Meet Commonwealth Faculty: David Hodgkins, Director of Music

There’s a reason “arts and sciences” were grouped together millennia ago, David Hodgkins says: they’re inextricably linked. Music—whether you sing it, play it, or just listen attentively to it—is as intellectually challenging and stimulating as any advanced math, science, or English course. That ethos informs his approach to directing Commonwealth’s music program and the uncommonly complex, Great Books–esque repertoire he picks for the students enrolled in his courses (about fifty percent of whom take more than one music class). He also learned the hard way how Commonwealth students really feel about fluffy pop covers. Keep reading to discover which song made his students rebel, the surprising time he doesn’t want to hear music, and what it would take to get a Lady Gaga song into the next Commonwealth concert. 

Getting to Know You

What is bringing you joy right now? 

Seeing how my advisees are thriving.

What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)? 

I really do love murder mysteries. I have read the whole Nero Wolf series by Rex Stout at least three or four times. I love The Three Pines series by Louise Penny. I also enjoy the classics, like Hemingway; I stumbled back across The Old Man and the Sea a little while back, and I had forgotten what a great book that was. And there's a new book out called Your Brain on Art that I've only just started but it's really fascinating. 

What are your favorite comfort foods?

A grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich on whole grain bread with an egg and avocado in it.

What’s your favorite pastime? 

Aside from reading and golf, playing cards—cribbage, wist, golf, hearts, black jack, poker, you name it. 

What was your favorite class in high school? 

I really loved all of my music classes, but I would say my favorite was Modern European History with Bob Swanson. It was about the teacher as much as the course. He was phenomenal and brought everything to life. 

Describe Commonwealth students in three words or less.

Bright, inquisitive, invested.

Life at Commonwealth (and Beyond)

What led you to teaching and to Commonwealth in particular? 

It was a mistake. I never expected to teach high school. I first came here as a maternity-leave replacement when I finished grad school; that person eventually didn’t come back—and I just stayed. 

One of the things I've always loved about Commonwealth is that in a sense it’s like a college: you came in and did the work but there was flexibility. People worked hard. They were excited about the subject they taught. Plus, I had autonomy as a teacher, and I was able to pursue a lot of professional work outside of the school that I feel has benefited my teaching. [Mr. Hodgkins serves as both conductor and Artistic Director to two Massachusetts-based choral ensembles: award-winning Coro Allegro and The New England Classical Singers, and is a frequent guest conductor and clinician.]

What courses do you teach, and how did you develop them?

Well, I teach Orchestra, Chamber Music, Chorus, Chorale, two or three levels of Music Theory, and Conducting. Because the performing ensembles are always different, the repertoire is going to change to satisfy the group’s abilities. But every year, I always try to give the Orchestra and Chorus at least one combined piece—a more extended work, you know, twenty-five to thirty minutes. Those collaborations open up a whole new set of repertoire that one would normally not get a chance to do. The theory courses are a bit more prescribed, because the goal is to be able to take the AP test, but I do ask a lot of students, with a heavy emphasis on ear training, analysis, and terminology. 

Related: View Commonwealth’s Arts Curriculum

How do you choose your repertoire?

In some ways I model my thoughts about music selection around the Great Books program. There is value in performing complex works from the past, especially for singers. (Instrumentalists tend to do this as a matter of course.) There is a skill level that you achieve doing Mozart and Vittoria and Haydn that you don't get from many contemporary choral works, which tend to use a lot of repeated patterns. Whereas if you are doing a Bach piece that has more complexity, spinning out long, intricate lines—while also singing in another language—you are really engaging your brain in a whole different way.  

That being said, I don't mind doing contemporary stuff. Chorus just did these contemporary pieces by Ricky Ian Gordon and [M. Roger Holland II], but they were grounded in the kind of work that’s done in Bach and Mozart and Haydn. Chorale and the senior string quartet just gave the world premiere of a new contemporary piece by [junior Commonwealth student] Charlie. It was challenging, to be sure, but the reason they were able to pull it off was because they have the classical grounding. The best jazz pianists usually have a classical background, because it teaches technique; they develop the physical chops to play jazz in the classical repertoire.

I remember trying to do “Build Me Up, Buttercup” with Chorus years ago—it was a nice arrangement, actually—and the students rebelled. They hated it. “We want to sing in Latin! We want to sing in French!” And it taught me something, you know: that sort of light, fluffy repertoire is often just not as fulfilling. In the hands of the right composer or arranger, you can still have a light-hearted or “simple” song that’s also vocally challenging and intellectually stimulating. 

