What’s Wrong With This Picture?

This diagram has been making the rounds on social media again: Mnemonic Mistakes

“What’s wrong with it,” you might ask. Clearly, this is well-intentioned, and meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But let’s take it seriously for a moment, and look at it as if it were designed for practical, educational use.

The real problem with it is that most people don’t say these words metronomically (and/or consistently) in everyday language, therefore making teaching with them unnatural! Prosody is out the window. Sure, “Sasquatch” is two syllables, but do you really say them with equal weight and duration?

And don’t even get me started on “Want some cat antlers?”

The Beginning: Freelance Teaching in Boston

To make things clear off the bat – this internship was originally going to take place at the EKS Music School in Quincy where I am faculty.   Because I have yet to teach any brass students at the school, I will be focusing on the teaching adventures with my own private students and the strange way that I acquired them:  TakeLessons.com.

Strange, because I never thought I would be the kind of person to “buy into” this kind of thing.  It seemed too convenient, too easy, yet after only two months of making a (minimal) online account, I acquired my first piano student.  Fast forward three months and many MIE 501 readings later, and I have acquired some very interesting and life-changing perspectives regarding music and music-in-education.  But that’s for later – for now, we must set the scene of the beginning of true freelance teaching in the Boston area.

I had freelanced my first year in Boston as a horn player and a collaborative pianist specializing in the Suzuki Method, but never had I had any students.  Late summer going into my second year of my master’s, my friend told me that he had acquired a piano student via this website.  Intrigued, I began an account and filled in all the appropriate information.  I had never really written down or contemplated my own unique, logical teaching philosophy before, and when I saw this requirement on the website, I simply wrote what I had always thought:

Through all these experiences, I can safely say that my theory of teaching and learning music is that it’s all about connections. To learn music is to learn a completely new way of looking at the world. It is an inward journey of strength and discovery as much as it is an outwards one, learning to successfully and compassionately communicate with fellow musicians and anyone else who might cross your path. I have collaborated with individuals in both the instrumental and vocal realms – trumpet, trombone, tuba, (French) horn, clarinet, flute, violin, viola, bass, sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, baritones, and have taught piano, horn, and beginning/intermediate wind instruments in both private and group settings. I love music, and even more, I love teaching music!

For areas that I taught, I put (using their categories) Accompaniment, Accordion, Audition Prep, Classical Piano, Ear Training, French Horn, Music Performance, Music Theory, and Piano.  Fair enough, I thought.  I had played accordion all through high school and undergrad, busking on the streets of my beloved college town, but never had I thought that I would teach the instrument (little did I know).

The account sat there for awhile, being added to with various pictures and videos, when all of sudden, I received a notification from TakeLessons saying that someone from Milton has signed up for piano lessons.  TakeLessons in a way is more reliable than the old-fashioned show-up-and-pay-as-you-go method.  People must pre-pay for lessons, specifically five to start out with, and then can only withdraw from lessons if they seriously dislike their teacher.  The teacher is paid either way, whether or not the student shows up, by direct deposit.  The only catch is (and I know you’ve been waiting) is that for the first fifteen lessons, trust must be established, and that trust comes in the form of 25% of your lesson going to the website that so conveniently hooked you up.  You set your own rate of pay, however, and after fifteen lessons, you can earn 90% of what you charge.  It’s just a switch of convenience – either have the student, that either you or a friend has recommended to you, hopefully pay you after the lesson has taken place (and not give you a check that bounces or not show up and you’re out that time unless you have a no-show plan), or have the money from the student who chose you amongst a list of individuals on a conveniently accessible website go straight into your bank account with a slight cut for the middle man.  Personally, I’m enjoying the latter option very much as it is very convenient and everything you could ever need to access regarding the financial state of these lessons is stored in an online account.

