Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tip of the iceberg

On the 50th anniversary of the plane going down, various necrophiliac journalists have been contacting me, as the campus's/city's resident "expert" (oh, puhleeezz!) on Buddy, about his prior, potential, actual, or hypothetical impact. Here's just a fraction of what I'd want to say about Lubbock's most despised son--he was a genius, and the small-minded jackasses and boosters who are the "city fathers" (hah!) have never grasped his impact except insofar as they anticipated making a buck off his corpse:

-What do you feel is the most important thing Buddy Holly did for the music industry?

There are four areas in which Buddy was an enormously influential archetype:
(1) As a performing songwriter: someone who both wrote and sang the songs. Prior to Buddy, it was much more common for the songwriter and the performer to be two separate people, with little collaboration between them.
(2) As a guitarist and arranger: along with Chuck Berry, he is probably the most influential rock guitarist before George Harrison of the Beatles. Also principal popularizer of the Fender Stratocaster.
(3) As a bandleader: Buddy & the Crickets in their original incarnation were the archetypal rock "power trio" (guitar-bass-drums). Buddy's truly orchestral guitar parts were the backbone of that trio sound: Eric Clapton (Cream), Jimi Hendri (Experience), and Jimmy Page (Led Zepplin) all took note.
(4) As a popular artist who understood that, in order to truly control his *creative* output, he would need to control his financial, contractual, and business organizations. He took steps to control his song-publishing rights, royalties from songs and recordings, and other creative activity.
-What type of music do you think most influenced Buddy?
Everything he heard: Western swing and Texas fiddle music a la Bob Wills, church hymn-singing, pop songs heard over the radio, the prototypical "rock 'n' roll" of Elvis and Little Richard, and, quintessentially, African-American music: R&B, hard blues, black gospel, jump blues, etc;
-What do you think changed in music after Buddy’s passing?
Nowhere near as much as would have changed had he lived. Had the plane not gone down, he would have continued writing, arranging, playing, producing, and developing new artists--I believe even down to the present day. What did change, even with his early and tragic death, were the 4 areas I cite above: (1) performers writing and singing their *own* music; (2) the ubiquity of the electric guitar as a tool for the rock "front-man"; (3) the ongoing presence and centrality of the "power trio" as a standard rock instrumentation, along with the standard "2 guitars, bass, and drums"; (4) continued awareness, on the part of at least some artists, that controlling the legal and financial rights pertaining to their artworks was an essential part of maintaining autonomy as an artist.
-Is there anything you think people don’t know or realize about Buddy?
Just how wide, pervasive, and ongoing his influence has been and continues to be: in the '60s generation of the Beatles, the Shadows, the Kinks, and the Hollies; in the late '70s/early '80s "New Wave" of artists like Talking Heads, Television, and Sonic Youth; to an extent, in the "Alternative" revolution of '90s Seattle bands like Nirvana and Yo La Tengo.
This is, again, just the tip of the iceberg of his genius.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Placeholder: "you know you're from Western Mass if..."

I'm not from there, but I been:

You know you're from Western Mass IF...

1. You don't speak with a Boston accent, but you can spot a fake one a mile away. Yep

2. You get upset when Worcester is referenced as being "west".

3. You have never been to the new Basketball Hall of Fame, other than to go to the restaurants.

4. You took at least one elementary school field trip to the Sturbridge Village, the Quadrangle or Symphony Hall. Yep

5. You know all four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter & road construction. Yep (where I'm from "Nor'easter, shoveling, black ice & potholes").

6. You have used the heater and air conditioner in your car on the same day. Yep

7. You used to drive to packies in New Hampshire on Sundays before they were allowed to open in MA
. Yep

8. You know what a "packie" is.

9. You think everyone from Connecticut (and Longmeadow ) is a snob and everyone from Vermont is a hippie. Yep (mostly the Marbleheaders were snobs too)

10. You have enrolled in at least one class at Holyoke Community College.

11. You know at least three people that work for Baystate Health System
. Yep

12. You always call it Western Mass. (or WMass in writing), never Western Massachusetts
. Yep

13. You don't really consider the Berkshires to be part of WMass. Yep (full of snobs there, too)

14. You had Staties bust your high school keg party in Russell, Blandford, Granville or Otis. Yep (busted, yes; but we were in "Swamp-skit")

15. You know what a Statie is. Yep

16. You still call the local Fox affiliate, "Channel 61". (What's a "Fox affiliate"?)

17. You have never been to a Starbucks but you know the location of the nearest Dunkin Donuts no matter what city/town you're in. Nope (but I'd always prefer Dunkin's to SB)

18. You went to Bright Nights when it first started but haven't been back since.

19. You don't pronounce the "h" in Amherst
. Yep

20. You know when somebody says UMass, they mean the one in Amherst and not Lowell , Dartmouth or Boston. Yep (even though "yew-Mass Bahstin" is my alma mater)

21.You have tried nine different "shortcuts" to avoid the Coolidge Bridge traffic on Route 9.

22.You still call Six Flags, Riverside. (What's a "Six Flags"?)

23.You still call the Mass Mutual Center the Civic Center

24.You drive 80 MPH on I-91 at all times; rain, shine, sleet or snow
. Yep (well, too).

25.You consider anything that is more than 15 minutes and/or two towns away to be "far"
. Hell no--can you say "Texas"?!?

26.You have been to Connecticut's state capital, Hartford, more than your own.

27.You say to yourself "It's not that bad out" while driving through a Nor'easter
. Yep (well, it isn't!)

28.You wish Mountain Park & Mt. Tom were still open

29.You have never been on a PVTA bus but when you're in Boston, you ride the T because "it's fun". Nope. Always ride the T, but how I know I'm from Bahstin is that I know it's never "fun"

30.You know where the largest St. Patrick's Day parade in New England (and second largest in the country) takes place.

31.You have a love/hate relationship with downtown Springfield. Nope. Just hate.

32.You leave at 7:00 AM on a Sunday to come back from vacationing on the Cape to beat the traffic at Exit 9 on the Mass Pike
. Yep

33.You will drive to the Yankee Candle flagship store in South Deerfield even though it's 45 minutes out of your way and there are three other Yankee Candle stores that are closer to your house. Nope (What's a "Yankee Candle flagship store'?)

34.You call Riverdale St., Riverdale Rd
. Nope (but every one of my in-laws did and does).

35.You "know someone" who will let you park for free on their property during the Big E. Hell yeah.

36.You let your car idle for 20 minutes on a cold winter morning to defrost the windows instead of taking 20 seconds to scrape them
. Yep (only because it doesn't take "20 seconds," but more like "20 minutes")

37.You have bar-hopped at golf course clubhouses

38.You felt a sense of pride when Snoop Dogg wore a Springfield Indians jersey in the Gin & Juice video.

39.You have attended a function at Chez Josef
. Yep

40.You know that Chicopee is full of Polish, Ludlow is full of Portuguese, Holyoke is full of Irish and Bondi's Island is full of shit.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Day 14 (round III) "In the trenches" (random-things edition)

In re/ the "25 random things about me" meme that is going around the Intertubes (Facebook hegemony subdivision) right now, it's not something I'm particularly interested in constructing myself--I figure that writing a daily blog provides quite enough of Dr Coyote's news 'n' opinion. Moreover, I am reasonably middlin' certain that if I were to participate, not just first the "first 25 random things" but probably the "first 50 or more random things" that occurred to me would be things I don't like about myself...and I figure there is no point in subjecting either Facebook friends or my (modest) blog audience to a tiresome recitation of my own self-critical neurosis.

So, an alternate meme: 3 intentional things I love about my blogging brothers & sisters. Note to those I miss: it's not that I don't love you! But it might be because (a) I've forgotten you (so ding me with a reminder!) or (b) you don't have a blog--in which case, get with the program, get you a blog, and start getting your idiosyncratic opinions out there like all the rest of us lunatics yelling at the tops of our lungs in the virtual marketplace.

