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.

Retrace your steps

I’m back at writers’ block. I think it should be good for me to just start writing and then send it out into the world, but I don’t think there much to mention. All I want to do is watch the NBA Playoffs and listen to music. So I’ll tell you about that. Perhaps if I retrace my thoughts, I can send out something worth mentioning.

For work, I’m listening to a lot of Percy Grainger. The is something truly satisfying about his orchestration for both band and orchestra. It’s been fun unpacking his music with my students. Between Grainger and Anderson Paak, I can’t decide who’s music I have spent more time listening to the past month.

Anderson Paak was a students’ suggestions and I’m so glad he reminded me of the incredible musician. Check out the Tiny Desk Concert if you think I’m kidding.

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.

Things Students Say and Drizzical

After watching my colleague work herself silly conducting, planning and teaching the all-school musical, I came to a stark realization. The end of the school year can make us feel crazy like everything is closing up on all of us, students, teachers, and administrators. I’ve been especially loopy lately and so have my advisory students.

In a conversation with them today, we discussed some of our favorite musical genres and the artist we associated with those genres. For example, I mentioned classical music with Missy Mizzoli and Igor Stravinsky, jazz music with Charles Mingus, rap music with J Cole. At least those are the folks I’m listening to these days.

One of my students said they love broadway-musicals and they also love Drake. Another student took that and said, “I guess you’ll love it if Drake made a Broadway-musical….oh, oh it would be a Drizzical.”

And then we all laughed. But seriously…Drake, what’s up with that Drizzical?

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.