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.

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.

Learning Project: Performance Goals

Leading up to our first performances in #IntroGuitar, for credit students were asked to prepare brief introductions to their goals in these first efforts. Here is my introduction to the song I selected to perform, an original entitled “Judy and the Town.”

While the song is a few years old, I have elected to focus more on performing this semester, and have looked to present the tension in the song between the somber second verse and more jubilant ending. This involves establishing the song’s structure in the first two verses, which lead to transitional pre-choruses and full choruses, and then turning the corner into the final chorus / coda, gaining momentum and hopefully voices in a singalong ending.

And then Scott’ll come home / and the dogs’ll come home / and we’ll all be at home / and if Lindsay ever leaves she’ll still come home

In my recorded performance, I am not quite into the physical performance of the song; the guitar I had handy didn’t have a strap to facilitate standing. But I have managed to employ my rhythm playing in such a way that lets the storytelling in the vocals become clearly imagined by the audience.

 

#IntroGuitar Course Welcome & Introduction

Hey (#IntroGuitar) folks!

Here’s a brief example of how you might contribute a course introduction during our first few weeks of class this semester. You can see many others here.

While open online participants are free to jump in and begin on any particular assignment they like, even a short video introduction to yourself and your playing can provide a meaningful connection to your classmates before we get going.

Here are some prompts to get you going:

  • Who are you? Where are you from? How do you come to find yourself in #IntroGuitar?
  • What is your experience or history with guitar (or music)?
  • What do you want to learn during the course?
  • Is there anything you would like support in learning from the #introguitar community?

Be sure to categorize your post under Course Introductions so they will sort with everyone else’s, and connect with others who are starting out by offering a comment or feedback on their introductions.

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.

“…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.

This Talons Believe

DSC00430

This Talons Believes by Bryanjack

As this part of the ds106 class comes to a close (sort of) I have repeatedly pondered the role audio for me plays in my life and that we have done great things in this class expanding the community properties of sound and I am so thankful for that. Sound has so many wonderful uses, and I think in this class we have wandered into some fantastic places with it. I want to sit with all of you and make art. Todd Conaway

Agreeing with Todd entirely, I synthesized some of my teacher feedback from the few-months old This I Believe essay project into a 20′ radio show that sewed different elements of the class’ recorded writings into my larger essay about what we learned we believed. Still a few steps away from offering a weekly radio show, or media share of the collective lessons learned in the Talons classroom, but one closer. Enjoy!

Don’t Stop Believing (in Santa Claus)

Just a North Pole girl, livin in a snowy world Took the magic sleigh going anywhere Just a South Pole boy, wishing for a special toy He took the magic sleigh going anywhere

Reindeer against the moon Chevy Chase in National Lampoons Christmas Eve and I can’t sleep It goes on and on and on and on

Strangers waiting, sleeping on long winter’s naps Santa’s searching in the night Red and Green light people living just to find some presents under their tree Santa’s

Bein’ good to reach my goal, No one wants a lump of coal. Sending Santa the list I made Just for this day

Some were bad, some were nice Some were picky ’bout their rice Oh the list don’t end It goes on and on and on and on

Strangers waiting, sleeping on long winter’s naps Their Santa’s searching in the night Red and Green light people living just to get some presents Santa’s flying through the night

Don’t stop believing That Santa Claus is real Red and Green Light People

Download an mp3 to recreate this holiday rewrite with you and yours this holiday season!