Advice to a College Music Student


I started teaching at the University of North Carolina Wilmington right after finishing my Master’s degree at Indiana University in 2012. While I wasn’t expecting to get back into academia so quick, it was enlightening to get the teacher’s perspective, especially in a smaller school environment.

I went to two universities with very large schools of music. It’s difficult not only to see everything that happens within these schools, but even more difficult to interact with everyone on a consistent basis. One nice benefit of being at a smaller school is that I interact with both students I teach and other students that are in the department.

In the last year and a half, I’ve seen the many differences between large established schools of music and smaller developing departments of music. For us teachers, we are trying to train our students for the professional world, but most of the larger universities are already at the same level as professionals. This relativity can be discouraging to students in a smaller school, and the biggest thing I have noticed so far in my teaching career is where professional ability lacks, potential replaces. It’s up to the student to see their own potential and develop it.

Below is some helpful advice that I have for students of music, especially at the undergraduate level. Some of these were the reasons why I was very successful in school, some were things I learned and realized as I progressed through school, and some I learned the hard way. If I knew then what I know now…

Your professional career starts as soon as you step foot on campus

Your time in school has much more of an impact on your professional career than you think. The people you meet and the experiences you will have will directly affect your success when you graduate and are long gone.

Most importantly, people’s perception of you is what carries the most after you’ve graduated. You wouldn’t believe how many groups today have members that went to high school or college together. Once you’re out of school, the network of people that you created will stick with you for the rest of your career.

What that means is you have to make the best impression you can while you’re in school. Your peers will be your colleagues, and your teachers will be your references. If you develop a history of being unreliable, unprepared, late to rehearsals and performances, or just plain unpleasant to work with, people will remember that about you. Once you’ve fallen into a trap, it takes twice as much effort (or even more) to rebuild your reputation.

It’s OK to make mistakes, that’s what being in school is for. What’s most important is how you react to those mistakes. Sometimes a simple apology in person is all it needs, or making up for it by making sure it never happens again.

Be prepared

Or better put, stay on top of things. When you’re in school, you have so many things to work on all at the same time. Ensemble music, private lesson materials, outside projects, theory homework, music history listening, those pesky general education courses, the list goes on…

The absolute worst thing to do is procrastinate, especially with practicing. What worked the best for me is if I had things to do, I prioritized and did them before extracurricular activities. It’s OK to postpone socializing to stay on top of your work. Give yourself ample time to complete what you need to do. What may work for one person may not work for another, so find the system that’s right for you and stay on top of things. To-do lists work really well for me, but it only works if you make sure it’s cleared as soon as you can. I like to get things done at the beginning of the day, so I have my evenings free.

I also recommend not cramming as many hours as possible into one semester. All of those classes (and the work associated with them) can pile up. When I was an undergrad, I never went over 15 hours. It took an extra semester to graduate, but it was nice being involved in more performing related activities than bookwork.

With all of that being said, if you find yourself not prepared, don’t make excuses for it. Be honest with your professors. The best things you can say are “I’ll do my best” or “It’ll be better next time”. Your professors can tell if you did the work or not, so don’t try to cover it up.

Be reliable

By being prepared, you’ll be more reliable. You’ll have your parts learned, have better lessons, and become a better musician while doing it. I always appreciate and admire players that are “solid”: they always bring their A- game, play their parts beautifully, and they look effortless while doing it. Their bad days are better than the great days of some.

Reliable musicians are always on time, always engaged, and always willing to contribute to the music as a whole than their own personal gain or ego. They’re always professional too. They treat every practice session, rehearsal, and performance like it’s the biggest gig they’ve done.

These guys and gals get the calls first.

Practice your ass off

It should go without saying, but school is the time to hit the practice room hard. It’s very true that you don’t have as much time to practice when you’re not in school. (I didn’t even have as much time as I wanted in grad school!)

It’s not so much that you’re practicing, but it’s the intent of which you practice. You can get the most out of your practice time by really thinking about what you’re doing and how you can make it better. Practicing is more about problem solving than anything else. A good teacher will give you the tools to make your problem solving easier and more effective.

What I really learned from my teachers is how to teach myself.

Record yourself often

This is something I wish I did more in school. You should always record yourself in many different situations. Record practice sessions, rehearsals, lessons, performances, etc. Not only should you listen to them immediately and use that for personal feedback, take a moment a year later to listen to the same recording. Progress can only be measured over long periods of time. You may not notice your progress in weekly increments, but it’s surprising to listen back to what you sounded like a long time ago and how far you’ve come.

Listen

I can always tell who will be great students from the very first conversation I have with them. I ask them what they listen to. You’d be surprised how many students coming to school to study jazz don’t listen to it!

The best resource for any musician is the music itself. The more you listen to the music you want to create, the more it will become a part of you, and of course you have a model for your own development.

When I was studying with Ed Soph, he would always ask me what I listened to. He would follow my answer with, “What makes he/she/it sound so good?” I thank Ed almost every day because he taught me how to listen to music with intent. By recognizing the qualities that make the music successful, it will be easier to incorporate those qualities into your own playing.

Listen to everything you can. Listen to the music you want to create. Listen to things you don’t normally listen to. Find and listen to recordings of what you’re working on, whether it’s solo, chamber music, wind ensemble piece, symphony, big band chart, etc. There are so many resources available now like Spotify, YouTube, CD’s, your school’s library, et al. Find multiple versions. You’ll gain more perspective on different interpretations of the dots and lines you see in front of you. It might also answer any questions you have about the music.

Don’t get discouraged

The old saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

But sometimes in school you have to. There is so much material that has to be covered in four years, and as a result you may have to push through an idea or technique that isn’t fully realized.

Don’t let that be discouraging to you. With time, you’ll eventually grasp the concept that seemed daunting to you. When things get tough, try not to let emotion get to you. Discouragement can kill your brain’s ability to learn something new. Trust that you’ll get it with time.

Honestly, most of the concepts I learned in school finally clicked for me well after I graduated. So give it some time.

Save everything

Now this is something I didn’t do and I surely wish I had. I did this a little bit during grad school, but I’m still kicking myself for not doing it thoroughly.

Save everything. Everything. Yes, even your textbooks. (I know, it’s tempting to sell them back, but don’t.) The more information you physically have when you’re out of school, the more resources you’ll have when you don’t have access to all of the resources available while you were in school. That one time you need to know how Neapolitan sixth chords work and you forgot…

My advice is to catalogue every course you take. For physical media, keep a separate binder for each course with all of your notes, assignments, tests, etc. and file it away at the end of the semester. You can do the same digitally. Keep a “College” folder, organize that by semester, then by course. Keep PDF’s, Finale/Sibelius files, audio files, and all of the other things you accumulate during the semester. Organize it in such a way that you can find things easily later down the road.

You’ll be glad you did.

Perform as much as possible

Play as much as you can in every possible situation you can find yourself in. Try to be in every university ensemble you can play in during your four years, and then play some more outside of school. Play in symphony orchestra, play in a chamber group, sightread duets with friends, help someone on their recital, etc.

If your school has something unique like steel band, Brazilian ensemble, or gamelan ensemble, do that too.

The more you play, the better you get, and the more people you’ll meet. Just don’t spread yourself too thin.

Get out of your comfort zone

This almost ties in with performing as much as possible. At least once you should participate in something completely out of your comfort zone. It may be a format you’re not familiar with, or the music might not be your cup of tea. Whatever it is, go for it.

I’ve found that participating in something out of my comfort zone made me appreciate and respect that particular art form much more by being involved in it. It actually helped me come to appreciate free jazz — not only do I enjoy playing it, I enjoy listening to it as well.

You may actually find that something you may not like will turn out to be incredibly rewarding.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I will be forever grateful to Christopher Deane for all of the help he has given me over the years.

Never be afraid to talk to someone if you’re having trouble. It doesn’t even have to deal with music. When I was in school, I used to suffer from confidence issues: so much so that I would become really discouraged in myself to the degree if I felt like I didn’t play a single note perfectly, I would become overwhelmed with anxiety.

But then I asked Mr. Deane for help. I told him what I was experiencing, and he had no problems talking to me and helping me work out these issues while working on pieces for my lessons. As a result, the lessons were phenomenal, and I will forever call him a mentor and a friend. (I still am a perfectionist, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.)

So don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what your teachers are there for.

Last but certainly not least, have fun

Music is such an enjoyable experience: listening to it as well as creating it. No matter where you are in your studies, while you are always striving to be a better musician and artist, always remember to enjoy this process. Be happy with the gift that you have: the ability to create great music.

So have fun, and create beautiful music.

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The Great Platform Debate

Why it doesn’t really matter


Most of my friends know that I am a big fan of Apple’s products. I remember obsessing over a PowerBook G4 when I was in high school, and how disappointed I was when I couldn’t afford it when it came time for college. When I finally bought a Mac, I had found a computer that was right for me and what I wanted out of a computer. Apple has always had a focus of the liberal arts combined with technology in their DNA, and I resonated with that. Artists, musicians, designers, and other creative types all used Macs. I wanted to as well.

For years, it was the “Mac vs. PC” debate. There were ads about it. Before that, there was a campaign to switch to the Mac from a PC. Both sides had their faithful supporters, and people sometimes weren’t afraid to state their opinion over what they thought was the best platform.

But times have changed. The focus in today’s technology world is less focused on computers and more focused on the mobile space. After the revolution of the “consumer smartphone” with the release of the original iPhone, other platforms soon followed, mainly Android and the original T-Mobile G1. Most the tech blogs I follow (The Verge is my favorite) focus more on iOS, Android, apps, phones, tablets, and smart watches more than desktops and laptops.

So instead of the “Mac vs. PC” debate, consumers are left to another decision: iOS or Android.

I like technology. I like to keep up with all of the new things that are happening in the technology world, and most of my friends know that. They usually ask me first about a new device, a particular setting on their phone, getting iCloud synced properly, or what typeface to use for a paper that isn’t Arial or Times New Roman. I appreciate that, because I’m passionate about the subject, even though it’s not what I do for a living.

I’ve had many times a “Mac vs. PC” or “iOS vs. Android” debate, usually with people that are on the other side of Apple knowing that I really like Apple’s products. Over the years, the differences between opposing platforms are diminishing, and with everything that is available today to the consumer, I’ve come to a realization. Many people think that I’m an Apple “fanboy,” and because I prefer that platform means all other platforms are inferior. I don’t see it that way.

