Honoring Alice

Remembering a Terrifying and Brilliant Teacher

Since I became an adult many years ago, I have meant to thank those pedagogues who equipped me, challenged me, called my B.S., and treated me like I had a mind that mattered. I haven’t yet. Whatever excuse I might offer, those important people have not received my gratitude. Yesterday, I learned that one of those invaluable people passed away. While she knew the value of her craft and was highly respected by her colleagues and feared by her students (her colleagues may have feared her a bit too,) I missed my chance to say thank you. It is a shame to eulogize someone, much better to honor them when they are around to enjoy it.

What makes an excellent teacher: A love of one’s subject, an standard of excellence from oneself and one’s students, an expectation that students can and will do more than they are initially willing to do? That is the crux of it: to push them, stretch them, force them through the growing pains that will leave them stronger and lithe.

In Dr. Alice Hanson’s case, the metaphor of broken bones healing stronger is more fitting than that of growing pains. That’s baby stuff. She didn’t mince words and didn’t bother being nice, but she was honest and demanded mature scholarship from her 20 year-old students. Ultimately, because she was such an effective teacher of such high standards, her honesty was more honorable than kindness. If you gave a wrong answer in class, she’d make the sound of a buzzer, cross her arms in the shape of an X and say, “No Credit.” Then she’d ask your neighbor the same question and your neighbor would curse and drop her pen from the nerves. Dr. Hanson would make passing comments that were so far from my realm of reality and knowledge that I couldn’t even tell if I should know of what she was speaking or not. I gave plenty of blank stares as answers.

237977_18469_LAs a sensible person, I was terrified of her. When she strode down the dimly lit halls of the music building, she reminded me of the giant stone ball from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom– unyielding, unstoppable, careening down a fixed course toward her office where some student was waiting to have his paper thesis ripped to confetti. I always appreciated her loud shoes; I like advance warning for tornados and Dr. Alice Hanson.

Dr. Hanson taught music history at St Olaf College and she was a force of nature. You showed up to her lectures alert, sober, and on time. She could not abide anyone walking in front of her once she began. She trained us to fill the seats furthest from the entrance so fate-tempting latecomers could take the seats closest to the door. I don’t begrudge her this idiosyncrasy. Walking in front of Dr. Hanson while she was giving an impassioned account of a Beethoven symphony was like sauntering past of the Queen of the Night during her vengeance aria. It wasn’t done and it certainly wasn’t wise.

We took copious notes during lectures. That was the stuff we needed to know later. She was wickedly precise, deeply analytic, maddeningly pedantic, and meticulously linear. Her lectures flowed like outlines, making note taking effective and easy. Seldom did I ever have to go back and add in information, or draw arrows back to something mentioned three minutes previous. We had textbooks, but her lectures were better: information distilled to its most basic and potent elements. Her listening and written tests were harrowing, and everyone studied for them, everyone, even those who didn’t crack a book for anything else. You could not wiggle around an answer. If you answered an essay question indirectly, demonstrating that you didn’t really know what you were talking about, she was not above crossing the whole thing out and writing, “BULLSHIT” in all caps across the page. Of course, you got no credit.

!B7rwfnQEGk~$(KGrHqV,!hEEyr2qBRCLBM07e!LpPg~~0_35I was required to take two semesters of music history surveys from her. I have never worked that hard for a B+ before or since. While my biology majoring friends were sweating over organic chemistry, I was getting hives about Palestrina. Dr. Hanson was terrible for my GPA. If I had avoided her after those first two semesters, I may have graduated magna cum laude. But I would not have learned as much. I traded a stellar GPA for learning and took five semesters with Dr. Hanson.

I have always learned most from teachers I feared, and I learned a lot from Alice (as we called her only behind her back. She used to say that only her parents called her by her first name, and they were both dead.) I learned piles of music history. Even better, I learned her specific and effective way of reading music as poetry, history, and psychology. How to write an academic paper proved my most difficult lesson.

