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Teaching Music History from Outside the Closet

Eleonora M. Beck

Somewhere during my journey I made a covenant to be true to myself.

For me, engaging in interdisciplinary studies in music history is like being a lesbian: I can't even think straight.  As a product of two cultures--my father is from New York, my mother from Italy, I am naturally drawn to a plurality of ideas and find joy in the study of music together with literature, art, philosophy, and issues pertaining to gender.  Working in gender studies affords me the same opportunity to skip from discipline to discipline, blissfully making connections between composers and their artistic and socioeconomic environments.  In studying Meredith Monk's music, for instance, I researched the impact of her TriBeCa neighborhood--the cobblestone streets, the rectangular loft spaces, and the city's thumping soundscape--on her compositional process.

My primary field of scholarship is the Italian Trecento, a period of intense cross-fertilization of the arts, when public frescoes displayed images of music, literary works described musical gatherings, and the musical texts themselves captured vistas as detailed as a painting by Giotto.  Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of 100 stories told by 7 women and 3 men during a two-week sabbatical from the ravages of plague-ridden Florence, includes a description of music making at the end of each day.  I love Boccaccio's compassion for the plight of women, whom he argues need entertaining and educating during the many hours that they are confined to their rooms.  Women play an important role in the organization of the Decamerons daily activities: Pampinea is the group's primary policy maker and enforcer, and Fiammetta entertains everyone by playing the vielle and singing.

Portrayals of women making music also abound in Trecento frescoes.  They dance, sing, and play tambourine in a Sienese square and in the gardens of aristocrats enjoying leisure time.  For instance, a woman plays the psaltery in Francesco Traini's Triumph of Death and women dance in Andrea di Bonaiuto's The Church Militant and Triumphant in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella.

Francesco Traini Triumph of Death (detail) Campo Santo, Pisa


Andrea Da Firenze The Church Militant and Triumphant (detail) Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Traditionally, musicologists have examined these works for information about the shape, size, and performance capabilities of the instruments pictured and the circumstances in which they were played.  I applied a new gender-focused methodology in my research, starting with the question: What is the significance of women playing music in these works?  I discovered that artists and writers viewed women musicians as metaphors for justice, peace, and compassion.  Giotto includes dancing women singing and playing tambourine under the virtue of justice in his Scrovegni Chapel frescoes; Lorenzetti's dancing women in his Effects of Good Government in the City communicate the message that under the peaceful and just rule of the Sienese government, harmony abounds.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti Effects of Good Government in the City (detail) Palazzo Pubblico, Sienna

Through my research I came to the conclusion that the women in Bonaiuto's fresco exemplify Aristotelian notions (found in Book VIII of the Politics) of musical entertainment appropriate for leisure time and that Boccaccio's female musicians display temperance and good taste when playing music.  The study of female musicians and their meanings in the Trecento contexts brought me much satisfaction because of the connections I could draw between academic disciplines.

Learning is ultimately a process of self-acceptance, of nurturing the mystic and quirky things in life that bring joy. For scholars, this is achieved through research.  But for lesbian scholars, research becomes even more personalized because society imposes many taboos upon us.  I discovered that I needed an extra amount of courage as a graduate student to work in interdisciplinary studies because the traditional path to understanding medieval music was usually limited to the examination of manuscripts and related archival material.  In accepting my scholarship and my own sexuality (and this took many years of denial and reproaches from family), I found scholarly support from researchers in medieval and gender studies.  As a graduate student at AMS I remember feeling lost and intimidated (I still do), and a professor recommending that I should search out the Gender Studies folks.  I received encouragement when I gave papers about gender-coded tempo indications in the music of Charles Ives (FT&M 1) and lip-synching in the performance of popular music (IASPM).  As a result I am usually asked questions about connections: What does medieval Italian music have to do with Meredith Monk?  How do you relate Ives to your dissertation topic: music in Trecento Tuscany?  What does lip-synching have to do with Dante and Boccaccio?  This last question was posed to me at the end of a grueling two-day job interview.  I answered sheepishly, "If you think that's something, you should see my jump shot!"  Sinking a 15-foot shot from the baseline after a steal and a fake brings the same kind of exhilaration I experience when uncovering a connection in the Trecento.  And like scholarship, basketball requires practice, discipline, and imagination.


