We were playing guitar, last night. My husband is a classically trained guitarist. I’m an untrained disaster. It’s a perfect combination. Sort of like The Monkees, who I loved growing up. One musician and a cute front man. I’m the cute front man. I can strum, play my three country-folk music chords, and if I see a chord I don’t like, I skip it…
“Oh, that’s a B-minor-seventh-diminished-trampled-tenth,” he’ll say. “Simple.” If a chord sounds too much like math, it’s out. There’s a reason I don’t teach math.
Actually, music is a great way of disguising math. I learned this when I was flunking out of music school. I’d lock myself in a practice room, which reminded me like a cross between an old phone booth and a padded room–with my borrowed clarinet–I wasn’t even good enough to own my own–and I’d play the same scales and arpeggios–wrong generally–over and over and over, changing key, adding one sharp here, one flat there–never really being able to solidly read the music, just listening and memorizing as I went. Eventually, I started feeling like I was in calculus class. And I left.
But not before they kicked me out.
I always loved guitar. It gave me creativity. I didn’t need to have great skill or read music. Half the famous pop musicians don’t. I can write songs. Simple ones that make fun of things. When Coach wouldn’t play me–I usually played left-bench or left-out, I wrote “The Benchwarmer’s Blues.” I wrote diddies about people annoying me, things that were wrong, social injustice. It felt good. I used to play a lot, but life got in the way. I wasn’t going to be famous anyway–YouTube hadn’t been invented.
I remember the first time I played with my now husband.
“It’s not written like that,” he said. We were playing John Denver. I love John Denver. I have all his records.
“Oh, I don’t care.” I strummed loudly and sang.
“Can’t you see that rest?” said Rusty, a little more emphatically.
“Yes. There’s no rest on the record.” I had three versions.
“Music is joy! You are sucking away my joy!” I stomped away as only an artist can do. Except I am not an artist. I’m really pretty bad. Rusty is classically trained. He’s so good, in fact, that he got a scholarship to Prestigious Music School, except that no one in guidance told him about it, even knowing that he was signing Army papers before the “surprise reveal” at high school graduation.
I picture him as one of my students, standing there, dumbfounded, knowing he would have had that choice–a full music scholarship to an amazing place. Maybe he would have chosen the Army, maybe not–but that choice was taken away due adults who didn’t have that vision for him. I picture him standing at graduation with a sinking feeling, knowing music scholarship was dead because his military papers had all been signed. Knowing that the adults in his life made judgments about him and never envisioned him reaching the stars.
I try never to be one of those adults when I teach. Education is about vision. It’s about knowing the full range of possibilities that each student has in front of him or her, and giving the skill set and mentorship to make that happen. It is individual. It’s not standard. Lately, standardization is taking over, giving me less time to be the visionary. Seems it’s more about testing, goals, and benchmarks than looking at that kid and saying, “Hey, you got a music scholarship. Go. Be great!”
When I get discouraged, I think of Rusty. I look at the student in front of me, and I say, “What’s your plan?” And we tweak that idea, adding on hefty layers of time-based action plan to the pile until it’s quite a lot of work, and the students says, “Wow. I never thought I could be that!” You can. That’s the entire point of education, not whether they passed tests or I got a great score on my teacher evaluation rubric. It’s creating vision. Relationships. Continuing the mentoring even after graduation, because that’s when the lessons ACTUALLY set in. “Do…great…things.” Don’t reach for the stars–own them.
“You can’t play that like that–see, only two strums.”
“Where do you see that?” I said
“It’s right there.”
“Oh, I don’t care. I can’t read it anyway. I have it on my iTunes.”
In case you’re wondering about the end of the story, Rusty turned out okay–visionary even. After an amazing military experience, he went on to be quite the entrepreneur, transforming fitness in the region, with iLoveKickboxing.com. Maybe they should have offered him a business scholarship instead. Turns out, he wouldn’t have needed it. He needed a vision, and to reach for–and own the stars. He’s done both. And if you asked him, he’d say it wasn’t school that prepared him–it was life and hard work, and having the best people around him, people who also had vision and the desire to own the stars. That’s the entire secret.
I’ll remind my students before graduation.
But today, I’m going to skip some chords and sing loudly, even if it doesn’t say that in the score.[images: ccsf.edu and jasobrecht.com]