Friday, June 29, 2012

Buffy & Babies

Buffy has always liked kids.  From an early age, Buffy showed interest in children and enjoyed playing with them.  She has spent a lot of time with Diana's younger cousins who like to chase Buffy around and carry her around as if she was a doll.  I am amazed at Buffy's patience in these situation. 

I don't really understand why Buffy is so into kids.  Maybe it's because of the way that kids interact with Buffy, maybe it's because they are closer to the same size or maybe it's because kids understand something about dogs that adults forget as they grow up.

When Buffy first met kids from the age of 6 to 10, Diana and I were cautious.  We didn't want Buffy to get too excited and nip at their hands.  As Buffy got older, and she had positive experiences with kids, we relaxed.  We feel comfortable letting Buffy play with kids as long as we know that the kid knows how to interact with Buffy in an appropriate way.

Recently Buffy has hung out with babies and toddlers.  This raised another level of concern for Diana and I.  When Buffy first met one of Diana's cousin's daughter, she was only a year old.  Buffy was eager to play with her but she wasn't sure what to do with Buffy.  One moment she wanted to play with Buffy then when Buffy came over, she would walk away.  As the night went on, Lily became more relaxed with Buffy as she through down Buffy bread to eat from her high chair. 

This last week Buffy met my niece Amelia.   The first night that Buffy met Amelia, she didn't really know what to do with her.  She sniffed her a couple times but mostly left her alone.  The second night was a different story.  When my brother Ed put Amelia's car seat on the ground as they entered the house, Buffy trotted up to Amelia.  She carefully sniffed Amelia's feet, and her cheek, walked around the car seat and looks up at us approvingly.

As the evening went on, Buffy followed whoever was holding Amelia.  At first I thought it was because Buffy was jealous of Amelia's attention but in the way that she walked and looked up, I got the sense that Buffy was trying to help.

Later in the evening my mom was sitting on the floor cradling Amelia.  Buffy came up to them and sat down near them.  My mom reached out to Buffy and pulled her towards Amelia and Buffy relaxed into my mom's lap and cuddled up next to Amelia.

Soon Buffy and Amelia were asleep in my mom's lap.  I panicked for a second seeing how close Buffy was to Amelia, but seeing how at peace they both were I quickly relaxed and took in the magic of that moment.  My mom put Amelia's hand on the back of Buffy's neck and her little hand grabbed a little of Buffy's fur.  Buffy didn't move at all when she felt Amelia pet her, instead she relaxed deeper into my mom's lap.


A couple days later Buffy got to spend some more time with Amelia.  They were both more active as this was the middle of the afternoon.  Buffy did the same thing she did during their earlier meeting following around whoever was holding Amelia, especially when Amelia was crying.  While my dad was holding Amelia, my mom was playing with Buffy getting her to jump holding her hand above Buffy's nose.  As Buffy jumped and barked, Amelia laughed for the first time.

The first laugh is a special thing.  It's a sign of a baby's physical and emotional development.  Just a couple months ago, Amelia could not make out shapes or communicate a wide range of emotions.  Now Amelia was watching, listening and comprehending Buffy at play and communicating her joy through laughter.

I am so proud that Buffy was part of Amelia's first laugh.  I'm overjoyed that Buffy can interact with Amelia in a positive way.  The fact that Buffy helped Amelia learn to laugh makes me feel that somehow Buffy knows that Amelia is a special person to all of us.

It's the feelings between people that we can't articulate and understand that are the most special.  Buffy and Amelia are family.  I don't know Buffy understand this, but that's what makes it that much more magical.       


It's moments like these that make me feel like I have the greatest puppy in the world.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jeff Tietz At The Heart Of Rolling Stone

I’ve been reading Rolling Stone magazine for almost a decade. While I enjoy the entertainment reviews and news, what keeps me coming back is the long form journalism that is featured in every issue.

Like a good documentary, long form journalism has a depth of meaning that most news articles lack because of length and time allotted to research and write these articles. As the news is filled with underdeveloped stories about events that aren’t truly newsworthy, the art of long form journalism remains a unique and vital part of our culture.
The Fallen by Jeff Tietz featured in the most recent Rolling Stone is an amazing example of the power of long form journalism and what is truly at the heart of this great magazine.

