Kenley Kristofferson

Composer. Teacher. Writer. Voice Actor.

Tag: education

Music Ed Monday – The Year of No

If-Things-Arent-Adding-Up-In-Your-Life-Start-Subtracting

A few years ago, two of my very good friends made a New Year’s Resolution to say yes to anyone invited them out to something, hoping to embark on some new adventures and live a little more.

“Want to go out for drinks?” Yes.

“Want to go snowboarding next weekend?” Yes.

“Want to come to the beach in fifteen minutes?” Yes. Yes. Yes.

And so on, and they had many wonderful excursions and made a ton of great memories.  They were tired, but it was worth it.

For any of you who know me personally, you know that every year of my life has been a “Year of Yes.” It doesn’t take much to get to me to come out, take a job, help out, or anything like that.  It’s usually good, but it takes away something that I recently discovered that I really enjoy: Leisure time.

This winter break, I didn’t work as hard as I needed to.  I just couldn’t.  I still got to the piano most days, sent away drafts, proofread scores, and sent/responded to emails, but I started this break so tired.  Not the tired from a weekend of partying, but the tired that comes from pushing yourself for months without a respite, which I often (read: always) do to myself.

930c66aa87575148b8ad0d28586f1d89This is the last year of that.  I’m still absolutely going to finish what I’ve started, but if new work comes my way that I’m not 110% thrilled about, I’m just not going to take it.  Am I still going to keep writing and taking some new work? Absolutely, but not all of it.  Not because I don’t like the extra money (because I really, really do), but because I rediscovered how much I like going on dates with my wife, hanging at friends’ houses, watching movies, playing video games, doing puzzles, reading books, unwinding at my parents’ house, going for coffee with my dad, and/or getting up in the morning and feeling like a functional human being.

“Wow, I’m feeling shaky and it’s only my second cup of coffee.” YES.  THAT’S BECAUSE YOU RESTED AND THEN YOU SLEPT.

“Wow, I can’t believe it’s 10:30 and my eyes are still open.”  LIKE A NORMAL PERSON.

This is connected to a much larger complex relationship that I have with my own productivity, self-esteem, and personal value, but that’s for a different post.

This is the year that I stop caring so much about how much work I’ve done and focus more on doing the things I want to do.  Also, because I didn’t slave away quite as hard this break, I got some of my best composing done in a long time.  There’s a big difference between “hitting the piano to work” and “hitting the piano to write,” and I was saying the former a whole lot more than the latter this year.  This is the year that changes.

When I told my wife, she just smiled and said “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  Me too, me too…

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Music Ed Monday – The Quest for Beer at the Orchestra

Back in Summer of 2015, I was asked by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra if I could do an arrangement of a pop song for a divisional choir and the orchestra.  Every other year, the River East Transcona School Division hires out the orchestra to play with their choir.  This was an enormous opportunity, so of course I said yes, then got it done on time and on budget (which is a super important part of composing).

Several months passed until, finally, it premiered last week.  In fact, it came up so quickly that it almost slipped by me.  Everything at my school has been so crazy that it’s taken a lot of time and effort to just keep all the plates spinning.  Between teaching and writing, there’s been a lot going on.

That morning, I asked about tickets and it was decided there would be some comps at the door.  I left school at 5:00, grabbed a sub, then headed down to the concert hall, where there were gaggles of kids everywhere, but a noticeable absence of tickets at the box office.  Someone let me inside and apologized profusely (the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall staff is exceptionally kind all the time) and I just smiled and said “so long as there’s beer, everything will be just fine.”  The clerk laughed and said there’s always beer at the concert hall.

But there wasn’t this time.  The divisional concert was a school event, so obviously there would be no beer.  Not the end of the world, but beer at the concert hall is just the best.  Really.

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Going to the symphony is less fancy than it used to be, but it’s still fancy.  There’s a formality when going to the biggest hall in the province to see the very best musicians we have play that night.  Even though they played my piece Morgun last year, I’ve always felt like I was never at that level.  I studied with the now-principal trombone of the ensemble and I was terrible.  I really clawed my way to the finish line of my music degree, which had an extra year of lessons because I failed the first year of euphonium.  Failed, not “got a C,” which might as well be a failure for lessons.  I literally failed the playing portion of music school.  For various other reasons, my university failures were the best thing that ever happened to me, but the sense of inadequacy followed me for my entire professional music career (and still does, from time to time).

When the WSO played my piece the first time, I felt like such an imposter.  I was some schmuck who got commissioned to write something, like a one time shot.  They certainly didn’t make me feel that way – they were amazing to me, but I had this narrative spinning in my head.  It was all old baggage from university.  When they asked me again, I couldn’t even believe it, but I knew deep down that I needed to accept the job.

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Back to last week:

My piece closed the night and the conductor of the orchestra, Julian Pellicano, thanked the parents and staff of the division, as well as the symphony, and introduced the piece.  He described the piece, then ended by saying that it was arranged by local, yet world-renowned composer Kenley Kristofferson which, while not exactly true, was cool because I was the only arranger he mentioned the entire night.

The orchestra and the choir killed it during their performance.  The kids were into it, the audience dug it, and the performers really nailed the piece.  It was so inspiring that, at the end of it, I thought that the only thing that could’ve made the night better was a beer.