I think both platforms are great.

Even though I currently have all iOS devices, I have owned an Android phone and recently a Nexus 7. I think both platforms are great: Android is a great operating system as well as iOS. I think Android has come a long way in the last couple of years since owning a Droid Incredible. I could see myself using Android, and I would consider switching, especially with Lollipop (“Material Design” is beautiful) and the new Nexus devices.

There are tons of great phones out there: the iPhone 6/6+, Nexus 6, HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy S5, Moto X, Droid Turbo, the list goes on and on. With so many options, its easier than ever to find a device that is right for you, and that’s what is important.

Does this device give me the experience I’m looking for?

The big “platform debate” doesn’t really matter anymore. iOS and Android are both great platforms, and they both offer a unique experience to the user. At the end of the day, you should ask yourself, “Does this device have everything I’m looking for in a phone?” Or better put, “Does this device give me the experience I’m looking for?” If you can say “yes” to that question, than you have the best device; you have the best platform. For you.

Everyone looks for something different in a phone. It could be a larger screen, a camera with the most megapixels, the best apps, insane battery life, cost, a cohesive ecosystem between devices, carrier, fingerprint authentication, customization, impeccable build quality, availability of updates, etc. What may matter to one person, may not matter to another.

There are things I love about iOS and things I don’t, things about Android I love that iOS doesn’t have, and things about Android that I’m not a fan of. There isn’t a one perfect “device to end all devices”, but the iPhone gives me what I personally look for, and that’s the best device for me.

So at the end of the day, if the device that you own meets everything you look for in a device, then you have the best. There isn’t a debate; there isn’t a comparison. You have the best experience for you, and that’s what really matters.

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The Art of Practicing

There’s an art to the art.


In order to progress as musicians, we must practice. This is the process of taking things we’re not familiar with and improving upon them. Practicing shows itself in many forms, including learning new pieces, realizing fundamentals of music, instrument mechanics and technique, and listening and analyzing just to name a few.

All of these forms share one common element: problem solving. Problem solving involves changing the way you think about something to achieve a desired outcome.

Over the years, I have been fascinated on the science behind practicing, and the various methods students of music have used to problem solve and incorporate new aspects into their art form. While there are many ways one can approach practicing, I have found that the common thread of psychological awareness and problem solving produces the most dramatic results in the shortest period of time. No matter how you choose to practice, it is more important what you practice and the thought process behind it that makes all the difference.

We practice so that we can be the best musicians we can be, to contribute to this wonderful art form that exists in our society. But improving upon ourselves to the best of our ability is an art form in itself. This article is not meant to discuss the various techniques one can use to practice, but rather conceptualizing the art of it.

What is Practice?

Let’s define what practicing is from the musician’s perspective. Practice is taking something unfamiliar with the desire to make it familiar. So to practice efficiently means to increase one’s awareness of their weaknesses and improve upon them so that they become an instinctual, natural aspect of one’s musicianship.

For example, you practice scales to learn the physical mechanics of melodically moving from one note to another, or you practice with a metronome to develop your sense of consistent, internal time. This is why many great teachers heavily focus on fundamentals, because their application and mastery impact all aspects of musical performance. Also, fundamentals can easily be expanded upon, like taking major scales to practice different articulations, phrasing, or rhythms.

To put it simply, if you sound good when you practice, you’re not really practicing!

Well, to an extent. That statement should read, “If you sound good when you [begin to] practice [something], you’re not really practicing.” If you still sound bad when you’ve been working on something for a while, then something needs to change in your thought process and problem solving in order to sound better. This method of thinking can dramatically change your approach to deconstructing a piece of music, a conceptual idea, or a physical motion to better internalize and incorporate something into your playing.

It is really our brains that play our instruments, not our mouth, hands, or feet. Our brain controls all of our physical actions, as well as our approach and thought processes behind the music. You’d be surprised how effective fixing a problem is by thinking about it differently, not just attacking it with sheer brute force of repetition.

Physical vs. Emotional

While our brain is such a powerful tool to aid us in problem solving, it can also pose a threat to how efficient we practice. Our brain controls our emotional center as well as our physical center. If we start to get discouraged in our practicing and let negative emotions take over, the brain loses its focus to problem solve and retain information. It is human nature, a natural reaction to trying to achieve a desired outcome and not reaching it as quickly as we may want to.

There is a certain conceptual idea about music that can help us reduce this emotional response. I have never met a musician of any age that felt like they didn’t have anything else to learn. There is always something new or unfamiliar to us, and part of our journey as musicians is striving to keep an open mind, incorporate new concepts, and constantly improve. To know that there is always something new means you can enjoy the process of getting better instead of focusing on some unattainable “final goal” of being a 100% master of everything that is music.

If you think about it, what may have been “difficult” for you in the past was actually just something new and unfamiliar to you. So if you ever find yourself getting discouraged, remember that nothing is difficult, it is only new. Don’t get discouraged.

Setting Goals vs. Being Idealistic

Practicing with the intent of trying to reach this unattainable “final goal” is to be idealistic. Thought processes like “Why don’t I sound the way I want to right now?” or “Why can’t I sound like [insert favorite musician here]?” are examples of thinking idealistically.

In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, the author mentions the word “practice” as it relates to zazen, or the ritual of meditation. I couldn’t help but think of musical practice, as the activities are very similar.

