Do You Hear What I Hear?

Many years ago, in December, we were having burgers and beer in a local pub, with friends. The sound system was pumping out Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey, all the ‘classic’ Christmas tunes. One of our dinner companions remarked that I must be happy, surrounded by the Christmas music he was sure I loved.

But no.

I do have a thing for Christmas music—always have, dating way back to the LPs my parents got for ‘free’ when they had their snow tires put on. (In super-snowy western Michigan, it’s either snow tires or a winter spent digging yourself out of those scary, two -story snowbanks.) The LPs featured the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Dinah Shore, Steve and Edie, maybe Elvis. A little drummer boy, a little Jesus, a little rock and roll.

My affection for seasonal music has less to do with ‘getting in the spirit’ than seeing what artists and arrangers do with familiar tunes. Over five decades, I’ve performed in or conducted hundreds of Christmas concerts and programs, and there’s always something delicious to sing or play–and just as often, something really banal or obnoxious (lookin’ at you, Frosty the Snowman).

When I finally had my own collection of Christmas LPs and tapes, in the 1970s, I began making Christmas mix cassettes for friends, an excuse to buy more tasty holiday tunes and then turn them into gifts. Some of my long-time favorite albums—Noel by Joan Baez, arranged by Peter Schickele—stem from that period. I made one mix tape per year, and often mail-ordered LPs and tapes from esoteric catalogs or went scavenging through the bins in Ann Arbor record stores in November.

I still have one master tape made each year, beginning in 1976. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to play them on anymore. With the advent of CDs, in the 1980s, I copied tracks from CDs and LPs on to cassettes. And when I got a computer with the capacity to burn CDs, the copying went both ways, and the buying went on, non-stop. I currently own about 350 holiday-themed CDs.

That’s right. What was once a hobby was now sort of a sickness.

When iTunes emerged, I could not imagine a more perfect way to indulge. I could buy new tunes for 99 cents while in my pajamas and cherry-pick one or two gems off my existing albums. Which I did, with all 350 CDs, yielding an ultimate iTunes cache of about 2500 Christmasy music files.

At that point, I shifted to making individually tailored CD compilations for new friends as well as long-time recipients. Some friends sent mix CDs back. All was perfect, Christmas music nirvana. Until.

Until digital streaming made CD players and iPods obsolete. And–I got a new computer, and in transferring files from the old to the new, iTunes, in its infinite wisdom, deleted all the tunes that I had copied from CDs, keeping only the new, purchased-through-iTunes files. I lost about 1500 songs. And, according to iTunes, they’re not coming back— iTunes is on its last legs, to be supplanted by Apple Music.  New cars don’t even have CD players.

My annual CD-making has gone the way of Christmas cards and staying up until 2:00 a.m. to wrap gifts and assemble toys : Bye Bye.

But just this morning, a friend sent me season’s greetings, mentioning that she’s listening to a CD I made for her in 2017. Another friend said she still listens to the tape I made for her, in 1982. Right now, I’m enjoying a playlist that I made for a friend who had a fatal heart attack, the summer after that particular Christmas. And—joy of joys—there is a constant stream of ‘Listen to this!’ YouTube videos, posted by friends, with fresh and delightful holiday-themed picks.

Do I have favorites? Cuts that went on many tapes and CDs? Yes. And what makes them good has to do with the synchronicity of tune, lyrics and presentation. Some artists I like just plow through standards and lay on the cheesy sentiment (IMHO, Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper is atrocious). Others know how to make a tune that everybody knows completely unique.

There is a great deal of gorgeous early Christmas music; tunes that have stood the test of centuries, back to when virtually all music was sacred, dedicated to God. It’s not unusual to hear Quem Pastores Laudaveres in the produce section of your supermarket, come November. And there are a handful of songs that justifiably entered the Christmas canon late—Jackson Browne’s Rebel Jesus or Vienna Teng’s Atheist Christmas Carol, grace coming out of the void—but can be welcomed as the world celebrates the coming of the light, whatever your own personal light represents.

It would be impossible for me to choose 10 or 100 Top Christmas Songs, or even top artists. But here are a few I’ve listened to, today, off the top of my head.

