<i>A Twa Lala</i> -- Play a Song: My Keynote Address at the Music Educators Symposium at the Yale School of Music

On June 10, 2009, it was my great honor to deliver the keynote address at the Yale School of Music's biennial Music Educators Symposium.
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On June 10, 2009, it was my great honor to deliver the keynote address at the Yale School of Music's biennial Music Educators Symposium. I got to pay tribute to 51 of the best music educators from public schools around the United States. Dean Robert Blocker, Associate Dean Michael Yaffe, and Assistant Director of Concerts and Media Dana Astmann, welcomed me with enormous grace and warmth.

The Yale School of Music serves as a marvelous example of bringing arts education to our public schools through their Music in Schools program, which sends Yale School of Music professors and students into the New Haven schools. Below, I have posted a video of the event and have also published the speech in its entirety.

Good evening, ladies and gentleman. It is my inexpressible honor to address you, our nation's foremost music teachers here at my alma mater. My deepest thanks belong to Michael Yaffe and the Yale School of Music for having invited me to speak this evening. Although I attended the Yale School of Drama, rather than the School of Music, I did play the flute as a child and danced ballet professionally from a very early age. And every Sunday morning, I awoke to my father blasting classical music, Latin jazz, Spanish guitar or Stevie Wonder on the radio, whistling and tapping his broom along as he swept our New York City apartment. Between music in my home, music on the streets of New York, in-school music instruction, and out-of-school exposure to musical masterpieces via dance, my environment imbued me with a profound relationship to this universal language. Great music makes my cells tingle. I'm tingling right now, just standing in this room with all of you brilliant music makers.

I feel very much like Walt Whitman in his poem, the Music Always Round Me:

THAT music always round me, unceasing, unbeginning--yet long untaught
I did not hear;
But now the chorus I hear, and am elated;
A tenor, strong, ascending, with power and health, with glad notes of day-break
I hear,
A soprano, at intervals, sailing buoyantly over the tops of immense waves,
A transparent bass, shuddering lusciously under and through the universe,
The triumphant tutti--the funeral wailings, with sweet flutes and violins--
All these I fill myself with;
I hear not the volumes of sound merely--I am moved by the exquisite meanings,
I listen to the different voices winding in and out, striving, contending with fiery
Vehemence to excel each other in emotion;
I do not think the performers know themselves--but now I think I begin to
know them.

"Untaught I did not hear," says Whitman. You who have been invited here today teach children to hear - to hear music in the world around them and to hear the world around them in music. You teach them to listen - for layers, counter rhythms, and deeper meaning. Unless we can perceive deeper meaning in a world of surfaces, unless we can learn by listening to others' meanings how to create our own, unless we can create harmony out of difference, how will we evolve as a society?

You also teach young people to become "the performers" of which Whitman speaks, who do not "know themselves" because they are so lost in their music that they are the music - and, in the case of your students, who don't "know themselves" yet because they are young, still evolving their identities. Through music, you help them to know themselves. You offer them an identity hard to find in society at large - an identity characterized by technique, theory, analysis, creativity, collaboration, expression, awareness, complexity and harmony, structure and improvisation - all skills vital to success in any arena. Young people gain confidence in your classrooms. They develop a love for learning that they can bring with them into other subjects.

I have a friend named Patricia Canale, a singer and actress, who grew up in the Bronx as the eldest daughter in a family of twelve children. Her first music teacher was actually her tap-dancing teacher: Sis Adagnostosis, a former Ziegfeld Folly, who still wore her hair in a giant beehive in the 1980s, chain smoked long cigarettes from between her dragon-nailed fingers, and whose heavy perfume hung closely in the small dance studio. Mrs. Adagnostosis would sit her little troupe of 3- and 4-year-olds in a circle around the record player and ask them, "What is the music doing?" Thus, the toddlers learned about rhythm, dynamics and tempo, as well as how to engage their critical thinking skills.

Another friend of mine, the musician, singer, composer, music producer, and peace activist, Derrick Ashong, also exhibited an early affinity for music. When he was a mere infant in Ghana and his parents couldn't get him to stop crying any other way, they would drive him around in the car, which contained the family's only radio, soothing him with the sounds of its music. He amazed his parents with his first words: "A twa lala," (pronounced A-CHA-LA-LA) meaning "play a song." He delighted them by wiggling his tiny hands in the air and moving his feet as though he were playing the piano - even though he'd never laid eyes on the instrument. His parents championed his natural musicality by singing to him in their native Ghanaian languages of Ga, Twi and Larte, teaching Derrick and his sister how to harmonize in the traditional ways of their culture. Ghanaian languages are tonal, like Chinese, which is to say that the way you sing a phrase gives it its meaning. That is why the African "talking drums" really talk - they are speaking in a tone that sounds like words. In a sense, musical eloquence was Derrick's birthright.

When his family immigrated to Brooklyn, there was no music teacher in Derrick's local public school, as music programs had recently suffered severe budget cuts. Local kids, responding to innate rhythmic yearnings, devised their own musical education by free-style rapping on front stoops and street corners. This provided a rudimentary musical grounding for kids with no other options. However, as Derrick says, "If you give kids not just grounding, but training, the sky's the limit. That's why schools need programs."

Back in the Bronx, Patricia's early exposure to music through Mrs. Adagnostosis had instilled in her a positive correlation between the word "teacher" and feelings of happiness, enthusiasm and self-esteem. As she advanced in school, she retained her high opinion of teachers and strove to excel in all of her academic subjects. Unfortunately, her public school had no music program whatsoever, but when she entered Catholic school, Patricia began learning recorder and performing in school musicals.

Her first formal music teacher, Alaina Seraio, noticing Patricia's powerful singing voice, offered her private lessons, subsequently teaching her how to sing soprano and mezzo-soprano parts, harmonize, perform popular songs, as well as Handel's Messiah and other classical works to which she would never have been exposed otherwise. Patricia began singing in Italian, which gave her a first opportunity to wrap her articulators around the language of her family's heritage, to research Italy and it's great opera singers. Much to her chagrin, Patricia's family had neither the means nor the curiosity to travel further than Yonkers. However, she transported herself through time and space by singing of a foreign land in a foreign language. Significantly, Miss Seraio schooled Patricia in the art of interpretation, which would serve her later when she became an actress. "When you're saying the words," her teacher exhorted, "use your voice to describe what it's saying. If the lyrics say 'a beautiful, placid sea,' make your voice a beautiful, placid sea. If it talks about going back to the homeland, how does your voice communicate that?" Patricia could apply these tools when singing, not just opera, but also Aretha Franklin. The versatility she learned from her early music teachers manifests itself today: not only did Patricia win $100,000 on the pop-music game show "Don't Forget the Lyrics," she is currently appearing as a Vatican singer in Ron Howard's DaVinci Code sequel, Angels and Demons.

Eventually, Derrick's parents followed job opportunities from Brooklyn to the Middle East. They enrolled him in a British-system school, where Derrick began playing the clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone and drums in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. At 13, in the nation of Doha, Derrick finally fulfilled his early dream of playing piano, when he began studying with a Mrs. Morgan. Her husband would pick her up from school in a classic Corvette Stingray, creating the unexpected connection in the young man's mind between classical music and being cool. Frustrated that he was beginning piano ten years after most of his peers at the British school, Derrick began practicing furiously. A friend of his gave him the sheet music to the first movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. One day, he surprised Mrs. Morgan by playing the piece. "Where did you learn that music?" she asked. "Did you teach yourself to play that?" When Derrick responded in the affirmative, Mrs. Morgan smiled and said, "Now we can play whatever you want." She began coaching him vigorously and, pretty soon, Derrick was composing his own pieces, bringing together the classical music he was learning in school with some of the Caribbean rhythms he had learned in Brooklyn, as well as West African music, hip-hop and pop rock. His Doha high school, as part of its core academic program, required rigorous courses in vocal ear training, composition, and the playing of instruments. High standards assessment, in the form of O Level exams, offered Derrick the opportunity to strive for excellence in all aspects of musical understanding and expression. "Training gives you tools that you can't develop naturally," says Derrick. "It's like the difference between simply speaking English and performing Shakespeare."

Wade Barrett, a singer, songwriter, guitarist friend of mine, who grew up near here in Wilton, Connecticut says, "Music is a unifying force. It speaks to and from a place in ourselves that is beyond vocabulary . . . it reminds us that barriers need not exist between people." She goes on to say, "I would have written school off entirely, if it weren't for arts learning, particularly music."

Meanwhile, Patricia asserts that, "Growing up, art and music were my life blood. You take that away from a kid when that is what makes them want to live - it's like cutting off their oxygen supply. When I was singing, I felt safe and happy. Art is our human expression of the divine. It's how I participate in the healing of the world."

Like Patricia, Derrick insists that his early music teachers did no less than change his life. He says, "I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today without my music teachers . . . Music affects the way you learn and see and understand everything else. If you want to develop really powerful minds, you've got to teach kids to think creatively and independently."

That's what all of you do.

One thing Patricia, Derrick, Wade and I have all expressed is a regret that we never had more music appreciation and cultural history classes in school. Recently, at the Arts Advocacy Day celebrations at the Kennedy Center, I saw music legend Wynton Marsalis perform a two-hour, jazz-infused, spoken-word odyssey, called The Ballad of the American Arts, which illustrated the rich and complex tapestry of America's arts history. Marsalis repeatedly invoked one of our most identifying national songs, Yankee Doodle, which every American school child sings to this day. Not only did Yankee Doodle rouse revolutionary fervor in the war for independence, it also admonished its listener to "mind the music and the step." In other words, music and rhythm unify our national identity, ignite our hearts, and give us the strength to move forward to greater freedom and greater responsibility for each other as a community. Returning to Whitman's utterance, music and rhythm help us to "know ourselves" as a culture. If we forget our cultural history, we will cease to know ourselves and will be lost. You are transmitters of our national identity.

Since I myself knew little of America's music education history, I ordered a book aptly titled, A History of Music Education in the United States, by James A. Keene. One of the themes the book addresses - which Wynton Marsalis's speech echoes - is the United States' inferiority complex regarding what it sees as the folksiness of its culture, as compared to the so-called "refinement" of Europe. Many of us seem to forget regularly that the world never would have received the priceless gifts of jazz, gospel, the blues, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll, country music, or hip-hop, were it not for the melting pot of American folk culture. According to Keene, "Harriet Beecher Stowe described the singing of American fuging music as 'a grand wild freedom, an energy of motion, . . . that well expressed the heart of a people courageous in combat and unshaken in endurance'" (p.30). In fact, the rebellious streak in our music has caused controversy since before the establishment of our republic, rendering the teacher of music an inherently provocative figure. Music teachers often served as itinerant workers, performing a motley assortment of tasks to survive - a lifestyle that may still sound familiar to some of you. In the June 20, 1757 edition of The New York Weekly Post Boy, John Beals, a teacher of "violin, oboe, German and common flute, and the dulcimer," advertised that, not only would he play "'musick' for balls and other entertainments," but would also work as "a maker of nets 'to keep the flys off horses.'" (p.72)

Throughout our nation's history, music educators have fought to survive budget cuts. Teachers have found themselves advocating music education in what Keene calls, "terms that were understandable to the majority" - in other words, terms that demonstrated music's influence on "material success" (p.164). In 1857, the Vermont Teachers Association passed a resolution, stating that, "vocal music may be made a very effective instrument of moral training and good government" (Ibid).

However, a rare example of an educational report expressing music's intrinsic value appears in 1862 from the Vermont Board of Education: "[T]here are influences for good derived from music alone. Its tendency is refining. A character touched by the sweet breath of music cannot be rough and coarse . . . Music, more than any other human influence, awakes the tenderest sensibilities . . . And this power to stir the emotions is such, that it often affects those who are impervious to other influences" (p.165).

I, personally, have tutored kids from the streets, kids "impervious to other influences," who transformed when they discovered they could play Beethoven's Fur Elise by ear - suddenly attending to their homework, if told they could play piano when they were done, and composing their own, mellifluous pieces. No doubt, you, our best music teachers, have witnessed music perform quotidian miracles in and out of your classrooms. Perhaps these small miracles have kept you teaching, despite myriad challenges.

No doubt, you deal daily with the frustration of budget cuts. Perhaps you have fought to keep your music programs alive or bought your own materials, so the kids would not have to go without. One thing I know is that you're not "in it for the money." Another thing I know is that you ignite the latent passions and talents of youth, who could slip too easily into apathy and the kind of insecurity that paralyzes exploration and experimentation. You engage youth in learning that would otherwise elude them. You give them a chance to move forward confidently into the world beyond school, a world they will help shape with contributions that would have never existed without you.

That is why I've traveled 3,000 miles to thank you. Thanking you, I'm thanking my father, who taught me to play Heart and Soul on the piano when I was seven. I'm thanking Mr. Smith, my blind flute teacher who wore dashikis and navigated New York's subways with his white cane, in order to teach me and other 9-year-olds songs ranging from The Lion Sleeps Tonight to Finlandia. I'm thanking Paul, the accompanist in my early classes at the Joffrey Ballet school, who inspired my legs to kick higher, as I performed grands battements to his uninhibited rendition of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. I'm thanking my ballet teacher, Miss Dorothy, a southern belle and former soloist with Diaghelev's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, who taught me to embody the music. Arts learning, inspired by teachers just like you, has always been my raison d'etre - first as a learner, then as a performer, sometimes as a teacher and, now, as an advocate. It engaged me in school as no other mode of learning could, exposing me to opportunities of which my parents had only dreamed - such as gaining entry into Harvard and Yale and performing throughout the United States and abroad.

In Late March, I saw Ava Spece, the D.C. Youth Orchestra's Executive Director, sit before the National Endowment for the Arts council, after a moving performance by one of the orchestra's chamber ensembles. Ms. Spece stated that, while Washington D.C. has an abysmal high school graduation rate of about 57%, the Youth Orchestra has a high school graduation rate of 100%. That was music to my ears.

As a music teacher, you offer as much to society as any doctor, lawyer, fireman, policewoman, or politician. Without the passion, delight and purpose you ignite, there are children who literally would not want go on living, or would go on living in a colorless world of obtuse sounds and severely limited prospects.

Your song isn't just the notes you're teaching your pupils to hear, sing, play, write and interpret. Your song is a humming blue flame in your heart that gets you up out of bed, in the Midwest at its iciest or the Southwest at its most scalding, the Southeast at its most humid or the Northwest at its rainiest. Suddenly, the music you conjure from your students taps into the indigenous genius of your region, turning scorching air cool, melting the ice, drying the humidity and luring the sun from behind her veil of heavy clouds. Your song motivates your every step into the school building, where you know you'll face countless obstacles - personal, professional, behavioral, budgetary and aesthetic. Your song swells when a struggling student's face flickers with recognition of a dynamic's visceral impact, when a difficult youngster drops her armor and gives herself to a whole note, when that cacophony of adolescent voices unites in angelic harmony, when a radiant talent emerges from the crowd. And, as you touch life after life, changing each one forever, opening new pathways, liberating youth from their innumerable struggles, offering them hope and opportunity, new modes of reflecting, connecting with, and affecting the world, your song takes on symphonic splendor. Now I'm really tingling.