“…the kind of practice we stress thus cannot become too idealistic. If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap. Because there is no bridge long enough to go across the gap, he will begin to despair.”
“If you do something in the spirit of non-achievement, there is a good quality in it.” “…try not to see something in particular; try not to achieve anything special. You already have everything in your own pure quality. If you understand this ultimate fact, there is no fear.”

This “spirit of non-achievement” may seem at first counterintuitive. Isn’t the goal of practice to achieve something you weren’t able to achieve before? Well, yes and no. There is a difference between being idealistic and setting short and long term goals. To be idealistic is not to be satisfied with your work until you have reached a particular state, but setting goals is realizing your weaknesses and how you might take steps to improve upon them, which is definitely encouraged.

If you practice without a sense of achievement or ideal, you will enjoy the process much more and will begin to approach practicing from a mindful perspective. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind elaborates on the concept of mindfulness in great detail and its relationship to “practice”.

When setting goals, it’s important to assess your weaknesses from a short and long term perspective. However, I don’t think of short and long term as two separate entities. I think they are two sides of the same coin. If you look at goals in the long term, can a single long term goal be split up into many short term goals? On the contrary, if you look at goals in the short term, are there multiple goals that might fit into a single, overarching long term goal? It’s important to look at your practice from the perspective of short and long term combined.

Start Small

How can we start to approach practice from this point of view?

The method of which you practice is unimportant. Everyone’s ability level, circumstances, and brains are different, so what might work for one person might not work for another. As mentioned earlier, the commonalities present in efficient practicers involve our brain’s ability to problem solve.

The most important thing is to start small. Think about basic arithmetic. Remember the acronym for the order of operations? PEMDAS. This helps us remember not only the correct order to solve mathematical expressions, but it also deconstructs a longer equation into many smaller ones. Imagine solving an equation all at once, instead of thinking about an equation as solving several smaller ones. It would be pretty difficult, right?

Many people practice trying to solve the entire equation at once. I call this “trial and error” practicing. They start by attempting the fully realized idea of the concept they’re working on. For example, someone who learns a piece by playing it at tempo from beginning to end. It might be an OK performance, but there might be a lot of mistakes and some passages that may need more attention. Instead of isolating problem areas, they’ll continue to repeat the whole piece over and over making small adjustments until they get it right. Unfortunately, they’ve played it more times wrong than right! (I think they get lucky.) If you think about this method, you realize that “trial and error” practicing feeds the brain more incorrect than correct information, and ultimately the brain retains unnecessary information.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee

The trick is to deconstruct what needs to be worked on into small, manageable elements that can be realized and incorporated quickly so your brain only retains “correct” information. A couple examples of this can be:

  • Practicing slowly and accurately.
  • Breaking up a musical passage into 2 or 4 measure sections.
  • Practicing out of time focusing on note accuracy.
  • Singing or clapping rhythms to realize correct timing.
  • Creating exercises to isolate technical issues, such as articulations, rhythms, or mechanics.

By deconstructing, you’re actually removing familiar elements to focus on more unfamiliar ones.

Knowing when and what needs to be practiced is also important. Are there two measures that need the most work? Start on that first. Are there any sections that are repeated later? No need to re-practice them. This requires a bit of analyzing but by prioritizing material into what needs the most work and/or the highest frequency material, you will increase your efficiency in the practice room, especially if time is a constraint.

The trick is to find ways to always feed your brain correct information, even if it means “rigging the game” so you can always do so.

Quality over Quantity

By now, we’ve looked at practicing from the perspective of your brain and thinking differently. Approaching practice from this angle will help reduce the amount of time it takes you to realize a concept or learn a piece.

Musicians like to focus on practice sessions with the variable of time. “I practiced 8 hours today!” This might seem like an impressive number, but it may not accurately describe how much progress one has made throughout that particular practice session.

If you think about effective practicing as a result of thinking differently and problem solving, you’ll realize that time is inconsequential, it is merely a result of accomplishing the particular goals you have set for that day. As the old saying goes, it’s about quality, not quantity. No matter how you practice, it’s important to start from the mindset of setting goals and accomplishing them for each practice session, rather than completing a given length of time.

For example, when beginning a practice session, you should set clear goals for the day’s work. “I’m going to learn this etude” is too general; rather, “I’m going to learn the first four phrases of this etude at a slow tempo focusing first on rhythms, then articulation, dynamics, and phrasing.” By being very specific, there isn’t any guesswork on approach and what particular problems you are trying to solve. Here are some more examples of general and specific practice goals.

General: “I’m going to practice scales in the jazz style.” Specific: “I’m going to practice bebop scales using swing articulations with a metronome on 2 & 4, focusing on legato phrasing and accentuating upbeats.”

General: “I’m going to practice staying relaxed.” Specific: “I’m going to practice single strokes at a slow tempo focusing on consistency, letting the sticks bounce, and staying relaxed.”

Once you begin to incorporate this thought process into your practice sessions, it will drastically reduce the time it takes you to achieve your desired goals. You can move on to other things in your day, or better yet, progress faster and accomplish more in your dedicated practice time.

Consistency

Now that you’re practicing is more effective, it’s important to maintain that effectiveness.

