Monday, October 31, 2011

Mo Money Mo Problems by The Notorious B.I.G. (feat. Mase & Puff Daddy)

Yes, Mase’s rapping skills were suspect, yes, Puff Daddy comes across as a shameless
self-promoter but man this song was fun.

“Mo Money Mo Problems” was the second single off the Notorious B.I.G.’s second and final album Life After Death. Released posthumously after his murder, this song was a huge success topping the Billboard charts for two weeks and saturating MTV and radio stations.

This song comes from a quote from Notorious B.I.G. stating that with more money came more problems in life. And while this song warns of this adage the many of the lyrics and the sample feel more like celebration then a warning.

The sample which comes from 1980 Diana Ross hit “I’m Coming Out,” which features the greatest (and one of the only) trombone solos in popular music history.

Let’s not talk about that jacket she’s wearing . . .

This song really could not have been more perfect for a rap song sample and Puff Daddy arranged it so well that people hardly cared about the skill or the content of the raps in this song. I know I didn’t when I was listening to this song as a teenager.

Listening to this song, the beat is infectious but the variation of the rapping styles comes across very clearly, illustrating how great the Notorious B.I.G. was a rap artist. Mace just barely gets through his verse. I could deal with his monotone and unaffected delivery if he rhythms of his rap were so monotonous. Every phrase has the same cadence and his lack of momentum and energy juxtaposed over the sample is pretty painful.

Puffy does bring it with his verse. There’s variations in the phrase lengths, he sues alliteration and check out how he flows when he starts “team much stronger than yours . . . “ (2:40). He works through the beat placing accents against the what you expect before landing back down later in the verse.

Then Biggie comes in and blows both Mase and Puffy away. From the initial spell-out of his name, his superior skills are immediately clear. There is a rhythmic energy and punctuation with every syllable he says. His words are by-far the most meaningful illustrating the theme of the song and the struggles that come with wealth. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t really come across as bragging so much as an honest expression of insecurities.

Puff Daddy makes a great choice to clear the top layer of the instrumentals to let Biggie rap over the base line. It not only provides a great moment of space in the song but really highlights what Biggie is doing with his verse and how he uses his rhymes to create momentum in the song.

"Mo Money Mo Problems," while not coming across as the deepest song is a fascinating reflection about the life and times of the Notorious B.I.G.  This song is a party song but on another layer, it's a statement about the flaws and the misconceptions of having lots of wealth.  I can't help but wonder if it's these problems that led to the death of Biggie, one greatest rappers of all time.  With every positive thing in life, there's a potential for something bad to happen.  Like this song the good feelings can't last forever and eventually with have to deal with out lives.

Unfortunately for the Notorious B.I.G. when the party stopped so did his life.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Year 2: Week 8 - The Medicated Child

One of the most touching things a student can do is to give you an unsolicited, genuine and host apology.

I’ll never forget the day at my old school when after a music class one of my students came up and apologized for his behavior in class. After pointing out the things he felt he could do better he told me that he was off his medication. I suspected this after teaching him and dealing with his outbursts during class, but now that he told me it all came together.

I had worked with this student all year and had seen the ups and down in relation to the medication he was taking for his ADHD. And it absolutely broke my heart watching him struggle through class and trying to keep it together and not being able to.

When I tell people I’m a teacher one of the common things people ask me about is this idea that we are over-medicating our children. Often this discussion includes some statistics from some article or news show and about the possible harm that these drugs may cause. What is interesting to me is that most people who talk to me about this are coming from the viewpoint that children are indeed over-medicated, and if parents simply did a better job then we wouldn’t have as many issues with kids with ADD or ADHD as there was when they were kids.

First off, kids have always had attention issues; it wasn’t labeled until the past twenty or so years. The treatment for these children who we would now diagnose as having attention disorders was akin to torture for them. I know this for a fact because one of my closest friends grew up with ADHD in the 1960s and being sent of the class and punished because your senses are hyper-sensitive to stimulus really is torture.

