Monday, November 30, 2009

Day 60 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Up Yonder edition

Dharmonia and I just returned from a Thanksgiving trip Up Yonder. Got back Saturday night, had one day of "vacation break", and landed hip-dip in the shit on the Monday morning.

That's OK--when you've been doing this for a while (10th year here, for me), you begin to be able to anticipate the biorhythms, the peaks & valleys, the watersheds & crises, of the bi-annual iteration of the semester--and you're thus much less thrown by them. I more or less know to expect that the kiddos will come back from the break having essentially forgotten essentially everything they're "learned" over the previous 14 weeks, and will need to be "re-trained after the coffee break" as we say up here. Fortunately, that re-training takes less time than the initial learning--and even less time if as instructor you know to anticipate it and splash some metaphorical cold water in their faces upon return.

Took a number of pleasant memories away from the high country, but here's one:

Post-hole digger in the high-mesa red clay, thinking of Gary Snyder's "Fence Posts", as I help the General lay in a few of the sixty or so needed for a friend's fence.

At age 50, using the post-hole digger is like wrestling a younger opponent, or your own younger, fitter self, driving the spade-tipped oak handles four feet down the hole and finding the hard-pan at the bottom.

Pausing, resting the wrists unused to the rhythmic jolt of impact, enjoying the silence, the absence of the usual background sub-sonic rumble of freeway traffic that is absent here at 8000 feet, the crystalline blue sky and the atypical lack of wind,

and hearing the slow chuff-chuff as three of the oversized, Taos ravens row across the sky in line-ahead above me, hearing the slow wing-beats as they bank in for a landing,

to stare down at us, cockeyed and cynical, hunch-shouldered and midnight-black.

Greetings, brothers.
Season's turning now.

No comment

Gonzales: he has to "dream big" because he's such an insignificant, syncophantic, criminal little man.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"The Office" (workstation series) 120 (pinon-smoke edition)

Up Yonder, with good friends. A full belly, pinon fire, good session last night, the festive board today, Dharmonia at my left hand, and my brother Coop breathing under his own steam (I've said it for weeks: lungs that could conquer Cotopaxi and go up the Great Wall two steps at a time can take out any bacterium ever spawned).

I'm thankful for all of it: death as well as life, loss as well as gain, enemies as well as friends.

The world is as it is, and could not be other.

May all beings find peace.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Blogging lite

Dharmonia and I are headed en route out and Up Yonder; blogging will be lite & lazy for the next couple of days.

May all beings be fed.

"Our goal is to have kind compassion for all sentient beings, every minute, forever." --Katagiri Roshi

Day 59 (Round IV) "In the trenches": 'tis the season edition

Sigh. We're into the season again: here's a (redacted) version of an email I sent to my staff yesterday:


"In response to one of our colleagues who wanted feedback about coping with plagiarized material in a student submission, I wrote-up a fairly detailed "best-practices" document describing how I've handled it over the past 9 years here . I am reasonably confident that what I've laid out represents ONE (only one) reasonably effective way of coping with the seeming inevitability of student plagiarism. Remember that now, nearing the end of the semester, is precisely the season when we are most likely to see it: be on the lookout for it, and, if you uncover some, feel free to review my document on the wiki [link].

Coping with plagiarism

In academia, occasional violations of ethics are bound to occur; unfortunately, they have become only more common with the advent of a digital "cut-and-paste" composition method.

However, there are good, and not-so-good, ways to handle this. If you find yourself in the position of having to confront an instance of plagiarism, begin by asking yourself some questions:

  • What percentage of the final grade is the assignment worth?
  • What is the deadline?
  • What has been the nature of this student's work otherwise: good, bad, or in the middle?
  • Do you have a "read" on why this person might have plagiarized: panic, criminality, insufficient understanding of academic ethics, other?
Answers to the above, while irrelevant to the severity of the crime, may give you a preliminary sense of the degree of severity with which you wish to respond.

I'm pasting in below the specific language in our syllabi, which is there not because we must enforce it to the letter of the law, but so that we can--while also providing the option of lightening up if our best pedagogical opinion suggests otherwise.

If you uncover a documentable example of plagiarism, I would suggest that you wait until you have returned the assignments; hold the culprit’s back. At the end of class, if the student asks for it, say "you need to set up an appointment to talk to me about your paper"; do not give back the paper. Make the appointment for at least a day or two later, not right away.