Think about exercising. If you’re interested in running, it doesn’t make sense to run a 5K on your first session. You’ll get tired, discouraged, and you probably won’t do it again. However, if you plan to only run 10 minutes a day, it’s easier to reach this target and repeat it consistently. Rig the game so you can win.

It works the same with practicing. Instead of cramming a whole week’s worth of practicing in one day (right before your lesson), it’s much better to set smaller goals and accomplish them every day. Practicing 8 hours only on Saturday is not as effective as practicing 70 minutes a day for a week. Since we’re talking about our brains and retaining information, it’s much easier for our brains to retain information if it’s consistent. Schedule your practice time as if it were another class, or make it a part of your daily routine.

So rig the game so you can win. If you’re having trouble maintaining a consistent schedule, reduce your material so that it’s repeatable every single day. Whether it’s four measures of an etude, a specific technique, or even 30 minutes a day, if it’s small and manageable, it’s repeatable and therefore consistent. 30 minutes a day of mindful, thought oriented practice is much better than 3.5 hours of mindless practice one time a week. Some of my friends keep practicing journals to help them stay on track and to manage their goals.

The Science of Taking Breaks

There is a technique used for productivity called the pomodoro technique. In order to increase mental acuity, you break down periods of work into 30 minute intervals: 25 minutes of work and a 5 minute break by using an egg timer. After four pomodori, you can take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. It’s a technique used by many to structure periods of productivity, and a reminder to take a break once in a while!

There is a lot of merit in taking frequent breaks. The brain can only intently focus on something for a short period of time before the brain loses its agility to retain information. After a break, the brain approaches with the same acuity you started the session with, and will help the brain retain information more effectively.

In the book The 4-Hour Chef, author Tim Ferriss explores the concept of accelerated learning through cooking. It’s really a book about the science of learning anything, and most of the concepts that I’ve used here are implementations of accelerated learning as it relates to practicing. There is one page in particular where he explores the brains ability to retain vocabulary words when learning a foreign language.

It’s called the serial position effect and it relates to improved recall of vocabulary words at the beginnings and ends of lists. If you studied a list of 20 words, you’ll probably be able to recall the first 5 and the last 5 without trouble, but there will be some hesitance in the middle. This same effect works for brain retention and time. The brain will be able to retain and recall say the first and last 10 minutes of a 60 minute continuous practice session with the least amount of effort.

However, if there is a 5-10 minute break in the middle, the serial position effect that occurs at the beginning and end of each session is theoretically doubled, because a single 60 minute session has been split into two separate 25 minute sessions with a 10 minute break, therefore doubling the brain’s retention of information.

When I practice, I always find myself taking many breaks in even shorter intervals. I’ll intently practice for 15-20 minutes and take a 2 minute break — usually just enough time to walk around for a bit, and immediately returning to practice. I find these “flash breaks” really increase the length of time I can focus and how much information my brain retains afterward.

Distraction Free Zones

The last element of thought oriented, efficient practice is being in a completely distraction free zone.

We live in a world where we can access most of the world’s information from a little electronic device in our pockets. While computers and smartphones can be invaluable resources, it is one of the greatest sources of distraction when it comes to practice.

Your practice area should have as little distraction as possible. No email, text messaging, TV’s, extraneous noise, etc. There are many good metronome and tuner apps that exist for iOS and Android, but unless they’re used responsibly, using apps can lead to distraction if you get an important email, text message, or phone call. If I ever use an app during my practice, I like to put my device in “Airplane Mode” so I don’t receive any notifications.

Keep Improvement Relative

Practicing is all about our brain and it’s ability to problem solve and retain correct information. The best musicians in the world are the most efficient practicers — they’ve figured out the right tools, methods, and thought processes that work for them in order to continually improve in the most effective way.

It’s important to keep this improvement relative. We are all striving to be the best musicians we can be and to make the music that resonates with us the most. So enjoy this process: the process of getting better, discovering new musical ideas and concepts, and the wonderful gift we all share to create beautiful music for a lifetime. Happy practicing!

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An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence

Photo credit: Love and Struggle Photos

To the white people I share home with,

I’ve gotten degrees. I’ve been published. I’ve spoken at academic gatherings. I’ve taught classes and workshops. I’ve built up a resume. I’ve gained employment in the acceptable fields of social justice. For years, you told me these were the things I needed to do in order to be listened to.

I’ve participated in direct action. I’ve been arrested. I’ve survived nearly three decades in a country that hates me. I’ve predicted the formation of movements, the swell of riots, months and even years before their occurrences. I don’t know what else I need to do to be legitimized, be validated, to be worthy of being heard and taken seriously.

I am exhausted from trying to get you on board with a movement–one that mirrors those from previous eras you claim to revere, and that has reignited calls for social transformation once heralded by the writers, speakers, musicians and artists you claim to hold dearest. I wonder if you understand what any of the struggles which have occurred during your lifetime were ever actually about.

I am not naive nor arrogant enough to believe my imploring can achieve in this moment what centuries of Black imploring has not been able to. I am not foolish enough to believe this letter will be the letter that changes your minds. I write because I need to speak, because I am in pain. I write because I cannot bear any more condescension, more indifference. I write to tell you I am not going to.

The cry of this moment is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume this is a statement you take issue with.