This article is apolitical. There’s no mention of the upcoming presidential election or any political party. Instead of using this story of people who live in their cars to make a political argument, he  lets these people speak for themselves and gives voice to an important part of our population.

This is an article about how the economy has effected people negatively and profiles people doing everything right to get out of their situation. These are stories of hope, perseverance and what it means for many people to live in America today.

Tietz tells three stories: Janis Adkins, the Cateses family a wife and husband with three children and Sean Kennan a single dad with two sons. He skillfully interweaves these stories without creating confusion in the story. Knowing when to leave one person to tell another person’s story and come back to it is a passing issue that when done well gives you time away to reflect and motivates you to continue reading.

Great writers don’t describe everything in detail. Instead they pick certain senses that are powerful and memorable to feature.

As we climb in, I realize the van smells faintly of slept-on sheets. Adkins is a clean person – she showers and does laundry regularly – but vehicle dwellers live in spaces too small to easily dissipate quotidian odors.
Tietz doesn’t go into detail about what the van looks like or Adkins appearance herself. Instead of using senses to simply give people an idea of what he is talking about he uses descriptions to tell a story.

The hook at the beginning of the article is effective but what’s really powerful is the ending. When you are done reading the last sentence, it forces you to take a moment to reflect. It’s like the end of a great piece of music. You need that silence after a great song to take in the emotional experience and Tietz creates that same feeling with this article.

I understand people’s reservations about Rolling Stone. This magazine seems to express an unapologetic liberal stance.  There are some writers who have clear liberal viewpoints and republican perspectives are rarely given in the political section of the magazine.  Outside of this section however you find the heart of Rolling Stone with articles like Tietz's.  Like rock music itself, Rolling Stone is not about politics but rather this magazine is about hope, trials and liberation.  

There is a difference between a journalist and a blogger. There is a difference between a great journalist and mediocre ones and there is a difference between journalism that is frivolous with work that is important.  Take the time to read this article and you'll understand what I'm talking about.  I don't have a great ending to this post like Tietz's has for his article.  Just take this post as an introduction to The Fallen and you won't regret it.   



Jeff Tietz's website

Monday, June 25, 2012

Breakthru by Queen

When I first started to go out with Diana I made mix CDs for her. I put a lot of thought into each of these CDs (I talked about this process in this earlier post). I don’t really remember the reasons why I picked most of the songs for those CDs I made for her almost ten years ago but for some of the songs I do. And one of those songs is “Breakthru.”



This late masterpiece by Queen was released in 1989, two years before the death of lead singer Freddie Mercury. While most people think of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You,” when the think of Queen, I think of later songs like this and “Under Pressure” (which I discussed in this earlier post). With “Breakthru,” and many of these later songs, Queen wrote music that really spoke to the spirit of liberation and freedom. Instead of being an anthem for the sake of rocking out, these songs were anthems that talked about the deeper meaning of life.

At the time that this song was recorded, Mercury was feeling the effects of AIDs and lead guitarist Brian May was suffering from depression. Instead of creating music that reflected these feelings, Queen rallied and created a song that aimed to lift others out of these dark feelings. Starting with a slower, almost improvised vocalization, Mercury creates a dark and eerie musical landscape and out of that like the train in the music video comes a driving and pulsating beat.

The lyrics are beautiful expressions of love and adoration.  Mercury delivers them with a level of intimacy and charm. At first you feel that he isn’t so much singing but talking straight to you and as the chorus hits, his voice soars. You can feel the joy that this band had in creating this music. It’s in Freddie’s voice, the amazing groove and the ease at which Brian May play  his guitar solo. While Mercury sings about trying to make “you” smile, you can’t help but smile yourself.

I put this song on that mix CD for Diana because I wanted to tell her how much I wanted to get to know her better. I wanted her to know how excited I was to make that breakthrough, make her smile and know her. I wanted to her to know that the uncontrollable smile I feel when I listened to “Breakthru” was the same one I had on my face when I thought of her.

Ten years later “Breakthru” brings me back to that early part in our relationship, and the excitement of getting to know someone. Are there still breakthroughs to make in our relationship?  Not in the same sense as in the beginning of our relationship.  Instead of the breakthroughs being in getting to know each other, it's in sharing new experiences in life.  The same excitement I felt with wanting to get to know Diana, I feel whenever Diana and I enter a new adventure in life together.