Dharmonia, the other half of my brain (the compassionate one):

  1. for her kindness and empathy toward others. I would do (and have done) well to continue to learn this from her.
  2. for her sense of humor ("The wheel of a healthy relationship: Food, sex, and havin' a laugh")
  3. for her musicianship. Still gives me goosebumps when she sings.
  4. (redacted--this is a *family* blog, after all!)
Quantzalcoatl, my swarthy alter ego; very much where I'd be if I'd bailed (with even less just cause than he) from Indiana all those times I thought about it. Welcome back into the ring, mijo!
  1. for his combat sense, so complementary to my own. The one person I'd want at my back in a dark alley.
  2. for his rock-solid musicianship; he will never, ever, ever fold in concert.
  3. for his leadership ability, both innate and acquired. I continue to learn from observing this in him.
DAS, Elder Brother. Probably the highest IQ and most potent raw analytical ability of anybody I've ever met, though Tom Mathiesen gives him a run for his money. Now using 30 years of expertise in the housing industry to facilitate affordable homes and clean water for poor people around the globe.
  1. for flat fucking brainpower. My students scoff when I say, "No, really, my brother is very very much smarter than I", "Yeah, right, Dr Coyote! Surrreee!", "No, really, you really don't understand how much smarter he is"; it's like they can't (or don't want) to believe it. But I am humbled--and would be envious, if it's possible to "envy" a natural phenomenon like Mt Rainier or Old Faithful.
  2. for his calm kindness to our eldest, now infirm relations; hyper-conscious of the past, I do not display nearly as much focus or equanimity.
  3. his generosity about material wealth. As he puts it, when making things financially possible for others: "that's what it's for."
The Rev, who I would have fantasized about being if only I'd grown up in the backwoods South instead of the suburban bourgeois North.
  1. for his SOUND, goddammit! Why couldn't I have been born with that voice?!?
  2. for his visual artistry. Like me, he grew up with an artist for a parent--unlike me, he actually got, and used, the visual talent.
  3. for his sense of pace. He's about as far from being a workaholic as I am one--but he still gets a hell of a lot of high-quality shit done.
Mac, senior student, prized mentee.
  1. for the courage she found to stop being one kind of musician and become another.
  2. for her self-discipline and sense of focus--though I could wish she would take a break now and again.
  3. for her unflinching willingness to "get stuck in." When asked to undertake something, she says "yes." And then does it.
Ricochet Dreamer, senior student, early Dr Coyote success story. Now reproducing, which can only enhance the amount of positive energy in the world.
  1. for her huge, planets-finally-coming-into-alignment success at integrating diverse interests and aptitudes into a full life.
  2. for the elegance of her writing.
  3. for her commitment to a professional life that reflects personal ideals.
Taiyo, cherished baby sister, now finding her way on her own.
  1. for her positive intent toward the good.
  2. for her curiousity and receptivity.
  3. for her generosity to friends.
TDH, admired senior student; musician; warrior. She thinks she needs more mentoring--and more catchup work--than she actually does.
  1. for her musicianship.
  2. for her capacity for self-reflection.
  3. for her commitment to the well-being of the world's fuzzy peoples.
elissa_dear, a delight; who has given us the great privilege of helping somebody become who they already are.
  1. for her clear-eyed recognition of how lucky we are to love what we do.
  2. for her joy in the odd nooks and crannies of history.
  3. for her dedication to friends.
wheeky_cavy, learning to let go of hiding her light under a bushel, and glad we are to see it.
  1. for the breadth and range of her artistic talents: instrumental music, song, design, multi-media.
  2. for the open and articulate nature of her writing.
  3. for her discretion--her ability to have strong and considered opinions without feeling the need to shout them in anyone's face.
These are all remarkable people. You should read what they have to say.

Below the jump: "Why Paddy (was) not at work today." Though I will say I am amused by all the kiddos screaming on Facebook about how much they want or are praying for or completing voodoo spells on behalf of a weather cancellation. The last fucking thing I want is a "snow day"--hell, that just means I have to catch up with my own work and that of my staff. Let's get back to work!

[OK, now I feel bad: just saw, out my window, somebody on a bicycle take a hell of a spill--cops, ambulances, the whole nine yards. But, still, that late start, or cancelled classes, cost both faculty and staff--and for that matter students--a hell of a lot of time, money, and effort. Might be nice if the city/campus just put a small fraction of that money, time, and effort into PROPER SNOW REMOVAL! That way, they *neither* have to cancel classes NOR bandage up some poor person who's taken a header on their inadequately-remediated public thoroughfares.]


Just finished reading Segrest and Hoffman's Moanin' at Midnight, a biography of the great Howlin' Wolf. Not terribly well-written, but has some wonderful stories, especially about Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, and takes the right stance, recognizing that these men (Wolf, Muddy, B.B. T-Bone, Gatemouth, Lemon, and on and on) were giants in American musical culture.

And it reminded me of what of the greatest, most profoundly insightful lines ever spoken about Art by anyone--by that great avatar of American music, the Diaghilev of American culture, Sam Phillips:

"This is where the soul of man never dies."

Thank you, Sam. Thank you, Mr Wolf.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Talkin' the talk

Dharmonia says she can tell, just by shifts in my accent, inflections, and vocabulary, when I'm talking to somebody either Irish or African-American on the telephone (she should talk: I can tell which individual person is her interlocutor in like situations).

Now she claims the accent even comes through in print; herewith (redacted) version of email sent to an Aran hotel:

Subj: Availability of gift certificate for overnight stay Feb 5 - Feb 15?

A chairde:

I am writing from America to make enquiry regarding the possibility of purchasing a gift certificate for friends traveling to Inis Mor between Feb 5 and Feb 15. If possible, I would like to use a Visa card to pay the costs of dinner in the hotel and an overnight stay for friends C and P, that gift certificate to be called for by them upon arrival at Kilronan. Could I ask the hotel to be in touch with me regarding this possibility? If email is not convenient, I append below my mobile and fax numbers.

We have fond memories of playing music with Paddy and Locko in the bar and hope to share this experience for our friends traveling in February.

cell: xx xxx xxx xxxx
fax: xx xxx xxx xxxx (attn: "Dr Coyote")

Go raibh maith agat.

all the best,

dr c
To which Dharmonia (CC'd on the note) replies:
You should write all of these e-mails - you sound like an Irishman and you can tack on the occasional Irish phrase, which I have no prayer of doing unless I say "the man a thousand welcomes and to the center of town" 500 times.

I love my wife. Not least because she makes me laugh. :-)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 12 (round III) "In the trenches" (tribal edition)

Collaboration--true collaboration--can teach you a lot, but collaboration—true collaboration—is not much available in the collective arts of the Industrial West. About the commonest and most debased version, in western post-Industrial culture, is the committee, aptly described as "an animal with no head and four hind legs": whose raison de etre mostly manifests the message either that (a) no decision need be taken or (b) a decision must be taken but no individual have to be responsible for it. In a post-Industrial Revolution culture, where the models of decision-making, wealth, power, and artistic creation are overwhelmingly top-down, there are very few alternative circumstances in which persons can experience other versions of collaboration: those that depend upon cooperation, focus, awareness, the ability to improvise and to imagine alternate scenarios (or realities)—circumstances in which everyone pulls their weight, everyone’s contribution is irreplaceable, and everybody helps one another. Of those very few remaining circumstances, the one about which I know the most is collaborative music making, when we play together, listen together, think together, and watch each other’s back.

Celtic Ensemble had the full performance of the Winter “hard” program yesterday evening. This is the repertoire which we typically spend a little more than one full semester preparing: we come back in the Fall and give a “going-away” performance of the repertoire from the previous Spring (because I hate the classical-academic template in which a student ensemble performs a program of music one time, and too seldom gets a second shot, applying the lessons learned, at the same repertoire), and then, pretty much immediately, we dive into the “hard” program.