When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean Black people are the experts in their own lives, their own history, their own struggles. We mean your opinions are not necessary, and that debating you is a waste of our valuable energy, mental health and time. We mean you do not get to speak on issues with which you have no experience, which you have not studied nor researched, but on which you feel entitled enough to award yourself authority. We mean you must be quiet and listen to Black people.

You can no longer hide behind your idealism. The very existence of this moment proves your ideals to be misled and hollow.

If legislation alone could save us, the 13th Amendment, Special Field Order №15, and Brown vs. Board would have saved us. If electoral politics alone could save us, then the innumerable Black justices and representatives elected in the last half century would have saved us. If white saviors could save us, we would have been saved a million times over. But we are here and we are dying, and you are watching from the sidelines.

You call me an anarchist. You say you fear chaos. If you knew what it means to be Black, what is happening in your towns and cities daily, you’d know that chaos and bloodshed are already here. They are visited on women, on people of color, on poor people, workers, on immigrants, on trans people, on queer people, and they are done so constantly. Chaos is our bed, our sheets, our water, our front steps, our sidewalks. The systems you insist we trust to address it, the leaders you elected, are its source. Your fear of movement, and your denial of this reality, is what allows it to continue.

This is the last time I will say this to you:

Black people are dying. Every day, Black trans women are dying. Black children are dying. Black mothers and sisters are dying. Maybe I have to die for you to understand what this means.

If the demands of our movement are unclear to you, that is your fault. We have stated them concretely and concisely, over and over again–not just at this moment, but at every time in history Black people have fought for their lives. Don’t pretend that because the sources you read don’t report it, the information is unavailable. Don’t act as though your selective hearing is the result of our lack of organizing. Don’t tell the leaders who have penned the most passionate pleas for justice in US history they need to be more articulate.

And when the police come for me, don’t cry. When I am murdered by a supremacist in the street, don’t mourn me. If I am put in a cage for speaking out, don’t call it a travesty. Because it is happening, has been happening unceasingly for the last five centuries, and you have done nothing to stop it.

Do not feign shock at the inevitable. It disrespects me, and the memory of every Black person your system has purposefully killed.

When I tell you my needs, talk of my pain, my anger, all my stories, it is a privilege and blessing you haven’t earned. It is a profound form of vulnerability I engage not because you deserve it, but because I as a Black person choose to share it with you. I do so for the sole reason that I do not wish to lose you from my life, do not want the most core parts of my existence to be hidden from you. But when you refuse to look, they remain invisible. When you resist seeing, you deprive yourself of authentic entrance into who I truly am, and what I truly need from you.

And your denial cannot protect you, just as my silence cannot protect me.

This movement is happening without you, despite you. But real transformation is not possible unless you listen deeply, sincerely, even when it is painful, and take brave action at your own risk to fight for the things the Black community is demanding of you.

When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.

A son, brother, nephew and grandson of Black, queer liberation

Next Story — The Fascist Bogeyman
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The Fascist Bogeyman

There’s a noise under the bed and it won’t stop

The current debate about fascism in America has, thus far, centered on the definition. Many publications have been musing in the same direction: “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” (Slate, The New York Times), “Is Donald Trump an Actual Fascist?” (Vanity Fair), “Donald Trump and Fascism: Is He or Isn’t He?” (National Review), etc. People want to know what to call things and that’s understandable, but I’m not sure how useful this exercise is. Fascist is as fascist does, and by the time we can agree on the exact definition it may already be too late.

When I planned to write about ¡No Pasarán!, a new collection about the Spanish Civil War edited by Pete Ayrton, I thought there might be some good lessons in there about fascism. With the Trump campaign improbably continuing and the alt-right Nazi brand on the rise, many of us agree that a solid operational understanding of fascism is increasingly necessary. Whether or not the label applies to our present situation, I’m pretty sure it’s valid when talking about Generalissimo Francisco Franco of the Spanish Falange.

I figured I would outline the historical timeline, cite a couple historical curiosities, draw some ominous connections to the election, get a check, and move on. Instead, I got stuck on a couple anecdotes in one of the pieces, an excerpt of the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga’s book De Gernika a Guernica. The first is from the village of Fuenteguinaldo, and it happened in 1936 but wasn’t revealed publicly for 70 years:

“Apparently, the Falangists asked the priest to draw up a list of all the reds and atheists in the village … They went from house to house looking for them. At nine o’clock at night, they were taken to the prison in Ciudad Rodrigo, and at four o’clock in the morning, were told they were being released, but, at the door of the prison, a truck was waiting and, instead of taking them home, it brought them here to be killed.”

The second comes from the failed coup attempt in 1981:

“I was living in a village in Castille with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. I became friendly with a young socialist who was a local councillor. When I met him one day, he was looking positively distraught. He had just found out that in February of that year, on the night Colonel Tejero burst into Parliament and the tanks came out onto the streets, the local priest had gone straight to the nearest military barracks intending to hand in a list of local men who should be arrested; my friend’s name was at the top of the list.”

Someone puts your name on a list and you disappear. And maybe all the people who care enough to look for you disappear too. And no one hears what happened until everyone you ever knew is dead. That is, if you’ll excuse my language, the fucking bogeyman. It scares the hell out of me.