Every “Alice” class ended with a big analytical paper. I was a decent writer. My language was clear. I painted lovely word pictures and constructed artful and smooth transitions. I went in for my first draft conference with her. She already had a red pen in her hand when I walked in the door. There may have been 6 others in the wastebasket, having been bled dry on other first drafts. She eviscerated my introduction; striking through sentences saying, “State your thesis. Say how you’re going to defend it, points 1,2, and 3. Then get to it!” She muttered, “blah, blah, blah,” while crossing out an entire paragraph. (Remember, I was sitting right there.) She wanted me to write like she lectured- without airs, facts and analysis only, please. If she wanted to read beautiful writing, she certainly wouldn’t pick the offerings of a sophomore with a head full of mush.

I pared it down, realizing that without flowery writing, I would have to do a lot more musical analysis. Poop. I did more analysis, but I couldn’t bring myself to write the way she wanted. A double handful of English and history teachers before her had spent years training me not to write the way she wanted. I left in my transitions and linguistic curly cues. I got a B-. I struggled through every paper I wrote for her, unwilling to comply with her style requirements and her crossing out all my fluff with maddening regularity, until my fifth semester with her.

I chose seven minutes of Copland for the subject of my last paper. I wrote the entire paper as an outline. It looked just like my notes for her class.  Then, I made each point a complete sentence and strung them end on end, like a paper chain and just as artful. No fluff, just twelve pages of analysis, musical examples, and a thrice-checked bibliography. It irked me, but I turned it in just like that. When I got it back, I waited until I was out in the spring sunshine to open it up. Across the entire last page was written, “You finally got it!” I have never been more pleased with a grade, because that ‘A’ took me five semesters to earn. I learned to write to purpose, to bend my style to meet the demands of the moment.

Music history in graduate school was a lark. I met my requirements with such ease that I barely remember what classes I took. I remember reading a journal article on Stravinsky and thinking, “blah, blah, blah. Get to the point” with Alice-like impatience. My opera professor commented that my paper was nothing but analysis. Of course it was, because an academic champion trained me.

When I need a refresher on Schubert, I don’t go to the Internet. I crack open a 15 year-old notebook full of lecture notes and re-read Dr. Hanson’s clear and precise distillation of the man and his music.

She was hard and suitably unusual for someone so brilliant. Her standards were high and rigid. She goaded us toward them, nipping our heels and exclaiming at our ineptitude, but never giving up or letting us settle for less than the summit. All of us who passed her classes became reasonable musicologists in spite of ourselves.

Resting in peace is not Dr. Hanson’s style. May Heaven possess enough interest and joy to meet the fervor with which she taught and thought. I hope, for his sake, Beethoven knows what his own music is about. If not, Alice will tell him.HansonAlice1

She would hate this remembrance; it’s far too long. This is what I would have sent to her.

Dear Dr. Hanson,
            Thank you for holding us to standards that were so high that we didn’t think we could meet them, but we did, with your help and your inspiring and clear teaching. In my eyes, you are largely responsible for redeeming the academic credentials of a performing arts department.
Forever in your debt for my knowledge of sonata form,
241, 242, American, 19th Century, and 20th Century Music.
(You gave me an A one time.)

64 comments on “Honoring Alice

  1. kylee says:

    That’s awesome Cara! So true. Thanks!

  2. Ivana says:

    “Ouch, zero credit, ” was my favorite phrase 🙂 – or not, especially if my classmates did not know something and she went down the line and was getting too close to me. And, finally having said the right answer, there would be “you’re not off the hook”!

  3. Evelyn Lisi says:

    I had Alice Hanson for a seminar called inside the Opera. I was a sophomore and a non music major. It was the hardest class ever and I lived every minute. I am sitting here crying having read your eulogy. Nothing else to say. I just loved her so much. I never knew or dreamed if such a thing as analyzing a minuet before Alice.

    Thanks for this,
    Evelyn Lisi 97

  4. Anonymous says:

    Beautifully written…even if it isn’t in Alice form 🙂
    Thank you.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. She made such a difference.

  6. One of my favorite Alice moments, and there were many, was during an exam. I brought four pens to take the test, and by the second listening excerpt they had all run dry. So I panicked for a second then moaned, “Wait, PLEASE!” After I pleaded my case, Alice paused, smirked, and growled, “Write it in blood!” Then grinned and asked the class if anyone had a pen I could use. That was a great day.

