Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Concert Halls as Classrooms

Concert Halls as Classrooms

The Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam

What better place to learn about acoustics than in the physical spaces where music is performed?

Peabody graduate students in acoustical studies participate in field learning by researching and experimenting in each of the concert halls on campus, as well as many around the Baltimore area. Most recently, some students have participated in a pilot program that offers them direct, applied learning from some of the most famous concert halls in the world.

Ian Bryan Hoffman — the faculty member who leads leads the audio sciences, acoustical studies concentration — is an architect and an expert in room acoustics and performance space design. For the past two years, during spring break week, Hoffman has led students on listening tours of concert halls in Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. Their tours have taken them to contemporary halls like the Philharmonie de Paris, opened in 2015, and traditional shoebox halls like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Musikverein, in Vienna, dating from the late 19th century.

“There’s really nothing that can describe the feeling you get from being in the space,” says Kate Wagner (MA ’18, Audio Sciences), who participated in each of the last two trips. “Your own impressions inform your opinion of acoustics; you develop a taste or an aesthetic for different types of rooms.”

Over seven or eight concentrated days, students (six the first year and about a dozen last spring) and their faculty and guest-expert chaperones travel to three or four cities, attending performances night after night. Hoffman arranges for tickets in each concert hall in consistent locations — the first row of the highest balcony, on the sides, and near the rear of the main floor — where students take notes, draw sketches, and then compare their experiences from place to place. In each concert, the group splits up into multiple seating locations, and then switch seats during intermission, in order to gain a second perspective for the second half.

“Hearing these concerts in close succession is essential to beginning to build their aural memory,” says Hoffman, who notes that post-concert discussions are an essential aspect of the trip. Participants discuss their experiences and compare the sound qualities (warmth, clarity, reverberance) that each heard in different locations. He wants students to understand the aural signature that results from the shape, materials and design of each hall and hall type.

“Some spirited debate goes on before and after the concerts and some get pretty heated,” Wagner says. “Not everyone experiences the room the same way, so getting to hear other people’s experiences and impressions is helpful.”

By the third or fourth concert, Hoffman says, students can anticipate the qualities of the sound they’re about to hear and compare what they really hear to what they expected to hear. Students learn to listen for factors like the “direction of the early energy, the bass response, the pizzicato of the strings, the distinctness of attack, and the articulation of the sound — but also the spaciousness of the sound,” says Hoffman.

They also explore the difference between the halls and discuss how the design or technical qualities can influence the sound. “It is essential to benchmark our experiences against many of the ‘standards’ of the concert hall repertoire, around the world,” Hoffman says.

The trip is not just about acoustic performance, but the experience helps students to connect music and buildings with history and place. For example, the formally unique Berlin Philharmonie opened in 1963, overlooking the former Berlin Wall, not only as a home for the renowned Berlin Philharmonic, but as a symbol of free thought and creativity juxtaposed against the Communist east. Its social historical value and “its reason for being exactly where it is, is much deeper than only the music and acoustics,” says Hoffman, “and those things start to connect with the students.”

Eric Engler (BM ’18, Jazz Trumpet), a recording arts and audio sciences student, says the trip allowed him
to “see the cultures that created these halls.” He adds, “To be able to be fully immersed in the city and then listen to these concerts in these really unbelievable halls that, in a lot of ways, we just don’t have the equivalent of in the U.S. was really quite an amazing experience.”

Hoffman hopes this field study can expand into a course in the curriculum, one critical to the experiential learning in the graduate program in acoustical studies.

— Margaret Bell

Outside Berlin Philharmonie

Philharmonie de Paris

The Berlin Philharmonie (left) was the first concert hall with a vineyard-style seating arrangement, which has been emulated in the Philharmonie de Paris (right) and concert halls in Los Angeles, Hamburg, and Copenhagen.