So, I had my new student.  Awesome!  How did that happen?  Why did she choose me?  I’ve honestly thought quite a bit about this, comparing myself to the other profiles of piano teachers in my zip code.  One thing I am sure sticks out, and this is not in any way facetious:  I’m a friendly looking, 20-something female who doesn’t have any particular instrument in the picture with her to alienate those who aren’t looking for that particular kind of lesson.  I would look up people who were listed as horn teachers, and when they had a trumpet in the photo with them, I would be taken aback and shake my head.  What are these people thinking?  You can’t claim to teach violin and have a harp in the picture.  Silly, silly.  So, common sense aside, what else set me apart?  For the piano side of things, I teach all piano, not just classical piano.  Most people (and I used to be one of them) seemed to be in the classical rut.  I wanted to teach only classical because that’s the best rep and you can collaborate and blah blah blah. . . Look, some people just want to play an awesome song they heard once, and to me, that’s so much more genuine than sticking to a canon because of archaic constraints of “classical music” and the days when ladies were “bred well” because of their literal “parlor tricks.”  Nah.  Done with that.  If that’s your thing, though, of course I’ll teach you the parlor tricks.  Hell, I’ll teach you ALL the tricks.  But if you just happen to really like that Yann Tiersen song or that one song by that techno band that for some reason decided to compose a beautiful piano piece, that desire is so beautifully genuine, and I will more than help you learn it.

It turns out that this student was one of the “Classical Piano” students, which is great, because that’s my forte (pun completely intended).  And, because she’s fourteen years old and her mother enrolled her in piano lessons, she is one of those modern incarnations of the well-bred individual.  In modern society, girls of the middle class are still taking music lessons not to be married off as acceptable stock, but ALL children are as a part of this new over-satiated-with-activities generation.  I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to be the multi-faceted artistic individual that I was throughout my childhood and young adulthood in a specialized sense.  I loved creative writing, I loved language, and I loved music.  Done.  Sports, nah.  Acting, not so much.  Visual arts, yeah maybe.  I took ballet.  I took vocal lessons.  I took violin lessons then switched over to viola because duh C-strings are awesome.  But these things were all eventually sloughed off of my extracurricular epidermis.  I wasn’t shoved into French club, Greek school, baseball practice, basketball practice, CCD class (aka “Catholic Church Detention” because we were clever) – my mother rode that line of respecting me and my right to choose as an individual while guiding me because I was not yet an adult, but when I decided on something, boy, did she crack down.  (We could open the whole can of worms on parenting and discipline, but the energy required into writing that would manifest in the form of an entire article – not now, but perhaps stay tuned!)

To elucidate, I am not one to belittle the act of taking music lessons, much less exploring the world around you; but exactly that, exploring the world around you, doesn’t always come in the structured form of a lesson.  Exploration and curiosity are things to be bred, for sure, but to satiate our kids so that they have no room to breathe, no room to feel like they can explore, no opportunities for them to discover how they learn, how they can explore, is more of a disservice than a leg-up on life.  Trying to reschedule with this particular student is a nightmare.  This time, inconveniently placed for the traveling music teacher at the peak of rush hour, is the only time she can receive lessons.  And to what end?  To show that she practices?  That there is that spark of intrinsic, volitional learning?  Why take music lessons at all if you’re not one to take time to develop a craft and through this craft realize these subtle truths?  of your nature?  of life internal and external?  of these connections that hang, suspended in this vast network of life, just out of reach until some sort of realization hoists you up, and at last you realize the awe-some depth of existence, and that everything connects to everything else, and at this same moment you paradoxically admit to knowing nothing?  (That escalated quickly. . .)  But in all seriousness, why continue skimming all these surfaces hoping to find hidden treasure just bobbing at the top?

One can probably tell by now that I am a teacher who lives in the fractal paradox (don’t worry, I don’t usually tell people that).  By that I mean the lesson is a constant ebbing and flowing of specialization, via technique, music theory, and broad application, playing through a piece to see where we are, discussing general musical ideas.  This in addition to personalized Socratic methodology, in which I guide the students to the answer based off what they know and their way of learning and discovering.  This has been a heavy-hitter for a first of three articles, so I shall divulge more information regarding my teaching methodology throughout the next couple of articles.

