Can culture and politics be separated?

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
Clay P. Bedford

I teach two classes of 8th grade band, and my colleague teaches a third.  We coordinate our lessons and the repertoire that the students are working on so that it comes together well for the concerts, and that they are learning the same concepts.  We recently passed out new music that we selected for the Spring concert, which we tried to make diverse and international.  Selections from movies, history, and other continents are going to piece together the program.

One of the pieces that we selected was a wonderful composition that is a tribute to Ugandan folk music.  We had rehearsed it for a few days when my colleague read about Uganda’s new law against homosexuals.  When the law was first proposed several years ago, it was going to declare the death sentence on anyone discovered to be homosexual.  The law that actually passed a few weeks ago changed the death penalty to life in prison.  Additionally, if a person is caught hiding their knowledge of a person who is homosexual, they will receive the same sentence.  We had a long discussion about whether or not we should play this piece due to the connotation and reception that it could possibly receive from the friends and families of our students (if they are staying up-to-date on the news).  Between the two of us, we were not able to come to a clean conclusion, so we went a different route.  We asked our students.

First, the issue was presented as bad things that the government in Uganda was doing, without specifics about the new law.  Then, we discussed whether or not the culture and music of a society could be thought of as separate from its politics.  Could we play the music as a celebration of their society?  Or was that impossible?  Then, we went into the details of the law.  We emphasized that we were not interested in each student’s opinion on homosexuality (the community that we teach in is fairly conservative), but hoped that they still do not agree that a government should commit an act of such aggression towards its people.

After our discussions, it was beginning to be clear that the students were not interested in playing the piece any longer.  One student eloquently stated that it would not possible to separate the politics from the culture, because all that we digest from our news is what we learn and perceive about the globe.  A mature, intelligent response.

I said that we were going to look for another piece from Africa.  A student responded, half-jokingly, that no matter what, we would still find something in the news that could warrant the same issues.  At first, I was not impressed by that comment.  However, I can now see some opportunity.  If this event made some students more sensitive to the current events that surround the music that they perform, then they have gone far in their maturity as musicians and people.  Even many professional musicians do not take such an interest in current events, probably because their concern is with an accurate and successful performance.   Students in school, on the other hand, seem to be wanting to find how the music they perform (or all the material that they learn in all subjects, for that matter) relate to and enhance their lives in some way.  I do not think that students are taught to be curious, but “come that way.”  Just as in my classroom, I do not believe that anyone lacks a sense of rhythm or a sense of pitch.

I was thrilled to have had our discussion, and to see that curiosity and musicality are alive and well, and are the two states of mind that will probably end up saving the world.


Masked LGBT supporters at a protest against Uganda’s anti-gay law. Source.



There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
Paulo Coelho

After I graduated with my bachelors, I strongly considered finding a job that was not at all teaching-related (to the point of sending out resumes to museums and theater houses because porque no).  This was in direct opposition to the voices that spoke through their lapels with bad PowerPoint backdrops that said, “find a way to stay involved in teaching, and you will be more prepared when you finally do get that teaching job.”

Yes, teachers think that way: you will not get a job.  Es la verdad.  But there is always a subbing temp agency with a smiling face waiting to call you at 6:00 am and send you off to magical places.

The reality of substitute teaching (at my particular temp agency) was that we had to call them.  Talk about a strange conversation.

“Thank you for calling __________ ____________,” she said, in a happy tone.

“Hi.  This is Linus.  Reporting for, er, calling.  Calling in.  Calling in for work.”

“Hi Linus,” the voice suddenly became dry and ill-humored.  The weight of her oppressive morning — reporting to work at 5:00 AM or earlier, listening to hundreds of voicemails from schools asking for subs, and dealing with subs de mala leche who had petty excuses to skip work — shone through that voice like a Lite Brite.  “Nothing yet.  We’ll call you back as soon as that changes.”

“Okay, thank you.”

Hallelujah!  Now I could continue eating my cereal, or continue lying in bed, or whatever activity that did not involve preparing myself for a long day of educating young minds.  Glory be!

Unfortunately, they usually did call back; but, there were those wonderful days when the phone never rang again.  And I never pushed it by calling them myself to find out if something went wrong.  Too much cat petting was at stake.

