The longer I’m in school the more I want to be done with it. That’s not an unusual sentiment, from the people I talk with on a day to day basis, but I can’t help but to wonder why that is. Sure, we all want to make real money, live our lives, and not have a teacher telling us what to do, but I live a fairly comfortable life. Having the luxury of learning new things everyday seems like it would be great- or does it? This is not a post to bash any particular school or teacher by any means, but sometimes I get very frustrated when creativity has to sit second place to a book, or what someone else says or thinks.
Education, in general, is a tough business to be in these days. Across the country teachers are being laid off, school systems are folding, and test scores are doing a nose dive to the bottom. News companies like CNN and MSNBC are even reporting how far behind our country is in education world-wide. Yes, it’s a mess, but what are we to do about it? What are we doing wrong? This can be debated all day long, but if we can hone in on a few things I think we can help light the wild fire of change we need so much in our education systems. One of those things, in my opinion, is linking education with things we are familiar with, or things we like to do.
As a Music Education major in my undergrad, I spent a good amount of time studying Orff Schulwerk. What is Orff Schulwerk, you ask? Well, by definition it’s a way to teach and learn music, which is based on things children like to do, like sing, chant rhymes, clap, etc. The key phrase in that definition is “things children like to do”. I know, I know – everything in life isn’t fun and games, and we have to do and be involved in things we don’t enjoy sometimes, but Orff had it right when he took something fun and understandable for children and turned it into a teaching mechanism. In my elementary school years I was an Orff student, and I attribute those lessons to not only my love of music, but my critical thinking skills, and ability to function in society.
On my visit to Memphis last weekend I met a girl on the shuttle to the airport who noticed my bassoon. She is also a musician (violist). We got into a conversation about the music program at her undergraduate school (I’ll remain nameless, but it’s very prestigious) and she said that the focus was very “academic” and not “artful” or “performance-based”. Personally, I think the music at this school is good, but I’m not at all surprised by what she said. Music doesn’t exist in books or even on paper – it exists in time and space. Why wouldn’t we, as educators, want to focus more on the “stuff” of music, as opposed to the nuts and bolts, so to speak?
Now the next thing out of everyone’s mouth when I say things like this is “Garrett, Music Theory is actually very important”. I agree, it is very important, but even that can be taught and enjoyed in a way that focuses on the music and ties in with familiar territory. Yesterday my theory class had a sub, and he was SO good at applying the information. For example, if I tell you that in music, Bar Form is a form in which each stanza follows the pattern of AAB, you might understand, but you might not. If I tell you, as the teacher did yesterday, that our national anthem is in bar form because it has two identical phrases followed by a third, different phrase, you’d have a better shot at understanding, and remembering. He went on the play it on the piano and sang it drunkenly, as “the old British people who sang the song in their pubs would have done”, but that even added a level of comprehension, in a weird way. What this instructor did was involve the class – he didn’t just tell us, or even just show us. That’s important to note, because one of the phrases I learned from Orff Schulwerk is “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand”.
If you’re someone who learns best by spitting out information from a book, recording, or the like, I say good for you! Unfortunately my mind doesn’t work that way, and neither do the minds of the millions of school children falling victim to poorly run schools in our country. With all that being said, don’t allow yourself to fall into the malaise – stimulate your learning by involving yourself in the subject you’re studying. Apply knowledge. Stimulate the minds of your students by applying knowledge to familiar ground. Don’t allow creativity to sit second place to a book.
Listening to: Carmina Burana
As a musician, it's not often that a conductor makes me a little nervous anymore, but it happened this past week when the USC Symphony began working on a concert featuring the 5th symphony of Shostakovich with Maestro James Conlon as the guest conductor. I have performed movements of this work before, so it wasn't a matter of my not being familiar with the work - I just don't think I was taking full liability for what was going on around me and my section. Being in an orchestra is often compared to being on a team, but it is so much more. On a basketball court, someone else can play your position if need be, but if you drop the ball on the concert stage there isn't anyone else there to do it for you! You also have to be aware, as a principal musician, of what your section is doing, and do everything you can to assist them. After some concentration, and a cigarette or two (I know, bad), I got into the groove, was more aware, and stopped relying on the conductor to do it all for me. Everything felt great. Conlon does such a great job of showing the music that's in his mind and in his heart, and I think doing the same from my seat helped the bassoon section, and maybe even other sections in the wind family.
Maestro Conlon, for those of you who don't know, is the conductor of the Los Angeles Opera, and has lead many orchestras world wide. His body of knowledge on music is limitless, and working with him was a great honor. It's one thing to be famous, but it's another thing to show a group of musicians WHY you're so famous, and he did just that on his first day in front of us. He began rehearsal by explaining his beat patterns. I've never thought that it really matted much, as long as you're counting, but it ended up being very helpful, as the music on this concert was very complex in nature. Whenever we lead a group of people in anything we do, it's probably best to lay out the plan of action ahead of time, as to save time later. When he finally dropped the first down beat, the energy was so high that it took me by surprise! He showed us what was inside of his head and transferred it throughout his whole body - not just the baton. He tended to stay away from the traditional "floor door wall ceiling" sort of beat pattern, but what he DID do made perfect sense in the context of the music. So often we're afraid to do what we want artistically because "the rules" say differently, but that philosophy clearly was not a concern of Conlon's, and it ended up being amazing. What I learned from this, though, was that I needed to be THOUROUGHLY familiar with the work, so that we didn't have to, in his words, "rely on a cue".
