Singing Taylor Swift Songs

Introductions, Gender, and Amplification

Every year in #introguitar (an open online guitar class I teach at my school, and which you should totally enrol in as a non-credit participant) I ask my students and our open learners to introduce themselves and their intentions to the group in a brief video. And rather than rehash a template video of my own from ages ago, I appreciate the opportunity as a student of music to focus my learning about guitar from semester to semester in new video introductions.

In past years I’ve worked to learn skills and techniques around lead playing, band-leading, and performing, documenting my growth in subsequent videos and reflections throughout the year.

This year, I’m taking my work in guitar in a direction slightly away from the guitar itself, and toward the conversation about gender, inequality, and diversity in the wider culture of popular music; I’ve resolved to only play songs written by women.

A while back I read about journalist Anil Dash’s experiment to only ReTweet women for a year, an experience that made him more mindful of the voices he amplified on social media:

Based on my experiences, my recommendation to others is simple: Give it a try. If you’re inclined, try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others. For me, it was giving a platform to women where I wasn’t able to mansplain the things they were already saying, but instead just sharing out their own thoughts in their own words. It may be by issue, or by identity, or by community, or some other consideration.

Troubadours and Teen Idols

Caption courtesy of RadioTexasLive.com

Along with inspiring the mournful western aesthetic of my university days, Ryan Adams wrote some of the first songs I learned on guitar (he also inspired the bad versions of Wonderwall I still play around campfires), and has been an artist that I’ve grown alongside for more than ten years as we’ve each experimented with bands, folk music, and life beyond our devil-may-care early twenties. His work of late has been especially sharp, I think, too; “Gimme Something Good,” and the rest of his self-titled album last year contain layers of guitar excellence and timeless hooks that are among his best.

Last year, word began to spread that Adams had set to recording a cover of Taylor Swift’s recent blockbuster, 1989; my worlds were colliding.

As a guitar teacher in a high school the last six years, I’ve been no stranger to the evolving songwriting career of Ms. Swift. Seldom in my tenure in #introguitar have I walked past an interesting turn of phrase, guitar riff, or chord progression to not be told upon inquiring, “That’s Taylor Swift.” Around campfires and in the park behind my parents house during the summer, the choruses of “Love Story,” and “You Belong with Me” have become generational anthems that are tattooed on suburban boys and girls alike.

There is doubtless something there.

Exhibit A in why I want to start calling #introguitar “Campfire Practice”

A video posted by Bryan Jackson (@bryanjack) on

Pronouns and Performing Gender

As long as I’ve enjoyed Taylor Swift’s tunes – and I have quite earnestly enjoyed them, making them a staple of class guitar playing and pieces to deconstruct as exemplars of composition – I’ve never truly played or performed any on my own. There have always been reasons for this, but I can’t say as though very many are very good.

Sometimes the key is too high, or the melody too…something. Sometimes the dance beat is too difficult to recreate on a single guitar. Sometimes they’re written too explicitly from a female or feminine perspective. None of which in itself is a big deal, but contributes to enough awkwardness that I don’t wind up learning the songs to a degree where I play them for other people.

Historically this has been true nearly across the board, with a few pop songs by female artists making ironic appearances alongside Notorious BIG covers once it’s late enough into the night or the jam. The list of songs written by women that are part of my repertoire is pretty weak, if not non-existant.

On a certain level, this is a matter of taste, sure. Why shouldn’t I play what I like to play? What’s easy to play? That feels like me? However, on another, I share the songs I play with a lot of people; I teach young people about the culture of musicianship, songwriting, and developing one’s own voice, both as an interpreter of other people’s songs, and a writer of originals. To present only my own perspective, or one which makes me comfortable, seems unfair to the myriad ways my students perceive and approach the world, and their music.

This is why I’ve decided to spend my time playing music for school this semester playing and performing songs written by women. I’m not play it ironically, insulating myself from whatever vulnerabilities arise in the performances with humour or distance.

And I’m going to leave the pronouns the same, because if it makes me uncomfortable to sing about Taylor’s “Stephen,” or about “his hands [being] in my hair,” I do enjoy the ability (one might say privilege) of challenging that discomfort so that it’s more acceptable for young men who know all the words to Taylor Swift, or Beyonce, or Lady Gaga’s songs to take the stage and belt it out.

Because these songs weren’t written as larks, or trivial, or silly: they were and are manifestations of tone,  character, and theme. They are expressions of an aesthetic in the tradition of songsmiths, where male voices have been disproportionately taken seriously as a matter of course by virtue of arising from male mouths.

Even Taylor Swift’s own songs became more highly regarded by critics once Mr. Adams had sung them. Ian Crouch at the New Yorker (which reviewed Adams’ record, but not Swift’s) wrote:

If anything, Adams’s version of “1989” is more earnest and, in its way, sincere and sentimental than the original.

There are a bunch of men’s songs I’ve shared and performed and taught the class in the past, and no doubt there will be in future semesters. But not because they’re any more sincere, authentic, or otherwise superior to any woman’s music.

And if that’s the case, I’d like to work to balance my catalogue of songs accordingly.

Adventures in Blended Learning

John A. Skype

As I mentioned in a brief thank you to Alec at our last class meeting, in many ways it feels as though I’ve been taking his course on The Blended Classroom for a few years now.