Silent Night—the Hollywood Trombones

Joy to the World—the Empire Brass

River—Rosie Thomas

Sussex Mummers Carol—Burning River Brass

Sweet Bells—Kate Rusby

I have a favorite ‘O Holy Night’ (Jewel) and a favorite ‘Sleigh Ride’ (Sam Bush) and a favorite ‘We Three Kings’ (the Roches) and a favorite ‘White Christmas’ (the Mavericks). I have favorite albums (‘Christmas at Beaumont Tower’) and arrangements.  None of these, by the way, comes from Mannheim Steamroller, which tends to give me a headache. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Hark! Are the herald angels singing?


Seven Reasons Teachers Trust Each Other More Than…Well, Anyone

When I was a relatively young and inexperienced teacher, it became obvious to me that my school (which I liked and where I wanted to continue teaching) would not ever be providing me with professional learning commensurate with my aspirations—or my intelligence. I wanted to be a better music teacher—better ideas about music literature, better tips on improving my students’ skills and understandings, better insights into classroom management. Better everything.

There were two other band teachers in my district, neither of which was a satisfactory role model. And the professional development my district offered was so generic it was useless. Or worse.

For example, all secondary teachers in the district were subjected to mandated workshops on the Canter Assertive Discipline method, wherein we were supposed to put check marks next to unruly students’ names on the blackboard and send home weekly discipline reports on check-marked outlaws.  At the time, I saw over 200 students a day, in huge classes, with one tiny blackboard already preprinted with music staves.

I was also smart enough to have figured out that I wanted kids to behave responsibly for reasons other than fear, record-keeping and retribution. Other teachers in my building hated the Canter method, too, but brought papers to grade during the workshops. Professional development? Something to endure—don’t expect growth or change.

But there were great instrumental music teachers out there, I knew. I met them at festivals and band directors’ meetings. I heard their bands and orchestras play, and I listened to them talk at lunch, about issues we had in common.  I couldn’t afford to go to statewide conferences—I could barely pay the rent—but I decided to improvise.

For the next five or six years, I took a fake sick day, at least once a year. I called up music teachers whose work I admired and asked if I could spend the day observing their work. Nobody ever said no. I learned something valuable in each of those visits, but one visit—the first—was a standout.

The teacher—Al Johnston at Walled Lake Western HS—was the antithesis of the Lee Canter philosophy of teaching. Al spoke softly but directly to his students, without threats. He filled each hour with purposeful, pre-planned instruction—the kind where you set goals before class, rather than winging it. He was kind, and his students were, class after class, friendly and comfortable with classroom routines.  He knew tons about band literature and told me he’d taken private lessons on instruments where his own skills were shaky—and he’d let the students know he was studying to shore up his weak spots.

After school, he asked if I’d like to see his home office. We went to his house, where his entire basement was filled with cardboard boxes, filing cabinets, LPs, tapes and a drafting table where he wrote marching shows. Everything was neatly labeled and at his fingertips. Wow, I said. You’re so organized. You can go a long, long way on organization, he said.

That was nearly forty years ago, but that one remark reshaped my teaching for years. I began to see everything I learned about being a better music teacher as an information nugget that should be readily retrievable. Sample materials, conducting techniques, tuning strategies, funny stories and memorable concert programs—filed and accessible. There was always something new to add. Stuff got taken out, too, as better ideas emerged.

This was prior to the advent of computers, of course. These days, there are unlimited freely accessible resources online, not the handful of books I relied on in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. There are online conversations involving hundreds of teachers, and videos of great student performances and lesson ideas.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. The people who know the most about what you do, the people who are most likely to move you forward in your quest to be a great teacher, build your personal portfolio of skills and ideas…are teachers.

But not according to Stacey Childress (@NextGenStacey) of NewSchools Venture Fund who is fretting over the fact that teachers have downloaded over one billion pieces of content from one website alone and are using teaching materials, willy-nilly, that have not been vetted by experts. You get a sense of her rising panic in this statement: Full-year comprehensive curricula are far from the only materials teachers use. Supplemental programs have been eating into full-year market share in a big way over the last 15 years

Nearly every teacher surveyed—94%–said they’d used content they found online and a quarter of them find half their materials and lessons ideas there, generating more hand-wringing over the way these freebie materials are supplanting those prepared and vetted by ‘experts’ and offered in the Serious Marketplace of Curricula. Why are teachers resisting the expert-approved core materials and using their own—inexpensive, constantly updated–picks?

From NSVF’s survey: The core textbook was “too hard” and contained examples that were “not sufficiently engaging.” The quotation marks tell you all you need to know about NewSchools Venture Fund’s opinion of teacher judgment.

