Professor Chat: James Behr on the Composer’s Will

Professor Behr instructs a student during his Piano Skills class. Photo by Claire Leaden.
Professor Behr instructs a student during his Piano Skills class. Photo by Claire Leaden.


James Behr has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Tanglewood and Chautauqua Festivals in Boston and New York City respectively, and with the Virginia Symphony. He’s written and recorded show tunes, jazz numbers and extensive symphonic pieces.

Behr also teaches music theory, piano skills and techniques and the roots of music at Manhattan College, a gig he’s had for several years now. His classrooms are filled with pianos, not desks, and students are required to bring sheet music and an open ear for the different layers of music.

Behr earned degrees in music and political science from the Julliard School and Northwestern University. His career as composer, moreover, has produced a collection of pieces.

He’s written “Europa,” a hypnotic and challenging symphonic work that guides the listener through Europe’s geography, cultural history and uncertain future. The work bounces between moments of exuberance at the beauty and promise of a new landscape and terror at the history that still shapes bits of culture. “E Love,” a Broadway musical, explores the comedic and ironic nature of the online dating scene. Like the story at the heart of the musical, the music in “E Love” explores how technology dictates and shapes much of our reality now.

Professor Behr sat down with The Quadrangle to discuss his experience as a music instructor, popular music today and the music scene at MC.

Pamela Segura: Tell me a bit about how you came to play the piano.

James Behr: I started piano when I was eight. Parents bought a piano when I was seven. My older brothers were playing a lot. One of the brothers was playing a Mozart sonata and I started imitating it really well. [My parents] recognized that I had talent so they got me lessons. I kind of moved quickly. I performed a lot in high school as a piano soloist and I started getting into music theater. I performed my first musical in the eighth grade. It was “1776.” In the twelfth grade I went into Julliard pre-college.

PS: So, you have perfect pitch?

JB: My next-door neighbor noticed that I had talent. Once, she told me to go behind a wall and she started playing notes on a piano. I was able to tell her what the notes were. To me, it was perfectly normal to be ten and study Chopin waltzes. It was just natural. I was able to do it at nine and I can’t explain it.

PS: What’d you study at college?

JB: I went to Northwestern and was a music major there for a couple years. Then, I transferred to Julliard. Got my masters and bachelors there. Actually, went back to Northwestern, finished, and got a degree in political science. You see, part of the problem with the music field is that people are so limited to the arts and they don’t have much education outside it. I’ve always been the guy who’s been reading “The New York Times.”

PS: You’ve written a lot of different pieces, some of which are in the so-called pop music genre. Tell me about your engagement with popular music.

JB: If you’re going to live in the past, you’re going nowhere. Beethoven was very much a modern composer. Chopin was very modern in his time. I didn’t want to be a rock and roller and get on stage with an electric guitar. That’s nothing to do with whether or not I liked the music. I just didn’t want to live that life. The thing that bothers me mostly about whatever is going on now is [that] I don’t like the fact that everything is so damn loud. I just think that there’s an issue about an obsession in the modern world about things being so loud. As a musician, and the ears are very important, I like the music but it’s all very loud. The obsession with loud is not healthy. You don’t want to blast Mozart and you don’t want to blast your favorite hip-hop or Beyoncé.

PS: Tell me about your first attempts at composition. Did you find it difficult?

JB: I started composing when I was 12. The thing about the perfect pitch…when someone can play notes on an instrument and you know what they are, well, what it really means is that you can hear stuff by ear and play it. Playing by ear is a rather unusual gift. I started writing a few songs when I was at Northwestern. For some reason, after I graduated Julliard, the bug got into me. I wanted to perform. I only was performing dead composers. It came naturally. I would never go to a more classical concert without playing my stuff. But my stuff might be New Age, a little jazzy. It makes the concert a little modern.

PS: “Slate” magazine wrote a piece this January about classical music and its status nowadays. Do you think classical music is, like Mark Vanhoenacker suggested in the “Slate” piece, dead?

JB: I think that classical music is one of the finest music genres around. But it is the most awful, marketing wise. They train people in conservatories to do exactly what would offend audiences. People want to have fun. They want to learn. If people haven’t heard Chopin, they would probably like Chopin, if the performer didn’t condescend. I understand that, in the 1800s, they were called longhairs. You see pictures of Chopin and Beethoven and Liszt, they had long hair. The teachers now turn them into statues nowadays. They weren’t like that in their time.

PS: What are you working on now?

JB: Lately, I’m moving towards more R&B ballads and radio things. It’s not easy to find singers who have that pop sound, like Beyoncé, Whitney Houston. I like to do many things. In the field, it’s like medicine. Very specialized, people do only one thing well. You take a guy who can do a Beethoven sonata well, but can he play a Broadway tune well?

PS: Well, how’d you find your way here at Manhattan College? Does teaching theory help you compose?

JB: I’m glad that I happened to come here when there was an opening. That’s one of the great blessings I’ve had. I think my attitude is that I do some very sophisticated things when I’m composing. When you teach, you have to give students what they need, not what you get a kick out of. When I teach theory, I don’t worry [about] whether it’s exciting or not. I just make it clear that, if you want to write music, you have to know the nuts and bolts. It’s not exciting and fun stuff, but it’s necessary. The real fun stuff is, of course, when you’re performing and creating. But you can’t do that anymore than you can write a good novel without having a very strong foundation in grammar, vocabulary and really life experiences. I’m also trying to be a promoter of the arts and music.

PS: Which classes have you taught here?

JB: I’ve taught the history class, the roots here. Last few years here, though, I’ve been focusing on theory and piano as well as some independent studies. For example, someone wrote a paper about Beethoven. Someone wanted to focus on Chopin and someone else liked Baroque music, so we focused on counterpoint.

PS: What do you think about the music community here at the school?

JB: We have really smart, talented students here. A major would be a breakthrough. The administration’s done wonderful things and we have an entire floor dedicated to the fine arts department. Much credit to the college for how the music department has grown and hopefully we’re going to progress from here. In the meantime, while we don’t have the major, students can take the independent study to the next level.