Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #35/50…Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations

If there is one lesson that I can take after 30 years of being an elementary school teacher it is the fact that there is no one carved-in-stone method of teaching children that works for everyone. The learning styles possessed by the children who inhabited the classrooms I worked in were as varied as their hair colours, their favourite hobbies or the content of their lunches each day. They truly each are their own person. Yet, there is this seemingly endless desire to streamline and standardize education. Without going off on a huge tangent about it, just let me say that today’s post begins and ends with a story about how children learn. It involves one of the craziest things I was ever involved with as an educator. It is also the story of one of the world’s great modern pianists, Glenn Gould, and the music he would popularize and become famous for. This is the story of The Goldberg Variations. Let us begin.

About halfway through my career as a teacher I found myself working at a brand new elementary school in Bowmanville, Ontario. At the time that this story takes place, the school had been open for about five years. We had a student population of 800 or so from kindergarten to grade 8. The school drew its students from a community that most would consider to be solidly middle class. Many of the students played in sports leagues, took ballet, went on annual vacations, spent time at cottages and so on. All in all, the school community was wonderful to work with and I enjoyed my time there. As a staff we got along fairly well. We enjoyed being part of this new school community. So, imagine how we felt when we were told at a staff meeting one day that we had been chosen to participate in a pilot project about improving student success. The basis of this project was our school’s standardized test score results. In Ontario, grade 3 and 6 students write a series of standardized tests in the spring of each year. Without debating the merits of standardized test scores and the ability to draw any meaningful conclusions from them, our scores had been deemed to be stagnant. They were neither good nor worrisome. Our scores were average and had stayed basically the same. The powers that be wanted to conduct an experiment to see if there was a way to boost test scores, so they did something revolutionary…they asked for our input as educators. Now I must be honest and state up front that I have absolutely no faith in standardized test scores as a measure of anything of value. I could not have cared less about our school’s test scores. I cared about my students and their families. I cared about my fellow staff members. I cared about my profession. But I did not care about twisting myself in knots with worry about standardized test scores. But, they asked for a wish list of things we thought would help our students, so away we wished. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the wish list we created at the staff meeting that day basically became the terms of the pilot project we operated under for the next year or two. We asked for time to meet as teaching teams. That wish was granted. We asked for opportunities to visit other schools where test scores were consistently strong. That wish was granted. We asked for more classroom resources to use with our own students. That wish was granted, too. In fact, a couple of staff meetings later, we were told that all teachers in the Primary Division (grades K-3) were being given $2000.00 each to spend on books for our classroom. The books we were tasked with buying were ones deemed to be rich literature. This included biographies, books about science and the arts and so on. I can honestly say that in all my years as a classroom teacher, I have never had the opportunity to go shopping on the taxpayer’s dime. It was an unprecedented opportunity and we were all excited to go and shop for our classrooms.

***I feel it is important to stop for a moment and reiterate how completely bizarre a situation this was. Never before and never afterwards have I ever had access to such a large amount of money to use for classroom resources. In all other years the more common experience was to beg and plead for $50 here or $100 there to buy new classroom supplies. In most cases, that money came from fundraising conducted from school councils. So, to be given thousands to spend on books for the classroom boggles my mind to this very day.

Many thanks to the taxpayers of Ontario for allowing me to share this book with my students.

Off we went as a staff to a book repository in Toronto. There were ten of us who got to go on this shopping trip. The repository was run by the Ministry of Education, I believe. We entered a warehouse sized room that was filled with book shelves, all lined with shiny new books. We were given shopping carts and told to fill the carts up with whatever we felt would benefit the students we had that year in our classrooms. For hours we walked up and down the rows of shelves. As someone who loves children’s literature, it was an intoxicating experience. After three or four hours, my cart was finally full. We proceeded toward check out stations where our purchases would be tabulated and our books packed for shipping back to our school. I remember feeling light headed when it was all said and done. To this day, I cannot say whether or not that pilot project made any impact on the test scores of that school ( and I couldn’t care less, to be honest). But what I do know is that all of our students benefited from the injection of so many pieces of quality literature that we acquired that day. Many of these books were ones that I may not have purchased on my own due to their price tag or subject matter (which I may have viewed as being more of a want than a need). But I got to share these books with my students regardless and that was the important thing that came out of this exercise. One of the books that I acquired that day was called The Goldberg Variations by Anna Harwell Celenza. It came with an audio CD of the actual Goldberg Variations that I was able to play in class and discuss with the kids. I guess this is what they meant by the term rich literature.