When I joined Twitter back in… can it really have been 2009? Alec was one of the first people I followed. Along with Will Richardson, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez and a host of others who have spoken with us or been name-dropped throughout our time together this semester, Alec has helped form and inspire many of the ideas that have driven my blended practice in the years since, a journey that has been charted across the near-300 posts on this blog, as well as in other online spaces, physical artifacts, and dialogue with peers, colleagues and students.

Along with Dave Cormier I am interested in the blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal learning, and seek to integrate a more rhizomatic approach to institutional learning that makes use of the sprawling inquiries I have engaged in during my time as an open online educator. While it may be more chaotic, and difficult (if not impossible) to direct, this more organic approach has challenged me to make meaning of diverse experiences and connections in a manner which is far more in line with socio-cultural trends at the heart of the digital age and 21st century.

As a reflective practitioner, this has allowed me to plot a uniquely personal course of study that is relevant to my own interests and passions, classroom communities, and emerging perspective on my place in the world as an educator and member of the human project. But it has also offered the opportunity to engage in the type of emergent meaning-making that has become central to the philosophy of education underpinning my work as a graduate student. Taken together these experiences have influenced the type of learning opportunities I strive to create for my students, as well as the type of learning I hope they are able to engage in for themselves once they venture beyond the school.

This semester my own learning has met the gentle structure provided by Alec’s class and branched in what may be considered three overlapping directions: theory, practice and reflection.

Theory

I began my theoretical work in January with a look at the potential for Collaborative Inquiry to address teacher professional development interests, as well as put educators into the experiential role of learners as members of a community:

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In addition to the value that it might add to teacher-development and learning, this type of collaborative inquiry is in line with a conception of citizenship that is coming to ground my academic work around civic education. As the emergent view of knowledge described above may be seen to, the challenges presented by multiculturalism in pluralist democracies highlights the tension between creating and maintaining institutions that can bring about outcomes truly constructed out of their (ever-changing) constituent parts.

An ongoing theme in my work on this blog, the problematic view of emergence is described by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta:

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Sigal Ben-Porath presents a potential resolution to this paradox in the form of Citizenship as Shared Fate, wherein “citizenship education ‘seeks forms of attachments, belonging and commitment that would enable children to become positive members of diverse communities of fate.'”

Such a citizenship, and thus citizenship education:

“aims to recognize differences in values, outlooks, language and preferences while developing institutional and conceptual concepts – particularly civic and political ones – in which different communities can develop ties and shared practices.”

Practice

In building on these theoretical underpinnings (among others), I sought during this semester to engage in my own professional learning, as well as facilitate my various classroom-activities, with an eye toward exploring the digital applications of these ideas in the service of both individual and community development.

Guitar

(One of) My own learning project(s) during the term took on the challenge of musical performance, both in my guitar classroom and the school community beyond, a process I documented and reflected upon in a series of posts both here and on the #IntroGuitar site:Murder at the Witch's Tavern

In addition to this somewhat formal performance (as well as those which will follow throughout the semester), I also took a stake in a fundraising evening of murder-mystery dinner-theatre for our drama department, writing and sharing a series of expository songs during the hastily produced play performed for local parents, colleagues and community guests.

In each of these examples, my aim was not only to develop and reflect on my own growth as a musician, but to engage in a process I regularly ask of my students so as to both cultivate empathy for the discomfort that often accompanies learning as well as share an example – successful or not – of stepping into Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development for students and colleagues alike.

For my guitar students especially, whom I ask to document and reflect on their musical learning regularly, sharing my own journey as a guitar player is an integral part of cultivating an open course community within the structure of a for-credit classroom. Part of the ‘open’ ethos of the blended #introguitar environment creates the course site as a space for our students to cultivate and share their own narratives of learning among members of the class, but also those beyond.

But these individual and collective artifacts of learning also stretch beyond the classroom, leaving a lasting community of practice that is accessible – as the three iterations of the course that have used the course are – to future students of guitar, at Gleneagle and beyond.

TALONS Socials

The same might be said of the praxis of reflection and creation I have attempted to instigate in the TALONS Socials learning this semester, where members of the class have been asked to document various aspects of their learning: in blog posts, Tweets, pages of notes, and recorded class discussions and role plays.

With assignments separated into summative presentations and assignments, reflections and self-assessments, as well as documents of learning in progress (questions, notes on discussions, journal entries, marginalia in various readings, assigned and otherwise), the TALONS Social Studies semester orients itself toward students taking ownership over their own encounters with the course’s Ministry-mandated prescribed learning outcomes. Through a range of class activities and assignments, each is charged with the collection of various artifacts of learning that will be used in the creation of midterm, as well as final syntheses of learning, where these articles will serve as evidence that the curriculum has been encountered, critically interrogated, and integrated into their own emerging understanding.

