In his final Teaching Artist column, Thomas Cabaniss reflects on the diversity of practice (and nomenclature) on display at a global participatory arts conference—and the wisdom that comes from connecting with those whose work least resembles our own.
What’s in a name? For the last several years, this column has gone under the banner, “The Teaching Artist.” At the time, it seemed an apt title, given the wide variety of music and education issues this space set out to address. It is also a term I have applied to myself and the work I do as a musician and educator. But it’s not without controversy. Community artists, who sport that somewhat friendlier label, point to cultural institutions’ use of “teaching artist” as having elitist, “art for art’s sake” connotations. (See “Blurring Boundaries,” Chamber Music, Fall 2015). I hope that teaching artist might eventually take on the wider, all-embracing definition imagined by author and activist Eric Booth (The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible)—but we may not be there yet, and a recent trip to an international conference revealed an even greater diversity of nomenclature.
Last August, I attended the International Teaching Artist Conference 3 (ITAC3) in Edinburgh, Scotland. Previous gatherings were held in Oslo, Norway (2012) and Brisbane, Australia (2014). As a kind of qualifier to “teaching artist” in the conference name, the Scottish organizers used “participatory arts” to describe the work they do, and participants variously described themselves as “citizen artists,” “collaborative artists,” and “artist educators.” Luckily, for all of us who gathered in Edinburgh, the conference quickly dispensed with divisive terminology, and we were able to devote our full energies to learning about the important work undertaken by our colleagues across the globe. I was humbled by the ambition and accomplishments of these international teaching artists, whatever they might call themselves. The real revelations came when they began to tell their stories. Here are three that struck me as extraordinary.
Ellie Harrison At Home
I don’t know Ellie Harrison. I have never met her in person. But that is just as she would have it.
I encountered her via Skype at ITAC3. Ellie prefers Skype because she does not travel, at least not at present. Why? Most forms of modern transportation require fuel, notes Ellie, and Ellie is not into the whole fossil fuel thing. She admits that even with all the precautions she takes, it is impossible to avoid the use or consumption of fossil fuels entirely, but she is trying her best. She lives in Glasgow, and even though it’s only a short hour trip by train to Edinburgh, she insists on staying put.
Ellie is an artist and activist, and she has a clear mission. She wants her work to be free of the obligations that come with the support of traditional capitalist funding sources. So instead Ellie is working on a novel idea. What if you could sidestep those traditional funding sources? What if you could take control of your own energy needs? What if you, say, invested in a wind turbine? Really. And what if you took the money you made through that investment and used it to pay for the arts education projects that meant the most to you? That way you wouldn’t be subject to any restrictions on your free speech. You would be truly free to speak your mind in an age where climate change and unfettered capitalism threaten our future.
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. There is no such thing as “pure money.” Even if you were to succeed with the wind turbine plan, you’d end up using fossil fuels to get the construction materials to your site, you’d be drawing on funds that were derived from compromised investments, etc., etc. Your skepticism, in other words, would be merited. It’s just what I thought as a listened to Ellie lay out her utopian plans.
Perhaps Ellie just made me feel mischievously youthful. Perhaps she forced me to question the pillars that support my own work. Perhaps Ellie is truly onto something. Why should we always be looking to others to support our work? What can we do ourselves to sustain our world and pursue our teaching artist projects? It might be a simple thing to brush Ellie off as young and naïve, but I wonder—should we?
Yasmin Fedda and the Syria Mobile Film Festival
Today’s teaching artists are working in some distant and complicated places, and Syria would have to be the epitome of challenging learning environments. But artists are there, in spite of the difficulties, and in spite of the danger. At ITAC3, I learned the story of one such awe-inspiring individual: Yasmin Fedda, a documentarian who works with Syrian filmmakers to create heart-wrenching and thought-provoking videos with nothing but a mobile phone.
There is a film about a young boy who lost his hand and much of his mental ability as a result of the detonation of a bomb he thought was a toy. A film about a teenager who watches the devastation of his country and responds by building elaborate models of a new city that could someday rise out of the ashes. A film about the barbed wire fences that stand at the border between Syria and Turkey, beckoning desperate Syrians to hurl themselves directly into the risk of death. All these stories are told through footage shot entirely on the same iPhone I carry in my pocket, the same iPhone I use to casually check the weather or receive a text from home. The films are edited in a hurry, usually no more than 2 hours each, and under conditions that are as hard to imagine as the stories they tell.