On the appointment day, have the student meet you at your office; have a photocopy of the student’s paper, with the plagiarized sections marked, and sample printouts from which the student copied. Sit the student down, put both the student’s xeroxed paper and the sample printouts on the desk, and say "can you explain this please?"

If the student denies any wrongdoing, point out that it is impossible that the student "coincidentally" mimicked the sample pages.

If the student admits wrongdoing, show the student the printout of the syllabus language and point out that the student can be EXPELLED FROM THE UNIVERSITY for this violation of academic ethics.

If the student refuses to say anything, say "this is a clear-cut example of plagiarism; here are the university policies regarding this violation of academic ethics" and dismiss him/her for the moment.

Regardless, prior to dismissal, tell the student, "I will need to consult with my superiors regarding how this will be handled. As of this moment, no decision has been taken. But you are liable for an F on the assignment, an F for the class, or expulsion from the university. We will be in touch with you."

Based on her/his response, after the student’s departure you yourself can decide how rigorously you want to apply the syllabus policies regarding plagiarism.

My own rule of thumb, in such cases, is to say to myself, "my ultimate job is to teach this young person--not just about music, but about ethical conduct. What scenario, resulting from this situation, will most effectively teach the student not to do this again?"

Typically, if a plagiarizing student expresses any regret or remorse, I usually do not want to expel or fail him/her. What I will usually do is communicate to the student, after another day or two, "you understand that you violated academic ethics, right? That you cheated? That you are liable for expulsion from the university?"

Then, assuming that the student expresses any remorse and/or understanding of the crime, I will say "I'm not going to flunk you out of this class. But this assignment is not your work. Therefore, you are receiving an F on the paper. If that means that you receive a non-passing grade in the class, that is a consequence of a dishonest choice you made. And such choices have consequences. In the meantime, you will need to fulfill every other part of the course requirements--and this incident will go on your permanent record. I hope you now understand why plagiarism is a very, very bad choice."

In my observation and experience, this "scare the absolute crap out of them, elicit their remorse, make sure they understand not to do it again, make them take their lumps with the F on the paper and possibly for the class" strategy is the most constructive pedagogical response you can make to plagiarism.

And, of course, you can consult with your superiors if/when the above doesn’t cover the possible scenarios, or if you have more questions.

[from the syllabus]

Academic Integrity: [link to university's O.P.'s]

It is the aim of the faculty of [] University to foster a spirit of complete honesty and high standard of integrity. The attempt of students to present as their own any work not honestly performed is regarded by the faculty and administration as a most serious offense and renders the offenders liable to serious consequences, possibly suspension.

"Scholastic dishonesty" includes, but is not limited to, cheating, plagiarism, collusion, falsifying academic records, misrepresenting facts, and any act designed to give unfair academic advantage to the student (such as, but not limited to, submission of essentially the same written assignment for two courses without the prior permission of the instructor) or the attempt to commit such an act. ...

b. "Plagiarism" includes, but is not limited to, the appropriation of, buying, receiving as a gift, or obtaining by any means material that is attributable in whole or in part to another source, including words, ideas, illustrations, structure, computer code, other expression and media, and presenting that material as one's own academic work being offered for credit. "

Happy Thanksgiving. :-/

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day 58 (Round IV) "In the trenches": self-selection edition

Not much time left in the day, or the semester. Right about now is right about when we start dealing with the panic-reaction of kids who've left undone that which they ought to have done, and/or who've never yet learned fundamental life lessons. Plagiarism (topic of tomorrow's post) is up, breakdowns & tears are up, dumbass Facebook Wall unethical between students: my favorite from yesterday, about eking out a too-short paper: "Dude! Just set your font to 12.5 and your line spacing to 2.2...that way it won't look suspicious." My opportunity to post, further down the Comments chain, "this is spectacularly stupid advice."

Excellence is hard--but it's also far more gratifying than mediocrity. This is a valuable life lesson which many learn too late.

Removing the Plate of the Pump
on the Hydraulic System
of the Backhoe
for Burt Hybart

Through mud, fouled nuts, black grime
it opens, a gleam of spotless stell
machined-fit perfect
swirl of intake and output
relentless clarity
at the heart
of work

Friday, November 20, 2009

Day 57 (Round IV) "In the trenches": tears edition

I see a lot of tears in my job. Mostly they are those of others, and most of those others are young people who, as I've blogged before, are being buffeted, many for the first time, by the storms that every life brings. Tears of joy, relief, connection--and also of sorrow, loss, fear, disappointment, and so on.