Daily homework, if not otherwise specified, reflects the values of ongoing personal inquiry and is geared toward the TALONS being successful in what has become known as the Philosophy Pop Quiz:

  1. Did you read material for today’s class meeting carefully? (No – 0, Once – 1, Yes, more than once – 2)
  2. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you’re eager to discuss? (No – 0, Yes, one – 1, Yes, more than one – 2)
  3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate, or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting? (No – 0, Yes, one person – 1, Yes, more than one person – 2)
  4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study? (No – 0, Yes, one item – 1, Yes, more than one item – 2)
  5. Since our last meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings? (None to 29 minutes – 0, 30 minutes to one hour – 1, Over an hour – 2)

Working toward the highest possible class average score on the above quiz, the traits and habits required for daily success can become part of the cycle of personal learning without falling prey to being too prescriptive. The synthesis of a collective voice out of these various inquiries and encounters with the common course of study are able to become the task of the social curricula.

This has been particularly evident in the class’ recent study of Canadian Confederation, where an experiment in social media role-playing has built upon the debates and discussion various historical characters have been waging in the face to face classroom, realizing that multicultural difficulty:

“…to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

“In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

“Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

“Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

“Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.”

Reflection

Perhaps apart from both the theory and practice summarized above, the learning engaged in on this blog regularly ventures into more personal reflections and syntheses of learning that go beyond the collection of classroom experiences or theoretical readings and attempt to articulate something of a larger polemic on the state of educational or cultural affairs.

In the past few months, these posts have charted a variety of themes encountered in my weekly wanderings, including some thoughts on the nature of Learning on (and of) the Web, My life as the Music Department Digital Archivist, and Teaching in the Patriarchy. On a more personal note, I looked back on more than a decade spent with the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Each of these musings serves to help synthesize and express an emerging interpretation of various themes in my teaching, learning and life, harkening back to an image I used in a post last December on Course Design and Narrative Discovery, where data is transformed to information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

By engaging in this open manner, and publishing this work and these thoughts alongside the TieGrad cohort which has inspired many of them in the past two years, each of these experiences – and their corresponding posts – represents at once the wisdom of today as well as the points of data that will be made into new meanings going forward.

In a way it’s been the lesson I’ve been learning from Alec for years, while at the same time a culmination and synthesis of everything I’ve been learning the whole time.

Just as learning should be.

My Life as the Music Department Digital Archivist

Snowball

The performing arts are made of fleeting moments of genius.

Whether on nights under the lights on the school stage, or transcendent travels among musicians from different places and cultures, I’ve been fortunate to spend time basking in the magic created by our school’s musicians for a few years now. As a newly minted member of the fine arts department when I started teaching guitar five years ago, I often found myself in awe dropping in on choir rehearsals and jazz workshops, and forging connections with student-performers who in many cases served as musical inspiration, if not outright mentors.

Percussion

Having begun blogging with the TALONS a few years earlier, the prospect of documenting and sharing the performing arts struck me as a unique application of social media and digital storytelling that continues to be a joyful part of my educational life online. In 2010 I started a Music Department Blog, Twitter account, and Flickr page (later adding a SoundCloud account), which I have maintained in the years since with photos, recordings and videos collected from organized concerts, tours, and classroom learning, as well as local concerts and more informal performances beyond the curriculum.

In the course of five years, these artifacts have collected to serve as the musical traditions of our school community, which incoming students are greeted with and will continue to contribute to with their voices and instruments. Our experiences Practice Room Cwith broadcasting concerts live on distributed web radio have also grown from an experiment on the fringes of learning with technology to a commonplace occurrence several students volunteer to DJ/host and can handle with minimal teacher support.

Which has all come a long way from the spring of 2011, when we were only learning how to wield the software, and Twitter was still the new kid on the block. The day when parents, local schools, and students would each be conducting a good part of their public lives on social media hadn’t quite come to pass, and I’m proud of the work our Gleneagle community has been willing to share with the world beyond our hallway.

Throughout, I’ve considered it part of my job to anticipate and be nearby when interesting music is being made at or around the school.

Untitled

Like when the choir sneaks into the Cathedral of Havana to sing a Spanish hymn. Or when a group of guitar students hang around for the first few minutes of lunchtime to cover Bob Marley, or the Beatles, or Broken Social Scene, or Dan Mangan.

Or our flight to California is delayed, and there’s time to kill at the gate.

Or a few grade twelves pile into a horsedrawn carriage in Cuba with a guitar and clave, and sing what they see on their way to the market.

As with anything that leaves a digital tail, these recordings, videos and pictures tell the story of people who have passed through our musical community. They document our choir’s verse along with Chris Hadfield’s “Is Someone Singing?” on a nationwide Music Monday. And when our new principal dropped by guitar class.

And that time the Bears played the last day of school.

Throughout, my process in documenting these momentary feats has moved away from the more ambitious, to favour the quick and dirty. When I started doing this, I collected reams of Garageband files, GBs of HD videos and pictures, always with the intention of editing down sleek documents of radio or podcast perfection: suites of songs interspersed with interviews with kids. Mini-documentaries of our travels, or the behind-the-curtain mania of concert night.

But this generally creates a backlog of material to log and edit, and my best intentions while shooting and collecting material haven’t often seen the light of day in an ideal form.

So I’ve taken to grabbing what I can in bite-sized records and documents that I can upload, tag and add to playlists quickly, then move on.Rhythm Man

When we travel, and there’s ready access to wifi, I’ll interview kids briefly about what they’ve been enjoying, how they think the tour is going, and post it on a service like Audioboom, or Soundcloud. I’ll post pictures on Twitter, or Instagram.

