Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 10

Routine & Balance

After ten days of teaching remotely, plus a week of keeping track of assignments the week before, while preparing to be a virtual teacher, this thing we now think of as remote teaching, is starting to feel routine. Teaching from my makeshift home office is starting to feel almost normal too. In fact, it’s surprising to me how this pattern has evolved over these three weeks.

At first I kept the same sleep schedule and my morning routine for the sake of not making too many adjustments. After all remote teaching was at first supposed to last for about a month. Then after a few announcements by the WA State Governor Inslee, then the CDC stating that this may very well be our collective reality at least until May, I started to change my mind set about this experience. I became more positive and started approaching long term solutions to some of the challenges facing me, my students and most certainly my family. After all, they too are stakeholders in this environment with me.

The routine is becoming cemented with me, so I’m sure my students are starting to feel it as well. Working from home is no longer the hurtle it was two weeks ago, and now I’m most concerned with the balance of working from home and still being a good father and husband for my family. It seem that the work-life and home-life balance I had been trying to figure out before the coronavirus era began, is still something I’m going to need to tweak and work out. Funny how the challenges of being a full time teacher during regular work hours and keeping an active performance career doesn’t really change in our current situation. I still need to find the time in my day to work on my ability to play the trumpet, and lesson plan for my students with the added advantage of becoming 1/2 of our home school faculty for our kid. 

New challenges are coming. Old challenges are evolving. The earlier wave of obstacles is becoming routine.

My Old Notebooks

I usually carry a notebook in my backpack. It’s become a habit for me to just pull it out and jot down what’s on my mind or notes from a meeting, chord progressions, tone rows…anything I need to put on paper.  Sometimes I may even take a moment to review a notebook from its first page, so it functions as a journal as well. Dates may or may not be written in the notebook, the end of a thought might not be articulated due to some sort of distraction. In any case, I am fascinated by past me and those thoughts.

Recently I went looking through one of my old notebooks and found one of my melted thought-cicles on one of its pages. I referenced a picture of me and my dad. At the time he was diagnosed with cancer and I was in town to visit him. I can’t remember the reason for this particular picture or what were we staring at, but my notes about that moment seem more contemplative and vulnerable.

I lost him 6 months after that picture was taken, and I miss him. My guess is that my old notebooks are time machines because that particular entry took me right back to the moment that picture was taken, and I am lucky to have both to help me grieve.

 

Surprising to me still

When I think about things that upset me, I’m often surprised about the things that get me amped up and blood boiling. There are the usual thing like humans mistreating one another or lack of empathy toward suffering. You know…war, famine, wastefulness, bigotry, bullying, unnecessary shaming, miss using bacon to make other foods taste good, and on and on.

Those seem obvious and need not be mentioned, dealing with stupid humans and all of our feelings is part of the deal. However, I am caught off guard when I think I am in control of a process and find myself (and or the people I work with) are adversely affected. The fear for me is that the work we do will be judged not by our best effort, but by the shortcomings of the environment around us.

Teaching in the ARTS feels that way sometimes. We often need to overcome a situation or innovate around an obstacle. Some are within your control and you can deal with those issues. Logistics of getting equipment from one place to another, moving bodies from one place to another, learning to perform and have students feel the safety of a group of people working together to create something, are things I feel I can affect.

Dealing with issues for which you see coming and can’t control, is a set of muscles I need to strengthen. To my surprise, this infuriates me. Try as much as I do, sometimes I just can’t hide it. I need to learn this skill….eventually I’ll learn.

This might work out

I recently changed the curriculum of one of my classes to be a more project-based class. My want and desires are to give students an opportunity to dig deeper into a musical subject. As to not make my classes all about performance. It seems as if the only context given for learning about the history and theory related to piece is solely to prepare a student’s ability to connect with what they are performing. That approach worked great for my higher-level performers, and it didn’t reach students who were still learning (or relearning) the fingerings on their instrument. That is a subject for another day.

The class looks more like this, I pick a subject or an artist and we do the following things.

  • Make Connections
  • Respond to Art
  • Create
  • Perform

Since I look at this as a cycle, I tend to do these when the class is ready to do them. Often I’ll introduce a piece of music as a listening assignment, we typically learn a melody related to the subject shortly after. Students are given assignments that are grade and given time to research the subject, (i.e go listen to music and learn something time).

About midway through the term, students come up with proposals for a project. Many of them are ambitious, but eventually, I keep them grounded.

By the end, students present their research about the subject. Some choose to put together a performance in groups, others choose to create a piece of visual art representing the subject. Some even put together a slide show with a particular point of view.

So far so good. Students have created some of the following:

Comic Strip

A children’s book

Created a short film (very short film)

Written and or performed in a one-act play

Like I said this may just work out.

