Monthly Archives: January 2008

Music as Journey

This is the first of a three-part essay I’m writing entitled “Finding the Meaning of Music through Metaphor”.  A recent consultation with my music mentor gave way to a more complicated web of ideas, thus stopping me from finishing the essay in order to ponder some more.       

Music is movement. 

Think of it as a journey that commences at its very first sound.  In fact, you can also consider that music begins even before you hear it.  Imagine the conductor poised with his baton before giving his orchestra the cue to begin.  Or think of your hand on the doorknob, pulling the door open before you make that first step outside.  The intention of leaving is there, just as the anticipation of sound is felt even before you hear it. 

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Once the music starts it’s all about moving, of going somewhere.  The destination, however, is never the point of music.  It can justify one’s steps taken during the journey but remember that the goal, once reached, marks the end of the trip.  So, it is not where one’s going that matters in music; it is how one got there that counts. 

When embarking on a journey, our movement makes sense.  Our steps are connected: where, when, or how we take our steps are consequences of the ones that came before it; we make our steps anticipating the ones we will take after them.   The same goes for music.  Its sounds and silences are born of intention and consequences.  No matter how haphazard sounds seem to have been woven, they are, each of them, like dots connecting to form a figure, and this formed greater whole is why the destination is trivial.  It is merely the last dot one needs to complete the figure.  It doesn’t make the figure, just as the last note or chord that signifies the end of music, whether in muted tones or in a grand bang, doesn’t hold the essence of what we just heard.

Music can be analyzed as steps that lead up to its destination; steps that make sense when you look back from where you are.  We can explore relationships between these steps and probably come up with patterns that can lead to structure to further make sense of what our ears perceived.   Surely we can make sense of our journey once we start walking, but can we find coherence in music while we listen to it, or is analysis a necessity in order for it to be understood?   And is making sense the same as having meaning? 

My composition mentor, Dr. Ramon Pagayon Santos, and I were just recently talking about his analysis of Nicanor Abelardo‘s kundiman, “Mutya ng Pasig” and were marveling over the late genius’ effortless coupling of words and sounds.  I wondered out aloud whether people who listen to his kundimans really hear the tone painting nuances Abelardo so ingeniously infused.  He said probably not because it would require a radical shift in how most people listen.

His response points to my first question.  Can we make sense of music in its temporal movement?  Not all people.  Not always.  I base these assumptions on the quizzical looks of my students, past and present, whenever I venture into the analysis of musical forms.  Granted most of my students are in high school, still their reaction mirror the perplexed adults’, even by music students in my college.  It’s true that the manner by which most people listen prevents them from hearing the essential elements that could point to the music’s rationale; but even the most sensitive and discerning of listeners still might fail to grasp it, especially during the first hearing. 

Think of your experience during a journey.  Although the steps you make are consequences of your intention to get your destination, often you don’t see the sense in them as you walk.  Why? Because the thought of reaching your destination propels you forward, leaving you to regard each step as you take them.  Isn’t this how we listen, too?  Although we don’t know what it is, we know that there’s an end in sight.  But even so, one doesn’t listen waiting for the end.  We listen from sound to sound, from moment to moment.  Music is a temporal art.  One needs to experience it while it is being realized, therefore, making concrete sense of it as we listen or experience it for the first time is a challenge. 

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An Ode to John Keating: A Reflection on Dead Poets Society

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I was in third year high school when my brother and I discovered the Dead Poets Society.  He and I watched it over and over until we knew all the lines well enough to stage our own play version.  We pondered over John Keating’s words as much as his prep school pupils did.  Robin William’s character, this inspiring and creative imparter of knowledge, was my teaching muse.  He still is.

To say that Keating was not a traditional teacher is an understatement.  The film starts out showing the teaching styles of the other teachers in the school.  They epitomized the complete authority figure; their tools of the trade: rote, authors as indisputable sources of knowledge, and fear.  Then enters Keating, whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as if strolling down the park, caught up in an exciting world of his making.  Exactly then we assume that this is no ordinary teacher and we’re right to do so because in a few beats he brings his students to the school gallery and gives them the famous “Carpe Diem” speech.  “Seize the day, boys,” He said in eerie tones.  “Make your lives extraordinary!”

Keating’s methods were unusual.  They required a certain sense of boldness, a willingness to take the plunge or even act the fool.  But he didn’t appreciate the clumsy audacity, the crazy dive into the abyss.  He didn’t encourage the wise-crack remarks and antics of Charlie, especially when he pulled off the phone-call-from-God prank (“It’s God. He said girls should be allowed in Welton!”).  He wanted his students to be brave thinkers and thinking braves: to rip (-rip-rrrrip!) the pages off a book that boxed and judged poetry as one would a potential American Idol; to run in the field and recite a poem as strongly, and as passionately, as one would kick a soccer ball; to stand on the teachers table and view his classroom, and the world, differently.  His goal was for his students to experience knowledge and life.  Not all of his students appreciated it.  One of them, Cameron, couldn’t wait to get Keating into trouble in order to get brownie points from the headmaster.  Another, Todd, was so inhibited that he welcomed his teacher’s passion as much as he would a rattlesnake.  Certainly, his colleagues didn’t, except for the Latin teacher who eventually started holding his classes in the school paths, striding along with the rhythm of Latin words. 

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When I was younger, I passionately hated the close-minded headmaster and Dr. Perry, the uber-strict father of Neil, the student who joined the production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.  My brother and I would snarl at these characters each time they appeared because they did nothing but disapprove and discourage.  But now that I’m older and, in the 5 years that I’ve been a teacher, have bore the brunt of disapproving headmasters (or nuns, to be more precise) and discouraging parents, I can say that I understand where they are coming from, and it is fear. 

