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 as they 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 create a piece of visual art representing the subject. Some even put together a slide show with a particular point of view.

For 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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.