Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Day 40 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Crankin'-out edition)

There's a tune played by James Kelly on his Ring Sessions CD called "Cranking Out," a great blazing D major reel, which sort of epitomizes the impact of this final full week of the semester. We come back for 3 days of class meetings MTW of the week after Thanksgiving, but to all intents and purposes Nov 17-21 this year is the last full week of classes: some percentage of the undergrads won't come back at all between Thanksgiving and finals week, and the ones who do return in body will be mentally completely absent--these kids are done with the semester. The grad students will be in here punching, most of them staying in town over the Thanksgiving break and trying to catch up with final projects and study for exams (it always saddens me to come in to the music building over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, and see it deserted except for the overseas students; thank God for compassionate faculty colleagues who almost always make sure that their foreign students have places to go and people to be with at those times). The undergrad music kids still have an absolute ton of responsibilities, but most of them are performances--recitals, juries, hearings, SOM or sports events, Carol of Lights, symphony/Nutcracker gigs, etc--rather than academic deadlines, so it's damned difficult to get them to concentrate on their schoolwork. Unlike the general population, the SOM kids are still all here mentally, but they're so fried, so overworked, and so physically exhausted that flogging them to be productive is the wrong strategy. Have to find more effective and compassionate means to keep them engaged and working, even past the psycho-emotional exhaustion.

The situation is somewhat the same for studio and conducting faculty colleagues: sure, they don't have to read 100+ undergraduate papers in multi-stage increments, but they do have to be present for and grade hearings for every single student in the SOM. Students studying voice or an instrument receive credit hours for that study, which means that, in turn, they have to be assessed and graded. In the interest of accuracy, objectivity, and (always very important for a bureaucracy) legal cover, the students' semester grades are assessed not by individual studio teachers, but rather by the entire faculty of the respective instrumental divisions: winds, brass, strings, voice, percussion, etc.

That means that, if you have 50-75 brass majors in the program (which we easily do), every one of those students must be heard at a "jury" and every member of the brass faculty has to sit through every jury. They may not have to read 100 papers at the end of the semester, but they are obligated, over the course of about a 4-day period (because of course it would be unfair to put some students' juries very early, as that allows them far less time to prepare), to hear 50-75 100-minute juries--and pay attention, and listen not only for technique, but also expression, but also improvement, but also focus. It's a damned hard job and it hits them right at the end of the semester.

On the academic side--or at least within our little Musicology division--it's a lot lighter at the end game. We bust our asses for the whole semester, reading all the six incremental stages of those 100+ undergrad research projects, not only to keep the youngsters on track (and so that they don't, in time-honored undergrad fashion, try to write their entire 10-page research paper the night before it is due), but also because it lightens the load at the end. We do still have to read 'em all--usually, one or two long days sitting around a conference table, professor-of-record and teaching assistants reading to a rubric, so that each final paper gets read by not one but three different assessors--but the overall quality and accuracy of execution is typically much better.

And that's the other reason for the six-stage incremental-over-the-whole-semester research project, because nothing is so time-consuming as a project that doesn't conform to stipulations. It's a hell of a lot quicker to grade a project that does include all the requisite elements, just as it's a hell of a lot easier and more efficient to teach a student who understands and meets the requirements the first time around. Remediation is about 200% more time-consuming than is education--so we want to do as little remediation as we can, and to chunk out what part is necessary to individual students' own homework chores outside of precious classroom time. The multi-stage format helps this.

Just as a system that works is less effort-intensive--and thus far less stressful--than one that either doesn't work or hasn't even yet been conceived. I'm a big fan of clear structures and consistent schedules--of tasks, duties, deadlines, and other activities--because my observation and experience suggests that such structures and schedules save time and stress. If I'm going to produce a weekly radio program, I'm going to try to do it the same day and time, in the same location, and using the same procedures (down to the keyboard shortcuts that save me having to use the digital workstation's mouse)--because that frees up more concentration for new thinking and new projects. If I'm going to cook a meal I've made before, I'm going to try to do it in the same sequence using the same ingredients and techniques--and, ideally, by combining those from memory, rather than from reading a recipe, because it frees up concentration and enhances attention. In fact, I think I learned some of this from working in restaurant kitchens: to quote the great (if snarky and egocentric) Anthony Bourdain from his travel channel program No Reservations, "you don't 'think' the cooking, you just do the cooking."

At this stage of the semester, with the systems we've set up and the lines of command and communication we've established, we are--pretty much--just "doing" the cooking: I don't (much, anymore) have to play the traffic cop. The meal--the final projects, performances, juries, hearings, etc--will come out of the oven, hopefully done to a turn, will be consumed, hopefully entirely, and then we'll wash the dishes and start again. In his wonderful Passing the Time in Ballymenone, talking about the physical design and material objects of rural kitchens in Ulster, Henry Glassie describes watching a farmer "finish his tea and, in one gesture, wipe the cup, place it back on the dresser, and, in the same motion, turn to the door and stride out to the fields again." That's the sense of grace, of unchanging (and un-ending) organic motion, of the long-cycled patterned dance, that we slowly, slowly are building into our systems and--hopefully--the lives of our students.

