Thursday, December 31, 2015

Music is something more than an individual possession

The Cambridgeshire Report on the Teaching of Music: Music and the CommunityThe Cambridgeshire Report on the Teaching of Music: Music and the Community by Cambridgeshire Council of Music Education
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I noticed Music and the Community on a bookshelf six minutes before the public library was about to close and couldn't resist grabbing it.

Originally published by the Cambridgeshire Council of Music Education in 1933, the whole book is a primer for the way music education should be conducted in schools. In the introduction, the importance of this teaching is first made clear: music is a language. Later on in the book, the authors strengthen its connection to literature by saying that "old English music should be as familiar as old English poetry." Yet just as not every English-speaker has to be well-versed in all the nuances and subtleties of poetry, not every person who receives a music education needs to be a virtuoso. The important thing is that the music is learned.

According to the book, however, there are problems that prevent music from becoming "a guiding principle to regulate and illumine all the activities of our existence." Firstly, music deserves to be listened to intensely, but music nowadays is so ubiquitous that
most people who hear music do not really listen to it at all; they let it fall upon their ears as a pleasant succession of sounds, making no effort to understand it and taking their chance of being soothed or stirred by it.
So, the bulk of the book is dedicated to instructing teachers on how to teach music. Music education should begin early with singing (starting from the age of four), be non-restrictive, and quite often be communal because making music together offers "mutual accommodation, a mutual sense of giving rather than of taking, such as no other communal occupation demands in the same degree." At an early age, kids should be taught nursery rhymes, which are important parts of "musical heritage" and have simple melodic structures that help with rhythm retention. Another thing that helps with the "development of the rhythmic sense," the authors note, is dancing - as somebody who has recently caught the jitterbug, I could not agree more. Music learning should also encompass historical and instrumental education as the students progress, and curriculums will differ depending on whether the schools in question are preparatory, public or universities. Yet regardless of the type of institution, "a vigorous musical life is undoubtedly an important factor in improving the tone of a school."

And there are many things that the government sector can do to facilitate the accessibility of music: they should not tax tickets sold at concerts given by local choral or orchestral societies, for example, and public libraries should expand their music sections.

Despite the eagerness with which the book vouches for inclusive music education, however, it also offers words of warning about the extent to which music is perpetuated:
Music should contribute to the life of the community an attitude of social harmony and tolerance; if we do not recognize that there are times when music is out of place we fail in one of the virtues that music is supposed to foster.
And this line made me crack up:
Lovers of music should be most careful not to cause annoyance to others; they may always hope that those who lack fervour will one day see the light, but the change will not come through the antagonizing effect of over-enthusiasm.

So, there is a "danger of making music available at all times" - heard under the "wrong conditions," it will only become an "irritant to nerves."

The whole book is a quick, engaging read. It definitely has a predominantly classical, traditional and British focus concerning music education (it was, after all, published in 1933 by Cambridge), which is perhaps a drawback in modern times, but also presents an interesting point of comparison to today's music scene. Instead of ensuring that every school has a piano, for instance, would a modern-day rendition of Music and the Community insist that every student have an iPod? Or Garageband installed on their computers? Should vocal training take rap into account?

It is fitting that this is the last full-length book I'll read this year (although I'm trying to read a collection of Chinese short stories before I fly out) because it's made me think about all that has changed not only since 1933 regarding music, but everything that has transpired globally and personally in just 2015.

It's been a year of great change and music has continued to be in my life for all of it - experiencing my first snow in Chicago during my orchestra rehearsal, dancing until 1 a.m. in the city to swing music, listening to songs on 15 hour plane rides to and from home.

I started this post as a book review, but as I write this last paragraph I realize that it has also been a way for me to bid goodbye to 2015 and look forward to the new year. I'm excited for the new books I'll read, words I'll write and music I'll hear in 2016!

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Monday, December 28, 2015

This desire to govern a woman--it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together before they shall enter the garden

A Room with a ViewA Room with a View by E.M. Forster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

E.M. Forster's A Room with a View is set in Italy and England during the Edwardian era of the 1900s, a time that was less repressive than the Victorian era but still not entirely divorced from its traditionalistic values. The novel opens in the charming and exciting city of Florence, where "all kinds of other things are just outside," but the viewless room in which Lucy Honeychurch finds herself is fashioned so closely after an English drawing room that she feels as if she were still "in London." As Lucy and her cousin Charlotte lament their lack of scenery, two men - Mr. Emerson and his son, George - suddenly offer them their room, which has a view. Yet Charlotte rejects their offer flat-out, "repressing Lucy" throughout their conversation with the Emersons, concluding a brief yet revelatory scene that sets up much of the context and characterization the later events of the novel continue to develop.

