Saturday, March 01, 2008

Slugging away

Slugging away up here on the South Plains. Another audition day today, a day that is very important in our program's annual calendar. Twice each Spring semester--typically end of February/beginning of March, we open up the school and try to complete as many of the undergraduate entrance auditions as we possibly can. We'll do auditions throughout the year, but, given that this is the prime season when most high school seniors are making their final decisions about the programs they'll attend next Fall, this late winter/early spring couple of weekends is an essential part of our recruitment.

The music schools I attended were insanely competitive, and still too big--you really didn't know if you'd get in, and then, when/if you did, you'd find yourself nearly buried under an incoming tide of enrollees, many, many of whom were more talented--or at least more self-possessed and self-confident--than you were. So there was a lot more uncertainty during, and in the aftermath seemed there was a lot more riding upon, that audition. As the largest, and a contender for best, music program in the country, most definitely my alma mater was in charge and held the high cards.

Here--though the school provides every bit as good a value, at about half the cost and 2/3 the duration--it's much more a buyer's market: with at least three top-notch, large-size music programs in the state, two of them with higher profiles and more salubrious locations than ours, we have to sell a lot harder, and it's a lot more of a buyer's market. The kids are more selective, the parents' money is tighter, the economy is even worse (Bush/Cheney have screwed poor people worse than Ronnie Reagan did), the competition from other schools is higher because our profile is more on par, rather than towering head-and-shoulders over others'.

On the other hand, this is a helluva lot kinder and more humane place than my alma mater. Here, the faculty, administration and staff actually care about the kids--not just their or the school's reputation. Here, when the program's undergraduate academic advisor is introduced at the Fall convocation of all SOM students, she gets a standing ovation--that's how much the kids here recognize the focus, commitment and dedication she brings to helping get their damned degrees done and gainfully employed. Here, the entire faculty, not just the studio faculty who have to audition kids (or, as at Indiana, the studio faculty's TA's who would audition kids), show up for the morning orientation during the audition day, to introduce themselves and take questions. Here, before they walk out the door, every kid gets a handshake and a personal introduction to the Director.

Different, and better. We have a huge responsibility--to take these kids, many from small towns or protected family environments, and grow them up, trying to give them the professional and life skills, and basic smarts and maturity, that they will be able to succeed in a profession--music--which this country does not value too goddamned much.

Our largest degree program, music education and teaching certification, enrolls around 60% of our total student body. They have a 100% placement rate; that is, one hundred per cent of our music education majors get jobs in the profession. Most within 5 months of graduation. Some even while they're still completing their student teaching.

That's a pretty frickin' good investment return.

Other news: took the Celtic Ensemble down south of here, to a small town where a number of art faculty have bought old storefronts on the town's plaza. Kind of a cool concept--like Marfa in W TX, or Silver City NM, where the run-down nature of the old ghost town means real estate is insanely cheap, and zoning is receptive to artists who need space but don't need fancy amenities. Slaton is basically a wide spot in the road, an old cotton and cattle railhead, and there isn't much there anymore but a few cotton gins, some fading antique stores, and a lot of shuttered storefronts.

But these arts folks, who teach up here in Lubbock, realized they could buy space down there, and over the past couple of years they've built up a little satellite art colony, where the galleries are in the front, the studios/kilns/darkrooms are in the back, and, during the once-a-month arts evening, the bakeries, coffeeshops, and . The feel is pretty great--kind of like a SoHo loft community, only all laid out on the ground floor, and on a balmy night in early spring, a pretty pleasant place to be.

Celtic Ensemble have gotten to the place where they can now go off and play a one-off gig without really any rehearsal, or a set program, or even a full complement of players. In other words, they're more like a folk band, or the crew "recruited out of the pub and playing on a truck trailer in the car park" described in Ciaran Carson's wonderful Last Night's Fun. Where the music is just part of the overall environment, as people come and go, and there's food and a bar in one corner and dancing in the other, and the conversation and meeting-and-greeting and arts-posing might seem to overshadow the music in the back room.

But whether the posers and viewers and artists and hangers-on are quite conscious or not, there's something magical that's happening in the room when the music is going. No matter how magnificent the plastic arts, they're not the performance arts. The plastic arts have to start out, anyway, as a solitary activity--that's one of their great strengths. I'm convinced that's one reason why arts people are so conscious of their clothing and hair and makeup and body language--because those things provide for the possibility of a kind of mobile art, in what is otherwise essentially a solitary craft. It's why they like big parties full of art--on the walls and on, inscribed upon, and pierced through the bodies in the parties--because it's a way to catalyze a little bit of community in the process of sharing art.

In contrast, that's what we do all day every day--we make noises that make spaces feel different. We make our art in public, in groups, right in front of people's eyes, and for us to know it's working, we need to get something back: some dynamic energy, some laughing or clapping or hooting, or singing along, or dancing, or even little kids bobbing up and down in intuitive reaction to the music. When we do--and even if we don't--the air is different in a place we play; the molecules are a little more charged; there's a few more gusts of energy blowing through.

I was proud of my guys. They get it now, and they can do it on their own.

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