We do this because Fall semester is conceived as a learning, rather than a performing semester: it’s when we have new recruits to get up-to-speed in our by-ear-and-memory way of doing things and when, as a result, we refrain from scheduling a complete free-standing concert. We do service gigs, and are heavy participants in the annual Celtic Christmas, but by refraining from scheduling a separate, free-standing concert, we remove the “get it together quick even if we have to cut corners!” pressure of starting-up the ensemble and then rushing to give a full concert in the same semester.

So we come back in January (very early in that month, this calendar year), and we aim for a “Winter” concert within just a few weeks, at which we revisit the pieces we first played at the Christmas show, but also add-in various other numbers (typically, chamber pieces and songs) which we’ve been working all Fall, but which needed a little more time, or perhaps wouldn’t translate quite so well in the large-scale, extroverted Christmas show. Then, when the January “hard” program has been given, we can take a little break from the concert pressure, and then start preparing the festival/outdoor/”big” repertoire which we’ll typically concertize in the second half of April. It really works pretty well, providing a feasible and reasonably healthy balance of high/immediate versus low/distant pressure and deadlines.

Of course, coming back and giving a concert in late January, in a large public university in West Texas, also typically means that some percentage of the participants are gonna be ill. There are so many bodies on this campus (22,000? 23,000?), and so many in the Music building (550? 600?), and their immune systems are so weakened, and they’re so stressed (already) and short of sleep (already) that, on any given weekend, at least 10-12% of them are going to be sick.

Last night, it was 2 who had to sing and 1 who had to play—and 2 of those three had to dance as well. They were all three both troupers and also responsible: showed up to rehearsal, kept their shit together and focused even though they felt like crap, danced and played even when the hacking and coughing and wheezing made dress rehearsal sound like a c1900 County Clare workhouse, but there is no way, in certain musical circumstances, that somebody who’s lost their voice can sing some difficult solo vocal piece—there was just no way it was going to come out, even if trying to make it do so was remotely what an ill person should do (hint: it’s not).

In the top-down world of the classical orchestra or choir, one of two responses would be necessary: if the individual’s part was essential and irreplaceable, somebody else would have to step in and do it: the opera understudy, the 1st violin, etc. Conversely, if the individual’s part was (as is often the case in the pyramidal structure of the classical orchestra) duplicated and doubled ad virtually infinitum, that part would likely be dropped and not played at all.

Either of these solutions, though essentially unavoidable in the case of the large complicated machine which is an orchestra (or a factory, or an army), is essentially dehumanizing. The person stepping aside either feels left out (because someone has stepped in and replaced them) and the rest of the ensemble feels disoriented and uncommitted to the replacement, or the person feels superfluous (because the part turns out not to be inessential) and everyone else in the ensemble wonders “shit, am I equally replaceable or superfluous?”

In the event, we did neither—we neither replaced the sick singers nor left out their parts. Instead, we did what you do in a collaborative artistic situation when somebody essential can’t participate: we did something different. We had a ton of music and, even with two cut pieces, still had plenty of repertoire. By saying to the sick musicians “look, don’t worry about it; we have enough music and we’ll just plan to sneak your pieces in on a future concert,” we send the message, to both the ill persons and to everyone else in the band, “no, your contribution is essential and we can’t replace or do without you.”

This puts more pressure on everybody else—there is less music to be played, which means more emphasis on each piece, and the sequence has changed, and the other people participating in those cut pieces have to control their disappointment that their own contributions have to receive deferred recognition. But it also sends the right message; namely, that we have two obligations: first, to the music…not the composer (because classical music’s deification of the composer, in my opinion, has done far more damage than good) and, second, to our colleagues: to their health and happiness and artistic contribution. In other words, to the tribe: to the group of people who, as the great Gary Snyder put it, decided to “stick together, and go light.

By saying “no, we can’t do without you; instead, we’ll do without the piece,” we are conveying “the priority here is to the music, long term—not just this concert, but the long-term musical health and identity of the band, and, in addition, to the people…because we are people first, and ‘servants to the music’ a long way second.”

In making collaborative, communal, participatory art, we send what is in my opinion one of the great messages to be learned from traditional culture, if we’ll just pay attention: that it is people—our people, the primate and quadruped and gilled and green people of our (global) tribe--that matter most.

That's why we do what we do.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fuzzy people 49

Lessons to be learned from fuzzy friends: never, ever, pass up a chance to seek joy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

How you know when you need a break

When you realize that for the past few weeks, you've been slamming down the free pints at the weekly gig specifically in order to drown out your anger at the noisy disinterested losers sitting at the bar.

Even the free booze isn't worth that.

Overheard in the coffee shop

These are the reasons I always have the iTunes earbuds in:

From the clatter of bimbos chattering about their planning sessions for Spring Break--which they're already thinking about more than the actual, y'know, school work that they're supposed to be doing beforehand:

"Well, they acted like real jerks, but
It was just 'cause they were, like, drunk,
So it's okay."

"Oh, yeah, that's right."
As my buddy Quantzalcoatl would say, "we're fucking doomed."


Small but solid insight

Hoping for a full-length "Trenches" post later today, but, in the meantime, here's a small but solid insight derived from oh, I don't know, around thirty years of plugging away toward hard and distant goals:

You have to work as if fields of future opportunity are going to open for you--even if you can't see where, or when, or how. Because that is the single factor that is most likely to open those future fields.

I think it's

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Still here...

...but no time. Hoping for a better blogging day tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Day 09 (Round III) "In the trenches" (dress rehearsal edition)

Hump day, 3rd week, all up in this joint.

Spring semester is typically a time of (a) great distraction, (b) great complication, and (c) great anxiety on a USA university campus. It's a time of (a) distraction, especially for a music conservatory, because it is so frequently interrupted, both cognitively and chronometrically: between Xmas and mid-March, most of the kids are barely able to focus on their work because they're so anxious to get it done and get off to Spring Break--they're like kids at the supper table reluctantly (but swiftly) shoveling down the distasteful peas so they can get to the ice cream dessert. It's a time of (b) complication because there are so many spring conferences, spring ensemble tours (essential for our recruiting efforts), and spring performance obligations. As an example: I am now opening the delicate diplomatic negotiations necessary to hat-in-hand attempt to elicit from the local orchestra's music director permission for three of my players to miss one rehearsal in late April, so they can play the Celtic Ensemble's concert: "Maestro, if you could possibly see your way to using three substitutes, just for that evening's rehearsal, it certainly would facilitate our concert's success." I don't enjoy having to "play nice" like this, but the delicate world of regional arts politics (and egos) means if I don't, I probably will get hamstrung three musicians. It's Jan 21, and I'm making this request now for a concert over three months away. That's how complicated the schedules are.

It's a semester of (c) great anxiety because it's typically the semester when seniors and grad students are trying to graduate. For the ones who've kept their schedules well in hand, and moved through/made timely progress toward their degrees, it's very exciting and not too excessively stressful (though I do frequently have to talk hyper-self-critical grad students down off metaphorical ledges when they are convinced that they are less capable/prepared than in fact they are). But for the ones who are behind, for good or bad reasons, it's an insane jam-up as they realize that, holy crap, they've got to complete 16 or 19 or 21 credit hours in a single semester.

[ETA 15 1/2 hours after starting this post]

Good dress rehearsal from the Celtic Ensemble, for all that, with the level of illness running rampant through the School of Music, they sound like a TB ward or a County Clare workhouse c1900. I'm actually glad that the dress rehearsal was 4 days in advance of the concert--gives them a chance to recover a little bit.