  7. Aline says:

    This was therapeutic. Thank you. I was also a music major (’10) and I felt like I was back in class dreading question time and absorbing all of the information.

  8. Jill says:

    You captured the essence of Alice so well. Thank you. I would like to add another common Alice quote to the memoirs here. ” What the HELL does THAT mean?” She was one of a kind.

  9. Liz Wicks says:

    A friend of a friend of yours (also an Ole, as am I) forwarded this post to me. You have written a beautiful tribute to an outstanding educator, and I am hoping you will allow it to be shared with the wider St.Olaf community. Don’t be surprised if you are contacted by St. Olaf to ask permission to share. Thank you for your moving words.

  10. Ryan Connolly forwarded your post to me, and I just love it. I was an Ole ’89 and a music history major (Well….I was in the Paracollege, Music, Literature and Culture was my major), and I adored Alice. I wanted to be just like her. She had only been there for 3 years when I arrived…and yes, she was quirky, passionate, demanding, hilarious, but perhaps a very little less hard-edged. I went to grad school for music history and made it all the way to an ABD before deciding the life of an academic wasn’t for me. I think I made it that far on the force of Alice’s energy and influence. I saw her at the occasional AMS conference (when she could be bothered to go!) and had lunch a few times with her. She was bemusedly proud of me for wanting to follow in her footsteps, but wasn’t totally encouraging, telling me that it was a hard life, and that having a job as good as hers at St. Olaf was a rare thing. You are making me want to go down the the basement and find my box with old class notebooks (filled with Alice-isms).

    Favorite Alice quotes: “Bach couldn’t burp without doing a 3-part fugue!” “Would you want your superstar piano daughter to marry some impoverished, syphillitic guy?” (Re: Clara and Robert Schumann)

    Thank you for this wonderful essay/post. I think she would have liked both versions. And I hope she knows how much of a difference she truly made for her students.

  11. P.S. I’ve shared your essay on my Facebook page, hope that’s ok! And, as another postscript, I also fondly remember my fiercely won and rare A’s from her. The really amazing thing is to realize that she was 38 when I met her, 7 years younger than I am now. Wow.

  12. Teddy Covey ('11) says:

    I really don’t think this could have been written any better. Alice is truly an irreplaceable woman in the life of anyone who had her in class. It might take a few years after leaving her classroom to understand it, but it’s true that she cared about her students’ performance and gain of knowledge more than any other I’ve come into contact with. She’s gone from joking about “rocking back and forth in 3/4 time” with her students to doing so with Mozart himself now. Farewell, Alice Hanson. May your fervor reverberate in CHM for generations of students to come!

  13. Kate '00 says:

    As a transfer student I missed out on her general music history classes, but I did have the privilege of having her for Classical and Romantic. I don’t think I was ever more thankful to be a transfer student because it took her at least half the semester to learn my name. I will never forget how she would just randomly call out students’ names when she asked questions. Once she called out “Will! Will!” only to discover that the unfortunate soul had chosen not to attend class that day. Even when I did know the answer to whatever it was she asked I was generally too terrified to actually articulate what was running around in my mind. Thank you for paying tribute to her like this. She truly was one-of-a-kind.

    • Will Breytspraak says:

      Um, Kate – that was me. I didn’t know she called on me that day when I was sleeping after helping close the Rueb. Thanks for letting me know.

  14. Paul Johnson says:

    A friend of mine who is St. O class of ’86 forwarded this to me (I am class of ’87). We were there when Alice arrived and she left a powerful impression on us. It’s fascinating to read your beautifully written tribute because clearly not a lot had changed. Alice taught me how to write as well (it was a paper on Richard Strauss “Friede der der Erden” that broke the glass ceiling). However, the only A I received was a paper on George Michael’s video “Freedom” (you’re too young to know how revolutionary this was) in an interim class she taught called American Mavericks. She was one of those people who in her weird way had a powerful effect on many. Thanks for your tribute.

