteenth bar! If you have listened to the above, you’ll know what I’m taking about. Suddenly this half-listened performance, competently played but rendered generic by my own inner listening state, punctured a different part of my mind. The force of the interpellation was, as I recall, really quite intense! It was heightened, indeed confirmed, by the various reactions of the others in the room. One other pupil unconsciously proclaimed “sick!”, the supervising teacher, alive to the role of authority, rasped “Alfie” in his direction, before jamming a finger to her lips. Simon, head bowed, allowed himself a half-smile.

I sat at the back of the room, trying not to laugh. I was confused, but was, for some reason, really enjoying the confusion. I had been jolted out of one mode of listening by a reference to another world of ‘music’. It was as though my brain had set itself up for ‘generic classical guitar listening’, then had had ‘Nokia ring tone’ thrust upon it, with the response ‘Does Not Compute’ the result!

The moment touched upon a lot of nerves at once, not least the notion of a ring tone as a potentially defiant alarm call. The school I was training in had a zero-tolerance policy towards mobile phones in classrooms. If a phone went off, the teacher was required to stop the lesson, demand the phone, and confiscate it for the remainder of the term. This policy didn’t sit too well with me, not necessarily because of its somewhat draconian nature, but because it had, in the lessons I had observed, been the only real source of direct consternation and conflict between students and teachers. As such it became a symbolic portent for the inevitable test of my own mettle as teacher. ‘One day’, I told myself, ‘a phone will go off in one of your lessons. You won’t be able to ignore it, you’ll have to demand the phone. What it the pupil just flat out refuses to bow to your authority? It’ll be like the child at the end of ‘the emperors new clothing’. The whole class, then the whole school, will realise the nakedness of your claim to power. Then its game over!’

This concern melded with and compounded the sense of musical inadequacy being readily demonstrated by the technical ability of the ‘pupil’ playing guitar, and with the wider concern that I knew so little of the classical repertoire. A music teacher who can’t play an instrument and knows nothing about music!

As the song ended, and Simon looked up from his instrument, I knew I had to say something. I decided rather that try and reassert an authority I knew I didn’t have, I would try a different approach. “That was fantastic! I can’t believe they made a whole song out of the Nokia ring tone”. Laughter from the pupils, and from that moment, I decided that the role of authoritarian teacher was not for me, and that I would adopt a different role; a teacher who would allude to the performative nature of teaching, would collude with students in laughing at the whole charade. The anti-authority!

Like I said, I didn’t last long as a teacher!

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