As I got to know Diana, everything I found out about her made me want to get to know her even better and with every adventure we share together it makes me look forward to each breakthrough we share.

Friday, June 22, 2012

One Sweet Day by Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men

To mourn the death of my goldfish Winston Tang, my brother and I posted songs about death on his facebook page.  Buffy’s contribution to this remembrance was “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Care & Boyz II Men.



SRY, I HAS NEVR TOLD U,
ALL I WANTD 2 SAY
AN NAO IZ 2 LATE 2 HOLD U
CAUSE UVE FLOWN AWAY SO FAR AWAY

You know how there are songs that if you don’t know means that you literally lived under a rock during a certain time period? “One Sweet Day” is one of those songs. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men joined forces at the peak of their popularity to record this unforgettable song of mourning in 1995. “One Sweet Day” topped the charts for a record 16-weeks making it the longest running number 1 song ever. It sold over two million units making it one of the most successful pop songs of the year and the decade.

Carey, Boyz II Men and Walter Afanasieff wrote this song about people in their lives they had lost to AIDs. Instead of creating a depressing song focusing on the sorrow of death, Carey and Boyz II Men made a joyous expression about looking forward to that “One Sweet Day” when they would be reunited with the ones that they loved.

The production of this song is slick and clean. It has that 1990s sheen that so much pop music had back then. Sometimes this comes off as cheesy and dated but something about this song makes it work. Mariah does a beautiful job of adapting her voice to this song stripping away any level of sensuality to a more personal and soulful performance.

Three of the Boyz II Men take solos. The one that always gets to me is Wanya. Usually I prefer Nathan’s, who opens this song, but there’s something about Wanya’s bridge. I’m not a big fan of huge gospel glissandos between phrases but Wanya makes it work. He never looses sight of the main melody and the way he ends the phrase is a perfect transition into Carey’s voice.

Yeah, I used this song as a joke.  This probably was due to the overexposure I experienced listening to this song in the 90s.  Coming back to this song years later, after loosing people in my life, I am grateful for this song.  The best music doesn’t always rise to the top in the music industry but “One Sweet Day” is an example of a song that did. The song is well-crafted, the singing is strong and the meaning behind the song is beautiful.  
Although, the sun will never shine the same,
I'll always look to a brighter day.    

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Unclehood

What does it mean to be an uncle?

No one tells you what it means to be a brother, a son, a daughter or a parent. We learn what the responsibilities and expectations of being a family are member through societies norms but that doesn’t really take us to a place where we really feel what it means to be a family member.

When my brother, Ed, told me that he and my sister-in-law, Laura were pregnant last summer I was ecstatic. The idea of them extending all of their love and who they are to another person was one of those things that gives me hope for the world. This truly was a beautiful thing.

As the months past, this excitement got mixed up with a lot of other emotions. There was concern for the life changes and the very real risks involved in having a baby. Ed and Laura gave me no reason to worry about them or the baby, but unfortunately even in the best of situations very difficult situations can arise through pregnancy.

On the night of March of 13th, we got the phone call: Amelia was here and everyone was healthy. There was a wave of relief, a smile that I could not control and a feeling of pure joy. When my grandfather died everything seemed a slightly different color knowing he was no longer in this world. The same thing happened at that moment when I knew that Amelia was out there, but instead of feeling a twinge of heartache, there was a light that seemed to shine on everything I saw.

Diana and I live in Evanston, Il and Ed and Laura live in Seattle, where my parents also live. What occurred for the next three months was a waiting game for Diana and I. The soonest we could get out to see them was June 12th. So we had to simply be satisfied with pictures of our new niece and a facetime chat with the little girl.

While I waited to meet Amelia, I asked my friends what being an uncle or aunt meant to them. I learned that there was a wide variety of involvement. People do everything from seeing their nieces or nephews once a month to sending a birthday card every year. While I had an idea of what my relationship with Amelia would be like I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do as an uncle.

Earlier this week we flew to Seattle and I met my niece for the first time. Now I’ve met a lot of babies but there was something different about Amelia. When I saw her for the first time, the pictures I had seen didn’t come close to capturing her beauty. As I picked her up and felt the weight of her body in my arms and she looked up at me, all I could think of what how happy I was to meet her and how much I loved my niece.


It’s weird, I didn’t think about what to say her, things just came out and as she looked to me with her bright eye being an uncle started to make sense. Amelia is part of my family. She’s the best of  Laura and Ed, and because of the things that Ed and I share, part of me is reflected in her.  There's the logical reasons why I feel connected to her, but the emotion that I feel for her that I can't explain is what truly makes her special.

I spoke to my dad about his feelings about being an uncle.  I heard the same excitement in his voice that I felt looking forward to seeing to Amelia, when he described meeting his first nephew.  I don't understand how or why we share these same feelings but I am so glad that we do.  My sense of family is one of the things that I am most proud of, and I didn't realize until that conversations how much of that I got from my dad.   

I don’t know how often I will see Amelia, or what kind of presents I will get her, but I know that am proud of Ed and Laura, grateful to share in their joy and feel blessed to have such a wonderful niece, Amelia in my life.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Buffy Tang - Portrait Of A Good Dog


When people tell me what a good dog they think Buffy is, I often wonder what they mean by this statement.  Most of the time, I people think Buffy is a good dog because of what she doesn't do. Buffy is not a nuisance. She doesn't eat food off of tables, Buffy isn't much of a barker and most of the time when she is around the house, she's not very needy and keeps to herself.

While I like these things about Buffy, characteristics that could describe a lamp don't really seem to define in my mind what makes a Buffy a good dog.

I asked my wife, Diana, her opinion on this subject and she came up with some insightful ans touching thoughts.  Below are her thoughts.



Buffy is a dog with personality. She's loyal and wants to please but also thinks for herself. While she likes people and other dogs, she's not the kind of dog that instantly falls in love with whoever she meets. Buffy has a little attitude, and sometimes she seems like teenager, but when it's important she puts that aside and shows an amazing level of maturity.

Buffy cares about the people who are importance to us.  Somehow Buffy figures out who Diana and I love and in her own way shows affection towards them.

Buffy is a strong dog. She is incredibly adaptable and brave. Buffy has handled uncertain situations with amazing spirit. Whether it's on a plane, at the farmer's market, or the T train in Boston, Buffy faces this life with optimism and excitement even when she have no idea what lies ahead. After Buffy was attacked by a dog last summer, Buffy showed amazing resilience and strength. This trauma didn't shake Buffy's spirit and through this experience Buffy maintained a positive outlook on life.

People often say that there aren’t bad dogs, only bad owners. So does that mean there aren’t good dogs, only good owners? No, there are plenty of great dogs with horrible owners.  I believe that all people are good and I believe that all dogs are good deep down inside, even the dog that bit Buffy. I believe that dog had some experience that made him so frightened and scared that the only way that he could deal with life was to lash out.

When people tell me that Buffy is a good dog, I take pride in hearing this but I don’t take credit. I didn’t make Buffy a good dog, Buffy was always a good dog.  Diana and I simply put in the work to bring out the best in her and allow her to be good dog who can be as proud of herself as we are of her.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Bad Romance by Lady Gaga

“Bad Romance” is one of Lady Gaga’s greatest works and one of the best pop songs ever created.  It’s a powerful song that through the shadow of its dark imagery is a celebration of everything that is awesome about popular music.


After her breakthrough album The Fame, it was difficult to imagine what Lady Gaga was going to do next. Songs like “Pokerface” and “Paparazzi” (this hyperlink and others in this entry link to other post about these songs) pushed the boundary of what people felt comfortable as pop music.  She using strongly referential musical styles with provocative lyrics. There is nothing original about the elements that Lady Gaga used in her first album, but the way she put things together and presented herself was something that no one was else was doing at the time.

Her first album was a triumph but lacked a song with true universal appeal that spoke beyond her neo-1980s dance music and disturbing music videos. Yes, singing “Pokerface” is a good time, but something feels off about rocking to this song in a large group of people.

To lead off her second album The Fame Monster we got “Bad Romance.” The song opens with a glorious rising vocal line leading into the words “caught into a bad romance.” This hook could have been easily used in an Elton John song or after the chorus in a Springsteen anthem. It is simple and straight forward, which is exactly the reason it is so appealing. It’s a melody that an entire stadium of people could sing along with after only hearing for the first time.

