Thursday, November 11, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part 1)

This weekend, I went to Chicago for a conference, but also to get away and recharge my intellectual batteries. One of the things I did while there was to attend a Ben Folds concert. I love live music shows. My mom used to take me to concerts when I was little: Raffi; Sharon, Lois, and Bram; Sesame Street Live. Our house was always filled with music. The record player was one of the first pieces of technology I knew how to use. But there was always something very special to me about going to see a live show. My musical idols were right there on stage. And I was able to sing and dance along with hundreds of other kids who loved the music as much as I did.

My first "real" concert was when I was 12 and I went to see New Kids on the Block. Yes, I was one of those girls, screaming uncontrollably at the five fresh-faced boys from Boston. I was in line at 6:30 in the morning, waiting for tickets. It was my first "rock" concert, filled with cigarette and pot smoke, screaming girls, lighters aloft during ballads, and everyone screaming and singing along. From then on, I was really hooked.

I think I have seen over one hundred concerts, both large and small, in my short life. I'm not a music snob, so my concert-going experiences are pretty straight forward and read like a 20-year history of pop music, with a Canadian twist: Barenaked Ladies, Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, Planet Smashers, Moist, Tea Party, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLaclan, Jean Leloup, Moxy Fruvous, along with U2, Green Day, Coldplay, The Cranberries, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, and countless little local bands who played the local bar I frequented when I was an undergraduate.

I first saw Ben Folds when I was working as a music critic for my college newspaper. I had given his band, Ben Folds Five, debut album a favorable review. They were opening up for another band at a small, but well-regarded, concert space/bar in Montreal. I got to interview him for more than an hour after the show. The resulting article ran over two pages in the next edition of the paper. It was my first, and only, brush with fame and the music industry. I was, to put it mildly, too much of a fan. For me, I liked what I liked, and what I liked was the live music experience, shared with tens, hundreds, or thousands of other people. Musicians facinated me because they did something I could not: play music and write songs. But the mystery of how they did it would forever remain unknowable.

That is why when the movie Almost Famous came out, I was hooked. It bombed at the box office, but I dragged every single one of my friends and family to see it. It is one of those movies that I watch and re-watch constantly. I loved everything about it: the naive kid who is obsessed with rock and roll and gets to go on tour with the band and write for Rolling Stone. The Band-Aid who loves the band and the music and will do anything to stay close to it. And the rock star for whom making music and being famous are in constant battle. For me, the movie perfectally encapsulated how I felt and how I thought about music. You had the two opposing forces thinking and writing about music: Lester Bangs who is always alone in his experience with the music and William Miller (Cameron Crowe, the filmmaker's, alter-ego) who gets to experience the music over and over again with a crowd of adoring fans and a smaller family of music lovers. When they all break into song, singing along to Tiny Dancer on the tour bus, my heart melts every time.

I had taken piano lessons as a kid, sang in the school choir, played clarinet in the school band, and even sang in my friends' basement band. But music was never really in the cards for me, anymore than drawing (my 3-year-old gets mad at me because my drawings are so bad), dancing, or acting. I love and appreciate all of these forms, but cannot perform them at an even reasonably amateur level. But the collective experience of enjoying, appreciating, and interacting with art with others is irreplacable. When the house lights go down, the crowd cheers, and the first notes of the song start to play, I start to cry.

It's something I try, however small, to recreate in my classroom. There is something to be said about the collective experience of learning and discovering something new, be it music, a great piece of literature, a scientific discovery, or new knowledge. Participating with my students in the journey of creating their blog posts, no matter how nerve-wracking, is probably the closest I'll ever get to creating art. As Kermit says at the end of The Muppet Movie, the best dreams are the ones you share with other people.

But more on that in Part II.

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