But I don't weep much, myself. Partly it's because the idea that Dr Coyote could weep, if promulgated amongst the general student population around here, would probably be somewhere nearly as disorienting and distressing as thinking that John Wayne (that pandering, posturing, draft-dodging, war-mongering asshole who is nevertheless an icon in Texas) could weep.

But more significantly, it's because my job is to maintain a compassionate, but dispassionate, sense of perspective--and to supply that for the young people under my care who, precisely because of their youth, may have trouble supplying same for themselves. One of the only profound statements that appears anywhere in the entire corpus of Robert Heinlein, a great storyteller but a self-aggrandizing, sexist, knucklehead elitist almost as bad as Ayn Rand, and a closet fascist as well, is in the opening pages of Starship Troopers (a good yarn which the fucker wrote to try to justify prolonging the war in Korea and which was made into a beyond-awful film), in which his legendarily hard-assed Drill Instructor, Sergeant Zim, says, of the raw recruits under his care:

"We must not hate them. We must not love them. We must teach them."

I might nuance that: I'd agree that, as their teachers, we damned sure can't hate them (and if we do, we are fundamentally failing at our professional and ethical obligations). It's a profound truth nevertheless.

We maybe can love them. But that love has to be, paradoxically enough, objective. It must be separated from the more conventional understandings of love, in which the one-who-loves does so, in part, because s/he expects or anticipates that love to be reciprocated.

And that desire for reciprocal love cannot be any part of our personal, professional, or ethical mechanism. If we're teaching them because we want them to love us back, we are again failing at our professional and ethical obligations.

"We must not hate them. We must love them only without expectation or payoff. We must teach them."

But I can say that the times that I do weep, privately and without expectations of payoff or comfort, are when I actually believe that I might have helped someone.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day 56 (Round IV) "In the trenches": hit-by-a-bus edition

The universe can be a motherin' cold and hard place, full of suffering. There's a reason that the FIRST of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is "Life is suffering", though I prefer the slightly more nuanced "All lives contain suffering".

One of the reasons that I follow the Eightfold Path ("right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration") is because of the bedrock practicality and realism of its teachings. In Buddhist wisdom, bad things happen, not because somebody is a "sinner", or an unbelieving "infidel", or "non-Galt inferior", or not "one of the Chosen," or any of the other bullshit reasons which the world's wisdom traditions have sometimes tried to employ to explain-away suffering as something that "doesn't have to happen" or that "only happens to people other than we true believers."

That's bullshit.

The First Noble Truth says that "all lives contain suffering." This isn't pessimism or masochism: it's wisdom, because it acknowledges that suffering is inevitable, unpredictable, and inexplicable. That suffering is not tied to "goodness" or "badness".

Buddhism teaches that the cause of suffering is desire--unexamined, unthoughtful, desire. Especially to hold on to thing: the desire to try to make permanent that which is, and must be, impermanent.

Absolutely nothing in this Universe is permanent. All is in flux, every natural or created phenomenon is simultaneously arising AND passing-away. All is mutable, everything changes.

This is the fundamental teaching of the universe: that all things--love, wealth, health, joy, and life itself--will end. Seeking, in ignorance, to make these things permanent, when this is impossible, is what causes suffering.

When Allen Ginsberg visited the (then very young) 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in north India, he asked--with typical, lovable, open-hearted impatience--what he should do about the frightening visions he was having while tripping on the hallucinogens which he had convinced himself could provide a short-cut to insight. His Holiness said, simply, "If you see horrible things, don't cling to them. If you see beautiful things, don't cling to them."

The great insight of this statement is the same as those above: the recognition, the deep, practiced, calm, "awake" realization, that both horrible things and beautiful things are impermanent--that both joy and suffering will end.

When you come to believe this, you come to a place in which living or dying begins not to matter quite so much.

Quite often, I will say to my students and younger colleagues, about a new/positive possibility, initiative, or idea, "Well, I'll make that happen. If I don't get hit by a bus first." Typically, the Texans are quite shocked--there seems to be an ethos that it is in bad taste, or bad luck, to mention the reality that you're going to die. Sooner, or later. Or sooner.

But I'm OK with being reminded of it. It reminds me that I don't really give a shit about eternity, or about a legacy, or a "lasting reputation", or the plaudits of my colleagues (though I sure do appreciate those last).

What I care about is making a positive impact on lives while I can--recognizing that this "while" represents a very, very, very brief time.

