The past four weeks have been quite difficult for me. I had to take a significant amount of time away from my day job as a middle school music teacher to care for my father. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that as I continue to cope with losing him. However with all that has happened, my students remind me (yet again) why I am a teacher, by creating this message for me.
They did manage to include music we have been studying and a song I made them research earlier in the school year. Great way of connecting our curriculum. Nice job Soundview Class of 2017.
“What gives the artist real prestige is his imitators.” Igor Stravinsky
I deal with insomnia often. When this happens I try to do something productive. I’m a teacher, so I try to use this time to think about teaching or projects for my students. But before I was a music teacher I was a freelance musician. As a freelance musician you tend to give yourself project to match your thirst for creativity. At one point I decided to arrange a few pieces of music for a brass quintet. I did this often because I happen to be a member of a few brass quintets and thought, I might get some good traction if this arrangement becomes part of our normal repertoire. However the piece I choose was not working out in the way that I wanted it to work. The version I wanted to use as a scaffold was written for a large ensemble and a vocalist. The piece is by Kenny Wheeler and it’s called “Gentle Piece”.
After several attempts, over a few days, I totally hit the wall. At the time, I was also working on a graduate degree and preparing for a recital. So I had a lot on my plate. However, these sounds which I thought would work so well for the brass quintet and didn’t, felt great coming out of my out of tune piano. In fact when I tried the improvised section of Kenny Wheeler’s piece, I stumbled on to the opening ideas to my piece for trumpet and piano call “Fractured Trance”.
The opening idea lead me to explore more ideas around rhythm and space within that movement. That idea lead to a two more movements and later this became my first piece for trumpet and piano. I followed the same process with the second piece I wrote for trumpet and piano, which were both recorded by a Brian Chin. Finally I used this same process to compose a piece for my middle school students.
Out of that experience I figured out that I can use another source for inspiration, with the full intent on trying to recreate an idea, a vibe or a feeling offer to us by another person. It’s okay to imitate. This kind of imitation can lead to personal breakthroughs.
This week I spent time stretching before going out to do recess duty with middle school kids. Why do you ask, well that’s simple I tried playing “four square” with my students. Anyhow, it’s clear I don’t move like I used to…I’ve been limping since Tuesday.
Today I learned that Prince is no longer with us. Thanking him will be the job of everyone who loved…LOVE the music he created. So I will continue to admire him as an artist and continue to use his music as fodder for funk/pop/hip-hop music education. However, I found myself sitting with some students and I eventually ask them the question “Do you know who Prince is?” The reply was no…I think my parents do.
At that point I came to accept once and for all that I am an “old” person. But enough about me, lets talk about Prince and how I’ve used his music in the past in my classes.
One of the tools I use, which was a gift given to us by Prince is his song Musicology. Just the names he drops in this song gives my students a jumping off point for exploration into american popular music. Then there’s learning about him and all his accomplishments.
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.
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.
If I ever need reminding about the struggle of being a band director and why it’s important to do what I do, Wynton Marsalis sums it up in this talk. All of it applicable to those who learn and those who teach.
I forget sometimes how disorganized learning can be for middle school kids. When I teach I tend to offer more help than seems necessary for some kids. With all the educational plans for individual kids and accommodations that need to be made, I forget that learning is a messy business.
Some confusion for kids is unavoidable. A backpack that looks like an implosion of five text books is normal. Perhaps some peanut butter and jelly caked to the edge of a homework assignment is okay.
Looks like I need to loosen up a bit and let kids be messy…at least sometimes.
Sometime I listen to a podcast called Snap Judgement hosted by Glynn Washington on NPR. The show melds fascinating stories with a hip-hop backdrop.
Last week I listened to a story by Joyce Lee called “Dropping The Ball” about her experience with a former student. It gave me pause and reminded me of why I teach, why it’s important for me to be a good father. And most of all, why it’s important to listen.