Further, teachers surveyed confessed that 81% of them trust teachers more than any other source, when it comes to choosing materials and designing lessons. Folks who propose adding expert ratings to popular lesson sharing sites are likely to be disappointed with the results. Teachers are far more influenced by each other than the judgments of experts.

You might wonder why teachers aren’t considered the ultimate experts at deciding what’s too hard (or too easy), or not engaging or downright useless.  Why does NewSchools Venture Fund get to evaluate materials? Here’s their mission statement: We raise contributions from donors and use them to find, fund and support teams of educators and entrepreneurs who are reimagining learning so all children – especially those in underserved communities – have the opportunity to succeed.

In other words, they raise money so they can continue to exist, and influence the education marketplace one white paper at a time. Meanwhile, teachers are saving actual children, 180 days a year, including those in underserved communities.

Why do teachers trust each other? We know our students better than curriculum developers. Shared, teacher-created lessons have been battle-tested and tweaked, rather than aligned to easily tested standards. We are not granted professional autonomy so downloading something new to try can feel a bit like freedom. Developing our own lessons and materials depends on free or inexpensive sources of inspiration, as district resources go toward expensive published materials. A lot of the stuff we’ve been given is not working. Only another teacher can offer practice wisdom.

Thanks, Al. Before the internet, there was your friendship and advice. I owe you.


The Lure of Bad News

I have this Facebook friend—a woman I haven’t seen in decades but who was my actual pal and work partner in high school.  As it happens, with relationships like this—threadbare, based on outgrown commonalities—we have taken two very diverging roads in the yellow wood of life.

And not just politically and socially. She is that person who continually reposts urgent TV reports of missing children, including children who have mercifully been found safe, six months ago. I don’t know where she gets her news and information, but you can count on her to post flamingly incorrect horror stories every three or four days:

Did you know the Obama White House banned nativity scenes?  Not a single flag at the Democratic debate! There once was a time the president was honored, no matter who he was—let’s get that back! Christians are being persecuted! We could feed and house all the homeless in America with what the Democrats have spent on impeachment!

About that last one, which Snopes doesn’t touch—there are an estimated 553, 742 homeless people in the United States. Spending $10K on each homeless person (which might, optimistically, feed them and get them off the streets for six months) would cost us $5.5 billion.  A far cry from the actual costs of investigating the President since 2017, calculated by PolitiFact last month$32 million (minus some $22 million recouped in Paul Manafort’s forfeited real estate).

These numbers are not in the same ballpark. No matter. It’s the shock that counts.

I know what you’re thinking: Unfriend, unfriend, unfriend. Who needs to be connected to someone so benighted, so right-wing?

Well, hmm. Part of the reason I’m still wrinkling my nose at her Boomer memes and posting corrections on her page—no, they found this kid, safe with his dad, in July (confirming link)—is because, I, too, am attracted to bad news.

In fact, we all are, even though the world has always seemed to be bound for hell and things are actually much better now than they used to be.

There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: “Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.” Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as “Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.”

Think about President Trump’s inaugural speech. Here’s how U.S.A. Today described it: Trump delivers populist manifesto that depicted U.S. as a land of abandoned factories, economic angst, rising crime and dystopian “carnage.”

Not exactly morning in America. Or hope and change, asking what we can do for our country. And we now know that wherever the buck stops these days, it is no longer the Oval Office. Instead, the leader of the free world seems focused on the water pressure in our bathrooms.

Which is a perfect illustration of the President’s mastery of the lure of bad news: These pesky water-saving regulations for new plumbing fixtures (designed to be environmentally friendly)! I find them super annoying! Bring back the Niagara flush! Courtesy of Donald J. Trump! You’re welcome!

So much for the planet.

Using trauma, fear and alarm over distressing news—think Shock Doctrine—to move people to action is not new. In fact, crisis is often an opportunity for positive action—being attacked by a foreign enemy, rapid climate change, perfidy at the highest levels of government. There is genuinely bad news—threats to our democracy and the dangerous and growing equity gap. We can and should do more.

So why bother with those who are unduly influenced by genuinely fake news?

Because we’re all vulnerable. Piece in today’s NYT: Foreign meddling was once the most feared source of online deception before critical elections. Now, some candidates themselves are turning to such manipulative tactics.

