Monday, April 28, 2008

Day 74 "In the trenches" (fare-ye-well edition)

Continuing close-down: a whole bunch of "lasts" over the past few days. Gettin' sleepy as we come down from the 16-week adrenaline rush of the semester:

last Wednesday was last concert-hall show for the Celtic Ensemble for the season;

Thursday was last coffeehouse gig 'til after return from China tour;

Friday was service-gig playing 90 seconds of banjo for an all-city choral concert. Crazy: 1 minute version of "Charlotte-Town"--more-or-less a homogenization of "Boatman Dance", which is entirely too ribald, wild, wooly, and hairy for an audience full of Good Citizens" and a 45-second version of "This Land Is Your Land," with all of Woody's agit-prop communist sentiments edited out;

Saturday was Celtic Ensemble festival gig on a flatbed truck in Slaton TX, following the typical punk-band-made-of-art-students, who played about as well as such bands usually do, while making a lot of half-sophisticated "ironic" comments dissing the crowd. Favorite line from that gig: my own response: "trad music is what happens to emo when it grows up and moves out of its mom's basement";

Sunday was six hours of grading undergraduate music history research papers--me and my two TA's all sitting around a big table, working through papers, pass-after-pass through a rubric. 1st pass: where is the thesis statement? does it work? does it fit the strictures we laid out?; 2nd pass: where is the bibliography? is it complete? in correct format?; 3rd pass: where are the footnotes? are they apt? is everything paraphrase or quoted actually cited, to avoid plagiarism?; 4th: where are the primary examples? are they relevant? do they work? are they adequately integrated into the original analysis and interpretation required? and on-and-on through eight passes. This multi-pass method takes a long time but has the benefit, in contrast to the single-faculty-member-sits-up-all-night-slogging-through-paper-after-paper method, that it sets up a reasonable certainty that every paper has been read by at least two people and that all three are applying reasonably consistent criteria and rigor.

Here's the full rubric:

If you're from the age or educational profile I come from, this stuff seems insultingly simplistic -- so simplistic that it's hard - wired into my (and I think older) generation(s)' intellectual DNA. It's stuff we don't really think about, too much, because it's so fundamentally a part of the reading that, up to a certain era in American educational history, was a cornerstone of how we were taught. You can learn this stuff simply by being exposed to it -- by reading it, in thousands of examples, and then by being drilled in the principles of expository writing.

The problem is that, at least since the late '80s/early '90s, kids are not any longer drilled in such principles, and almost none of them read. That's simply not how they intake or process information. Between multiple media, non-linear knowledge, knowledge-"clouds", and the perpetual visualization of American culture, the kiddos simply learn differently.

It's a big step for intellectuals/academics of my generation even to recognize this radical transformation of learning methods, and another big step to acknowledge its permanence. We are never--at least not in a 4-year college program--going to turn such kids back into text-processors. It's yet a third big step for us to begin to design data-delivery methods that permit them to operate from within their modes of literacy and still begin to internalize our modes of critical thinking. After all, our job is not to make them old-school text-literate; to make them into old-school literate versions of ourselves--our job is to teach critical thinking.

On the other hand, the other parts of that charge include "critical reading" and "critical writing"--so that is part of our mandate, one that is reinforced (unrealistically, as I have suggested before) by the state's mandate that we include courses with a "Writing Intensive" requirement.

Sunday night was Celtic Ensemble band meeting and retrospective, wherein I cook for them, they eat, then we talk about plans for the future, and then we talk (the real hard stuff) about the year past: what worked, what didn't, what we need to change. That's the last shot I have to get that information at a constructive moment: frustration, satisfaction, disappointments, victories--what my revered Buddhist therapist used to call "resentments, regrets, and appreciations," and which she used to make every exiting group member go through out loud, in that order, before she'd OK their departure. Waiting 'til next fall for any such post-mortem would be counter-productive, for several reasons: because a lot of their present concerns would have faded, because the level of trust they feel now with me and each other would have faded, because they would have had the whole summer to simmer over resentments, and so forth.

This way, by talking it out the day after the final show of the season--a really successful one--and when they're just realizing that this year's version of the band is over, and that, with folks leaving, this particular version is not coming back, I'm catching them when they're feeling all of those reactions very intensely and are, whether they know it or not, busting to get that stuff out. By tapping it now, I can let them vent, get it out on the table, and--with them and me in the room--get that intensity channeled in positive and constructive directions.

Mostly I think we succeeded. The therapist used to do "resentments, regrets, and appreciations" in that order, I believe, because she understood with great wisdom that every relationship (romantic, professional, familial, or musical) which ends carries at that ending a full spectrum of emotional responses. If you're going to leave clean, then you have to address that full spectrum, which will inevitably include resentments, regrets, and appreciations (if it was a healthy relationship). But, and this was Suzy Fulkerson's great Boddhisattva realization (one of many), the order in which you address those responses matters. By expressing the resentments first, you get the most difficult, most painful, and probably the most present emotions out first, and you thrash them out between all parties; e.g, "I was mad when you did that." Then you express the regrets, which are a lot harder to get in touch with (and which usually carry at least a touch of guilt): "I wish I hadn't done that. I was wrong." And you thrash those out.

And then, if you've done it right, you've gotten all that surface bullshit--all the static in the signal chain--out of the way, and you've gotten down to the bedrock of what made the relationship matter to you in the first place, which is what you appreciated--really, what you loved--about that person. We humans are so prone to respond to the surface day-to-day distraction of Monkey Mind, of all the small and temporary frustrations and resentments, that we can completely lose track of the things, and the people, who really make our lives better.

It's no different in creative partnerships. As with any long-term relationship, you choose to stay with the people with whom you make music because your net emotional-and-artistic gain is greater than the cost or loss--not because it's cost-free. And if you want it to last, then you have to decide to do some work and make some compromises, probably none of which you're going to want to do. But if you have the emotional maturity--the simple emotional experience--to understand the stages of working-through resentments, regrets, and appreciations, then you can do that work consciously, intentionally, and constructively, in a way that flushes-out the bad shit and lets you hold onto the gold.

Which, for musicians, should ideally come down to "I love the way you play."

It's good for us to remember that.

Below the jump: Spring Planting on the South Plains.

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