Forster writes that "there is much that is immortal in this medieval lady," but that "in her heart also there are springing up strange desires." Lucy, as he says, "does not stand for the medieval lady." She refuses to "be stifled," "would really like to do something of which her well-wishers disapproved" and wants to "care for liberty and not for men." However, she is too easily swept under the domineering arms of her cousin Charlotte, who certainly falls somewhere on the 'medieval lady' spectrum. At the extreme end is Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy's mother, who thinks that "if books must be written, let them be written by men." For Charlotte,
It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.

This is a quote that I reread multiple times because I cannot say that I disagree with all of it. I wholly believe that a woman's mission can be to achieve for herself; however, it is also true that a woman in the Edwardian era would struggle if she "rushed into the fray herself." The first line of Charlotte's statement, however, does show that she is not as repressive as she often appears to be. This is an observation that is also made at the end.

Before all that happens, however, Lucy first locks herself into an engagement with the dreary and conservative Cecil Vyse, who considers it a "test of refinement" to "[despise] the world as a whole," believes that "women revere men for their manliness" and always feels "that he must lead women, though he knew not whither and protect them, though he knew not against what." Unsurprisingly, every time Lucy thinks of Cecil "it's always as in a room" with "no view."

Which brings us back to the men who offered her a view in the first place (got to love that symbolism), the Emersons. Of all the characters in the novel, Mr. Emerson harbors the most advanced and modern ideas. He is against the church, is confident that men and women "shall be comrades" and - instead of praising some divine power - believes in the "holiness of direct desire" - love. It is from him that we hear the boldest, most quote-worthy statements about love:
“It isn't possible to love and part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

Mr. Emerson is thus the greatest optimist in the novel. On the contrary, his son George is a "young man melancholy because the universe wouldn't fit." When George throws Lucy's blood-stained photographs into the river, we get a sense of his vulnerability. And it is this gesture, as well as his awkwardness, that moves Lucy because such behaviour shows her that "men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help."

George and Cecil show us that "men fall into two classes – those who forget views and those who remember them, even in small rooms." Indeed, Mrs. Honeychurch and Lucy also show us that women fall into these classes, too. A Room With a View is a timeless read because we will always be surrounded by Cecils and Mrs. Honeychurches, albeit under ever-evolving political and social circumstances. The ending of this book and the new friends that I have met this year give me hope that more and more people in the world will remember the importance of views, want to have them and not be afraid to accept them when they are offered.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away


The last time I watched Star Wars in a cinema (discounting the 3D version of The Phantom Menace) was 2005, when Revenge of the Sith was released. That was a decade ago, but Star Wars has been in my life for much longer. I remember spending many weekends watching Episodes 4, 5 and 6 in LaserDisc form in the campus library when I was a child and watching Episodes 1 and 2 countless times at home on TV (definitely less of 1, though, which includes a certain long-eared character I cannot tolerate). I remember dressing up as Leia for Halloween in kindergarten and walking down the assembly hall during my high school graduation to the Star Wars theme. I have never been the kind of fan who can rattle off the names of all the droids in the galaxy, but Star Wars - which has been a huge part of essentially my whole life and shaped me in so many ways - has all of my love and affection (as you can probably tell from the url of this blog).

So, I watched The Force Awakens today and felt all the feels and shall express them as intelligibly as I can via this blog post right now. The backdrop of the storyline is this: Luke has gone into retreat after one of his padawans turned to the dark side, submitting to the "First Order" helmed by the evil supreme leader Snoke. The "Resistance," hoping to right the galaxy (and led by none other than Leia herself), aims to destroy the order and find Luke before the stormtroopers can get their hands on the map that leads to him. As usual, this key information is stored in a droid, which in this case is the unbelievably adorable BB-8.

So, Star Wars is still Star Wars - we have our trusty droids, lightspeed-capable ships and, of course, the familiar black-and-white stormtroopers. One minute in, however, I realized that this is the first time I have ever seen storm troopers portrayed so believably - not just clunky, dumb and dull but actually terroristic, savage and humane. When we see blood smeared across FN-2187's helmet, we are reminded that the stormtroopers are human: they bleed. And for the first time, we also get an indication of their backstories, how they were seized from their homes to serve the order. Finn thinks that his decision to flee is an act of cowardice, but it is one of strength.

Speaking of strength, I LOVE Rey. I love her like I love Leia. Both are such smart, independent and capable women. The first thing Rey says is a shout, a command, and that already sets the tone for her character. She can scavenge, fly the actual Millennium Falcon, fix it as well, and clearly needs no hand-holding. But there is more to her than just skill - there is also the force. And it is very strong with her, which of course sets up questions that (I hope) will be resolved in Episodes 8 and 9.

Despite all that is new about The Force Awakens, however, a lot is the same: the classic cinematic transitions between scenes, the familiar shots of X-wing fighters as they zip through the galaxy and, of course, major father-son issues. What distinguishes the rift between Han and Kylo Ren (or Ben) and the one between Vader and Luke is that the latter involves a son hoping to help his father, while it is the son that has turned to the dark side in the former. And while we do not truly witness Vader's internal struggle until he eventually decides to bring down Darth Sidious, we see Kylo Ren's dilemma from the start. Even though he entreats the Dark Side, hoping to remain in its iron grasp, whether or not he truly belongs there (probably not) remains to be seen.

