John Buckley took over the music appreciation class at People’s College in the cassette era, and has stuck with it through CDs and, now, deep into the age of iPods – or whenever we are.
It’s been 34 years, the composer says, sat at a corner table in the bar at the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square. “I just remember being asked in 1982 if I could take it on. I think the words ‘for a while’ were even mentioned,” he chuckles. “But ‘for a while’ became quite a long time. I’m still here.”
So, it seems, are many of his students, who come back, not just year after year, but decade after decade, to sit and to listen. How does a music course grow such a loyal following?
A Term Kicks Off
Last Thursday from around 7.40 pm, in a warm classroom on the upper-floor on the Teachers’ Club, the rows began to fill up for the second class of the night. About 30 men and women, mainly middle aged or older, stream through the door, jolly and casual, wishing one another a belated happy new year.
On the programme this evening: bagatelles, nocturnes, impromptus and songs-without-words. They are all, Buckley explains from the front of the room, nineteenth-century character pieces.
He puts the pieces in historical context, their rise at a time when pianos began to spread through middle-class homes and sheet music became a money-spinner.
“They tend to evoke a single kind of atmosphere or mood, or sometimes have a little contrasting section, but have one particular focus,” he tells the class.
He throws out the names of those who composed in this style, such as Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schubert and more. He rattles off dates, births and deaths, and the origins of important pieces. He throws in anecdotes from records of the time.
He speaks clearly, confidently and engagingly.
He breaks down how the piece would be played and drops in some hints of what to look out for, the rippling accompaniment in the right-hand, or the serene mood, or the transition through contrasts.
“So, the kind of piece that does that . . .” he turns to the board, and writes up the letters “ABA” and explains that means it is broken down into three parts, the first and last with the same mood. It can also be called ternary form, he explains.
“So, at your next cocktail party you are at now, you can say to your neighbour, ‘Are you in favour of the ternary form in classical music?’ I’d say you’d make a great impression altogether!”
The class laughs at once, relaxed, and easy.
And he plays the third of Schubert’s impromptus, D899, and for about 5 minutes and 30 seconds, and apart from the occasional smothered cough and some late arrivals, the room is still.
Buckley, who has a friendly mustache and bright eyes, teaches by day at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra. Born in West Limerick, he knew he wanted to be a composer by the time he was 16 years old, he says.
Since then, he’s written more than 100 works, from a concerto for organ and orchestra, to an opera. They’ve been performed and broadcast in more than 50 countries. But despite the global audience, he remains a patient teacher.
“He has wonderful patience, John,” says Joy Houston, one long-time student in the class. “Sometimes, he’ll go through something and explain it all, and when he’s finished somebody will ask, why or what, that he has just explained.”
Buckley also puts a lot of prep into the classes. He will repeat classes for beginners, but he has never repeated a lecture for this second class, he says. Not once, in 34 years.
“I would sometimes listen to five recordings of a piece, before choosing one to present, so I get a chance to go into the music in great depth,” he said. Over a few decades, that’s a lot of musical research.
He gets a kick out of working with students, too and “actually presenting the music to them, and saying, oh my God, they’re enjoying it, or at least reacting to it. That’s really really important,” he says.
While many night courses seem modelled on the churn of modern education, a joyless cram for examinations or a hopeful route to a larger pay cheque, this course isn’t like that. There are no tests, and no sense of competition, which many students said is important.
“I genuinely like the music,” says Houston, an elegant woman with grey-white hair. It’s been about 25 years since her first semester, she says, and aside from a few missing years in the 1990s, she’s been a loyal student.
Buckley “puts, maybe, a background to music that you know quite well. You think to yourself, Oh, I know all about that. But you don’t. He sort of fills out the music,” she says.
Another student, Anne Roche, who comes to the earlier class, said this is just one of several night courses she’s done in the last 15 years. “But still, I don’t earn a penny more. If anything, I earn a penny less,” she says.
But that’s not why she does it. “In general,” Roche says, “I would do it for myself.”
After Schubert, Buckley moves through to Schumann — touching on the importance of his wife Clara Schumann and the composer’s struggle with mental illness — then on to Chopin and his nocturnes, and later Grieg and his lyric pieces.
It’s a colourful journey through character music. Many of those listening scribble down notes, as he mentioned works, and performers he would recommend.
When Buckley pauses to ask if there are any questions, or comments, a man with a ruddy face calls out from the back row of the class.
“Just to say, the first two pieces you played are about my two most favourite pieces,” he says with a giant grin. “You made my night tonight.”