sond advice

That isn’t a typo. A few weeks ago I finally got around to watching the brilliant Stephen Sondheim documentary, Six By Sondheim. Directed by his friend and collaborator of over 35 years, James Lapine, it dives into Sondheim’s inner thoughts, not just his story. My admiration of Sondheim’s work is shared by millions – he single-handedly transformed the very genre of the Broadway Musical.

For me, I have spent my career discovering similarities and parallels between his work and that of the late choral director, Robert Shaw. Both beckon to my sense of analytical-ness. Both based the emotional content of their work on an excessive (obsessive?) attention to the smallest technical details; the paradox of their work being that out of the technical minutia comes the emotion and spirit of what they aim to convey. The criticism of both, Sondheim throughout his career and Shaw as early as 1952 in a Time Magazine article entitled, “Too Much Perfection”, has been that their work is too technical. And yet their work brought music to life in a fashion that often made others seem ridiculously superficial by comparison. I found myself taking notes as I watched the Lapine documentary and, as is the case with so much of Sondheim’s work, found underlying meaning that wasn’t readily transparent on the surface. In this case, I discovered so much of what he articulated transferred wonderfully to teaching in general and music education in particular. Some of my notes:

“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously. But even that’s fun. And when I say fun of course, I’m talking about agonizing fun, I’m not talking about ‘pleasant’ fun.” What teacher hasn’t agonized over their students, classes, expectations, daily routines and so forth? I think the key to this statement is that the execution of our work is not supposed to be easy, nor is it supposed to be fun (which is why I have always felt that “loving music” is a lousy reason to go into education: it’s not relevant). It is, however, unlike any reward one could ever dream of as you go through it and get to the other side of the efforts. A lot of teachers try to avoid the “agonizing” or get weary from it. Sondheim states it as core of the fun. This isn’t bad advice for any teacher of any subject area. As Shaw put it, “The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow.” As Sondheim put it, “If you didn’t get those moments, you couldn’t put up with the rest of it: the loneliness and the tedium and the endless amounts of work, you know, the sweat.” Get what they’re driving at?

“To make art sound effortless takes a lot of effort.” Many of my student teachers over the years have come in and immediately wanted to get to the goosebumps and the emotion. One of them introduced a new song to the choir and 10 minutes into it began talking to them about reflecting on the text and feeling what the song was getting at… before the students had any idea what the notes were yet. After a post-class briefing where I reiterated that job #1 is to be technically precise (the composers deserve at least that much from us), before long that same talented teacher was getting down and dirty into the minutia and getting wonderful music out of the kids. But, man, it takes time to get the kids there. My fear in our current educational landscape is that we feel (legitimate) intense pressure to have a large enough music program to justify our employment. That is a very real reality in programs in every single state, ours not being the least of them. Consequently, we feel the need to keep our music students happy and engaged, whether through the literature we select, our class routines or by going straight to the aesthetic as soon as possible; appealing to their emotions, all so they will continue to stay involved with it. I get it. So do you. But if we are in the business of not only making art but also fostering real musicians, we cannot shortcut or downplay the essentialness of the work. This quote, it seems to me, must be at the forefront of what we are teaching our students. If we’re not teaching them this, what are we teaching them?

“You can’t learn in a classroom, and you can’t learn on paper. You only learn by writing and doing and writing and doing. That’s how everybody who’s ever been good got good.” I love this quote. Obviously, Sondheim is referencing the art of writing lyrics here, but every molecule of this translates to the art of teaching. Inherent in this quote is the understanding that there is an analytical component that goes hand in hand with it; “doing” is a great vehicle to learning, but not without introspection. For the newer teacher, it isn’t good enough to emulate or model other teachers: you need to begin to emulate who you are going to be. That happens through experimenting, trial and error, falling down and getting back up, risk taking, and so forth. For the veteran teacher, it has to do with applying what you have observed at conferences, rehearsals and coursework. It isn’t enough to “know”; “knowing” never transformed a classroom of students. You have to “do”, you have to apply.

“You must be able to defend every single word and note.” As music teachers, we make dozens of choices daily, often within a single class. Can you defend every single choice? Educationally? Sure, anyone can “justify” a choice, but I have seen many music teachers fall into their own self-made pits by making choices they had a tough time defending when push came to shove. There was music program in a different state a few years ago that was in danger of being removed from the school day to allow more time for the other academic classes. Advocacy efforts went into high gear. A colleague contacted me asking if I could help them out. I went to that music program’s website and read press releases they were putting out. The web site provided nothing in the way of what they were doing academically, 40% of the students’ grades were based on “participation”, and their argument for the program being essential was that it promoted teamwork, self-esteem and the concerts were really great. I never lifted a finger for them. To state it plainly: if you cannot educationally justify every single syllable of what you say, what you write, what you think, what you do, do not expect your program to be viewed as an educational necessity. There are a lot of co-curricular music programs in this country cleverly disguised as academic subjects. Don’t let yours be one of them.

“Teaching is the sacred profession… my life was saved by teachers.” He referred specifically to his latin teacher and then to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. It’s a reminder that a teacher is someone who reaches out and positively impacts a person. Your area of teaching expertise is irrelevant to this; the prior paragraph notwithstanding, we have an obligation to simultaneously get out of “music teacher” mode and just get into being a good teacher too… for every student. Oscar Hammerstein was not a teacher by profession and yet had a profound impact on a young man who viewed him as one. How much more of an obligation do we have, those of us in the profession, to model this impact? His other teacher wasn’t even a music or english teacher. We need to get out of this mindset that somehow our effectiveness as true teachers is confined to our aptitude in music (go back to what I said about going into teaching because you love music). My own High School music teacher had the greatest impact on me growing up, and he utilized his music program to impact kids in that fashion. You can get there from here, but my point is that it does not have to be mutually inclusive, and that just caring about your students as people can transcend merely the music.

“The people who like my work are expecting so much, and it makes me… tense.” Cautionary to newer teachers, and essential for veteran teachers: this has the potential to eat away at you. Early in my career I had to each year “outdo” what I did the year before or else I felt like a failure. It ate me up inside. I’ve already spoken to two colleagues of mine this Summer going through the very same thing in their careers. As Sondheim went on to add, “It’s not that you want to ‘top’ yourself, it’s that you want to write something fresh. It requires more courage as you get older.” We become our own harshest critics and, while that can be a healthy thing in process, we need to – in equal measure – be able to reflect on each school year as it’s own entity. In the concluding song from his Sunday in The Park With George, Sondheim wrote the dialogue between the contemporary George and his muse, Dot. For this coming school year, these are profound words to remember:

[Dot:] Are you working on something new?
[George:] No
[Dot:] That is not like you, George
[George:] I’ve nothing to say
[Dot:] You have many things
[George:] Well, nothing that’s not been said
[Dot:] Said by you, though. George
[George:] What am I to do?
[Dot:] Move on…
Stop worrying where you’re going-
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on

I chose, and my world was shaken-
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not
You have to move on

Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be-
Look at all the things you’ve done for me

Stop worrying if your vision
Is new
Let others make that decision-
They usually do
You keep moving on.

Stephen-Sondheim 2.jpg

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