When I teach a student and it seems clear to me that they could benefit from some level of medication for their attention disorders I don’t think this because I want to stop them from talking and blurting out in class. Well, would you open a door for a person in a wheelchair so they could get into a building? Of course you would.

I view a child with an attention disorder the same way. If there is a way that they can manage the stimulus and their impulses with the help of medication so that they can be happier and more successful it would be cruel to not provide those resources for that child.

I’ve never met a parent who didn’t hesitate and struggle with the idea of putting their child on medication. However, I’m sure that there are parents as well as doctors who are responsible for over-medicating and wrongfully medicating children.  However I’ve never encountered this in my life and no amount of statistics can outweigh the look in the eyes of students struggling to manage the barrage of outside stimulus and their own impulses.

Our society does have a lot of questions to ask about the issue of medicating children with all kinds of disorders, but we can't let this discussion hinder the positive uses of these medications.  This isn't about making children better students, it's about allowing them to live better lives.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When Will My Life Begin (from Tangled)

E-mail from one of my 8th grade students:
Hi Mr. Tang,
Here is your daily and friendly reminder to stop reading this email and go watch Tangled.It will be a great family activity for you, your wife, and buffy! So put down the camera (filming buffy again?) and GO WATCH TANGLED!or else Megan and I will sing more princess songs on wednesday.
Look forward to tomorrows email!!!  
~Kate (and Megan in spirit)
I was totally skeptical and regretting telling my students that I would watch this film, but Mandy Moore lends her voice to one of the most endearing Disney' Princesses.  I love how right after she gets out of the tower she is "at war with herself."

Ah, SO cute, but what I really have to highlight is the opening song.

I love how optimistic music is tied with the monotony of her life.

If you have ever liked Disney animated films in the past, this is a great and beautiful film to experience.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Somewhere Out There (from An American Tail)

Towards the beginning of my freshmen year of college I told my mom that I had a cold. She then proceeded to call me every day, multiple times a day checking up on me. I remember getting really annoyed at my mom and slightly frustrated. I felt like I was an adult and that she didn’t need to worry about me.

Then one time she called worrying about something that I felt was irrational and I got frustrated with her and told her that I didn’t need her to worry about me and she responded “Of course I worry about you, it’s my job.”

Your mom worrying about you is one of the greatest blessing you will ever have your life. Whether you realize it or not, the knowledge that she is out there thinking about you and loving you is what gives connects you to your mom and the world knowing that you are never alone.

“Somewhere Out There” from the 1986, Spielberg produced film is about this feeling.

An American Tail - Somewhere Out There from kojihoon on Vimeo.

During a time when Disney’s animated features were mediocre, Spielberg took a shot at created an animated feature and the result was an immigration story that spoke to the hopes and struggles of the immigrant experience of the 1880s.

The film follows the Mousekewitzes, a family of Russian Jews who immigrate to American. During the journey, the son Fievel becomes separated from the family.  The film follows the families' struggle to find each other while surviving in a new country.

“Somewhere Out There” is a duet between Fievel and his sister Tanya, in which they sing about their hopes of finding each other. It features the “somewhere” motif, the leaping melodic shape on that word also featured in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” which expresses a longing before the melody gently descendes.

One of the strengths of this film is that the voice actors for the kids songs like, well, kids and this is also true for the singing of ‘Somewhere Out There.” Yeah, it’s a little rough but it's cute and feels more real then singing it with perfect technique and clarity.

Fievel is lost in New York City. Think about that for a second. That would be scary today as an adult, now imagine that as a kid in the 1880s. But he’s hopeful because as the song reminds him, “someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight.”

When things are going fine, you may not think you need to be reminded your mom is out there worrying about you.  But when you have a moment in your life when you feel lost and lonely knowing that your mom is out there really makes the worlds seem not as scary.  As Fievel sings “it helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky.