  15. Lena Cicha says:

    Best compliment I have ever received came from Alice. She said I had “pre-Raphaelite hair”. And once, she did a 180 in the student center and ran over to me, simply to say “you know, I was thinking…you should keep your last name when you get married”. It’s the personal aspect of my relationship with her that I remember most.

  16. Ruth Ideen-Sall says:

    This is a beautifully written piece. I am so glad that you were able to put down in words all the ways that we, Alice’s terrified and devoted students, have been remembering her great force in this world. I was able to teach for a short time on faculty after graduation and attending music department meetings was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Students were often lifted up by name in those meetings and their professors asked how to help support them in their academic and musical endeavors. Alice was never at a loss for words at how a student was doing in her class. Everyone had been noticed and she never gave a word of discouragement only mentioning what that student could do to improve. Knowing that my name had been said in that space by those caring, loving and tremendously talented people made me love and believe that studying music at St. Olaf is a very special experience.

  17. Eva Sheie says:

    She and I had a special relationship at the end, since I decided to go to Rice for grad school and she had taught there before coming to St. Olaf. She told me to always carry a sweater with me in the car because the air conditioning was very cold there. She also shared a sad story about seeing a student of hers prostituting while riding the bus to her job at Rice. I always thought that must have made her so sad, if it stayed with her that long and she told me about it. We are all stronger for having had her in our lives.

  18. I got here via a friend’s facebook post. I didn’t attend St. Olaf, but I recently read Hanson’s Biedermeier Vienna book, which was fascinating. It’s great to learn about her teaching. I find myself wondering how a person with this type of character would fare as a new assistant professor today. You can just see the student evaluations proclaiming that they “strongly agree” that this class was much more work than others, and chiding her for singling out latecomers. Did studio teachers ever complain that she failed prize students? Then there was your line about taking detailed notes… couldn’t she have just put that on Powerpoint ;-). I wonder if you’d consider presenting on this topic at a teaching music history conference in the future.

    • 🙂 I can imagine a new unestablished professor having a hard time being as hard as she was with Although, I get the feeling that her reputation for bluntness increased with time. I never got wind of studio teachers getting upset, but the culture of the music dept. at St Olaf (to my mind) is very ensemble focused and doesn’t have a conservatory vibe. I can’t remember any diva students from my time there.

      Re: notes. Taking notes myself was half the job of learning the material, and it gave us something active to do during class, engaging our minds more. Having them handed to me would have been too passive, but then I have a near romantic relationship with pen and paper. And I studied with her before interactive whiteboards, etc. We had a chalk (yes chalk) board, a CD and LP player, and speakers.

      I am not the person to present anything at a teaching music history conference. Ha! But there are more than a few Hanson-trained theory, comp, and musicology teachers out there who (I suspect) have adopted some of her…style features. 🙂

      I appreciate the the comment, Matthew! Thanks for reading.

    • William Goforth '13 says:

      Reading these comments again as I grieve Alice’s death still two years later I was struck by the line wondering how she would fare today… It’s important to me to remember that Dr. Hanson had a difficult time at St. Olaf when she began her tenure thirty years ago and her position wasn’t necessarily easy at the end of her life. I never forgot what she said once: that she was grateful to the women who taught at St. Olaf before her, that she was “standing on their shoulders” and her work wasn’t possible without them. I wish I knew more about this and her experience teaching. In class I asked her many questions, there is so much more to know.

  19. gordon marino says:

    What a wonderfully composed and loving tribute. Many thanks.

  20. Jonathan Hill (Professors Emeritus, Department of English) says:

    This was a truly moving, eloquent tribute to one so rich and striking in human contradictions. Alice was at once fearsome and hilarious, learned and blunt, controlled and tumultuous. I had the delight and privilege of knowing her as a colleague for many years. Meeting and talking with her was like entering a verbal wind tunnel: she blew one away; one felt energized for the rest of the day. The funniest Alice quote I heard were the words she supposedly used at the beginning of every class. Tell me, did she really used to say, “Hurry up and open you texts: we’re already behind!”?

  21. Anon says:

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  22. Kevin Stocks says:

    You had Alice for 241?? JEALOUS!! Thanks for this, Cara. Beautiful and poignant!

