Dr. Karl Paulnack

I believe that elves and magical fairylands are real, but forgotten by us, memories of things from a distant past. Our kids are closer to those memories than we are – especially middle schoolers and the younger ones. Don’t they suggest cute answers like unicorns and elves and things like that almost every day? I used to get annoyed by the constant reference to dragons and dwarfs and all sorts of magical animals and places. But the kids were really reminding me of what is important to them. Maybe we should listen to them more. Were we to do so, perhaps we could function in much the same way as Dr. Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at the Boston Conservatory, suggests is possible below in the realm of music. I say that we are musicians and that we can function as musicians in our professions. Dr. Paulnack gave this – here abridged – welcome address to the parents of incoming students at the Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004:
One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
From these experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects [ital.mine].
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This is why music matters.
[ed. note: and why what we do with comprehensible input matters. There isn’t that big a leap from the one to the other]



4 thoughts on “Dr. Karl Paulnack”

  1. “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”
    -C.S. Lewis
    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
    -C.S. Lewis
    “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres”
    “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
    -C.S. Lewis
    “The world is changed . . . . Much that once was, is lost . . . .”
    “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. ”
    -C.S. Lewis
    I will leave it to you, gentle reader, to consider why I strung those particular quotes together as I did.

    1. I see you are also a C.S. Lewis/ Tolkein fan. Great quotes. Thanks. I remember especially the one about originality and have thought of it often.

      1. …even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it….
        We can modify this great sentence (with apologies to Lewis) to resonate more with what we do specifically in comprehensible input:
        …even in storyelling, no teacher who bothers about originality (I take that to mean trying to make the story unfold in a certain way/go in a certain direction), will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (I take this to mean to ask questions and listen to the truth that the students create right there in front of you), you will, nine times out of ten, become original….
        This letting go of control of the story, of the discussion, is, in my view, the essence of doing comprehensible input. It is what Rabelais calls the “substantifique moelle”* – the marrow. It is both frightening and most liberating to work in this way. Bryan Barabe commented on its importance in his own teaching in the first link given below. Being original means giving up control of the class while staying in control of it. No wonder people shy away from this stuff!
        It calls to mind the motto of St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio:
        …teach me delight in simple things….
        Related links:
        *… la célèbre métaphore du prologue de Gargantua : il invite le lecteur à approfondir le sens du récit, à “rompre l’os et sucer la substantifique moelle”. – http://www.alalettre.com/rabelais.php

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