Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Lumberjack Song

Everyone has a dream.

I'm not even that big a fan of Monty Python, but this thing is one of the best examples of musical humor.  He's just so earnest and his back-up singers are in such disbelief.  One of my goals in life are to perform this song with a group of guys.  I'm not sure if I'd rather be the lead singer who is proud of who he is or one of the back-up singers. . . hmm 

. . . still dreaming . . .

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bella Swan: Feminist Role Model?: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

After six years, the penultimate Twilight film has hit the theaters and I’m more into this series then ever. (My views on Twilight are based 100% on the films, as I haven’t read a word of the books).

In this earlier blog post I defended Twilight. I discussed how people being critical of Twilight without experiencing the art are silly, the double standard of female-centric art being viewed as inferior, and why we should all be sensitive to art that we don’t like that others love.

While I thought that this was enough after searching “why Twilight sucks,” and reading through about twenty websites with articles and list of complaints about Twilight I feel it necessary to once again defend Twilight. (btw Twilight Haters, you have to really step up your game, complaining about Twilight fans themselves has nothing to do with the book or the film).

The two most coherent complaints have to do with the character of Bella being a bad role model and being anti-feminist.

No, Bella is not a great role model, but is she suppose to be? No one complains the Hamlet, Juliet or Othello are bad role models. They are tragic heroes with a flaw and so is Bella, her flaw being her obsession with Edward. One of the more interesting and maybe more apt comparisons is the idea that Bella is not as good a role model as Buffy Summer, the vampire slayer.

While I agree whole-heartedly that Buffy is a far better character, she shares the same flaw as Bella with her quasi-abusive relationship with Spike. If you don’t believe ne all you have to do is watch episode 19, season 6, “Seeing Red.” Yes, Spike is totally at fault but, Buffy saw the signs and didn’t exactly distance herself from him the way she should have. . . not the greatest role model to girls in this situations, but that’s okay. That’s not what this is about.

Tragic heroes don’t serve us as role models but as reflections not of who we want to be but who we are. And if you don’t think that there are some teenage girls out there resembles Bella Swan at all, then you need to go hang out at a high school.

Stephanie Meyers defended Bella as feminist because she chooses her circumstances in life. Yes, Meyers is right. Feminism by its strictest definition is not the idea that all women should be working moms and go against traditional gender roles. It’s about equality of opportunity. If a woman chooses to be a businesswoman they should be able to do that without limitations put on by society and with social pressures to the contrary. Also if a woman chooses to be a housewife they should enjoy that same freedom to do that without discrimination. Equality isn’t about everyone doing the same thing but equal opportunities of choice.

Bella’s choice to be with Edward is her choice. Many of the things that Bella decides for herself go against Edward’s wishes and you may not like her choices like many people in the films do but she makes them anyways fighting for her right to self-determine her life. Isn’t that really what feminism is all about?  I'm not arguing that Bella is the paragon of feminism but to say she is anti-feministic because she makes choices you don't agree with well is kind of . . . anti-feminist.

By the way, I totally think Bella should have chosen Jacob, but the fact she chose Edward is far a more dramatic meditation on Bella’s heroic flaw.

I really enjoyed watching Breaking Dawn-Part 1. When you walk into a Twilight film you know you’re going to get some stiff lines, some fun actions, some more badly acted lines and some ridiculousness. Within all of this there is something highly entertaining and thoroughly engrossing.

One of my friends commented on facebook that I must be “one of the most open-minded male I know” for enjoying Breaking Dawn. While I do like to think I’m open-minded and I appreciate the compliment I don’t think understanding and enjoying Twilight is about being open-minded.  It’s about enjoying art for what it is, not complaining about it for what it’s not, putting aside expectations and to the guys out there it's about being a true feminist and not only watching but enjoying something that she wants to watch.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Year 2: Week 12 – Performance Nerves

Last week, a fellow teacher asked after an orchestra performance if I get nervous. I confidently told him no, which was totally a lie.

Before my students perform I have normal symptoms of nervousness but I work very hard to channel that into calm and positive energy. If you talked to me right before a performance you might think that I don’t care but it’s more that I don’t want my kids to freak out and well, I don’t want to freak out either.

