By Helen Felbek
At St. John’s, music is an integral part of the academic curriculum as well as student life.
The music program at St. John’s is the study of music as a liberal art. And though it lasts for two years (freshman and sophomore year) the deepened understanding and appreciation for music stay with us far beyond the completion of our degree.
In Annapolis, all freshman students are required to join the Freshman Chorus. It meets once a week (usually on Wednesdays). Here, the whole freshman class comes together and practices songs ranging from ancient chants, renaissance rounds, to polyphonic pieces. By far one of the favorites is the unofficial college hymn: Sicut Cervus by Palestrina.
We sing in many languages, but mostly Latin, German, and English. Occasionally there will be some ancient Greek or Hebrew, as well! But don’t worry if you are not a particularly musical person. Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, there is a place for you in the chorus. In many ways, the whole purpose of the Freshman Chorus is to introduce all the students to making and enjoying music together.
By the end of freshman year, all students will have passed a short musical theory test. This is to ensure that everyone is sufficiently prepared to join the Music class (or, Music tutorial, as we call it!) in sophomore year. The test is no reason to be concerned. In addition to class instruction, we also have music assistants to help you study. Everyone is well prepared for it and the test can be taken multiple times.
Sophomore music takes place three times per week. There are two shorter classes meeting for 70 minutes each, and a longer class lasting for 2 hours and 40 minutes. Part of this long music tutorial is to sing together. Sophomores read and discuss texts about music, such as Victor Zuckerkandl’s The Sense of Music, as well as Aristotle, Plato, and Guido of Arezzo. We listen attentively to music to further develop our understanding of musical theory. Later, we analyze longer compositions written by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky, just to name a few. Through this study, we attempt to understand the elements of music, but it also deepens our understanding of ourselves as musical beings and the world around us!
In my experience, I think it can be jarring and challenging to question universally accepted concepts, such as the diatonic scale that’s used in most music today. But despite its difficulties (and occasional frustrations!) the music tutorial has been extremely rewarding and insightful, especially when my classmates and I work together. We often find that our discussions lead us naturally to possible essay topics! Students are also encouraged to pursue their talent for music composition; every year the College awards a prize for the best original composition.
In student life, music is always present. Every Wednesday at 2 p.m., the whole college community meets in the resonant Pendulum Pit to sing Sicut Cervus together. There are also many musical groups on campus, the biggest of which is the St. John’s Chorus led by a veteran tutor, Mr. Kalkavage. Everyone is welcome to join, regardless of school year or skill level. More professional groups include Primum Mobile, also led by a seasoned tutor, Mr. Stolzfuss. Students themselves form more casual singing clubs like the Sea Shanties Group as well as the St. John’s Christmas Carolers. For many, singing is a wonderful way to strike a balance between the rigorous academic program and their wellbeing. It’s been scientifically proven that singing (and especially singing together) makes humans happy, and I’m not at all surprised!
There are also music theater groups on campus: the Platonic Players perform cabaret and various musicals. But, if you’re more interested in instrumental music, there are just as many bands! From Jazz Coalition, to St. John’s Orchestra, to string quartets, there’s always music coming from somewhere.
Performance is also encouraged at St. John’s. We regularly host open mic nights where individuals or groups present their compositions or cover songs. Twice a year we celebrate Collegium, which is a large concert to kick off the end of the semester. Collegium is a long-standing, treasured tradition that gives students, tutors, and staff members an opportunity to showcase their musical talents. Participants perform everything from Chinese harp solos, classical music, jazz, a capella pieces, and more.
But, if you’re still more interested in listening to music than performing it, there are many opportunities to see performances in Baltimore, Washington D.C., or at the Naval Academy. The student group Symfonia dedicates a portion of its funds to buying tickets to local events, as well. There are also study groups that meet in their free time to discuss works of music or books about music.
Personally, I had very little experience singing communally before coming to St. John’s. I did have some musical background from playing violin, but the Freshman Chorus was a completely new experience for me. At some point during my first year, I started to love singing together and I couldn’t imagine stopping. I joined the St. John’s Chorus as soon as I could and have been enjoying it ever since. Experiencing the concepts we talk about in class helped me begin to truly realize the power of music!