September 7, 2010

A Paean for Desire on the First Day of School

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I was in the middle of a project when I ran out of those little tab thingys for hanging files so I buzzed over to Office Depot for supplies.  The place looked like a storm had blown through it.  Of course. Tomorrow is the first day of school for kids in the Seattle School district.  I am a teacher but my work life isn’t organized around the school year.  I am one of that I hope not dying breed, the neighborhood piano/voice teacher.  My teaching studio is in the tax deductible part of my home.

I love teaching because I am fascinated with Learning.  We are always learning something; it’s a question of what.  I did well in school because I was bright but this is what I learned: to survive and do well in school.  That’s not the kind of learning I want to promote.  I want my students to find some thread of interest and excitement in music that captures them in such a way they can’t get enough of it. A piano student gets excited about Latin rhythms or jazz and this (finally) provides him with a compelling reason to learn to count.   Or somehow a voice student stumbles onto the richness available in one single tone, and comes into an awareness of the mystery of the human voice; and the warm up becomes magical, not just something you get through so you can sing a song.

It has been my experience and my observation that learning begins with desire.  A lot of what passes for Teaching is what I call Interfering.  Interfering with Desire. Desire is the engine that fuels learning.  People’s natural desires get folded away in a closet because the desire to please or to survive supplants it.   We memorize a bunch of stuff in order to pass a test, to get a grade, to graduate, to get a job, to get a promotion, to make more money, to have more prestige.  Each step removes us further from the little kernel of desire that defines us as persons.

I am not suggesting that if we pay attention to the little kernel of desire that we might not take a similar route as outlined above.  My point is that we won’t lose track of ourselves along the way.  We won’t be like that guy in the Talking Heads song, looking at his life and asking, “How do I work this? How did I get here?”

I pay attention to my students’ desires.  I think of their minds as maps showing me places I haven’t been.  But I have been down a lot of roads and I have an idea about the terrain of the tentative new roads we will travel together.  I am fascinated by the many different ways there are to conceptualize something, and by the many ways that we all express what we want and who we are.  None of those ways are Right, but any of them are worth thinking about, worth exploring and experiencing.

I start most voice lessons by saying, “Sing a note that’s comfortable and easy, any pitch, and any vowel.”  That note, that kernel, becomes the launch pad for the rest of the lesson.  One effortless note that starts with who you are, where you are, and what you want.  I start my own practicing that way and I never found singing this rapturous when I was a student trying to please a teacher.

Where’s your note right now?

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