Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Strange New World

I wonder … what would Gene Roddenberry think?

A little context here:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of “Star Trek”, the television series that went where no man — where no one — had gone before.

Meaning out into the stars, yes … but in the context of the mid-1960s and what was considered okay to put on television, this series went to a few places and did a few things that were just about unheard of, at the time – beyond doing what science fiction does best, namely under-the-radar commentary on current events.

On the bridge of our fair starship Enterprise: well, yes, a white fellow in the commander’s seat, and a white fellow in charge of keeping everybody well and healthy … but look at the folks who are helping them out:

An African-American woman in charge of keeping the Enterprise in touch with the outside world.

A Russian fellow — at the time, you’ll recall, Soviet Russia wasn’t exactly considered your warmest fuzziest neighbor — in charge of figuring out how to navigate the ship from place to place.

An Asian man in charge of steering the darn truck! (And firing the phasers, when sadly necessary.)

Yes, a white fellow in charge of keeping the ship propelled properly, but sporting an accent that was darn near impenetrable.

And a green — green! — alien. Not an illegal alien. And not an alien that is here to menace our heroes. And not a “little green man”, as early science-fiction writers imagined. A tall, dark (greenish) and handsome native of another planet entirely. And, um, friendly. If a bit bemused by the humans surrounding him.

As opposed to hell-bent on conquering our world. Or taking our jobs.

The crew of the starship Enterprise was meant (overtly or not) to be a microcosm of the sort of world that Gene Roddenberry believed was possible, some day in the future. His vision has been derided by some as full of Pollyanna BS in its utopian glee; but honestly, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone was judged by their character and not by what they looked like?

Who, indeed.

Fast-forward fifty years from the first appearance of Captain Kirk and his merry band of genuine friends, and … well, politically, we’re not exactly in a happy-clappy utopian mist of bliss, out here.

This morning, I was listening to a segment of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, an interview with a Florida resident who is likely to vote for Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. He didn’t see himself as a hardcore, rally-attending, rally-protester-punching, campaign-press-corps-threatening Trump supporter. No indeed. Rather, he saw himself as a person who, after much consideration, really did think that voting for Trump was his best option “in a weak [election] field.”

And to wrap up his self-assessment, he said a most curious thing.

This is not one [vote] that I’m gonna be bragging about in the future. This is the first presidential election cycle in my lifetime [in which] I have not had a yard sign, a bumper sticker, a pin, a shirt, a hat … there is nothing on my property that would tell you who I’m going to vote for. I told somebody, you know, I like ‘Star Trek’, but I am not dressing up like a Klingon and going to the convention, okay? I’m going to vote for Donald Trump, but his yard sign is not going in my front yard.”

Setting aside the fact that, well, in this case, as in many others throughout history, at least one voter is glad that American elections are done by secret ballot, so no one has to know that you actually voted for Candidate X … and also setting aside the inescapable impression that he held beliefs for which he really didn’t want to have to stand up and be counted …

Here we have a self-professed fan of “Star Trek”, a program whose underlying point was that the wonderful thing about the people that is going out and exploring the wonders of outer space is that they represent race full of human beings who have figured out how to live peaceably and productively with themselves, and have matured to the point that they have begun to appreciate and value people and things and aliens that are different, rather than continuing to be spooked and scared by “strange new worlds”, and probably to be violent toward “new life and new civilizations”.

And this Florida man is supporting a candidate who has managed to awaken many Americans’ latent hatreds, by way of behavior and policies that espouse exactly the opposite philosophy from that “Star Trek” show.

I wonder what Gene Roddenberry would think.

I can’t speak for him … but as for me, at the very least I think that Florida man fundamentally misunderstands “Star Trek”.

Either that or he just likes it for the phaser guns, and spaceships, and fistfights wherein William Shatner rips his own shirt, again.