A voice in the back of my mind told me that maybe, just maybe, they’d have beer backstage, but the voice in my mind was clear: You aren’t good enough to go backstage at the symphony.  But the more I thought about it rationally, the more I realized that I wrote the last tune of the night, this is the second time I arranged for the ensemble, and I knew so many performers through university or band camps or whatever.  And hey, the worst that could happen is nothing, right?

So I descended the stairs and slipped through the backstage door and into the hallway, where I hugged and shook hands with some of the RETSD teachers I knew and talked shop for a few minutes.  Then the VP of Artistic Operations stopped me (with a beer in his hand) and smiled as he congratulated me on tonight’s piece.  We talked more shop for a while, then told me about some potential new work on the horizon.  I couldn’t even believe he remembered my name, let alone (maybe) offering me new work! And as he said the next few words, a smile stretched across my face: “Why don’t you come into the green room for a beer?”

And I did and it was packed with both WSO and RETSD folk.  I saw the backstage manager and she remembered me from last year and so did the production manager.  Then Julian came up and we high-fived and laughed throughout the night.  Clearly, the story in my head was not the same as the story that was playing out in front of me, and only one of them can be true.  And guess what, it’s the one in front of you all the time.

Eric Whitacre (one of my favourite composers) once said to music students that “nobody ever asked about his GPA after he graduated,” the important thing is that he got there.  The older I get, the more true that it’s becoming.  We don’t all take the same road to get there sometimes.  Some roads are smoother, some roads have more ups than downs, while others have more downs than ups.  Some people got to practice traversing the road before they actually had to start the adventure and that’s okay too.  We don’t all get to the end the same way, but the important thing is that we get there.

And sometimes at the end, there’s a free beer in the green room.

-K

Music Ed Monday – Fine-Thanks-And-You (Part 1)

(This is part one of a two-part post.  The first part will introduce the topic, while the second will address some of the skills associated with what it looks like in a classroom, at least at a rudimentary level).

The CBC (our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a program this past year on its current events show about mindfulness in the classroom.  It portrayed various programs in Ontario who are adopting programs of self-awareness in students, but with a particular focus on emotional awareness.  The bit started with one of the show’s producers recounting his experience eating a square of chocolate with a Toronto-based mindfulness coach, framed around the idea of just “noticing” the chocolate.

– What does the wrapper look like?
– Is it shiny?
– How heavy is the chocolate?
– What does it smell like?
– What colour is it?
– (Notice and be aware of all of these things)

Then as he put it on his tongue, he received another set of questions/instructions:

– What is the first taste you notice?
– Is it melting? How is it melting?
– What are the first flavours you taste?

Then he bit down on the square:

– How much resistance is there against your teeth?
– Is it soft? Is it hard?
– Is it crunchy? Is it creamy?

And so forth.  This point may seem a bit laboured, but it’s relevant because I’ve eaten a lot (bold and italics) of chocolate in my life and my only question after the first square is usually “where is the next square,” followed by “what do you mean we’re out of chocolate?!” I would rarely notice anything about something I have a tremendous amount of experience with, which on the surface seems ridiculous, but I think that it happens everywhere and with the vast majority of people.

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The program aired during a week when my nephew was staying with me to attend basketball camp at the University of Manitoba.  When I came to pick him up, I’d ask how he was doing and he would always (5/5 times) answer with “Good, you?” That tells me that he’s mechanically responding with a socially acceptable “good” while being polite and asking me how I am as well (“you”).  Five out of five times; same tone, same vocal inflection.

The adult equivalent of this is “fine, thanks, and you?” which often blurs together as fine-thanks-and-you.  This breaks down as:

Fine – I’m alright; not bad, not great, but good enough that you probably won’t ask anymore about it.
Thanks – I’m being polite, look at how polite I’m being.
And You – I’m going to further my politeness by asking how you are.  I’m not really that interested, I just need to give the impression that I am long enough to talk about something else.

Part of this response is to give the illusion of strength to someone not terribly connected to you, like Frank the Mail Guy or Jane from Accounting.  Not that either of these people aren’t important, they just don’t need to know much more than fine-thanks-and-you about you.

But I think that the inherent problem is where you start really believing fine-thanks-and-you and you don’t actually know what’s going on with your own feelings either.  When you wake up, you’re more tired than you’ve ever been.  You’re quicker to anger.  Your neck and shoulders are always tight.  You’re drinking more.  It takes you hours to fall asleep and you can’t seem to figure out why.

Now imagine that there is a person who is more sensitive than you, less experienced, more tired, busier, and works in a highly competitive and judgemental environment.  Now we’re describing teenager and it has never been harder to be one.

In terms of trying to live up to impossible physical standards in a world where your social media accounts all demonstrate your passion for social justice while featuring photoshopped professional photography, it’s all been said.  There is pressure coming from all sides to be not only be perfect (which is impossible, by the way), but to actively share it.  The only thing more important than keeping it all together is the impression of keeping it all together.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t escape it either and (probably) neither do you.  This is the world we live in now, but for the adults reading it, at least we don’t have to grow up in it.  And this is where mindfulness comes in.