Teaching artists in Syria bring equipment and coaching expertise, support, and the opportunity to share the work beyond the nation’s borders. Just as I help young songwriters to write their own songs and conceive their own arrangements, these film editors support their directors as they storyboard and then edit their documentaries, fighting the clock all the way. There’s so much we have in common, as teaching artists, and yet Yasmin’s faculty members are also war journalists, and I strain to imagine the complexity and danger of the work they do.
In her presentation, Fedda admitted, “I have a bias. And I have to acknowledge I have a bias, otherwise I cannot work in such a situation [like Syria]…” She is opposed to the actions of the Assad regime, and she has a specific agenda when it comes to resolving the nation’s conflicts. She continued, “I must be totally transparent about my opinions with my collaborators, but most importantly, with myself.” I realize that this is true of me, too. I do not work in a war zone—though this work certainly makes me ask, why not?—but I have a bias, too. It has to do with growing income inequality and racism and the place of education in the United States. Yasmin reminded me how important it is to recognize our biases and be transparent about them. Often we are timid about our own political stances because we work for cultural institutions, and we don’t want to rock the boat or needlessly offend a board member or a funder. But more and more it seems, we are in need of clarity and confidence when acknowledging the purpose of our work. And that includes acknowledging that we have an opinion about what should happen in the world.
Simon Sharkey and the Hero’s Journey
On the last day of the conference, we gathered in a small room for a highly-anticipated session with Simon Sharkey of the National Theater of Scotland, and we were not disappointed. Sharkey’s Scottish brogue was thick, melodious, and inviting as he catalogued the staggering number of productions his company has created in its short history. Most famous is surely Black Watch, an international hit based on a Scottish regiment’s witnessing of the war in Iraq. I saw Black Watch in New York in 2007, and though I have not seen any of the company’s work since then, I was impressed enough by that experience to take Sharkey’s claims seriously.
Sharkey went on to describe his theater’s central approach to artistic collaboration. It hinges on “The Hero’s Journey”—a five-step model designed to help far-flung collaborators devise a play together. A distilled version follows:
1. The Mundane World: The hero has no desire to be where he or she seems fated to be.
2. The Call to Adventure: Something or someone beckons to the hero.
3. The Trials: The hero meets new people, learns new skills, faces new challenges and learns of an insurmountable obstacle that must be overcome.
4. The Moment of Doubt: The hero turns away from the task, unsure of whether success is possible.
5. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns with the prize of his or her quest, which releases and frees his or her people
Since the National Theater of Scotland seeks collaborations with communities from all over the world, it naturally takes in stories from other cultures that inspire and stimulate exchange among nations. Rather than thinking of a national theater as vehicle to enshrine its own heritage, Scotland’s reaches out to create relationships with other countries and communities.
The company’s newest venture, entitled “Home Away,” is a kind of response to the initiative of its first year, “Home.” The project is a collaboration with communities in Chicago, New Delhi, Jamaica, Brisbane, Rio De Janeiro, and throughout Scotland (Glasgow, South Uist, Dundee, Tomintoul & Glenlivet), and elsewhere via the web. The new pieces were premiered this past October in Scotland, as part of a five day participatory arts conference.
The Edinburgh ITAC3 meeting was an eye-opener for me. I felt deep admiration, a kind of camaraderie, and a sense of wonder. Whatever we may call ourselves, now or in the future, we are all artists seeking connection with our fellow human beings. Whether we are doing the work in war-torn Syria or in a classroom in the U.S., we share a set of common practices and beliefs. We strive to share our arts practice with those who might not otherwise have a chance to experience it, and we strive to collaborate with those who might find music transformative.
With a global bounce in my step, it’s as good a moment as any for me to turn this space over to new writers and thinkers. No matter what name or label might be applied to what we do, it has been an immense pleasure to shine a light on the work of an extraordinary group of educators, teaching artists and musicians—namely, you. Thank you for reading.
Composer Thomas Cabaniss teaches at The Juilliard School. He is host and composer-in-residence for Carnegie Hall’s LinkUp program and has served as music animateur with the Philadelphia Orchestra and as education director of the New York Philharmonic. His music is published by Boosey & Hawkes and MusiCreate.