Then Lady Gaga presents her second hook. This chant is uniquely Gaga in its quirkiness and even more catching than the opening line. After a verse, a pre-chorus that draws back the texture we get the final hook in the chorus. As the chorus continues we hearing the opening line come in and like the glorious moment in “Tonight, Tonight” from West Side Story when Leonard Bernstein layers in songs on top of each other, the song opens up in sheer joy.

Yes, the lyrics are weird, but the themes are not.

This is a song about someone wanting a relationship even though she knows that there are bad things involved in being together. Instead of pushing this away, Lady Gaga embraces the bad possibilities, the bad romance because she simply wants this regardless of what other people tell her. She knows its not good for her but she wants it anyways. This is a song about taking a chance, not playing safe because as she sing, she doesn’t want to be friends, she wants something more.

Many songs in the this album express the message Lady Gaga has been expressing in her advocacy. Like “Edge Of Glory,” “Bad Romance,” carries the theme of accepting who people for who they are, good and bad. "Bad Romance" is about accepting what you want and who you are regardless of what other people tell you. It’s a feeling that things may be bad and may look bad but that doesn’t mean that have to be bad. “Bad Romance” is similar to songs like “He’s A Rebel,” about a girl wanting to be with someone that others say are bad.


Yes, this is an innocent and misguided viewpoint, but this is same viewpoint that gives us songs like “God Only Knows.” Lady Gaga captures this feeling of “I’m going to do what I want,” with strength and attitude. This is a pop song with the soul of a rock song because like all great rock music "Bad Romance" is about liberation and empowerment.

If you listen to the song and don’t know what I’m talking about, sing along and you will feel what I mean.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain (Song From Brave Trailer) by Julie Fowlis

I loved her beautiful wild red hair. The sublime nature scenes of rolling Irish hills were breathtaking. Everything about the Brave trailer felt excitingly different but comfortable. Then Julie Fowlis gentle voice began singing “Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain” As her voice calmed the action and the strong words of our heroine asked a powerful question, I was memorized.



Every once in a while a movie trailer becomes an emotional and meaningful experience completely separate from the film itself. Almost all of the time when this happens, the trailers feature incredible music. Like the use of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” in the Where The Wild Things Are trailer:



And REMs tribute to Andy Kaufman that inspired the title of Man On The Moon.



After hearing this song, I spent the next week trying to figure out how to get a recording of this song. I initially thought it was part of the soundtrack to Brave.  I wasn't able to find any samples songs from that album, so I resigned myself to wait for the soundtrack to come out. A couple days later I decided to look around some more through a random message board I found this:



Julie Fowlis is an Scottish artist who sings primarily is Scottish Gaelic. Her gentle and expressive soprano voice perfectly fits the style of folk music that she sings. “Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain” is a track from her debut album in 2005 titled Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe. The lyrics to “Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain” tell the story of a man finding a girl who is singing about her love who is at sea. The song has a twist in the last verse when it is revealed that the man who is so struck by the girl's singing is the love the girl has been singing about who has finally come home.

What strikes me about the lyrics is that most of the lines describe the beauty of nature during the twilight hours. These moments are painted using different senses and almost fantastical imagery juxtaposing the peace and calm of nature with the pain and heartache in the girl's hearts. On one level this doesn't seem to have anything to do its Brave, but maybe the yearning for something more, something different set against a magical setting really is what both this song and Brave is all about.

“Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain" is one of the be most beautiful songs that I've ever heard. The combination or the music, the words and the performance create a feeling that only music can capture.  This is a song that you've never heard before but seems to have always been in your heart. It’s a story you've never read but somehow feels like something that you've written.  It's a place you've never been that feels like a home.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Actual Comments

Last week I made a humorous post about comments I decided not to use when writing grade reports.  Here's sample of actual comments I wrote this semester.

*****

I have enjoyed working with Susan this year. She continues to demonstrate great focus and hard work in class.

While Susan does great work individually, sometimes working in groups is a challenge for her. When other students get distracted or make mistakes, Susan does not tell them how this makes her feel. Instead she gets frustrated and quiet. Susan has great skills and insights to share. She can improve her own experience in the classroom by communicating more openly with her classmates.

*****

Carol participates well in classroom activities. However, she has difficulty switching her focus from transitions to receiving group instruction. During transitions Carol often becomes distracted by her need to be involved with her friends. Carol needs to focus on transitions not as a time to be involved with friends but rather as a classroom procedure.