A Response to Mark Oppenheimer’s attack on the value of arts education published in the New Republic

As indicated by his article that admonishes parents who force their children to study music, Mark Oppenheimer reveals that he is mightily ‘dazed and confused’ about the value of music and the arts in education.  And the New Republic is guilty of publishing a speciously argued article that recommends that parents no longer need to take responsibility for providing an arts education for their children’s general education.

It is difficult to know how to respond to all of Mr. Oppenheimer assertions in his fractious and presumptuously article titled “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.”

The presumptions are stunning with regard to questioning the motivations and intelligence of parents who for many reasons believe it is their responsibility to ensure that their children achieve the benefits of a rigorous education in the arts.  Despite its short length, Oppenheimer’s article is boundless in its insensitivity to the needs and feelings of our children who come to enjoy facing the serious challenges of arts learning and yet must learn also to survive, from time to time, the urge to quit their music and dance lessons whenever when the process seems too difficult.

I will start with Oppenheimer’s first argument: that is, the astonishing assertion that ballet and musical instrumental training are both “pointless” activities.  According to Oppenheimer, learning music and ballet can be characterized as hobbies that are as inane as “eating candy corn”.   Apparently Oppenheimer feels that parents who commit themselves to providing an education in the arts for their children — an education that is no more ‘forced’ than when schools or parents insist on required school subjects such as reading and math — should cease and desist from requiring their children to play an instrument or take ballet classes.

Though the pointlessness of arts learning is a central theme of his article, early on we learn that Oppenheimer does support his daughter’s education in ballet and playing the violin despite the inherent uselessness of either.  This paradox is explained by his second assertion: that education in the arts can be provided, but only if the child asks for it and continues to enjoy it.  Thus Oppenheimer feels he can be responsive to his daughter by paying for his daughter’s arts education because he thinks this ‘pointless endeavor’ is nonetheless temporarily enjoyable.  Rebekah reports to him that she loves her teachers, she is making progress, and Oppenheimer concludes that is all a parent needs to know if they are to support a pointless course of study.

But Oppenheimer also insists that those parents who decide to ‘force’ a child to engage in music lessons without assurances from their children that they want to play an instrument, have gotten the “unfounded” or “overblown” idea that serious arts instruction holds benefits for their children that go beyond a child’s immediate experience of having fun in the course of a ‘pointless’ activity.  That is, some parents and educators have discovered that many others believe that there is considerable experimental and informal evidence of music’s significant association with children’s cognitive, neurological, and social-emotional development that translates to higher levels of achievement in our schools.  Yet, according to Oppenheimer, the unfounded or overblown notion that an arts education is anything more than the fleeting pleasure of engaging in a aimless or nonsensical activity is a misconception.

Oppenheimer is troubled also by the lack of evidence for the need to perform music or dance in our current century.  He reminds his readers that  “before the twentieth century, there was a good reason for anyone to study music: If you couldn’t make the music yourself, then you would rarely hear it. “  Thus, in this age of total access to musical recordings, Oppenheimer is warning misguided parents that there is no good reason to put in the hours of practice it takes to perform music well because we can enjoy music without having to perform it ourselves.  Listening to music is important to millions of people, but learning to make music, or learning to read or analyze or compose music is completely unnecessary: we have access to all the recordings we need to enjoy or understand music.

Furthermore, Oppenheimer assumes that there is no empirical evidence that music or ballet training has any measurable benefit to our children other than the joy of doing a pointless activity reasonably well.  To prove this presumption Oppenheimer completely ignores the numerous studies that suggest important attributes of arts learning and their possible association with other kinds of learning, and instead engages his readers in absurd ‘thought experiments’ intended to illustrate his argument.   He claims, for example, that no one would be able to distinguish differences in body movement when observing ballet trained versus untrained students going about their normal school day activities.  In his imagination, dance has little effect on the way students stand in line, walk with their friends, etc.  His opinions notwithstanding, Oppenheimer’s loosely described thought experiment not only does not warrant his conclusions, it shows a complete disregard for the nature of meaningful learning transfer effects that researchers report when, for example, strong associations are discovered between measures of early musical training and phonemic awareness in early language development,  or keyboard training and the grasp of spatial reasoning.  And, while dance teachers might disagree completely with Oppenheimer’s conclusions, if Oppenheimer’s readers to agree to accept his opinion that there ballet training will have no impact on physical movement of students during school then, by this logic, we would have to embrace also the unlikely notion that musical training presumably would have no influence on their ability of young musicians to discern, analyze, or reflect on music or other sonic environments any differently from untrained students as they are exposed to music during in-school or after-school activities.  And because Oppenheimer does not mention anything in his article about students who have been  ‘forced’ to learn language arts skills or to engage in the study of literature, we are left to wonder whether or not Oppenheimer would also believe the absurd hypothesis that learning reading, theater, creative writing, or poetry are also pointless activities that will have no impact on the language skills exhibited by children during their school day.

Oppenheimer’s pitifully small range of evidence also draws on his recollections of dinner party conversations with friends.  From this level of discourse he concludes that not every middle class adult continues to play the instrument they learned in their youth and musicians who learned to play Bach’s music early in life don’t think much of his music later on.  This finding is apparently important to Oppenheimer’s sense of the worthlessness of learning classical music when he states that “the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach.”

This conclusion will seem very strange to musicians for two reasons.  First, musicians I have talked to haven’t found much evidence of music students not being able to appreciate the value of performing or listening to Bach or other classical composers later in life.   Secondly, it appears perfectly normal that music students expand their listening interests to include many kinds of music they haven’t studied on their instrument.   However it seems to Oppenheimer that listening to popular music or jazz is evidence of the failure of arts education in classical music.  However, music educators would normally expect that, as music students mature, their listening interests routinely expand beyond the boundaries of the music they learned in their music lessons.  The fact that music students can enjoy all kinds of music besides the classical music they play, strikes me as a very positive results of a comprehensive education in music.  Similarly, I would think English Language Arts teachers would assume that when readers to pursue their interests in literature beyond the boundaries of their experience reading Shakespeare or other authors they study in school, it is a positive outcome of their language arts education.

I am not sure what Oppenheimer means by classically trained musicians not being “fans of Bach” but arts education professionals know that anyone who has struggled to learn to play an instrument well enough to render a Bach Minuet or Invention — or who has studied ballet long enough to experience part of Balanchine’s choreography of the Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or who has studied literature enough to memorize a scene from a Shakespeare play— is highly likely to have a life-long appreciation of these artists and their works.

We also have to question Oppenheimer’s view of the role of arts education in our society when he elaborates on his idea that it is also pointless to engage more children in the arts learning than will be needed to supply the cultural organization of our society.  This overly pragmatic and myopic view of arts education is articulated in the paragraph below:

“Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students. We all love paper cranes, I think, but we aren’t rushing to give our children to the cause.”

The quotation above reveals that Oppenheimer thinks only the gifted few who will contribute directly to our nation’s cultural institutions need apply themselves to the rigors of an arts education.  As long as the continuing development of this generation of artists can still serve Mr. Oppenheimer’s and others’ appetite for well-performed classical music or ballet, then he would most likely approve requiring that persistent music instruction be made available to children, but preference should given only to the most ‘gifted’ of students at a young age.  As a result of this position, Oppenheimer is clearly not much invested in the notion that a rigorous arts education can serve all students well.  And he is probably unaware that most career musicians  — those assumed to be gifted or not at an early age — benefitted from parents or teachers who required them to work at their discipline in a way that motivated them to practice deeply the lessons they learned from expert teachers.

The next quotation below reveals Oppenheimer’s snobbish desire to be able to listen to live classical music and his pretense that listening to music is a pointless pleasure that is not enhanced by acquiring the ability to play music at any level of skill.  It is as if learning to read and speak well is unnecessary to appreciate the language arts.  Once again the author fails to provide any rationale to insist that children experience the opportunity to cultivate a deeper understanding of music by virtue of being able to play challenging music well.  Through Suzuki, parents today now know that virtually all children can learn to play classical music (and folk songs, fiddle songs, and string orchestra music) to a significant level of quality, but Mr. Oppenheimer fractiously asserts that learning to play the four chords of a current hit song on the guitar will be “more of an asset” to a child’s education in music than pursuing music that would contribute to a far deeper development of musical literacy skills.

