Looking back at the Bears Thirty Person Rock Band Project


You can check out the Storify tracking the Social Media progressions of the project here.

In what unconsciously turned out to be a culmination of the Fall’s Learning in Public project, guitar class this spring challenged a group of individuals to create and rally around a mutually agreed-upon idea for a new kind of class activity. Nothing overly complex, the Bears became an elemental symbol around which we were able to create a basic, guitar based rock and roll band that brought diverse classroom traits and talents to the forefront of our daily work.

Let me state here that I have little formal training as a music teacher, have never really played in a band (save a few student groups where I served much more an eager sponsor-teacher than bandmate), let alone led one, and had no idea throughout the process whether the endeavour would be successful, let alone what direction it might take on a given day.Initially, the class formed into small groups that functioned as committees responsible for various elements of the band’s life cycle: project management, branding, media, songwriting, arrangement. What the band became, every step of the way, would be built out of an individual and collective commitment to the cause: that of the continual creation of the band.

Not that these aren’t all things I was and am passionate to discover. This year my own musical growth has snowballed toward just such a learning opportunity, allowing me to frame my role as ‘teacher’ during the process as that of ‘lead learner,’ something we hear and talk about a lot as teachers, but which can be difficult to create deliberately. In this case, my purposeful treading of water mostly consisted of the necessity of keeping the project moving forward the only ways I knew how: creating opportunities for each of the committees, and the individuals composing them, to imagine a possible next step for the project, and then motivate and guide them in carrying it out.

This all being said, the success of the band was in the hands of the class as much as I could make it; I made an agreement with them – not unlike one that I feel like I make in most classes, but in this case it was explicit: so long as we all acknowledge that we can create something special here, I am going to hold you to the goals that you each set for yourselves to be a part of that process.

Whether we are successful or not has less to do with my expectations of the individuals in my class than my facilitation of the learning experience, where ideally each learner holds themselves to their own expectations.

What I’ve found that this ‘agreement’ helps bring about is an environment that is able to capitalize on the unique talents in the room. Once the band got going, people learned to arrange mic cables and amplifiers to maximize the effect of our sound; others wrote songs, led rehearsals, and created a logo for the newly minted Bears (that we eventually screened on T-shirts); various members of the band ran around with a videocamera, or various iPhones and iPads, to record and document the process, and on the second to last day of the year – following the chaos of locker-cleanout – we promoted and played a gig in the front entrance of the school that people had been alerted to by awesome hand-drawn fliers (complete with QR codes linking to the band’s Facebook page).

All of this happened in five weeks, during which I was away for a week on a TALONS class trip, and many members of the class were preparing to graduate high school. Like Ray Manzarek said of the year he and Jim Morrison formed the Doors, “we had a strange visitation of the energy,” an energy that is the intangible vibration of musical community and communication.

I start each guitar semester by telling my classes that humans evolved a wiring to participate in music; that our ability to stomp our feet, beat drums or chant in concert and unison literally set our ancestors apart from others who might not be so in tune (pardon the pun) with one another, and that communicating in music established the pathways and connections in our brains that eventually allowed us to develop language, and begin to know ourselves and one another in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.

On those first days of guitar every semester, we usually begin by snapping our fingers in time with one another, or passing bean bags through the air to a shared rhythm to learn one another’s names. I tell them that the ability to sync up like this is so innate that a person will be able to more exactly join in rhythm with another person than with a device like a metronome, and that when we make music with others, we are communicating in the oldest of ways, reaching back into the fabric of what makes us us, and creating something that is in ways universal, and at the same time deeply personal.

There is a momentum to performing live music that members of the group need to each be responsible for, the essence of musical connection that allows other players, and an audience to participate in the raw energy that the intersection of rhythm and melody is capable of creating.

This is a skill only learned by doing.

In the video of the Bears final performance, the band struggles to hear one another in the fray and excitement of the crowd and the moment, and the bass and drums are a bar ahead of the rest of the band until the first chorus. They/we work this out though, and as “We are the Bears” reaches its musical climax – in the moment between Sarah calmly saying, “Step away, bro,” and Kevin’s blistering guitar solo kicking in – the monthlong project’s goal is realized: the band has created a moment of visceral rock and roll, and brought it to their audience.

For the students in the band – not to mention their teacher – this is an incredible power to discover, and begin to wield, something I talked about with Brian Lamb and Giulia Forsythe after this year’s Northern Voice jam-after party in Vancouver: how to collectively keep the ball – the energy, the timing, the essence of a song – in the air between so many different hands, and how this is a visible skill when playing or watching music, but finds its way into so many different aspects of life, learning and the relationships we form with other people.

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Hopefully we all spend the next little while trying to put our finger on just what it was, and how we can each do it again.

We are the Bears

THE BEARS final-1 The Bears | We are the bears by GleneagleMusic

Now that we have come to the final week of the semester and school year (where did it all go???), the Thirty Person Rock Band Project, since baptized as the Bears, is trying to make its various pieces “land” in time to showcase the fury of the past few weeks’ endeavour: to make rock music.

As a group, we’ve been working on an aesthetic: amidst countless jams, we named the band, developed a logo, flyers, dance moves, and set out to write a song around a bass riff developed by the original Bear, Florentine.

At present, we are preparing to showcase our work this Thursday in a brief set to be played in the parking lot after the second-to-last 3pm bell of the year rings.

See you there?

Family Legend

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Campire Stories

A little twist on the Family Legend assignment from the Daily Create let me bring this neighbourhood legend to the Camp Magic Macguffin campfire. 

They had come from Burnaby, had the MacDonalds that came to reside on Garcia Court, and beyond the neighbouring suburb were from points across the breadth of Canada and back into Europe. Both branches of the family we knew reached the old countries of England and Scotland eventually, but had each traced vastly different routes across Canada to the coast.

Mr. MacDonald’s family had splintered out of a line of Joneses in Ontario and settled in southeastern British Columbia near the American border where towering mountains are ringed by lingering smog of a half-century’s smeltering. Mr. MacDonald’s father had worked in that smelter, and he and three siblings were raised in a narrow two-story house near their elementary school. The family lived above the gouge of the Columbia River and knew well the hoards of river moths that owned the dusks and dawns of summer with a singular and biblical tenacity.

It has struck me each time I’ve heard it told that Mr. MacDonald never passes over the subject of his hometown in conversation without mentioning these moths. His eyes sharpen and he pointedly engages each person within eye and earshot in his narration; there is no mistaking the onus he places on the regular emergence of the hovering pests.

“You have to drive with your windshield wipers on,” I have seen him marvel. “And the town hides itself indoors, sure to seal every window and door – even though you could at best keep only ninety percent of them out!”

Listeners cringe at this image, and Mr. MacDonald relishes their discomfort. “Oh yeah!” He often repeats important details for effect, stalling and indulging brief cul de sacs and dead ends before continuing with the story. These productions never seemed scripted until I began to hear these various narratives told and retold by Mr. MacDonald, and then also by others on the street, word for word.

This particular story of the onslaught of minuscule beasts wobbling as they rise from the Columbia River Valley inevitably meanders to the recounting of the childhood of Mr. MacDonald’s youngest brother, David. (No one fails to mention, in this telling, that Brandon bore such a resemblance to his father’s brother that once Brandon had reached the age of fourteen, they were christened “DavidBrandon” for the duration of several family gatherings that spanned almost a decade.)

It is told that as a child David never harboured the town’s apprehension for the river moths, and would await their nightly coming tide at the crest of the bluffs above the river. Standing bare-chested toward the setting sun, he would watch the air thicken above the flat pools on the Columbia and hear the million hatchlings popping onto air. The hum would drive in a cloud toward him on the hill and his heart reportedly raced as the million moths reached and engulfed him before sweeping over the bluffs like a humming wave. They would fly through his hair and glue their wings to the sweat of his arms and legs, and he would let the ones that could land and begin to crawl, trekking his skin and covering him from head to toe. Only once the night’s flight had subsided would he walk the steep grade of the hillside and descend slowly into the freezing depths of the river. The moths that resisted at the surface of the water would come unstuck once submerged, and David would rise from the water clean, washed with the first boilings of the next night’s hatch.

I heard this story for the first time at a cul de sac barbeque at the end of my driveway. Mr. MacDonald had put his silver beer down to do the telling, and as many as fifteen of us looked on as he reached the dramatic finish, painting his brother as a shining martyr of these moths. Perceiving that I was perhaps the only one present who had yet to hear this tale, he nodded to me for what I assumed was my appraisal of the tale.

I said meekly, “Didn’t anyone ever go out there with him?”

Mr. MacDonald laughed and said, “DavidBrandon always wanted to know the same thing.”

TALONS Worldbuilding Project

The Bears in their Natural Habitat

In a year that has seen much public discussion of the teaching profession in British Columbia, it’s important to do a few things every day to remind ourselves that we are incredibly lucky to do this job. This spring’s Thirty Person Rock Band project has made for many such opportunities, and with four weeks of school left, it feels constantly like we’re just beginning. It’s a good place to be.

Time for Adventure

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Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an expedition, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it. Steinbeck

And here we have come to that familiar time of year, when the TALONS class steadies its gaze on the stretches of highway out of town, into the Gulf Islands, out across the Straight of Georgia, and this year, up the Sea to Sky Highway. (Most of) the groceries have been bought, and the classroom fills with equipment and assorted adventuring regalia – tents, rope and tarps, coolers and stoves, reams of Gore Tex and stray hiking boot laces – by the day. Even the academic subjects are doing their part, lining up Socials units on geography and our study of the Salish people, and a science project in plate tectonics with a trip into the heart of the Coast Range and the traditional territory of the Squamish Nation.

The Adventure Trip constitutes a five day experiential exam for the TALONS’ Leadership 11 credit 1, and the result of months’ work toward the class’ PE 11 and Planning 10 courses (all three completed over two years in the TALONS program, in addition to the core subjects of English, Socials, Science and Math), but is also another signpost in the journey that each cohort travels together. Inevitably, the trip becomes an immersed expression of each group’s individual character: a chance for each member of the class to confront, and explore, their role in the collective.

As learning opportunities go, there isn’t much like it, and it is startling to behold that yet another of these adventures is upon us, perhaps the grandest yet.

  1. As a midterm for the grade nines, and final for grade tens.

The Thirty Person Rock Band

Among the more ambitious spontaneous projects I’ve attempted as a teacher, the 30 Person Rock Band project came out of a conversation with my guitar class about what our next endeavour should be: songwriting, another recording of individual or group progress, a performance, or… something a little bigger. Something we’ll discover as we go, together.

So to start, we are asking for input: we don’t yet know even what we don’t know, and in the interest of finding a suitable starting point, we are hoping that you might help us with the initial creation of individual and collective responsibilities. We’re hoping that, whether you’ve played in a band or not, you might be able to help us delegate responsibilities to make the 30 Person Rock Band Project a collaborative and successful undertaking.