Ask any writer, composer, or visual artist, and they will tell you the same thing–“I create for me. An audience of one.” While this is true, as far as it goes, it’s also mostly bullshit. We create to be heard. Seen. But, most of all, we create to be felt.
I’ve been a composer for most of my life—50 of the last 62+ years, to be precise—and a writer of stories for as long as I can remember, and all I’ve ever wanted for my art is to touch someone emotionally. Touch their heart. Make them feel something. It’s what all creators want, regardless of what they say out loud.
In this, I have failed.
Jesus, I can’t even get my own family to read my books or give one shit about the music I write. My work touches me… and no one else. That’s sobering. And telling. The artists who claim to create only for themselves do so out of the same realization I’ve come to. No one else cares.
I know enough about both my crafts to know I don’t suck at either, but simply not sucking isn’t enough. That bar’s too low for art, don’t you think?
When I’m done with this world, all I’ve ever wanted was to leave a footprint or two, or perhaps help someone feel something they’ve never felt before. But after so long on this road, I look back and can’t see a single footprint I’ve left behind, so I think it’s time I set all this aside. I’ve got a couple of projects I’ll finish soon, because I hate leaving things undone, but after that? I’m done. I’ll spend my time as a good worker-bee and doing the pointless things I still enjoy.
Next steps… I’ll donate my inventory of books to Copperfield’s or whatever store wants them. If no one wants them, I have a firepit on my patio that needs fuel. I hear book burning is all the rage here in the South these days. I think I should burn all the manuscripts, too—music included. Maybe with everything gone, with all that behind me, I can find a way to be happy again.
I’m turning off comments because I’m not looking for affirmation. Just needed to vent and offer and update. Besides, I can count on one hand the number of people who’d care enough to try to talk me down, and that’s depressing all by itself.
What a cool word for such a sad human failing. I’ve been told that procrastination is just one more tool in the writer’s toolbox, and I’m not sure that’s so inaccurate. I’ve been avoiding writing a lot lately–mostly because I’m stuck for what to write next. I’m so far behind on this trilogy, the release date has moved from September to who-the-fuck-knows? Oh well, at least I’ve kept busy. Below is a snippet of music for band I’ve dusted off and begun working on again. It’s nowhere near finished, but if anyone would like to suggest directions for this, I’m listening.
As visitors to this site already know, I’m also an active composer for wind ensemble and orchestra. What’s been keeping me too busy to write lately, is a new transcription I’m preparing of a cute little piano piece by Isaac Albéniz (b. 29 May 1860, d.18 May 1909). He was a Spanish virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor who was one of the foremost composers of the Post-Romantic era and a significant influence on the young impressionist composers who followed. He is best known for his piano pieces in the Spanish folk music style. While he never wrote a single piece for classical guitar, many of these were transcribed for that instrument, and have become important pieces in its repertoire.
Below is a recording of my transcription of Célèbre sérénade espagnole for wind ensemble. It is unfinished, but it’s mostly all there…
I also just completed a transcription of Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, also originally for piano. Here is the completed recording…
Well, my time off from writing and conducting my community band was certainly fruitful. Here’s the result of all that time. It’s a little piece I call Anthems. Don’t let the length scare you–it’s easier than it sounds.I hope…
When my daddy worked at Dupont in the 60s, he’d often complain about the “college boys” who “didn’t know anything about working in a chemical plant.” Even then, I’d nod sagely and agree without understanding what the hell he was talking about. Didn’t guys who went to college know everything?
Turns out, no, they didn’t. But that was the point.
Before the 1930s, college was mostly reserved for white males, and while schools focused on the sciences, economics, and psychology, most students graduated woefully ignorant of literature and general Western culture, but these students specialized early. World War II exposed this deficiency, as the level of education among college graduates varied widely, making it more difficult to train soldiers for battle and command. Both during and after the war, University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins (1899–1977) pushed for a national core curriculum that leaned heavily on liberal arts. The GI bill, while leading to a boom in higher education, also helped cement the concept of a core liberal arts education within major institutions of learning.
As universities and colleges filled to bursting with former soldiers, they squeezed out less qualified students from rural communities, and the backlash led to an improvement in primary and secondary education. Called “Jugheads” by their fellow GIs, over 300,000 soldiers could not read when the war began, but the services worked diligently to improve that, and many of these found themselves with the means and ability to pursue higher education.
Here is what the military understood then that we seem to have forgotten: before you can train someone for a job, their education must be complete and well-rounded. Prior to the 60s (and far beyond for a few schools) universities kept the curriculum and majors limited to give students the time for a grounding in the liberal arts. Students graduated with having read Kant, Nietzsche, Locke and Spinoza, or the stories of Milton, Homer, Voltaire, Dumas and Chaucer. These men and women, having a grounding in a wide range of disciplines, were the easiest to train. And not just train, but train right.
So, my daddy’s lament about “college boys” was misguided. He’d also readily admit without hesitation that those new hires were also the easiest to train, and often advanced rapidly because of their ability to understand even the finest details of the process. But he never made the connection, not having made use of his GI bill for more than a semester or two.