The author jumping for the tip-off, Levien Gymnasium, Columbia University, 1981

One of my goals is to translate these joyful impulses into teaching music history by using pictures, poetry, and stories.  If my heart races with happiness when inventing an assignment, I know it will work.  Sometimes colleagues ask me how I grade my student's papers and I explain, without being defensive, "You can tell when a student has put a lot of thought and work into a project."  Academia sublimates the self for some skewed notion of the greater good and encouraging students to think for themselves and rely on their own abilities are radical concepts.  Below are some of the teaching assignments I have developed over the years.  I completed them, too, because I needed them.  All promote compassion, a subject Boccaccio addresses at the beginning of his Decameron: "To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others."  I read this phrase to my classes as one of the goals of learning.

I have invented these exercises in conjunction with traditional music history research projects.  Interestingly, as I look back, I first began this kind of experimentation while teaching a Women and Music class.  Most assignments have research, listening, and writing components.  Some involve performance and improvisation.  I view each as a little work of art.  They may be shaped as you like to suit your classes' needs, and I encourage you to contact me with any questions.  They are presented here in no particular order.

Assignment 1

Please lip-synch a piece of music.  It should be between 3 and 4 minutes long.

Assignment 2

After reading excerpts from Charles Ives's Memos and Patti Smith's Early Work 1970-1979 and listening to these composers' music, write a 500-word description or analysis of their work in any style you like.

Assignment 3

Create a tape of the music you would like played at your funeral.  In 500 words explain why you have chosen the music.

Assignment 4

In 500 words write a short story with a composer or musician as your primary character.  Combine real and made-up situations in your piece.  Student Sample 1

Assignment 5

Listen to three CDs you've never heard before and write three 150-word reviews.  Student Sample 2

Assignment 6

In 500 words please describe the development of your musical taste.

Assignment 7

Please compose a short song in the style of the Decameron ballatas to perform in class.

Assignment 8

After reading excerpts of Boccaccio, please write a two-page story in the style of the author.  Be sure that it has a musical theme.

Assignment 9

Please be prepared to play a piece in class.  Write a story that describes it.

Assignment 10

Draw a candy wrapper with a musical subject.  It should cover a bonbon.

Assignment 11

Draw a three-section cartoon with music as its subject.

Assignment 12

Set your original slides to 3 to 4 minutes of music.

Assignment 13

Teaching Music

Divide into groups of four people.  Each group is commissioned to teach two pieces of music to their students.

Two members of the group should teach the pieces

Two individuals create and administer a "test" by which they determine if and what the class has learned. 

The class participates in the learning and testing.

Writing assignment: Please submit a two-page (500-word) essay describing your role in the project and the results.

Student Sample 3

Assignment 14

Talk Show

Meet with your group of five to produce a 20-minute episode of "Oprah" about some aspect of music and culture. 

Assign the role of the host (not necessarily Oprah herself).

Assign the role of the producer (keeps action going, props, cue cards, straightens ties, I don't know, other things).

Three guests.

The rest of the class participates as the audience.

To get started devise a central topic of the day's discussion.

Create the characters of the guests.

Choreograph a musical performance or soundtrack.

Writing assignment: Write a page describing in intimate detail your character and their views.  Please write in the character's voice.  Most of all have a good time.

Assignment 15


After seeing Rigoletto create a short opera.  Be prepared to present an overture and a complete 45-minute production.  Don't forget a title.  Split up into groups of six.

One person writes the plot.

One or two people provide music.

One writes the dialogue.

One works on staging, lighting and costumes--set the scene.