At the end of spring, I went in for two job interviews in my campo of music teaching.  One was for high school and junior high band (yay for waving a baton around!), the other for bilingual elementary-general music (yay for practicing my Spanish!).  The first interview was at the elementary school, an urban school with plenty of that savory diversity that I could just sink my teeth into.  Both principal (USA) and associate principal (Colombia) were present, though the principal did the majority of the talking, including the questions in Spanish.  Aunque no sabía mucho español, me puso nervioso porque lo intentó al menos, without fear of failure.  Although my Spanish was decent, my fear of failure was too.  And elementary music was not what I wanted for my life.  Was speaking Spanish worth the intimidation of lying about confidence?

I left in that type of daze “that-they-never-teach-you-about-in-college.”  Several days later, I interviewed for the band position.  This was a subject that was more familiar to me.  I could talk your orejas off about band.  Everything seemed to go well, I think, maybe, whatever, it was systematic and quick and clean and, well, I had no sense of fear in my stomach throughout any of it, though, well, maybe, I think, I wish I had, I wish I had fear, I missed it, I missed having fear, having fear, having fear was more alive.

I was asked to return to the elementary school to teach a mini-lesson.  To second-graders.  On the penultimate day of school.  For fifteen minutes.  If you know niños, or enseñanza, you know that it was going to be a fifteen minute classroom management nightmare.  Which it was.  Pero me dijo que mi español was great.  Then, I had a small post-interview interview thing.  What I did not tell the principal (USA) in that post-entrevista entrevista was that earlier that day, while I was subbing for a fired Spanish teacher for the third day in a row, I received a call from the high school and was offered the band job.  I did not tell the principal that I would not give a direct answer until after teaching the fifteen minute lesson.  I did not tell her that I wanted that band job more than I wanted to feel alive and intimidated and afraid.

No le dije que sentí un miedo que quiero.  Hay un miedo que quiero experimentar de nuevo… el miedo de viaje, de no saber qué or quién or cual… de ponerme en puestos imposibles y luchar a liberarme.  Soy un hombre sentimental y egocéntrico, y nervous, y afraid, porque I’m in my 20s, porque I received advice about nothing but how to better yourself, Linus, because you’re in your 20s and need to find balance.  Linus, oh Linus, you need to.  Then, turn around and say: but it’s not all about you.

When put in such a corner, how can one fear appropriately, productively?


Can’t we disagree on something?

Permit me to let out a small bit of frustration.

I have begun to understand the educational advantage of disagreement. Too many times have I seen what could develop into a healthy discussion based on two viewpoints turn into a battle of egos that inflate like mosquito bites being scratched by the fingers of close-mindedness. In a school environment, this is dangerous; more dangerous than bad behavior.

I consider this situation to be serious because a disagreement between people can make them forget that they had any similarities in the first place. And then this can happen:

Bullying victim (credit: iStock)

Or this:

Muslims protest publication of political cartoons in a Danish newspaper, Sept. 2005 (credit: The Age).

I understand that some opinions are irrational. I understand that some reactions to these opinions are unnecessary. I believe that better communication at the outset will help prevent these problems. Expressing your disagreement is healthy, when it’s done in a healthy way. That’s the first step. The next step is to accept that disagreement, without taking it personally. The final step is to make an honest effort to create change.

When we say what’s on our mind, knowing that it won’t be taken well, there’s that moment of tension before the response. We want to squeeze our eyes closed and brace for impact. This is the fear of the unknown, which we all have in different contexts. Physiologist Walter Cannon called it the Fight-or-Flight Response. The prey flees when the predator attacks. What are we prey to? What are we preying on? Stating a disagreement can incite a fight response from the receiver of the disagreement (defending themselves, closing off to compromise), and a flight response in the person with the opinion (the squinting eyes, backing down, etc.). “For example,” says Wikipedia, “the fight response may be manifested in angry, argumentative behavior, and the flight response may be manifested through social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing.”

Let’s bring ourselves back to the classroom. Students often deal with unhealthy disagreements daily in ways that are out of a teacher’s control. However, the hours a student is in class are very impactful, and have repercussions in their social life (I’m not referring to specific statistics or studies I’ve read, but if you’ve had a personal experience that’s been different, do tell!). The classroom, like the rest of our world, should be a safe place where we can share diverse ideas without fear of persecution. Isn’t that way the Pilgrims came over here?

Once we do that, we can do more of this:

(Via Idea Hive.)

