Sometimes you hear veteran jazz musicians listen to a younger up and coming one and exclaim, “Yep! He/ she’s the real deal.” It means they hear something authentic, something with integrity, something with character. The musician has something to say and they’re saying it. And what they say is what they feel and what they feel is what they live. They’re taking it all as seriously as a life and death matter, even (and hopefully!) with humor and play thrown into the mix. I remember being at a Joshua Redman concert and was mesmerized watching him come out onto the stage playing his saxophone like a hunter stalking his prey. A hunter whose family hadn’t eaten in weeks in a land where prey was scarce. And he caught it!
When it comes to teaching kids, it’s the same. For me, the real deal is you are not playing around. I mean, you are playing around, but as if your life depended on it. You can be goofy and funny and occasionally even corny, but mostly you are feeding the little ones who are starved for something worthy of them, hungry for beauty, thirsting for something that feels real and meaningful and authentic. Dished up with meticulous care, unswerving affection, unrelenting determination. You are the teacher whose motto “Whatever it takes” means you’re never clocking your hours or billing your time. Your steadfast refusal to be cute or contrived, to talk down to kids, to exploit their vulnerability to the insulting dumbed-down aesthetic, is part of what makes you real. And like the Velveteen Rabbit, you have been hugged and loved and dragged over the floor by kid after kid, stuffed away or thrown into the corner or even into the trash by adults who don’t get who you are,. Your clothes are ragged, your ear is torn, your buttons are missing, your face is dirty, but as the story says, it’s all part of what makes you real.
This is on my mind because my real-as-they-get colleague passed on to me a Youtube video from one of the teachers we trained who should have known better, but lowered the bar to the merely clever and even that, not so much. And then once that rabbit hole opened up, I took a peek at all the other side videos for what passes for music education these days and it gets so much worse. I mean, so much worse.
And somehow, all of this connects to every crisis we’re facing in culture and climate. When we can’t be real to the most important people on the planet— the children—what hope is there for them? Or us?
I’ve spent my life convincing people that music is a delightful game we play in which everyone wins. And it is. But the teaching of music ain’t no game. If you get my meaning.