By 1994, however, the concept of a liberal education had fallen out of favor, as industry moguls and business leaders all clamored for more specific training in not only higher education, but secondary public education as well. This culminated in President Clinton’s signing of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which called for creating a national system of school-to-work transition programs. While this had the laudable effect of offering both technical and vocational training for those students not predisposed to higher education, it severely undercut and undermined education in the liberal arts—the very thing that made training workers easier and less expensive. And this was unfortunate, because what research showed—and my daddy knew instinctively—is even workers with specialized education still need training.
This is because training and education are not the same. Or, as I once read, “in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are not.”
The lamentable and totally foreseeable upshot of all this is the current move to strip or downgrade humanities at the secondary and higher education levels in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM subjects. Some have attempted to ameliorate this by changing the acronym to STEAM by adding the arts, but I’ve seen no evidence it’s taking hold.
The simple fact is that big business doesn’t want workers who think too deeply; they need workers who will just do their jobs quickly and efficiently, and for the lowest possible cost. Educated workers are anathema to blind obedience and low wages. They also lean toward liberal politicians and policy, and we can’t have that. An uneducated and poor populace is much easier to control. This, as I’ve said before, is a feature, not a bug.
In Part 4, I’ll discuss what we can do to repair the damage and move forward. Until then, think good thoughts…
In Part 1 of this series of articles, I ended with the observation that band directors in Texas use their record of contest achievements to get the “best” jobs—those that pay well, are in “good” communities, or offer the opportunity to work with the “best” in the field. In short, they use the students and their hard work for their own advancement, or simply their own prestige. This isn’t a bug—it’s a feature of the system we’ve created. There was a time when you taught the kids to the best of their ability, took the comments from the contest judges, then went back home to work on everything they’d written on the sheets. Other directors heard your band at contest or on the football field and made judgments of their own about your ability to teach. Or they listened to your kids at Region Band tryouts and got to know you in the contest office. These were the ways directors found other jobs or advanced. They didn’t use their kids, instead teaching them as well as they could and letting the chips fall where they may. A director’s best résumé came from concert recordings, Sight Reading ratings, and the Old Boy network.
Today, directors push their kids to ever-increasing levels for that “best” trophy, whatever the flavor of the year is, and use those trophies to show the world their value; not what the kids accomplished, but what they did to get the band there. Never mind what the kids sacrificed to get there, and never mind how hard they worked to do it. Contest achievement has become little more than a jobs program, offering proof for higher pay, more directors, and more consultants to do the jobs directors used to do. Today, a “top” marching program requires at least three directors, a percussion instructor, a color guard instructor, a choreographer, a drill designer, prop designer, an arranger, any number of marching techs, and an army of parents to build sets and do all those little things directors “don’t have time for”.
How does this apply to education in general?
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, education was once about creating knowledgeable adults—students who had a deep understanding of the subjects taught. Everyone once knew this as the dreaded “liberal arts education.” There are still liberal arts colleges and programs, but they are few, and the concept is all but nonexistent now at the secondary level. Most liberal arts colleges are private schools, and a whopping 15% are considered “good for low and middle income students”(source: Niche: College Search, Reviews, and Rankings).
Since those halcyon days of deep understanding of a wide breadth of subjects, colleges have offered increasingly specialized majors. There are several reasons for this, but the primary driver is the school-to-work pipeline (to be discussed in Part 3) and the push to hire teachers specifically to teach these narrowly targeted subjects. You can’t simply teach physics anymore. No, you must offer specialized degrees in quantum physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics, or the new darling—health physics. And to teach these focused students, you must hire faculty who also are experts in these specific fields of study.
So, this narrowing of the curriculum to smaller and smaller niche majors has become little more than a jobs program for niche faculty, and this has had the effect of pushing out more generalized faculty, leading to a university’s unrelenting need for greater numbers of adjuncts. If you’re a dean, and you need the top health physicist in the country to attract students to fill that program, well, you’ll just have to cut the number of general physics professors in lieu of lesser-qualified—and much cheaper—adjuncts. Unless and until adjuncts across the country unionize, their pay and working conditions will never improve, and departments will continue to rely upon their cheap labor to supplement the pay of specialized faculty.
Next up: I discuss the school-to-work phenomenon, and how it’s destroying education in the U.S. at every level. Until then, think good thoughts…
Last night, I had a vivid dream about my time as a band director. While this event never happened, I’ve had similar conversations with myself over the years about this topic. In the dream, I was teaching a concert band at the middle school level and noticed one kid had been missing my class for a few days. I asked another student if they knew where she was, and he told me she was attending every class but mine. During band class, she usually spent that time in a second go of English. Obviously, I was distressed, and confronted the child later. What she told me in my dream blew my mind then, and still does while I’m wide awake. She told me “I don’t enjoy band anymore because it’s all about competition and winning, and not about music.” She said the staff was more concerned with how they looked to the community than with making music.