Nagging phone calls and e-mails are more than worth enduring to be reminded of how much your mom cares about you. Don’t try to argue that she’s being silly or irrational and don’t give her some sarcastic remark, she’s not trying to make your life harder or more inconvenient, she just cares.

So next time your mom calls you and expresses concern about something going on in your life, just say “thank you for thinking of me” and ensure her that you’ll be careful no matter how irrational her worry may be.

She’s just doing her job.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Year 2: Week 7 - Taking It Personally

The relationship between a teacher and a student has changed throughout history and varies quite a bit depending on the school and the level of teaching.  There’s the traditional idea of the teacher as an authority figure.  Then there’s the more fluid idea of a teacher who does not so much instruct but guides students through learning experiences.

Most teachers are somewhere in-between.  What comes along with this relationship is that things students do affect teachers’ feelings.  When a student starts talking when I’m instructing is it a personal sign of disrespect?  Is this something that I should feel offended about?  Well, probably not but feigning a level of offense does help students understand the consequences of their behavior.  The things is, I can’t take things students do in class personally because I’d probably just go insane if I did.

Children and teens (and many adults) do not fully understand the consequences of their actions.  Do you get offended at a seven year-old who makes a racist joke when they honestly don’t know the implication of what they said?  Not really, a serious conversation needs to happen but you taking it personally doesn’t really help the situation.

I tell my kids that people who don’t know you can’t really hurt your feelings.  If someone makes fun of you who has never met you, they aren’t reacting to who you are as a human being, they are just throwing a random comment at you that is not based in any meaningful interactions.  On the contrary if someone who has known you for all your life insults you they are speaking from the experience of knowing you personally and that can hurt.

My students don’t know me.  I mean they do, but “Mr. Tang” isn’t a full human being in their minds.  It’s why whenever one of my students sees me out side of school they are shocked to learn that I exist outside of the school building.

I guess I’m pondering this topic because sometimes it’s hard to separate the way students behave with my own personal feelings.  The reality is that sometimes negative student behavior is in fact based in a lack of respect for the teacher.

Thinking back to my first couple years of teaching I can see clearly times when students acted out in class because they didn’t respect me.  While that rarely seems to happen now, I can’t help but wonder when a student behaves in a way that is disrespectful to me how much is this about who I am as a person. 

This week has had some amazing and positive interactions with students and some pretty rough ones.  Is it crazy to take the positive ones as personal success and brush off the negative ones as things that shouldn’t affect my feelings?

I wish I could but I don’t think that the way things should be.  Because you can’t take positive things as personal victories and not take all the feelings that go along with negative situations. 

At the end of the day I guess what’s important to remembers is that the song is not about the teachers.  If things go really well in class, yeah the teachers deserves some credit but it’s the students who made it happen and when things go bad in class, the teacher probably contributed to that situation a bit but no one forced the kids to act like jerks, they chose that path themselves. 

When you invest time and energy into other people, in my case 196 students, you can’t help but become emotionally involved.  Because it’s that emotional connection that makes you care enough to do all the work to make that students have a positive experience in your class.  Like most things in life, I guess it's just a balancing act in which you have to make sure you wear enough armor that the stabs that you have to bear from your students don't damage the heart that you have to teach with every day. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Alicia Silverstone & Aerosmith

Remember Aerosmith's classic album Get A Grip?

Remember Alicia Silverstone?

Ah, remember Alicia Silverstone AND Liv Tyler skipping out of private school?

Oh and the hope that Vitual Reality simulators could make these videos come true?

Man if you were a middle school-aged boy when these songs came out, you never forgot these videos.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Buffy’s Presence

There are times when I lay in bed coming out of a dream half asleep but not quite awake and I hear Buffy sigh. I open my eyes and in the darkness of the night I find her curled up on the floor against my side of the bed and I reach down and pet her before falling back into a deeper sleep.

