Pluralism in the Arts and Education

“Those who can’t do teach” has been a rather abusive aphorism against teachers of all subjects but more particularly of the arts.  A “true” artist was one who demonstrated a particular “genius” in the expression and virtuosity of an artistic skill.  This “genius” could be judged only by other artists of equal or greater merit.  These few maestros came by their skill much too easily to really become skillful teachers.This idea supported the artist’s mystique.  It seems to be similar to the deception of a magician’s patter.  The artist was seen as a rare freak with a skill that could be given only by the divine grace.   Thus, besides being a place for moving experiences, the concert hall was also a kind of circus freak show.

I grew up being somewhat influenced by the myth of the artist/maestro.  My family moved to the city of Ft. Worth, TX shortly after I was born.  My brother, Lon, then entered a band program that started beginning players at his grade.  He had come from another school program that started their musicians two years earlier.  He came in as the best player in his class with two years more experience than everyone else and worked to maintain his role perpetually.  This was during the early sixties when jazz was very much in vogue.  Lon had a teacher who taught him the fundamentals of jazz improvisation and Lon continued enthusiastically teaching himself so that he soon became more knowledgeable about playing jazz than the classically trained band directors at his school.  Lon’s high school band director gave him the high school stage band to conduct because Lon was the best man for the job.  Lon took his band to a state competition and the band won second place while he took home the Outstanding Musician Award.

After Lon had gone to college I entered my junior high school’s band program in another school district.  I began at the same level as everyone else in my class.  We all started in a summer band class that was taught mostly by high school students.  I had thought about playing flute but started on clarinet because one was available from Lon’s wife who said she had been a “seat warmer” during her brief band career.  The clarinet was from Montgomery Ward; of poor quality but indestructible.  It was plastic with metal lining the inside of the upper joint.  Over the month of summer band I moved up and down the chairs (the measure of one’s relative playing ability).  Out of the forty or so clarinetists I had managed to make it up to third chair once or twice.  When the month was over we were told to practice our scales, which were listed in the back of our method books, for 30 minutes a day in order to prepare for band auditions in the Fall.  I practiced for exactly 30 minutes everyday and worked on nothing but scales.  When school started we were auditioned and I was clearly the best player.  (In retrospect I now realize that I had been the only student who had followed instructions.)  My band director knew my brother by reputation and exclaimed to the whole band, and any adults who visited him in his office, that I was going to become his star clarinetist.  Of course I couldn’t disappoint him.  I received a scholarship from the Band Boosters club for private lessons.  I worked very hard and won many contests.

My family moved to Dallas the summer before I entered high school and I was made a first clarinetist without an audition.  I had by that time my own reputation.  I was very excited about classical music in the same way my brother had been excited about jazz.  I enjoyed the recognition I got from playing well.  I bought season tickets to the Dallas Symphony and road my bike to concerts at night.  I ushered so that I could see Dallas Ballet concerts for free.  I threw a paper route to earn enough money to buy myself a professional Buffet clarinet .  (The Montgomery Ward clarinet was the best one for marching.)  I didn’t practice as much as I should have because I had so little competition at my new high school but my listening experiences and solid technique cause my phrasing and expressiveness to mature rather early.  This kept me principal clarinetist in the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra and earned me the privilege of performing the Adagio movement of the Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with an orchestra at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in Sewanee, TN.  My teachers told my parents that I could definitely consider a career as a classical clarinetist if I would work just a little harder.  However, my father had seen from the life of my brother, Lon, that music was not a lucrative profession and, when he told me what my teachers had said, he also told me that he would not pay for another college education in music.

Music had become my means for expressing my emotions.  I so loved the principal flutist in the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra that I was in total rapture when we dueted while playing our solos in the Carmen Suite.  I had reached a point when I could no longer bear the studied comments of non-players in the lobby at the symphony concerts.  They obviously had no insight into what it meant to feel something one was playing.  The act of playing was like being so close to God that it seemed beyond criticism.

Although I was by nature a very obedient child I soon began an almost unconscious passive rebellion towards my parents and school, and lost interest in all other subjects besides music.  By the time I was old enough to go to college it seemed like I would be successful only if I majored in music.  My father changed his mind.  During college my skill for playing the clarinet rose to meet the demands made on me.  My technique seemed to improve more from performing the many students composers’ works (I performed more than 30 in one year!) than from my lessons.  Once again I quickly established a reputation for being a good player and did what was necessary to maintain it.  I had learned by that time some little tricks for developing the artist’s mystique:

1.  You must never admit that any music is very difficult: You must work out any difficulties when you are totally alone and then pretend, during rehearsal, that you are looking at the music for the very first time.

2.  You must never criticize your own performance especially back stage to an enthusiastic audience: Always thank them humbly and graciously for their praise no matter how badly you felt you botched it.

3.  Always perform with an air of confidence: Move boldly and gracefully, and, after playing your last note, let your face glow with the awe of having just received a divine gift from God.

My association with composition students led me to become further involved with other idealistic, soul-searching musicians who sought their spiritual goals through the medium of new music improvisation.  Our style of music was much freer than what was practiced by our jazz brothers.  In fact, we seldom invited jazz musicians to practice with us because they “used too many predetermined patterns.”  Our playing came directly from our unconscious while randomly accessing the wide range of technique each one of us had been using over the years.  This process brought out the very best in our playing and we ourselves came to believe that we were truly gifted with a talent for creating music that even we did not fully understand.  My face glowed with the sincerest awe and reverence every time we instinctively ended a piece together.  We were the masters and later achieved a great deal of fame and notoriety for our God-given ability.  Eventually the violist of the ensemble got a better paying “gig” in an orchestra in Colombia and we had to audition for a replacement.  Our guests were as amazed as we were at how well we interacted with each other.  We were always able to find those magical endings no matter who our guests were.

I was just nineteen when our group first formed.  When I was twenty I took a job at the Denton State School.  During my interview my future supervisor took me around to see all the clients with the most disfiguring disabilities.  Seeing them made me feel nervous and upset but I took the job as a Houseparent because I believed that I needed to get over my uneasiness and learn to  be comfortable with all kinds of people.  I got use to the job after two weeks.  After several months my hands developed sores from the soap we had to use when bathing the clients.  I then applied for and received a promotion to the position of Occupational Therapist Technician Assistant.  We OT’s helped the clients with their daily living skills and provided the physical therapy they needed.  The schedule was arranged so that I was the only OT in the facility on Saturdays.  I took advantage of this freedom by making Saturday a music day.  I brought in a tape recorder and improvised with the clients who made the most interesting sounds.  Eventually someone was hired to work with me on Saturdays.  I was afraid that my special music days would have to end.  However, when my new co-worker was introduced to me he already knew who I was.  He said, “You work with BL Lacerta.  I love your work.”  Our music days expanded by the addition of our new guitar-playing OT, Steve Prouty.  One of the clients named Robert stayed in the therapy room with us and the three of us experimented with making music with clients from all around the facility.  Robert was non-verbal and listed as “profoundly retarded” but he always laughed at our jokes and was a wonderful singer.  He couldn't talk but he was able to match pitches.  The strain of his spasticity made his singing more soulful than Ray Charles or Miles Davis.  I was quickly learning that my “gift” was much more universal than I had thought.  During this job, and for many years as a volunteer, I kept up weekly rehearsals with an improvisation quartet made up of three clients from the Denton State School (including Robert) and myself.  We performed in Dallas at the Bath House Cultural Center and for the cream of the Dallas Public School musicians at the Dallas Arts Magnet High School.  These geniuses were thoroughly amazed by the deep soulful quality of the performance they witnessed.

I grew up in a Baptist family.  Some us have even been evangelical ministers.  Something of that blossomed inside me and I made it my personal mission to spread the creative processes that were so meaningful to me to every group of people with whom I could work.  I created outreach activities for BL Lacerta at the Dallas Museum of Art.  I improvised with children at Children’s Arts and Ideas.  I improvised with the elderly, emotionally disabled, stroke patients, drug addicts, etc. through Arts for People.  I improvised with dancers and other artists.  It seemed that I had developed another gift that was becoming more important to me than playing the clarinet.  I could help others make art with me.  I could communicate ways to enhance people’s creative abilities.  Dancers who improvised with BL Lacerta and/or myself had found that they had never performed better than when they were improvising with us.  Even audiences were becoming more aware of their own creative input during our performances.

Once, at the Dallas Museum of Art, BL Lacerta was performing one of our annual Self-Portraits concerts.  I chose as my self-portrait a piece I called Soft Tablets which required audience participation.  There were four rules printed in the program which were derived from having many experiences giving improvisation workshops.  They were as follows:

1.  Make sounds/movements only in response to other sounds/movements.  Treat the silence as something which is very fragile and precious.

2.  Love and caress every sound and movement and never do anything carelessly.

3.  The world is chaos.  Only your perceptions give it order.  Make sounds/movements which make sense of the world.

4.  Do 1-3 without thinking.  As soon as you see that you are talking to yourself, be still and listen.

Families in conservative Dallas with fathers wearing suits eased into an improvisation which climaxed with loud vocalizations and sword fights on stage with pvc pipes.  We ended together in one precise magical moment.