What really makes me nervous is that, according to the original Star Trek canon, Earth and its humans had to endure a Third World War before they could come out the other side and start to rebuild their civilization into something that would one day become the Roddenberry vision.

Here’s hoping Mr. Roddenberry was wrong, at least in this one detail.

Twenty days.

October 19, 2016 Posted by | current events, Famous Persons, news, npr, politics, radio, science fiction, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Essential Personnel Only

In my career as a music educator, I think I’ve heard it all.

Which is a foolish statement, since I’m not done yet. But, specifically, I’ve heard lots of variations on the theme, “well, music isn’t as crucial a subject as language arts, or math.”

Occasionally, this has come in the form of sympathy, where if there are cuts to be made to public school budgets, we music teachers (along with our colleagues in the art room, theatre, home ec kitchen lab, shop, etc.) work under the anticipation that we’ll be amongst the first to be let go. “We’re always on the bubble,” I have murmured.

Sometimes, this comes in the form of a version of … well, I don’t know if relief is the right word, but the usual quote is, “well, you don’t teach MCAS subjects, so you’re not quite as stressed out as those who do, right?” – MCAS being the local Commonwealth of Massachusetts (God save it!) acronym, and also pejorative term for, standardized tests. I have been known to half-joke, “if they ever decide to pilot a music-MCAS, I’m going into insurance.” Give or take a fine-arts course requirement, I always saw as a luxury the relatively large percentage of students who were in my music classes because they wanted to. Because they enjoyed it. Because they got something out of it … and frequently reported that in retrospect, those classes turned out to be really important in their development as well-rounded humans.

As often, music teachers hear (or overhear) the ol’ “music isn’t as crucial a subject as language arts, or math” refrain [and if you studied music, you know why calling it a refrain is exactly accurate!] in the context of what is considered important in education, and what is not.

 

In the last three decades, it’s been discovered that A Nation was At Risk, and that we must Leave No Child Behind, and that we must Race To The Top, and that we must ask whether our children is learning.

Amidst that environment, forces from within and, increasingly, outside of the sphere trained education professionals have emphasized that we must prepare our children for their inevitable role as cogs in the great works of a strong, competitive American workforce. Must remain economically competitive, first and foremost, after all.

No doubt, it’s important for people to be able to write well, to read well, to perform math well. If you ask me, randomly, out of nowhere with no warning, what are the important skills for children to develop so they can function in our society, I admit that I’ll autopilot back to the “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic” thought.

Nonetheless, in this space, I have previously written a sufficient number of posts that if you’re a regular reader, you get the idea: it’s important for children to have access and exposure to the fine arts. Never mind the various studies that line up musical participation with higher test scores, and other very fine but arguably extra-musical benefits. That’s fine. But as Wynton Marsalis, one of America’s most well-known advocates for music education, has noted many and oft: Americans are in danger of losing their culture. We as arts educators are fighting to keep our population aware of the existence (never mind the effect) of Aaron Copland, Louis Armstrong, Madeleine L’Engle, Ansel Adams, Al Hirschfeld, Martha Graham, and Duke Ellington (for openers).

So, no news there.

Having spent some time as a teacher, and (happily) having been a student of some positively stellar teachers throughout my life, I have come face-to-face with the requirements of the profession. Comprehensive knowledge of subject, yes; but, equally, comprehensive knowledge of the craft of teaching, ability to work with children (never mind all the different kinds of children that come from all different backgrounds and bring all kinds of different baggage), and – something you can’t quantify in a test or from looking at a resume; you have to see it in action to know you’re looking at it – utter love for the activity and its participants.

A long-standing friend of mine heads a major university’s undergraduate teacher training program, and he blogs nearly constantly – and eloquently indeed, backing up his assertions with an almost ridiculous amount of research – about the daunting list of qualities that is required of teachers to be good teachers. He has also struck me as something of a ferocious guard dog to the profession, when he has written about the additional responsibilities that are increasingly being required of teachers once they enter the public-school teaching, thanks to (to be frank) the meddling of policy-makers whose “ed reform” philosophies appear to be motivated by factors having more to do with profits than with any kind of genuine care and concern for our children. He’s an often delightful thorn-in-the-side of people who really ought to get themselves gone from our game.