Every morning when I get out of bed I can feel Buffy’s eyes on me as I move around the room.  I gently pet her and whisper good morning as she lays in her dog bed or underneath the covers at the foot of our bed where she often ends up after moving around the room throughout the night.

When I’m home during the day on a weekend I always know that Buffy is there. It’s the soft pitter-patter of her nails on the hardwood floor, the high-pitched squeal when she yawns and her energy that ensures me that by simply saying her name she will rise from her resting spot into the office settle down in one of her dog beds that is right next to my desk.

Every since we got Buffy, I’ve rarely been alone at home. A dog’s presence is similar to a human’s, but in some ways it’s very different. Buffy has simple wants. She likes to go on walks, play with her dog friends but more than anything she wants to be with Diana and I. Buffy’s view on life, the way she is pleased and satisfied by simple joys has taught me to appreciate the comfort, power and joy of simply being together.

When I'm at my desk and I look over at Buffy sleeping on the couch in the other room and I can’t help but smile. What I bring to Buffy’s life with my presence comes back to me in the same way and I’m reminded how beautiful simply sharing a space with someone else can be.

In the first year of marriage I had a similar feeling sharing my life with Diana. There was a completeness that I felt knowing Diana was near. While Diana still brings a sense of a center and a comfort by sharing space with me, we simply don’t feel quite whole unless Buffy is near as well.

There are times when I’m walking on the sidewalk and I expect to see Buffy at my side but she’s not there and I feel strange without the weight of her leash on my wrist.

There are times when I working at my desk and I call to Buffy and she doesn’t come and I remember that she is away from the house with Diana and for a second I feel sad wishing my puppy was near.

 There are also times when Diana and I are cooking in the kitchen and I feel that Buffy is watching us.  I turn and see her lying on the floor and her silent and beautiful sparkling eyes confirm the feeling of her presence, a feeling of warmth, love and peace.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Year 2: Week 6 - Throwing Out The Curriculum

I do my lesson planning on a large table in a google doc. There’s a row in which I list the topics and activities for each week of class I teach and then below it I fill in the sequence for each individual class. I have the topics and activities listed for each week all the way until Winter break I completed before school started and the plan for the individual classes I usually do the weekend before.

It’s nice to have a plan to work with so you have an idea of where things are headed, how to work up to certain performances and what sequence week to week you are teaching certain topics. But the bottom line is that the most intricate of lesson plans don’t guarantee success.

Students are unpredictable. They come into the classroom with different emotions and situations. I mean there’s no way that my third grade class that comes to me first thing in the morning is going to behave like the third grade class that I see at the very end of the day. I try to keep these two classes on the same page but with the different energy these classes bring, sometimes I just have to put aside my lesson plans and find something that works.

If teaching was simply making lesson plans and teaching according to that plan than this job would be a piece of cake. Rarely do students receive my best laid lesson plans the way that I expect and sometimes I find myself fighting to get students through lessons and activities that I feel are important. Is this really necessary? Is it worth the frustration and discipline problems that come with a lack of student interest?

Well, you may be thinking that since I’m a music teacher I can just do things that kids like. That’s not what I’m talking about. This is the idea of a math teacher using Legos to teach geometry because he or she has a very hands on class or an English teacher having students act out skits to describe plots instead of writing reports to makes students become involved in the literature they are reading.

This is about being a responsive teacher.

There’s nothing wrong with using hooks, meeting kids where they are to get them involved and invested in learning. In fact, that approach is everything that is right about teaching and education.

It saddens me to talk to teachers who are evaluated as teachers by whether they are teaching the correct page out of the textbook according to the district created scope and sequence. This takes away the teacher’s freedom to really teach to the students and take the time to involve them in a meaningful way.

Is it frustrating to have to rethink my curriculum every weekend because things don’t go as planned? Yes, but I’d rather do new and exciting things for my students that makes learning an active and enjoyable experience rather then just shove topics down their throat.