Remember the chocolate from above? And the noticing? Let’s pair that with why we can’t seem to fall asleep at night and how hard it is to keep up with the Joneses on social media.  It all boils down to a lack of emotional awareness – you don’t actually know how you’re feeling.  It’s okay, that’s the world you’ve been brought up into, but now imagine a scenario where you would learn to manage your emotions when they’re at their most volatile.

Imagine you learned to emotionally aware at sixteen.  Imagine a world where you grew up learning to gain a handle on your emotions.  That’s what we’re talking about here.

start-where-you-areThankfully, I get to team teach with someone who beat this trend by about ten years.  Educational culture is just getting on the wagon of teaching mindfulness and emotional awareness and my teaching partner has already been doing it for about ten years.*

Sometimes, he’ll lead them in guided meditation, but not terribly often.  He’ll usually just ask “how are you doing in there today?” as a start, followed by something like “just notice the sensations in your body and how they relate to how you’re feeling.”  Not exactly that, but something like it.   It doesn’t have to be a full-on Buddhist meditation or three-hour kumbaya, it’s as easy as asking them how they’re feeling today and genuinely caring about the answer.

When I overhear that, I might think “I feel a tightness in my chest” (which usually means I’m anxious) or “my traps and neck are really tight” (meaning that I’m stressed) or that I feel no sensation and I’m just feeling good.  The difference is that I’m actually taking a second to acknowledge what I’m actually feeling in real time.  Not at the end of the day where I reflect, but I reflect in that moment, which is an important part of it.

I want to delve into some of the more day-to-day of it next week and what it looks like in my classroom, but I want to give some homework for the next seven days (because I’m a teacher, you know).

– In a distraction-free environment, notice how you’re feeling in a given moment; that is, draw attention to the sensations happening in your body and how they connect to your emotions.  You don’t have to do anything about it, just acknowledge that it’s there and don’t run away from it.  Acknowledge it, then keep acknowledging it.

That’s the start.  Let’s have a great week.
-K

Photo cred: http://www.personalexcellenceprogramme.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/buddha-in-the-moment.jpg

VGM Wednesday – “Demise of the Ritual” from Shadow of the Colossus

“Demise of the Ritual” from Shadow of the Colossus, by Ko Otani

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that I never, ever thought I would beat.  I don’t know why, but I had this fear of it, like I wasn’t very good or something.  I knew a ton of people who’d beaten it, but I never thought I’d be one of them…

… until one day I was.

I picked up the Ico/SOTC Remaster for PS3 and started playing it, getting to the third colossus and being unable to make the jump on the platform.  For those who’ve played, it’s this one:

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Ugh, so hard, except it’s not.  Once I learned the back jump control (R2 + looking back + triangle), it wasn’t hard at all.  I just didn’t understand the controls, which I needed to learn.  The game gave me a situation where I needed to figure it out so I could use it later on, which is just good game design.  Once I got it, I got it for the rest of the game.

Then I fought the colossus and fell into my old traps of thinking I couldn’t do it and that I wasn’t good enough to beat him.  How was I supposed to beat this game if I’m stuck on the third boss? There are thirteen more after this! So I kept running, falling off, and eventually dying.

But each time I died, I did a little better each time.  This is a concept that comes up in our classroom a lot: Failing better.  Every time I died, I was further along than I was before, and on the fourth round, I beat him and there was much rejoicing.  Then I fought the fourth one and beat it the first time, and the same with the fifth.  I was getting better.  I could do this.  As we say in the band room, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

I still died at times as the game progressed, but I was dying less and less and getting better at figuring the puzzle of beating each colossus.  The game got a lot more fun once I overcame my self-sabotage.  If I reframed my perception and my approach, the game (or, at least, the playing of it) was entirely different experience.  It was fun.  It was exhilarating.  There many times where Wander was literally holding on for dear life and I was right there with him.

Before I knew it, I was at the sixteenth and final colossus.  I had reached the end of a game I never thought I’d finish.

Malus-final-colossus

That’s where the music comes in.   Ko Otani’s score is absolutely gripping and I would finally hear “Demise of the Ritual” in the game environment.  A lot of the battle themes are moved around and reused, but not this one.  This one only happens during the last colossus and, in the spirit of honesty, I never thought I’d hear it while I was playing.

And hear it I did.  By the end of the nearly two-hour battle, I was humming all of the inside parts and singing some of the beautiful English Horn writing whenever it came up.  It’s a humbling experience to die five times on the final boss then win after hours of fighting, but I was failing better each time.  On my third attempt, I hadn’t even reached him yet and had no idea how to proceed.  It was one of those experiences where you just have no idea how you’ll ever succeed, where you collapse before you’re even close to the finish line.  And we’ve all been there, right? I’M SO TIRED AND IT’S ONLY TUESDAY!