Please voice your healthy disagreements in the comment section below.

The Contradictions of a Caucasian

Let me briefly explain the practice rooms at the school I attend.

At the beginning of the semester, you preemptively spend about $80 for a slip of paper that fits in your wallet (I say preemptively because it gets deferred to my student loans). You bring this slip of paper with you into the basement and hand it to a person sitting alone in a small room with only a window looking out to you. This person gives you a thick plastic card that is about the size as the slip of paper, and you go find the particular room that the card opens. The middle of the day is “rush hour,” when so many students are practicing that your card gets put in line, and the person inside the room waits for someone to return their card before speaking through a microphone and calling your name. This could take two minutes, it could take twenty.


It could be the only word you ever hear them say.

But if you don’t promptly get up and get to the window to get your card, they will call your name a second time. If you still have not made it because a cluster of cello players waiting for rooms had impeded the hallway with their instruments and giant ear training textbooks written by the professor upstairs, they will proceed to the next slip of paper in line. When they call the next name, you might get the opportunity to hear two words instead of one. But you would have much preferred to hear just one, because now you have to wait some more.

Today while I sat waiting for my $80 slip of paper to work its magic, I squeezed and crinkled my plastic water bottle to the jingle of thousands of dollars a year spent (preemptively) in this basement. A violinist got her practice room, dropped her instrument and music inside, and left down the hallway towards the coffee shop in the next building. Crinkle crinkle, jingle jingle, wait wait, da capo al fine.

It was at this point, fully immersed in my water bottle, that I noticed what it said on the plastic: “Best When Used By Jan. 2013.” The water that came inside my water bottle would stay completely normal and drinkable until after I graduate from college. Was this new knowledge supposed to make me happy? Because the result was more akin to discouragement. I will graduate in two years. And two years is a long time.

I have never been one to worry about the future to the extent of meriting my Facebook status. But at the rate — nay, the intensity — that my collegiate experience has been, the sound my brain makes is more and more like the sound of a crinkling water bottle. Best When Used By Graduation. Get as much out of me as you can before I end up in the recycling. We won’t be young forever.

There exists an idea that we “need time to recover.” This is viable in many ways. However, I am convinced that it is a psychological recovery rather than physical one. We seek a change to refresh our enthusiasm and self-esteem. The need to “recover” is, the more I ponder it, a first-world idea. Where else would Earth’s people consider stopping their work or their education because they are tired? They work to eat and to afford to learn, and they learn to afford a better life. The question is, can they be happy too?

Let me synthesize my ideas. We pursue careers based on that which we enjoy. Yet, in our culture, we value the notion of rejuvenation from hard work. Do you see the contradiction?

“Rejuvenate” comes from the Latin word juven, which means “young” (and in Spanish, the word for “young” is joven). So, etymologically, “to regain youth.” In our culture, my age is considered young. If I had lived one or two hundred years ago, I would be admonished for not having a child or two already. But every day, the need to rejuvenate arises. To re-youth-ize. Rejuvenecerse.

Again, do you see the contradiction? It’s as though we’re telling ourselves that we made a mistake, and we need to try again. Why should we re-discover youth? Did it go wrong the first time?

Because of how much we work, we can no longer find what makes us happy within that work. We are not young, but we can be satisfied. We work for paper slip educations. We rejuvenate for crinkled water bottles. And while the tuition preemptively jingles, we have the capacity to be content.

See and Be Seen

Two people are speaking in this blog post. So keep up.

For almost a year now I have been an intern at a nearby K-8 fine arts magnet school. It has been nothing but a great experience for me in many ways as I help the students (and their teachers) integrate music into the general classroom. This year so far has consisted of individual testing on students’ basic music literacy, which means I spend the day pulling 2nd and 3rd graders out of their classes to play rhythms, sing pitches, and other things. Not too long ago, I was waiting for a class to return from recess so I could pull another student. Lines of kids would meander through the halls like ants in an anthill, led by teachers who continuously stopped every few meters to quiet them. As I waited, a specialist was having a particularly difficult time with this. Me and my extra height was of no help; one look and the kids’ focus was out the window. To make things easier, I walked off purposefully into a nearby stairwell and waiting for them to get quiet and finally pass through. In that stairwell, I leaned against the window and listened to the voice of the specialist struggling with the voices of the students for several minutes. That was when the thought occurred to me: do I really, really want to teach elementary school? How much have I enjoyed what I do thus far? When it was just me with one kid, nothing could make me frustrated. Students weren’t stubborn, and I found none who did not cooperate. A paraprofessional sat and watched as her autistic student sang correct pitches and quickly notated rhythms just by listening to them, and another student with severe brain trauma only interrupted by asking if I liked to watch wrestling. Not a problem.