There’s a danger to thinking about fascism as something other than human, not just because it is people, but because it presents a temptation to dehistoricize. Fascism becomes something existential, a tyrannical tendency somewhere deep in the character of all people or all societies that needs to be restrained but occasionally breaks free to wreak havoc. Once we start down that path it’s not too long before we get to “We’re all a little bit fascist,” and “Was Alexander the Great a fascist?” That is lazy, useless thinking, the kind of “human nature” nonsense that is the first resort of the uninformed and uninterested.

Monsters and ghouls have always been a part of human community as far as I know, but they each emerge under particular circumstances. Think FernGully: The evil spirit Hexxus is freed from a tree (where it’s been imprisoned) when a timber crew chops it down. Ancient Hexxus seeps out with the character — even the name — of modern pollution. The creature is the externalities of industrial production embodied. It moves like oil and smoke. That pollution makes monsters is not a special insight; everyone knows about Godzilla. But moral pollution, of course, yields demons as well. Monsters show up when some scale is stubbornly uneven, when karma is repressed. Toxic waste dumped in the swamp, but graves disturbed too. That we’ve always had evil isn’t a way to avoid understanding the specifics of its incarnations. Thinking about fascism as a bogeyman in this way could be more useful. What kind of monster is it?

Allow me some speculation. Fascism is a nation-shaped monster. It arises alongside the modern state, and though they share sympathies (and weapons) across borders, fascists are nationalists. One of the conflicts that feeds fascism is between 19th-century ideas about the racial character of states and 20th-century pluralist ones. Our global system is supposedly based on something like collective self-determination, but it’s grafted onto a map drawn by colonial violence and pseudo-scientific ideas about Gauls and Teutons. Fascism is a particular combination of Romantic/Victorian ambitions and modern tools that sparks to life as the two eras grind against each other. Frankenstein with the arms of capitalist industry and the heart of a monarchist. Patriotic young Hitler inhaling mustard gas in the trenches, like a panel from the first issue of a comic book.

One of those modern tools is the list. We’ve always indexed information, but our ability to do so grows in qualitative jumps. To round up all your enemies at a national level is an analytics problem, and it’s one we solved under particular circumstances. The quantitative management of populations doesn’t just happen to emerge around slavery, it emerges out of slavery. And the Civil War didn’t break the line: At the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, so-called scientists of the early 20th century kept lists of the genetically (and racially) undesirable. They embarked on sterilization campaigns and lent their expertise to help halt the flow of immigrants. The Nazis infamously used IBM to manage the Holocaust; the Americans (less infamously) also used IBM to manage the Japanese internment camps. When NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute recreated an ERO office in 2014, they called the exhibit “Haunted Files.” Perhaps our filing systems are haunted too.

Modern liberal states have never truly reconciled their racial character with their democratic pretensions. I’m not clear on how such a thing could be possible; where would a truly pluralist state draw its borders and why? Flipping through a history book it’s hard to argue that the nation-state system doesn’t exist for the arbitrarily divided glory of western Europeans. The official line is that we’re supposed to ignore that part, or be sad. But some people don’t want to ignore it and they aren’t sad. Instead they wonder why we have the nice borders that their conquering “ancestors” drew but all these people on the wrong sides. If taking Mexico’s land for white people was illegitimate, then why haven’t we given it back? And if it was legitimate, then what’s wrong with a wall to protect our side from a reversal? The liberal patriots, they say, are lying to themselves; there is no nationalism that is not ethno-nationalism.

The persistence of the fascist bogeyman suggests that they have a point. The beast can skulk in the basement for decades, feeding off the contradictions at the foundation of the pluralist state and its own waste. This is 2016 and we can’t claim that fascism is a birth pang of the global democratic order, an enemy defeated. (Ghosts, zombies, the terminator: monsters so rarely go away when they’re supposed to.) Fascism seems inextricably tied to what we have, like Dorian Gray’s portrait locked in a closet, consolidating ugliness.

Whether or not they could finish off fascism once and for all, liberals usually aren’t tempted to try. I don’t know if that’s because they sense something irradicable there, but liberals have historically found deals to make with their shadow. Spain is one of the more striking examples. When Franco’s insurgents escalated, the rest of the world agreed to stay neutral so as to stall the already foreseen World War II. But the war had already begun: Hitler and Mussolini flouted the agreement, intervening most dramatically with bombing raids. The Soviet Union breached as well, sending weapons to badly armed Madrid. The western democracies, however, stayed neutral. In return, Franco maintained Spain as a non-belligerent when world-wide hostilities broke out. It’s an agreement that lasted into the 80s.

Part of what makes the Spanish Civil War so important for leftists is the sense that it could have gone the other way. There’s an urban legend that infighting among leftists — communists, anarchists, and Trotskyists — caused the Republic’s defeat. ¡No Pasarán! has accounts of this friendly-ish fire, but no one thinks it decisive compared to German and Italian air power or the western arms embargo. Spanish republicans and their study abroad comrades fought bravely, but the bogeyman has an advantage at the insurgency stage. Violence is its thing.

The bogeyman makes a real offer: Delegate to me your capacity for limitless violence and together we will dominate. That they’re able to do it justifies the undertaking, and they are, under some circumstances, able to do it. A willingness to strike first, to drag your enemies from their beds in the middle of the night, to steal their babies, that’s a force multiplier, especially when combined with the right information technology. There is strength in white nationalist unity. Horrifying, despicable, anti-human strength, but strength still. The fascist image is a bundle of sticks or arrows — the fasces, harder to break. And they are.