But then you keep going.  You assess where you went wrong and what alternate solutions are.  You keep doing what you did right and changing what you did wrong.  If you don’t do something exactly correct, you practice until you get it, and that’s where video games shine:

If you can’t do it, you can’t move on.  There are no pity passes or half-marks, it’s pass/fail and that’s it*

In the end, I did it.  It was a gripping feeling to finally beat a game I didn’t think I could ever finish.  As weird as it sounds, sometimes I feel like a fraud or a phony for not beating games in the core repertoire.  Granted, there’s an argument that the need to finish games isn’t entirely necessary to experience them, but I try to finish things that I start.  I haven’t beaten Ocarina of Time yet, which is embarrassing, but I felt the same with it that I did with SOTC: I just can’t do it…

…except that I can, and taking down SOTC showed me that.  So  I guess I’d better get on that!

-K

PS: (I’m going to try to create some content again because that’s important)

* Mostly, not every single game has pass/fail, like that ridiculous option to skip parts you can’t beat in L.A. Noire, which is garbage.

Sabbatical Roundup – Highlights

Today is the last day of my sabbatical.  Who would’ve thought 150 days would blow by so quickly?

It’s been a very productive five months, though, and I thought that I’d share some of my favourite events and projects from my sabbatical time.

1) Premiering Morgun with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

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There is something very surreal about getting to work with some of the best musicians in your community.  Writing something for the WSO has always been something of an unattainable goal in my musical life.  I always sensed that they were on a different level than I am (and they really are), but a select few people with the right connections took a risk on me and, before I knew it, I had the commission – paid for and all.

While the premiere was amazing, I’ll never forget the moment that they started rehearsing it.  Both the conductor and the ensemble were in plain clothes and only Matthew Patton (composer and curator of the Winnipeg New Music Festival, which all of you should attend), Peter Johnson (editor of the Lögberg Heimskringla newspaper), Vikingur Ólafsson (the amazing Icelandic pianist with whom I had the privilege of sharing the concert) and I were in the hall.  When the strings started stacking the harmony through those opening measures, there was a feeling of awe and beauty like I’ve never felt before.

I’ll write more about the experience later on because there’s just so much to say.  It is quite surprising where music takes you.  Here are some pictures from the premiere!

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2) Meeting Maddy’s Mom

During the summer, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate the life of Madison Fleming, a 10th-grader from Olds, AB who had died suddenly just after school had been dismissed for the summer.  While the research was emotional, I was hardly prepared to walk into this girl’s home and sit with her Mom, Pam.

I wrote about the experience in Olds in an earlier post, but I didn’t write about meeting Pam – I’m not sure why, I just didn’t.  Her house was beautiful and well-kept and she greeted us at the door.  She had a friend with her and they were clearly talking about Maddy before Karri (the band teacher and commissioner) and I arrived, but she still smiled as she led us inside.

While looking at pictures and hearing stories, it was clear that the family was so happy and fulfilled before Maddy died.  While she was a fighter, she had her whole family behind her and they cherished every moment.  When you see pictures of the family at the lake or at her baseball game, there was a sense that no time was ever wasted, but instead was genuinely spent together.

Pam is a profoundly kind person and you know as soon as you see her.  She just brings an energy of warmth wherever she goes and I think about her family often.  It is quite surprising where music takes you.  #Kindnessmatters

3) Banff!

It took me a few weeks to really realize how transformative my time at the Banff Centre really was.  I worked so hard, I was exhausted, I was bitchy in the middle of it, but it was so worth it.  I met some incredible human beings, some wonderful musicians, and I got to work full-time on music for an ensemble for which I’d never written before.

Some of the people I got to meet:

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Sammy, Kelsey, Abby and Neil

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These lovely ladies, Kelsey and Jodi

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Here’s Abby, Jodi and Kenna, as well as Team Australia (Jessica and Xina, who are some of my very favourites)

And so many others too! Including the wonderful Sarah Slean, who is also one of my very, very favourite human beings.

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And here’s where we were…

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4) The Release of Horus Heresy: Drop Assault

I’ve worked on very few contracts/commissions that actually scare me – DuckTales: Scrooge’s Loot, The Matters of Kindness – but Drop Assault was definitely one of them.

I play Dungeons & Dragons with someone who is very serious about the Warhammer 40K universe, but particularly the Horus Heresy origin story of it.  When I found out that Complex Games had gotten the rights to make a game set in that universe, I was hoping that I could write for it and, thankfully, I was the guy.

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The advance for the contract was almost-entirely spent on upgrading my instrument libraries.  I knew that what I had wasn’t good enough for a game of that scope and depth, so I took inventory of what I needed and went up from there.

That being said, I’m super proud of the game and I’m quite pleased with the score.  We worked really hard on it and it took many resubmissions to get it right, but we definitely got it.  You can pick it up here if you want to check it out!

5) Finishing the “Icelandic Folk Song Suite”

It was the hardest thing I ever wrote – and by “hardest,” I mean the most technically complicated and harmonically complex.  It’s Level 5 (second hardest level in Concert Band music), four movements and eleven minutes long.  I had it kicking around in my head for about a year, but I knew that I had to get it down, I just needed the time…

And it took about six solid months.  Granted, I didn’t work on it every day, but it was always there writing itself in my head as I was doing other things.

It premieres on May 4th, 2015 by the Winnipeg Wind Ensemble.  Going to be a wild good time!

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There is so much more I could write about (getting published in The Teacher, for example), but there’s something to be said for just having the time and energy to do things right.  Not to be rushed to finish a commission or a game contract, but just having the time to make it as great as it can be.

