Passion, Stewardship, and Status Quo
A few things happened over this past week that got me reflecting:
The first was Paddiversary — the 10th anniversary of the Paddywagon Trombone Quartet which has the distinction of being the longest continuously-running chamber ensemble in MUN School of Music history. Former members of the group travelled from all over North America to play together once more, share memories, and inspire the next generation Paddies. Here is a picture above is of a mass trombone choir that performed at the culminating event of the reunion:
It was an incredible week that everyone involved will remember for a long, long time. For me personally, it was an intense and emotional experience to see and hear and collaborate with students from almost every stage of my teaching career, including potential future students (see the youngsters in the photo above!). I experienced a mixture of pride and awe…and also gratitude that it is my job is to spend my days with such extraordinary humans and musicians. It was a potent reminder — at a time when I really needed it — of why I do what I do.
Anyway, I got to thinking about how difficult — maybe even impossible — it is to capture the real value of an event like this on, for example, a C.V. or a grant application or an application for grad school. The “measurables” — what we did, who came, how much it cost, how much money we made, etc. — don’t get at the heart of what we carry with us from experiences like these. Which, one one hand, is okay I guess. That’s not really the purpose of grant applications, C.V.s, and the like. The problem is that when there is no question asking, “How did this experience change you and how will that change shape what you do next, and maybe even how you view what came before?” it is easy to start thinking that those questions and their answers are not important.
Then, over the weekend, I was editing a podcast interview with Vanessa Cornett. In it, Vanessa made the observation that many musicians are drawn to music because it provides a connection with what we might call the ineffable or transpersonal aspects of human experience — the sense, beyond words, that we are all just small parts of something much bigger than any individual. We lamented together that so many musicians seem to lose this connection during the course of their studies. (Listen to the full interview here or here.)
Finally, the other day during a discussion in my pedagogy class, a student said something that I found profoundly revealing. I had made a passing remark about passion for music — I can’t remember what I said exactly — and this student piped up with something along the lines of, “It is interesting to hear you talk about passion because I often feel as if no one in this building cares about my passion for music.” This stopped me in my tracks because I am fairly confident that there are many people here, myself included, who care deeply about his passion for music. At the same time, I understood his perspective completely. My experience after almost 30 years studying and working in musical institutions is that we don’t talk much about these things, at least not in any “official” capacity. I am as guilty as anyone. There is nothing more important to me as an educator than nurturing my students’ connection with music and helping them develop unique musical voices and the confidence to use them. But how often do I say it or, better yet, show it?
Not often enough.
At the same time, I recognize that although I could probably do a much better job at communicating to students my deepest intentions as a teacher and my faith in their artistic potential (fair warning MUN low brass players…), I can’t ignite this fire or keep it burning for them. They — like all of us — ultimately have to do it for themselves.
I think a big part of the journey of being an artist is taking responsibility for the stewardship of that thing inside us — whatever it is — that makes us want to create art. According to Merriam Webster online, stewardship refers to “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” What would it be like to carefully and responsibly manage what feels most true, essential, and valuable to you? It’s an interesting question. There is often tension between what we feel inside and what appears to be expected of us. Resolving that tension — or, more realistically, dancing with that tension — can be tricky. But it is in the midst of that dance that creativity and agency flourish.
None of this is to suggest that I think we should let our institutions off the hook. Believe me, nothing would make me happier than to see “Sustaining our students’ passion for music” on the agenda for a faculty meeting. (Dare me to suggest it???) But, for a whole host of reasons, I don’t think we should rely on institutions — or our culture as a whole — to have these conversations on our behalf. We can’t wait for someone else’s permission, and not just because it might be a long wait. As soon as someone gives us permission, it’s not really ours anymore.
A student from last year’s pedagogy class reflected in her journal that it is important that we, as artists, engage with the creative challenge of being in a system without necessary being of the system. When I asked this student if I could quote her she couldn’t remember having written that and asked what I thought she meant by it. (These are truly some of my favourite kinds of conversations to have with students, just sayin’.) What I think it means (and what I think she meant when she wrote it) is that we can use the systems we’re in to support our work but that we don’t have to adopt the limited values of the system — what gets measured, noticed, and rewarded — as our own. So, yes, by all means, write a grant to get some funding for an important project. Put that shit on your C.V. so that you can do more of the kind of work you want. But understand that there is a difference between what goes on your C.V. and what you carry in your heart or soul… or wherever you carry what is most precious to you.
Because I’m currently obsessed with Seth Godin, I’ll close with this quote, which is from the book jacket of The Icarus Deception (the jacket — not even the actual book…so you can only imagine what is inside):
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo.
We can start by challenging the internal status quo — the voice inside that urges us to accept as true what we’re being told is true. Sometimes, the boldest thing we can do, the thing that requires the most bravery, is to stay oriented to our own values and passions. Well, that’s the second boldest, bravest thing. The first would be to orient to your values and passions and then share them with the world.
Godin, Seth. The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? New York: Portfolio, 2014.
Zander, Rosamund Stone, and Benjamin Zander. The Art of Possibility: Practices in Leadership, Relationship, and Passion. London: Michael Joseph, 2006.