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For SUNY Potsdam professor, teaching Beatles class a dream job

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POTSDAM — When professor C. Douglas Rubio says he has a great job, it’s best to know he’s been a Beatles fan since he watched the band’s U.S. debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 50 years ago.

Before Mr. Rubio, a professor of classical guitar at SUNY Potsdam, started teaching his “The Music of The Beatles” course in January 2008, he spent a semester’s sabbatical putting the course together.

“For a whole semester I did nothing but listen to the Beatles, read about the Beatles, and watch old videos and archive tapes,” said Mr. Rubio, 58. “It was heaven for a whole semester.”

Mr. Rubio teaches his Beatles class each fall semester. He teaches two versions, which are alternated: one for music majors at the Crane School of Music, and one for non-music majors who use the course as a general education requirement. He teaches another version of the course as an online distance-learning class.

“The music majors are able to talk with a little bit more technical detail about things like the chords the Beatles use and the interesting scales they use in some of their songs,” Mr. Rubio said.

He said the course is very popular, but there is a cap on the number of students who can take it. For music majors, the cap is 15, and for non-music majors, it’s 50.

Often, when he plays a Beatles song in class, it’s a revelation for students.

“They’ll say, ‘That’s the Beatles? Oh my God, I’ve heard that song all my life and I never knew it was the Beatles,’” Mr. Rubio said.

listen closely

Part of the goal of his class, Mr. Rubio said, is to have students appreciate Beatles music.

“But my most important goal is to get them to listen to music in a different way,” he said.

This is important, Mr. Rubio said, especially for non-music majors. He said music often is used as background filler while students are talking, driving, cooking or having a party.

“Very few of them are used to sitting down and really listening to a song very closely,” Mr. Rubio said. “If they learn to listen to music a lot more closely and intensely and a little more analytically, that’s probably the most important thing I can do for them. It opens up not just the music of the Beatles, but all music becomes more enjoyable and a deeper artistic experience for them.”

Crane School of Music junior Nicole M. Mihalek, of Medford, Long Island, has been exposed to Beatles music since she was a child. She recently finished Mr. Rubio’s three-week online class on the Beatles during SUNY Potsdam’s “Winterim” session, held between the fall and spring semesters.

“My mother is a pretty big Beatles fan,” Miss Mihalek said. “She would kind of just play albums randomly. The most interesting part of the class was making chronological sense and evolutionary sense of how The Beatles progressed over time. So hearing something like ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’ never made much sense to me until Dr. Rubio explained how the Beatles got there.”

Mr. Rubio’s course, she said, required at least three hours of work a day.

“It’s a major commitment,” she said. “You do have to listen very carefully.”

Mikaela R. Davis, a harp major at Crane, said she grew up listening to Beatles music but wanted to learn more. Miss Davis, a Rochester native who is a senior and also a songwriter, took Mr. Rubio’s course this past fall.

“I’ve listened to these songs all my life, but I never knew the stories behind them, or how incredible the Beatles were musically, especially given the time these songs were recorded and how advanced they were,” Miss Davis said. “I was always eager to get to class, even though it was at 8 a.m.”

the ‘environment’

The Beatles class also explores the social impact of the band.

“It touches on what was going on at the time with politics, the drugs, the women’s movement,” Mr. Rubio said. “All of that is very, very important to how this music was created and the environment in which is was listened to.”

But the class primarily focuses on the music and how the Beatles put it together.

“The Beatles didn’t do anything that was really that different compared to the rest of pop and rock music at the time,” Mr. Rubio said of early Beatles music. “But they were so incredibly talented and had these personalities that came through in the songs that were so strong they took the world by storm.”

Mr. Rubio said record companies allowed the band to push the envelope because of their talent. The Beatles also had a symbiotic relationship with other musicians, he said.

“For instance, in 1963, the Beatles fell in love with the album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,’ and they listened to it constantly while they were on tour,” Mr. Rubio said. “That eventually influenced them to try something with acoustic guitars in more of a folk style and to de-emphasize the vocal duets.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Dylan loved the sound of the Beatles, Mr. Rubio said.

“(They) were the primary reason why Bob Dylan ended up switching away from just being an acoustic guitar folk singer and started to include electric instruments,” Mr. Rubio said.

the album experience

The Beatles helped to revolutionize the experience of listening to full albums, Mr. Rubio said. Previously, record companies emphasized the sales of single 45s, which were released first and then rereleased onto albums.

“When we get up to 1965, 1966 and 1967, the album becomes the artistic unit for the Beatles,” he said. “Now you’re sitting down and listening to them as an album. The singles are almost a second thought after that. And that changed the game.”

But Mr. Rubio said he has seen a shift back to singles with the convenient sales of individual songs over the Internet.

“Now iTunes comes along and kids just buy individual songs again, instead of whole albums,” he said. “I think that’s a shame.”

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