 

 

ISM’s in me

The problem with being someone who likes to fix things is, you may end up causing more problems. Unintended problems which may put into question the very reason you chose to help. In my case, a bad mixture of paternalism, guilt, narcism, and hero’ism gone too far.

Recently I caught myself trying to help too much, though my intentions were good, the consequences of my action put some of my colleges in very tense conversations about how to help a particular situation. My flaw was thinking that if I were to get involved with that situation, the problem would somehow be remedied and it would all work itself out like some made for TV movie.

As teachers, I believe we try to fix things and find solutions to what needs to be addressed right now. The truth is, what fixes the particular problem I am reckoning with is having a balance of people that look like me and can speak to the multitude of experiences of people that look like me. Unfortunately, I can’t fix this with just sheer will of strength…in fact, I can’t affect the issue of lack of representation at independent schools. (At least not yet.)

I still have a lot of personal work I need to do to address the “ism’s” I deal with and the negative impacts of them on the people around me.

It’s Been A While…

It’s been a long time since my last post, so I feel the need to add something new. However, the something new feels like it will be a combination to things that have been on my mind since November. There are personal thing and other ideas and feeling related to music or teaching. I guess this is when the identity of this particular blog are at odds. Or at least with the music, thoughts and random things smash into one another.

Here are several things that have been on my mind over the past few months and in no particular order. First the book “Why The Cock Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola” by Michele Wucker. The People of Color Conference, held in Nashville in November, followed by some trumpet playing problems I’ve been experiencing. The music of Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, and the albums by the Now Ensemble. And finally, capping off the whirl wind of thoughts and experiences from November to now…Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Along with all of those thoughts, feeling and experiences, there is family taking up space within all of these topics in my head. I think about my kid and wife, my parents, grandparents and my brother, when I think to what I read about the island of Hispaniola, PoCC and MLK. I worry about my ability to be creative when I wonder about my chops and whether I can participate or teach effectively the music I enjoy listening to.

Perhaps I just need more time to process, think and feel these thing out….. then I can share my thoughts.

The Composition Game

I was recently asked to participate in a pilot program connecting me with an artist of the same discipline to work with me and coach me achieve an important next step in my career. My peer mentor and I talked about using music composition as a way of stretching out to meet some artistic goals. The other goal was to get me to work around my writer’s block.

The game was to set aside an hour every day for the month of July to compose and explore ideas. There is no restriction about what I need to write, nor barriers to whom I was writing music for. The only stipulation was to set aside time to write music. By the end of the month, I would share with my coach about my process and some of the work created.

There was no stipulation that I would share any of this work publically, but I guess I need to put something out into the world. In any case here is one of the drafts I came up with. (forgive the MIDI sounds) This piece could still be orchestrated for any number of ensembles.

All of the pieces I started during this game used a 12 tone matrix. I gave myself this obstacle as a structure to help foster ideas.

 

Identity and Representation

Little over a month ago I ran into a former student at a performance. As we caught up with one another, he mentioned conversations or topics we had explored a few times years ago. We discussed the idea of what it feels like when you feel like you don’t really, fully, belong where you are. Certain interests, that make us unique, can make us stand out, and sometimes, feel alone.  These interests may authentically line up with who you are as a person in the present, but at the same time, the expectation of who you are or should be professionally, or as a representation of a gender, culture, or race, is in conflict with your authentic self.

The example of this mix match in identity for me is being a Dominican man from the Bronx, who plays the trumpet, and specifically specializes in classical music. When I’m in NYC, I’m Dominican. When I’m in the DR, I’m American. Everywhere else in America, I’m African American, or for short, black (I’m also bald :)). The good news is that I am okay with all of these labels. In fact, I hold them as badges of honor. I can be all of these things at once while being a musician, and more importantly, being myself. Of course, there are expectations and responsibilities that come with these labels. Being a musician, who looks like me, comes with its own set of assumptions; for example, I hear, “you must play jazz or meringue, or salsa music” or, “you have a Doctorate in music?”, or, “really, you went to Yale?  Oh, for music.”  I love jazz, blues, and Latin music, but lately, if you were to pull the Bose headphones off of my ears, you’d find me listening to South African house music, rap, and John Dowland.  Not quite what one typically would expect.  Okay, maybe the rap music.

My former student, now my friend and colleague, teaches in a place where few people look like him; I can relate. He doesn’t see many folks who have the same intense love for music that he does, but yet he continues to find ways of connecting people, and helping his community see past typical stereotypes. He’s young, so I hope he keeps a positive attitude and stays resilient.  More than ever, we need teachers like him to teach in places where the teacher stands out from the typical normal.  That’s how we learn.