And collect an array of performance videos.

I also try to collect photos of the more ‘official’ aspects of the tour or concert, as the personal narratives of the students are handily shared and selfie’d across different media when we travel. Sometimes I try to keep track of some of these postings, and collect them in Storify, Flickr or other places; but in truth there are a lot of music students, and I don’t follow many of them unless they’ve made a point of interacting and engaging with the school or my own account. If I notice that they’ve shared a particularly good photo of a memorable moment, I’ll ask for them to email it to me or if I might Retweet their post.

But the key remains organization, and to maintain a vigilance toward tagging, sorting, and archiving the ephemera of these magical moments. While they are each preserved momentarily within a picture or a Twitter update, after a few weeks – let alone five years – the artifacts themselves are lost with the melodies long-since sung or performed on stages wherever we go. Because these videos and pictures and posts all serve the immediate need to relive a trip just passed – our weeks old trip to Cuba this year, for instance – but also now reside among the playlists and albums of trips, concerts, and rehearsals going back to 2010.

In its entirety, it is a grand monument to the talent and community at Gleneagle, a song composed one note at a time and fixed into its proper place among its ancestors.

The HS Music MOOC

IntroGuitarWhile it hasn’t blossomed with a wealth of open online participation (yet…?) this semester, the blended and open structure of #introguitar – as well as the new site design and digs courtesy of Alan Levine‘s WordPress blessings – has created an anthology of learning about guitar for both my own block of Introduction to Guitar, as well as Mr. David Salisbury who has taken up a block of beginners.

To a degree, it can be difficult to involve an outside community of learners with the goings on in a face to face course that is generating credit for students at our school. But whether folks show up from term to term doesn’t take away from the platform the site and assignments allow Gleneagle music students to document and direct their learning from whatever stage they currently find themselves.

Additionally, the opportunity to narrate and share their journeys in video reflections (and for those videos to roll out in a wall of televisions on the front page of the site) allows the individual voices in the class to come together in a stream of stories about learning guitar.

This has been especially helpful in integrating the many international students who find their way into guitar (either with a more formal musical background or in need of a class that won’t demand too high a degree of English language skills they are in Canada to build), and who might not be quick to speak up in the larger in-class discussions or activities. Similarly, as an elective course that draws grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 students, the video documents allow for a levelling of the social hierarchy that allows individual talents to be brought out into the light.

As it would serve to introduce open-online participants in addition to the face-to-face members of the class, the Course Introduction Assignment allows students to meet one another in a relaxed setting that still challenges them to be vulnerable. Mr. Salisbury and I shared a laugh about how self-conscious the process made each of us, even as experienced guitar players who address groups of people for a living.

That said, his intro video is awesome. And as I’ve already posted my own here on the blog, I’ll share his here:

Following the course intros, we spent a few weeks building fundamentals around basic chords, strumming together, and even arranged a simple A / A / A song by Josh Ritter, that we recorded and finalized in only a few days into a coherent number (you can check out the finished product here). From there, we set out to prepare our first performances of the semester, recording goal-setting videos and documenting these early efforts in sharing our work with small groups, a few of which have been shared on the class site.

This has all served to document our early first strides in term one (of two) toward an individualized “Introduction to Guitar.” Each of these first assignments provides a thorough baseline of the class’ playing, both in small and large ensembles, and on their own. And from here we will be able to move onward and outward in individual responses and remixes of various assignments.

Part of the challenge in hosting a MOOC that is also serving the for-credit and face-to-face community at our school is that there needs to be a certain degree of structure and accountability for the for-credit students, especially starting out: thus we each do each of the assignments to a similar degree of expectation and completion. Open learners are invited to participate in these aspects of the class, though I can understand that they might read too much pressure and expectation into the rigor being applied to the for-credit students; I get a lot of emails or messages on Twitter from past or potential open participants apologizing for not having done this or that assignment, which means these folks have forgotten the first tenant of open participation:

There are no expectations, no minimums and no apologies for open participants. 

But that’s all good: when open folks contribute – even by commenting on a video we’ve produced in class, or providing ratings on content on the site – we’re grateful to have them.

Always, no matter how little, infrequently, or sparse their contributions are.

And as the for-credit class moves toward our second term, and more individualized assignment-options, hopefully we can pull a few more folks into our mix.

But to do this I realize that I need to rededicate myself to making the site more of a communicative space than a bin into which students post their work. I need to redouble my efforts to comment, and connect and share the work being posted on the site in our face-to-face classroom, and to motivate our for-credit students to take more risks in sharing their progress in the coming term.

Having established a bassline baseline, our assignments in the coming term will look to challenge students’ and participants creativity, inviting them to:

In addition to our regular performances and daily class playing, these assignments will hopefully provide challenge and inspiration for face-to-face students and open learners alike to document and share their emerging skills.

If you are an aspiring or exemplary guitar player who would like to become an open participant in our course, don’t hesitate to drop your information in the Google Form embedded here, or be in touch with me on Twitter (@bryanjack) or by mail bryan at bryanjack dot ca.