The Force Awakens made me so happy on a myriad occasions. I lost it when I saw the Millennium Falcon (the piece of "garbage," as Rey calls it - of course). I also lost it when Han and Chewie showed up for the first time, when Leia, R2D2 and C3PO turned up, when Han made that golden reference to the trash compacter, when Luke turned around on the cliff at the end.

But naturally, there were also times during the movie when my heart broke. When the First Order tested out their new weapon - that was basically Alderaan x 5. And, of course, when Han died...
I saw it coming when I saw the bridge, but the fact that it happened is heart-wrenching nonetheless. In my eyes, Han has always been invincible. He has survived Jabba and all the smugglers on his tail. He has evolved so much, going from a major force-skeptic to one who says in this movie, "all of it's true." So, watching him being brought down by the dark side of the force was depressing, to say the least. Yet I understand that it wouldn't have been ideal to keep Han on board for the rest of the series, which should focus instead on the new generation. So, Han's death - although devastating to witness - didn't ruin the film for me.

In the days leading up to the premiere of The Force Awakens, we become aware of just how many people in the world (well, galaxy) love Star Wars: film buffs, Jimmy Fallon, kids clutching books about the series, and more. Star Wars has attained the status of legend. There is a 'correct' order in which one 'must' watch the films, everybody knows the sound of Darth Vader's signature breathing, and news that someone has not watched the series is usually followed by an astonished (or outraged) gasp. The seemingly worldwide worship of Star Wars has inevitably led to its immense commercialization in ways that often only succeed in looking cheap. But the films' vast fanbase has also paid tribute to it in wonderfully creative and deserving means, and The Force Awakens is an outstanding example. I cannot wait for Episodes 8 and 9.

May the force be with you!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

“Sure, some news is bigger news than other news. War is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy fucked her and didn't call. But I don't believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes.”

The Empathy Exams: EssaysThe Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have wanted to read Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams for a very long time because the questions she grapples with are ones that I, too, often try to answer: what is empathy? What kind of territory do I find myself in when I empathize with someone? And what do I make of my own emotional response to the pain of those with whom I empathize? 

The Empathy Exams is a fitting title that captures the nature of the eleven essays in it. The title essay traces Jamison's experience as a medical actor, a job that required her to play the role of sick patients in simulated scenarios and speak to medical students whose performances she would later evaluate via a checklist: how well could they assess her condition? Did they give the right advice? And, checklist 31: how well did they express "voiced empathy" for her "situation/problem?"

For the medical students, the 15-minute session was simply an exam they had to take. Yet an "empathy exam," like all tests, takes work, and can herald disastrous consequences if failed. What distinguishes it from a regular exam is that passing is not simply a matter of getting over half of the questions right:
Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see
“Empathy isn't just something that happens to us - a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain - it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
The parts of the book with which I resonated the most strongly were those in which Jamison looked at empathy from a self-analytical (and sometimes criticizing) standpoint, discussing what one might call the 'problems' of empathy:
“When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.” 
When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console? Does giving people a space to talk about their disease -- probe it, gaze at it, share it -- help them move through it, or simply deepen its hold? Does a gathering like this offer solace or simply confirm the cloister and prerogative of suffering? Maybe it just pushes on the pain until it gets even worse, until it requires more comfort than it did before. 
This is the anxiety of the empathizer, a self-consciousness that Jamison - and I, honestly - have never been able to escape. Is empathy still empathy when we "trust the fact of suffering, but not the source?"  
How do I inhabit someone’s pain without inhabiting their particular understanding of that pain? This anxiety is embedded in every layer of this essay; even its language—every verb choice, every qualifier. Do people have parasites or claim to have them? Do they understand or believe themselves to have them? I wish I could invent a verb tense full of open spaces—a tense that didn’t pretend to understand the precise mechanisms of which it spoke; a tense that could admit its own limits. As it is, I can’t move an inch, finish a sentence, without running into some crisis of imputation or connotation. Every twist of syntax is an assertion of doubt or reality.
While it is only in "Pain Tours" that Jamison examines empathy in specific geographical locations, she conveys the territorial nature of suffering in all her essays. After all,
“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia - em (into) and pathos (feeling) - a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” 
In some ways, we can derive a sense of self-gratification from such travel: we are often inclined towards sentimentality, just as "we like who we become in response to injustice: it makes it easy to choose a side." Yet the foray into "another person's pain," of course, also hurts: "empathy bleeds." Jamison's geographical analogy works so well because visiting a troubled country and trying to help it is a lot like taking a tour of somebody's broken emotional landscape: the journey may not be pleasant, but the traveller must always strive to remember the purpose of the visit and the people for whom it is made. Throughout her book, Jamison approaches the subject with a critical eye, an often-innovative form and piercing introspection to convey that empathy is difficult, demanding - but also indisputably important.

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