I am so grateful to my school and school division for allowing me to take one semester to write.

Now back to the classroom 🙂

-K

 

Music Ed Monday – The First Day

1schoolboy2-medTomorrow is the first day of school.  I can’t remember a time where the September Long Weekend didn’t mean “it’s time to get ready for school.”

As a kid, that meant schedules, timetables, and school supplies.  As a young adult, that meant paying tuition and buying textbooks.  As a grown-up (whatever that even means), that meant prepping the classroom and getting ready to head back to work.

But not this year.

My school division has been gracious enough to grant me a one-semester sabbatical to compose full-time and so I won’t be back in the classroom until February.  This is the first time I won’t have a “first day of school” since 1989.

Since I was five.

That’s hard for me to wrap my head around and it’s hard to let go, but that’s what new things feel like.  Change is hard, man, but that’s life.  The only constant in life is change – the only thing that stays the same is the idea that nothing ever stays the same.

And that’s okay.  Firstly, because I’m coming back; secondly, it’s helped me appreciate these past years of teaching; thirdly, this distance will most likely refuel my tank and make me a better teacher; and finally, some time away will give me some perspective into what I want to do academically with my students.

I’m coming back, so it’s all good.  I’m clearly not saying goodbye forever – I am not in the universe of ready for that.  It’s easy to go away if you know you’ll come back, like leaving home for summer camp.  At this point in my life, teaching is still way too much fun and super important in my sense of self and my ability to make a difference in my community.  I think about the world around me from a perspective of being an educator and I carry myself like a teacher.

And knowing that I’m not coming back until February has really made me look at the last few years in a different way.  I’ve met a lot of awesome human beings and I look forward to meeting more.  I’m in a position where I get share to discovery with people who are in the process of unravelling some of the things that changed my own life.  I really miss that about being a teenager: the sheer volume of Eureka! and Aha! moments that happen in such a short period of time.  How can I make those as interesting and exhilarating as they were (and still are) for me?

When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to look at it objectively because you’re in entrenched inside it.  How many times in my life have I forgotten to bring materials, or messed up the order of introducing ideas, or had boring classes? The machine is so complicated and running so fast that it’s hard to keep everything as inspiring and interesting as you want… until you step away from it.  My wheels are already turning and I predict that second semester will be my best yet, which concurrently means that it should (hopefully) by my students’ best yet too.

It’s hard to gain perspective when you’re right inside it and I’ve got some great ideas for second semester.  Music History is going to be the best yet.  So will Jr. Symphonic.  So will Big Band.

I’m also really interested in the sensation of being inside composing for five months and I will be because there’s so much to do.  Here is the sabbatical to-do list:

– one lyrical band commission
– one exciting band commission
– one four-movement suite of Nordic folk songs
– one orchestra premiere
– one residency (hopefully, I’m still getting evaluated)
– one video game to score

There are other irons in the fire, but we’ll see how these shake down.  I’m optimistic that it’s going to be great and I hope that everyone’s school year begins with that establishment.  Set yourself up for success, think positively, do your best.

Let’s have a great year,
-K

 

 

Music Ed Monday – Transform and Make It So (Part 2)

Optimus%20Prime%20-3In Part One of this mini-series, I reviewed how the character of Jean-Luc Picard was influential to me in my adolescence.   But, when I was a lot younger, I had Optimus Prime.

Optimus Prime (from Generation One) was strong without being brutish.  He would fight, but only when necessary.  He would take responsibility of his actions and always, always protect the humans.  That was a big one: He would always fight the battles when needed and never frivolously, but he would do so to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.  That is an amazing message for kids.

(Side note: Kids had amazing messages in 80s cartoons.  Seriously, Transformers, He-Man, Teddy Ruxpin… it was a good time to be a kid).

But now, for the details:

“Sometimes, even the wisest of men and machines can be in error.”
(Transformers G1: “SOS Dinobots” @21:40)

Everybody makes mistakes, so admit it, take responsibility, and learn from it.

“We must help Ironhide.”
(Transformers G1: “Autobot Run” @14:40)

You always help when you can.  Always, always, always.

“We must have courage, Huffer.  We can’t ignore the danger, we must conquer it.”
(Transformers G1: “More Than Meets the Eye, Part 2” @14:30)

Huffer precedes the line with “but we’re not fighters like they are.”  Meet the challenge head on.  It’s not about having fear, it’s about what you do in spite of it.

And so many others.  Wired wrote a post about this back in 2007 when the Transformers movie and they really hit the nail on the head:

…Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-’80s. He was our Allfather at a time when flesh-and-blood role models were increasingly few and far between….So when Prime declared, “One shall stand, one shall fall!” in that seismic, tear-down-this-wall timbre of his (or, more accurately, voice actor Peter Cullen), you believed him….

