helplessness

R- My YHS Spring concert was last night. As is usually the case after these concerts, I’m waking up this morning physically and emotionally “spent”. It’s a curious thing to me how my emotions are all over the place. I feel as if they have all been through a Dairy Queen Blizzard machine. But it is a rare morning after a concert that I feel any joy. Instead the overwhelming feeling is one of helplessness. I’ve always been unsuccessful in articulating to others, and maybe even to myself, why that is. This morning I guess I’m using a blog post to cathartically try to do so. I hope it resonates with colleagues who choose to read this, because I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling this way.

I think in visual art, there is a point with one’s work where something feels completed. Where a work of art becomes what it was meant to be and then you display it for the world to see. It represents the artist’s vision, it reflects the artist’s skill, it elevates the medium which was utilized to create it. I wish I was a visual artist because that process is so organic and it also allows for closure. There’s a finality to it. The struggle I have always felt is that my medium is people. It is a joining of musicians who are brought together to share their skills. But it is also the composer in absentia. It is the vision and dreams and ideas and musical beliefs of every composer of every song that choir sings or that band plays. Because they are not in rehearsals or the performances, the conductor has an ethical and moral obligation to represent them. And the performers do to. Robert Shaw once alluded to his belief that singing in a choir is the most moral of all the arts… this is what he meant. In an ever greater illumination from Shaw,

All of music is an attempt at communication between human hearts and minds; at the very minimum the creator reaches out to and through the performer, and both of them reach out to the listener. Music is great not because certain self-appointed Custodians of Arts with a capital A have decreed it so, but because it calls out to something deep and persistent in the human thing. Music is great because it carries something so native and true to the human spirit that not even sophisticated intellectuality can deny or destroy its miracle.

As a result, I have long since come to a point in my life that for my non-school performances I have taken great pride and received great joy in being a choral director and putting on concerts. But this is rarely so for the concerts I do with my kids. Here is why that may be.

When you get together as a group of musicians, your focus is the music and you all share your talents and skills and artistic process to elevate it. This is much closer to the process of a visual artist. But in public school music, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is not about the music, it’s about the kids. It’s about the community. It’s about the school. It’s about the curriculum and how the concert is an expression of it. It’s about developed and still developing skills that are on public display. Yet the requirements of being a musician and being an artist don’t go away. And these two extremes are incompatible. You cannot adequately do both in such ridiculously limited face time with students.

And I feel completely helpless as a result.

Now, that’s how I would feel if there was NEVER a public concert at the end of each term. But throw that into the mix?

Musically I hear all the things that aren’t the way I want them to be yet, and perhaps we could never reach, and it authentically bothers me. But I am simultaneously elated at the ability of my kids to pull off elements of wonderful musicality that any composer would be proud of. These two emotions are incompatible. I see the students who have a solo and are happy to the point of tears when they are done that they “did it” and are so proud, and I see the students who have a solo and are self critical enough to be depressed and sad with how they did. The emotions I feel toward both are incompatible. I know for Ticheli’s “There Will Be Rest” last night there were audience members who were transformed by that beautiful music. I also know there were those who were probably looking at their watch and yawning. I will never know how to reconcile my feelings around that.

Take that same song for a moment. For that selection, I know most if not all my chamber singers were disappointed with the performance. I could see it on their faces when they were done and while they were singing it. This was due to an intonation problem they developed right around page 8: they went sharp. We haven’t rehearsed since Monday, and when we ran it then, the group – for the first time ever – went a whole step flat. It was due to a lot of non musical factors, and belied the fact that intonation on that advanced selection had long ceased to be an issue for us. So I implored them on Monday to think sharp as they performed it in concert. Well, they actually did. It caused some intonation problems for a page and a half, and then they adjusted to the new key and brought it home safe and sound. Really, in many respects, a remarkable performance by 30 teenagers who are still learning and developing their craft. They were working, analytical artists who created a magnificent representation for our audience. The emotions I have around all this? Where do I begin? Pride over their display of musicianship. Elation over their demonstration of applied listening skills under duress. Disappointment in my myself for having instructed them on Monday to think sharp. Guilt over not having made the right choice in doing so. Sadness that they didn’t feel good about the performance. Frustration over their not understanding how good they should be feeling about it. Upset that the focus was not transferred over enough to the text. Doubting my skills – did I do enough for them? Helplessness.