*****

While James continues to have difficulty sitting still and not engaging in distracting behavior, his awareness of the classroom agenda has grown. When the class was practicing for their Illinois presentation, James took this process very seriously. He reminded people around him who were being silly the reasons they were practicing and how they needed to present themselves.

*****

Jane showed great leadership in her singing while preparing for the Medieval Dubbing Program. She displayed individual responsibility and memorized the lyrics quickly. Jane seems more comfortable with open-ended assignments than she did earlier this year, which was evident with the success she had with the composition activities this semester.

*****

Rick continues to display great musical instincts and creativity. However, he still struggles to interact with his classmates in a positive way. He often speaks out of turn and interrupts other classmates when they are talking. Rick works well on group compositions if the projects stem from his ideas. He is not as cooperative when he needs to be supportive of another student’s idea.

*****

I have enjoyed working with Maxwell this year. His continued enthusiasm and interest in activities during music class was evident when he taught his younger brother Elliot “Sumer Is In Cumen In.”

*****

Daniel has continued to be a positive and enthusiastic member of the band. Whether the class is rehearsing in small groups or playing musical charades, Daniel is eager to participate and share his thoughts with the group. While I appreciate Daniel’s humor, he has had difficulty this semester switching from joking around outside of class with me to focusing on work during class. This improved as we worked towards the spring concert and after Daniel and I discussed this issue.

*****

Caroline has continued to be a positive and enthusiastic member of the band. Whether the class is rehearsing in small groups or playing musical charades. Caroline has shown an interest not only in music but in the way that people learn and teach music. She volunteered to spend time assisting me with teaching a third grade music class and displayed maturity and care working with these younger students. Caroline continues to take musical challenges with a good attitude and works hard regardless of the circumstance.

I have enjoyed working with Caroline for the past two years and I am proud of the growth she has made as a musician and a young adult.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Year 2: Week 37 – Year 2

Wow, it’s over.

My second year at this school has come to a close.

How was the second year compared to the first year?

In some ways it was more difficult. The innocence of being a new teachers means that you don’t really know what’s going on and people are okay with that. While I didn’t understand the arch of the school year last year, this also meant that I didn’t stress as much about upcoming events because I didn’t know what to stress out about.

I took on new roles at the school. I was on a committee and people involved me more in important discussions. Yesterday for example I worked with the fifth grade team to create the new class arrangements for sixth grade. This isn’t a conversation that music teachers are usually a part of but because of my relationship with these teachers I was able to contribute. While this is a flattering thing and while I really enjoy being a part of conversations, it takes time away from other things that I need to attend to.

When you are in an organization and do effective work, people seek you out and this was definitely a year where I felt close to over-committing my time to different events and people around the school. It’s a great feeling that people want my help with things but learning to say “no,” changed from something that was a good idea last year to something I needed to do for survival.

While there were things about this year that were harder, many things made this year so much more meaningful.

I knew people. Instead of having to get to know all of my students for the first time, many of my students carried on from last year. I had relationships with the administration and other teachers that had developed into friendships. Instead of walking into a building full of strangers last year, this year I walked in feeling like I was coming home to a family.

Knowing the scope of the year meant that there was more stress but also there was more things to look forward to. Yes, the magic of doing something for the first time was gone for many events but there was a different magic: bringing these experiences to my new students.

I loved my year as a second year teacher. I had more of a feeling of control and I was able to trust in my own instincts as other teachers trusted in me. I’m not sure what to expect in year 3, but I’m looking forward to the new challenges that will arise. For now, I will enjoy spending time reflecting on a fantastic year, amazing memories and the students I feel proud to have work with.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Grades And "Comments"

One things that is unique about my school is that in addition to grades, teachers write comments about students.  The classroom teachers write 2-3 pages for each student.  As the music teacher I write about 200 words of comments.  These comments have to be written very carefully as they are not only for the parents and the students but are part of a larger narrative record.  As I write these comments, other observations and thoughts about my students pop up.  Here are some of these comments that didn't quite make the cut (many of these are actual observations while others are made-up thoughts and not based on any actual student):   

Middle School
"_______is unmemorable."
"_______makes jokes that are not funny. . . at all."
"_______needs to learn how to tie her shoes. "
"_______needs to stop pumping his fist in the air every time we finish a song."
"_______liked the "Jasmine Flower" song a little bit too much."
"_______cried less than he did during the first semester."
"_______looks really dumb when he plays the clarinet."
"_______is a student that I am afraid to make mad because I fear that she could beat me up."
"_______looked way better before she straightened her awesome Felicity/Taylor Swift hair."
"_______is going be a students I'm really going to miss next year."
"_______dresses like nobody else in her grade and I totally love that about her."
"_______is a student I wish I could say that I'm proud of."
"_______needs to not sit on girl's laps."
"_______gives me hope for the American teenager."
"_______has powerful puppy dog eyes."
"_______is lazy like woah."
"_______needs to expand his monotone wardrobe."
"_______should never change, ever."
"_______ran into a wall and it was really funny."


Fifth Grade
"_______should consider beet farming because he walks like Dwight Shurte"
"_______ate half of his music folder.
"_______came up with the term "wet sweet" after an especially hot day."
"_______thought "Living On A Prayer," was "Living On a Prairie."
"_______needs to grow into her own ears."
"_______reminds me of my dog. . . in a good way."
"_______wore the same summer dress as one of her classmate, twice."
"_______thing where she only has one of her ears pierced needs to be addressed."
"_______always has really nice hair."
"_______is too tall."
"_______fell off his chair in class."
"_______would benefit from knowing whether of not he/she is the evil twin."
"_______reminds me of my dog. . . and not in a good way."
"_______is not as cool as she thinks she is."
"_______rolls around on the floor too much."


Third Grade
"_______ needs to develop a personality"
"_______seems to be more interested in his hand than music class"
"_______often blows into the wrong end of the recorder"
"_______still does not know how to tie her shoes
"_______would get a higher grade if he wasn't on crutches."
"_______really think he's funny, but he's not."
"_______farted in class."
"_______needs to not have an that early Justin Bieber Haircut."
"_______has really dirty fingernails."
"_______doesn't get it . . . ever."
"_______puts his hand down the front of his pants."
"_______doesn't understand that hand drums are played with your hands, not your head."
"_______sneezed on me."
"_______thinks that if you google 'bomb' the FBI will come to your house."
"_______doesn't understand the difference between 'stand up' and 'sit down.'"
 

Monday, June 4, 2012

I Started A Joke by The Bee Gees

Before they were the kings of disco, the Bee Gees were a creative and introspective rock group. And before they were the Bee Gees, they were simply three brothers: Barry and his twin brothers Maurice and Robin. There are other groups in pop music history that are made up of brothers like The Beach Boys and The Kinks. However the fact that there were only ever three members of the Bee Gees made this family affair seem different.

When I watched the three of them interact during performances it felt like the way that my brother and I would be if we were on stage. There was some slight ribbing but more than that, there was humor, support and genuine brotherly love in the way they created music together.

In 2003, Maurice died of a sudden heart attack and a couple weeks ago Robin passed away due to complications due to pneumonia at the age of 61. Now Barry stands alone. There’s not only a feeling of sadness because this group will never perform or record music but there’s also the family part of it that’s really touching.

Barry went through a great loss with Maurice and Robin in 1988, when the fourth Gibb brother, Andy died of a suspected drug overdose at the age of 30. Andy was a pop star in his own right and it was just as triumphant to see his rise and ultimately tragic to loose him and hearing his brothers talk about him is simply heartbreaking.



When I think of all this loss that this family has endured, Robin’s voice comes into my head with one of the Bee Gees’ most powerful songs “I Started A Joke.”



People have speculated that this song is about religion, talking about the struggles of Jesus Christ dealing with a world that acted contrary to his actions. Other people interpret this song with a more literal meaning. I’ve never quite known how to take this song, but there’s something innately powerful about it. It’s not the fact the lyrics hold a profound meaning in of themselves but because combined with the melody and Robin’s voice the emotional expression is this song is undeniable.

There’s tragedy, sadness, regret but also hope in this song. Even though the lyrics of the song cycle to death, it also leads to the happiness of other people in the world. At first this seems spiteful but when you hear the words in context, there’s a feeling of sunlight shining, a level of hope and optimism. It’s the same kind of mix of darkness and light that U2 has in their lyrics like in the song “One.” It is precisely this ambiguity that makes this song so beautiful.