I think of the 2015 movie Green Room, about a band of punks who get trapped inside a Nazi club and have to try and fight their way out. Joe Cole plays the drummer Reece, and he’s the only one who shows any sort of confidence, preparation, or leadership when it comes to fighting fascists. With his MMA skills he incapacitates a giant skinhead bouncer and directs the gang to make a break for it. He’s not out a club window one moment before two faceless, nameless Nazi henchmen have stabbed him to death. For me this moment illuminates a basic truth about fascist strategy: It does not matter how smart or brave or capable or strong you are. There are two of us, we have knives, and we’re waiting outside the window.

Liberal democracies are constitutionally vulnerable to the bogeyman. We civilians have already delegated our capacity for violence to the military abroad and the police at home. If there’s a threat to law and order, then the forces of law and order will take care of it. We don’t have to worry about protecting our democracy, there are professionals for that. All we have to do is vote for the right people to manage them. But that plan has risks.

America’s founders thought they could write the standing army out by fiat, and they have been proven very wrong. Liberal democracies maintain giant war machines. Within each of these war machines — as in the religious and business communities — there are cults that worship the bogeyman. Members wear tattoos, patches, insignias to identify each other. They recruit. Some of them go to meetings, most probably don’t. I imagine that many of them get fulfillment from their work. Why wouldn’t fascists feel at home in the police, the border patrol, the army? Asking these organizations to maintain anti-fascist vigilance on behalf of the whole population is a fox and henhouse situation.

If Donald Trump is a fascist — as even the liberal media is beginning to agree — and has a non-negligible chance to winning the presidency, what is the contingency plan? If a Trump administration were to flout what’s left of our democratic norms, how would our system protect itself? I don’t know how Trump polls among active-duty military, but the Fraternal Order of Police has already endorsed him. Part of me thinks “Troops loyal to Hillary Clinton,” is a phrase we could get used to fast, but I’m not sure how many of those there are. Are the Vox dot com technocrats expecting a Seal Team 6 bullet to solve the Trump problem if things get too hairy? It seems remarkable that the two 20th-century American politicians we talk about getting closest to fascist takeovers — Huey Long and George Wallace — were both stymied not by the democratic process but by lone gunmen. That’s a bad defense strategy. Thankfully, it’s not the only one available.

Via Richmond Struggle, anti-fascists in Richmond, VA

Wherever there have been fascists there have also been anti-fascists: Traditionally communists, anarchists, socialists, and some folks who just hate fascists. When left-wing parties have on occasion decided to stand by while fascists targeted liberal governments, anti-fascist elements have still distinguished themselves. Anti-fascism is based on the idea that fascists will use content-neutral liberal norms like freedom of speech and association as a Trojan Horse. By the time the threat seems serious, the knives are already out. Antifa seek to nip the threat in the bud, attacking fascists wherever they’re weak enough to attack. If that means busting up their meetings with baseball bats, then that’s what it means.

In America, we remember the Spanish Civil War mostly through anti-fascist anglophone writers — George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway being the most famous — who decamped for Spain. Unlike fascists and liberals, anti-fascists are internationalists, and no citizenship takes precedence over the struggle. When the call went out for sympathizers to come and defend the Spanish Republic, one young British volunteer, Laurie Lee, called it “the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which may never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass-slaughter closed in.” Comrades of all sorts of nationalities and particular left-wing political views signed up for the motley “International Brigades.” There was and is a purity to this gesture; to go and risk your life alongside your attacked comrades is among the highest imaginable acts of solidarity. “¡No pasarán!” (They will not pass) is an anti-fascist slogan of such power that it’s still in use today, many decades after it turned out to be a lie.

Because pass they did. The righteous rag-tag army was no match for the German and Italian bombers. Spain stands for anti-fascism across borders, but also the catastrophe of its failure. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the War it’s that fascists don’t always lose. The arc of history is not a missile defense system and sometimes righteous solidarity makes for full prison camps.

For years American anti-fascists have been very effective. Up until the Trump campaign, they had largely prevented white nationalists from meeting in public in cities. It usually works something like this: Antifa finds out where the Nazis are planning to meet and they call the hotel or conference center they’re going to use and explain who exactly “American Renaissance” is, and what will happen if the meeting happens (chaos). Most reputable establishments exercise their right to decline Nazi business. This kind of tactic offends the liberal sensibility, but it’s the only choice. The least violent way to oppose fascism is to disrupt them before they feel strong enough to act in an organized way. I fear that window is closing.

I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be elected president, but the fascists who have found a vessel in his campaign have been licking their lips for months straight. Things are going better than they could have hoped and they won this round a long time ago. I have no doubt they’re thinking about how to organize their engorged base in November’s wake. Fascists aren’t democrats and they don’t need a majority.

The bogeyman is in the closet and he’s making so much noise it’s hard to pretend we can’t hear it. We have a choice to make, if not as a country, then as members of this society. We can get out of bed, open the door, and confront the social infection that is fascism. Or we can pull the sheets up over our heads, pretend history ended 25 years ago, and try to get back to sleep. Maybe the noise will stop on its own — it is possible, even likely. But maybe we’ll wake up with our throats slit. There won’t be a different kind of warning.

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