The Musician’s Soul

I’m participating in a faculty seminar with eight other professors, each from different disciplines. We get together every other week and take turns discussing books everyone has selected from their respective disciplines. This Wednesday a music prof is leading the discussion of The Musician’s Soul by James Jordan.

Like a student, I have been procrastinating. That means I just started reading it today, Sunday*. Three days and counting. Even though I’m in the early stages, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I’m digging it. Double J is wonderfully out of touch with the times. Instead of privileging standardization, data, and efficiency, he writes of self understanding, spirituality, and soulfulness. He’s more Buddhist than business school.

For a little flavor flav, here he is on self-expression:

“If one believes that music is self-expression, then it should follow that one must have a self to express. Before one is able to conduct and evoke artistry from singers, one must spend a considerable amount of time on oneself, on one’s inside stuff. One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times. Most musicians, however, involve themselves in a process of self-mutilation. They focus on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of music instead of the ‘who’. Frustration and anger with self occur, almost unknowingly. The conductor, music educator, or performer must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and of his or her own human spirit. That journey must be non-self-mutilating. At the risk of oversimplifying, one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with an ensemble or an audience through the music. Knowledge and trust of self is necessary for music making to take place. An ability to ‘just be’ is paramount.”

These insights are wonderfully applicable. Substitute any art, like writing, for the making of music. Or almost any vocation imaginable.

My subconscious is just starting to work on a new course I’m teaching next spring for teachers training to be school principals. While I’m reading Jordan I’m substituting school leaders for musicians. “The school leader must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and his or her own human spirit. . . . one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with a faculty, or families, or students through schooling.”

This portion of the larger excerpt deserves further reflection, “One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times.” Sounds more simple than it is. Most everyone has long-standing negative tapes looping in their heads thanks to mean-spirited teachers, parents, or coaches.

Do you know, accept, and trust yourself? How might your vocation and life change as a result of greater knowledge, acceptance, and trust?

* Had to finish The Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh first.

Reinventing Teaching, Reinventing School

Olympia High School’s spring orchestra concert. A young woman sits down at a large, beautiful harp. Her sound is transcendent. I’m transported to a sun-filled Thirteenth Century Renaissance faire. I also think about dying and how her music would ease the transition.

Next, the Chamber orchestra takes the stage. They practice together four days a week, before the sun or their classmates rise. They sit in a semi-circle with a wood stool front and center. A double bass player enters, sits on the stool, and adjusts his music stand as his compatriots tune their instruments. He follows suit. Eventually, he turns to the left, looks over his shoulder and makes eye contact with the first violinist. Next, he turns to the right, looks over his other shoulder and makes eye contact with the first cellist. It’s time.

Their excellence moved the audience, but a more subtle aspect of their performance was overlooked, their utter and complete independence. They have an outstanding orchestra teacher, but his work was done in class during January and February; as a result, he sat backstage out of the limelight. The education reformer in me wanted to freeze that image of the teacher backstage listening to his students playing on the stage, stand up, and bellow, “That’s what Decker Walker meant when he wrote, ‘The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them!'”

In schools today, “something is done to students” ninety-five percent of the time. Adults make all the important decisions with little to no student participation. Student governments have next to no impact on meaningful day-to-day school life or climate. Adults out-think and out-talk students to such a degree that interrupting student talk and thought is accepted as normal. So much so that students know they can out wait their teachers, that in short order their teachers will fill any empty spaces with their words and thoughts.

Athletics, or coaching more specifically, could provide a more hopeful, student-centered model for improved teaching and learning, one where students take on ever increasing responsibility for both their school environment and learning, except for the fact that most coaches overcoach, greatly limiting their athletes’ participation in decision-making, calling timeouts the second something goes awry, and yanking players after their first mistakes. There are exceptions, but the fact that they are exceptions illustrates the problem.

