Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Life Lessons from the Recording Studio

Context: I'm working on an album of original Jewish music. I wrote the tunes and am arranging them (i.e. giving them shape, texture, and form) with an amazingly gifted musician/producer/friend named Will Roberston as well as a cast of unbelievably talented characters including Jamie Kudlats, Guy Strauss, Bob Michek, and Kendrick Phillips. It's my first time in the recording studio in any meaningful way and I'm finding the process to be very enlightening. As is often the case, a particular venue or set of experiences ends up being a microcosm of "life in general." That's proving to be true of the recording studio. So here are a few life lessons I attribute to the recording studio... This list is totally incomplete and not in any particular order, but here goes. I'm writing this post for two reasons: 1) to chronicle my own experiences and 2) with the hopes that it will resonate with others, even if they haven't ever recorded an album of original Jewish music!

1. The power of collaboration. I wrote a bunch of tunes. Good for me. Pat on the back. But the truth is that the music could never realize its full potential (if such a thing is ever possible) without the partnership and involvement of others. My role as "songwriter" isn't to cram a fully realized musical vision down peoples' throats, but rather to elicit the creativity, generosity, talents, and energies of others. My role is to facilitate and celebrate collaboration. And though the process is still unfolding, I can say with absolute certainty that openness to collaboration has radically impacted every level of this recording project, from the songs themselves to the musicians involved. Rather than being simply about recording music, collaboration has made this project about creating music, exploring music, celebrating music, and building relationships and community through music. Collaboration has made this a holy process, which, given the content of the music, is wholly appropriate.

2. Humility. Someone once attributed the following quote to Jewish tradition in a letter I received:

"The adornment of knowledge is wisdom, the adornment of wisdom is humility." 

     If ever there were words to live by! Far from being a kind of self-abasement, true humility is the recognition that, vast though our individual gifts may be, what's ours alone is not enough. Humility is what allows us to seek out people who have greater experience than we do. It's what allows us to apprentice ourselves, to learn from others, to be grateful, and to be open-minded. Humility is the capacity to learn and the ability to celebrate (rather than fear or attempt to hide) all that you don't yet know. It also means recognizing that there are some things you may never be able to do at the level you'd like (though it doesn't mean abandoning the pursuit!). For example, humility means recognizing that a song may sound better with another lead vocalist even though it's "your" song, or that, actually, there's someone out there who can play a better guitar part. Humility is what transforms a potential inadequacy into a strength. Not only is humility an "adornment" of wisdom, but it is also a prerequisite.

3. Ego is a double-edged sword. It would be hard to write songs without an ego. It would be hard to have the nerve to believe that the songs I write with a guitar in my home when no one else is around have any value beyond being a nice hobby... without an ego. It would be hard to set aside time from my amazing family (and my 3 month old daughter in particular) to go into a recording studio to produce these songs without an ego. You get the point. And yet, as we all know, ego is truly a double-edged sword. Ego is responsible for all sorts of mishaps, musical and otherwise. Ego can be a stumbling block, it can make you blind, it can make you fearful, and it can lead you astray. Rather than ennobling you and filling your life with a sense of purpose, it can cuckold and trap you. If the songs I've written have any life whatsoever, it will be because the collaborative process has keep the question of ego in the fore. If my ego were unchecked then the songs themselves would have no room to grow, mature, and evolve. Being as conscious as possible of ego is the first step in making sure that ego works for you and not against you.

4. Music is metaphysical. "Metaphysical" is a big word and I'm not sure I fully understand it (but here goes...). For me music is metaphysical because it starts with the physical-- bodies, musical instruments, voices, guitars, etc... but quickly moves beyond the purely physical. The minute you hit record and start editing, music becomes metaphysical. Yesterday Will Roberston did an awesome thing: he wrote an entire choral arrangement and recorded it completely himself. Hearing Will's voice singing 10 different parts simultaneously helped me to understand that music is indeed metaphysical. The fact that you can detach your voice from your vocal chords and sing along with yourself x10 through the act of recording means that music is metaphysical. Also, the fact that Will can write a 10 part chorale arrangement wherein all the different parts blend and complement one another creating an absolutely magnificent and glorious soundscape-- this wouldn't be possible if there weren't laws of harmony and melody that came, if not from God, then certainly from some realm other than the purely physical. I really believe this, and feel sad for anyone that hasn't ever sensed something metaphysical (musical or otherwise). I guess that's what metaphysical means-- something is metaphysical when it attests to the fact that there's a bigger picture to the world than physical, material stuff of our existence. Music is metaphysical, so is love, community, laughter, the connection between generations, and a bunch of other stuff. Seek and ye shall find I suppose!

Well, that's all for now. I've already exceeded my self-imposed word limit. It is great writing for an "imagined audience." It provides a strangely metaphysical motivation to articulate some of these random thoughts.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Proust and Talmud

"How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life."

- Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy

     I'm reading two books right now. One's a mystery/thriller called Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. The other is The Cannibal Galaxy by Cynthia Ozick. Sometimes I'm in the mood for Black, sometimes Ozick. Sometimes I'm in no mood for reading at all! 

     Every so often, when reading multiple books at the same time, an amazing thing happens. The two authors enter into a kind of dialogue with one another. Black meets Ozick for a cup of coffee. Of course this imagined cup of coffee doesn't take place in a local coffee shop, but rather in my mind: the mind of the reader. I'm fairly certain that Black doesn't actually know Ozick. More than likely I'm the first person in human history to be reading these two books simultaneously. The juxtaposition is even more unlikely because it's totally random and unplanned. It's no great feat, but it is interesting: different authors, different genres, different decades...  And yet, somehow, Black and Ozick are in dialogue with one another because of me. 

     Lately I've been pondering the concept of "integration." In reading The Cannibal Galaxy, I stumbled upon an insight that resonates with me: if you put two thoughtful individuals in a room, each will have something to say to the other. Meaningful and transformative dialogue can occur without anyone compromising their own unique point of view or surrendering their subjective "truth." That's the realization that Joseph Brill, the protagonist of Ozick's book, uncovers. 

     Brill is a young man hiding from the Nazis in the basement of a Parisian convent. Surrounded by Christian and secular books, he passes his time by reading. For Brill, reading fills the void left by the deportation of his entire family. Clearly traumatized and alone, Brill eventually musters up the courage to turn to the one Jewish book that, by happenstance, he has brought with him: the Talmud, tractate Ta'anit. He opens to a random page, reads a random rabbinic tale, and then sets the Talmud down. For no apparent reason he then picks up a random book, written by Marcel Proust, opens to a random page, and reads a random section. As he reflects on his reading he remarks to himself: "How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life." 

     Integration is a process. It's the process of creating a meaningful dialogue between two different forms of knowledge. The process of integration can take place internally or in a social context. Integration can be the result of careful planning and deliberate curricular decisions, or it can emerge from the normal juxtapositions and tensions that exist from living in a complex and interconnected world as symbolized by Black and Ozick/ Talmud and Proust.

     In the case of Joseph Brill, the integration of Talmud and Proust, was an integration that resulted in synthesis. For Brill, Talmud and Proust, though speaking in different "tonalities" played complimentary roles in helping Brill to further define the "true map of life." During a period of profound personal trauma, the awareness of an integrative possibility transforms Brill's mental and emotional reality. 

   But integration needn't always be smooth. The dialogue between different ideas can affirm difference and incompatibility as well as commonality and reconciliation. Black and Ozick might be a marriage made in heaven or oil and water. The process of integration doesn't dictate a certain outcome. Instead, habituation to the process of integration creates a cognitive and spiritual space that allows for the possibility of meaningful connections and juxtapositions. 

    As I've indicated elsewhere, integration is a paradigmatic human experience. It's a process that promotes spiritual and emotional health as well as intellectual creativity. The more accustomed we are to integrating different ideas, experiences, and other forms of "input," the more likely we are to figure out how the pieces of our or world fit together to form a "true map of life." 

    As educators we can model the process of integration by habituating ourselves to creating coffee dates where "separated tonalities" can engage with one another through the process of integration. Whether the outcome is compatibility or difference we can be transparent about our integrating by sharing with our students and colleagues. If students see us, not as transmitters of content (sage on the stage) but as more mature learners (guide on the side), then they will be inclined to emulate and eventually internalize the processes of integration. If we want our students to be critical thinkers, imagineers, creators, and connection makers, then we need to show them how. 


Thursday, July 7, 2011

8.2 Unsubstantiated Claims (and three questions) about the Meaning and Scope of "Integration" in Jewish and Non-denominational Educational Settings

Welcome! If you've made it past the unfortunate title of this post, then there's something wrong with you: you care. Caring is SO 1990!! Caring means responding, it means engaging in dialogue. It means lovingly denying the premise of the argument. It means sharing your thoughts with me or someone you like more.

Which brings me to the premise (AKA unsubstantiated claim #1):

(1) "Integration" is NOT about making cross curricular references between otherwise discrete and alienated academic disciplines. If that's the essence/ big idea of integration then "lame" on us!

(2) Integration is a noun and not a verb. It's not content specific. It's actually a "process" (really a series of processes).

(3) Integration is a series of processes that reflects a deep and natural human yearning: to be whole. The precondition for integration-- the thing that makes integration a necessary process-- is the fact that our world is fragmented and broken. The fact that teachers who share walls don't share goals is but one dim reflection of the shattered world which we are blessed to inhabit. Sadly it's not our biggest problem.

(4) God has many names: Truth, Good, Beauty, Love, Endlessness, Dwelling... Another name for God is "One." God is Indivisible Unity. God is Perfect and Seamless Integration. God is Process.

(5) The Divine image that resides within every human being remembers the experience of Oneness that we once self-consciously enjoyed (and still CAN enjoy) but more often than not fail to affirm. Healthy individuals integrate all the time and even have moments of joyful affirmation. Spiritually unhealthy individuals need to be guided back to an understanding of how to integrate. Healthy and unhealthy aren't meant to be judgments. I'm sorry that they sound like judgments and would love better vocab.

(6) Children know how to integrate IN SPITE of adults. Maybe it's because they're closer to the initial experience of Oneness. Maybe it's because they're children (but that would be a "tot"-ology). If we think that children are unable to integrate then we need to evaluate the conditions that we've imposed upon them that undermine this natural human process. I'm arguing that these conditions are generally unconscious, deeply embedded, and invariably lamentable and arbitrary.

(7) Two critical areas where the process of integration radically transforms social and educational experience (and therefore makes the world more integrated, whole, and healthy):

             Home/School-- There is nothing more powerful than the integration of these two institutions. Nothing should be easier. Happens all the time right? Go figure.

             Learning/Living-- The places where we learn and the places where we live (i.e. act, interact, impact) need to integrate. The school bell should never actually ring. Learning should be learning, learning should be living, living should be learning, living should be living, and this sentence should stop.

(8) Integration undermines the rigidity of roles and strips away the illusions that perpetuate the compartmentalization, departmentalization, Procrustian Bed-itization, Not In My Back Yard-itization, of the human experience. Teachers are students, students are teachers. We're all in this together. Kumbaya.

Three Questions:

If you've made it this far then let's ask:

(1) What identity markers am I so tied to that I can't experience the transcendent/grounded fullness of being a radically integrating, processing, striving, embracing creature of God?

(2) Why aren't more hugs initiated and received on any given day?

(3) Why do I say hello to some people I pass on the street and not others?




Tuesday, July 5, 2011

4 Things Every Jewish Educator Can and Should Do

I've been reading a lot of educational philosophy: Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Noddings, to name a few (and how is that for name dropping!).

I've also been reading a lot of Jewish educational philosophy: Twersky, Rosenak, Fox, Meyer... (now you're really salivating!).

There's a spectrum of responses that people have when they find themselves doing this kind of reading for, say, a class in Jewish educational philosophy. At one end of the spectrum is fear, anxiety, boredom, and even anger. At the other end of the spectrum is the highlighter toting, read-two-lines and have to look something up, I love this stuff response. That's me. I love this stuff.

But rather than trying to infect you with my love of educational philosophy, I find myself wanting to jot down some notes on the age old topic: The Joy of Learning. So here's an utterly incomplete, philosophically irrelevant, mundane list of things Jewish educators can do that make kids love being Jewish and learning about Judaism. I'd love for folks to post comments and add ideas to the list.

1. Give them challah and grape juice. I've never met a gluten-tolerant Jew that didn't love challah and grape juice. When we break out the challah and juice at The Davis Academy, as we do each Friday, the energy is amazing. There's smiling and sharing, singing and blessing. Invariably kids are asking for more.
     Now one might argue that sharing challah and juice isn't education. Wrong! Partaking in this simple ritual teaches countless lessons in a very profound way: community, fellowship, connection to Jewish history and tradition, the sweetness of Shabbat and others. Reciting blessings (in Hebrew, no less) is probably the most beautiful expression of theology there is. I firmly believe that if all we did at The Davis Academy was share challah and juice (and light candles) every Friday, we'd still be strengthening the Jewish future.

2. Ask big questions and have deep conversations. It's amazing what happens when you put a question box in a 2nd grade classroom. Explain to the kids that they can ask any question in the universe (as long as it's appropriate) and within a week even the wisest rabbi or educator will be stumped. Kids love to ask big questions and have deep conversations. The amazing thing is they do it without caffeine or existential angst. If all kids remember from their time at Jewish school is that they got to ask outrageous questions and have deep conversations with one another and an educator who actually took them seriously, dayeinu. 

3. Tell stories. Stories are the bread and butter of Jewish tradition. While Halakhah (Jewish Law) has undoubtedly played a critical role in preserving Jewish identity through the ages, I'd argue that stories are even more important. Stories transmit the values and teachings we hold dearest. They introduce us to the heroes (and villains) that came before us. They remind us that there's magic in the mundane. They also remind us that we too have stories-- family stories, personal stories, fictional stories-- that only we can tell. Also, kids of all ages (and adults) love a good story. Throw in a floor rug, some bean bag chairs, and a few props, and kids will literally sit at your feet and give you their undivided attention.

4. Make them read Dewey's Democracy and Education, 1916 (and write a massive book report). During the summer.

5. Connect Judaism to life. Kids are inundated with information. News, sitcoms, music, movies, social media. It's constant. Kids are amazed when they learn that Judaism has something to say about the National Debt or when they realize that Jewish values are being taught through The Simpsons. They're intrigued when they discover biblical references in popular songs. We all know this. We also know that Judaism is a vast and dynamic body of wisdom that relates to virtually everything. When we make these connections eventually our students start to make them for themselves. Once this happens our students are engaging Jewishly no matter where they are or what they're doing.