Thursday, April 4, 2013

Spring Term: Finding The Balance

My Spring Break is NEVER like this......
Spring Break is over. I had a blast:driving around Ocean City in a convertible with my shirt off, hangin' with my best buds, walkin' down the beach, dancin' by the pool, slammin' down brewski's, hooking up with random chicks.....yeah.............oh wait, I'm sorry, that wasn't me at all. I guess television has always given me this idea of Spring Break that I'll never get out of my head. Actually, I went with my wife and son to New York City. 3 year old Liam was actually pretty good on the long flight from PDX to JFK. Bringing the infant Liam on a plane was much more challenging: there was definitely a lot more diaper changing and screaming and squirming. This time, during the descent into New York, Liam sat on my lap and looked out at the Queens skyline as we turned in for a landing.

 It's always fun to go back and see New York. I miss it sometimes; many of my good friends are

there, and certainly many of the best musicians in the world are there. However, I think the West Coast lifestyle has spoiled me a bit. It's still wintery cold in New York, whereas Portlandlers are starting to put their winter jackets in the storage closet. New York has been slowly transforming itself from a mecca for artists into a playground for the wealthy. If you aren't a hedge fund manager, you will have a hard time in New York. I think even the hedge fund managers are complaining about the prices now. Portland has always been known as a place where "a musician can buy a house." Real estate in Portland is, at least for now, much more affordable than New York.

Now that we are back in Portland, it's time to get back to work. This term, I'm teaching both Jazz History and a brand new class called Jazz and American Culture. The latter is more of a jazz appreciation class, although it also deals with the cultural relevancy of jazz and related forms of music. We are two classes in, and we've had some really great discussions. The Jazz History class also promises to be interesting because we have a mix of jazz majors and non-majors in the class. (I call them civilians.)This will be an interesting way for players and non-players to find out what the other is thinking about various sub-genres of jazz. Both classes are lecture classes, however, it's much more stimulating for all if we have discussions about the music and the history. I think that a pure lecture class can be useful, especially if there are over 150 students; however, with interaction, the students feel better about the class, which hopefully will make them feel better about the music.

Give it to me straight, McBride!
I'll still working with many ensembles. I was working with an ensemble a few days ago, and the bass player and drummer just were not hooking up. So I stopped and worked with the bass player. This young man is very talented and precocious, however, he is still somewhat inexperienced, and he has certain technical limitations. He's got a lot of passion for the music, and does a lot of listening at home, which is REALLY important. When he walked a bass line in time, I noticed how inconsistent his quarter notes were. They were actually quite sloppy, if we listened to him play alone. I wanted to critique him, but I didn't want to be too harsh, so I started to say, "You know, it's actually pretty good...." And then this young bass student said, "NO, DON'T DO THAT!" By this, he meant, "Don't sugar coat it, Professor, give it to me STRAIGHT!"

Now, this young man has been working with Mr. Thara Memory, an Portland based musician who is
Esperanza Spalding and Thara Memory
known as a trumpeter, educator, and director of the American Music Program. He is also known as a mentor of Portland's own, bassist and vocalist and composer Esperanza Spalding; and if you haven't heard of her, then you might want to just crawl back under your rock. Mr. Memory has a reputation for being somewhat of an old-school type task master. Some say he is too harsh at times; however, I recently gave a clinic to his young band, and honestly, I had very little to say. Memory certainly gets results; his band of high school and even middle school kids play with a precision and enthusiasm that rivals most college and some professional bands. All the music was memorized and they swung like there was no tomorrow.

So my young bass student, coming from this environment of seriousness, didn't want me to be NICE. He wanted me to tell him how to get better. This is really important, because why would anyone go to music school, or for that matter, anything school, if they didn't want to get better? And yet, because of the softening of our society, there has been a relaxation of our expectations of students and young musicians. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and we don't want to step on anyone's toes, and everybody's a winner. Without any sort of motivation, how can we expect our students to get better? Are we preventing ourselves from "giving it to them straight' because first we don't want them to feel bad and second because we want them to keep paying for school? And when I say "we", I most definitely include "ME!"

I don't know if being an old school hard ass teacher suits me personally; however, the proof is in the pudding. Thara Memory's band sounded amazing. Case closed. As an junior educator trying to find my way, my question to myself is how can I get the best results from students and be honest with students without making them cry. (And I have made students cry, if you can believe it; I was a guest clinician in Groningen, The Netherlands, and all I did was ask a young Korean piano student, after she played,  if she had ever heard a recorded version of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me A Bedtime Story." She burst into tears! I guess I just have that kind of effect on people...Ugh...)

I think there is a way to strike a balance. We need to be honest without being hurtful. Lately, I find that my pendulum swings widely and wildly from side to side. I'm either too nice or too mean. Also this week, I think I was overly harsh to a young musician who was having some issues on his instrument. I felt bad after the fact. However, I think the intent was correct. We need to "give it to them straight." After all, if you go to a doctor, and your body is riddled with tumors, you wouldn't want you doctor to come in and say "Hey, you are doing great! Picture of health!" You want him to tell you what's going on! Now, not every doctor has the best bedside manner. At best, your doctor could say, "Well, Mr. Jenkins, our tests show that there are a number of tumors in your chest. I've scheduled you for surgery at 2pm on Wednesday. I can't say for sure what the prognosis is, but we'll do our best." Of course, you might get a doctor who will say, "DAMN, YOU GOT TUMORS OUT

I hope you won't take offense at my attempt at facetiousness. My point is that in an academic environment, the most important thing is the LEARNING. So if no one is learning, it seems like we could be doing something else with our time. (perhaps DRINKING....ha ha). My quest is to be more efficient and more effective. How can I get the most out of the students without torturing them? This term is another 10 weeks of finding the balance.

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