My respect for the audience had grown in proportion to the enormous amount of respect I had developed for the creative potential of all people.  Ideally I want the audience to be so involved that they are actually performing with me.  One still may enjoy the spectacle of watching me be in the spotlight interacting with the cacophony or s/he may chose to become a participant in the web of events that is quickly forming new worlds around us.  This, of course, led to the development of the Novena project which was specifically designed for the purpose of eliminating all boundaries between the “performers” and the “audience.”

My new pluralistic attitude has even affected the way I teach clarinet.  I am a guide to my students’ self discovery.  Much of the lesson time is devoted to working on clarinet technique, however, I have also found new ways to help others become more expressive in their playing.  I no longer believe in natural talent and often express this to my students and their parents when their traditional beliefs in talent seem to hinder the student’s progress.  I have never met anyone who has picked up a clarinet for the first time and started playing it well.  It takes time and practice to develop the physical skill of playing and it also takes time and practice exploring the clarinet as a means of expression to become naturally expressive when playing the instrument.  Soft Tablets brings out the expressiveness of all its participants in beautiful and meaningful ways no matter what their musical and artistic training may be.  I later became an Artist-in-Residence at the University of Texas at Dallas along with the other members of BL Lacerta and there had the freedom to develop courses which helped the students and myself get a cross-cultural understanding of the creative processes we were exploring.  The writings of Hillman, Eliade, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc. all seemed to give some insight into the processes we were using.

When budgets were cut at UTD, due to the oil glut during the 80’s, I went back to school to finish my B.A.  I decided to get my M.A. at St. John’s College because my work was becoming so interdisciplinary I wanted to get a broader understanding of, and to become more articulate about, Western thought.  I was also excited about the possibility of applying some of the processes of interaction I learned through the arts to interacting with words in a St. John’s seminar.  At St. John’s the seminar is a wonderful example of pluralism in education in that the faculty, who are called tutors, do not lecture but facilitate discussions.  The tutor is often required to preside over a class whose topic is not in his/her field.  However, the tutor’s background in the topic is not as important as his/her expertise in working with the subtle dynamics of a group discussion.  The tutor must also be an active participant in the learning while also being sensitive to each student’s relationship to the group, the discussion and the topic.  It seemed that my experience in improvisation was very helpful when I was participating in seminars.  I had no problem finding my place in the discussion and then changing my role when I felt it was necessary.  I was sensitive to the solos and duets, and the cadences and climaxes of the discussions.  I believe that this method of learning is best especially when working with texts.  St. John’s seminars work exclusively from original sources out of the “Great Books.”   One, thus, becomes immersed in the words and styles of great thinkers whose works have survived time to become a part of the great St. John’s cannon.

I chose to get my Ph.D. from the Union Institute because the program gave me the freedom to fully develop the Novena project while I also wrote a very comprehensive contextual essay which thoroughly analyzed myself as well as the context for my work.  The closed chaotic structure of the Union Institute was a different way of using randomness and the complexity evolving from it to enhance learning.  At the Union Institute one enjoys a great deal of freedom while still conforming to the strenuous requirements necessary for making one’s research worthy of a Ph.D. in the eyes of the greater academic community.  I became a small but integral part of a community of fellow learners whose needs to research their ideas was just as intense as mine.  The book entitled, A Person-Centered Education, describes the history and philosophy of the Union Institute more thoroughly than I can in this short essay.

I have learned from experience that there may be as many ways to learn as there are subjects to learn times the number of people there are to learn them.  When I teach I am most effective when I act as a guide for others in the process of learning while I also work as a co-learner working along side them.  As an artist I value my own performances the most when involve the audience to the greatest extent possible.  Therefore, teaching and performing are becoming more and more similar to each other for me.  I am not really trying to describe my teaching as an art as many in other professions would describe their work as an art (i.e. the art of management, the art of war, etc.)  Certainly any work can be seen as an art when one takes a holistic approach to it.  I am more specifically saying that teaching has evolved directly out of my art as the people I interact with have become the medium of which I have the greatest interest.  I am no longer interested in being the virtuoso clarinetist whose ability and insight into playing the clarinet could dwarf even the appreciation of the audience.  I want to keep exploring art at the cutting edge in a way that the audience can give me new insights.  We learn from each other by seeing how others perceive.  We also learn from the chance events coming from our interactions.

I have had many wonderful teachers and mentors, John Cage being the most notable, however, I must say that the teacher who has been the greatest influence on me was Robert from the Denton State School.  However, at the time, I was playing the role of “teacher/therapist.”  How can we change that mean little aphorism to something that rings of greater truth?:

Those who explore themselves thoroughly through their art teach while they learn.