On the other hand, it was a great pleasure, this morning at 6:40am, to look over to the TV monitor of the adjacent cross-trainer and see the Fox news airheads (I think they actively recruit for stupidity, just so the morning show hosts don't make the terrified mentally-elderly Fox AM viewers feel intimidated) and to see those airbrushed male and female bimbos frantically trying to find something credibly critical to say about yesterday's events: "the oath wasn't valid!" "he was mean about the Bush years!" "Carter snubbed the Clintons!" "the press is giving Obama a pass!" I love that last one especially: this from Fox News, who for eight years have done everything they could to prop up the absurd proposition that George W. Bush was a functional human being. I love watching them freak out; it's like you can see them slipping under the horizon, like Captain Bligh marooned after a mutiny, as the Ship of State sails away.

Below the jump: winter photo Zen on the South Plains:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 08 (Round III) "In the trenches" (watershed edition)

Nice day to be teaching an American music class. Today's was early psalmody in the New England colonies--Bay Psalm Book, various regional psalters, setting up the First New England School of Billings, Read, et al. Still working on unlocking the key to that class--need to move more toward discussion of readings, as eliciting more student interaction.

Undergrad (sophomore) 20th century survey class (4th semester of 4-semester sequence) is pretty well-locked in: I've taught that class in its current permutation enough times that there's not much advance writing to do: lectures, PPT, repertoire lists, sequence and timing of assignments, means of assessment, etc, already exist, and so most of the day-to-day maintenance is just that: maintenance. Don't have to author too much new material.

It's been especially helpful to get that class moved entirely into the digital realm: PPT slides, audio files, video excerpts, images, etc are all available, labeled, and most of them have been slotted-in to the materials. This means that the class can be taught in a relatively free-wheeling, relatively off-the-cuff fashion. Because of having taught it annually for 8 years, I've had lots of opportunity not only to memorize the content but also to assemble the multi-media materials (which, as I've blogged before, are absolutely essential for teaching the 21st century population) to deliver that content, and to chunk-out the coverage in workable increments. This last is equally essential: operating from more traditional text-based lecture-out/notes-in models tends to mean much more raw data (you can get through an awful lot of factual data if you're lecturing and they're scribbling furiously), so much more that the modern audience can't take it all in.

And, more to the point, it drastically narrows the range of interactions in the classroom. When the professor talks non-stop for 50 minutes, some small percentage of the group will scribble furiously, equally non-stop, but a much larger majority will freak out, fog out, or give up after 10-15 minutes. They get bored, and they don't retain stuff, except in the short-term teaching-to-the-test memory which does them almost no longer-term good.

In contrast, if you are seeking any wider range of interaction, if you want them to talk, think, listen, hypothesize, follow-up on thoughts, communicate with each other, you have to ramp-down the volume of raw data. There simply isn't as much time for raw data if you want to prioritize their response--especially if there are 100 kids in the room.

So that's what we do--we ramp down the volume of data in favor of a higher range of interaction. We opt for less total data--which they can much more readily find using modern digital search methods--in favor of developing in them more ability to read, write, listen, and speak critically, and to perform the mental synthesis that in turns lead to original thinking. What greases the skids of that, and lets us keep moving swiftly, and (most important) helps them retain the material long-term, is a complementary range of inputs (speech, reading, iconography, scores, critical listening, etc) all integrated, as much as possible, into a regular, dynamic, interactive, contrasted stream. That's how they take in data in every other environment, and so--in a more focused, diligent, rigorous fashion--that's what we use in the classroom.

Fortunately, after eight years of teaching the class, and four of using the multi-media stream as described, the materials all exist: I don't have to spend much time scanning score excerpts, or ripping audio files, or searching public-domain sites for usable images. I have most of what I need in those media, somewhere on a computer or external hard-drive. Because I have (unfortunately) a very bad memory for aural text (terrible with names, verbal instructions, directions, etc) but (fortunately) a very good memory for visual material (texts, images, faces, etc)--and although that is the exact opposite of the aptitudes I'd prefer as a musician--I can almost always remember having seen, scanned, saved, or filenamed something. Which means that, with digital filing and searching capacities, I can almost always find the files again, and remember where, in what context, and in what sequence I want to use them. That work is pretty much done.

In the teaching situation, that requires a reasonably facile ability on my part, or that of my technology TA, to switch from Powerpoint to the course WebCT site to digital video to the course wiki (where the kids post team projects and responses) to iTunes and back again, but it also provides a huge amount of fluidity in jumping between them in the course of a relatively free-wheeling lecture/discussion. It even means we can go out, find additional material, write stuff in real-time, etc.

It's a bit of a hire-wire act but it's worth it for the flexible choice. We can also get away with this because the course is essentially meeting-by-meeting linear: if we get ahead of ourselves, we can take more time; if (as is more common) we lag behind, we can defer a deadline or quiz until its relevant material has been adequately addressed. In the large-enrollment classes of 400-500, where the timetable has to be followed with virtual minute-to-minute rigor, such free-wheeling improvisation isn't really possible.

On the other hand, the other day we ran an in-class listening quiz, for which I created a Breeze flash file, so that the mystery examples could be played from within the one program, without their track names appearing on-screen as they would if we toggled to iTunes, and is in fact very helpful, in the course of a lecture, for retention purposes. Afterward, the Tech TA said "jeez, that was so much easier than toggling between all the different programs!" And, of course, she was right: it's far more streamlined, elegant, straightforward, and "finished."

But, as I said to her, "I know--but that means we're locked-in each day, right?" The toggling back-and-forth method, though cumbersome, lets us work the material in whatever is the best sequence for that particular meeting. Then, immediately after that particular meeting, I can sit down, do a comprehensive edit and restructuring, pull in the audio and video we either referenced (or, often, which I decide I want to add to further reinforce class discussion), and only then publish the final slideshow and upload for the students' study. It's a more complex juggling task, less linear, more complicated, and far less predictable--but it provides a range of flexibility and of dynamic interaction with the students' input that I think is valuable.

I believe in an integrated life. That means employing the multifarious data streams (and the non-linear modes of assimilation) that are most familiar to the kids, manifesting in class the values I think are important outside class, working with the skill-set I have and the skill-set the students have, modeling a way to be that's truthful (including the flaws and failures), acknowledging error, holding the team together, rising to occasions, standing up and speaking truth to power. That's an integrated life. I hope.

Kind of--I hope---like our new Chief Executive.

Toby Ziegler: If our job teaches us anything, it's that we don't know what the next President's gonna face. And if we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas, who's connected to other people's lives, and cares about making them better... if we choose someone to inspire us, then we'll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things... we can't imagine yet. Instead of telling people who's the most qualified, instead of telling people who's got the better ideas, let's make it obvious.
I think we just did.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Internet communities, ITM communities, and "the village"

Taking off from a response to a private query over at, here's my response for why I opt out of certain online fora:

It's both personal and philosophical.

I've been on the 'Net since around 1992, been a member of Irtrad-L (a more consistently more knowledgeable community) since around 1996, on thesession since around 2000. Though I've always tried to make actual, accurate, high-content contributions to these sites (search the archives under coyotebanjo), in my time on thesession, I have observed several problems:

1) the tune database, while a commendable attempt, is indexed by titles, not by actual musical content. This leads to massive mis-identifications--though I would still say that the people who contribute mostly to the tunes-comments section are the most knowledgeable people involved. Moreover, a lot of the transcriptions are inaccurate, or bootlegged from other inaccurate sources. Alan Ng's is a much better resource.

2) because thesession has the very large (if inaccurate) database, and sees a lot of traffic, it is very often one of the first locations that people new to the music find on the web. There is nothing wrong with that, of course--but it does mean that there is a high incidence of people either reading without much prior knowledge, and of people posting without much actual expertise

3) As with many internet communities of high longevity, there is a tendency for the pool of frequent posters to decrease, and for the number of posts by that small group to become higher, and for the conversation to veer into seriously off-topic areas. There is nothing wrong with that, of course--but it means the ratio of data to noise decreases, and that it's thus of less interest or use to me.