After about 30 minutes of rehearsal something beautiful happened - the orchestra began to rely more on each other. In this world we tend to look at a boss, parent, or teacher for all the answers. Superiors are definitely there for a reason, but sometimes we have to be liable for ourselves and other people, and that's what Conlon did for us in that rehearsal. I found myself taking more explicit breaths, even if I didn't have an entrance (to assist my section), and to also help "hold the tempo", as Conlon instructed the wind section to do. I even took physical cues for time and rhythm from other sections not near me, like the violas - something I've never really done in an orchestral setting. Being more liable for ourselves and others and not "relying on a cue" is something I think we all should think about in our various professions. Take more initiative. Go above and beyond. Help others do a better job.
Take a listen to a movement or two of Shostakovich 5 this week, and think about your own liability. The next time you're at your job and you're given the opportunity, help "hold the tempo", proverbially, and practice this in things big and small, for in the words of Conlon, "the smaller the note, the more important".
My most favorite thing about Conlon, though, was the he didn't allow the trumpets to play at 4 f's all the freaking time! :-)
Happy Black History Month! Although the hype behind black history month seems to be a little less that it used to be (in my eyes anyway) I still think it's very important to note some of the contributions black people have made to our country and our culture. We live in a country filled with so many different cultures and people, and we need to be more educated and aware of our own differences. Being aware and supportive of our multi-cultured society, in my opinion, is crucial, and makes us all better, more informed people.
The first name that comes to mind for most of us would probably be the late Martin Luther King Jr. It's a shame that I'm from Memphis and have only been to the National Civil Rights Museum (the site of his assassination) once in my life, but I hope to go back someday soon. Everyone in and around the mid-south should be sure to visit, if you haven't done so. It really sheds some light on our history, and it's interesting to see how far we've come (and haven't come, in some ways). People like to bring up the flaws in his character and some of the darker things he'd done in his life, but he changed us all from what would would (or could) be as a people, and for that we owe him our thanks.
There are many other individuals that we can point out when talking about black history, like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, but it's hard to talk about black history without mentioning music. Something I love and believe was birthed from the proverbial womb of black people in this country is the spiritual. Sure, the victims of slavery were thrown into a religion they knew little about initially, but they made it their own, and used music as a means for having hope of something better for the future. These songs were passed down through the generations, and many of them are very mainstream and well known even today. Take the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" for instance. In itself, this song isn't particularly the most religious of spirituals, and it wouldn't make loads of sense in today's society, but it was important enough to the people who used it to survive to pass it down, and it's a staple in the black spiritual repertory today. One that I've noticed only black people seem to know about, however, is the "Negro National Anthem". I don't love the title, because I believe we all live in one nation under God, but the idea behind the lyrics is good. Look up this tune if you don't know it.
Another black-inspired musical genre to survive time is rap/hip-hop. I know many classical musicians turn their noses up at this sort of music, but I don't - I'm a proponent of anything musical (as more of us should be). On many occasions I've talked with people about rap and the first thing out of their mouths is something along the lines of "I had no idea it would have lasted this long when it first came out!" Of course, I'm not old enough to have been a part of its beginnings, but I definitely see and feel it's affects, as we all do. From clothing styles to rims on your car, rap has influenced American culture in a big way, and I think it's important and interesting to note. If you think about how many styles of music have gone in and out of the lime light, it seems like rap and hip-hop has stood it's ground. Even if a song isn't blatantly rap, there seems to be a hip-hop/R&B undertone to a lot of it. Pop music in general has been blending more together lateley, and I think it's cool. I still remember when *NSYNC's song, "Gone", came on a black radio station. This was shocking to many people, because a group of white boys came out with a song that actually worked on a black station! Today we don't think twice about it, but I'm sure artists like Eminem faced some adversity at first. There are many negative things rap has been accused of in the past (not all untrue), but I think we should focus on the good - yes, a lot of it is good! You don't have to love it, but you should at least tip your hat to it.
There are so many other "black" things that can be explored in honor of Black History Month, from the rise in popularity of soul food, to the huge discussion of black hair. We all have been touched by the culture in some way, and coming more in contact with this and other cultures only makes us, and Americans, a greater people. So this month, do something black. Read poetry by black authors, learn more about clip-on weaves, or simply have a peanut butter sandwich (thanks to George Washington Carver). Personally, I'll stick with listening to my black spirituals, and all of those other "old time" gospel medlies I grew up on.
...and by the way, as much as I love hip-hop culture, I think "saggin'" is kinda silly.
Listening to: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot