Monday, January 28, 2008

Day 13 "In the trenches" (buckling-down edition)

Gotta be kind of a quick hit today: 4th week of the semester and we're in buckling-down mode. As image reveals, am multi-tasking, to the extent of running two laptops at the same time: one my battered Dell which the SOM bought me, and which I haven't quite yet killed (I get about 2 years out of a laptop before I've dropped it too many times) and the other an even older steam-powered Dell which I'm borrowing for tomorrow's Study Abroad Fair. This is a bi-annual event, at which faculty and departments from all over campus set up displays, hand out fliers, and talk to students, with the idea of enhancing enrollment in those courses which involve some kind of Study Abroad experience. Six years ago our then-Chancellor set a goal of having 5% of all current students studying abroad in a given semester--but given that our ratio at that time was 0.5%, we had a long way to go.

The university helps some, assessing students with a per-credit-hour $3 fee which goes toward SA scholarships, on whose selection committee I've sat (big job: we typically read 350-400 applications per funding cycle) even past the minimum tenure, because I believe in the process. My own Study Abroad course is a seminar ("Music, Folklore, and Tradition in Irish Cultural History"), which I love teaching, and whose 2-week May trip to the west of Ireland is a blast--but which has been hellaciously difficult to recruit for in the past two iterations. I am reasonably confident that this is due not so much to the content (evaluations for the course have so far been very positive), but rather because of a tanking economy--which cuts into families' willingness to pony up any additional costs, even only a couple of thousand bucks--but even more because of a tanking dollar overseas: the first year we led the trip, it cost the students a little over $1800 for airfare, transport, accommodations, admissions, and 1 meal a day--an incredible bargain. This year's projected budget was $2500 for the same package (which Dharmonia and I book completely on our own--no tour companies involved). I couldn't stomach a 30% increase in just three years, and decided to take a year off, both to grow the pool of interested candidates and, equally, to wait for Chimpie to get the fuck out of the Oval Office in hopes the dollar would recover a bit.

In the process of putting together the media materials for the Study Abroad fair (on the right-hand Dell in the image), was re-editing a slideshow I made as a memento for the first-year group, adding images from the most recent trip. Brought back a lot of pleasant memories and helped (after the horrific agony, and personal financial cost, of balancing books from '07 iteration) to rekindle my motivation for the value of the trip and merit of incurring the extra effort. Hope we get to make this trip again in '09.

Undergrad "Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period" met today. Fourth week of the Spring semester is tough, as they're just back from the long MLK holiday, but also because, at our school, the spring semester has nearly as many "away dates" as at-home ones. 3rd weekend in February brings Texas Music Educators' Association meetings in San Antonio, a huge (c ten thousand attendees) gathering of the tribes and vendors. It's a heavy sales presence--the best access most K-12 music educators have to shopping the new publications and resources--and, it being Texas, a huge showcase for area ensembles, competing in every imaginable category at every imaginable ranking, from tiny schools to huge ones, and in every different kind of configuration. Texas model of public music education is very vital--every middle school has a band,. chorus, and orchestra--because Texans tend to see music-making as every bit the competition that football is. Just as you've gotta have a band for football season, you've gotta have a choir and an orchestra that can compete. Hell, they even have high-school one act play competitions.

This can be a pain when you want to try to wean kids away from a "music as competition" model, but it also has the valuable impact of making sure that (a) kids understand playing music is serious business and (b) parents understand music costs money and family effort. Most of the music kids (and their families) who attend TMEA value the process and respect the providers.

But, in past years, it was more-or-less a wash for anybody involved in post-K-12 education. Dharmonia and I were encouraged to attend in the first year we were here (the precise quote was "Well, the school here will pretty much shut down, so you might as well attend") but I found myself walking around the giant convention center display hall and thinking "given that I'm not buying choral music editions or marching band uniforms, there's really squat for me to do here." So I wound up on the Riverwalk drinking margaritas, which was fun--but a waste of time.

This year I've been charged, by a senior supervisor who is also a past officer of the organization, with constructing a slate of offerings seeking to enhance presence of world music, and of university-level educators, at the convention. So we've got a Thursday round-table, and then a series of lecture-demo's, saying, first to each other, "what do you do in the classroom/rehearsal hall? What do you do?" and then, to the general public, "OK, here's some of what you can do with all the world's other great musics." My own take on that is that superimposition of standard Western analytical and pedagogical tools is both clumsy (because employing tools designed for a different idiom and thus a different set of tasks--a Phillips screwdriver when a straight-blade is required) and arrogant (because presuming that these more familiar Western tools are somehow "the best" or "most effective."

I tend to start from Ground Zero, asking "What tools has the indigenous pedagogy developed? Whatever they are, they've had centuries of refinement in order to best teach what that tradition believes to be musically important." If Irish traditional music never developed a complex and sophisticated pedagogy for teaching harmonic practice, it's because Irish trad music did not value that particular complexity. If African traditional music developed very sophisticated means of manipulating both timbre and rhythm, but tended to ignore precise distinctions of pitch, then it's because that tradition valued precision in the former, and not in the latter.

So we teach by doing, by use of--as I say to my ethno students--a "demonstration - imitation - critique" model. This is what apprenticeship has always done, and it still carries on in various musical lineages: for example the jeliyat of West Africa and the garanas of the Hindi classical tradition. It's the model that says, to quote the great Buddhist writing teacher Natalie Goldberg, "the teacher teaches with his/her whole being, not just with words." Or, to paraphrase the Thelonious Monk quote that formed the title of my dissertation:

"I Can Show It to You Better Than I Can Explain It to You."

That's mostly how I learned these musics. That's mostly how I teach them.

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