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Music is Not for Insects

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why am I doing this again?


After a particularly difficult rehearsal with my choir the other day, I asked myself, my wife and anyone else who was unfortunate enough to hear me complain, “Why am I doing this again?” This was the short, sarcastic, remark to several fundamental questions I have often asked myself after a rehearsal where my students seemed uninvolved, uncommitted and uninspired by the music, and my direction.

These fundamental questions typically spiral into the following depression:

“Why am I doing this again? Do my students even care? Why should I try so hard when they don’t even care? Why do they even belong to this group when they don’t give their best? What’s my problem? Why can’t my choir sound like (insert name of respected colleague here) choir…?”

We’ve all had these days and thoughts at some time or another in our career. Typically after a refreshing beverage of choice, our perspective usually returns and we continue with our work. But lately, I have felt that my work as a choral conductor and music educator of children and adolescents is driving me to this sarcastic place more often than I remember.

Now before this post turns into an Oprah or Dr. Phil episode, and I start crying as I pour my heart out to the audience, I hope that you’ll consider with me the original question I asked; not in a sarcastic, ironic response to momentary feelings of inadequacy after a bad rehearsal, but as a real question to confirm some core beliefs about our work as choral conductors and music educators: “Why am I doing this again?” These core beliefs are usually not inline with what my young choristers are typically exposed to each day outside of my rehearsal. The influence of pop culture on our singers and audience can be the catalyst that makes our work seem unimportant or misunderstood by many.

I do believe there are some core values we share as music educators that can be expressed as a response to popular culture that influences our students and audiences in a negative way. Kenneth A. Myers, former producer and editor for Morning Edition and All Things Considered on National Public Radio, has a chart from his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, contrasting popular culture with traditional and high culture:


Focuses on the new Focuses on the timeless
Discourages reflection Encourages reflection
Pursued casually to "kill time" Pursued with deliberation
Gives us what we want, tells us what we already know Offers us what we could not have imagined
Relies on instant accessibility Encourages impatience
Requires training Encourages patience
Emphasizes information and trivia Emphasizes knowledge and wisdom
Encourages quantitative concerns Encourages qualitative concerns
Celebrates fame Celebrates ability
Appeals to sentimentality Appeals to appropriate, proportioned emotions
Content and form governed by requirements of the market Content and form governed by requirements of created order
Formulas are the substance Formulas are the tools
Relies on spectacle, tending to violence and prurience Relies on formal dynamics and the power of symbols (including language)
Aesthetic power in reminding of something else Aesthetic power in intrinsic attributes
Individualistic Communal
Leaves us where it found us Transforms sensibilities
Incapable of deep or sustained attention Capable of repeated, careful attention
Lacks ambiguity Allusive, suggests the transcendent
No discontinuity between life and art Relies on "Secondary World" conventions
Reflects the desires of the self Encourages understanding of others
Tends toward relativism Tends toward submission to standards
Used Received


I have found this chart to be invaluable when I ask the question “Why am I doing this again?” It forces me to remember that I hope I am teaching my choristers and students to love and appreciate music that is indicative of the characteristics listed in the right hand column. Some key thoughts on this from Myers below:

Asserting that traditional or high culture has a greater potential for establishing a sensibility that is beneficial and constructive is not to say that all aspects of traditional or high culture are superior to all aspects of popular culture… Our principal concern is with the sensibilities encouraged by popular culture versus those encouraged by high culture (as well as traditional culture). We aren’t prescribing a list of preferred cultural experiences for the sake of some crusade of cultural literacy. It is important rather that the advantage of high culture’s sensibility consists in its ability to provide some transcendent perspective, while popular culture’s liability consists in its tendency to encourage a self-centered perspective.

I believe pop-culture’s “tendency to encourage a self-centered perspective” is what I see in my young singers today. This causes me to say, “Why am I doing this again?” in a defeated way. Thankfully I’ve chosen a career for “its ability to provide some transcendent perspective” on life. This I must remember, so I can say, “That is why I am doing this…”

Excerpts from pp. 120-122 All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Kenneth A. Myers, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Ill. © 1989.


Clay Burell said...

I teach English literature, and bang against the same sinking feeling on a too-frequent basis. And I console myself that the "heights' are always only accessible, it seems, anyway, to what my alliterative sensibility likes to call "three out of a thousand," and what Wilde and others liked to call "the Elect."

It somehow helps me to blame the educational system for stuffing our students' time so full of thankless schooliness that they don't have the energy or the desire to take anything seriously, even when it's the best fruits from the tree of human history.

I don't know why it helps, but it does.

Do you ever wonder if Talented and Gifted teachers or schools have better luck than we do? That they're not trying to light fires on a floodplain? I do.

I love this post. The chart was right on. Thanks for going to the trouble.

(And thanks for the Twitter contact ;) )