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg

The Goldberg Variations was a suite of music composed by famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The story of their creation is that Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer, but he was also a teacher. Like many composers of his time, he earned much of his income as a result of offering instruction in music to students who were sponsored by members of the aristocracy. One such patron was a man named Count Keyserlingk. Whenever he happened to be passing through Leipzig (where Bach lived), Count Keyserlingk would bring along a student named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg for lessons. At one such session, Count Keyserlingk confessed to Bach that he was suffering from insomnia and that the only thing bringing him peace was having young Goldberg (who was in the Count’s employ) play for him on the harpsichord in the wee hours of the morning. Count Keyserlingk commissioned from Bach a piece of music that Goldberg might play for him at home. Bach agreed and ended up creating a composition that was based upon contrapunctual variations. Because these variations were created with the skill set of young Goldberg in mind, they became known as Goldberg’s Variations or, as they are known today, The Goldberg Variations. Without going into great technical detail, the key thing to know about this composition is that Johann Sebastian Bach was keenly interested in sounds. In a previous post (which you can read here), I wrote about his seminal work The Well-Tempered Clavier. That series of compositions was aimed at helping keyboardists acquire perfect sound quality from their instruments regardless of where they were playing. With that in mind, The Goldberg Variations was a suite of compositions that also dealt with sounds played on a piano. This piece requires great skill and dexterity by whoever is sitting at the keyboard, and as a result is viewed as being a difficult performance composition that should only be attempted by those possessing great talent.

This brings us to Glenn Gould.

A young Glenn Gould plays the piano under the watchful eye of his music teacher Alberto Guerrero.

Glenn Gould was the greatest classical pianist Canada has ever produced. The only child of parents who were also musicians, Gould was raised in an environment that was filled with opportunities to explore the world of music and of sounds. By the age of three, Gould was displaying an understanding of perfect pitch. By the age of six, he was creating his own original compositions and playing them in public at his local church. By the age of ten, Gould was enrolled in the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now, the Royal Conservatory of Music) and was receiving instruction in piano that was to shape his approach to music for the rest of his life. While his parents had always believed their son possessed prodigious talent, his teacher at the Conservatory confirmed it. Gould’s time spent with teacher Alberto Guerrero instilled in him ideas and techniques that would help Gould to become famous the world over. Techniques such as pulling down on the piano keys from below (as opposed to pushing from the top) and pre-tapping the entire composition with his fingers (so as to develop a form of muscle memory which would aid in speed and dexterity while playing) were just some of the skills handed down from Guerrero to Gould. What is most important to note is that Guerrero did what all good teachers do: he tailored Gould’s learning experiences specifically in ways that best suited his student’s learning style. Glenn Gould was a child prodigy when it came to the piano. He was an eccentric personality when it came to his social interactions. Guerrero knew upon first meeting Gould that a standardized approach would not be appropriate for this student. Because of his teacher’s efforts, Glenn Gould would develop the technical skills and the personal self-confidence necessary to take on one of the greatest challenges a classical pianist can accept…The Goldberg Variations.

Behold! The best selling classical music album of all time!

