Saturday, October 18, 2008

A wormy apple for the teacher

Lately I've been uploading music manuscripts to Commons and setting up texts at Wikisource. It's quite interesting and I'd love to make text pages for them all, but English Wikisource has a policy of hosting only English and several of these manuscripts are rather hard to read, let alone translate.

The dilemma reminds me of a long-ago episode. You've seen people describe the dedicated teacher who inspired them with love of a subject and gave them direction to do great things in life?

Frau Winter, my tenth grade German teacher, was not that person. It was Frau Winter who misspelled a vocabulary word and failed to catch her own error until after the test. She explained her mistake as she returned our answer sheets and every one of us who had memorized her instructions had also been marked down. Frau Winter, someday you will meet your maker and when you do the souls of two dozen fifteen-year-olds will howl for justice.

But until that happens, this post salutes Frau Winter's unforgettable style by grading the great composers

...on penmanship.

Niccolò Paganini
(displayed at top) is a typical C student. Notice the smudges and the slapdash bars on Dolci d'amor parole. It's legible, but certainly not easy on the eye. Neatness counts, Niccolò. Next time recopy before you turn in your composition if you want a better grade.
Felix Mendelssohn
This is just sloppy. The whole top wasted on crossouts, but no margin at the bottom. Don't you keep a ruler at home, Felix, to draw straight lines? Surely Elijah deserves more attention. D.
Gioachino Rossini
Not great, but an improvement. The scratchouts prevent Moïse from doing better. I'll give it a B.
Nikolai Rimsy-Korsakov
This orchestration of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is clean, precise, but the lettering is just a little tight. A-.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Impressive, but you crowd too much onto one page and those sixteenth notes are shaky. B+. I'll consider raising the grade if you redo this by Tuesday. And try to come up with a better title than Phantasie für eine Orgelwalze, Allegro and Andante in F Minor.
Franz Liszt
Those squiggly lines say you didn't think ahead and align your work properly, Franz. B.
Frédéric Chopin
Next time turn in your assignment without so many smudge marks. B-.
Johannes Brahms
"Vier Lieder für Singstimme und Klavier" has a pleasant look to it, but those lyrics are chicken scratch. C.
Richard Wagner
I don't like red ink on the page unless I put it there myself, Richard. Still, this is very well done. That Flying Dutchman of yours sounds like a silly title, though. A-.
John Philip Sousa
Now this is what I like to see. Class, come here and look at John's paper. Everything is in neat lines with clean notes and legible lettering. A.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig, Ludwig--what are we going to do with you? You may say this is the fourth movement to Piano Sonata no. 28, but I can barely make out a note of it. You'll never go anyhere with penmanship like this. Go move your things and sit next to John Philip Sousa. I'm writing you up for Saturday detention; come with plenty of paper and pencils. F.


Joshua said...

In fairness to penmanship teachers there are two good reasons to teach kids good penmanship:

1) People will judge them based on their penmanship. Just like having good grammar and spelling this is just a fact of life. So we have a duty to help out the kids and make sure that they don't get poorly treated or looked down on as a result. (This is also the sort of thing that once one is successful like any of these composers doesn't matter that much but until you have that level of success it does matter).
2) Good penmanship makes grading other work a lot easier. The first time I ever had to grade written assignments my appreciation of penmanship went up drastically. Try grading 30 or 40 tests and you get to be real thankful to the teachers who taught penmanship to the ones with better penmanship.

Also, in the specific case of highly notable people they arguably have a duty to history to have good enough handwriting that people can read their notes. H.P. Lovecraft for example had bad handwriting and it has both hampered biographers and hampered August Derleth in his attempts to write material based on Lovecraft's notes (I suspect that this problem was exacerbated at least in part by the large number of bizarre proper nouns favored by Lovecraft).

Another example is with Siegel and Riemann. Siegel was able to make new discoveries from looking at Riemann's notes. Others prior to Siegel had looked at the notes but had been hampered by among other things Riemann's handwriting.

Anonymous said...

Joshua, mind if I ask what (besides cheerfully imposing your pontification on the current state of penmanship teaching) your point was in regard to the actual post??

Joshua said...

Six. the original post was in part a criticism of caring about penmanship. Hence my remark.