And he writes with the aforementioned utter love for the teaching profession, and concern for the young people that he and his colleagues are trying to prepare for that career. And he’s bugged, to put it mildly, by the environment that those new teachers are likely to get thrown headlong into. But he’s fighting the good fight, no matter how uphill it may be getting.

And then this sort of thing happens.

 

The headline read, “Late Night Budget Action Dilutes Teacher License Rules”.

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree could be hired and licensed to teach sixth- through 12th-grade English, math, social studies or science in Wisconsin under a provision slipped into the state budget proposal by a Republican lawmaker”, wrote the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “And any person with relevant experience — even a high school dropout — could be licensed to teach in any other non-core academic subject in those grades, according to the provision.” [The emphasis is mine. Read on.]

This provision was approved as part of a K-12 education budget package by the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week in a vote that took place at 1:30 in the morning.

The measure’s chief legislative proponent claimed that its purpose was to help rural schools find and retain qualified teachers in hard-to-fill subjects. The executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance riposted that the measure “totally destroys any licensure requirements that we have in Wisconsin.”

In an interview, the Wisconsin legislator said that the idea was “to help schools fill specific niche areas, not to help people bypass a four-year degree and some kind of formal teacher training.” [The emphasis is again mine. Continue, please, to read on.]

A spokeswoman for the state teachers union said that teaching requires more than subject-matter expertise; and that a teaching license provides some assurance that the person has received training in how to teach children.

But then I read this summary of the news story offered by Wisconsin Public Radio’s news website. And it may have been just an unfortunate turn of phrase … but words matter, particularly in the journalism business, and I don’t think the single word that got my attention is insignificant. I think it reflects to presumption of far too many people, inside and outside of the education profession:

Last week, a provision was placed in the state budget by a Republican lawmaker to allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree to be licensed and hired to teach core academic subjects. Under the same provision, no education would be needed to teach non-essential classes in middle and high schools.” [The emphasis is … everybody sing along … mine.]

I’m quite certain that amongst those non-essential classes … is music.

 

This is the uphill battle that arts educators have fought forever, and fight right now, and likely will have to continue to fight.

If it doesn’t help you in the world of the global competitive workforce … if it doesn’t get you ahead in the business world … if it doesn’t have a direct effect on The Economy … well, then it’s not essential. Ed reformers insist. Legislative lobbyists insist. Dear Lord, even public radio (on purpose or not) parrots the terminology that relegates any subject having to do with art, culture, or anything else that isn’t standardized-testable, to the academic underclass of non-essential.

Non-core academic subjects. Niche areas. Non-essential classes.

These people.

May 28, 2015 Posted by | arts, blogging, current events, education, government, journalism, music, npr, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hard Act to Follow

I’ve been lucky enough to know a few folks who would be filed quite readily under the heading “a hard act to follow”.

For a couple of weekends this month, Garrison Keillor took the opportunity to yield the host duties of his “Prairie Home Companion” radio program to someone else. I don’t know whether he sat and listened to the shows along with the rest of us … but there was such spectacular subtext every time his guest host, Punch Brothers lead singer Chris Thile, opened his mouth that I actually found hard to listen. And it’s not even my show! Can’t imagine what the creator of Lake Wobegon was feeling, no matter how much he may have brushed off the idea.

Not that Thile did poorly; he did fine, considering the task set before him. But for forty years, the voice that has spoken words like “coming to you live from the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul” and “heavens! They’re tasty, and expeditious” has been Keillor’s, and if anyone else tries it, it is simply Not. The. Same.

When NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” news quiz program begins each week, I admire the baritone of “legendary anchorman Bill Curtis” doing the introductions … but it’s just not Carl Kasell.