With Hemingway

Ambos Mundos

Italy, Spain, Cuba – half the world is filled with the places that he appropriated simply by mentioning them. In Cojimar, a little village near Havana where the solitary fisherman of ”The Old Man and the Sea” lived, there is a plaque commemorating his heroic exploits, with a gilded bust of Hemingway. In Finca de la Vigia, his Cuban refuge, where he lived until shortly before his death, the house remains intact amid the shady trees, with his diverse collection of books, his hunting trophies, his writing lectern, his enormous dead man’s shoes, the countless trinkets of life from all over the world that were his until his death, and that go on living without him, with the soul he gave them by the mere magic of his owning them.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway

Last week I was fortunate once again to travel to the island of Cuba and visit the Ambos Mundos hotel and bar that once housed Ernest Hemingway before he purchased and moved to his estate Finca de la Vigia. His first Cuban home, Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511 at the hotel in the heart of Old Havana.

Havana Daytrip

When I graduated from university, my sister and I spent the following summer working at a Boy Scout camp in the Ozark foothills, and made a pact to read nothing but Hemingway for the balance of our time at the camp and en route back to Vancouver. He and I shared a birthday (July 21), and as a creative writing student I had learned from professors with deep affections for authors I hadn’t yet digested: among them Hemingway, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the outset of my life beyond school and what promised to be an adventurous summer – my sister and I would leave the summer camp after six weeks in the woods to fly north and road trip across Canada – we seemed to have been presented a fitting venue to finally set teeth to Papa’s ouvre.

I had started For Whom the Bell Tolls before M. got off the plane with her copy to To Have and to Have Notand we marched forward from there:

I finished For Whom in a tent in Molena, Georgia, at a National Certification School for the Boy Scouts.

A Farewell to Arms, and Green Hills of Africa were read mostly near the scout camp pool in Damascus, Arkansas.

I read To Have and to Have Not in the tent that was my home that summer.

Islands in the Stream went down riding the train from Montreal to Toronto.

There were others, of course: The Sun Also Rises, Old Man and the SeaA handful of short stories: “The Killers,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and others. And by the time we crossed the continental divide, Hemingway’s protagonists and prose had enveloped the colour and tenor of our adventure.

View from Ambos Mundos

At twenty two years old, and newly graduated with a degree in creative writing, our summer in the woods and the ensuing journey home represented the discovery of an all-too-enourmous canvas upon which to paint my sister’s and my lives. Saying goodbye to intense and short-lived friendships, taking on the struggles of life outdoors, travel, not to mention fears about what lie ahead in terms of what I would do with my college education, Hemingway’s plots and conflicts provided a matter-of-fact commitment to the rough, sad, beauty of life.

In Niagra Falls, on the first afternoon of our trip, we found just more than $117 in our shared savings account, and more than 3000 kilometers between us and home.

Outside of Thunder Bay we drove into the darkening night and creepy dirt-road northern towns looking for a place to pitch our tent.

And upon arriving home, we learned that our mother had been diagnosed with cancer (which she would eventually beat).

Each of these difficulties was embraced with Hemingway’s words ringing in our ears: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” And as we crested the rocky mountains and entered again the lush and coastal climes of British Columbia, we had come to see ourselves as characters as large in life as the continent we had just crossed. There was little need to express this grandeur in hyperbole or poetry, however; the stark terms of Hemingway’s words created a notion of quiet heorism that was somehow the least any of us could do with our minute lives.

Papa's CornerYears before I would begin teaching a high school course in philosophy, Ernest offered a view on the good life I could embrace: “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

In the years since I’ve been guided by other artists, and other authors: Bob Dylan, Garcia Marquez. Springsteen. But in the spirit of Dylan, “I remember every face, of every man that’s brought me here,” and to stand in Hemingway’s lobby, and turn the knob on the door that he slept behind, is to touch something intangible that has profoundly shaped my life as an adult.

Last fall, I read The Dangerous Summera disappointing visit with an aging author in which his lesser qualities run too close to the surface: his infatuation with the brutal “beauty” of bullfighting, chief among them, perfectly representative of the shortcomings in his work around his own image, as well as masculinity and misogyny. But even while acknowledging these shortcomings, the ripples that he made with his mind in the world demand to be reckoned with, if only for me personally as someone who his work  has profoundly touched and influenced.

Sipping an icy lemonade in the lobby bar surrounded by pictures of a formal idol, a depressed man (along with fellow 21st’er Robin Williams) with whom I share a birthday, what he had created in his mind’s eye and invoked in my own imagination became real once more.

I was able to breathe its air, and touch its humid surfaces. To know that it and the life I had conceived in my mind as a young man are in fact still real.

Split-Screen Storytelling

I have to thank TALONS (and #introguitar) alum Clayton for recommending the MelodyLab app that allows you to make multi-part video-harmonies with your phone.  It might be a ways from replicating Matt Mulholland’s epic multi-part Ghostbusters theme song, but the free app introduces aspects of the loop pedal to video editing, offering this semester’s #introguitar crowd an exciting way to explore and document their learning about guitar.

But beyond the music-makers, it’s exciting to think that MelodyLab also equips visual storytellers with a mobile split-screen video camera anywhere they pack their phones. It is a potential that reminds me of Radiolab‘s poetic Symmetry video, and other epic split-screen moments in cinema.