I can’t remember the first time I went up on stage to perform. For as long as I can remember I’ve been on stage first playing violin, then piano, then in school ensembles, marching band and well now I spend a good part of my life up in front of people as a teacher.

Yes, there are things that make me nervous. Anyone who doesn’t feel a twinge of apprehension getting up in front of a full auditorium of about nine hundred people to lead the singing of “America The Beautiful” doesn’t understand the importance of what they are doing.

Part of being chill before a performance is perspective. If one of my students makes a mistake on stage, or sings a wrong lyric, it’s not a big deal. No one died, it’s just music. Yes, we should try to do the best we can and concentrate but we shouldn’t fear mistakes so much that if they accidently happen we can’t roll with it.

The other part of performing is remembering that the performance isn’t only part of what we do. I’m not in the business of producing polished musical performances, I’m in the business of helping students have meaningful experiences with music and while performance is a big part of it, the process of learning the song and exploring the music beforehand is also important.

I often tell my students before performances that I’m already proud of them and that the performance will not change the pride that I have in all the hard work they put in. You may disagree with this lack of pressured focus on a specific event but I don’t like living that way and making my students freak out never brings the best in them, probably because it never brings out the best in me.

I made a decision a couple years ago that my students would never seem me loose my temper of stress out especially in relation to performance. Expression of these feelings leads to kids being screamed at, feelings being hurt and missing the point of being a music teacher.

If you prepare a group of students for a performance and they are making significant mistakes the day before the performance that’s your fault as a teacher for not picking appropriate music and/or not teaching in a way that they can be successful. So the only person you can really get mad at is, well yourself.

So prepare your students and yourself, keep some perspective and embrace that nervous energy.  All being nervous means is that there is something exciting about to happen and at least with a well-prepared school music performances, the potential for a great experience far outweighs the potential for a bad performance.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Turkey Tango

Anyone know any Thanksgiving songs?  This song is really underrepresented in popular music, but luckily the general music teachers have this covered: THE TURKEY TANGO!!!

Those kids were good but these ones are REALLY moving:

OMG, girls doing this in pairs!!

I'm not sure if they know who is leading.

The best part of this one is the fact that there is a dad who sings along with the song. I hope those kids are dressed up as turkeys, but I'm not sure, those skirts are kind of weird.

And yes, I have done this with my student and they love it.

Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Take Me Or Leave Me (from Rent)

To have a character in a popular film who is a homosexual or transgender is no longer shocking. But once upon a time it was. In 1993, when Rent made it’s premiere off-Broadway, this show about young adults struggling to survive in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side brought important issues out into open.

Like the Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia that came out the same year, Rent has characters that are challenged the ideas of the America’s traditional views of sexuality and face head-on the effect of AIDs.

Both Rent and Philadelphia were monumentally important for portraying these characters not as stereotypes but giving these people souls that challenge people’s idea of what it meant to be a homosexual and how serious and devastating AIDs was to all of us.

What is left though when you take away what made Rent “important”? Watching Rent at Northwestern University I wasn’t shocked by the main character Roger dealing with the fact that his ex was now a lesbian. The prevalence of AIDs in the characters honestly made me think:

If you pull away the social issues what you are left with is a musical that is very much like the characters in the film who are full of energy, passion, immaturity, and focus more on the moment than the bigger picture. There are too many songs, many of which are too long, and too many plot threads, but there are also moments of musical and dramatic brilliance that leave you breathless.

For me the most polished and memorable song is “Take Me Or Leave Me.”

This song works far beyond the shock it once had of “Oh My God, it’s two Lesbians singing!!” It’s a great relationship exchange. There’s plenty examples in broadway of this kind of duet but most of the time it’s one sided like “Sue Me” from Guys and Dolls.”

This song is fun and quirky.  The characterizations come clear through the song and while the song is fight at its heart, there's a joy and pride in these characters who embracing there flaws with pride.  That is exactly what has made Rent one of the most popular musicals of all time.  If all this show was about was AIDs, it's influence would be limited.  What this show really is about is people embracing who they are and who they want to be.  There's a brilliant innocence in this show in the face of life's most serious trials and it's in this we find not only the dreams of these characters but our own.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Year 2: Week 11 - Recognition

What motivates you at your job?  Money?  Climbing the ladder?  Prestige? 

