Music and Words

Last month my school had an assembly celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Every year I think about how my school celebrates MLK. In years past, when I taught at a small independent elementary and middle school, we kept it to many of his highlights and events.  Students learned about nonviolent protest, marches and other key figures of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Most of it was done to not upset young students or parents.

In that setting, I would use my lesson plans and classes as a space to explore more of the civil rights movement. Since I teach music, I could use several avenues or artist to explain the artistic reactions to many of the injustices that came as a result of Jim Crow laws or segregation. However, it still felt like I was just addressing the surface of this subject.

Now I teach at an independent middle school and high school so I can dive a bit deeper and have students explore more. It helps that students are also studying the civil rights movement and are becoming social-activists. But still, as a new faculty member, I don’t want to upset the apple cart and do too much too soon. So when the opportunity came up to include music in the MLK assembly, I jumped at the chance.

At first, the planners of the assembly didn’t want the school orchestra to play. It would have been a lot of moving parts with a for a fifty-minute program. Eventually, we compromised and had a string quartet playing arrangements of Lift Every Voice and Sing and We Shall Overcome. In between the two pieces, an excerpt of the speech Dr. King gave in 1966 came over the theater speakers. Toward the end of his speech, we started the play our version of We Shall Overcome.

This moment may be the turning point in how I address teaching MLK and the civil rights movement. This proved to be a powerful moment for the audience and set the tone for the assembly.

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.

Interesting Week of Thoughts

When I share something that is linked somehow to popular culture, it’s often because “I am late to the party”, but still want to participate. In this case I may still be late to this party, however, I can’t shake how I felt after watching Black Panther.

My insights won’t offer anything new to the conversation, but I am very appreciative of having another platform to jump from when discussing certain topics with my students. We talked about the music and the imagery of the film. We talked about the significance of the cast and why representation is important. We even got to discuss (or at least I mentioned) they ways in which we view our parents and our roles with them as we get older and start to understand the world differently.

Ideas around representation and imagery of people of color were front and centered in my thoughts as students, a colleague and I watched parts of JAZZ by Ken Burns. Some of the images and ideas were shocking or disturbing to students, however, the discussions were honest and informative. Making sense of these connections in my own mind has been fun. I like being a teacher during weeks like this.

Quotes and New Starts

Starting a new school year at a new school. I find myself thinking about all the lesson plans and units of study I put together over the past decade. Eventually, I get to a place in my thoughts where I think about “change” being the only thing that is constant in life. I think that is a quote or a thought attributed to Heraclius. 

Other quotes that come to mind relate to the kind of teacher or musician I’d like to be…or at least the methods. Stravinsky chief among them has helped me with:

  • What gives the artist real prestige is his imitators.
  • Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.
  • A good composer does not imitate; he steals.

Finally, I land on my favorite Einstein quote.

Twitter Profile

When I was first setting up my Twitter account, I was stumped by my title. At first, I thought, I should just use what’s on my business card… The only problem was which one should I use. At the time I was a freelance trumpeter, with about 498 cards from Vista Print and a music teacher at an independent private school in Lynnwood.

Okay…now for the next problem. I can’t just be a trumpeter, I want to stand out as more than an instrumentalist. I am a musician who plays the trumpet. Right, so don’t use trumpeter go with “musician”. Now for the other business card. I could go with teacher or instructor…time to pull out the thesaurus…EDUCATOR in big bold letters was the first word I saw. So I went with “teacher” for a while (probably because I had a narrow view of what I did at the time) however I recently changed it to Educator. (and I like that decision)

I had another problem…which comes first. Am I, a musician who educates or an educator who is a musician? The answer to this part of my online identity was very similar to my own personal struggle with personal and cultural identity. My parents are from the Dominican Republic, so I am Dominican. When I’m with them, my brother, and all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins (lots of cousins) I am Dominican. But I was born in the United States, In the Bronx to be exact. So I’m American! I am both, 100% American and 100% Dominican. So I’m 200%. (I’m not sure that’s how that works, but remember I’m a musician, not a mathematician).

Eventually, I settled with musician first, because I feel that is the seed for all that I do in a professional capacity. I can’t teach music unless I am a musician. I certainly can’t perform music on the trumpet without being a musician first. At least that’s how I feel.

But the truth, (like my personal and cultural identity issue) is that I can do both and am both at the same time. I can’t divorce one from the other because “that’s who I am”.

This time of the year

I don’t get into the spirit around the holidays or go out of my way to feel merry. However, when December roles around I tend to put on more music and listen with a purpose. That’s just because of the curriculum I mapped out for myself.

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My 5th graders are learning about medieval & renaissance  music, the 6th – 8th graders are learning about the baroque period in music. I am awash in composers and significant fact about the world at those times. Recordings of groups like the Orlando Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble and Anonymous 4. I get to talk about Guillaume de Machaut, John Dowland and Thomas Morley then Bach, Handel and Monteverdi to middle school kids.

As a kid raised in NYC in the 1980’s and 90’s, I often marvel at what it was that drew me to this kind of music. The best part is that there is no way of telling whether I’m teaching this or just having fun with my collection of recordings. Either way I love this time of the year.