- What will you allow your music to be?
- What will you allow your students’ music to be?
- Who makes the decision about what music is allowed to be in your classroom?
Peter Gabriel, one of my absolute favorite musicians/songwriters/composers, always seems to be allowing his music to become what it wants to become. Not that the music has a mind of its own, but Gabriel plays with sounds and allows the music to unfold, molding it when needed, to create something new. This led him to his hybrid style of composing and performing adding rock instruments, non-western instruments, and the newest technology available together in search for a sound that resonated with him. In recording “Security,” Gabriel let his music be something broader than what we sometimes allow our music to be.
Since my last post, life has happened to me in a big way, but not in a life-threatening manner. Instead, mental life has happened to me. I’m here thinking “big thoughts” and saying “big words.” Before I came to do my Ph.D. work, I thought that this time would be a time of discovering the world, learning how to help music teachers and student to have better class experiences. But, in fact, it has actually been the most challenging period of introspection I’ve yet experienced, and I know so much more is to come. I was warned that this would be hard, but I thought it would be “school” hard with lots of papers and reading and work. While it is that, the real challenge is dealing with my own shifting sense of self. Who am I? What do I want? What do I value? I spend days in constant states of reflection with only my wife, friends, and Netflix there to pull back into the real world. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I am actually growing to love this, but I love it the way a runner loves the race. I love it because it is painful, but the pain accompanies the sense of accomplishing something great. Now, I apologize that this post is more confessional and less “educational,” but perhaps it can get us thinking about our own lives and the lives of our students.
I am, in all seriousness, the definition of an anal-retentive overachiever. I was the kid who wanted to get A++++’s in every class. I am the curve breaker. I am that kid that asked, “Can I read the next chapter too?” Yup, you probably hated people like me being in your class, or still do. But, I’ve always felt that I needed to produce high-quality products in every aspect of my life. Now, don’t get me wrong, this drive has gotten me to doctoral work in music education. It has allowed me to stay focused on the goal of becoming a college professor since I was 18. But, why did I do it? Why do I feel the need to do better.
Part of it is has to do with my own competitiveness. I never did well in sports, but boy could I “beat you” in science projects or research papers. However, I’ve been realizing that such competitiveness requires me to measure my own worth based on the worth of others. This is not the best way to be motivated. It means that when others who I might not see as “winning” as much as I get praise and I don’t, I feel jealous, I feel wronged. My self worth and sense of self is contingent upon how well you are doing in relation to me. If I’m doing better, I win. Do you see the problem here? I do and I’m taking steps to deal with it. The problem is that I rarely do work for myself. I rarely do things because they make me feel good, they help me develop as a person. Now, I’m beginning to wonder how much I’ve “inspired” my students to live for themselves or to live in opposition of others. Have I helped to develop agents or just competitors?
The other part of my motivation has to do with the reward. I’m always stretching for the carrot. When I get that carrot, the grade or the reward, I find a new carrot to run after. So, I’m amassed quite a collection of carrots, but those are only external things that appear of my transcripts, in newspapers, and clutter shelves. Rewards can be a good thing, but they can also be problematic when all one does is try to be rewarded. In high school, I worked towards getting straight A’s and being a valedictorian. In undergraduate, I worked toward straight A’s (which I didn’t quite achieve), to be distinguished as a music educator, and to become a university honors recipient (bronze tablet at UIUC). In my master’s degree, I still worked toward straight A’s and to be able to show that I was smart enough to get into a great Ph.D. program. I achieved all of these things, and I’ve remained driven, but what have I missed by staying so focused on external things? My varsity jacket of life is covered in patches and brass stars, but what lays underneath? When did I do things for me and not so other people would recognize me as being a great person? Grades have helped me stay driven, but do they signify that I have learned? What does an A or an S mean, anyway?
When I’ve done intrinsically rewarding things, I don’t really need the grades or the applause. I think back on creating an 80’s rock concert with my 4th and 5th graders. I could have seriously not even been at the concert to have felt the entire venture was rewarding. Kids sang solos and playing instruments to songs they picked and worked out. Dancers danced their own dances in front of a screen that displayed student animations and scripted comedy routines. What we did was fun and what we did was for us. The concert may have been an initial motivator, but it really didn’t matter because the experiences carried more weight for myself and my students (at least it seems so). Also, when I write song, I really don’t care if others like them, they are for me. But, in some ways, when I do things that feel good and are not as clearly connected to an extrinsic reward, I feel selfish and dirty. Why is that?
Why do I feel bad when I’m intrinsically motivated and feel awesome and focused when there is something out there to win? Am I alone? How did I get here? Is there some way to balance these impulses? How can I get my students to realize that it is okay to do something for themselves, something that makes they feel internally valuable. That doesn’t mean we should teach our students to be withdrawn and hedonistic. But, how can we help them see the intrinsic rewards of being driven and doing good? I felt intrinsically good when I helped a friend move recently. I did it because it made me feel good and I knew it helped someone I cared about. I didn’t do it for the pizza (which was delicious and unexpected) and I didn’t do it so he would thank me; I did it for me. But, how can we foster this type of motivation in our classrooms? Self-worth and internal growth is very hard to measure in any quantifiable sense. So, how valuable are grades anyway?
Instead of starting on a tirade about grading practices (as I know there are positives and negatives wrapped up in this realistic issue), I’ll just leave you with these wonderments:
In this space, you will find short writings inspired by readings, current events, and things that manifest in my consciousness at any given time. No need to check back regularly, as who knows when I will update it.