I want a life in which, as I lie down at the end of the day, or drive to work in the morning, or cross the street at noon in the face of a barreling bus, I'm OK with dying the next minute--knowing that day was a day of constructive, positive action. A day in which, as I've blogged before, I've made something and taught something...and ideally both

How do I make sure of this?

I'm a teacher.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 55 (Round IV) "In the trenches": bootlegged edition

Another day with too many events and too little time, so here's a comment bootlegged from over at Dean Dad, again: one more once on ethics:

I have the good fortune to teach in an academic discipline (music history) in which cheating is comparatively irrelevant to issues of student assessment. On the studio-performance side of things, it's not possible for a student to "cheat" his/her way into having the musical/instrumental/vocal skills required to pass a weekly music lesson. On the academic/history/music-theory side, it is still comparatively impossible for a student to "fake" or cheat his/her way into a passing grade. Here are some ways we cope:

1) we use multiple iterations of assessment: 3 exams, 5 quizzes, 6-10 online assignments, a writing project in 6 assessed stages, plus in-class attendance and participation. We do this with sections of 80-100 students and 2 TA's in addition to the instructor of record. It is not much possible for a student to "cheat" his/her way through so many separate assessments.

2) we of course take all the appropriate stages to "control test security" in the classroom and in online testing.

3) we require students themselves to "maintain their own test security"--telling students during a quiz or test that if they observe someone else cheating, they are enjoined to report that behavior in order to protect their own academic ethics.

4) we talk about ethics and right-conduct. In fact, I use the analogy of music lessons and ensemble rehearsals, saying "well, you couldn't cheat your way through a rehearsal, could you? If you did, you'd get cut and somebody else would take your place." We also articulate, early and often, that "cheating" is a fast track to failure in acquiring the skills for success in the professional world of music.

5) we frame ethics versus cheating as an issue of peer respect and peer pressure, saying that "somebody who is cheating, or talking, or texting, or otherwise misbehaving during a class or lecture is taking something from you; don't let them do it!" We find that, often, students who either passively accept cheating, or even engage in it themselves, would actually prefer not to, if they feel empowered by their teachers and by their learning situations to resist unethical behavior.

6) finally, we model these behaviors. Young people, as the above article makes clear, are not given clear messages about the social, community, and personal damage wrought by unethical behavior. But we operate from a presumption that, at some level, even students who have been given bad or no messages about ethical behavior actually will respond favorably and constructively to more positive role modeling.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Home again, home again, only somewhat bruised and battered after 5 weekends away in 6 weeks. Young'uns played great, down south of here. Anticipating return to regular blogging schedule tomorrow. In the meantime, here's (one set of) the 100 best quotes from the greatest television program ever created:


Friday, November 13, 2009

C8H10N4O2 Thought

[on waking in Philly at 5:30am]

If I can't have good coffee, I think I don't want to be part of your revolution.

That is all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Day 51 (Round IV) "In the trenches": U-curve edition

In the throes of annual meeting of the tribes--so can't comment at length. Herewith an alternative, bootlegged from a comment over on Dean Dad, about the impact of the economic recession on enrollment rates and classroom profiles.

He was commenting that, at his community college, they are seeing a larger admixture of non-traditional students who might otherwise be entering the workforce, but who--given that there are no jobs--are doing a year or two of college instead. And that the diversity of expectations and modes of conduct in his classrooms is increasing--yielding a "U-curve" of two divergent poles of behavior, with concomitant frustration or lack of understanding across the gulf between.

Here was my response:

To the extent that my (public, soon-to-be-R1) university has always tended toward a regional, middle-to-working-class clientele and economic profile, and given that our recruitment varies from major TX and OK cities to quite small towns, as well as within the county, we have always experienced the u-curve you describe: that in itself has not changed.

The graduate population and profile are different--many more national and international recruits there--but our undergraduate population tends to show differing levels of skills, preparedness, and (for lack of a better word) maturity according to their widely divergent secondary-school backgrounds. I'm in music, so our UG population tends to show profiles based upon three different source groups:

1) students from relatively small rural towns; typically with very narrow experience, of the world or of "difference"; excellent work ethic; often challenged by college's expectations of "critical thinking and critical writing", after NCLB-oriented secondary schools' bias toward teaching to the test (e.g., regurgitation). They are usually quick studies but need a good deal of remediation.

