Friday, December 05, 2008

Day 46+1 (Round II) "In the trenches" (esprit edition)

Building esprit de corps—that sense of subsuming part of your individual choice in service of a goal, community, or ethos bigger than yourself—is one of the most fascinating things I do. I have been profoundly and positively impacted by many great teachers, but in this particular case, I am thinking of those who were great leaders, which is a more-than-slightly different skill.

Leadership gets a bad rap in a lot of sectors of American society (and rightfully so—I’d rather have the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert in charge than the clowns, thieves, sociopaths, and genuine morons of the Bush “leadership”) but I think that is mostly due to Americans’ unfamiliarity with it. About the only Americans who reliably and consistently experience the sense of unity, commitment, and inspiration that leadership can inculcate are (a) those who play for truly great (in all senses of the word) sports coaches—and that world is so riddled with bullshit “heroism” and “sacrifice” tropes that true "greatness" is almost impossible; (b) those who work for truly great socio-political organizers (there’s a reason that almost all of the people who worked for Howard Dean are still in activist politics—and that it was Dean’s people and strategies that obliterated Obama’s opponents); and (c), belatedly, just maybe, just possibly, those of us who actually wake up on the morning of January 21 and realize that the great sucking sound of moral and intellectual vacuity in the White House has been replaced by someone who actually is a leader—rather than Der Leader.

And the other place I personally have experienced that sense of being part of something bigger than yourself is, quite frankly, in good bands. I’ve been in good, bad, and mediocre performing ensembles; I’ve been leader and sideman; I’ve been music director and stabbed-in-the-back deposed leader; I’ve experienced esprit as generated by people I admired and I’ve built it myself—hell, I’ve even tried to impose it when it was impossible (because of the resistance, selfishness, or, let’s face it, treachery of other members).

But I also played in big bands under David Baker and medieval chamber groups for Tom Binkley; Baroque continuo groups for Kim Pineda and blues bands with Larry Baeder, and I know that playing music you love, with band-mates you trust, for a leader you admire and for whom you want to deliver, can make you play at the top of your game—hell, far beyond the top of your game. And that that experience is like nothing else—it’s better than any pharmaceutical anybody ever prescribed or purloined.

The sub-text of so much of what I do, in the classroom and in the rehearsal hall, is about just that: about creating the human, logistical, and cognitive situations in which the transcendent experience of making music, together, that is bigger than the sum total of yourselves, is most completely and fulfillingly possible. And, having set up and facilitating those environments, stepping back out of the way. The very most satisfying, empowering, lasting positive impact of the experience of esprit is that you learn, not only how valuable it is, but even more importantly, how to create it yourself. To do that, the conditions—leader, colleagues, repertoire, venues, timing—all have to be right—and the leader has to know when to step back.

When I shuffle off this mortal coil—an event which I am acutely conscious to be approaching faster and faster as I close in (momentarily) on fifty—I don’t give a damn about a memorial or a headstone. If an article I write, a CD I record, a piece of music I compose, or a statement I make can help somebod(ies) after my death, that’s great—but you can take my name off ‘em and it won’t matter a rat’s ass, will it?

What I do care about—acutely, and almost to the extent of heartbreak—is the chance to help young people expand their sense of the possible: to create logistical, perceptual, expressive, experiential opportunities that they might otherwise be denied, as I was denied (again, and again, and fucking again). One of the most powerful positive outgrowths of surviving childhood trauma is the absolute adamant bedrock commitment “this misery fucking stops with me” (just as one of the most horrific potential results of the same trauma is the psychological avoidance or projection that lets it recur). There is almost nothing that can put me into a towering rage quicker than to see, hear, witness, or even suspect that someone, anyone, is harming a young person’s sense of infinite possibility. And there is almost (almost) nothing I wouldn’t do to prevent some teacher from harming some kid. And the wondrous privilege of a job that allows me to help kids is almost (almost) the most important defining factor in my life.

So to this year’s Celtic Ensemble. One of the reasons I have been so avid to try to document the band (via blog posts, recruitment, outreach concerts, the weekly video podcast, and, potentially, the documentary we are shooting) is because I am so massively rewarded and inspired by what I think the Ensemble can represent to a young musician.

Not because of me, or because of anything superlative or magical about what I do. I just believe that these kinds of musics—musics made by ordinary people for the benefit of themselves, their families, and their neighbors, for hundreds of years in some cases—taught in these kinds of ways—by ear, by demonstration/imitation, by a method tinged with apprenticeship, and the sense that the music has ethical, moral, and spiritual as well as aesthetic things to teach us—can provide profoundly positive, constructive experiences. If you give to these musics, as a student and musician, in these ways, they will pay you (and the universe) back in absolutely transcendent golden coin, one-hundred-thousand-fold. That’s what I believe.