I’ve toyed with a similar theme for a while, but this sort of crystalized it for me. And it’s not limited to teaching, or even just the arts. This is endemic in education, and it has become so widespread and commonplace, we don’t even notice the effects anymore. I’m gonna stick with band for most of this because that’s what I know best. I’ll get to general effects later.
The school band movement in the U.S. began in earnest when musician-soldiers returned from WWII and found their experiences and training as service band members might be valuable to their hometowns. These men pushed for comprehensive music education, beginning in elementary and culminating in high-quality band programs at the senior high level. That push was especially effective here in Texas. So much so, that we enjoy some of the highest levels of musicianship as anywhere in the world. Our Texas Music Educators Association convention is the largest music convention in the world, eclipsing even the Mid-West International convention in Chicago.
When these soldiers began their crusade, their only goal was to improve music education in this country. Everything in Texas we now call “competition” began as simple evaluations to note progress. Every so-called competition was never as one band pitted against another, but as each band against a standard of excellence The rubric for the highest rating in Texas still reads:
Students consistently perform with mature, characteristic sounds.
Pitches are consistently centered and focused.
Students consistently perform balance/blend with only minor lapses that are quickly corrected.
The ensemble consistently demonstrates an awareness of tuning within and between sections. (“near perfect”) (emphasis mine)
Dynamic contrast is consistently obvious and effective.
Students consistently perform with proper support and little or no distortion.
Notice nowhere does it say “beat the other guys”.
Somewhere along the way, music educators—and band directors specifically—lost sight of the original purpose of music education: to bring students to a level of musicianship where they can appreciate the works they perform and how well they perform them. The competition has become the thing for its own sake, and that is driving away kids who could benefit most from a good music education.
Just to be a part of a high school band in Texas now requires parents to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a year. This isn’t private school, but public school. When I was a band director, I told the parents “if the school doesn’t provide it, we don’t need it”, and I stand by that today. Of course, I fought to the death to get the school to provide those things I believed we needed. I won most of those battles, but lost a few. But I never asked parents to make up the difference. I considered that wrong then, and I think it’s wrong now. It creates a multi-tiered system of education, where only those with money get the best. This is anathema to the whole concept of public education. And why do they do this? Because it’s the competition that matters now, not the learning. It’s the trophies, not the achievements. It’s the rating, not the standard of excellence. It’s the teacher, not the student.
The last is the most important. We’ve mired ourselves in a vicious circle that requires trophies for a teacher to advance or even keep their job. It requires trophies to get the “best” jobs. It requires trophies to impress the community enough to squeeze those extra dollars from the parents so we can earn even bigger and better trophies.
This is the Song that Never Ends.
In the next part, I tie this to education as a profession, and to society as a whole. And I’’m just warming up…
I realized early in my writing career that I was a pantser. Plotting was something you did only if you got stuck. And while I’ve gotten myself stuck many times, I’ve never bought into the idea that plotting is a good thing all the time. Stay with me here, because this post has nothing to do with novel writing.
If you’ve read my blog, you’ll notice I’m writing a new piece for wind ensemble for the first time in years, and what I discovered, much to my surprise, is I’m a pantser with music, too. Who knew? I mean, I’ve got literally reams of paper filled with sketches and form outlines for music I composed all those years ago. And, yes, I’ve kept every scrap over the past fifty years—you never know when you’ll need a theme, incipit, or motive, and even the worst compositions have something useful buried within. That’s one thing that’s rarely true of storytelling. If a plot’s bad, it’s bad, and no amount of massaging and window dressing will save it. With music, I can turn it upside down, run it backward, or do both at the same time, and that crappy little theme transmutes into pure gold.
Anyway… I’ve been pounding away at this piece for a couple of weeks, and just today noticed I haven’t lifted a pencil or gone to the piano a single time. Instead, I’ve committed the most egregious error in all of music—doing it all on my computer without even a midi keyboard for assistance. It’s kind of freeing, in a way; I don’t get bogged down in details, and I don’t have to wait to hear what I wrote. If I want to try a specific chord, melody, rhythm, tone cluster—whatever—I only have to enter it, press play, and hear it in all its instrumental glory. Don’t like the harmony? Nudge a note or two up or down. Don’t like the rhythm? Scrap it and try again.
When I started this project, I had six weeks to write eight minutes of music for large ensemble. Any composer worth their salt will tell you that’s a tall order. For one, we need near absolute silence while we audiate the gestalt of the section we’re writing in our head. Most times, when stuck, I’ll take a road trip on my Roadstar. Well, I’ve already committed over five minutes of fully orchestrated music to “paper”, and I still have about three weeks left. Unless I hit a major road bump, I’ll finish this with time to spare.
I actually did something similar about six or seven years ago, cranking out a seven-minute work for full orchestra in just two weeks. Sure, I stole bits from the piano sonata I wrote in college, but I did everything else at my computer. The entire process was nearly painless, and even when I was almost finished and realized something was missing, I added that with zero effort.
So, my commission for a new work for band is coming along–even though I haven’t written any meaningful music is years. I decided to put an extended piano solo in the middle. It still needs some work, but the bones are there. Here’s a listen: