Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reading from Matthew Fox

This class I'm teaching is DePauw's School of Music seminar for first-year students (I described part of yesterday's session in my previous post). Our 52 first-years (formerly known as freshmen) are divided into four sections, and they rotate among five different faculty for units on creativity, music software, writing about music, the effect of recording technology on classical music, and Dalcroze Eurythmics.

The section I'm teaching has been game for all the improvised and African-inspired drumming and improvising with their voices and other instruments. But they've been more held back than the last group. Rather than go deep, they've been going a bit silly.

Now I have a lot of room for silliness; fun and play are important. But getting giggly can be a way of avoiding dealing with something else. So I've been a bit frustrated and looking within myself to see if it's something to do with where I've been coming from. It's true that classes have their own personalities. And it's also true that leaders and facilitators and conductors set a tone and can change it.

Today's Thursday. Sunday evening I learned that my brother-in-law had a serious stroke and was in critical condition. He's just 44, and I've literally been worried sick. Feeling nauseous at times, having anxiety attacks, and great difficulty sleeping. I made a decision at the start of the week not to tell the students about this. Why should they be worried or distracted by my problem? The professional thing to do is to keep this private, I decided.

And one of the students had a seriously ill aunt and would be going home in a few days. Again, I didn't mention it in class or ask her if she wanted to share it. Let's focus on the improv techniques. Be professional. Get her mind and mind off of our worries.

Is it any wonder then that in this workshop experience, which is so much about being emotionally authentic and spontaneous, found itself veering away from deeply expressed emotion? That it has felt like the group was avoiding something?

That's what we were doing.

This is just becoming clear to me now, as I write. But last night I was wrestling with what to do. Often in Music for People we emphasize not talking. Because we want to keep people in their experience, in that creative place, and not going into their "left brain" to analyze what they are doing or try to deduce what they should be doing.

So talking didn't seem like the answer. Talking, I knew, was not the answer. I found myself drawn to one of the most important books on creativity I've read, Matthew Fox's Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet. In all his work, Fox talks and writes about the central role of creating.
We are creators at our very core. Only creating can make us happy, for in creating we tap into the deepest powers of self and universe and the Divine Self. We become co-creators, that is, we create with the other forces of society, universe, and the Godself when we commit to creativity. (28)
As I reread passages of this book, I realized that what was missing in my work with the class was a sense of this central role and deep power of creativity. That we are not just playing games, but exploring this extraordinary force and learning how to access and use it. Fox also writes:
Prometheus stole the fire of the gods and gave it as a gift to the humans who so needed fire to create civilization. When he did this, Zeus was outraged and condemned Prometheus to be lashed to a rock where a vulture would feed each morning on his liver. But his liver grew back again each night. Psychologist Rollo May interprets the Prometheus story to mean that the artist becomes utterly "beat" after a day's work and is exhausted at night. But during the day, his energy (the liver) grows back again for his work the next day.

I would go further in examining the archetype of the liver. The liver cleanses and recycles. The artist, too, cleanses and recycles the toxins in a culture. Artists turn pain into insight and struggle into triumph and darkness into remembering and grief into rejoicing. Artists add awe to awe and beauty to beauty and wonder to wonder. When the liver is healthy, the person is healthy. The artist is to the community or body politic what the liver is to the human body: a cleanser and recycler of waste and toxins. (88-89)
I got up this morning still asking myself what new musical activity I wanted or should do with the class. The answer was nothing. I didn't want to make music. Oh crap, I said to myself. What am I going to do? Am I just so overtired and worried that I'm out of touch with my creativity? Is it that this class just isn't going deep and I'm getting bored with them

In the shower, it came to me. Talk with them. Talk about where we want to go. And I had the good sense to know not talk at them but to facilitate a discussion. To get us talking together about the importance of music and creativity and why improvisation is such an extraordinary opportunity for each of us.

I thought we'd just drum for a while first, but it was clear that like me, no one was in the mood to play. The sick aunt of my student had died, and the student had left for the funeral. That came up. And I shared the news about my brother-in-law and a bit about the difficult time I've been having.

This created, finally, some emotional honesty and reality. Maybe if one's teaching physics or music theory it works to be coolly professional. But to lead people in discovering their innate ability to express themselves honestly and openly, I've got to be fully open and human and present myself.

I asked them to speak about why they are in music school. It was a remarkable time of sharing. For each of them, being was a musician was something about themselves that they came to realize that they innately are. You don't decide to become a musician so much as to choose to accept the fact that you are a musician. That you love it more than anything. That it's what you go to when your are sad. That it's what you do best. Each of the students had different understandings, but they was this common element of discernment rather than of calculation. (It was so much like a group of LGBT people telling coming out stories that my head was spinning.)

I talked a bit about music as an activity as opposed to music as a product. How we are all music makers. I was struck suddenly by the artificiality of recordings, of how they are a substitute for real human interaction.

