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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 80-98
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Reflections on Identity and the Ethics of Embodied Aesthetic Experience in/and the Academy
Music in/and My Life
Several years ago, I attended a Pontifical High Mass at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. It was the feast of the Epiphany, a public holiday in the predominantly Roman Catholic country of Austria. 1 A "lapsed" Catholic myself, my intention as part of the congregation that day was not primarily one of worship as it was to listen to a performance of the Pauckenmesse of Joseph Haydn, complete with soloists, full choir, and orchestra (in overcoats), including, of course, timpani.
As I stepped from the brilliant winter morning into the narthex of that gothic splendor, the pungency of the incense propelled me into Proustian recollections of growing up female, Catholic, and Italian-Canadian in the cathedral parish in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada's steel town. My mother and father, first generation Italian-Canadians, whose own parents had emigrated as teen-agers, had been partners in a corner grocery located in another part of the city that was largely professional and white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Eager to assimilate (they never spoke Italian to my sister or me, and we never learned the language), my parents realized early on that their most valuable legacy to their two daughters would be the advantages of a solid education, religious and secular. For them that meant enrolling us in the local co-educational Catholic elementary school. Later we attended a convent secondary school as day students, and were the only members of our extended family, male or female, to attend university.
It was memories of those elementary school years that were conjured up for me that crisp January morning at St. Stephen's. (In hindsight, I am struck by the synchronicity 2 of the fact that my original surname is Di Stefano, or rather "Distefan," as it had become in its anglicized form). 3 For a [End Page 80] whole complex of reasons, I identified strongly with my parochial school and the church that sheltered/shadowed it — a soaring pseudo-gothic structure reputed to have been replicated, stone by stone, wood carving by hand wood carving, from some European cathedral. The romance of that basilica — The Cathedral of Christ the King — its "daughter" school, and the priests and nuns who were our guides and teachers became my second family for the whole of my grade school education. For me, being at school was like a recognition scene. As Italian-American literary theorist Marianna de Marco Torgovnick writes:
When I was a child, school was...a light-filled, wide awake world in which fear did not erupt except on rare occasions. I saw school as a place where I was valued for my intelligence, even though I was female — and this probably had something to do with my absence of fear there. I quite naturally chose to stay in school through college and into graduate school. It's in these relatively late years that I first became fully conscious of how even within the world of school I was and always would be female. 4
My identification with my church/school centered around my musical development, which began at age four when the piano I grew up on arrived like a beacon in our home. Coterminous with my eager entry into first grade, piano lessons were begun with Sister Cecile, a somewhat nervous, gentle nun predisposed to mystical experience, who shepherded me through exams and recitals until high school. Because I could sight-read fairly well, I was regularly pulled out of class to accompany soloists and dancing groups rehearsing for annual Christmas and St. Patrick's Day concerts. Something about this made me feel special; I both reveled in and felt isolated by my difference from my classmates. I had found a sense of community through my music, and enjoyed a feeling of security in the knowledge that my schoolwork was strong enough...