For two glorious years, Optimus Prime was America’s hero….Then in 1986, the original Prime did something that distinguished him from most other cartoon heroes. He died. He died for freedom, for righteousness, and for shelf space….For nearly two decades…the sons of Prime waited for Papa Bot…

With bated breath and shaken faith we await the return of our Almighty Rig. Because without Prime, we’re stuck with whiney Spider-Boys, metrosexual pirates, and koan-spouting kung-fu Christs in designer sunglasses and unisex clubwear. Because he died protecting us in ’86, and nothing’s ever been the same since. Because these days, the only real men left are giant robots…

Indeed, indeed.  The media with which our kids interact affects them greatly both positively and negatively.  When kids see Miley Cyrus at the VMAs and don’t react with disgust, that says something about the message.  The Canadian Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” and that resonates with culture’s ever-changing online presence, but we also can’t forget that the media is the message too.

In an age where pop culture is so pervasive (and sometimes insidious), we have to be really mindful about both who the models are and which models the kids are following.  It’s fine to have Captain Picard or Optimus Prime on the air, but if no one’s watching, then who cares?

A worse problem is to insert any of these characters into a program that doesn’t match their integrity.  For example, I love(d) the Transformers franchise, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (the second movie) was one of the most sexist and racist movies I’d ever seen.  And in the midst of this terrifying cultural portrayal of women and minorities is Optimus Prime? Are you serious? Writers, do you even know who you’re writing about?

So who’s left to model for kids? Well, real life adolescents and adults.  Brothers, sisters, parents, teachers, law makers, politicians, et cetera.  We need to be the good that they so desperately crave and the leaders they so desperately deserve.  We need to model kindness, empathy, dialogue, patience, perseverence, and care-giving.  Kids need to know that we care about them and will continue to support them even after they leave.  I heard a speaker this morning say “they need to know that even when they leave the house, the door is always open and there will always be a light for when they come back” and I thought that was perfect.

HOMEWORK:

Be mindful of your words and actions this week.  Who’s watching you and what can you teach them? How can your actions model what you desire so deeply to see in others?

Have a great week,
Kenley

Music Ed Monday – When They Miss the Beauty

While at Grade 10 Band Camp, the chaperones (all of whom were educators) were discussing the trials of teaching and one of them said something that I haven’t forgotten:

What really troubles me isn’t when they don’t get the material, but when they resist it.  If they’re trying, then they’ll get it eventually, but when they resist it, they will always miss the beauty.

That’s what is really tragic to her: When they miss the beauty.

And we’ve all been there, right? The hashing of parts, the correction of chromatics, the clapping of rhythms, etc.  We know, it’s boring.  It’s boring for them and it’s boring for us.

But it’s okay because we have one-liners to quell their frustration, right? “You can’t access the music if notes and rhythms are in the way,” or “actors can’t make magic on the stage if they’ve still got their heads in their lines.”

Not that I pretend to have any answers, but the older I get, the further I’m distancing myself from those common reasons.  I may find my way back, but this notion of “missing the beauty” has been with me for a few weeks.  I don’t make music for the notes/rhythms, I do it for the beauty.  So I’ve been asking myself how do I make sure they don’t miss the beauty?

That’s been the theme of this month.  Now what does that look like in the classroom?

It’s taken a lot of reflection and, for me, the beauty of a line is usually in its shape.  For non-musicians, that means the rise and fall of volume in a musical phrase.  What really gets me going is when the lines, volume, and intensity all move together.  To be said another way, the musician does what the music demands.

shape

So, even in sightreading (even in technically difficult sightreading), I’ve always made sure that we got to rehearse shape once per rehearsal.  Even if it’s only eight bars, or four bars, or two bars, shape must be prevalent every time.

As it turns out, the kids are really driven by shape too.  Granted, kids are usually motivated and excited by the things that do so for their teacher – it was tuning/pitch for me in high school – but this seems to really connect my kids to the emotional feeling of the music and it does so quickly.  Mr. Cooper from Music Ed blog Cooper’s Divertimento sums it up well:

It can be what Peter Boonshaft calls a “pearl”. It’s one thing per rehearsal that you really work to perfect so that the kids can experience something truly amazing in band that day. A crescendo, perhaps, or a single chord played beautifully. When a kid is part of making something like that happen, when it happens, they feel it somewhere deep down. Remember that feeling? It’s that feeling you get when something sounds so amazing that you just get pumped, or otherwise filled with excitement. If a kid doesn’t care, it’s probably because they either haven’t had that experience, or they haven’t had it regularly, or have been too long without it.

Going back to band camp, I made it my mission to find this feeling in our brass and percussion sectional.  Going into that rehearsal, I really had to fight my “band teaching” toolbelt, to go outside my comfort zone and try something new.  Teach them the thing(s) that make you love making music.  Pick one thing and do it.

Shape.  Shape.  Shape.

I didn’t focus too much on basics because, strangely, they fixed themselves on their own.  As they grew through the phrase, some player’s bad tone got better with more air.  Any wrong notes and rhythms were corrected either by their ears or their classmates and they didn’t need to me to tell them.  When it sounds wrong, they know, and they want to fix it 🙂

We were rehearsing Brian Balmage’s Whale Warriors and there was one moment where the melody was in three different one-bar statements in the low brass.  Where’s the story? Find it and tell it with shape.  Now teach them that.

whalewarriors

Crescendo for three beats, then descrescendo on beat four. (if each bar is like a sentence, give the sentence some inflection)

The shape of the notation is very similar in each bar, so let’s find a way to make them different.