In similar light, we're coming up on a bunch of big and small performance obligations for the Celtic Ensemble. I've blogged before about how we try to structure the ensemble's year, to reflect not only smart pedagogy--because, after all, most of these young people have not played vernacular musics or used vernacular techniques of learning before--but also a sense of organic relationship to the seasons, climate, landscape, and local community. I'm a big proponent of true grassroots organizing for arts initiatives. It's not that I'm opposed to getting big chunks of fiscal or other support from top-down organizations like non-profits or governments, but that, in my observation and experience, those funds are (a) not typically targeted toward the kind of arts that I care about doing or (b) come with absurd, ridiculous, ill-informed, political strings-attached. There's a reason that I categorically refuse to partner with the dumbass, incestuous, you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours good old boy in-group jerks who predominate in this city's government, and it's not just because I disapprove of their performance as "civil servants." But rather because I have repeatedly watched them fuck up simple processes, inject their own political or greedy motives, and betray the public arts trust that they're supposed to be serving.

One of the great, great privileges in my life is that I don't have to put up with this bullshit. Sure, my boss prefers that I avoid saying, to their faces, what I think of these dumbass good old boys, but post-tenure I have the great luxury of "politely declining" to work directly with them. If they want to cough up cash in advance for me to bring one of my ensembles to their dumbass "events", fine; if they want to call me to appear on a panel or speak to a reporter about the local arts scene, fine. But I won't (and have the luxury of not having to) rely upon them, or give them anything for free. Because all they know about is taking, and that's not why I do what I do.

Another great privilege in my life is that, as of right now anyway, I can run the ensembles and play the musics I do for other than financial reasons. I was a working musician for years and starved, which in turn mandated that I had to take any gig, not matter for whom, and no matter whether it was music that I either wanted or, in some cases, knew how to play. I'm very fortunate that I don't have to do that anymore and, especially as a teacher, can instead think about other criteria for accepting or declining a gig: "will it be enjoyable?"; "will it teach me or others something?"; "will it build for the future?"; "will it give the players or audience--or both--a positive experience, even if players or audience don't realize that until afterward?"

It sounds high-flown, and it is: I believe music, and the performative/communicative arts as a whole, are profoundly (and unrecognized) major positive forces in the world.

It sounds messianic, and it's not: I was a fan of such musical motivations long before I ever became a player.

It's a product of decades of empirical observation and experience, which suggest to me that building an arts organization from the ground up--more slowly, person-by-person, finding satisfaction in very modest incremental games, has at least two benefits not available via top-down management models:

(1) your client base may be smaller, but they are far more likely to be dedicated, committed, and in it for the long haul. Once those individuals have personally experienced what it's like to be involved in a person-to-person expressive art--dance, song, music, theatricals, etc--they are far more likely to come back for more, and indeed to become a stakeholder and an investor of time and effort in extending the community to more people;

(2) it is entirely non-dependent upon outside funders or gatekeepers. Brendan Canty, of the great D.C. hardcore band Fugazi, put it very well when he said "there is nothing as powerful as the word 'No.' 'No' to a club-owner who wants to bar the under-21's so he can sell more beer. 'No' to a club-owner who wants to increase the modest and easily-changed door price of 5 bucks. 'No' to a record deal where we have to give up creative control." Brendan, and the whole DIY/punk-rock movement, figured out years ago that saying 'No'--being willing to walk away from easy money or infrastructure--was actually empowering, because it meant that you learned to rely upon only those individuals or infrastructures you could trust to be invested for the long haul.

So to this year's Celtic Ensemble. The Celtic Christmas has been running for 7 years, my little local Irish band for 8, the Ensemble itself for three. Over those years, with a careful eye toward the annual cycles of the community and the season, an awareness of how much all humans respond to person-to-person expressive arts (even if they don't yet know they do), a resolute rejection of the asshole good-old-boys (of all ages, genders, and classes) who promise to "make things easier for you guys" if we only just give up control, and an acceptance of the fact that every single fucking gig is about outreach and audience education, we have built a modest grassroots movement whose total membership may be very small, but whose client base is very big; whose budget is small (or non-existent) but whose visibility in the community is remarkably high. We have the power that comes from saying 'No," or, more accurately and constructively, "Yes--but on our terms."

If that means we have to initiate stuff: so be it. If it means we have to do the work ourselves and book the gigs ourselves and hustle the promotion ourselves and teach the music and dancing to ourselves and sell the audience ourselves and create a sense of community and satisfaction and reward ourselves: so be it.

To paraphrase Robert Parker's great character "Hawk" in the otherwise forgettable-as-potato chips Spenser detective novels,

"We know we can trust us."

I'm proud of my guys.
Now playing: Solas - The Yellow Tinker / Cranking Out / Master Crowley's #2
via FoxyTunes

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