There was a moment like that the other evening, at the end of a dance rehearsal by our 4-girl Border morris side accompanied with the dance orchestra. The kiddos were all wiped: this rehearsal was occurring on the literal last night of classes, just when they all needed to go home and start studying—some of them not having slept in two days—to prepare for final exams. They were troupers, though, and concentrated as best they could, and at one point in the final hour, I turned to the orchestra and said “look, guys, I know you’re beyond exhausted. I am holding us here for the full final hour, instead of letting you go early, because this way we can avoid having to do an additional rehearsal. Hang in there for me, will you?”, because, in every good band I’ve ever been in, the leader communicated why decisions were being taken, as frequently as was logistically feasible. Communicating why is not the same thing as “inviting dissenting opinion”—a distinction too few leaders seem to understand. You can explain "why" while still clearly retaining command. And it does provide a sense of ownership to all participants; if you’re there, at least you know why you’re there, and that it’s in service of something bigger than yourself.

We had finally run the entire piece, all sections, with the full orchestra playing (and swaying back-and-forth in unison to hold the rhythmic feel together, and lock them in with the rhythm of the dancers). The serendipity was working for us that night: at the very same time that we had been working "The Belligerent Blue Jay" in the carpeted downstairs hallway (we are so pressed for space in that building that dancers and percussionists and brass quintets rehearse in the hallways and lobbies after hours), at that very same time, in the upstairs classroom, the music service sorority--a really good bunch of girls, with a service charter and a great attitude, who staff all the recitals as ushers and a helluva lot of general would-be-done-by-paid-staff work if only we had enough money--were holding their "Formal Rush."

Now, I don't know (or pretend to care) hardly anything about the whole Greek ethos (even though I've been inducted into two different honorary societies) because my attitudes about that community were shaped by playing in the grotty basement parties that the late 1980s IU fraternities held during the annual "blow off classes and break the law" party week of the Little 500 bicycle race (only the most benign tip of the iceberg of which showed up in the vastly overrated Breaking Away). So I don't know, or care, much about the fraternity/sorority thing except to disapprove on basic professorial principle.

But the music sorority kids are good girls, in a really traditional "big 'ol hair and sheath dresses" kind of way (Texas kids, in contrast to where I came from, *love* to get dressed up just like they *love* to dance); for the formal Rush (some kind of elaborate ritual during which the freshperson girls are inducted into candidacy in the sorority, and they all gather, dressed and made-up to the nines, in one of the upstairs rooms for the first round of ceremonies).

And at the end, they came out of the classroom, and down the stairs, and there were my guys: the dance orchestra, all 10-12 of them, swaying in time to the crooked minor Carpathian tune that accompanies the dance (or, as the great Tony Barrand put it, "makes the dance audible"), and out on the carpeted floor, my four Belligerent Blue Jays, leaping and capering through the old, old elemental steps of the Border morris, whooping at the off-beat and clashing their sticks on the down-beat. As I told the Blue Jays later, it was so great, to see the sorority inductees come down the stairs in their heels and hair and sheathes and false eyelashes, and watch as they encountered our girls for the first time. And as they capered through the last few steps of the dance, gasping for breath and flinging their sweaty hair out of their eyes, the sorority babes broke into spontaneous applause. I was so proud of them, so glad that the Good Texas Girls with the big 'ol hair could comprehend another vision of strong women, and respond so generously.

And then afterwards, when my four had gone back to the little cubbyhole office where one of them works, they were talking about their plans for the next day--to shop for materials and then spend the afternoon making the wild ragged costumes that are the visual centerpiece of the Border morris (oh, by the way, after one of them had worked all night long in the Library during their extended Finals Week cramming hours). So I stopped by, to thank them again for all the extra effort they'd put forth to learn this very complicated--and virtually completely unfamiliar--dance idiom from a few low-rez youtube videos and some prose descriptions, and also to show them where their bits occur in the Christmas program.

When I opened up the file on the laptop, I had to caution them, saying "look, girls, I listed you each as members of the Ensemble, but then I also listed you separately as the Border morris side, and...I listed you under pseudonyms" (don't ask me why--I just had done so; it seemed to suit the morris's goal of losing the individuality in favor of the collective and the elemental), and they saw the way I had listed them, under the collective title "The Belligerent Blue Jays" (after their signature dance), as

Carissa Robin, Becca Flicker, Jillian Sparrow, Katrina Goldfinch
and one of them whispered "awesome,"

and after that I could practically see the lightbulb turn on, as they laughed aloud, and then started chattering to each other (ignoring me), saying "yeah!...we, we, we could have our own individual colors, on our hats!...or feathers from the different birds! or,..or, symbols that we know represent which birds we are!" and they got more and more excited, talking and laughing and making plans together for through the night and into the next day.

That's what esprit de corps does: it makes you feel you are both less than your Self, and more than yourself—not an isolated anomized lonely individual, but part of something bigger, more meaningful, more profound, and far, far, older.

Part of a totem, and a Tribe. Your Tribe. The one you created, or were born into, or were re-born into. Or created for yourself.

Or maybe, just maybe, if the universe is kind to you and you work at the craft of the teacher, it's the Tribe you are permitted to create for your students.

I just closed up the laptop and slipped away,

while, behind me, I could feel the energy, like rockets shooting starbursts, high into the night sky.

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