But that, that commotion down the stairwell. It defeated me.

I experimented bringing different philosophies in with me each day, but my calm place was inevitably my iPod on the bus ride. Don’t get me wrong. This still falls under the category of a great experience. Wouldn’t you consider it great to know when something you do isn’t something you enjoy, and that you’ve just narrowed down the search for what you want to do for the rest of your life? Obviously, scratching elementary education off my list for the time being is not as drastic as realizing — oh, say — you want to be a priest. No, it merely means that in my current life position, I would prefer to teach a different age level.

And then there’s Laura. If you haven’t met Laura yet, you should make it a goal for yourself. At her school 500 miles away, she walked away from an auditorium where she moments before had an acting audition. In her head were only four words.

I feel cramped sometimes: in my room, my dorm, my school, this town. But if I let myself be cramped, throw on my sweats and stay in my room every night, I’m not seeing what little bit of world I have at my disposal. Even the smallest of interactions could make or break a day, and just passing someone walking to class and striking up a conversation counts as networking. When I wake up in the morning I realize I could throw on a sweatshirt and go to class, which I do some days. But most days I realize putting on the clothes I love, no matter if they fit in with today’s trends, are going to make me a lot happier than if I don’t. After going through a lot of rough times last fall, and letting too much of my mood be determined by other people, I realized what I need is to “see and be seen.”

Coming into this semester, I knew I wanted to do something different. I had always been the girl who knew what she wanted and went after it with vigor, and I had lost that part of me in recent months. When I read the script to our first play of this semester, I knew what role I wanted and I knew I was going to fight for it. At auditions, our director handed out readings for the quiet, unassuming, awkward lead (not my type at all) to all but five, myself included. I am not a nervous person by nature, but when he handed the rest of us the monologue for the crazy mother the nerves finally kicked in. I have hardly any confidence in my ability to play comedy, though if you hand me a dramatic piece I could perform it without a blink. Literally, as I walked up front I was still debating on whether to throw a Long Island-esque accent on this piece, and I decided basically as the first word came out of my mouth. The monologue went swimmingly and to see my director and every other person in the audition room rollicking with laughter made my semester. After callbacks got out I was so on cloud nine I didn’t even care if my name was on the cast list the next day, because I had done exactly what I wanted to in the audition—I was seen.

And I got the role.

“See and be seen.”

When I see that cast list tomorrow, she said during one of our latest weekly-ish phone conversations, and I see that I’m on it in the role that I want, I’ll be happy because will be seen. But if someone else gets the role, then I will at first be a little frustrated. But I’ll go see the show and see why that person got the role instead, and then I will see.

I think of it as a very concise way of looking at what you do in life. “Be seen” doesn’t simply mean drawing attention to yourself, though I think you already understood that. Likewise, “seeing” is not just silently observing without evaluating, pondering, learning. It makes the best of the best and the best of the worst when we try to be successful. And you know what else is fun about it? It’s a cycle! Every time you are seen, you help others to see. Whether or not that was your intention.

You will learn better if your school has fireworks.

Being in the Pride of Minnesota, I have experienced the strongest sense of faithfulness to a school and its people than I ever could have imagined. My fellow marchers respect each other, respect those in charge; they keep tabs on the University’s music scene while getting updates on Gopher basketball games; they devote themselves to being on a team, and all the while, as our leader Dr. Tim Diem points out, “somehow they go to class and still get a GPA of 3.6.” After every rehearsal, the band quiets down and we sing the alma mater, “Our Minnesota” (and in fantastic 4-part harmony I might add). These are students of the University of Minnesota at their finest.

Since my first year of school here, there has always been something in the back of my mind: why am I frustrated with this school? As I mentioned, the people around me are great. The city around me is great. But there’s just something that is getting to me… and I think I know what it is. There are 50,000 students on campus. And no one is listening to them.