2) students from middle-class economic backgrounds, typically Dallas, Austin, Houston, El Paso; usually reasonably well-prepared with basic entry-level college skills (aforementioned critical reading/writing, etc), but wild divergence in their levels of independence and initiative depending on the calibre of their (typically public) high schools. In this large group we will have (a) students from good high schools, with many AP courses, lots of critical thinking skills, good work ethic, desire to do well and grow; versus (b) students from underserved or -funded schools who need massive remediation.

3) home-schooled. This third, in this part of the world, is a not-small group. Motives for home-schooling parents may differ widely--the commonest here is the "I don't want those Secular Humanists at that public high school teaching my kid about evolution!" social and intellectual conservatism; these are typically what we would think of as white working-class. But we also have a substantial portion of home-schooled kids whose parents took this own in order to compensate for inadequate public school options; typically white middle-class. These third group tends to be very well-educated, with lots of individual initiative, good work ethic--but can also be quite undisciplined if subjected to the "you're going to do the same task as your classmates, at the same *time* as your classmates" necessary in groups of up to 100.


We have found that it is a huge problem if we subject whole groups to the remediation (reading, writing, thinking drills; English composition; library skills; etc) which only a portion (say, group 2b above) most need: if we do this, group 2a and ESPECIALLY group 3 will scream bloody murder with impatience.

We've had far better luck when we identified particular skill areas in which all 3 populations agreed that they needed remediation (in music, it's "critical listening"--the ability to listen to a piece of music and have good tools for hearing and articulating what makes it sound the way it does), and emphasized those skill areas during classroom work. So we'll spend a lot of time in the classroom on those areas for shared remediation; this tends to level the playing field: all are challenged, no-one is frustrated or bored.

In contrast, we "chunk out" those areas in which prior preparation and resulting facility are most divergent (basic reading comprehension, library skills, note-taking skills, etc) into outside-of-class assignments, typically delivered via Blackboard and often only "spot-graded." By making these homework assignments, we are permitting (or requiring) students to allocate the time to them which the students individually need. In effect, we can say to the AP and home-schooled kids, "If this assignment takes you 5:00 minutes, you'll be done in 5:00 minutes and it's an easy A," while conveying to the more skills-challenged kids, "OK, this is obviously something on which you might need to spend an hour or two, in order to catch up in your skills."

Overall this has worked very well: classroom efficiency, satisfaction, and group cohesion have gone up, as has the median acquisition of skills, while frustration, boredom, objections have gone done. It took us a few iterations before we hit the right balance and we're always tweaking.

Day 50 (Round IV) "In the trenches": waiting-in-line-for-gravel edition

I pretty much hate going to conferences, but I hate it the least when Dharmonia is traveling along with me. Compared to life as a grad student, or even as pre-tenure faculty, these days I spend much more time on the road, and like it much less. But, when Dharmonia is along, as she is on this trip, it tends to feel a helluva lot more like fun and a lot less like a demeaning, demoralizing slog. As Kevin Murphy put it in his great A Year at the Movies, speaking about his own "beloved Jane": "we can have a blast waiting in line to buy gravel."

Myself, I pretty much hate going ti conferences. Mind you, I more-or-less enjoy being at conferences, for the chance to meet old friends and to hear new scholarship ( although generally would prefer fewer days and earlier nights), but the going is the part I dislike: the hassle, hazard, time, and personal mistreatment to which modern travelers are now uniformly subjected. I can grit my teeth and get through it, especially if the end destination feels like it's gonna be worth it, but the getting there is never fun. Especially when you're six-foot-five and shoehorned into coach class.

But it's a lot less un-fun, and a lot more bearable, when you're traveling with someone you love.

Aw haw hey.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day 49 (Round IV) "In the trenches": braggin' rights edition

About four times a year, our College's administration is tasked with submitting a report on faculty & student "accomplishments" as part of a report to the university's Board of Regents. Now, I know who some of those people are, and I know some of the reasons that they wind up appointed--by our helmet-haired wingnut Governor--to serve on that Board...and let's just say that I don't invest a lot of effort into hoping they're going to understand the value, or the metrics for determining that value, of what a university does--and particularly not the value of what a "College of Visual and Performing Arts" does. These are people who, having heard a lengthy, detailed and articulate description from my boss of all that we do, are wont to say "yeah...I shore do love that marchin' band!" So I don't hold out a lot of hope that they're going to understand the significance of the range of accomplishments revealed in Musicology's part of that quarterly report.

But I do.

See below:

LJ (MM Musicology) was accepted as a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in Musicology at the University of __ School of Music (Fall 2009).

CG (MM Musicology candidate) began a semester-long internship at the __ Museum in Oxford, England, cataloging the photo-archive of FDW as assistant to Music Education professor SB (Fall 2009).

HD (MM Musicology candidate) began a semester-long Study Abroad experience at Syracuse in Italy as part of her thesis research on ancient music (Fall 2009).

ES presented a paper ("__") at Music and the Moving Image Conference sponsored by New York University (May 2009). Her paper "__" was accepted for the national meetings of the Society for American Music (Ottawa Canada, March 2010). She also received the Summer Thesis/Dissertation Research Award 2009, funding a research trip to Philadelphia (June 2009) to study primary source materials of __.

ES and KR (MM Musicology candidates) both presented papers on their thesis research (on __ and __) at the 2009 Women's Studies Conference.

Dr IR (PhD Musicology), a first runner-up in the awards for Outstanding Thesis or Dissertation, accepted a post teaching at __ Community College in Houston, TX. Dr R continued as coordinator of the MUHL3310 "History of Rock 'n' Roll" distance-education course.

Dr MB (PhD Musicology/Arts Administration) was appointed first Director of the Community Exchange initiative.

Dr MM (PhD Musicology/Arts Administration) joined the staff of the __Symphony Orchestra.

JB (PhD Musicology candidate) accepted a post as Music Director/ Honors Program Coordinator at __ University.

SC (MM Musicology candidate) was accepted into the Law School at __.

RL (MM Musicology candidate) assumed duties teaching MUHL3310 "History of Rock 'n' Roll" on the __ campus, a course enrolling over 425 students per semester.

JS (MUBA-Vernacular Music; percussion) was awarded the 2009-10 Vernacular Music Center Scholarship.

KB (MUBA-Vernacular Music; fiddle), the 2008-09 VMC Scholarship recipient, will graduate with the MUBA in Vernacular Music, with Irish fiddle concentration, in Dec 2009.

Dr Coyote (Chair of Musicology & Director of the Vernacular Music Center) gave a presentation ("__") for the Teaching Academy's "Jump-Start New Faculty series" in August 2009. Dr Coyote also: visited the University of L/L as expert consultant to their new Chair in Music and Acadiana Studies (September); gave a paper at the "Music and Migration" conference in Southampton England and another in the University of Southampton's Musicology Colloquium series (October); taught bouzouki at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat in Midlothian TX (October); served as member of the Program Committee at the national meetings of the American Musicological Society (November).

A contingent from the Musicology program attended and participated in the Fall meetings of the American Musicological Society SW chapter in San Antonio, TX (October).

The Vernacular Music Center was awarded a grant by the Growing Grad Programs initiative to fund Ms AR (MM Musicology candidate) to serve as vMC administrative assistant for the academic year 2009-10; she will engage in promotions, fundraising, and recruitment for both the VMC and the Musicology graduate program.

The Celtic Ensemble gave a concert ("Across the Western Sea: Music of Anglo-Appalachia") in the Legacy Great Hall in October 2009, which program they will repeat as part of a tour to the Metroplex in performance at Tarleton State University (November).
I am bursting-my-buttons braggin'-rights proud of my guys. All of them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Day 48 (Round IV) "In the trenches": maritime Celts edition

I've blogged before about my own maritime background, both as regards birthplace and one of the favorite records of my childhood. I've also commented upon the strategies that we use for programming the Celtic Ensemble--and how much I like running that group.

Well, we're in that stage of the Fall 2009 semester when we have to start nailing down concert dates in the available venues for the second half of Spring 2010 semester. Partly these days are a product of available openings in the venues, partly it's a product of what I think the kiddos can get together in time to make a satisfying and effective program, partly (a big part) it's a question of what I predict will be both pedagogically effective and artistically satisfying for the kids.

But part of it is also the same kind of decision-making in which any competent concert promoter has to engage: what will be accessible, yet intriguing in promotion; engaging, but also challenging, in performance for the audience. As a concert programmer, as a radio presenter--hell, even as a blogger--I have a tendency to succumb to the musicologist-within-me; that is, I have a tendency to want to give too much context, too much back-story, just too goddamned much information (Dharmonia will roll her eyes when I start telling a story and first feel that I have to back up two or three or four events or anecdotes or years). As my buddy Coop (goddammit Coop! get that shit out of your lungs! we--especially your stalwart girlfriend--need you too bad! get better!) will say, in the indirect-but-nevertheless very clear manner you learn as a Preacher's Kid in the Church of Christ, "aw, shit, there he goes teaching again!" To an extent, I've learned to suck it up, shut up, and get on with presenting the music. But the impulse is always there. Not, probably, much alleviated by kids in the Ireland seminar field-trip saying, out of my hearing, "I could listen to him talk all day"--which is like musicologist's methamphetamine.

