10 Questions with Distinguished Honors Faculty Member James Lyon
Music ignites interest, passion across academic disciplines
By Noelle Mateer ’14
College Relations Intern
At a classical music concert in the spring semester, Dr. James Lyon made sure to watch one Schreyer student in the audience. Earlier, she had admitted that she’d never seen a live orchestra before. As the music began, Lyon smiled as he watched her face light up.
“I bumped into her a month later at Kern Building, and she was still waxing on about it,” he recalls.
That concert was just one of many that Lyon included in the sessions he offered through the Schreyer Honors College’s Distinguished Honors Faculty program during the 2011-12 academic year. He’s a professor of music and violin in Penn State’s School of Music, but Lyon doesn’t tutor Scholars on violin performance as a member of the program. Instead, he shares something that any dedicated Schreyer Scholar can relate to: passion. Lyon smiles as he talks excitedly, whether it’s to share what he finds inspiring about Beethoven, rave about the music of Bach or reminisce about his favorite performances.
Lyon kicked off his series last fall, pairing dinner discussions with outings to live classical performances. This year, he plans on continuing to delight music fans—and maybe even creating new ones. Read our Q&A with him below.
- What inspired you to join the Distinguished Honors Faculty program?
I liked the idea of giving people that might not necessarily go to a classical music concert a little incentive to do so. I also liked the idea of taking people with different backgrounds and then seeing who the concert might light a spark in.
Also, at most events we felt like our group was quite a bit under the average age of the audience, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this—to get more young people at these concerts. And again, you just never know who’s going to be struck by it. Maybe it will change their life, and this will become a passion of theirs. To me, that’s really neat.
- What did you include in your DHF series?
Starting this past year, the Center for the Performing Arts is presenting all of Beethoven’s string quartets over the next three years so I decided to focus on that to get started. We went to both performances during the school year.
I also took a group to one of the live HD Metropolitan Opera broadcasts at the State Theatre, and that was great. It’s a live feed, so if something unexpected happens, you see it. Another cool thing with those is that they take you backstage. You get to see some of the singers before they go out, and it makes it very personal—students can see that there are human beings like themselves behind it.
We were lucky because, a lot of times, our seats were pretty close to the action, and that made everything more dramatic.
- Were you surprised by any Schreyer Scholars’ reactions to your sessions?
We generally had a dinner discussion the night beforehand, and then we’d go to the event the next night. It was interesting to hear people fess up that they’re actually closet opera fans. And these are non-music majors saying they’ve loved opera their whole life. Once, there was somebody in the group who was certainly not a music major, but said Beethoven string quartets were just his thing. I thought that’s pretty neat that people know about this, and it’s still speaking to them.
It’s been great to have the wide variety of students that I’ve had thus far. Some have been to a lot of concerts, and this was just another great, free way to go to a one. And then there were some people that said, “You know, I’ve never been to a classical music concert before in my life.” Seeing them experience it and watching their eyes light up was amazing.
- Why did you choose to focus mostly on Beethoven’s string quartets?
The timing came along because of the Center for the Performing Arts initiative to have performances of his string quartets over the next three years. But I also think that Beethoven is a guy that can inspire all of us. Here’s a man that had the luck of Job—he had this incredible musical talent, and then at a young age, his hearing starts to go. So, the majority of the great music we’ve heard by him was written when he actually couldn’t hear it and enjoy it. I thought that being able to conquer adversity like that should be inspiring to you whether you’re a scientist, a sociologist or whoever.
I think Beethoven was a real idealist, too. His third symphony is called “Eroica,” and it was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. But when Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven struck it from the title page and said, “Nope, we’ll just dedicate it to the ideal of heroism,” which unfortunately, Bonaparte had fallen short of. So, Beethoven’s a real idealistic person and a guy with a lot of human flaws and frailties that people can relate to – and, despite all that, he created so much.
- Which performances were the most memorable?
The quartet concert that we went to in the fall was the St. Lawrence Quartet, and we couldn’t have had a better group to get the music across to the students. They are very demonstrative, dramatic players—not your nose-up-in-the-air, starched-collar types. One of the violinists had very colorful socks that we could actually observe from up in the balcony. We asked him afterward about them, and he said they had all the different New York City Subway lines on them!
The Center for Performing Arts also usually has one major touring orchestra come to perform on campus. We had an orchestra from Hamburg, Germany, this year, which is actually the birthplace of Brahms, and so a Brahms violin concerto was being performed as part of that evening. That was one where we were seated really close—if any of the musicians had moved any closer, their sweat could have fallen onto the second or third row! You get a different experience by being that close up—you get see the expressions on everyone’s faces.
- Why is it important to know about classical music?
Knowing about music is a lot like needing to know about literature—we need to have some sort of common ground for us to talk about. And from a practical point of view, a lot of these students are going to go out into the world and be leaders in the community, and there are certain expectations of these people. You’re going to be in a position we’re you’ll be expected to know about these things.
- Out of all the instruments you could have chosen, what led you to choose the violin?
Stringed instruments are the closest to the human voice. As players, it is our goal to sound like we sing on our instrument. The violin in particular offers abundant opportunities to play lyrically, but it also has a virtuosic side that is fun to explore. To me, the violin is unquestionably a lady—she responds to our most delicate touch, but is also capable of resounding with great depth of tone. With her wide palette of colors and her ability to combine grace and elegance with strength and power, she makes the ideal musical partner for me.
- What advice do you have for busy students pursuing music on the side?
It’s a balancing act. But if you like doing it, you’ll find time to do it. Just like people who get up early to exercise. It’s not that they necessarily like getting up at 6 a.m., but if that’s the only time that’s available to them, they’ll make themselves do it.
- What advice do you have for students who are studying in fields that are stereotypically viewed as having low financial rewards?
First of all, you’re young, and this a good time to be idealistic. You have the rest of your life to make any adjustments that are necessary. Right now, you don’t have as many responsibilities, pursuing what you’re passionate about is definitely the way to go. There are successful people in all fields—I’ve never been unemployed since I left school. Your chance of making it in the world is as good as anybody’s, as long as you’re passionate about what you do.
- What is your goal for your DHF series?
I want to show students the greatness and wonder in the music they’re about to hear. All music, whether you’re into the Beatles or Schubert, has form, and you can appreciate that music better if you know a little bit about the form. Just like I can go look at a building and say, “That’s pretty,” but if you’re an architecture major and you know what to be looking for, you can be appreciating something more about that building.
My goal is to help people realize that no matter what walk of life they’re from, they can enjoy basically all music.