“I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.”

Though we live in a society that justifiably supports freedom of opinion among all parents and arts educators, we have to question the purpose of this article.  Why does Oppenheimer make irresponsible and illogical statements about the nature and worth of arts education when he surely must realize that his statements could be used for fodder for those parents who want an excuse not to provide a viable musical education for their children?   Why is he choosing to denigrate the accomplishments of all children who participate in violin or ballet programs — and the teachers of these programs who dedicate themselves to every child they face — when he states  “there is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin.”

Music and ballet don’t just provide benefits to the highest achievers in music.  And they do not preclude the value of learning sports or going to good movies or reading books.  It’s just that responsible parents and educators now know that children cannot learn to love music, dance, or the language arts without an education that includes learning how to read, perform, and understand what it is they eventually choose to do in life.  By equating the serious study of music and dance with origami, watching a movie, auto repair or “endless hours of foosball” Oppenheimer appears completely insensitive to challenges that parents face when faced with the decision to support arts education for their children or not.  Hinting that a music education through pop music studies would be altogether preferable to classical training is Oppenheimer’s being flippant at best, or profoundly ignorant of the process by which educators establish the basis for a comprehensive arts education at worst.   What young instrumentalist would not benefit from learning to play both a transcription of a Bach and a Beatles composition?  What classically trained musician would not benefit from instruction in improvisation based on the substantial works of both classical and popular songwriters?  What dancer would be better off not benefit experiencing the choreography of both Balanchine and Alvin Ailey? What children would not benefit from experiencing the music dramas of Mozart and Alan Mencken?  It is the domain of an education in the arts that can provide these and many other sources of lasting inspiration for our children’s education over many years of study.

In the last analysis, it seems that young Rebekah is responsible for educating her father on what all adults should come to know as the timeless value of an education in the arts.  She is insisting that beginning ballet and the violin studies as a child, two very challenging enterprises, are rewarding to her despite momentary difficulties and disappointments that might cause other children to quit their studies — especially if their parents continually imply that she can quit at any time.  And, despite the hard work, it appears that the study of dance and music could simply make her happy.  And I would predict that, if she does stick with her arts learning disciplines she is likely to argue later in life that public education should at least provide, if not require, many types of opportunities for all children to practice the arts well and not just those who are presumptively deemed innately gifted.  Oppenheimer should have learned by now that learning the violin or ballet is not just an excuse to parade our kids through the fleeting pleasures of pointless arts experiences, but rather a reason to provide all children with the benefits of a life-long love of learning based on a growing appreciation and participation in the arts.

Though Oppenheimer is at present willing to continue providing a serious music and dance education for his daughter for the time being, he makes clear it is contingent on her enjoying every moment of the process, otherwise he is willing to throw away his investment in arts education and gladly watch his favorite movies with her instead.  This closing quotation from his article makes this fearsome contingency very clear:

“Rebekah, for her part, will continue with ballet. And violin. Periodically, we ask her if she’d like to quit, and she always says no. That’s good enough for us. If she finds a lifelong pursuit, that’s great. But if one evening, at her usual practice hour, she decides enough is enough, maybe I’ll suggest the guitar. Or maybe I’ll just ask if she wants to sit with me on the couch and watch Dazed and Confused*.”

Because Oppenheimer and many other parents may continue to be ‘dazed and confused’ about the value of a required arts instruction for their children, leading educators and researchers need to make more clear why all parents need to ensure that our son’s and daughter’s do have the right to comprehensive education in the arts in this new millennium.

Lawrence Scripp

*According to Wikipedia, Dazed and Confused” is a cult comic movie about high school hazing and all the expected hilarious depictions of fighting, alcohol and marijuana use and is known to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies.