Anyway, it's one of the things I like about running the Celtic Ensemble: I get to teach music that I love, dictate (or, better, "direct") how it gets played, turn kids on to stuff that I think they'll dig, and, oh by the way, talk about it. One of the CE kiddos said, on a long drive back from a teaching weekend when we were talking about the strategies that have gone into shaping the spring "Easy" or "Big" program, "I love how our programs often have a kind of historical component--that seems different." Well, of course, it's fundamentally the musicological meth talking--but I like that factor too.

As I've said to friends and colleagues (and ranted to Dharmonia when I'm particularly fed up with Lubbock), in a place like this, where the musical receptivity is very high--fantastic tradition of blues, rock, and country in this region--but the musical diversity is very low, if you play a relatively esoteric or unfamiliar music, literally every gig you do has to include audience education. Not the old-school NPR "listen to this Great Music because it's Good for You, even if the music, or more accurately the pompous presentation, bores the snot out of you" kind of way.

But, rather, with a vibe/mood/manner that conveys to an audience, "hey, this is great music, and the fact that you're here means that you're somebody who's receptive to great music, and we think you're going to really dig this music because we really love it." Such a vibe/mood/manner can go light-years toward making an unfamiliar music seem interesting, intriguing, rewarding, and mind-expanding to an audience with low familiarity. It's the best kind of "audience education" a musician can engage in, and sets up by far the best kind of performer/audience interaction.

Where I come from--and where I spent some time this past summer--"sea music" is if not ubiquitous then at the very least quite sufficiently available. It seems like every little tourist seacoast town, every little day-long folk festival, every one-night-a-week folk coffeehouse, will exhibit a large percentage of guys (mostly guys), mostly bearded or in the most extreme cases luxuriantly sideburned, usually beer-bellied and/or red-nosed, guys who at the very least provocation will stand up, stick a finger in one ear, and start roaring out sea shanties.

"Sea music" has become something that, like Irish "pub ballads" or Renaissance Fayre "filk songs", can cover a multitude of sins, mostly revolving around bad music-making, egocentric posturing, and/or drunken obnoxiousness. These issues are not lessened by the fact that some "sea music" people also have a tendency to show up at Irish music sessions--guitar, bodhran, or (shudder!) spoons in hand--and busk along semi-competently to the tunes, transparently waiting only for that momentary lull in the music upon which they can pounce with "OoooooooO Santy Anna gained the day..." et cetera.

Now, as a child and adolescent in the early '70s, going to many of these self-same or similar festivals and coffeehouses, I got to see some giants in the world of this music, in rooms where the sound of waves and the smell of the sea breeze came in through the windows, whose oak floors were bent and twisted off-kilter because of the sheer age of the buildings--when I wasn't hearing them on the decks of little coasting wind-jammers and schooners.

And some of those individuals were people whose music AND character I still admire: John Roberts and Tony Barrand, the late Stan Rogers, my brother-in-music Larry, and, most notably and famously, the legendary Stan Hugill, the "last of the shanteymen"--that is, one of the last men to have shipped out on a wind-driven deepwater craft, and to have served as the singer whose various song-types coordinated the work--hauling, pumping, capstan shanties to raise anchor, and so forth. When I met him, that one time, at a coffeehouse on the North Shore of Massachusetts, he was probably already 74 or 75: with a slight stoop, impossibly weather-beaten face, a white goatee and long hair tied back, and palms, at the handshake, that felt like rough-hewn oak boards--and still able to knock back the ale, roar out the songs, and spin impossibly long and impressive tales with the best of them. He set a pretty high standard-

So I got to thinking that, in the tradition of the CE's spring-semester "easy" or "big" programs of more familiar, typically English-language repertoire--so-called because they're intended to provide (a) a respite from the "hard" programs in more challenging styles or languages of the Fall, and (b) an accessible, engaging program for the festivals and guest shots which tend to come our way later in the spring, we might be able to do something with "sea" music. Precisely because what might seem tired to me, or the people I grew up with, or carry too many associations redolent of Aran sweaters or pub ballads or filk songs, might seem wildly exotic and intriguing to people who are now living, and many of whom were born, 600 miles from the sea. And it's *certainly* wildly different than much of anything that the CE kiddos have previously experienced.