One directs and writes about her/his artistic vision.

Everybody participates in some way on stage.

Participants are encouraged to modify the above suggestions as they see fit.

Writing assignment: In 500 words describe your contribution to the production.

I have spent many sleepless nights inventing these assignments, and fretting about the ramifications of my actions come tenure time.  Ideas came to me when I was completely still, alone, listening to my dog's heavy breathing.  Then my agitated brain thought about my next review and how I could be attacked, told that I am not serious, unfocused, and unscholarly and that I could lose my precious job that I adore.  Sometimes I questioned my self-worth, wondering why I couldn't teach music history as I was taught and remembered my mother's debilitating criticisms, such as "Why do you have to play basketball?  It makes your arms so big."  Meredith Monk's words comforted me during my journey when I interviewed her in 1996 (Women of Note Quarterly, August 1996, p. 22).  I asked Monk, "When did you know that you were an artist?"  She responded:

It's kind of hard to talk about.  All the way through my life I have asked myself: am I an artist?  Already, at age fourteen, I knew that I wanted to create at Sarah Lawrence and these feelings were nurtured and grew stronger.  At a certain point in 1965, I had the revelation that the voice was as flexible as the body and I could build a vocabulary on my own vocal instrument just the way I made movement from my particular body.  Within my voice were limitless characters, landscapes, textures, colors, ages, masculine and feminine qualities.  So, I again committed myself to being an artist; it's something I do in a conscious way throughout my life.  It's like taking a marriage vow.  That's what Atlas was about, the quest--where the guides come and Alexandra really knows that she has to leave home to follow her own path.

Teaching and completing these assignments have opened a new avenue of study for me: the confluence of scholarship and creativity.  (I do not mean to imply here that scholarship is not a creative endeavor.  To clarify, I am referring to creativity in this context as making art, music, dance, fiction and so on.)  For Boccaccio and Dante, and later Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo, these spheres were complimentary.  In academic circles of the United States, I have felt pressure to keep these spheres of knowledge separate.  Producing fiction and drawings could harm my integrity as a scholar.  I experience this caveat like another version of "stay in the closet."  Writing a story about a composer can be construed as frivolous, while researching the composer and writing with all the requisite scholarly armor, methodological vocabulary, footnotes, and argumentation is deemed serious.  We often hide behind these conventions--to the detriment of our voices.  Students and professors ultimately benefit from a more fluid intersection of scholarship and creative endeavors.  Because of this freedom of expression, I am motivated to engage in research with greater enjoyment.

After much soul-searching, encouragement from students, quashing of negative voices, and working on my own assignments, I compiled original stories, poetry, music, and art into a collection inspired by the interdisciplinary breath of the Decameron.  It is called Fiammetta and will be published March 12th, 2002, by a press I started called:

Carlton Street Press
P.O. Box 82212
Portland, Oregon 97282-0212


Fiammetta's back cover reads:

        Fiammetta's overarching story chronicles the kidnapping of Jennifer, an art dealer's young assistant, and her encounter with Fiammetta, a bewildered and sincere professor who is in Italy to give a lecture.  While Jennifer is whisked away from the streets of Florence to a castle in Northern Italy, Fiammetta contemplates the choices she has made in her life and these are portrayed through stories, art, and poetry set in the sunlit Italian Alps, New York's Hamptons, and Portland, Oregon's urban gardens.  The unique juxtaposition of Jennifer and Fiammetta's tales represents a writer's commitment to her craft and the transcendent power of making art.  Readers will exit Beck's labyrinth transformed, ready to unleash their imaginations.

ISBN 0-971-28250-1 Hardcover
ISBN 0-971-28251-X Softcover

Here is a sample story from Fiammetta.  The story first appeared in Phoebe: Journal of Feminist Scholarship, Theory and Aesthetics, 11:1/Spring, 1999.


Eleonora M. Beck


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This page was last updated on 01/02/03.