Now, make each bar slightly louder than the last one.  (take each sentence somewhere… or ‘when in doubt, move forward’)

And there it was.  The basics corrected themselves and the music happened.  The story was told and they knew it.  It was a great feeling in the room.  It was only four bars, but it was awesome.

I’ve been doing it for a month and I really like it.  I feel like I have a little pearl every day.  Granted, the pace of learning the notation is slower, but the ecstacy of playing the music is more present.  For me, that’s a good trade-off 🙂

Have any great pearls? Or great stories about these moments? Leave them in the comments section!

Until next time,
Kenley

Music Ed Monday – The Double Bind of Truth-Telling

So, I’m reading a book that’s blowing my mind.

It’s called The Curse of the Good Girl and it’s by Rachel Simmons.  I’ve had it on my book shelf for about three years – I bought it in the same shopping trip as The Purity Myth, which also blew my mind.  Clearly, this was a good day at the bookstore.

The Curse of the Good Girl is primarily about teaching adults about the internal struggle that girls, particularly teenage ones, face while trying to balance being “good” and being themselves.  From there, adults can better communicate with their daughters/co-workers/students with a context of how they’re actually doing internally.  In fairness, this is also true for guys, but in the spirit of the book, I’ll stick with girls.

curseI gave some excerpts to my Grade 12s and there was a strong censensus of “yep, that’s how it is,” which is difficult because we work really hard to teach living an authentic life in all of our Music classes.  In the excerpt, some of the girls in the book were asked make a list of what constitutes a “good girl” and some descriptors included: quiet, good grades, no opinions on things, follower, well rounded, tons of friends, generous, boyfriend, conservative, doesn’t show skin, people pleaser, has to do every right, doesn’t get mad, skinny, organized…

… and the list goes on.  First off, does that list strike anyone as even remotely possible? Yet, that’s the expectation.  Before you even try, culture has already shown young girls that they can’t win.  That’s the theme of this post: You can’t win.

(Also, it breaks my heart to see “no opinions on things” is considered a desirable quality… ugh)

After the girls from the book made that list, they made a list of what constitutes a “bad girl” and that looks like this: speaks her mind, loud, proud, rule breaker, doesn’t care about her body, doesn’t care what people think, parties, piercings, rebel, slut, center of attention… and the list goes on.

So, according to them, speaking your mind, not caring what people think, or being proud and loud are not socially-acceptable attributes.  Most adults get out of this (though I can certainly think of ones that haven’t), but kids are still stuck in this web.

When I showed this to the Grade 12 girls, some of them had grown out of this way of thinking, but they affirmed that that mindset was real when they were younger.  But worse than the acknowledgement of both sets of lists is that the adults in their lives are trying to tell them to do something else.  We’re telling them to be themselves, not to care what other people think, to speak their mind, to be well-rounded and others.  We’re really picking from both lists because the lists don’t exist to us.  However, they do exist to them.

Now the student has to be good to their peers while still trying to be good for the adults.  They are now caught in a double bind that they can’t win.

Do you remember that feeling?

This double bind is perfectly, but differently, depicted when it comes to Chapter 3 of the book, which is about the politics of female fighting.  Simmons writes: “Some girls told me that denial was the only safe alternative, because they felt punished by peers when they tried to be honest and when they tried to avoid confrontation altogether.  Rebekah, a junior, articulated a troubling double bind of truth-telling among girls:

“If you’re honest, you get the reputation of being a bitch, because you’re just, like, PMS-y all the time, so you don’t confront people, and [then] you’re a bitch because you’re hiding your feelings… So it’s just easier to, like, lie and completely forget about it.  Either way you’re going to be considered an angry bitch because you don’t about it or an angry bitch because you brought it up.”

Again, either way, you can’t win.  To be said another way, Simmons writes this:

“[Girls] sort of make it a battle instead of just, like, a conversation,” fourteen year old Sarah said.  “It’s, like, who can play their cards the best, instead of how can we figure this out together.”

doubndWhat’s interesting about fourteen-year-old-Sarah’s statement is that she demonstrates understanding of how it should be handled.  From that perspective, she has an interesting internal struggle between what she and everyone else is doing versus what she should be doing.  And in this position in that age, you guessed it, you can’t win.

Can you imagine anything more infuriating than playing a game for years and years that you can’t win? I’ll bet you can because you probably did.  I probably did too.  Maybe you grew up and stopped playing, or maybe you grew up and didn’t and are still playing the same games at work or with your family.

This is where our book from the last post, The Art of Possibility, begins.  Why play a game you can’t win? Then, it does something interesting: It presents you with a possibility that you may not have considered: you can stop playing, then it tells you how 🙂

I really recommend both The Curse of the Good Girl and The Art of Possibility, whether you’re a parent or a teacher or a kid.  Allow yourself to be challenged, don’t give up, and consciously think about the material.  Even if you don’t agree.  Especially if you don’t agree.