Robin’s voice seems so exposed making this song feel almost painfully intimate. While there is some insecurity in his voice there’s also bravery, and courage in putting these feelings out there for all us to witness.

It’s weird, you’d think the more times in my life that musicians who have meant something to me pass way, the easier it would get.

It doesn’t.

Maybe it’s because the older I get, the more I appreciate them or maybe it's because of something different that I will never truly understand.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Year 2: Week 36 - Jasmine Flowers

I had no idea what to do. It wasn't so much that the choir and band in front of me didn't know the music. They were simply performing with absolutely no energy or spirit. It was only two days until the performance and I was starting to get frustrated.

As part of an India & Chinese Story Theater, my sixth grade band combined with the sixth grade choir to perform "Jasmine Flower," a Chinese folk song from the 18th century. While the band students had been working on this song for months and did some composition projects relating to Chinese folk music, the choir had only recently learned this song.

The first time the band and choir rehearsed together last week, I gave a brief history lesson about the song. I talked about the Xing Dynasty, the use of this song in recent pro-democracy protest, the gesture of giving flowers as gifts and I even got personal telling my students how I played this song at my grandfather's funeral. After hearing all of this, they did an okay job rehearsing and I figured that they would bring more energy closer to the performance.

Unfortunately a week later, not much had changed.

One of the reasons I got so frustrated was that I didn't know what to do to fix this issue. I can almost always come up with some kind of crazy idea to get kids inspired but I was coming up with nothing. It wasn't an ego thing. I mean the kids would be fine, but I just wanted to make this song and the experience of performing it more meaningful.

As I was driving home that evening the lyrics of the song echoed in my head.
I bring this branch of sweet, scented flowers,
Sweetly picked from Dewey blow'rs.
Light sweet scent as a summer aim
These I bring for you,
Blossoms blooming fresh with dew,
Fragrant flows for you.
Then it hit me: maybe they didn't understand the point of the song because they've never given flowers to anyone.  I immediately called up one of the other music teachers and the drama teacher and they confirmed my idea wasn't crazy, but actually a good one.  The idea was to have the student serenade people in the school in small groups and give them flowers.

That evening, my wife and I bought three big bouquets of flowers and my Diana did a great job arranging them into eight smaller bouquets. I emailed a bunch of different teachers to see if anyone would be up for a random serenade the next morning.

Standing in front the combined sixth grade band and choir, I told the group of almost seventy students the plan. We were going to split up into four smaller groups and serenade different people in the school and present flowers. To my relief, my students were excited about this idea. Knowing they were going to perform in front of people, we had an incredibly productive ten minutes of rehearsing and then we headed out.

The four groups performed two times each. They performed for the middle school secretary, the elementary school secretary, the main office secretaries, two groups of their sixth grade teachers, a teacher assistant, a preschool class and a kindergarten class. Every one of these serenades were a surprise except for the classroom performances.

The students snuck around in small groups, walked into these locations, started singing and then handing out the flowers. The sixth graders performed with big smiles on their faces as they saw the expressions of delight and surprise in their audiences.

When we brought the grade back together and ran the song the energy they performed with was completely different. They were not as energized as they were when they did the serenades in their smaller groups but it was a lot better. The conversation with the group was no longer, "we need you to bring more energy to this song," rather it was "we know you can sing this song with great expressions and energy, so transfer the joy of the serenades to the bigger group performance."

Music has to be connected with a joyous and meaningful experience in order to have a great performance. Often times this happiness comes from the hard work of learning a song, however other times you need to dig into the deeper meaning of a song to find an unforgettable and meaningful experience.

Part of what made this work was picking people in the school to perform for that I was sure would give them positive feedback. The other piece that made this work was that the drama teacher, the other music teacher and I presented this with genuine excitement. As we took them around the school we not only facilitated these performances but had fun with the kids.

Often when I come up with ideas like this, I tell other teachers that this is either the dumbest thing I've every thought of doing or the smartest. Was sending sixth graders around the schools to serenade people giving them flowers the dumbest thing I've ever thought of?

Well, after seeing the big smiles and bright eyes of my sixth graders as they performed this song for their parents, it's definitely not the dumbest idea I've every had.