    • You know it. Thanks for reading, Stocks. It’s funny; I almost didn’t post it at all. I wrote it for myself and for my little circle of Ole friends. I had no idea it would have meaning for so many. It’s very humbling.

  23. Karen Herseth Wee says:

    Authentic, is the word for Alice, awesomely authentic. As an alum of St.Olaf and a friend of Alice’s I’m grateful that she was and is, ours! Thanks for sharing this wonderful tribute.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Oh just wonderful. Thanks for the beautiful tribute. So sad to hear of her passing as I too had always meant to say thank you. It was thrilling to be in the presence of her total command of the subject matter. I was awed by it and prodded to improve my own work (which truly was as awful as she repeatedly indicated). I also signed up for an additional semester of “Alice”, albeit pass/fail, because I didn’t want to miss the show. She will be missed.

  25. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Alice. I loved her too…she was my very favorite teacher at St. Olaf. I graduated in ’84, so was there when she arrived like a force field. I remember getting papers back with the admonition to WRITE ABOUT THE MUSIC!!! (Perhaps that was her precursor to “BULLSHIT!”) I swear I passed out of the grad school music theory requirements at Northwestern because of what I learned about analysis from Alice. I’m happy to say that at one of my visits to the hill many years later, I did track her down to thank her, and she seemed pleased. Mostly I remember her infectious passion. Such a loss. I feel so sorry for the current and future Oles who will not have the privilege of studying with her. (and now I’m motivated to try to find my old notebooks with lecture notes from her class.)

  26. Bonnie Hanson Boedecker says:

    I am Alice’s youngest sibling – the last of eight kids. Thank you to everyone for your heart felt notes, for they are all appreciated and add to our own understanding of her. Contrary to a comment I read early in this thread, not both her parents are passed away. We lost our Dad in 2006, but our Mom is alive and well and will be 98 in December 2013. Alice and I went to Wien in 1980 as she was finishing some details on her dissertation prior to publication and already teaching at Rice. We stayed with a friend of hers and Alice showed me the city loved so much. As time went on, she moved to St Olaf and was closer to the rest of the family. We are heart broken at the news of her passing. Thank you again to all of you who expressed your appreciation and affection for a girl I really only knew as by big sister. Your generosity and affection is greatly appreciated. Bonnie

    • Bonnie,
      I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you can tell how much affection and gratitude your sister’s students had for her. Comfort and peace to you, your mother, and the rest of your family.

    • Peggy Bauer Bragelman says:

      I don’t know if anyone will see this as it’s over 6 years since Alice’s death. I do believe Alice is the Alice Hanson I knew in high school at Cooper H.S. in New Hope, MN. She and I were friends in choir. I played the part of Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music to Alice’s Maria Von Trapp in the fall of 1965. Yes, many years ago. Every time I would watch the re-run on tv of The Sound of Music, I would wonder what happened to all the great kids that participated in it. As I watched it again tonight, I looked up Alice, and I believe your photo is the same girl I knew. I’m so sorry to see she has passed away. But we are of the age that it is to be expected. She was an excellent student and it doesn’t surprise me the path her life took.

      God bless Alice and you all.

  27. Dan Brown says:

    Dear C. (Cara?) W. — I didn’t know your beloved teacher, but she comes alive for me in your beautiful rendering. This patently wonderful person surely found in you a worthy student. Her injunction to “write about the music,” and your sympathy with it, make me think you might be interested in an online appreciation of Bach’s music I’ve written. I’d like to think it at least tries to honor Alice’s ideal. You can see a short excerpt at http://www.whybach.com . The excerpt comes at the music from a slightly oblique angle, but it quickly gets to it and stays with it. If you have a look (and a listen; it has notated examples that play themselves), I hope you enjoy!

    All best,


  28. Tina (Mennel) Schneider ('94) says:

    Alice made my blood run cold and my brain freeze for about two years. But, when I was going through a difficult time, she canceled our independent study one day and treated me at the snack bar in the building where the cafeteria used to be. She talked about the circus (!) as I wondered if I had been pulled into an alternate reality. She was so kind, really.

Leave a Reply to sometimesisleep Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s