Go back to my premise that there is a basic incompatibility between developing people through music (music the means to the end) and developing demonstrated musicianship in every student (academic accountability where music IS the end). I felt this too when I directed musicals. I did the directing and music directing both at all three schools I taught at. I loved every moment of it. And I hated every moment of it. It was the endless attempt to reconcile the two extremes. The difference is that in a co-curricular activity such as drama, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The legacy is the show. In music education, the legacy is the skills. If it was the other way around, music would no longer be a curricular subject and that’s why I always rail about it being so. You can’t have it both ways: music belongs in the school day as an academic subject but, gee, it’s about the “experience”. Which way do you you want it? That however doesn’t stop every music teacher out there from moving heaven and earth to provide both. And there’s the helplessness. No parent ever left a concert saying to their son or daughter, “Wow, I loved the crescendo on page 8 when you simultaneously added ring to your tone and kept the consonants the same dynamics as your vowels”! They leave noting how happy their child was, and how moving it is to see them onstage creating art. But as educators we need to have one foot in both places. The problem is that I don’t believe it can humanly be done. One is invariably going to have to take precedence over the other. That however would be completely unsatisfactory. It would also be wrong. So the disconnect remains. Our schools require us to place our emphasis on the academic. They would be irresponsible to do otherwise, and I wouldn’t ever work for a school district ignorant enough NOT to place that expectation on me. On the other hand, I have a moral and ethical responsibility to bring to life the music of composers and utilize the developed and still developing skills of my students to do so. On yet one more hand, my highest priority – and I will quit teaching the day it isn’t – is to develop young adults, to foster their social, intellectual and emotional growth. To love every one of ’em, to take them where they are and elevate them, to challenge them ceaselessly while simultaneously keeping my chorus room a safety net for them.

As was the case in every High School in Maine this Spring, tons of kids missed regular classes as they were pulled to do statewide testing. They missed so much class time in their other subject areas, it was astounding. Simultaneously, I found out that the last spot in York capable of holding our concerts, St Christopher’s Church, was unable to host us this Spring. We had to hold our concert last night at Portsmouth High School and their auditorium. It was a Godsend that we were able to do so. But it also meant that if I was going to bus students to the performance hall for rehearsals like I normally do multiple times in the weeks prior to our concerts, I’d have to pull students out of other classes for the extended trip to New Hampshire. Because of all the Spring testing, I finally decided that I couldn’t do that to the kids or to my colleagues. I wasn’t being magnanimous in this decision, it simply was the right thing to do. So all three choirs showed up early last night for 20 minute rehearsals/run throughs in the new space to “get used to it”. They sing in a custom built, acoustically magnificent environment each day, and now they were in a 930 seat auditorium where they have little reflective sound. Chamber Singers couldn’t hear each other at the start of the run-through so we sang mixed. And that’s how we performed “There Will Be Rest”. For the first time in that hall. For the first time in public in a mixed setting. For the seniors final concert. And they went sharp and weren’t happy with the performance. After spending FIVE MONTHS preparing it. And my highest priority is to foster their growth and happiness as people?

Helplessness.

I am so grateful to be in this profession. But I often think, this morning for instance, that I do not possess the emotional stability to be a music educator and to also take on the responsibility for between 100 and 200 teenagers each term how they are each individually doing as people. I worry about the kids I didn’t get to high five or hug last night, are they doing okay? I worry about some of those kids I did high five and hug. I worry about my senior who wasn’t there last night in part because his mom passed away last week. I worry about the parents who wanted their sons or daughters to have opportunities for solos which I couldn’t provide. I worry about the kids who are going through difficult times in their life and am I doing enough for them? Am I even adequately aware of what they are going through. I worry about the seniors I said goodbye to last night and are they going to be okay after High School.

There were enough joys galore to write an equally lengthy blog post about. All the groups did a beautiful job. There were many moments of musical clarity that were emotionally powerful and artistically enlightening. Honestly. My Block 6 “Welcome Back Kotter” kids who I love dearly were sensational and showcased two marathons worth of work and growth since they first arrived on my doorstep the last week of January. A teacher could not be more proud or happy. My Chambers seniors made a presentation in the middle of the concert and we had a group hug with very, very real smiles and tears. The community of York made the trip to Portsmouth, on a gorgeous Friday night in June, in numbers and enthusiasm I simply didn’t even see coming. Their happiness over the concert and how the students did was palpable. And yet I lost sleep last night over Chamber singers going sharp on page 8?

Yup. Sure did.

Helplessness.

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