Lawrence Scripp is a life-long musician and music educator, arts education researcher and consultant. He has been the founding co-director of the Conservatory Lab Charter School, Founder of the Center for Music-in-Education, Inc., and most recently the author of  “Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning” in Arts Education Policy Review May 2013.

Blog Technology in Educational Settings

Concentrate on a particular area of technology that interests you, and be prepared to explain to your colleagues its current state of development; where it might be in five years; and the pros and cons of its usefulness in the classroom.

—Assignment for this week’s Teaching Music History course (MHST 537), taught by Anne Hallmark

One specific adaptation of technology that interests me is the use of “blogs” as a means for after-class discussion and discourse. Blogging shares many benefits with similar technologies (such as online bulletin boards, forums, email), in that its asynchronous format allows discussants to log on at their leisure; carefully think about what they want to share, and respond in thoughtful ways. A blogging website can offer users several types of opportunities, like: reading or viewing class events passively; re-articulating what happened in class (such as, from the student’s personal perspective) by writing a “post”; and/or commenting on others’ perspectives by leaving comments at the bottom of each post. As with other Internet technologies, online blogging websites usually allow the inclusion of hyperlinked articles, multimedia (videos, audio, pictures, slideshows), rich text (bold, underline, bullets, other formats), and also function as archives. Many blogging websites (such as Blogger, Xanga, MySpace Blog, BlogSpot) already exist, and most offer free general-use blogs that include some kind of technical support for inexperienced users. For a higher level of customization, “open-source” (non proprietary) software like WordPress (which this blog is run on) or Movable Type are also popular, though these often require a more sophisticated sense of technical expertise. 

The major hurdle that I’ve observed is not with the blogging technology itself, but rather it’s use and how it is supported by the instructor, and included in the classroom: A class with access to a blog is a very different story from a class whose members post regularly to the blog, and whose instructor actively moderates the students’ posts and comments. Also, the kind and style of writing that is posted to the blog will make a significant difference in the level of engagement students have with the blog:

  • What will draw them into reading the blog? 
  • What type of discourse is the instructor hoping to achieve via the blog? 
  • To what extent will the blog be able to help students make connections beyond what is discussed in class? 
  • How can learning on the blog make the jump, back to classroom learning?

It’s my inclination that these types of issues and ideas will be with us in 5 years, 10 years, even 50 years—that it’s not the technology that poses questions like this, but the ways that educators structure and vet their own teaching processes, when working with and engaging students of multiple, or varied, learning styles. 

As parts of my professional roles (Information Architect for the Music-In-Education National Consortium, and Program Coordinator for the  MIE Concentration here at NEC), I have spent the last few years researching and developing educational communities that support blog technology. The CMIE NewsBlog (http://centerformie.org/blog) is one example of my work. It is contributed to, on a weekly basis, by a selection of students from currently-running MIE courses and Guided Internships. These students are designated as “Documentation Specialists“—they each are charged with the responsibility of collecting evidence and examples of classroom teaching/learning n their respective MIE classes or internships, and reporting/sharing/articulating what’s going on in those classes. I have designed a number of post types that students can use as springboards for writing. I also regularly meet with students to mentor them on what kinds of documentation they should collect, and how that documentation can be used in a portfolio or NewsBlog post. We try to steer our writers so that they have an uninformed audience in mind; the premise is that a thoughtfully-written NewsBlog post can also be used in a teaching portfolio, or as the basis for academic writing of some kind. Finally, each MIE instructor incorporates the NewsBlog into his classroom in  a course-appropriate way: the MIE Intro class, for example, uses the NewsBlog as practice for students learning to collect and reflect on documentation. As MIE Program Coordinator, I use the NewsBlog to show a birds-eye view of how each part of the department works in relation to the whole. 

The readership of the CMIE NewsBlog is large and varied: Not only do the Documentation Specialists’ classmates read the NewsBlog; but also MIE faculty, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, members of the MIE National Consortium, and the general public. NewsBlog posts are moderated by myself and other MIE faculty members, and posters often receive extraordinarily deep feedback on their writing. In fact, since the NewsBlog begun, the MIE Department has seen a marked increase in the quality and maturity of written portfolio work. I am sure that this is not unrelated. 

As long as the teacher is supportive, aware, and comfortable with the use of blogging websites, the inclusion of blog technology is generally un-intrusive and can be a welcome complement to synchronous classroom discussion. I welcome my colleagues to visit the CMIE NewsBlog, read and comment on our students’ work, and contact me should they have any questions or suggestions on its use.

-Randy Wong

10/22/08 Folk Communities

We began this session by learning a few folk rounds. The first was a bluesy MoonDog tune that reads as follows:

Nero’s expedition up the Nile
Failed
Because the water hyacinths
Had clogged the river
Denying Nero’s vessel’s passage
Through the Sud of Nubia

(I found a transcription online if anyone is interested in joining along!)

The second was a curious tune that compared a frog to a strange form of bird. This piece reminded me of a showtune more than a folk melody. Its text read:

What a queer bird a frog are
When he sit he stand almost
When he jump he fly almost
When he sing he cry almost
And he ain’t got no tail
Hardly he ain’t got no tail
And he sit on what he ain’t got almost…
What a queer bird a frog are!

When we broke into canon (I believe at one point we were in 4 or 5 parts) I began to get so excited that I couldn’t help but sing at the top of my lungs and by the end I had definitly broken a sweat. At times I stopped (just briefly) in order to experience the composite harmonies and rhythms as they flew by. This is the music that shaped me into the man (and musician) that I am today. My mother sang folk songs from her youth to me when I was an infant (and in fact even before I was born). When I was older she bestowed unto me her collection of LPs that contained her favored renditions of these tunes (they are still in frequent rotation on my record player). There is a strange sense of community that is lost when these songs and their traditions are ignored and undermined.

Later that night, after our class, Joanna and I took a couple friends up onto a friend’s rooftop deck. We taught them the songs that we had learned, and while a number of intoxicated college students stumbled home on the streets below, we rounded off the roof above them. This type of community is profoundly valuable. The sense of sharing is so unique and there is such a strong energy of liberation from all things ego. It is as though the music soaks into your skin and you feel such ecstasy from its internal resonance. These moments are rare (and increasingly so). We speculated in class on what life might be like if the price of gas escalated to an unreasonable and unaffordable height. Luxury as we now know it would cease to be an option. Touring musicians and ensembles would become rare and would force our community into a tighter knit microcosm. I believe that our scope of perception would narrow and we would begin to look inwards for entertainment. It is likely that our culture would return to an orally driven tradition with a focus on sharing, trading, familial communities, and the immediate experience of being. It is possible to speculate that within our current global community these things become insignificant and tend to disappear.

I would also like the mention the great attention devoted within our current cultural machine to the standardized process of test taking. This continues a conversation we began in class that Jenny also spoke of in her previous blog. As Jenny mentioned, learning to take a test, such as the SAT, targets strengths that you might use when balancing a check book. The strategies you learn when training for these exams in no way helps one to develop into a better artist, writer, musician, or creative thinker. Much of the way that high school English classes are conducted reflects this. Conversations surrounding literature and higher art are more often than not guided towards a specific end result or “correct answer” as defined by a teacher’s handbook. These so called ‘guided conversations’ are not real conversations and do not express anything but a prescribed formula and its subsequently derived answer. It leaves little room for creative thinking and no room for a student to learn freely. In tighter knit societies, we want people to sing with, to talk to, to be part of a community with.

We discussed in depth how much of what we learned as students was not what our teacher had been attempting to teach. For many of us, we learn in a variety of free-associative ways. We make connections and draw conclusions based upon previous experiences and our current understandings. It seems obvious, with this in mind, that our system of education can many times create a barrier for the minds of learners. In my view, education is something that cannot be prescribed. It is something that, when most effective, is coordinated with the specific needs and current situations of each student group (and in the most ideal situations, for each student individually). We have a long way to go in fulfilling the needs of our students, but I believe that in-depth speculation on the unique qualities of folk based communities will yield positive and provocative results.