People fear what is different.  Sometimes fear manifests itself as narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness.  In Keating’s case, his teaching method was deemed improper because it didn’t fit the defined cornered mold from which the faculty was modeling.  What was so wrong with holding classes outside of the classroom? Or asking the students to step on top of a desk to illustrate a point?  These were not corrupting activities.  They weren’t fatal or anarchic.  However, if one is encouraged to step off the gravelly path then maybe that person will eventually step further away and walk a different path or create paths of his own, or so Keating’s colleagues feared.  More than to keep order, rules, in essence, are meant to control.  If you allow a student to veer away from a rule, even in the slightest, they might eventually rebel.  In the conservative school administration’s eyes, any teacher or student who thinks outside the mold is suspect, therefore, to be feared.

Welton found a way to get rid of Keating because of Neil’s death.  Still wearing his Puck garland, he died by his own hand; although it may well have been Keating who pulled the trigger, if you ask Neil’s father and the headmaster.  His crime was that he nurtured the boys’ love for the stage and believed Neil when he said he had gotten his father’s approval.  Should Keating have pursued the matter and called Dr. Perry to verify this?  Would that have pacified the rigid father and stopped him from sending his son to military school, thus preventing Neil’s suicide?  We, teachers, should always do more than what our job descriptions ask of us.  Our contracts don’t ask us to wait with a student whose parents are late in picking her up, or lend an ear while another tells us about an argument she had with her friend.  These are not written in our contracts but they don’t have to be.  Good teachers do them for free because we care for our students; but in the end, we can only do so much.  We are not their friends.  We are not their parents.  We are responsible for their welfare only up to an extent, and beyond that hope that their parents and guardians are nurturing them well. 

Several times I’ve been paid a great compliment.  On separate occasions, a few of my students told me they reminded me of John Keating.  They might as well have called me “O Captain, my Captain”. In all those occasions my smile was a mile-wide.  There’s nothing more blissful than to hear my students tell me they think I’m doing a great job.  This wonderful benefit isn’t in our contracts either, and I’m glad it isn’t. 

When you’re a teacher, happiness is not always about money.    

Film poster and still from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Poets_Society
The video clip from the movie is under fair use.

The Toxic Teacher and Karma

My Philosophy in Education professor, Arthus Muega, drilled an important point into my and my classmates’ heads early on in the semester.  For our first three sessions, he repeatedly asked us: “What is an educated person?”

It seemed like the most simple of questions, prodding many of us to give the simplest of answers.  Answers that included words such as “schooled”, “learned”, “skilled”, all of which were deemed lacking by our teacher.  Though he never gave us an exact definition, in the end, he offered words like “values” and “morality” that somewhat soften our misses, or at least, gave them a deeper dimension.

When I was a student, I hoped for a few things in my teachers.  I hoped for them to be, not just knowledgeable, but passionate about their subject.  I hoped for them to be friendly and fair and fun to have around.  I guess you could say, I wanted them to be, not perfect, but ‘educated’. 

Teachers are human, yes, but I’m not referring to flaws or mistakes that need forgiving.  My point revolves around Prof. Muega’s question about educated persons.  If your teacher’s actions prove to be consistently vile yet he seems not to care, then his MA or the intelligence he advertises with every opportunity, will always be overshadowed by his deceit and utter disregard for a person’s rights.  In the absence of good values and a sense of morality, his actions, then, declare him to be an uneducated individual. 

If, by now, you have an inkling that I am referring to a real teacher and not some general profile, you read between the lines well.  

toxic.jpg Recently, I have come to realize that a certain teacher I have admired for his intelligence and passion is as toxic as many people have avowed.   I used to look up to him and so forgave him easily for unkind remarks aimed at me or my friends.  I used to defend him from people who would call him two-faced or untrustworthy, retorting that he is, in fact, honest and unafraid to call things as they are.  I believed what he said that every one in his  former department has edged him out because they were too narrow-minded about brilliant (his word) curriculum changes that he had offered.  I applauded him for his recent promotion and wouldn’t agree with others that he had gotten it mostly because of calculated charm and insincere show of support for his superiors.   

An incident of late made me realize what a bane he really was, and how easy it was for him to turn against you when you question his “brilliant” methods.  Suddenly, I saw him for what he was and realized that everyone around me had been right:  he IS narcissistic and two-faced.  This teacher is toxic,  not only because of the things he’s said and done, but more so because he seems to think he has a right to say and do these things because he is, as he had declared so many times, brilliant.  

A friend of mine told me of the time this teacher was wondering out loud, woefully asking why his siblings had all the financial luck in the world when he’s actually the smartest and most talented one among them. 

He wondered. . .

I know why.

The answer is spelled K – A – R – M – A.

rainbow.jpg In fact, after you so unfairly edged me out and caused me to lose my only means of livelihood (of which you were fully aware) this semester, not even a week had passed when blessings started flooding into my life.  This happy deluge has brought exciting opportunities, not just to earn back the living you took from me, but also new directions in my career both in Music and Theatre.  An overflow of love and support has also strengthened my bond with new friends, and renewed my kinship with old ones.  Despite your treachery, I feel so deeply and overwhelmingly loved by the Universe. 

Like I said, KARMA. 

So thank you, erswhile dearest teacher.  Your actions, though vile, have ushered me back to a beloved path.  No sarcasm there.  Truly, I bear no grudge.  I laugh at your continuing malicious actions without malice myself.   Though, I may never trust you again, I wish you all the best in your endeavors and pray that Karma teaches you to value the people around you and treat them with respect and kindness.

Namaste.