Maybe the best model is the music program’s artistic cousin, drama. When the curtain rises on a play, there’s no calling timeouts. The student-actors work especially long hours to prepare because they know they’re going to be on their own. For better or worse. Just like when they graduate and the curtain rises on their adult lives.

Empowering students to help make meaningful school decisions and become more independent learners doesn’t mean teachers will spend their days playing Scrabble on their smartphones. While backstage, the orchestra teacher was listening intently to his students, taking notes, preparing to critique their performance in class in eleven hours.

Conventional wisdom aside, teaching isn’t someone standing at a podium talking endlessly to rows of passive students. That’s “presenting”. Reinventing school requires reinventing teaching, reinventing teaching requires elevating the careful and thoughtful assessment of student work to new heights. Teachers must talk less and observe and listen more as students demonstrate what they know and can do. And then the teacher’s job is to help students figure out how to sound even better, solve even more difficult problems, and write even more lucidly.

The Teacher Appreciation Deficit

Thursday night, as I settled into my seat at Olympia High School’s end-of-the-year orchestra concert, my thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day when my thirty-four Masters Teaching Certification candidates discussed whether, as year-long interns, they felt sufficiently appreciated.

No surprise that most of them did not. Instead of partnering with them, they lamented that too many of their students’ parents ceded seemingly total responsibility for their  children’s education. I suggested that tough economic times seem to be bringing out the worse in an increasing number of people who seemingly view teachers—with their relative job security, solid health care benefits and retirement plans, and shorter than average work year—with antipathy and derision.

My doctoral dissertation was the story of a Global Studies high school in Southern California. Before putting pen to paper, I sat in on four classrooms for a few months. One dark fall morning, while I was interviewing one of the Global Studies teachers whose classroom I studied, he stopped me cold and said, “You’re the first person in twenty-three years who truly understands what I do.”

Most teachers do exceptionally good work in near total obscurity. Often, their administrators and colleagues don’t even have a feel for what they accomplish on a daily basis, let alone students’ parents or the public more generally. Ignorance breeds contempt.

Coaches, theater educators, and music educators are exceptions to the rule because their students sporadically perform in public. Typically, afterwards, the public praises their performances and applauds, sometimes as in the case of the Olympia High School end-of-the-year orchestra concert, lustily.

Absent audio tracks from their concert, there’s no way I can convey the brilliance of Olympia High’s orchestra program. It probably helps that I’m not a connoisseur of classical music, but at every concert I marvel anew at the excellence. Excellence that rests on parents like the GalPal who decided early on that our daughters were going to have every opportunity to excel at the violin, a network of outstanding private instructors, and Chip Freakin’ Schooler, the best orchestra teacher and conductor in at least this galaxy.

Of course privilege comes into play, but what better use of financial resources than artistic excellence? In fact, increasingly I wonder if beautiful music, dance, literature, design, painting, photography and related art forms are all that matter. Maybe we have it exactly backwards, cutting arts education in the interest of economic utilitarianism and consumerism.

CFS deserves his own post, but for now, suffice to say he embodies a critical ingredient to reforming education and improving teaching—off the charts subject matter expertise. A couple of tweaks to his life journey and I suspect he’d be conducting a major U.S. symphony right now.

Instead, he’s working tirelessly with fourth and fifth graders and middle schoolers at several different schools preparing them for the high school orchestras. His work ethic rivals his musicality, so much so it takes most of the summer at his family’s Lake Cour d’ Alene cabin to decompress.

I feel deeply indebted to CFS for the educational experience he’s provided Fifteen and Eighteen. At the end of the concert, each senior gave him a bag of chips, then took turns reading a touching poem to him, then gave him flowers, then new rosin rags, then a special tuning fork set to 2011 megahertz. Craziness, teenagers being touching.

CFS balanced appreciation for his students’ affection with selfless and pragmatic attention to wrapping up the concert. Pride in the students’ accomplishments, without the personal ego one might expect.

It’s the end of the school year. Tell a Chip Schooler in your community why you appreciate them.