The “Model Minority” and Some Implications for Teaching

Two weeks ago, we were given an assignment for MHST 537 (Teaching Music History) class: Find a reading outside the syllabus that is connected to prejudice in the classroom, and introduce that reading to the class.

The reading I chose—Strangers From A Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Ronald Takaki)—is one that was part of the syllabus for a course (“Asian Americans and Education”) I took while at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That course, the reason I took it, and what I got out of it are posts for perhaps another time. I remembered this Takaki reading because of one particular section titled “The Myth of the ‘Model Minority'” that resonated with post-grad school experiences I’d had. Takaki writes:

Today Asian Americans are celebrated as America’s “model minority.” In 1986, NBC Nightly News and the McNeil/Lehrer Report aired special news segments on Asian Americans and their success, and a year later, CBS’s 60 Minutes presented a glowing report on their stunning achievements in the academy. “Why are Asian Americans doing so exceptionally well in school?” Mike Wallace asked, and quickly added, “They must be doing something right. Let’s bottle it.

[A] Pattern of Asian absence from the higher levels of administration is characterized as “a glass ceiling”—a barrier through which top management positions can only be seen, but not reached, by Asian Americans. . . . Asian Americans complain that they are often stereotyped as passive and told they lack the aggressiveness required in administration. . . . Asian American ‘success’ has emerged as the new stereotype for this ethnic minority. While this image has led many teachers and employers to view Asians as intelligent and hardworking and has opened some opportunities, it has also been harmful. (Takaki, 474-477).

I grew up in a society predominantly Asian and Polynesian, so I was largely insulated from the “model minority” views that Takaki relays. However, while studying for an additional degree beyond my Harvard one, I did encounter some of the reverse racism that Takaki might suggest would come about as a result: That because Asian Americans are perceived as success stories, it becomes acceptable by others to taunt, berate, and bring up Asian ethnicity as a means of “leveling the playing field” for those of other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Here are a few short anecdotes that I feel relay my experiences:

  • At one point, when I was taking a historical survey course (and was doing rather well in it, because of a lot of effort I’d put into studying the material), the instructor insinuated that my success was ethnically based rather than on my skill set.
  • Another teacher commonly made analogies that somehow connected musical scores with Chinese menus and Oriental massage.
  • I also had new acquaintances remark, “You’re the first Asian friend I’ve had—the others are so nerdy” and “Why are you damn Asians so good at everything?”

Though I wanted to take those experiences and remarks in good faith, I found it increasingly difficult to tolerate and stomach them. While the easiest way to interpret some of these experiences may be as harassment (racial and sexual), I see them as being related to the “Model Minority” syndrome. At no time during these occurrences did I observe members of other minorities or ethnic/racial groups receive similar treatment.

Significantly, Asian-American “success” has been accompanied by the rise of a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment. On college campuses, racial slurs have surfaced in conversations on the quad: ‘Look out forthe Asian Invasion.’ ‘M.I.T. means made in Taiwan.’ ‘U.C.L.A. stands for University of Caucasians Living Among Asians’. ‘Stop the Chinese before they flunk you out.’ (Takaki, 479).

Implications for Classroom Teaching

Clearly, one lesson that I can draw from reflecting on my own experiences is that teachers must strive to be pro-active and conscientious individuals who value objectivity equal to their own interpretation and analysis. Another is that we must always consider what misunderstandings could result from the ambiguities of language and metaphor. I would also argue that organizing coursework and work products in a way that students’ learning processes are most evident can help to counteract any perceived obstacles for students that will come from a variety of cultural, ethnic, racial backgrounds.

Opinion Article by Hermann Hudde printed in El Universal (Venezuelan newspaper)

A position statement by CMIE graduate student Hermann Hudde has been printed today in El Universal, a Venezuelan newspaper. Hudde, a guitar performance major and CMIE Concentration student, plans to graduate from New England Conservatory in Spring 2008.

Read Hudde’s article, via Google Translate, here:
El Universal Article – September 1, 2007 – Computer-translated (into English)

Read Hudde’s untranslated article here:
El Universal Article – September 1, 2007 – Untranslated (in Spanish)