I once told my wife that I didn’t become a teacher to become famous or be in the newspaper.  Then she pointed out the hundreds of students I taught who know me and my feature in the Chicago Tribune

Maybe it's about recognition.  There's three levels of recognition I remember learning about in high school:

Level 1:  When you do something for someone you need them to acknoledge you for what you did directly and give you credit in order for you to feel satisfied.

Level 2:  When you do something for someone you don't need them to acknowledge your gesture, you simply want to see their happiness due to your actions.  

Level 3:  When you do something you are satisfied with you actions without them knowing it came from you.  Also you don't need to witness the joy your actions engendered.

I would say that most of the time I'm in level 2, sometimes I lean into level 1 and every so often I feel level 3. 

I'm not going to claim that I don't do things in my job to get recognition.  This is only my second year here and I feel it's important for me to let people know what I do.  At the same time I do consider myself a humble person.

My job is one of service.  I do what I can for my students so that they can be successful.  My greatest joys in teaching come not from me leading a group of students in performing a song but being able to sit back and watch a group work independently.  While I care about what people think, what outweighs that more often than not is the experiences my students have.

My motivation to do things around the school is about wanting a challenge, having pride in what I do and knowing at the end of the day I'm a good teacher.  I'm not in the business of "Kingsley Tang," which I guess is an ironic statement as I'm writing this on my blog. 

I think anyone who says they don't care about what people think is lying.  I care, but I guess, I don't care enough to let it rule my decisions on a daily basis.  I never think, "wow, I if I do this, people will think I'm awesome."  I think "wow, this would be a lot of fun for my students," and I guess that's really where it's all at: service.

I have not found a greater joy in life then in serving and taking care of others and while I like recognition, but I don't need.  I feel squarely in level 2 the more I think about it.  I just want to see others enjoy life on a deeper level and if I can help them get there, just a little bit, that makes all of the hard work worth it.

One of my co-worked told me that I need to think less about "me" and the more I think about it, the more I disagree.  So much of what I do, most of what I do does not bring me recognition.  No one is going to give me a medal for correcting homework or cleaning up the band room.  No one is going to throw me a parade for me for answering my e-mails every morning.  But I do these things every day, because I care about my students.  I love it when they thank me, but I don't need that to get through my day, I know I'm making a difference.

If you don't believe me and you think I'm full of it, that's ok, because your thinking that isn't going to change a thing that I do.

I'm Kingsley Tang.  I'm a teacher.  As a teacher I'm proud to serve my students every day.  My job is not take the spotlight, but to help my students shine.  All I need to keep going every day is to feel a little bit of the light that comes from my students through my service.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Things I Learned At School Today

1.  54 fifth graders crammed in a classroom are in fact capable of having a constructive discussion.

2.  3rd graders find making "sound effects" far more exciting then playing songs.

3.  Apparently I'm an "agressive teacher" because I would like my 8th grade band to play an arrangement of "Also Sprach Zarathustra."

4. Making a label that says "poo" and encouraging a 6th grade girl to put it on a classmates back will come back to you.

5.  Just because you put a lot of work into planning a lessons doesn't mean the lesson will go well.  However sometimes kid sense how hard you are trying and give you a break.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Someone Like You by Adele

This is how a lot of us feel about this song (including Coldplay). The weird thing is that my fifth graders on the bus ride back from a retreat sang this song as if it was a happy sing along song. At first I thought they were completely off base, but right now I’m not so sure.  Is this song as song as it seems?

Adele’s performance of “Someone Like You” at the this years MTV VMAs this questions in a way that the studio recording doesn't.

As the first chorus comes to a close you see a tear start welling up in the corner of Adele's eye. There’s a deep sadness that is expressed.  When she sings the second verse it’s like the words are spontaneously coming out of her soul, not a rehearsed performance. Instead of ending this verse with sadness there’s a little sense of bitterness as she sores into the second chorus.

There is a sense of anger in the second chorus as we begin to understand that this song is more then an expression of a moment but a journey of emotions as this woman works through the feelings of heartache and regret.

After Adele sings “ . . . bittersweet, this would taste,” she pauses for moment and you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. How is she going to come out of this? Will it be through the sadness of the beginning of the song or the anger of the second chorus?