Apparently, a healthy chunk of the electorate can’t distinguish between fake bad news and real bad news, so candidates feel free to ask the Russians to intervene. Or the bot factories cook up bad news memes on their own. It’s scary.

I’ll keep posting Snopes corrections on my friend’s Facebook page (even though she now says she ‘doesn’t believe in’ Snopes—or PolitiFact). Because that’s the heart of this perilous situation: there is no one trusted source of truth.


Women and Power

At the very beginning of the 2020 Presidential primary, I sent $5, a one-time donation, to each of four candidates: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand. I did this because I wanted to see all four of them on the debate stage, and the DNC was counting individual contributors.

What this yielded was a veritable flood of emails asking for donations. I was already getting them from the Sanders campaign (because I donated to him in 2016, also a small-potatoes amount), so this was a lot of email, but it was worth it to see four qualified women debating. We haven’t had that before, and I saw it as one step on the path to equity in electoral politics.

And, although I think it’s unlikely, unless I live to be 100, that I will someday see equity in electoral politics (among dozens of other institutions in the Home of the Free), there are few things I think are more worth pursuing.

When I say ‘equity’ I don’t mean just gender equity—I mean representative equity, being governed by a mix of men, women and people who characterize the entire LGBTQ spectrum, people of color and people of diverse ethnic origin, people who are rich and people who worked as bartenders after gaining a university degree. Young people. Old people. Rural and urban citizens.

Until Congress and State Houses and County Commissions—and, for that matter, school boards and education departments—are representative, we have not achieved real democracy. And considering just how hard some powerholders are fighting to maintain their power, by hook or by crook, this is not a universally admired or pursued principle.

We’re still operating under the subterranean belief that some citizens are more entitled to power than others—generally, the folks who have always held power: rich white men.  Here’s a good example of that, featuring a powerful white man who was the Republicans’ expert witness in the impeachment hearings.

When Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, two days ago, New York Magazine’s The Cut ran this perfect headline: How Are All These Random Men Still Running? Good question.

Zerlina Maxwell, on Twitter: Somewhere a man is typing up his “Why Kamala failed” story and he is not considering race or gender bias and so if you are that man please reconsider your position or read a book.

Keith Boykin, on Twitter: Pete Buttigieg is a 37-year-old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana with no federal or state government experience. He was elected with 8,515 votes. Kamala Harris is a 55-year-old US senator from California. She was elected with 7.5 million votes.

Mikel Jollett, on Twitter:  I just saw the news about Kamala Harris withdrawing and all I can think is I would love to live in a country where extremely qualified, brilliant black women could go further in presidential politics than otherwise mediocre white men with a pile of money.


I for one am heartily sick of watching folks in my party—the party I am counting on to defeat the hideous disaster now residing in the White House, and set us back on the path toward a more perfect union—squander whatever good will we have built up by being better than the other choice.

I am tired of in-fighting, nasty cracks about Harris being a ‘cop,’ and Warren being a waverer as she tries to thread the public opinion needle on Medicare for All, or Klobuchar eating a salad with a comb.

Most of all, I have had it with men with money calling the shots, in a thousand different ways: Using their media empires, their personal fortunes, their hand-picked surrogates—or running themselves. I’m with Jamie Lee Curtis: Voting for women is more than gender politics. It’s opting to create real change.

Yes, I know—not all women are better choices. Yes, some women have been disastrous leaders (often pushed into policy corners and bad decisions by white men with money), in spite of their promise. And yes, it would be lovely to live in a world where ‘the best’ candidate could be anyone—demographics would not matter, and genuine merit would reign.

We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where, despite 100 years of female suffrage, we haven’t had a woman serve as president. It’s time.

If there’s anything the 2018 mid-terms have taught us, it’s that women elected to power do upset conventional apple carts and rattle cages.

Charles Blow gets the last word:
It seems to me that the questions here are bigger than [Harris’s] missteps, real or perceived. Every campaign has missteps. It is hard to look at this field of candidates and not remember a cascading list of missteps. And many of them have things in their past for which they have apologized. But one question is why missteps are fatal to some campaigns and not others. It is fair to ask what role racism and sexism played in her campaign’s demise. These are two “isms” that are permanent, obvious and unavoidable in American society. It is fair to ask how those features impacted media coverage, or the lack of coverage.

It’s time for some representative equity.

Some power-sharing.

Some change.