Homework:

Get reading 🙂

– Kenley

VGM Ed Mondnesday – “Dying Over and Over Repeatedly” or “Why Super Meat Boy Makes Students Into More Successful Human Beings”

Once upon a time, console platformers (Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Wonder Boy, etc.) gave the player three lives to beat the level.  In the case of Super Mario Bros., you got three lives to beat the whole game.  You may be thinking “but you’ve got 1ups!” and yes, that’s true, but allow me to pull you into a stressful part of your past…

You (as Mario) are standing on a platform with a particularly treacherous jump.  There are hammer brothers and a smattering of koopa troopas that pass juuuuuuust at the time you need to jump.  Your heart races.  Your getting warm and your face is flushed.  Your breathing accelerates and one thought cuts into your consciousness:

I don’t know if I can make it and I only have three lives.

Then you jump… and you don’t make it.

You wasted one of your lives because you made a mistake, now you only have two lives left! You can’t get that life back!

However, you need to try again… and you die.  One life left.

In a last ditch effort to beat the level and continue forward to the game’s conclusion.  You attempt the terrifying jump… and you die.

Then you see it, what you’ve been dreading all along: GAME OVER.

Life message: You tried and you just weren’t good enough.

Let me present another scenario.  You see an amazing power-up at the top of the screen in an underwater level, but it’s being patrolled by cheep-cheeps and those squidy guys.  You mull it over in your head for a while, then remember that you only have three lives and you can’t risk it.

Life message: The best things in life have risk attached and, if you want to get to the end, it’s best not to go for them.

Now, I’m no educational psychologist or sociologist, but those sound like pretty bad messages to send to kids.   I know that there are no game designers laughing maniacally in some Japanese lab, trying to crush the dreams of schoolchildren, but the messages stand.  This is the plight of older console games, especially the ones at the nexus of limited lives and extreme difficulty.

Strangely, that nexus resonated with one of the game designers of Super Meat Boy.  In Indie Game: The Movie, Tommy Refenes talks about his love of hard games, especially older console games.  I say “strangely” because there is one real difference between Super Meat Boy and platformers across all gaming generations:

The player has unlimited lives.  It’s not even a cheat code, it’s a legitimate part of the game design.

The game is also punishingly difficult, and notoriously so.  And, as a player, it’s okay that the game is hard because I get an unlimited number of lives in order to achieve my goal.

Life message #1: You can always try again.

Furthermore, every level has an ending that’s really achievable and many people have done it.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, it means that success is possible for every player and, as said above, you can always try again.

Life message #2: It’s hard, but you can do it.

Life message #3: You can achieve the success that other people have also achieved.  They are not special or better than you, they just put in the work and time it takes to be successful.

Because you have infinite lives, the player isn’t afraid to take risks because you can always try again.  There are no consequences for failure.  In fact, the respawn time after you die is almost immediate.  Imagine if, every time you failed, you immediately picked yourself up and tried something new?

Life message #4: In order to succeed, two of the most important qualities you must develop are persistency and resiliency.

The game requires you to take risks in order to find the solution because it’s often not where you expect, or it demands a certain level of ability.  If you have it, you’ll beat the level and continue to one more difficult; if you don’t, then you’ll die a whole bunch of times until you finally achieve the dexterity and finesse you need to win.

Life message #5: Practice makes perfect.

Life message #6: No risk, no return.

The amazing thing about Super Meat Boy is that it not only demands risk, it also demands failure.  You need to fall down sometimes.  You may jump into a wall full of needles when practicing your jump timing.  Then you die and respawn immediately, before you get the chance to wallow in your own failure.  In fact, it often achieves the opposite effect: You get inspired to win.  By the time you’ve actually realized that you died, you’re already back at the start, ready to start again.

Life message #7: Allow failure to be motivating, instead of demoralizing.  If you don’t find it motivating, see Life messages 1-6.

Beating a level in Super Meat Boy is so rewarding because it’s just so damn hard.  Before we move on, let’s address how awesome that feels.

Life message #8: If you want a feeling of genuine success, find a genuine challenge and overcome it by being persistent and resilient.

It feels amazing because of a wonderful combination of personal risk, failure, persistance, resiliency, and finally victory.  After you beat the level, the designers put in a replay where you get to watch every round that you played on that level at the same time.  So you watch your ten or twenty or thirty or forty Meat Boys at the same time jumping, racing, running and dying.

All except one.  That Meat Boy makes it to the end and succeeds.  That’s you 🙂

There is no consequence for dying; in fact, it’s celebrated.

Watch an example of the bone-crushing difficulty of Super Meat Boy, at least from the opening to 4:15.  The re-run happens at 4:00, but it’s important to watch this player fail for four minutes straight.  He must fail thirty times.  Then watch him get back up and try something new.  Watch him keep going.  Watch him being resilient.  Watch him being persistent.

Now imagine if we all did that in our own lives.  Imagine if we picked ourselves up every time we fell down.  Imagine if we didn’t internalize failure and just treated it as something that happens whenever we start something new.  Imagine that failure was not only expected, but celebrated as risk taking.  Imagine taking a risk that was meaningful to you.  Imagine going all in on everything important to you.

What if we failed, got up, and tried something different every time?

What if you learned that at 16 years old?

Imagine how different your life could be.  If that makes you emotional, let it.  If you are a teenager/young adult, take that to heart and go for it.  If you’re older than that, it’s not too late.  It’s never too late.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now. 🙂

Cheers,
Kenley