Thursday, October 10, 2013

Single Efforts and Butterfly Wings: Why It Matters

It is hard to deny that part of the reason we write is that we believe we have a story to tell. We believe that, against all odds, our voice matters. We write so that our ideas can be recognized. And we write because we believe it's possible for a small voice to have big impact.

Tonight, I saw it in action. I attended the 100th anniversary celebration of Roxbury's Hibernian Hall, one of the Irish dance halls featured in my See You at the Hall: Boston's Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance. I was invited to make some short remarks, and I also performed with in a small Irish traditional band that played a couple of numbers from the dance hall era. Other performers included a James Brown interpreter/impersonator and a drum group from Trinidad. Community Catalyst awards were presented to four artists in Roxbury whose work has contributed in critical ways to the cultural landscape of this inner city community, where generation after generation of immigrants have come and gone since the first three-deckers were built there in the 1800s, back when it was still considered the "outskirts" of town.

What I didn't expect tonight was that the Heavey-Quinn Academy of Irish Dance would perform their piece "See You at the Hall."  The piece had been choreographed by a well known Irish choreographer over a year ago, inspired by my book. Unbeknownst to me, the piece won seventh place in the 2013 World Irish Dancing Championships, held in Boston last fall. Never heard of the piece.

Before the dancers performed, a woman read a poem based on my book, and then read some passages I had written. Such a joy to hear my words read back to me by someone I've never met. Then, the girls danced an approximately three-minute piece that interpreted the story my book told, including danced interpretations of small but colorful details of a cultural environment that I myself had recreated after having listened closely to the voices of those who were there.

I cried.

The Heavey-Quinn School of Dance performing "See You at the Hall"
at the World Irish Dancing Championships last fall in Boston.
After they performed, I went backstage to meet them and all I could do was blubber. What a gift, to see this work interpreted by a younger generation—teens whose grandparents had met on that very dance floor, some sixty years earlier.  We posed for a photo together, then we had a chance to chat. They were all sunshine, bubbles, and frankly, just a little bit of wonder. (Oh, DO go on...) Their spirits were airborne. Palpable. They had read my book, and they had danced it. And now we finally all met in person. Such a thrill for me. And I got to model for them what it means to have an idea, follow through on it, and be happy. An author. Imagine.

The thing is, no one would ever have known the story of the Irish dance halls in Roxbury, if someone hadn't written it down. It would have just lived in the memories of a whole bunch of grandparents and it would have been forgotten within a generation. The book didn't sell a million copies, and I certainly didn't make a million dollars. But I contributed to a collective history of Boston and legitimized the experiences of a whole generation, who can now look on those good old days of dancing at Hibernian Hall as an important piece of Boston history and an important contribution to the cultural life of the city. They can say that what they did in their lives mattered.

And so can I.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Berklee in Malaysia: Journeys are made by the people you travel with.

The tagline of the national airline of Malaysia is “Journeys are made by the people you travel with.” A seven-day stay in Kuala Lumpur with three others from the Berklee community has proven that true. Amazing journey, amazing colleagues. Berklee sent us here at the request of our Malaysian Berklee International Network (BIN) school, the International College of Music. We came to share our expertise, but Malaysia has shared just as much with us.

We have grown both inside the workshops and outside on the streets. Inside, during the four day-long workshops at ICOM with music teachers and industry professionals from all over Malaysia, my colleagues have delivered not only facts but also perspective. From Music Education Chair Cecil Adderley, who spoke about technology in music education and led a full-day workshop on ensemble leadership and rehearsal techniques, we learned to think about learning music through performance. Vice President for Curriculum and Program Innovation Jeanine Cowen presented two workshops, one on PA setup and another on game audio, and reminded us that technology is a tool, not an end in itself. Associate Professor of Music Production Prince Charles Alexander reinforced that message in an inspiring day-long workshop in which he discussed the evolution of music technology, the history of hip-hop and innovation, and production and engineering techniques. He emphasized that technology supports our central goal as musicians: to communicate—to express things that are central to the human spirit. And I led a full-day workshop for ICOM faculty on online learning, and was reminded by my colleagues here and in Malaysia that innovation is infectious.

For ICOM President and CEO Irene Savaree, a Berklee grad and founder of school since 1996, bringing this expertise and these mindsets to her college helps to support her underlying goal—nation building. Together with her brother Ravi Savari and her inspired staff and faculty, ICOM is helping to create a thriving music scene and arts economy in a nation that is still designated Third World yet boasts the world’s tallest twin towers. They are making history here in Malaysia, working tirelessly to build a musical culture. For me, they have redefined what it means to be gracious, to be visionary, to be inspired, and to be open—and to enjoy the journey.
Indeed, they tell us it is a challenging culture in which to forge change. Malaysia is a diverse county, split between three cultures, Indian, Chinese, and indigenous Malay, the last of whom make up just over 60% of the population. The schoolteachers we met in our workshops, almost all Malay, struggle with many of the same issues as music teachers in the US. Malaysian educators face challenging national curricular goals and standards set by the Ministry of Education. They teach theory, vocal and instrumental music, but also physical education and academic subjects. One educator described his music education community members as “Jack of a million trades; master of none.”