Re-boots have that innate challenge. We love the folks who are “our first”. Shatner is Captain Kirk. Dirk Benedict is Lieutenant Starbuck. Don Adams is Agent Maxwell Smart. Lou Ferrigno is the Hulk. Good luck to Chris Pine, Katee Sackhoff, Steve Carell, and the CGI version of Mark Ruffalo. Your results may vary.

And heaven knows, in the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to bid farewell to a number of performers for whom there will be no re-boots. They played their roles in such a way that any attempt to recreate those roles precisely … would be seen as cheap imitation. My Dad, as my primary example, will never be duplicated, which is a shame; but at the same time, doing a Dad impression is of less use than carrying on in such a way that the good works he left behind are what continue.

It’s a balancing act. Even in the Drum Major Academy world, we’ve brought both George Parks’ guiding principles and many of his bits of schtick along with us, in the four summers following his passing … but the curriculum and presentations are evolving. Wisely, the people who were charged with the task of presenting the “beware the drum major attitude” lecture session (which were shot through with Mr. Parks’ personal anecdotes) have been encouraged to bring their own additions and elements to it.

When Garrison Keillor retires, will “Prairie Home” even continue? His voice, his writing, his “old-time radio” approach, and without doubt the fictional Lake Wobegon community that existed only in his head, are so individual to him that it might be anywhere from wild and blind optimism to hubris for someone else to try to reproduce his act.

Assuredly, if it continues, it won’t be the same; but will that turn out to be okay? Depends upon whom you ask. Some will refuse to listen to a changed “PHC”. Some will keep on tuning in, to listen to Rich Dworsky at the piano, to Tim Russell and Sue Scott and Fred Newman’s able radio acting voices … but someone else will be writing the Ketchup Advisory Board and “Guy Noir, Private Eye” sketches – if they even survive the transition. And, if this month’s guest-hosted shows are any indication, no one will even try to reproduce the “News from Lake Wobegon”. At which point, some will say that it’s not really “PHC” anymore, and others will appreciate the “Moth Radio Hour” storytellers that may be brought in to fill that show segment. I don’t even know which direction I’ll go.

Last week, the radio world – and New England’s more local radio world – lost someone who will be a hard act to follow.

Richard Sher, the host of the public radio word-and-wit panel quiz show “Says You!”, passed away on Monday, February 16, after a battle with colon cancer.

I’ve been regular listener of the show for the majority of its eighteen and a half seasons. Happily, I live in a part of the country that plays host to live tapings of “Says You!” at least once a year; so once a year since 2009, I’ve taken my mother (also a big fan) to an afternoon or evening session wherein a couple of episodes of the show are recorded. (I even bumped into one of my former students in the audience on one occasion; I was both thrilled and totally unsurprised.) It’s as close to old-time radio as it gets anymore, with the possible exception of, yes, “A Prairie Home Companion”.

Part of the fun of “Says You!” has been its refusal to take itself too seriously. One of its philosophies is: “it’s not important to know the answers … it’s important to like the answers.” A larger part of the fun is the panelists who are asked to wrestle with the ferocious trivia quizzes, word puzzles, and brain-teaser questions that Richard Sher created for each week’s broadcast. Six New England-based writers, radio journalists, television personalities and other performers, in teams of three, tussle with the intellectual challenges and also interact with each other – with equal helpings of brilliance and silliness.

These masters of out-loud problem solving and on-the-spot joke-making were assembled into this verbal gymnastics team primarily because they all were long-time friends of Richard Sher. As the moderator and ringmaster of this flying circus of word and wit since its inception in 1997, by turns Sher guided the proceedings and sometimes seemed to hang on for dear life.

He would shamble onstage before a taping started, usually clad in tan corduroy jacket with brown elbow patches (necktie optional), and grab hold of each side of a small speaker’s podium, slightly hunch-shouldered … looking for all the world like a cross between an amiable English professor and Gru, the evil mastermind of the “Despicable Me” movies.

