Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Debts, connections and crabgrass

Guest blog by Peter Terry, associate professor of IT and music
Originally presented as a Faculty Meeting opening meditation

Peter Terry and mentor Robert Longfield
I've been thinking a lot about debts. I lost a great mentor this summer: my guitar teacher of 16 years.

Charlie Tomlin was an incredible musician and teacher, and became a great friend. Like many things of importance in my life, we met through chance. His unexpected death left me well aware of how easy it is to leave important things unsaid.

This summer I also read a biography of the great German composer, Joseph Haydn, who was the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. Both of these events have led me to meditate on the nature of debts, the interconnectedness of all of us, and of the holy calling of teaching.

Haydn's father was a poor wheelwright in a village on the Hungarian border in the early 1700s. At the age of 6 a distant cousin, Matthias Franck, heard Joseph singing and persuaded his parents to allow Joseph to be apprenticed to him as a singer and to train as a musician. Two years later Joseph was heard singing by Georg von Reutter, the music director at St. Stephen's Cathedral who took him to Vienna to become a choirboy. When Haydn died at the age of 77, he was the most famous composer in the world. On his wall was a portrait of Franck and Haydn told a biographer, "I shall owe a debt to this man even in my grave."

As teachers we rarely see debts acknowledged, indeed we rarely see whether we have made any impression on students at all. When I was a custodian at the University of Michigan I knew what I had accomplished  at the end of the day, but after almost 30 years as a college teacher it is rare to see the results of what I do daily, and even rarer to have those efforts acknowledged. So I have become a bit obsessed about acknowledging my debts to my own teachers.

In my case I have been indebted to many teachers, but none more so than my high school band director, Robert Longfield. My freshman year in high school I asked him a simple question about notation and within a few days I was working with him on a piece for the jazz band, which lead to three years working through a series of books on music theory and composition, festival performances, arrangements for the marching band, and my first paid arranging job, at the age of 16. Of course, it never occurred to me that this was unusual, because it didn't seem unusual to him.

My senior year Mr. Longfield  took a leave of absence to pursue a degree in music theory at the University of Michigan. I lost track of him when he resigned his position and moved out of state a few years later.

Fast forward 25 years. 2009. I was attending a band concert at the Bluffton middle school, looked down at the program and saw two pieces for string orchestra by Robert Longfield. It turns out that over the 30 years that we had been out of touch Robert Longfield had become one of the most sought after composers of educational string music in the country.

Every December for the past five years I have gone to the Midwest clinic in Chicago which is a conference for music educators. 16,000 band and orchestra directors, and about 5 composers congregate for professional development seminars, concerts of new publications and to network.

This year I was working at the Carl Fischer booth and my editor, Larry Clark and I were recounting our early influences. I mentioned Bob Longfield and that he and I had lost touch. Larry looked at me and said, "Well, he's still in Miami isn't he?" I was taken aback, mumbled something about trying to contact him again. Larry said, "Well, why don't you just go talk to him? I saw him at the Hal Leonard booth this morning (about 20 feet away). So I did. If you've never told a teacher of yours how they changed your life I recommend it quite highly.

In the arts we work closely with teachers for long periods of time, one-on-one, as apprentices more than as students in the classroom. These relationships become very intense. Composers can trace their lineage from one composer to the next, student to teacher, back two or three hundred years. It's a fun game to play, and one I've done with most of my composition teachers.

I sat down the other day and traced my lineage as a composer through Robert Longfield: Terry studied with Longfield, who studied with Bilik, etc…at the fifth generation I hit Bela Bartok one of the most famous composers of the 20th century…very cool. But going on, this trail, instead of disappearing as usually happens, started cascading through famous names…the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt, Carl Czerny, Ludwig van Beethoven, and finally to Beethoven's most famous teacher…Joseph Haydn, who was plucked from obscurity and poverty by a chance meeting with a minor teacher in a small village on the Hungarian border.

Flattering isn't it? Of course, this isn't the whole truth. We are not our teachers—their accomplishments are not ours to claim. We are also not the only students of these teachers, a teacher teaches hundreds and the influence doesn't just go forward linearly, but sideways, and not only in the subjects we teach, but in the processes and in the approaches we use to discipline our minds. Our influence spreads like crabgrass and forms networks, pops up in a hundred places, so ideas ascend through the generations and those influences create a web of thought, and writings, works, legends.

This is culture…this is education… Teaching connects us all, either directly or indirectly and in ways that we cannot see or predict.

I had a picture taken of Mr. Longfield and myself and posted it in Facebook thinking that some of my friends who had him in class would be interested. To my surprise one of the first posts was by Lori Scheer Planchon, a Bluffton alumnus who worked in the Bluffton University admissions office after graduation for a few years. She wrote, "Robert Longfield was the band director at MY high school in Miami.....I marched in the color guard for him!!!!! SMALL WORLD!!" Small world indeed.

Let us pray.  Creator God, remind us that although the light we pass on may sometimes feel very dim, it is often enough to illuminate a path that lasts a lifetime. By the side of this path we only scatter seed; some on fertile ground and some on sand. Nothing is lost, for rain will come, and a harvest will be reaped, and other seed will land, all in its time. Remind us that not only are students influenced by teachers, but that it is students who make us as well.  Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

For the sake of the children…

1987 May Day musical, South Pacific

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight…

       from the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1949 musical South Pacific

Monday afternoon, in observation of MLK day, roughly 100 students, faculty and staff gathered to watch the movie “Selma.” Afterwards we were invited to get into small groups to discuss what we had just seen, to identify the poignant moments of the movie.

Although I was unable to identify it then, the pivotal scene, for me, was the very first scene. Little girls, ages six or seven or eight, were walking down steps discussing their baptism and what the water was going to do to their hair, when a bomb blew up the church and killed them. Why? Just why… how…

Earlier that morning, I was struck by the number of early elementary students attending the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Lima with their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. At first it seemed odd, then as the speaker explained it’s important that those who have first-person knowledge of the civil rights struggle, of Dr. King’s call for non-violence, to pass that knowledge on to future generations.

As if that wasn’t enough, the MLK Jr. Day Forum presenter Sr. Paulette Schroeder spoke about “The ‘Moral Courage’ Needed to Live Nonviolently” and about her time with CPT in Hebron, Palestine. She described how Palestinian children came to believe that every Israeli was evil because of the actions of the Israeli soldiers they encountered.

I’ve also thought about a story shared by Dale Dickey (emeritus professor of speech.) One of his students, I believe it was ’84 grad John (DC) Roger’s dad, was a regular visitor to the Dickey household. Dale’s young daughter loved spending time with this student. 

One day, as she sat on his lap, she noticed a difference in their skin color. She rubbed his hand, rubbed her hand, and then ran off to play. As if to say “yes there is a difference, but it doesn’t make a difference.”

Let it be so.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bitter Rivals?

So tonight is the big night. It’s always a big night when that other team from up north – that other purple team which shall remain un-named - comes to campus.

I was in the midst of gleefully sharing memes from @BlufftonUmbk and brainstorming Facebook posts and tweets to stoke the school spirit flame of the Bluffton faithful in preparation for the “big game” when I opened a story posted by the Defiance Crescent News.

Whoa. Let’s take a break here. Rivals, yes. Backyard rivals, yes. But “Bitter northwest Ohio rivals?” Has it really come to that?

Sure our football guys proudly sport t-shirts simply stating “Beat DC” in huge block letters. Noticed this year that the Defiance student body has nice shirts with a bee (yes, it’s probably really a yellow jacket) over the words “Beat Bluffton.” OK, that’s only fair.

I know that stuff has happened over the years to create hard feelings between Bluffton and Defiance. I’m sure with any rivalry, ‘stuff’ happens to start the rivalry. Maybe it starts with good-natured ribbing which goes too far, then gets retaliated and the next thing you know the paper is calling it a “bitter” feud – like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Tonight as you dress in your finest Bluffton purple (not that cheesy Defiance purple), don your face paint, prepare the big heads. Keep it classy Beavers. Let’s enjoy the rivalry. Let’s cheer our teams. But let’s not give next year’s writers a reason to call this a “bitter” rivalry.

Go Beavers!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Went to Forum and a game show broke out

Just walking into Founders, it was obvious that this wasn't going to be your typical Forum presentation. First there was a definite buzz as students gathered around the speaker, then there were the brightly-colored, numbered “building blocks” and contestant chairs.

It all seemed a bit odd, after all the topic was the somber “Ebola and Fear: A Public Health Perspective.”

Bluffton’s own assistant professor of public health, Dr. Ross Kauffman, whose specialty is epidemiology (or the study of how diseases spread) was the guest speaker.

Ebola is scary stuff. During the current outbreak – 20,206 people have been effected world-wide with 7,905 dying from the virus (as of 1/31/2014). We were told that it could not be spread by casual contact, meanwhile health workers were donning full hazmat suits. And the media – both mainline and social – ate it up. For several weeks/months one could not watch the news or check in on social media without stoking the fear of this strange new sickness (which actually was first identified in 1974.)

What if I told you that more people died last year from diseases/choices that are totally preventable than have died from Ebola? That was the message as Dr. Kauffman the professor, became Ross, the host of “The Risk is Right” game show. Students competed for movie passes, gift certificate, etc., while answering questions about public health issues.

What was soon apparent was that many diseases/ways to die that we take lightly, actually cause more deaths than the one we were freaking out about. For instance, 435,000 deaths per year in the U.S. can be attributed to tobacco use. (In case you are wondering – that is 55 times more funerals in the U.S. alone than can be traced to Ebola world-wide.)

Here is your chance to play along.
  • In the decade of 2001-10, rank the following in order of least deaths to most deaths in the U.S.: Heart disease, Terrorism, Car accidents.
  • In the 20th century which caused more deaths, all wars and armed conflicts or smallpox?
  • Terrorism (3,032), Car accidents (402,703), Heart disease (6,448,388)
  • Smallpox killed three times as many people as all military conflict in the 20th century (including WWI and WWII.) And smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s thanks to vaccinations.
Be healthy.