What emerges is something completely different: strength, resilience and determination. When she sings “never mind, I’ll find someone like you,” it’s not a word of self-comfort as it is in previous verses, it’s a statement of belief. While she wishes again that this other person finds love, what she emphasizes is how “she begged” stating it not out of desperation but a promise to herself that she will never beg again.

Yes, sometimes love lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.  What Adele teaches us is that sometimes the times it hurts leads to strength.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Year 2: Week 10 - The Edge Of Glory

This week I spent at a four-day, three-night outdoor education retreat with my fifth graders, all 54 of them. This trip is an extension of the fifth grade curriculum and focuses on perspective and reflection. I went on this trip last year for the first time and wrote about in it this previous post discussing my first experience leading a campfire sing along.

There was a lot of things different about this year’s retreat but the one that comes most directly to mind was the weather. Last year we were blessed with clear sunny weather that hovered in the high forties to the high fifties. Only late at night was there ever a hint of being cold.

Well, this year, we had rain and not just the light mist stuff, we’re talking side-ways rain. Then there was the sleet, which turned into snow, and then there was more rain. Even though we moved a lot of activities inside we still spent a lot of time outside. In the same way that the warmth of the sun reenergizes your body, the cold and wetness of rain and snow drains away not only your energy but also your spirit.

On the second day of the trip after being outside in the freezing rain we collected all of the students inside one the cabins before transitioning to dinner. One of the other teachers looked over at me and made a guitar motion, I nodded and got out my guitar.

Everyone in the room was cold, wet and tired. As formed I my hands around the neck of my guitar I realized how cold my fingers tips were as I felt the pain of the strings on my fingers. I also found it difficult to hold my guitar pick in my other hand feeling it slip around in my wet fingers.

Looking out of my students I saw their tired faced and I felt immediately the right song of the situation. I said: "We had snow today! The reason this is exciting is because we have people we care about to share this with. Having people around makes things like the cold, rain and snow glorious."

I then I told them repeat the phrase “tonight, yeah baby,” after me. Though there was some confusion on what I was doing, I eventually got all 54 of the kids to sing this back to me and then I stared playing Lady Gaga’s “Edge Of Glory" (which I wrote about in this earlier post).

As I sang the first line, it just made sense, “There ain’t no reason you and me should be alone.”

Singing through the verses I heard a couple kids sing along and everybody scream back “tonight, yeah baby.” But when chorus hit, the room erupted and I looked up to see all of the kids in the rooming singing along and smiling. You would have never known how tired, wet and miserable these kids were only 10 minutes earlier watching them sing together.

Yes, “Edge Of Glory” is not about feeling great on a rainy day but the spirit of the song and that moment made it about just that.  Music education is about the soul and spirit as much as it is about the mind.  It's powerful and it's magical.

By the time the song was over, it was like the whole room was a different color.  There was energy and life where there was once none.  In that moment I really understood what it meant to be at the edge of glory.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Green Grass Grows All Around

This post is coming up as I'm spending time at a four day retreat with 54 fifth graders our "soft" camping in the woods.  One of my jobs is to lead this songs so I spent WAY too long last weekend learning this particular one.

Ok let's see if I got this . . .

hole --> tree --> limb --> nest --> egg --> bird --> feather --> bug

I can find something better then that:

hole --> tree --> limb --> nest --> egg -->bird --> heart --> blood --> T-Cels?!?

Ok, maybe not.

Ok, well, clearly this is a song that lends itself to many different interpretations.  I decided I need to makes this as long as possible so here's my path . .

hole --> tree --> limb --> branch --> nest --> egg --> bird --> feather --> bug --> PARAMECIUM!!!

good times.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Just A Friend by Biz Markie

“Just A Friend” is one of most memorable raps songs of all time. It was one of those songs that you felt like you knew even if you only listened to part of it. I don’t remember the first time I heard this song and I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know this song.

One of the things people credit country music with is its ability to tell stories. Well, rap music does a pretty good job of this as well and “Just A Friend” is prime example.

Biz Markie - Just A Friend by rikma

This song is a cautionary tale, warning that if a girl tells you that another man in her life is “just a friend,” don’t trust her. Chances are, she’s just leading you on and probably cheating on this other guy with you.

In-between the verses which tells this tragic love story Biz Markie “sings” the chorus. Yes, the word sings is in quotes because like someone posted on youtube about Biz Markie, he is a cross between “Biggie and Tracy Morgan.” The singing part is definitely Tracy Morgan.  After hearing him get through the verses of the song, well, he . . . um. . . . yeah, it’s one of the most hilariously awful vocal performances in pop music. The things is, that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

His delivery perfectly matches the tone of this song. Yes, this story is something that could make some sad and upset, but Biz’s reactions like the chorus is one of humor. He’s looking at this frustration circumstance and you can just imagine him in his retelling of this story laughing about it.

“Just A Friend” is a beautiful example of an artists abilities matching up with a type of song that creates something amazing. Biz Markie would not be as successful doing a more serious song and a different rapper like Eminem couldn’t really pull of this song without Biz’s unique charm.

While Biz’s song can definitely from an objective point of view be of a low quality, his rapping is different story. No, he doesn’t have the spit-fire delivery of 2pac or the lyric fluidity of Jay-Z. However Biz Markie, is able to rap around the beats is a casual and unpretentious way. If you rap along with him you definitely notice moments when things don’t initially seem feel right but fall into place moment slater. While his skills are subtle, they are definitely there.

1989 was a very different time for rap music. It hadn’t gotten deep into Gangsta Rap and while there was a lot of socially conscious Rap music that was serious, some of it was light-hearted. Biz Markie looked at his life with humor and his ability through this song to remind us to not take ourselves too seriously has created a place for this song in the canon of popular music.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Year 2: Week 9 - The Other Kind of Bullying

There’s a lot of different kinds of bullying in schools. Most think of overt peer bullying, like when a group of people make fun of another student for being overweight. There’s also the behind the back kind of bullying like when a group makes disparaging remarks about a person through facebook.

Unfortunately there’s also teacher bullying. Sometimes adults in the position of power make fun of kids or pick on students in an inappropriate way, which can have a devastating effect on students.

A third kind of bullying I’ve dealt with this week is self-bullying. This is when self-talk reaches a level of negativity and meanness that we would find unacceptable if it was peer to peer. For example, earlier this week I had a student come into class and talk about how much he “sucked” at playing his instrument. I would never let someone else tell him that he was a bad musician so I didn’t let this students say these things about himself.

You may be thinking that they might be simply be trying to get attention like a person walking into a room complaining about how they feel overweight. While this can be annoying in both cases these people are looking for positive reinforcement and for others to help them feel better about themselves. With students, making them feel good about themselves is part of my job.

Self-talk can be one of the most positive and motivating factors in a person’s life. Hearing a voice in your head that tells you that you can do things, that you are loved and strong can help people withstand anything that life throws at them. However when self-talk gets negative it can destroy lives. Yes, hearing other people telling you that you are stupid is hard, but imagine if hearing that from yourself all the time, every day. This kind of negativity can lead people into unhappiness, depression and the unimaginable.

So how do we address this?

Well, my general strategy is to tell them why they are wrong about the things they are saying using very specific examples. I told that student I mentioned earlier that I had started over fifty students on his instrument and that he was improving at a great pace. I also told him that as the teacher I have an awareness of how he has been improving that he doesn’t and that he needed to trust me. Also, I told him that if he was in fact doing badly, I would tell him explicitly (and that is not a lie).

Now I’m not a child psychologist but I believe that self-talk develops from what people hear. If you are told you are strong enough times you start believing that and telling yourself that you are strong. If we want to build students up to their full potential, they really need to believe in themselves.  The only way for this to develop in people is for them to be told that someone else believes in them in a genuine and honest way.

We are all very conscious of peer bullying, but we need to raise our awareness of self-bullying through negative self-talk.  If someone constantly putting themselves down there’s no limit to how far down that person can sink, however if that same voice is positive and strong, no amount of peer bullying can take them down.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Buffy's Whale Of A Halloween!

Buffy's first costume:

Her costume last year . . .

and this year . . .

And no she's not a shark, she's an Orca Whale.

I know Buffy . . . I know . . .