Program title: "The Rolling Wave: Maritime Celts"

And, really, how you gonna go wrong with a list like this?

Albion Band
Andy Irvine & Paul Brady
Battlefield Band
Brass Monkey
Cliff Halsam and John Millar
Ewan MacColl
Jeff and Gerret Warner
Joe Hickerson
John Roberts and Tony Barrand
June Tabor
Louis Killen
Martin Carthy
Martin Simpson
Michael Cooney
Peter Bellamy
Stan Hugill
Stan Rogers
Sweeney's Men
The Watersons

Pretty much any record by any artist on this list is going to be killin'. And a wonderful discovery, for the kiddos and for our audiences.

Sure was for me.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful

Let there be peace.

Let suffering end.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Gary Snyder (b1930)

I hope, in the next 29 years ("if we make it"), that I can manifest as much in the way of guts, brains, creativity, and positive energy--about life, death, the Natural World, love, children, and learning--as has my hero, Gary Snyder:


What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

-the first Calochortus flowers
and in all the land,
it’s spring.
I point them out:
the yellow petals, the golden hairs
to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

you pass it on.
We's tryin', Roshi. Lord knows, we's tryin'.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Our building has been overrun with swarms of NATS. Run! Hide!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Boggart's Breakfast

A "boggart" is a small moor-land supernatural creature indigenous to the region around Sheffield in North-Central England.

A "dog's dinner" is someone dressed to the nines.

Put 'em together, you get "boggart's breakfast"--a small moor-land supernatural creature dressed to the nines.

Or you get Boggart's Breakfast, my favorite Rag Morris group of all.

These guys are my heroes.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Day 44 (Round IV) "In the trenches": program-notes edition

OK, this is crunch week. Between the emotional melt-downs and the procedural brain-lock and the fires going off on my desk and exploding every time I open the laptop, there's not really much time to think, much less blog. So, bootlegging from responses to a former student's email interview, here are some thoughts about program notes--and why you might choose to use or not use them:

1) Do you like having program notes in programs when you are an audience member?

It depends on the repertoire. If it is unfamiliar to me, then yes, I appreciate context, history, biography, functional information. I am less interested in those sorts of notes that focus primarily upon musical construction or compositional form: as a historian, I am more interested in the "where did it come from?" questions

2) Do you read them? If so, when (before the concert starts, as it goes, afterwards, etc.)?

Always. Usually before--I have a low tolerance for waiting. During a concert, I would hope that the performer would be sufficiently riveting that I would not wish to look away from the stage.

3) What is the point of program notes? Who are they for?

Seems to me it varies. But what they *should* do, and who they *should* address, is any or all members of the audience whose enjoyment and emotional response to the music might be heightened by a better understanding of the music's original contexts, participants, settings, and/or function.

4) Who should write them? The performer of the concert? The composer? An outside scholar/musicologist?

Depends on the repertoire. If the composer is alive and available, I would certainly be interested to hear her/his thoughts. Absent that, any competent performer should be able to write effective program notes. If a performer does not have the knowledge and the writing skill to articulate content/background/intent, then I believe that performer has some skills still to learn.

5) What kinds of information do you think belong in program notes? What kinds of things should NOT be included?

See above, #1. In addition, I think that texted music, especially if in unfamiliar languages, should have notes which at least synopsize if they do not literally translate those texts. On the other hand, too-extensive a set of translations can cause some audience members to look at the text rather than the stage; to avoid this, I will often use synopses, so that audience members can follow the text/narrative as they watch the performance.

6) Are there any situations where you think a program note is absolutely essential?

See #5 above--and especially if either the languages or repertoires being employed are unfamiliar to the audience. If music is about communication, and there is a language barrier, notes can help bridge that gap.

7) Are there any situations where you think a program note is absolutely inappropriate?

Perhaps not "inappropriate", but less necessary and in fact cumbersome: In any situation in which the performers can simply *address the audience*--and I would include in that *most concert repertoires*--notes become much less important. I would submit that performers should be able to speak extemporaneously, knowledgably, and engagingly about the music they're playing, just as they should be able to write about it in the same fashion. If a performer cannot speak (or write) in this fashion about the music s/he is playing, I believe there are some skills still to be learned.