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.

Class Activity

I don’t usually past about class activities, however, I am making this exception because I’m enjoying the fruit of the activity. On the first day of school, I asked my students to create a playlist of tune to represent how they would like their school year to go. As I tend to do, I put together a playlist of my own as an example to give students a little insight into who I am as a person and some of my musical taste.

Here is my list:

  • Golden by Jill Scott from Beautifully Human cause that’s how I want to feel this year.
  • South Bronx by Boogie Down Productions from Criminal Minded, because that’s where I’m from, and I’m proud of that fact.
  • Mi PC by Juan Luis Guerra from Ni Es Lo Mismo Ni Es Igual, cause I’m Dominican and his music reminds me of these roots as well.
  • Cold Sweat by James Brown & His Famous Flames from Cold Sweat, need no explanation…it’s Jame Brown!
  • Doctone by Branford Marsalis from the album Requiem, mainly because it reminds me of being a graduate student. I was constantly afraid of being discovered as a fraud and when I was most doubtful of myself this record was the soundtrack to finding my center and getting myself together during that time.
  • Giant Steps by John Coltrane from the album Giant Steps, because it’s an amazing piece of art and it’s what I want for my students. I want them to make significant moves toward their goal this year.
  • The End by the Airways was a tune introduced to me by a student, and it reminds me that I learn as much from them as they from me.

Some of the tunes picked by my students were cool, here are a few of them:

Hope you enjoy these tunes, I just added them to a class playlist and revisit them with students in a few weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thinking about a new school year…

It’s that time of the year. The summer is starting to feel like it’s winding down and my mind is moving toward the kind of teacher I want to be this year while thinking about concerts, big projects, and possible themes for the year. I’m also thinking about what the new school year means for my family and how much time I’ll spend away for home because I’ll be at school events or performing music.

When considering that I am a working musician and a teacher, I know I can’t take either for granted. The version of me that seems whole is the version that does both. With that in mind, I want to include more work related to diversity and inclusivity in my music curriculum. Not just dead white guys when talking about classical music, and including women who were instrumentalists, composers, and arrangers when talking about jazz.

I also need to be active in projects that promote D&I works as a performer. Remember to promote living composers when picking new repertoire and take more chances as a composer. It seems like the right thing to do as a person of color who what to see more diversity.

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.

Picking a high school in New York City

Many of my middle school students already know where they will be attending high school. When I was their age I had no ideas where I’d be spending the bulk of my teen age years.

There were only 3 real choices for me at the time. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, mainly because it’s one of 5 specialized public high school in New York City. LaGuardia was the only one of those schools who featured the performing arts as it’s identity. The others were all about science, engineering or math.

Stevenson High School was an obvious choice for me, hqdefaultpartly because a lot of the people that march in the drum and bugle corps I was a member of went there. I knew they had a marching band and that was a big factor in my appreciation of that school.

Finally my other choice was Julia Richman – Talent Unlimited High School. They have a great performing arts department and were competitive with LaGuardia. I also knew a few of the students from my drum and bugle corps went there as well

The main reason for picking any of these schools was because they had music programs and members of the New York Lancers went to those schools. I guess the arts and like minded people to attend school with was important to me. In many ways that is still true today.

fiorello-470x240I was accepted to LaGuardia and I was very relieved to be going to a specialized HS in NYC. The movie FAME was about that school, so I was secretly humming that tune to myself when I got the news.

I was not a very good student, but I devoted myself to all my music performance classes. Music history and theory seemed like math, science and humanities. Not a good fit for me at the time. I had trouble putting into context why they weren’t as stimulating at the time, they were more of a hurdle I had to jump to graduate.

Eventually I got my act together as a student, and now I’m a teacher!

Middle of summer worries for a music teacher

music-school-560x328 It’s the middle of summer, my kid is watching cartoons while I look at my units of study for the up coming school year. Since I am a middle school band director, I tend to worry about how effectively I am helping students learn specific skills on their instruments and the other parts of music299de70a6b898c2b2e89733edb73c3e4, like music theory and music history. Never mind connecting them to other subjects studies at out school and finding ways to stay in touch with anything current and relevant to middle school kids, while thinking about making global connections to all we do.

Just for fun (or because I’m a glutton for punishment) we will be tackling intro to music theory, the Romantic era of music history, beginning conducting and beginning composition. IMG_2308

And yes, this will be the work 6th, 7th and 8th graders will explore with me. Should be a fun school year, so why am I worried about it in July?