There are life lessons that I try to incorporate in the repertoire I choose as well. Art is a medium through which you can actually tackle difficult issues. In the second movement of the Ricky Ian Gordon piece we just did [“Luck,” in “Three by Langston”], you’re singing beautiful Langston Hughes poetry—and making a really intense statement about racism and socioeconomic inequality. I do this all the time with Coro Allegro, too. It’s an LGBTQ+ organization, but we don’t just sing for LGBTQ+ events; we build bridges to disparate communities. We just did a concert of all Black composers, and works by William Grant Still and Margaret Bonds were the bookends. Black spirituals really are a synthesis of art song and early music. Reggie Mobley, who was just our Pinkham Award winner, spoke about the fact that these spirituals were written 400 years ago, when Haydn and Mozart were also writing. There's a long history there. That's the kind of music I'm interested in.

With this kind of repertoire, you're exploring emotions and themes that don't necessarily come through in more poppy stuff. I love a lot of pop music, but doing an arrangement of a Lady Gaga song holds no interest for me at all—though I really do think Lady Gaga is immensely talented! Pop songs arranged for choirs rarely translate well. There are exceptions, however; Chorus sang a fabulous arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at graduation last year. If I find a really nice arrangement of something, with depth and complexity and thick chords and tuning challenges—that’s interesting. 

What is the role of music education today, in general and at Commonwealth in particular?

The value of the arts education is exponential, as far as I'm concerned. A lot of schools are cutting music classes and funding for the arts in general, and it’s stunting students’ overall growth and long-term development. Focusing on academics in a vacuum is like doing curls with only your right arm to keep your whole body in shape. The whole body—and mind—need to be exercised. Otherwise the unused parts simply atrophy. Too often, school administrators are so focused on the results of some standardized test that they become myopic in what students’ full needs are. I am thankful to teach in a place where that attitude is not a part of the school’s ethos. 

I think singing is a lifelong skill. Breathing is the most elemental thing that we do, and singing, playing an instrument—all music-making, really—is about breathing. Breath gives music life. Creating music enhances your physical being as well your brain. 

When you take a music-theory course, or orchestra or chorus, you are just as technically challenged as in any French or math or English course. You learn how to listen. You learn physical agility and facility. You learn how to interpret. You learn how to think about text. You have to count- and all at the same time! For me, there's a reason why the arts and sciences were grouped together years ago: they are the same. And people often treat the arts as something different, something nonacademic. In fact, for centuries, music and science were integrated. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

One of the things I have always been thankful for at Commonwealth is that I have been allowed to proceed with all of my other endeavors. Normally, I teach all morning, from first period to fifth period. Then I answer emails and meet with students. I usually work out in the middle of the day, which is incredibly important to me. The gym is therapeutic and grounding. I meet people from all walks of life that give me a very different perspective from the ones I get in the classroom and rehearsal hall. And I found a gym that doesn't play any music—which is great! For me, having music while you're working out is a distraction: it doesn't allow me to be with my own thoughts and disturbs my own internal rhythm. I usually have some sort of board meeting or rehearsal or performance in the evening; it depends on the week. I mean, it’s packed, usually seven days a week, but I love it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.

What does success look like in your classes?

Progress. I've always hated grades. What I really love to see is individuals coming in, wanting to learn something, really focusing on that work, and achieving more than they thought they ever could. Being engaged. Getting better. Sometimes it comes easily to students, sometimes it's a struggle. But, I will take the person who is not very strong musically but has the desire to improve over someone who’s really talented but just mailing it in. 

You can see the difference in first-year music students just from September to June—they make a huge jump technically, musically, and intellectually. After four years of music? That arc of musical maturation becomes integrated into your whole persona. Students look at everything differently. Seniors are not just playing but interpreting difficult music at a very mature level. You can see the growth and development of each individual over the short and long term. It’s one of the most exciting things to experience as a student and as a teacher. 

No matter where they start, I think they all recognize that, by the end of the course, they have accomplished something. They have improved as a singer, they've improved as an instrumentalist, they've improved as a theoretician, they've improved their ear. You see it in the performing groups, too, the realization that by working together, each ensemble can become even greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a whole other level of excitement. That sense of a community striving, accomplishing or even exceeding a common goal, is very powerful and uplifting. I just want people to be able to do their best and feel fulfilled. That's really what I'm looking for.

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