4) There are people who have been on thesession for a very long time who have acted like real assholes, in the public forum, but who have been indulged because they are frequent posters. At the same time, there are people who've chosen to work out their own emotional issues by picking fights, or taking offence, as a result of reading words on screens. Both groups seem to me to contribute to noise, not data.

5) The moderator runs the site and his on-/off-topic policies in a specific way, and I find his rationales for these decisions unsound. He is also highly unreceptive to discussion of these policies. Interestingly, I have never had an argument about it with him--but my observation of his response to others' questioning him has lowered my opinion of his philosophical choices.

6) Finally, and really the summary is this: it's mostly a site for a relatively small number of people to spend a lot of time posting misinformation, condescension, or egoism to people, new to the music, who aren't yet equipped to tell the wheat from the chaff.

Better sites/resources:

Irtrad-L: still the best, serious-business discussion resource for those who actually know what they are talking about. The expertise of players represented on this site is much higher. hugely valuable, rigorously reliable, organized around better, more logical, and more suitable database parameters. The expertise of the players who run this site is much higher. the best online "magazine" on folk musics. It buries fRoots, much less *any* print source. Enormously erudite, comprehensive, thoughtful, responsive, rigorous, run by musicians.

JC's tune finder: For those who use notation to learn the music (I don't), a hugely effective and comprehensive abc search engine. very valuable, venerable, and credible lyrics-oriented database and online community. Excellent search engine, very knowledgeable people, very helpful community.

I realize this is more of an answer than you no doubt bargained for, but it's a query I get every so often and I thought I'd articulate my reasons. And, there are certain people still on thesession whose contributions, community-feeling, and generosity are still very real and very commendable. It's just that, due to the problems I've articulated, there are a lot fewer of those certain people than there were. I am one of them.

And, if Danny the Flute from London ever encounters me in real life, he's going to have to provide a real-life response to some of the online insults over the years. I look forward to that meeting.

Thanks for asking.

Traditional music makes you tough

As I've said before.

The Bothy Band in 1977, doin' like it ain't no thing, with "The Morning Star," "The Fisherman's Lilt," and "The Drunken Landlady":

Pete Seeger, 89 years old and tougher than anybody in the Bush Administration could ever even comprehend being:

Including the "private property is a lie" verses.

Thanks, Pete. Thanks, Woody. Thanks, Boss.

Thank you, Mr President.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Guts and competence

You can go far with guts and competence...a hell of a lot further than you can with "talent" (God I hate that word!) alone.

Just ask Chesley Sullenberger, who after doing literally everything right to land a fucking Airbus in the Hudson, gets everybody off alive and safe in 90 seconds, and then, before exiting as last-off, walks the plane twice to make double-sure.

This is what guts and the competence acquired by effort can accomplish--it can save lives, and turn potential tragedy into triumph.

Oh, and by the way, you know what else helped accomplish this? The unions of firefighters and EMTs and first responders and pilots and sailors and harbor masters that make sure that people in life-and-death jobs have the training, certification and job security that makes this level of competence.

You know what you get when you demonize unions, out-source jobs, and put people in positions of crucial importance based on political loyalty instead of hard-won competence?

You get Katrina. You get Donald Rumsfeld. You got Michael Brown.

You get George W. Bush.

Oh, and by the way, Sarah Palin? You know that "real America" that you claim doesn't exist in places like NYC? As Jon Stewart put it, "Exactly where the fuck did those terrorists fly the planes into the buildings?!?" And, by extension, "Exactly where the fuck did an entire city's entire team of first-responders, from firefighters and EMTs to first responders and pilots to sailors and harbor masters, learn the lessons of 9/11 which the Bush Administration resolutely ignored?!?"

The same place.

Shout out to New Yorkers, who when the chips are down, don't panic, hang tough, show courage and competence, and thus exemplify what it really means to "be an American."

It makes me proud. Prouder than I've been in eight years of Bush's criminal regime.

See also Jesse "Doc" (former combat medic and EMT) Wendel's brilliant meditation on the same story over at the Group News Blog.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day 07 (Round III) "In the trenches" (exploding-head edition)

Cain't do it, coach. Every hour was booked with classes, meetings, gigs, writing, from 9am (after 6am alarm) until just a few minutes ago (10:30pm CDT). Ain't gonna be no worthwhile prose emitting tonight; better luck tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Day 06 (Round III) "In the trenches" (punching-down-the-bread edition)

Hump day. One week since opening day; we've now been through one iteration of the weekly cycle--only fifteen to go. The kids are already thinking of the weekend--and if the topic of the shouted, vapid, intra-bimbo conversations in the Rec Center (at six fucking AM) and the coffee-shop (all fucking day every day) are any indication, they are already thinking about what they're going to wear and how all-body-tanned they're going to need to be when they head out for Spring Break to try to have a lot of cheap pointless sex and drink themselves into oblivion.

Which all above I wouldn't mind, except that, in their lemming-like hive mind, they tend to block the hallways and access roads and cognitive space while I and my staff and my students are trying to do work that actually fucking means something (can you tell I hate the six week mental vacation, driven by rut, between Day 01 and Spring Break?). Although--thankfully--the kids who live in the Music Building tend to be about six times as focused, self-disciplined, and mature as the average brain-dead testrogen-poisoned undergrad, they also are, already, stretched: when, in the first week of classes, the Celtic Ensemble kids are visibly relieved to get a bye on the Wednesday sectional rehearsal, you know they are already over-subscribed.

I try as much as humanly possible to be aware of this, both with the kids in the classroom and with those in the rehearsal room. In the latter situation, I don't usually have to kick many asses: the CE is an elective ensemble, with participants typically already invested in 2, 3, or 4 other ensembles (and many of them in addition part-time jobs and/or paying gigs) and these myriad outside obligations tend to mean that, regardless of their good intentions and solid self-discipline, they still get pulled into schedule conflicts. And, of course, if personal/life crises intervene, the whole damned row of dominos starts to fall. So, when they get roped into an unannounced rehearsal with their paid gig, or somebody gets sick, or somebody's recital preparations override ensemble rehearsal, I mostly just suck it up and try to be nice. I want the CE to be a place they want to be and where they don't have to feel guilty--and as a result, sometimes I get skunked for personnel, and when it works, I'm really pleased.

Full concert-performance of the Welsh repertoire they've been woodshedding pretty much since September, as per our usual annual schedule of "hard" Fall semester and "easy" Spring semester--with the final concert of the "hard" repertoire in the first week's of the Spring semester, and then a longer, slightly-less-jammed run of rehearsals in the "easy" repertoire: this year, Anglo-Appalachian. Running around frantically trying to finalize a guest artist/master class before the deadline for funding requests runs out--don't now if we'll make it.

On the other hand, the first meetings of a new academic class are really important, and (in contrast to ensemble) do sometimes call for a certain degree of setting-of-the-tone--to mix the metaphor, yanking on the lead chain so everybody understands who's in charge of the dog-team. It makes the Type-A's more comfortable because they're clear on what's expected, it makes the drag-ass ones who've coasted (and could have done far better if they only put forth a little effort) think "ah, shit...maybe it'd be less painful if I actually work this semester, rather than trying to coast by," and it makes the real criminals--the ones who'll cheat if they can get away with it, and whine and deny responsibility if they're caught--think twice about behaving unethically.

Particularly if they are coming into our classes for the first time, or are otherwise unfamiliar with the way that we prefer to do business, it's not a bad thing to set the ground rules from (as close to) Day 01 as you can. Everybody benefits, and--if you handle it right--no-one is harmed.