Teachers expressed frustration that there is so little time in the school day to experiment with new ideas or techniques, including how to use technology to further their aims. If teachers wish to expand on their approaches, they must do so on their own time, and parents not always willing to let students stay late at school. Teachers feel that the curricular goals set by the Ministry of Education are aggressive, given the time they have available. They feel that they goals are clear before them, but they don’t quite have the support and guidance they need to help reach those goals.

In that regard, it is a great honor for us to be here to share some of the innovative approaches we have employed in the US—but the sharing has been completely reciprocal.

Outside in the diverse streets, shops, and restaurants of Malaysia, our trip has been a creative journey as well. Inspiring conversation about culture, the arts, and the experience of being an artist has led to colorful cross-pollination and new friendships. Big, healthy laughter has punctuated every conversation. Every moment is filled with discussions about intellectual property and compensation, about innovation, bravery, and the future of music, politics, war stories from the bandstand, and healthy razzing about the personal quirks we’ve discovered in each other. The one-line quips and wise-guy remarks have turned in to motifs that have kept us laughing throughout the journey. I could not have foreseen how important this sort of trip is for collegiality and for professional reinvigoration, but it makes perfect sense: Put four creative and open individuals in a new, inspired environment for a few days and you can’t help but encounter new ideas.

This is how innovation begins. We bring these new ideas home to enhance our lives both at Berklee as music educators and outside of Berklee as artists and practitioners. When we land in Boston, our suitcases will be full of batiks, Royal Selangor pewter, and Malaysian handcrafts, but the most important gift we bring home from Malaysia is that we are richer and more creative music professionals for having journeyed here and back, together.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hating to leave, yearning for home—wherever it is.

Christmas Eve stroll on Howth Head, Dublin.
Back from Ireland to start the new year, the Year of the Family.

When you fly home for the Christmas—back to Ireland—you'll almost always find an inflight magazine article by someone living away who goes back, looking forward to the piss up and the fry up, the banter with old friends, and the smell of burning turf, but fearing the tired, tearful January goodbyes with a red-eyed Mammy at Dublin Airport, pockets full of Barry's teabags and suitcases full of Cadbury's chocolate—ephemeral vestiges of the ease and the sweetness of a trip home. It's the fairy tale of the emigrant: the Irish person leaves for America, finds a job and finds love, builds a family, and returns home to find that they're not exactly sure where it is anymore.

But what about us Yanks who've married in and have made Ireland our second home? It turns out that we've become torn between two countries as well. You see, you Irish people have set the bar very high. Nobody can do the banter like you, no one can do the music so naturally, and nowhere in the world makes batch loaf to match Brennan's.

When I leave Ireland and come home to start the new year, I'm leaving behind the best tea, the best chocolate, the best salad sandwiches, and the best cream buns. And I'm leaving behind some of my favorite people in the entire world and a way of being that I only experience in pockets with a very select group of friends here. I'm leaving behind a comfort and an ease that has nothing to do with holiday blush, but instead with folks who appear to be more socially well-adjusted. Sometimes I say that the Irish are less neurotic. It's not really that, though. It's just that, unlike Americans, the Irish don't wear their neurosis on their sleeves. Only their closest friends know their deepest pains and weaknesses, and they deal with it by slagging them mercilessly for it. We all laugh together, and somehow it's alright.

Sunday session with Celtic Symphony at the Bloody Stream, Howth.
And then there's the music. About twenty years ago, my husband and his closest mates started an ballad session together at a pub in Howth, just north of Dublin. They were three young men in their twenties, with an acoustic guitar, big strong voices, and bellies full of Guinness. That session is still going strong, and those men now have supervisory jobs at the Corpo, at the local powerplant, and more... but they're still singing. They have families now, but they still make it out to Howth every Sunday to a packed house.

When the session started back in the early 1990s, it was the Dubliners, Christy Moore, the Furies, and some of the newer Irish bands of the day, like Aslan, the Pogues, maybe even U2.  Now, there are different faces and it's all new. Every six or so songs, you might hear an Irish one. In between, you hear acoustic versions of the Kings of Leon, the Killers, Beyonce, Cee-Lo Greene, and other new artists that my husband and I didn't recognize at all because we shut off the radio about fifteen years ago. These new songs, sung fireside in a warm pub by eight to ten full-bodied voices, accompanied by four acoustic guitars, an electric acoustic bass, a banjo, an accordion, maybe a whistle, have an energy that makes your chest vibrate and your eyes tear up. It moves you. You just don't get that in the States. And nobody's worried about whether it's Irish or not. They like the songs, and so they sing them.

When we come home, we miss the color and the spirit of Ireland but we love the color of home. In Ireland, it's bright green and it's a deep, rich, fertile brown. It's refreshing. It's natural. It's real. And it's home. The airport was sad and grey, but our American home is warm and red and gold. It's home, too.

Now, we've got suitcases to unpack full of pressies from Dunnes and Penny's, a "borrowed" Guinness pint glass, the guitar picks you can only get at McCullough-Piggots Music Shop on South William Street. As I take each thing out of the case, I'm getting closer to home and further from Ireland, and so I don't hurry to unpack. Because as I have adopted Ireland, Ireland has adopted me too. I'm in like Flynn. Except I'm not a Flynn, nor a Murphy, nor a Nolan, nor a Sullivan. I'm some Lithuanian last name no one can pronounce but I'm also a Lindsay. I can sink Guinness like the best of them and when I get back to Ireland, I'm always reminded that that's not such a bad thing at all.