When Gould was first signed to a recording contract at age 22, he was taken to New York City to record the album. Record company executives expected Gould to choose relatively simple compositions to record because he was so young and so inexperienced at performing in public. When Gould told them that he was preparing to play The Goldberg Variations for his debut album, they were aghast and attempted to dissuade him. However, Glenn Gould was determined. The record was completed in only four days. Executives at Columbia Records were stunned. Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations has gone on to sell over five million copies worldwide, making it the best selling classical music album in history. To support this new album, Glenn Gould toured the world. However, the experience of performing to large audiences on the world’s biggest stages caused Gould to sour on the idea of performing in public. He felt that the need to “put on a show” detracted from his ability to delve into the deepest reaches of each composition. Consequently, after less than a decade of playing in public, Glenn Gould retired and spent the remainder of his days as a studio-only musician. What is noteworthy about this decision is that it placed Gould in a position that Johann Sebastian Bach would have envied. As it turned out, Glenn Gould was as enamoured of sounds as Bach was. By eliminating extraneous distractions such as performing in public, Gould was able to focus his mind on the nature of sounds in a controlled studio environment. In the 1950s, long before The Beatles and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys changed the nature of Rock n’ Roll by retreating to the studio and altering how sounds were used in their music, Glenn Gould was doing the same thing in his studio in Toronto. By splicing segments of audio tape together from various recordings, Gould was one of the first people to isolate tracks during recording sessions and reassemble them into a multi-layered soundscape. In fact, just before his death at age fifty, Gould re-recorded the entire length of his Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations album, slowing it down and giving it a depth and breadth of sound that was unprecedented in classical music history.

The iconic Glenn Gould bronze bench sculpture in front of the CBC building in Toronto.

Glenn Gould didn’t fit any mold. He was as unique as it was possible to be. Genius is like that. After his death, Gould was immortalized in bronze in a statue created by sculptor Ruth Abernethy that sits in front of the CBC broadcasting building in Toronto. In that sculpture, Gould is bundled up in a coat and hat as if he was anticipating it to be a blustery winter’s day. The truth was that Gould was always cold. He wore that same coat and hat when he performed once in Florida. At that performance, Gould was almost arrested for vagrancy by police because he looked so out of place, bundled up as he was in the Florida sunshine. Genius is like that, too. One of the warmest memories about him that was shared at the time of his death was how he would show up each morning between 2:00-3:00 at an all-day diner named Fran’s and eat scrambled eggs. Gould always came alone. He always sat in the same booth. He always ate the same meal. Genius is like that, too, I suppose.

In many ways, Glenn Gould shared much in common with his hero Johann Sebastian Bach. His fascination with all aspects of sound being the most obvious. I don’t believe that it was by fluke that Gould was drawn to The Goldberg Variations as a young man. It is almost as if Bach was speaking to Gould from beyond the grave with this composition. With its emphasis on sound creation and its origin as something to be experienced in the wee hours of the morning, The Goldberg Variations was the composition that helped connect Bach to the modern world. The only difference was that the instrument of this connection was not a young man named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, it was a young Canadian named Glenn Gould. Perhaps if Count Keyserlingk had enjoyed some scrambled eggs during his late night concerts, he would have found the peace he was looking for. All that I know is that the most important aspect of being a teacher is coming to truly know the students under your care. The second most important aspect of being a teacher is acting upon that information and creating a learning space best suited for them to thrive. That was always my goal throughout my career. That was Mr. Guerrero’s goal with a young Glenn Gould. It was Bach’s goal with a young Goldberg. Unlike many works which, if I was being honest, are just music to me, I find that The Goldberg Variations reaches into the very core of my being. While I didn’t really need that educational shopping spree which brought The Goldberg Variations book into my possession, I am extremely glad I did get to go. That story says everything to me about being a teacher and about helping my students become the best version of themselves that they were meant to be. What an honour to have been able to do that for someone for all those years. For much of my life I have felt like I was the right person in the right place at the right time. Sometimes that is the result of luck. Sometimes it is something more. Even though it is not the middle of the night, I suddenly have a craving for scrambled eggs.

The link to the video for the composition “The Goldberg Variations” as performed by Glen Gould can be found here.

The link to the official website for Glenn Gould can be found here.

The link to my hometown classical music station…Classical 103.1…streaming from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada to the world can be found here.

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