Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Skool Daze to the 2 Decade

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
'Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick.

Twenty years-that's how long I've been at UC. That fact kind of made me reel a bit. Has it been that long???
I alone am left to tell the tale...Call me Ishmael

The music department has certainly undergone some radical changes since I started in 1987. It has seen rises and falls, even total dissolution which occurred in the 70's. In fact, that's what's cool about being at a place for so long-you learn to stand back and observe the mad dance about you. Hoping that you never join in the shifting tides and get taken up in the zeitgeist.

When I came on the scene, it had a real kind of homey feel to the place. Our department chairperson was a woman who obviously had placed her friends in teaching roles. It really didn't feel like a college at all, more like teaching out of a house. But it wasn't always so warm and fuzzy.
As a person, she was a real dichotomy. Sometimes motherly, then, without warning, a dictator with an iron hand. She smiled as she "asked" you to do things. It was intimidating. She had a biting nature with intimidation and cruelty coming to her naturally. Her poor secretary (nobody said administrative assistant then) nearly had a nervous breakdown over her constant scathing remarks. If it's that horrible for you, time to bail. The poor girl eventually got another job on campus and transformed into a completely different person.
Since then, there have been three different music department heads, thankfully all of whom have been more or less supportive of my efforts. They could never get me a full-time gig-there was never enough of the pie to go around. I have seen private teachers, with countless students, many more than I ever had, still remain part-timers. C'est la vie.

There have been some nutjob teachers as well. One fruitcake that was hired to run the choir and teach a few classes. This guy was always using the expression, "What do you want? A cookie?" His students would tell me how he felt claustrophobic being surrounded by mountains. "I can't see the sun!", he would exclaim. Everybody knew the guy would detonate and he soon left after a few months.
One rather pushy piano teacher had this sense of entitlement that would make me see red. Because we had too many students and not enough teaching rooms, there was one crazy semester when I had to switch from room to room during an afternoon of teaching. Assuming her Queenship, she interrupted lessons not once, but twice, making me move and offered no apology. A horrid, horrid woman to be sure. Mercifully, she moved on.
The cast of characters that have come and gone surely includes the students. My first guitar student, with me being fresh from studies at the Big High Fallutin' Conservatoire, was a full blown schizophrenic. Talk about deflating one's dreams.
I remember quite clearly being a little unnerved and more than a little afraid when he walked over to a mirror and told me that if you looked at your eye's reflection and visualize someone in it, you can actually speak to them, that they appear in your eye and converse with you. I think the term used was "shadowing." So much for my dreams of imparting "the Four Basic Principles of Muscle Function."

I have taught all sorts of classes; from songwriting, theory, ear training, composition and of course, guitar and guitar ensemble. Now, I teach guitar exclusively. Why, ye might inquire?

The river hath run drye.
"if the river ran dry, they'll deny it's happening"

After a good run in the 90's with a concerted effort by the chairman and faculty to get more students and thus more music majors, what was in the wind for more than a decade finally came true this past year: the music degree would no longer be offered. So to speak, we are still in business, but have taken our shingle down.
Ironically, practically within the same breath, when it was announced that the music department was no longer going to offer a degree, it was requested that a pep band be put together for sporting events. Sensitivity training, anyone?

I even heard stories of how students were being asked to run the group. This would be beyond the grasp of a student to organize, let alone run properly. It is futile to speculate, ruminate or wonder how all these decisions were made, but I am sure that the music department was seen as a financial drain not a gain. Words that were tossed about time and again. Words that finally came to fruition.

My employment has been untouched because I fly so far below the radar-the gift of invisibility. A friend of mine, who works with his wife in real academia at another university, has told me tales of politics so horrific that I do not rue my simple affairs at UC. I keep things direct and uncomplicated-that's bliss. However, even without the politics, things are not always so blissful.
Sometimes when teaching a lesson, like last night, I feel like I'm talking to a bag of potato chips. Nothing of what I am saying about music or the guitar is cutting through the thick fog of youth's inexperience. It's not as though they are so full of themselves (although there have been a few that were jettisoned for that very reason) that they are immune to any new ideas. They just are not ready for my ideas. I used to take this really personally. I still get hot around the collar sometimes, but I realize that it's not personal, it's the assumptions of youth (just as I did) that they know everything. Mostly though, they are just out of place. And maybe even in the wrong class.

The patterns of behavior repeat themselves. The trouble with possessing any kind of people sensitivity is that it makes you very leery of them in general and the radar can go off even before lessons begin. I had one conversation and a slew of emails from this one student before we even met and before a single note was plucked, I knew what I was in for. When things get that complicated even before you play a single note for me, I already know what to expect when you pick up a guitar. You live your life in a certain way, you play that way. It's all tied in, bound together and not taken apart.

Sensing our discussion was going nowhere, it dawned on me that maybe I could illustrate my point by asking him to execute a simple scale, using the same fingering, in even time to a metronome. I showed him a C major scale in hopes of getting my point across.
After several starts, stops, sputters and stutters, he kept repeating his philosophy of how he plays: "I try to find different things that go together."

"Yes, I understand, but can you play a scale the way I asked?"

More explanation as to his approach. Smiling, I make my request again. An A harmonic minor scale is suggested. "Fine," I say, "let's hear it." Same problem.

Pilot to Bombardier, your excuses are failing. Over and out.

Trying not to hurt feelings, I try to wrap up the lesson with a diversionary tactic: "Well, we'll talk about this later." Experience has taught me not to wrestle with an ocean's wave nor to try to capture a cloud. The kid is alright, he just needs a bit of guidance. He'll adapt or short circuit when he figures out the work involved. Either way, I'm there to help. Or to suggest another "course" of action: drop the class.

In my twenties, my dream was to be a full-time professor. It wasn't a huge dream with tenure at a prestigious university with a multitude of brilliant students who practiced devoutly, but I could envision a small college career. Respected and popular, I would teach music classes filled with bright, curious students willing to explore the world of music. My compositions would be performed and eventually published.
That dream has faded.

One year, (when I had five part-time jobs) I got a chance to teach at Marshall. It was some time in the second semester that something dawned on me. Here I was, finally at a university with some growth, some possibilities of getting a foot in the door, maybe a real teaching position. I realized that the academic life was not for me. Did my dream die along the way by lack of encouragement, circumstance or just plain economics? Did I not play the game the right way? Whatever the reason, I realized that radio was far better suited to my temperament than academia. The students I had were great-bright, enthusiastic and often times so blatantly honest that my professional face would drop and I'd laugh myself silly. Still, that wasn't enough.

Whatever the reason, that ship hath sailed.

My twentieth year. Fall is here. I roll into the parking lot with feelings of contentment and regret. Everything has a Brian Eno kind of tinge to it. It is sweet and sad, like every Fall before it. The children's choir entourage is crowding and dominating the hallway, piano students are having at go at Fur Elise and the old man descends into the teaching studio to once again, mount the horse and try to teach kids the guitar.

He is happy to have a job-one that he sees more realistically, one that is in perspective. One that doesn't frustrate because he understands and accepts the limitations. And more importantly, a teacher who doesn't place his own musician's insecurities upon his students. That war is long over. 36 years of playing and twenty years of teaching have made him secure.

And I might even say....happy. And though no one else will say it, he does.

Happy Two Decades of teaching, dude.

And rock on.

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