Then I asked the students to talk about the importance of music and art in the larger culture. At your high school commencements, I said, someone probably told you that you are leaders of tomorrow, that your generation can change the world. How do you see yourself using music to do that? Again, fascinating comments. This was harder for them to articulate. They are just 18 or so and naturally more focused on themselves than transforming the world. But throughout this there were times in which I was struck by how wonderful each of them is and what strong gifts and insights and dreams they have.

In the course of our conversation, I read them two passages from Matthew Fox, first what follows below and later the Prometheus story and Fox's reflections on it.
No one can consider twentieth-century history and not see the demonic in human creativity that was birthed in that era: the first and second world wars with their wiping out of civilian populations on an unprecedented scale; the making of the first atomic weapon ("now we know evil," spoke Oppenheimer, that father of the project); the amassing of nuclear weapons and delivery systems; the invention of gas ovens to more efficiently exterminate an entire race of humans; the genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot; in Rwanda; in Stalin's Russia; the gradual warming of the planet as we dump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, oblivious of its consequences for other species and other generations; the fouling of our rivers, oceans, fisheries, ozone protection, forests, and soil; and terrorism in the name of fundamentalist religion. All these took creativity. They all took imagination. They were misuses of our imaginations. Can we learn the lesson of that? Can we come to grips with our Divine/demonic power in this century?

We must. We have no other choice. Whether our species is sustainable or not depends on our wrestling creativity back from the brink of its demonic potential. To move our Divine powers of creativity from serving the demonic to serving the Divine is to move from art for art's sake ad art for advertising's sake and art for power's sake to art for compassion's sake. Art for the sake of planetary health and well-being. Art for building bridges' sake. This constitutes an aesthetic revolution, which is a nonviolent revolution. (10-11)
It was, for me, a powerful conversation. I was inspired by the students. And at the end, when made music together. Sensing and feeling and touching each other. And it was in the place we had all been wanting to go.


Scott Spiegelberg said...

I wrestle with the balance of professional detachment and creative nurturing in the classroom. I want the students to make personal connections with the music, both in analysis and in aural dictations. But I also have to get through the material and must maintain some order in the classroom to do so.

You may be interested to read the autobiographies and poems those students wrote at their class blog. There is definitely depth that they are beginning to tap. You can get there from my blog.

Eric Edberg said...

Thanks. I found that class blog and was really touched by what some have them have written.

becca said...

I love our seminar. I wish we had more than one day left!

I understand what you said about our class. I have felt changed by our sessions, but I know some people are too self-concious to be willing to open up. That said, I can see progress has been made. The readings and personal sharings helped.

Also, I wonder why you chose not to share about your brother-in-law. You really can't hide from music; it has a way of bringing things out of you regardless of your intentions. Plus, isn't this "Music for People"? We are a creative group - the music we make is for us, all our feelings, worries, joys, sillyness and sorrows. In light of my classmate's recent family tragedy, we've all tried to support and sympathize with her, even if we can't comprehend her loss. The "minor-ness" of our more recent group improvisations is a testament to that, I think. If we're going to be making Music for People, all of us are a part of it - we all have to bring ourselves to the music or it won't carry us to the places we need to go.

I'm glad I read this and can see into your motivations with our class a bit more. I promise to bring depth and music to class. And on time. =)

Nat said...

I can understand your frustration with our class. We have gotten the same response from the other teachers in the rotation as well. I need to apologize for the way I expressed myself during the singing to the metronome activity. You accomplished what you had hoped, you were slowly but surely dragging us all out of our comfort zones, I was just one of the slower ones.

In all honesty this rotation was the first time while I have been at DePauw that I felt I've used my instrument to express myself, to enjoy what I do. You may feel like we were goofing around alot, which we were, but we have all walked away discussing how much we "enjoyed" (thats the wrong way to put it) your class. Thanks.

Dennis Fuller said...

i just wrote this whole elaborate comment, and then it got deleted >:[

i think our classes tendancy to joke around shows self conciousness. i notice it in some of the blogs as well, and it bugs me because i know we have much more to give than what we put. when we started improv singing this week, i could notice some peoples tension about literally singing, and some peoples insecurity about what they would actually say. i notice it in myself sometimes, but i try and stomp it out when i recognize it. i think that maybe since we're all 18-19 years old, most of us don't have true sorrow or joy to feed off of in our solos. i know when i solo, i work more from a musical/pedagogical stance, than an emotional one. and i also try not to sound forced or fake.

there many times in this class where i could really sense we were getting off topic, and not whre you wanted to lead us. i got kind of frustrated and hoped maybe you'd just tell us to shutup or something. if i could suggest anything, i think you can afford to be more not so much assertive, but clear in what the process and destinaion should be/feel like.

in any case, i thoroughly enjoyed this two week session, and wish i could continue it. thanks,