thoughts on music, design and literature

Monday, November 26, 2007

TED 2006: Do Schools Today Kill Creativity?

Happy Thanksgiving to all you Americans and American expatriots! I had a very productive week, and churned out the third (and pretty much final) draft of my album. It's pretty much ready to go, with only minor tweaks left to be done in the next week. And to celebrate, I'm letting myself blog again.

I was sent this YouTube video by a Facebook acquaintance, Mark Mahaffey. It's a great lecture given by Sir Ken Robinson at the TED Conference 2006, an annual invitation-only summit of the best and most innovative minds across all the disciplines. ('TED' stands for 'Technology Entertainment Design'.) It's a bit on the long side, but it's well worth setting aside the time to watch.

For those who don't have time to watch the whole thing, the most poignant moment of the video for me was when he talked about the early childhood of choreographer Gillian Lynne, who's probably best known for her work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on, among other things, Cats. Make all the snide comments you want--fact of the matter is, that choreography is something special.

An adolescent Gillian was taken in to see a counselor because she was always squirming about in class, and never seemed to sit still. The counselor listened very patiently to the parents concerns, and then asked them to step into the hallway with him. On the way out, he turned on the radio. Outside, in the hall, they peeked back in the room to see that Gillian, thinking no one was watching her, was suddenly dancing all about the room. The parents promptly enrolled her in a dance class, which eventually led her to where she is today: a choreographer who's brought beauty and joy to millions of people.

The point of the story is, though, that if that had happened today, she would have 1) been diagnosed with ADHD, and 2) been put on medication. The world would have lost a formidable talent, because our public school system devalues creativity in favor of the basic R's: that is, Reading, wRiting and aRithmatic. In fact, it is that over-emphasis on these basic principals that quite frankly squashes a lot of artistic talent in its infancy.

(A side note to those of you who had to suffer through a traditional Asian know exactly what I'm talking about. You're only allowed to be brilliant on the violin, as long as you don't think about making it your career. Fortunately, my parents were very progressive in that department, which is why I'm where I am today.)

You can't blame public schools; they have enough problems as it is. But that story took me back to my own experience at the dawn of my own life as a composer, when the administration of Palo Alto High School did a pretty fantastic job in almost crushing my nascent artistic talent.

It was senior year in high school, and as an eager theatre student who could actually hold a tune, I was disappointed to find out that they had cancelled the school musical that year. So, frustrated, I decided that I would write my own musical (how hard could it be?). Trouble is, I wasn't the only one with that idea....a fellow student (a drummer in a rock band) decided that he wanted to write one too. So that year at Palo Alto High School became an unofficial story of dueling original musicals.

The administration, rather than being pleased that their music program churned out two burgeoning composition talents, felt that they couldn't support having two such projects going on at the same time. So first they tried to make us collaborate and write one musical. And then they decided to throw all their administrative power behind one of the shows, and pretty much did everything they could to discourage the other one. For whatever reason, they chose the 'other show' to put forth--maybe it was because that show's creator lobbied better than I did. Who knows.

Point is, they wouldn't let me use their stage to put up my show. They wouldn't give me any resources. They did their bureaucratic best to ensure that my show wouldn't go up, short of actually shutting it down themselves (because that would probably make them look bad).

So my version of being a rebellious high schooler, of course, was to mount the damn thing myself. I convinced the choir teacher, Mrs. Fujikawa, to let me use her tiny classroom as a stage. I begged my physics teacher to stay late on campus, so that I could have a supervising teacher for my rehearsals. (Thanks Mr. Geller.) My production staff (pretty much one guy: Chris Karabats) and I used to break into the classrooms on weekends just so we could build my pitiful little set. I wrote the music, I wrote the script, I did the publicity, I played the guitar in the pit band, and through sheer force of will, my heroic cast of five and I managed to put up three sold out performances. (It's not hard to sell out when you've only got room for 60 people in a classroom.)

My first ever large-scale project, Such Sweet Thunder, was born. It was a bloated two and a half hours, with 17 musical numbers with ponderous dialogue-heavy scenes in between. It tackled an imaginary scenario where a jazz-singer--loosely based on Ella Fitzgerald--dies, and a young upstart tries to take her place. It tackled issues of art, entertainment, and the co-marriage of the two, and quite frankly was way too heady for a 17 year old to tackle, much less for a high school audience to appreciate.

But damn it, people were impressed. And the next day, the popular kids came up to me and said they were humming my tunes all day. (To this day, I'll occasionally have an old high school friend sing one of those songs back to me.) The show was taped and broadcast on local Cable Access TV. My friend Lisa came and saw it, and brought her dad, Steve Jobs--yes, THAT Steve Jobs. She later told me that he said it was the most brilliant thing he ever saw a 17-year old do. (I will carry that comment with me to my deathbed.)

The one person who was conspicuously absent, however, was the principal of the school. Not only had they withheld support for my massive undertaking, but they didn't even deign to attend one of the performances. Now THIS is the problem with public schools: the lack of resources is one thing, but to not even show support for a young artist is another sin altogether. Principal Sandra Pearson, if you're reading this, I ask you: what kind of message are you sending about the importance of creativity when one of your best students writes a two-act musical, and you don't even bother to show up for it?

As a young artist, it filled me with rage. Here I was, trying to create something, and here was 'the system' doing its best to prevent me from doing so. Allow me to psychoanalyze myself for a moment: it's because of this early experience that made me the independent-minded artist I am today. I have a deep-seeded mistrust for any entity or system that holds power over me; I feel much more secure taking control of my own destiny, and not relying on the handouts of others. I don't want to be constantly kissing ass and hoping someone will give me a job; I want to be focusing on writing good music and creating good art. I'm doing this album on my own, free of record labels, free of outside publishers because I CAN. I refuse to let all those Sandra Pearsons out there hold me down.


Anyway, the epilogue? A month after my show wrapped, I attended a performance of 'the other musical.' It was presented at the 2000-seat Haymarket Theatre, with lavish costumes, full on-stage pit orchestra, dancers, expensive lighting, and a press-blitz that celebrated the fact that a young high school student had written a musical ( novel). It was a 90-minute comedy about a 17th-century composer who's frustrated that his music is going nowhere, and so he invents rock and roll, and suddenly cellists trade in their bows for guitar picks, the village starts rocking, and everything becomes right with the world, Bill And Ted-style.

Excellent, dude.

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Blogger Randy said...

Your post inspired 2 thoughts:

1.) As someone who recently earned his doctorate in clinical psychology, I'd like to think that our assessment process has progressed to a point that we don't immediately jump to specific diagnoses and also try to see a little more of the big picture. During my clinical training, I have done several school-related psychological assessments that included recommendations of enrolling the child in more community/recreational activities (e.g., martial arts, sports, drama, music, etc.) at the very least to offer another avenue of the child to express his/her thoughts or let loose some energy.

2.) Your post definitely brought back some high school memories. I fondly remember attending Such Sweet Thunder. I cannot, however, for the life of me remember the name of other production. Based on your description of the other student as being a drummer, I can guess who it was, but I cannot remember the name of his production. Given that I was a big fan of Paly's drama and music program, I likely did see it, but I simply cannot remember it now. Thanks for making me feel like a old fogey slipping into senility. :-)

December 3, 2007 at 6:18 AM

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