On Playing Guitar

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share some responses I had for a few questions one of the TALONS asked me as part of his own In-Depth Study Research.

1. How long have you been playing the guitar?

About thirteen years… I think.

2.At what age did you first start playing?

I first borrowed a friend’s guitar in the spring of 2003, I guess. So I would have been 22, or thereabouts.

3. Do you believe learning to play the guitar has benefited your life socially / physically / mentally?

Absolutely socially and mentally.

There are probably physical benefits – better hand-eye coordination or dexterity with my fingers and such – though I don’t know if these are beneficial other than in playing guitar.

As for socially, I’ve made a lot of great friends and shared a lot of interesting experiences with people I wouldn’t have found myself connected to if not for having been what can be called in some ways a musician. Beyond personalities, or senses of humour, or our unique interests, upbringings, or even the music we like, I’ve always found people who play music – whatever kind of music it is – easy to talk to, hang out with, and – naturally – play music with. I’ve played music with strangers on the street in Cuba, Croatia, and France, talked for hours about favourite guitars with friends of my parents, and spent weekends improvising with people I’d just met without so much as a word having to be spoken.

Even when I was just starting out, I’ve found that once you have enough skill to participate in communal music-making (even if it’s just plucking the same note or strumming the same chord along with a few friends), you have been allowed into some other plane of conversation with people – a conversation without words, but also a conversation without distinct points of view. In a verbal conversation, one person talks, then another, then the other again, and in doing so their unique perspectives are shared; but in music, the two ‘perspectives’ are essential components of the other, if that makes sense? My guitar solo cannot exist without the underlying chords, whose pacing and volume are reacting moment-by-moment to the energy, tones and volume of the solo. And that’s just with two people: as drums, or bass, or vocals or other instruments are added to the fray, this sense of a collective voice only becomes richer.

I think this sense of communication I’m trying to describe benefits both the social and the mental, though, because these experiences not only forge deep connections with the folks I’ve shared them with, but also have opened my mind to what it means to listen, and interact, and communicate with other people. Once you’ve experienced these sorts of things – an epic jam session, or a memorable performance, or just creating something out of nothing, even by yourself with your guitar – it is impossible to go back to having ‘un-experienced’ them; each leaves you fundamentally changed, however minimally, and changes the course you might take going into the future. I’ve left a lot of different sessions of playing with people thinking, “Why don’t I do *that* more?” And I always rededicate myself to finding more places and people to play with – it never stops.

4. What are some of the skills developed from playing guitar?

Listening is a big one, whether it’s to the people you’re playing with, or even songs you’re hearing for the first time or the millionth. It’s fun when you start to realize what’s going on ‘inside’ some of your favourite songs, and why it is you like them – a chord change, perhaps, or the way the lyrics fall across the rhythm of the song; and similarly, sometimes songs you thought were catchy fall apart when you learn how to play them, which can be disappointing, but leads you to other, more interesting music hopefully.

Beyond listening, I am also able to hear better, which is actually different than listening. I can hear subtle differences between notes and chords, can tell when things are out of tune – and even which string it is, generally – which I couldn’t do back when I began. I’m also able to distinguish what singers are saying now that I know how to breathe and sing and strum as the same time, and how the different instruments are interacting in ensembles.

5. How do these skills/benefits benefit/apply to your everyday life?

I think quite a few of these skills transfer over to everyday life, both in tangible, specific ways: I know a lot about different songs, how they are put together, and the people that made them, for instance, which finds its way into a lot of my work at school (and not just in guitar class); and my relationship with language has changed I think, as well, and I unconsciously try to make things more musical, direct, or poetic when I write or speak, perhaps.

But I think the benefit of playing music that most broadly transfers over into ‘real’ life is the sensibility that goes along with many different aspects of music. In looking over my answer to your third question, I like to think that this constructive sense of conversation or working with others influences every aspect of my life and relation to other people: everything one does with other people is an opportunity to build something – a conversation, a relationship, a professional project, or piece of art. And so because I know that these types of interactions are possible, I find myself approaching almost everything I do with the same sense of experimentation and expression.

6. Any other habits/effects that came from guitar?

The guitar is a dangerous tool for relaxation and procrastination, so not all of the habits and effects it yields are necessarily positive! I’m sure there are plenty of things I could or should have done some days than play guitar for half an hour (or three hours), and that’s not always the best thing to do. But I am glad every day that I stuck out those first few months (or years, if you ask my roommates or family members who heard me back then), until guitar became the thing I wanted to do when I got home from school or work. Once it became The Thing I wanted to do to unwind, or have fun, or challenge myself, I don’t think I could have ever gone back to being someone who doesn’t play guitar.

Hopefully you find the same soon enough.

An Open Learning Project

Letter Song by @bryanjack

Photo courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

Each spring the TALONS undertake an In-Depth Study, a five month “passion project” wherein they are asked to document their growth and learning toward personalized goals in learning a skill or craft. There are two universal goals for the In-Depth Study:

1. Know something about everything and everything about something.

In school you are usually taught about many subjects.  In this project, the goal is to learn a great deal about one field of activity, usually not available in a school setting.

2. Learn what others tell you is important and learn what you decide is important.

In school you are told what to learn and how to learn it.  In this project, you will decide in what field and with what strategies, you will become an “expert.”

Along with the Fall Retreat, spring Adventure Trip and the fall’s Eminent Person project, the In-Depth Study constitutes a significant pillar in the TALONS Program that, because it is predominantly designed and facilitated by my teaching partner, hasn’t been much documented here. Though in past years I have undertaken a couple of different learning projects that have seen their way onto my blog:

Learning Pearl Jam’s “Daughter
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Banjournal

This year, as part of Alec Couros‘ appearance in my University of Victoria #tiegrad cohort, I have the opportunity to combine a few different aspects of my course work with my classroom teaching this spring. For Alec’s EDCI 569 class (The Distributed, Blended & Open Classroom), we are tasked with engaging in our own learning projects, as well as participating in an open online course or community. And as they have in the last few years, these new academic requirements find a worthwhile conspirator in our Music Department‘s #IntroGuitar class.

I’ve taught #IntroGuitar now at our school going on five years now, but only in the last few has the course opened up to facilitate music-making, teaching, and collaboration to a wider community of open online learners. There is a perfect marriage of sorts between the type of discovery-learning that attracts people to an instrument like the guitar, and the type of ethos espoused in the MOOC movement. As Dave Cormier says, “you can choose what you do, how you participate, and only you can decide when you’ve been successful, just like real life,” teenagers have been learning guitar in this personalized and peer-to-peer fashion as long as the instrument has existed. Even my own playing has followed this path, beginning in the early days of the social web when guitar tabs seemed to have already have leveraged the constructivist potential of the read-write web in ways other communities would adopt across the last fifteen years.

But these online resources – much my early learning took place before the advent of YouTube – were only part of the course of my life with guitar, as a year into the project I moved in with another beginner with whom I was able to commiserate over barre chords and blues scales. Even better, this roommate had a friend who played in a band, and he and his friends served as early mentors who were able to rapidly advance our learning.

Since those early strumming days in Arkansas, I’ve expanded my inquiry into music by writing songs, playing with groups of friends, and a few informal performances. But as happens in the lifelong learning of a thing – and in lifelong, personalized learning in and of itself – the process of discovery and progress can only continue so long as the learner is able to continually synthesize and build on prior learning. And in recent years, I’ve been fortunate to explore successive challenges with supportive peers and mentors in a variety of settings.

I’ve collected a brief summary of these learning communities here:

DS106 Radio

In the spring of 2011, the brainchild of Jim Groom and Grant Potter began as a means of sharing course work created in Jim’s Digital Storytelling class at the University of Mary Washington, and quickly spawned and supported a community of educators / music-makers who began using the distributed web radio station to share live rehearsals, themed shows of covers, and recorded original works. And for the next couple of years, the station became a digital version of my own coffee-house open mic: I would play new songs, covers, riff on others’ material, and listen to my friends when they would take over the airwaves.

Out of this digital community have come countless opportunities to jam in face-to-face rehearsal spaces and kitchens, living rooms and campfires in the years since, including up to a few weeks ago in East Vancouver.

Unplug’d

Bryan Six Nation Guitar V2In 2011, and again in 2012, I was invited to participate at the Unplug’d Educational Summit on the edge of Algonquin Park, where I was able to meet many of my online colleagues in a natural setting, and share a host of songs – Canadian-themed and otherwise – with educators from across Canada and around the world.

At the 2012 Summit, with Jowi Taylor and Voyageur the Six String Nation guitar, serving as the weekend’s welcoming keynote, I was invited to deliver what I consider my first “real” performance for guests at the summit hotel in downtown Toronto. And over the course of the weekend I was able to share an original song I wrote that weekend – on Voyageur – with participants at the culmination of the weekend. (I’ve written a longer post about this experience here.)

The Judy and the Town Sessions

A few summers ago, I set about assembling a few former students whose band had recently lost its lead singer (to a road trip back east, nothing tragic) to act as my own supporting group to work out a few of the original songs I’d written in recent years. Having always written and played on my own – solo acoustic, with the exception of some of the DS106 Radio jams – I had begun to hear the songs I was writing in fuller resolution, with drums, bass and more guitar to fill out an emerging aesthetic in my mind’s… ear. And while the Judy and the Town sessions were cut short as more members of the band eventually joined their lead singer back in Montreal, these recordings offer a warm reminder of the potential for my quiet solo songs to take on a life of their own in the hands of others.

Georgia Straight Guitar Society

This past fall, I was fortunate to join one of my dad’s friends and a colleague from school at the annual Fall Jam hosted by the Georgia Straight Guitar Society. A weekend retreat at a 100 year old camp in serene Crescent Beach, the Jam featured musicians from all over the Lower Mainland – and beyond – and offered an opportunity to participate in songwriting circles, endless middle-of-the-night jam sessions, and a Saturday night concert, where I again tasted the joy of bringing one of my songs to life with the help of talented friends.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

This summer I will turn 34 years old, and with these minor triumphs listed above the compulsion arises to continue to raise the stakes in my musical life.

To scare myself, if only a bit.

Because along with Dylan’s line about being busy being born, I’m reminded of Brene Brown, who offers the inspiration that our vulnerabilities are often the fear that keeps us from accessing our potential. And so the next place to take my guitar playing and my decade-plus inquiry into music, by looking back at the narrative thus assembled…

…is performance.

In his final address on the Tonight Show, Conan O’brien talked about people who asked him about his secret to success “like asking someone how they got struck by a meteor,” so unique are the pathways which lead us to exceptional personal achievements. But he did add that the thing he had always tried to do was “always put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be great,” and I’ve always thought about this when faced with the opportunity to perform.

I surely haven’t ever always been great. But when I haven’t been I have most assuredly learned a lot about how I should proceed next time, and looking ahead at a spring that has already yielded a few opportunities to hone this emerging skill, I am grateful for the push offered by my classes’ Learning Project / In-Depth Study.

Graffiti: An old song with new friends at the GSGW Fall Jam

TwoMy sister brought back a picture of some graffiti in Saskatoon a few summers ago that I ran with, writing one of my first songs that has continued to grow with me in the years since, and which continues to accompany me in new musical places.

I’ve played this song in my kitchen by myself, in classrooms, around campfires, and in canoes. “Graffiti” was a natural choice to perform when I was invited to share a song on Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur, the Six String Nation guitar at the opening of Unplug’d 2012 in Toronto.

And I’ve worked up a few different versions of the tune with different groups of musicians I’ve played with in the last few years. One such group I came upon this fall at the Georgia Straight Fall Jam in Crescent Beach, BC, where I enlisted a few members of Doc and the Disorderlies, and a few other new friends, to join me in the Saturday concert.

Unfortunately, the battery on the camera died as the song was ending, but I did catch a full recording of a rehearsal that afternoon, which is posted below.

“…not a class that teaches guitar, but one where you can learn guitar.”

#IntroGuitar Performance Day

I’m forever indebted to Alan Levine’s description of #IntroGuitar sometime last spring, where he included Gleneagle‘s Introduction to Guitar 11 in a list of experiments in Open Courses You Won’t Find in the New York Times, A Cheesy Edudemic Infographic, or Among Davos Champagne Sippers:  

In a basic hosted WordPress web site, he has a place for his high school students and anyone else interested to post their recordings, videos, and writings about elearning to play guitar. There is a loose curriculum, but open participants can jump in and out easily.

And a semantic distinction, it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.

Already people are sharing stories of their guitars, taking tracks recorded by one participant and layering their accompaniment on top.

How much easier could it be to open up a course? A free hosted platform, invite people in? Who needs $6,000,000?

Not that I would turn down the six million, but I am humbled to have played a part in creating something that so naturally and easily manifests so many of the things we talk about as 21st Century Educators: choice, flexibility and relevance, the blending of digital and physical collaborative spaces, and the building of communities of practice for our students and the wider world.Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 11.51.56 AM

As Alan introduced, the course itself consists of the 25 for-credit students that have enrolled in the class at Gleneagle, and a website I set up using the free WordPress.com site.  From there, I have tried to set the for-credit tasks in line with creating a blended learning community for folks beyond the class to engage with and benefit from: categorizing assignments and allowing anyone who fills out a Google Form to become a site author, offering feedback, creating their own assignments, or tackling existing tasks on the site.

For those enrolling as Open Online Participants, there are few rules, expectations, or guidelines to speak of:

There are no minimums, and no apologies for open-online learners in Introduction to Guitar: do as much or as little as you like.

With this lackadaisical invitation, some of the most profound and creative learning in last year’s cohort was contributed by folks – from around the world – joining in for fun. 

In a particular piece of open-serendipity documented in more length here, I took a poem written by one of Jabiz Raisdana’s students in Singapore and lent it some musical accompaniment that I shared as a Google Document.

From there, Nathan John Moes, in northern BC, recorded a gem of a cover – that has since disappeared from Soundcloud – which survives courtesy of an asynchronous jam provided by Keri-Lee Beasley (back in Singapore), who sings over Nathan’s version here:

Sylvano Bussotti, Rhizome, 1959 (Via MaryAnn Reilly)

But that’s not even all of it: Jabiz took his own swing at what had become of his student’s poem, and so did Colin Jagoe (in Ontario) , and Leslie Lindballe (while she was down in Peru).

In an example of truly rhizomatic learning, momentum gathered around a personally relevant course of study for those who found the assignment compelling; others were free to join in or pursue their own plans:

With the start of another semester of Introduction to Guitar at Gleneagle, I’m excited to build on our open experiences of last year, and have already begun the process of serving as tour guide to our prospective Open Online Participants (something I hope will help throughout this semester), and enculturing our new For-Credit Students into the blended online learning environment.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll hopefully be seeing the fruits of this initial infrastructure setup in the type of spontaneous creativity and learning many of our participants will benefit from in the coming months.

Want to join us? 

Visit TalonsRockBand.Wordpress.com and our invitation to Open Online Participants, drop your details in our registration form, and familiarize yourself with the course site.

You’ll find a variety of assignment possibilities categorized on the dropdown menu at the top of the page, and a host of student\participant examples to guide you in your first efforts. If you don’t find an assignment worth pursuing, make one up!

It is, after all, your course as much as it is anyone else’s.