This does not mean that you kick asses all hours every hour and attempt to scare the crap out of everyone. My revered jazz teacher David Baker used, in his "How to play bebop" classes, "teach to the top 10%, because that way you'll know that everyone is being challenged," and I agree to an extent--certainly, challenging everybody is a good thing to do, but only provided that no-one gets left behind. Because a student who feels that s/he is being left behind, that s/he "can't" keep up, is going to give up. And you will never recover that student's sense of possibility, optimism, or commitment to evidence.

So you have to temper the message. You really really do want the Type-A's to focus--but be patient with those students who take a little more time to grasp things; you really really do want the lazy, middle-percentile mouth-breathers to quit coasting and work hard for a change--and to learn to challenge themselves rather than always/perpetually waiting for someone else to supply the ass-kicking; and you really really do want the lower-performance kids, the ones who've been raised-up to think that they're not as "smart," as capable, as "talented" (God I hate those fucking words--they're so meaningless!) to discover, for a change, a sense of empowerment, a sense that--contrary to the messages they've received entirely too repetitively over the course of their lives--"Holy shit, maybe I can excel at this!"

If you do this, you generate almost endless, useful, constructive, effective energy in the room--and with that kind of energy you can damned near heat and power the building. So you do not screw up that vibe. How do you provide the salutary ass-kicking that some need, without freaking out the ones who need the encouragement, commitment, engagement that others need? In the same room? At the same time? Without unfairly or inappropriately rewarding some or penalizing others?

Well, you can't yell at them: the Type-A's will freak out ("Oh my God! What if I don't get a perfect-A in this class?!?"), the mouth-breathers will think you're "mean" ("He's so meeeaannnn!" or "Aw, dood, he's fockin' A-hole, dude; you don't need ta lissen ta him!"), and the lower-percentile kids will shrink (cognitively) into themselves ("Oh,'s one more situation where everybody is going to think I'm stooopid. Maybe I am"). But you damned sure want them to get it when you say "Hey, attendance & participation in this class are really imporant", and not just hear it as the "wonk-wonk-wonk" trombone glissando that the old Peanuts TV specials used to convey pointless adult blather.

So you speak VERY VERY LOUDLY, but not in the aural medium that would freak them out. Rather, in this one:

Here's a slide with the typical template, format, font-size, and word-count--the visual, PowerPoint equivalent of "a normal public-speaking tone". What they see every day, slide after slide after slide.

And then, finishing up the discussion of "Course procedures and resources," you say "Oh, and there is one more thing; as is stated in the syllabus, I want to make one more point about one more issue of testing & assessment," and you put up this slide:

I should emphasize that this was an experiment: I haven't done much with the "theatrical" nature of PPT, though the various bloggers, public-speaking types, and Steve Jobs's (not to mention war-criminals like Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo) of the world have made it the defacto publi-speaking mode, but I did want to find out if the visual equivalent of shouting would have a salutary--but less shocking--effect.

And, interestingly, it did: Slide #2 went up on the screen, and I heard audible gasps and shock. It makes sense: given the highly visual population we teach, and about which I've blogged voluminously before, one would think/hope that they would remember that visual cue, and actually internalize it in a way that the trombone-glissando verbal wonk-wonk-wonk would either frighten or bore them.

Below the jump: all-day 4-rising yeasted Tassajara monk bread. I learned how to cook this bread from my great hero Ed Brown, first head cook of the Tassajara Zen Center in N Cal, my tenzo role-model, and his dharma emerges from every loaf I've ever made.

Gassho, Jusan.

RIP The Scarecrow

He was a tough sonofabitch and an actor of commendable ferocity, an Irish-American ex-pat multiple times over and pretty damned good with his fists in a good cause.

And he was a free man, and the star of the single most iconic revolutionary movie of my childhood.

RIP the Scarecrow.

Go raibh mile maith agat Padraig

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Day 05 (Round III) "In the trenches" (spaghetti-against-the-wall edition)

Hard long week already, and it's only Tuesday morning.

A typical week's schedule all up in this joint is pretty damned full. There are windows built in (topic of a future post) so that as I finish each given duty--especially classes--I can process the aftermath and action items of that duty immediately, moving them off my desk ASAP so I can get on to the next hour's duties or considerations. So there's some alternation of contact- versus no-contact-hours.

But the instant that one of those hours is unexpectedly sucked-up--by computer problems, a student crisis, any at all kind of outside issue--the whole string of dominoes starts to topple and, to mix the metaphor, I have to paddle like hell to catch up.

That's day-time, Mon-Tue-Wed-Thu-Fri. Saturdays carry a community-teaching obligation, and are typically otherwise reserved for my own research work, when I can get to it. Sundays brings a radio production and, in the evening, an Ensemble rehearsal.

That leaves the weeknights. Mon & Tues evening are typically relatively open--which really just means sit at home, practice or write in front of the Idiot Box. Wed brings another ensemble rehearsal, Thurs a coffeehouse gig, Fri a pub session, Sat either a one-off gig or (maybe) a Night Out with the Wife. And then it all starts over again.

So I tend to be really protective of those Mon & Tues evenings, because they tend to be the only home-time/down-time evenings I get. Which means that when, on the once-a-month versus once-a-week rotation, I have to give up a Monday evening for another community-service performance event, it is usually the last fucking thing I feel like doing. Dharmonia can confirm that, typically, this means I'll cuss and bellyache a bunch about how much I don't want to do it, while simultaneously and perversely refusing to consider canceling or otherwise bailing.

It's because I see both sides of the debate as equivalently essential: on a given Monday, I really really want the night off, but I am also really really convinced that one of the most crucial success factors in building community arts infrastructure is consistency in the calendar: the ability for potential audience members (and stakeholders) to feel that they can confidently count on the event occurring not just that particular time but on every subsequent date in its rotation. The reason for this, of course, is that it helps promotions begin to move to a positive critical mass: get enough people out there in the community who "know" (without being reminded via mailings or other promotions) that "Thursday night is coffeehouse night," or "Friday is pub session night," or "Saturday is teaching session day," and they bring themselves back--and usually bring friends. Otherwise--if every audience member/participant requires the same amount of promotional effort as last week, last month, or last year--you are just running in the hamster wheel; you're not gaining.

If, in contrast, you build that regular calendar ("Thursday", "Friday", "Saturday") on a weekly basis, and on a monthly basis ("First Monday is always Dance night", etc), and on a yearly basis ("second weekend in December is always Celtic Christmas"), then you become, as the great Tony Barrand put it in his Morris magnum opus Six Fools and A Dancer, "part of the community's seasonal memory." That's the place we want to get to.

Upshot is that, on a given Monday when due to unexpected interruptions the hourly dominoes have already begun to tumble, and I'm paddling like hell to catch up on only Day 04 of the semester, the last fucking thing I want to do is go out and spend 2 1/2 hours playing music for and assisting in the monthly " Dance." But then you start thinking, "well, shit, what does that do for the continuity? How many people won't show up next time because they found an empty room this time?" And, "well, shit, what are you gonna do instead? Sit home in front of the Tube and tap-tap on the computer?" So you drag-ass down the street to the neighborhood coffeehouse, and post the "Back Room Reserved" signs, and move the tables, and sweep the floor, and sit there warming up and hoping it's not a total bust for turnout.

My rule-of-thumb for assessing the watershed moment when an arts initiative (coffeehouse, ensemble, annual event, etc) can survive on its own is "can all the original founders depart, and have the entity continue? In terms of growing a community, the metaphor we used to use was "well, throw the spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks", from an old cooks' myth suggesting that, if the strand of spaghetti sticks, it's done; in terms of community arts, it's "put enough out there--throw a big enough pot against the wall--and maybe a critical mass will stick." Last night, it wasn't looking like there'd be much done-spaghetti, especially in the wake of a cock-up whereby one of the promotions tools crapped out. Or even a collection of 7 dancers so that, with the dance teacher, we could have the requisite eight-somes for the Irish ceili dances.

And there are few things more disappointing, or forlorn, than an arts event with too few attendees to make a critical mass. Over the years, playing the musics I do, I've had more than a few of those, and I've even learned all the strategies for mitigating the forlorn-ness: dim the lights so the room feels smaller and more intimate, speak directly to the audience as if it's a private house, have them all come down close to the stage (or invite them on to the stage), shut down the PA and play acoustically, and on and on and on. I wasn't really relishing the prospect of having to do that (much more difficult with dance than with a sit-down concert) on a Monday night when I was telling myself I'd "rather" be home.

But, in the event, it was great: probably 22 people in room, good mixture of newbies and returning fans (how they heard about the damned thing in the wake of the crapped-out promotions I don't know), good solid and focused attention and clear instruction, lots of happy folks, and even enough money in the "Donations" jar that I could throw around 50 bucks at the coffeeshop counter-staff--which means they're always glad to see us return, and in turn makes management think we're worth the donation of the space.

And I could have bellyached my way into staying home. Last night was a signal lesson in why that's not, typically, the right choice.

Below the jump: Mister Man on a sunny day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Day 04 (Round III) "In the trenches" (advocacy edition)

Really good day today, but crazy-busy--really not much time to compose a full free-standing post, though I'm working on about a half-dozen. So, saving time, here's a bootleg of a post requested by my boss.

My admired boss has really good strategies for all kinds of things, but he's also very quick to solicit from the hive mind. Especially when he's about to head off to one or another professional organization's conference, and is strapped for words, he'll sometimes put out a request for feedback--in effect, passing along to his staff, for their response, the questions that he's been asked to present on.

This has three payoffs, as I see it:

(1) He gets some language and perspectives he might not have time to come up with on his own--the obvious one;

(2) He gives his staff the opportunity to have a say/stake in how our programs are perceived out there in the big world--for opinionated loudmouths like me, this is highly gratifying and good for our morale;

(3) He gets a run-down of what we each are doing in language that he can employ if he needs to justify our individual existences to third-parties higher up the food-chain--in the present economic environment, a very important first line of defense.

So, herewith bootlegged my responses to the questions he posed, as follows:

We must recognize that, as professional creators and teachers of the fine arts, we are engaged virtually every hour of the working week in creating events, objects, and connections that enrich quality of life in local communities. This is especially true of the performing arts—which depend upon the direct, face-to-face contact of creators and consumers. Every performance, every lesson, every lecture, every service activity (from church choirs to schools presentations to public/sporting events to pro bono teaching) provides an opportunity for outreach, audience education, and the enhancement of the community’s recognition of the art’s day-to-day practical, positive impact on quality of life.
QUESTION: what activities/programs do you do in the community and beyond that you consider to be "advocacy."
I present probably 150-175 free public performances per calendar year: pub sessions, coffeehouse sessions, guest presentations at schools, etc. A local community can only be aware of and committed to the value of the arts in its midst if its members have been regularly exposed to the processes and products of community art.

I teach a weekly, pro bono music session in the practices and repertoire of folk music, seeking to provide opportunities for audience members to become participants. In my observation, participation—defined very broadly as any activity which permits an audience member to become a “stakeholder” in an event, organization, art-work, or performance—directly, demonstrably, and permanently increases audience members’ long-term commitment to arts organizations and initiatives.

I constantly engage in activities which build community arts organizations: fans, participants, students, providers, promoters, and work hard to respond positively and cooperatively with other organizations and individuals in the community engaged in analogous activities. Partnering, cross-promoting, enhancing communications are all essential in creating collaborative energy.

I and colleagues regularly seek out opportunities to volunteer musical services at non-profit organizations in the community: churches, hospices, hospitals, elder-care centers, community events, and so on. In all circumstances, we strive to integrate music of the highest artistic caliber with a presentational method that maximizes accessibility and audience engagement. We believe that quality and accessibility need not be at odds—that, in fact, the job of the professional, public artist is to marry quality and accessibility in such a fashion as to maximize both.
QUESTION: what does "advocacy" mean to you -- in the arts, and especially in music.

Advocacy, in the arts and especially in music, means thinking and speaking about, staging, and engaging in arts presentations which celebrate the relevance, immediacy, accessibility, and emotional reward of these activities for all community members. We have found that, in our region, audience outreach, development, and education must all work hand-in-hand, and should ideally be complementary elements of every public performance or other event. We can never presume our audience’s expertise, but must find avenues that “open up” the repertoires and performance approaches such that audience members unfamiliar with our work feel empowered and inspired to learn more and to become involved.

Advocacy means to demonstrate and celebrate the powerful positive forces that drew us as practitioners to the arts—and to provide analogous avenues for our audiences to experience that same sense of empowerment and celebration. We are all educators, all advocates, all artists. Our job is to create, for all of our current, future, immediate, and potential audiences that same sense of empowered ownership and commitment to the arts as essential, vital, endlessly rewarding parts of the experience of human communities.
Pretty good mission statement for a life, too.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

From DJ Mad Skillz, 5:00 minutes to capture the epic narrative of the greatest television anybody ever created (see the epigram at the top of this blog):

The Wire/Five Seasons, Five Minutes.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Day 03 (Round III) "In the trenches" (smackdown edition)

In which the Good Doctor shall discourse upon ye efficacy, suitability, felicitous & appropriate timing of ye pedagogical & bureaucratic technique known as

ye Smackdown.

I like situations that work. I like looking at situations and figuring out ways to make them work better. Conversely, I am stressed-out by situations that I perceive to be not working, particularly when I believe that I have at least an idea about how to make them work better ("the definition of stress is the tension that arises in refraining from choking the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it"--ask me off-blog about the Tourette's patient at the bar who the barmaid keeps serving, in contradindication to every therapy I've ever heard of for that condition). I am hugely fortunate in that the ratio of not-working situations over which I can exert some constructive influence, versus those over which I cannot, has shifted very much in my favor over the past 8 years. I don't have to put up with stupid bullshit (tenure is amazing in that respect) in too many situations any more, and I am very, consciously, grateful for that.

What this comparative distancing provides me, after years having to put with every bit of stupid bullshit that any fucking suit in any office felt like giving me, is a bit of a perspective on how to cope with it, and to know when to (a) suck it up and wait, (b) passively resist, (c) document and disseminate (always a good strategy when some asshole is trying some kind of illicit bullshit), and/or (d), incredibly gratifyingly, provide a precisely-calibrated and surgically-applied smackdown.

At this point, as chair/supervisor/professor, I am confronted with certain situations in which certain parties attempt to behave unfairly, unethically, dishonestly, or manipulatively. Any more, it tends to happen more frequently at one remove: some punkass little criminal will try some unfair, unethical, dishonest, or manipulative bullshit on one of my staff--because they damned sure don't try it too often with me.

It's part of my job, then, to both know and convey when, where, and how to apply a smackdown: to really just flat call a fucking halt to bad behavior, and/or to provide my staff with the tools to do the same. Given my personality and propensities, I have to be careful not to react too swiftly, too ferociously ("maximal overkill" is the phrase that comes to mind). I can't do that, because there is way too much potential for inadvertent but lasting damage. I wouldn't call it "mature," exactly--that is not a phrase I can apply particularly logically to myself--but "strategic" seems accurate.

Therefore, knowing when, where, and with how much severity to impose discipline is absolutely essential. Undergraduate students tend to be hyper-conscious of what is or isn't (or what they perceive to be) "fair"; they hate to be embarrassed, and they will whine or bitch virtually perpetually if they are embarrassed or feel unfairly treated. This doesn't need to reflect reality--only their perception of reality.

Hence, a very fine line to walk. If they are one iota too embarrassed, feel one iota too little culpable, they will conclude, terminally, that they have been wronged and thus share no fault--and if that happens, you will never get them back again. Discipline, especially in the classroom and in front of their peers, even if deserved, thus becomes a quite-explosive thing. If you're mean, dismissive, humiliating, or contemptuous, you will never regain their attention, trust, or commitment.

But, on the other hand, sometimes concrete and explicit reprimand needs to happen. And, sometimes, it's the right and constructive thing to apply. And it can work: if your timing and tone are just right, if you can catch just the right moment to convey "Okay, later for all this 'fair' and 'unfair' bullshit; you were at fault, weren't you?", you can cut through their whiny entitlement to the actual heart of the matter, at which point,surprisingly often, they will acknowledge, implicitly or explicitly, "OK, you're right, I was out of line. I'll do better next time."

As well, sometimes it's important to be proactive, especially if you've got prior information via the professoriate's jungle telegraph that a particular group, pod, or individual is a particular problem. You may want to make certain moves, set up certain behaviors or parameters in the teaching situation, so as to seal the behavioral loopholes that certain criminal types may be prone to--because precluding the opportunity for the crime is a hell of a lot more effective pedagogy than belatedly attempting to punish the crime in its aftermath.

I'm speaking here of students who you have learned, from third parties, may potentially present problems. This could be a group, a type, or an individual, but it is different than the situation of students with whom you have your own prior history of error, defiance, or irresponsibility. those latter kids, when they again appear on your radar screen, tend to be very scared that you will hold past misadventures against them.

This is one of the key perspectival contrasts between undergraduate students and their teachers: the students tend to assume, in the wake of bad behavior, "S/He hates me!"--that is, they personalize the relationship ("He hates me!"), when in fact this is the last thing a responsible professor wants to do. For all the bullshit that the Radical Right spouts about "hate the sin, not the sinner" (and which is typically a massive falsehood: I am comfortable in unequivocally stating that Ann Coulter, Rick Warren, and the Westboro Baptist Church truly do "hate fags", not just their "sin"), professors are actually far more adept at separating conduct from personality. It is our job to reprimand error without personalizing the reaction. I've blogged before about the importance of a public persona which is dignified, in command, and above the petty, tangled interactions of personal perspectives; I think this facilitates a healthy separation of the personal and the professional in the classroom.

So when a kid reappears in my classroom whose last appearance was marked by attitude, irresponsibility, or dishonesty, I am usually at pains to convey a positive, "yes we have a prior experience but that just means that now we understand one another better" vibe. Typically,
such students are visibly and massively relieved.

No, I am talking about other students, either new or recidivist, who manifest an attitude of unrepentent defiance or criminality. Those are the persons who, at the right moment, with the right tone, and a general demeanor of implacable professionalism, may require a smackdown.

So to today's post--because in the last 24 hours two such situations have arisen, in which the specialized pedagogical technique of the smackdown was both appropriate and efficacious. In private conversation, my admired boss has admitted to me that he likes these; though relentlessly professional and even-keeled, in private conversation about one or another problematic little criminal, he's occasionally said "oh, I think I'm going to enjoy that particular conversation." He's very careful about behavioral interactions, but it's clear to me that he, too, recognizes certain situations in which a cracking-of-the-whip-of-authority is in fact the momst constructive and appropriate action.

First of these opportunities was the recurrence of yet another whiny criminal who'd missed more classes than he attended, made a poor grade on the final because of lacking attendance, and then had the nerve to threaten my adjunct staff member with "legal action" if his final grade was not changed to the higher value that he felt he "deserved" (hadn't "earned"--just "deserved"). When the little punk kicked it upstairs, it crossed my desk, and, as my boss (cited above) said, I actually enjoyed penning this following (redmissive:
Mr Student:

I am the Chair of Musicology and Professor Conga's immediate supervisor, and it is in that capacity that he has forwarded to me your message. Professor Conga informs me that you had an average of 80% prior to the final exam, that you earned a 65 on the final exam, and that the cumulative result upon your semester grade yielded an 75.9. Additionally, our attendance records confirm that you had unexcused absences which further negatively impacted your grade.

You say that this is your "second message"; Professor Conga confirms that your "first message" was sent on May 5, long after both the semester had ended and final grading had expired.

The result of your percentage points for the semester confirms that you earned a C. Not an B. Professor Conga is the professor of record for this class and his decision is final.

I have copied this reply to Professor Conga. I have also copied to the School of Music's Associate Director for undergraduate studies, the SOM Director, and our College's Associate Dean.

We consider this matter closed.

Dr Coyote
As I suspected , confronted with the above, this kid folded. There is a time to say "OK, the whiny bullshit is over. This is the way it is." This was such a time.

As I said to my adjunct, during discussion in the aftermath:
Sometimes, really elegant and clearly-articulated language can provide the same kind of social leverage that table manners can: you can come from nothing, and just because you know how to *say something better* than your opponent, you win.
You want to keep your dignity, your professionalism, your cool, and never ever succumb to "arguing." They're not entitled to an "argument"; and once the fair hearing is done, the case is closed.

So to Wednesday's (first) meeting of the undergraduate class. This is the fourth and final increment of a four-semester sequence; in this particular case, the first semester that this particular group and I have worked together. I had been warned by two different colleagues, in relatively consistent ways, that they both had experienced this particular group to be one-or-another-way problematic. So I had a prior knowledge of the general demeanor and (mis)behavior of this group, and an expectation of the probable necessity of setting the lines of authority early. In fact, the graduate teaching assistants who had previously dealt with these little criminals were gleefully anticipating the first day of class, and more than one of them had asked "hey, can I come and be a fly on the wall for this?!?"

So I had thought a good deal about the professorial approach and general vibe I wanted on that first day. It's easy, easy for me to intimidate--but that would be excessive, and needlessly (and destructively) freak-out those students in the class who weren't potential trouble-makers. I'm pretty authoritarian and I have to watch out for this.

Of course, one needs to know names, call on people, recognize personality types, crack jokes, keep the pace moving, change the dynamic, move around the space, combine multiple media and presentational methods, know the personality types, keep them guessing and engaged, and so on and forth. But, given the prior knowledge via the jungle telegraph about the propensity of this group for bad behavior, some supplementary strategies were called for:

Don't ignore the tardy ones, the whispering ones, the ones trying secretly to check their text messages or pass notes back and forth. Call on them immediately--and when/if they say "I'm sorry, Sir [Jesus, I had it when they call me "Sir," as if the term of respect will make up for their not knowing the fucking answer], I don't know," reply "I'm sorry, that's not an acceptable answer," and then wait--make them sit there and fidget and not have anything to so say. Don't let things slide--call them on their crap.

Of course, this has to be balanced with a very positive, preferably entertaining and enjoyable presentational and interactional style; it *can't* just be relentless, jackbooted authoritarian ferocity--because then 2/3 get scared and the other 1/3 get sullen, and everybody's performance suffers.

Rather, the idea is to have them internalize the (typically, for 21st century 19-year-olds, utterly unfamiliar) message and insight "wow, if I show up prepared, pay attention and participate in class, and do my work in a timely fashion, he's really nice and funny, and this is actually enjoyable...and I even get a good grade! and it's fun!" And the flip side reaction (which, with the particularly recalcitrant types, has to be acted out at least once in class) is "Holy crap, that student acted out just a little bit, and Dr Coyote landed on him with hobnailed boots! I better not fuck up!"

You don't want them scared--but you do want them respectful, and you do want them to really internalize the message that "Choices (in terms of attendance, participation, preparedness, and professional demeanor) have lasting and permanent consequences." And, for the sake of classroom efficiency--for the sake of maximizing everybody's constructive experience, you want the potential trouble-makers to assimilate that insight very very early. They'll be happier, they'll do better work, they'll be less of a drag on the class, and everybody will benefit.

Hence the smackdown.