Teaching is not about communicating a curriculum; it’s about teaching students.

So next time you have a class that isn't going well, don't be afraid to try something crazy that you think may get your kids involved, even if it's not part of your curriculum.  You may find these moments create some of the greatest lessons you may ever teach.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Save The Best For Last by Vanessa Williams

Man I loved this song when I was a kid.  Vanessa Williams just looked so beautiful.  She owned the emotion in this song with the elegance of her voice.  There's a delicateness and vulnerability that the dynamic orchestra brings out.  Sometimes there's a full orchestra and other times it's just her voice and just enough backing to move the harmony along.

"And now I'm standing face to face, isn't the world a crazy place" is such a beautiful moment, I get chills when she just draws us into that feeling of uncertainty and anticipation. 

Oh wow, I forgot about that great moment when she just sighs over the orchestra.  Yes, this song is a little "adult contemporary" but I don't care, it's that cleanness, the craft in the songwriting that sometimes seems so lacking in a lot of the current music.

This song is ALL good, there's nothing that you can criticize about this thing . . . wait a second.  Yes, sometimes the snow comes down in June, but um, the sun NEVER goes around the the moon.  What?!?  Really.  When it sometimes snows in June, it makes for some funny weather but if the sun every went around the moon, I'm pretty sure we would no longer be alive.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Rolling In The Deep by Adele

Listen to her voice. What is going on here?

There’s this fascinating tradition of “Blue-eyed soul,” British singers who sing soul music so remarkably well giving America soul singers a run for their money. Adele adds to this tradition with her first album 19 and her most recent album 21. Right now she is demolishing any American representation of soul music in sales and it’s because she's good, really good.

If you pay attention to pop music you’ve probably heard Adele’s most successful single “Rolling In The Deep.”

Adele is one of the best arguments against the idea that success in pop music is reliant on how much like a supermodel you look and how sensually you can dance. I’m not saying she doesn’t have great stage presence but most people wouldn’t pick her out of a line-up as the most successful artist of the year, but after hearing her perform it’s easy to understand why she has connected with the world.

Adele has a rich, velvety alto voice. Unlike many less skilled singers, Adele mixes dark chest tones with her lighter head voice with ease. She belts out higher notes but it doesn’t sound strained and out of tune. There’s a lightness to the weight to her voice combines with darkness of her tone that is simply amazing and breathtaking.

Then there’s the music itself. “Rolling In The Deep” and all of the other songs on 21 are beautifully constructed works of pop art. What makes great pop music is the ability to connect with a wide range of audiences. It’s not about being all things to all people but creating music through it’s subject and sonic landscape that is universal but are also interesting.

“Rolling In The Deep” is catchy. It’s features a thumping four on the floor drum pulse, rising chorus and a great breakdown in the end of the song. You basically have the best out of pop song structure that appeals to younger audiences. Combine this with a voice that is reminiscent to older audiences of Aretha Franklin with intriguing but non-threatening lyrics and it’s no wonder why Adele has been ruling the sales charts for the past year.

I asked my 5th grade students to list some of their favorite songs and "Rolling In The Deep" came up multiple times.  It's one of the only songs they listed that I wouldn't hesitate to buy for my mom.  It's easy to get disillusioned by pop music, but there's really great stuff out there and Adele's a prime example.

Just in case you're not convinced . . .

Friday, October 7, 2011

Year 2: Week 5 - How To Get It Done

My mom spent a lot of time and energy volunteering with my school’s PTA. She won a Golden Acorn award for her work and had a significant effect on the school community. My mom is someone who simply acts. She rarely complains about things she chooses to do and is very much a pragmatist who simply likes to do what needs to be done to make things happen.

Recently I had a phone conversation with my mom about working at my school. I work in a school that embraces and actively encourages people to come up with new ideas and pursue projects that will help the students have better educational experiences. I’m involved in a bunch of projects and initiatives right now and honestly, sometimes it can be draining.

When I was talking to my mom about this I was surprised to hear that she feels like a level of regret with some of her PTA volunteer work. She said that there’s two ways to make things happen. You can do it all by your self or you can work with others in the community and act together to reach a goal. My mom said she felt like she did too much by herself and wishes she had involved others more.

I’ve learned the most effective way to make something happen at my school is to have a lot of conversations. This includes teachers, administrators and even students. Sometimes these conversations take weeks to have and it may feel annoying because other people’s opinions seem to get in the way of progress but in reality it is exactly these conversations that help rather than hinder.

What we do as teachers for the school is not for ourselves and if teachers and administrators do not feel idea will best help the students than maybe they are right and you should rethink your idea. Does this get annoying sometimes? Yes, but it’s better that you have a conversation with a principal and get a “no” then put together an entire project and the day you are about to do it the principal finds out about it and quashes it then.

Yes, it is faster to do things by yourself and you feel like you are getting more done, but at the end of the day being a teacher is not about you and what your accomplish. It’s about the students and if a project is truly important and meaningful than it should be something that the school can carry on in the future with you around and the only way to ensure that is to involve people in others in the process.

I know that sometimes it seems ridiculous to have to check in with everyone under the sun before going ahead and pursuing an idea. Some of this is simply covering your bases so you have back-up is something goes array.  More that that it’s a way of creating community, an environment of open dialogue where people are working together to create learning opportunities for the students.

The students I teach aren’t “my students,” they are “our students” and the choices we make need to reflect what we all feel is best for them.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My Heart Will Go On . . . on the recorder

If you can make it all the way through this video, you have more endurance then I do (you have to at least make it to the part when the singing enter).

This is my default song to play when someone asks me to play a song on the recorder. By the way, I teach recorder to my 3rd and 5th graders and well. . . yeah. . . it's um. . . kind of like this . . . j/k.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sunday Morning Coming Down by Johnny Cash

Have you ever had a hangover?

If you’re not sure, then you haven’t had one. Waking up feeling unrested with a slight a headache is not hangover. Lying in a fetal position unable to move without having your head feel like it’s about to explode while you stomach does backflips and praying to deities that you never thought previously existed for relief is a hangover.

Leave it to Johnny Cash, country music’s bad boy to record a song about this feeling.

Kris Kristofferson, award winning actor and musician ended up working as a janitor at Columbia Records after earning a Masters degree at Oxford and becoming a captain in the US army because he wanted to be songwriter. After composing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and recording a demo, he got his tape to Cash. Some stories of how this happened involved landing a helicopter on Cash’s lawn, but more likely Kris was simply persistent and eventually Kristofferson came up with a song that Cash fell in love with.

With a classic Johnny Cash rhythm guitar backing, this song begins simply enough describing waking up in the morning with simple but clever lyrics that immediately characterizes the protagonist.
Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
Kristofferson paints a bleak picture of the internal logic of this man who man who drinks to get up in the morning and doesn’t have it together enough to have clean clothes around.

While the song continues, strings enter the musical background rising up like the sun filing up with musical landscape with light. At the same time Cash goes on to singing about gigging the night before and while this darkness is in the front of his mind, the world of Sunday morning reminds him of “something” he lost.

In the chorus Cash wants to escape from the realizations of what is missing in his life.
On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothing short a' dying
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk
And Sunday morning coming down.
Cash wants to escape from this world because it shows him that there is something more meaningful in life than partying during the night. People aren’t out walking around on Sunday mornings, instead they are home with their families or singing in a church choir. Yes, moments of partying are fun, but who you are left with on the Sunday, the people who you share your life with after the partying is over is what brings true fullfillment.

There’s something about a hangover that reveals what you really have in your life. In this moment of physical trauma while your mind is swirling around you face your regrets, your hopes and what you have to live for.  It’s a stark reminder for some how little they have but for many of us how much we have to look forward to once the hangover has passed.