Today in the Minnesota Daily editorial section, there is a great article discussing the Sustaining Excellence Steering Committee at the U.

“Last week, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks discussed the Sustaining Excellence Steering Committee, designed to identify areas in which the University can cut costs in order to survive its budget crisis. Among its 24 members are 16 University vice presidents, chancellors and deans, and a token two student representatives.

…The educational future of more than 50,000 students directly depends on the framework this committee sets. For it to include only two students, especially after the administration’s indication of oncoming tuition hikes, is beyond unfair; it is insulting.”

You can read the rest of the article and comments here.

Earlier this year we had a hefty pep rally in our shiny new TCF Bank Stadium the night before the homecoming game against Purdue. The band marched out onto the field (a bit tired after the lengthy parade down University Avenue). Music played and the cheerleaders danced to it. Music played again and fireworks went off in rhythm. Garrison Keillor and Walter Mondale spoke. We played the Rouser. It came time for us to spell MINNESOTA. Fireworks in the shape of each letter erupted in front of the band, vanishing in a puff of coal. What about the economic recession? Is my ever-increasing tuition being blown off in maroon and gold sparklers? Was the quality of my education suddenly heightened by this experience?

And then there’s Nancy. Nancy had been an employee in the School of Music for over 30 years servicing instrument rentals for students. She helped me when I rented a baritone saxophone and would gladly give me her keys so I could walk up from the basement, collect it from instrument storage, and haul it wherever I needed. Some days, when her cat wasn’t feeling well, she would bring him along in his pen and keep an eye on him all day. Her office smelled like a mixture of coffee and oatmeal. She often admitted she wasn’t a musician. And she was six months away from retirement when she was fired.

Bruininks announced in June that he had been donating all of his salary increases back to the University. He currently earns about $750,000 with benefits. His salary has increased by $160,000 since 2002 (read about it).

As the provider of Bruininks’ pocket change, I would like to put my opinion in about what I would like to keep paying for. Has Bruininks lent me his keys so I can collect the instruments I am paying to study?

Not written during daylight hours

“What is that bright yellow thing?”

“Is that the sun?”

“The what?”

“It’s giving me a headache.”

“Turn it off.”

It’s a result of two things: being cooped up in one building all day and not seeing the sky, and being outside for hours during endless cloudy evenings. Back in grade school, no one sees the downsides to over-involvement. In fact, it’s readily encouraged by peers, teachers, and parents alike. Go ahead, join that sports team. After practice, head over to the auditorium for play practice. Next morning? How about you come a bit early to that National Honor Society meeting. Oh, during lunch could you help sell tickets to this weekend’s all-school dance? Thanks.

Just Say No.

Back in grade school, I never thought playing multiple instruments was or would ever be a problem. First period, concert band rehearsal on oboe. Second, jazz band rehearsal on sax. Sunday mornings, try to get to church by nine with your violin. The old people like that. Your aunt cried last week. Right after church, change and drive for 45 minutes to your piano lesson, and don’t forget to bring some wood so your teacher can light a little fire in the fireplace and keep the piano room warm.

Should have “just say no”-ed.

These days, the melody gets taken over by that saxophone. Practicing a lot feels good, sort of like exercise for most other people. Leaving the practice room with a sore bottom lip. Fantastic. Could have gone on longer, but a bus needs to be caught to south Minneapolis so second graders can be tested on their music literacy. If the cards are played right, catching the express buses is easy on the way back home. Pick up a mellophone, walk out onto a shiny football field. And march. And march. And march. Leave the stadium with sore legs, sore feet, maybe sore shoulders, and a sore lower and upper lip.

(“What’s a mellophone?”

“It’s like a fat trumpet.”

“Oh, okay.”)

Don’t forget that tonight is the dress rehearsal for Sunday’s orchestra concert. Grab some dinner in the cafeteria, grab that violin, grab a chair, and try to forget that you’re playing a symphony amongst string performance majors who practice four or five hours a day. Just try to forget. It’s only until Sunday. Leave with sore fingers and a sore bum from the sitting. The day before Sunday is Saturday, which is the night of the band performance. Tenor sax. A bigger instrument, which is nice. And a classy tux.

Oops, forgot to practice for that voice lesson. Oh well.

And what about all those high-school extra-curriculars? Don’t really have a place on a résumé anymore. Way to get into college, though. Congratulations.

Now go do homework.