And always, he came off as the kind of person that his friends described him as, in the various obituaries that have appeared in the last fortnight: affable … creative … quirky … a mensch … warm and funny … “cynical but zany” … gentle and humane … eminently lovable.

Sher could make audiences laugh explosively at his gently acerbic emceeing (“That is a brilliant answer. Totally wrong, but brilliant even so.”). But he would not have been above literally falling over laughing at one of his panelist friends’ ad-libbed jokes. This happened during a number of the tapings that I attended; when it took him a few minutes to recover his composure afterward, the audience learned what an “edit point” in radio was. (“You’ll be amazed at how seamless this all will sound when it hits the radio.”)

When my mother handed me the Boston Globe‘s obituary page and said, “read this,” I read the headline: “Richard Sher, 66; created and hosted radio quiz show ‘Says You’”. I’ll admit that my first thought, following the initial sinking feeling that always accompanies such a realization, was: “aw, Ben.”

Benjamin Sher was Richard Sher’s beloved son, whom the obituary described as “part of the show, serving occasionally as scorekeeper and doing voice-overs”. At the end of each broadcast, the show’s credits finish with Richard saying, “Benjamin, give ’em the skinny!” and his son replying, “Says You! is produced by Pipit & Finch, Boston!” They’ve had to re-record Ben’s reply at least twice. I think there’s a four-year-old version, an eight-year-old version, and a thirteen-year-old version. He’s just as much a vet of the show as any of the panelists.

Mr. Sher was devoted to his son,” continued the obituary, “driving him to school and attending every event possible. When work took him out of town, his wife said, he would pause the taping to take phone calls with results of his son’s sports contests.” There’s no good time to lose your father, but I can appreciate that I got most of forty years to enjoy my dad’s company. Benjamin Sher got something like fifteen of them.

My next thought was: “Richard Sher is a hard act to follow.” I wouldn’t want to. There are just some acts, whether big and bombastic or subtle as a raised eyebrow, that are unique. My mother and I agreed that it would be next to impossible.

In January, when I attended the taping of two shows at Regis College, not far from Boston, I obviously didn’t realize that I was watching Richard Sher’s radio swan song. It’s not often in life that one consciously realizes they’re seeing something happen for the last time. And I wonder if anyone in that audience knew that Sher was suffering from colon cancer, that he had just six weeks left. He wasn’t lettin’ on, that’s for sure. It must have been one of the great moments of “the show must go on” that I’ve seen, at least live and in-person and in the fifth row.

Sure enough, Richard Sher (along with the extended family he’s left behind) appears to have defied expectations once again. Who might have predicted that a wordplay radio quiz show would thrive for most of two decades, in our current short-attention-span entertainment world – even if it was public radio and not commercial? And the website pronounced, not long after he passed away:

It was Richard’s wish that the show continues – the laughter it generates from you, our loyal listeners, will be the greatest gift that could possibly be hoped for …”

According to the Globe obituary, “’Says You!’ will continue its broadcasts. … [T]here is a reservoir of nearly 500 taped shows that can play at any time. Part of Richard’s genius was his foresight in editing out all topical references, so each program is freestanding.” “This truly is an ensemble,” said Sher’s wife, Laura, a program producer for the show. “While Richard has been the lead in that, this is an ensemble strong enough to go on.”

As in, not just in reruns. I’m beyond pleased to read that; I’ll be curious to see how they do carry on. I hope, and suspect, that Richard Sher has laid a foundation that really can endure. He was the literal voice of the show; but he emphasized and showcased the contributions of his team in such a way that the transition may actually not be nearly as jarring as it could have been.

Perhaps this past January wasn’t the last time I’ll get to a taping, after all. The show will go on.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | arts, entertainment, Famous Persons, media, npr, radio | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment