The Long Goodbye- Interlude, “Keys”

 

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I turned in my keys to the music building(s) today. Keys give us access, tie us to responsibilities, which are in turn tied to places and experiences. Most of these keys have been with me for five years now. They have been a part of my identity, my role, my usefulness in this place. Now its on to something else.

Goodbye keys.

The Long Goodbye- Entry 2, Krannert Center 

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Chris Thile and Michael Daves, 2011. Free concert in the lobby. During a biennial, weekend-long guitar/guitar-ish festival, Ellnora.

The Krannert Center is overwhelming, and also kind of guilt inducing. For those not in the know, the Krannert Center is a huge performing arts venue in the center of campus. Five stages, numerous and cavernous rehearsal spaces, odd wafts of bacon-smell, an acceptable lunch cafe, curious nooks and/or crannies, one hidden gym area for the director (top of the stairs that lead to the Tryon balcony, go past the ropes), and one very interesting, very large public space as a lobby. There is always something happening at the Krannert Center. I have missed 99.9% of those happenings. I feel pseudo-guilty about some of those things. “The Chicago symphony came to your town and you didn’t go?!” Nope, missed it most years. “You didn’t go to every single wind ensemble concert?!” Nope. No qualification on that one.  Just… nope. Months would go by without going to single concert or event. There would always be next time, next year, next concert cycle. But now we’re leaving. I thought I’d feel more regret about how little I took advantage of this incredible resource. But instead I’m really grateful for the experiences I did get to have in that place, musical and otherwise. I’ll run through a couple of regular occurrences that shaped my relationship with Krannert, and a few highlights. A bit jumbled, but hopefully captures the essence of the thing. I also can’t avoid talking about the design and construction of the place, its pretty remarkable.

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Mark Ribot and David Hidalgo. Free concert on Stage 5, Ellnora 2015.

Study/Food/Conversation. Most of my time in Krannert has been spent in the lobby. Studying alone as the life of the building buzzed around me, meeting friends for lunch and conversation, interviewing research participants, chance encounters with colleagues and friends from the community. Just normal life events, but made richer by occurring in that place. The lobby is really a central gathering place for the university and community. Oh, and its huge. I can actually tell you quite a bit about the lobby (and the rest of the building. Dr. E used to give the tours as part of her grad assistantship). The floors are made of solid teak wood, and represent the entire allotment of teak wood that was allowed to be imported to the United States in the years the building was built. If you wanted teak wood in the sixties you were out of luck. It all came to Urbana. The design of the floor is meant to represent the fields of Illinois as seen from above.  The metal pattern in the ceiling is meant to represent corrugated cardboard. Mr. Krannert made his fat stacks off of a cardboard patent that revolutionized the shipping industry. Most striking to me is the size of the space. Ellnora Krannert wanted the lobby big enough that all four theaters, at full capacity, could empty at the same time and all the patrons would be able to occupy the space comfortably. This wasn’t just so that the rich folk could rub elbows in their tuxes, it was meant to be a communal space in the richest sense of the word. My time in that space has taught me more of the value of the arts in community, how music is never just about the sounds we make. Its making time for shared experience, shared lives.

ISYM (Illinois Summer Youth Music). For the past 5 summers I have worked a a band assistant for ISYM, a pretty substantial 3-week program on campus. Rehearsals take place on level 2 of Krannert, down below the lobby. Working with tons of interesting and talented kids, several (mostly interesting) and talented directors, sharing teaching responsibility with lots of old and new friends.KCPA-great-hall.jpg Its been a blast. The band concerts are always on the stage of the Great Hall, a cavernous and beautiful room of incredible acoustics and pedigree. Walls of butternut oak, symmetrical to the point that the board on one wall was next to the board directly across on the opposite wall when they were in the tree together.

Black Chorus. I only got to sing with the Black Chorus for one semester, but it was a really incredible experience. It was pretty early in my time at Illinois, and was one of the first times that I felt what it was like to be in the minority in a space, to know that I was an outsider both racially and culturally. I have never been in a warmer, more genuine musical environment. Especially striking was how welcome they were to truly share their faith. Now I am certain there were persons who did not affiliate with Christianity, and the message was seldom spoken aside from the text of the music itself. But I like to imagine that I could tell by the expressions on the faces around me exactly who this message resonated with most strongly. Every Monday and Wednesday evening I entered into the choral rehearsal room, but I was really walking into church. I looked around for a video from that semester, but none seem to be available. I wish I had found more time to sing with the group, but I am incredibly grateful for that semester. The Mom’s day concert is the only time I’ve ever seen the Great Hall packed to capacity.

There are plenty of other single events that I’ll take with me from Krannert as well.

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Dr. E and I on a date night to see the CSO playing some Brahms

The first show I saw there was Kronos Quartet. It was during Dr. E’s master’s studies, early in our marriage. I went alone, as she had other things going on that night. I expected to find it interesting, but it ended up being a surprisingly moving and visceral experience. That same weekend included hearing Dr. E play Vaughn Williams’ 1st symphony with the University orchestra. Other highlights included Lady MacBeth—a Kabuki style interpretation of the play, Andy Mckee during a free lunch-time concert, Punch Brothers, Chicago Symphony (the one time we made it to hear them), Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Patrick Watson, tUnE-yArDs, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Don Flemmons, so many others. As I sit here trying to recall favorite moments I keep coming to glimpses and memories of the hall, without enough context to really name the group or piece. I remember a fascinating piece with portable organ, several snippets of operas, and many other bits of experience that must not have made a huge impression on me,  but I remember as enjoyable nonetheless.

 

Other random recollections: Student teaching seminars, always held in the Krannert Room. Ellnora and Pygmalion festivals with their multimedia and interactive exhibits. Family arts events, with crafts for kids and local artisans. Uncorked events with local musicians from all genres and backgrounds (jazz, cajun dance, experimental rock, gospel, they ran the gamut). Dr. E’s recording sessions in the various halls as she prepared audition materials. Stories I would hear from Dr. E about her time working in patron services, stories of building-wide dance breaks during work, of performance artists taking over spaces, of the various cast of characters that make the building come alive.

One other particular memory is worth noting. A class in Aesthetics in Education, a performance of a Ugandan dance troupe. After the concert we were tasked with interviewing a 4th grade student about their experience. It was my first ever research interview. My participant insisted that we sit below the stairwell of the Tryon theater (a very strange, low space) to complete our interview. I don’t recall his answers, but I can still remember his energy and joy at being interviewed and being someplace other than school. I ended up seeing that kid several years later as he played euphonium in a local middle school band. He’ll enter high school next year, but I don’t think he’ll keep with his instrument. This moment kind of encapsulated my time here, a coming together of university and community, my first foray into qualitative research of a sort, trying to find ways to infuse education with musical experiences and musical thoughts, wrestling with ideas of cultural representation and the problematic nature of arts spaces in general. I still struggle with the idea of fancy white folks suiting up to sit real quiet while listening to other fancy folks playing music of a bunch of other dead fancy European white men inside a giant, hermetically sealed vault/mausoleum. But at least this place made strong efforts to involve the community in innovative ways, and opened most of the space up to uses beyond the presentational performance. Krannert really challenged me to think differently about arts spaces, and provided a place for community. Its something I’ll take with me, something I’ll keep unpacking.

Goodbye Krannert Center.

The Long Goodbye- Entry 1, “The Annex”

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I cleaned out my office today. A small room in a strange building that has been on the university’s “condemned” roster for at least a decade. A building that used to house crappy apartments, brought into the fold long before my time to serve as offices for the music education department. The Annex. When I arrived in 2011 the music education graduate students had offices on the second floor, with the faculty on the third. A year or two later and the faculty were moved back to the music building. We were moved to the third floor and the musicology grad students took over the second floor. What about the first floor? No one knows the entire answer to that question. Some random marching band storage, the OPE music library, at least one random office that no one seems to enter or leave, probably a wardrobe to Narnia. Suffice it to say that its a weird place—crumbling stairways, leaky windows, a ‘conference table’, questionable stains on the carpet, piles of discarded office furniture, random closets full of personal items from long-gone graduate students, empty tall filing cabinets, empty short filing cabinets, filing cabinets (and a bathroom closet) filled with irreplaceable artifacts from the history of music education, echoes of so many ideas, and lots of memories.

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Each book I packed away brought back a different memory or emotion. Snippets of a conversation with a colleague, a vision of a particular classroom where I first encountered an author, the excitement of making a connection between ideas. Moving my files out of the cabinet I ran across group projects with people who I haven’t spoken to in years, notebooks from my first days as a master’s student, 337644_604262062001_5750078_o.jpgscribblings of ideas that fizzled, and some that follow me to this day. Chord charts from ukulele sing-a-longs, conference programs, IRB applications, photocopied articles, each one indexed to a rich experience that shaped who I have become. I didn’t know what I would become when I moved into that first office five years ago and hung my newly made ukulele on the wall above the hideous and comfortable new chair.

 

 

IMG_4272.JPGI’m grateful for the meals and conversations with friends around these tables, though I wish they had been more frequent. I’m grateful too for the photos on the wall that remind me of the rich past of this place, though I wish I had learned more. For the stacks of music education aptitude tests around the corner, for the random books on shelves inscribed by some of the great minds in our field.  Change is a constant. There are those who might lament how things have changed in this strange building, in this strange profession. Others celebrate such changes as progress, righting the wrongs done by those who have gone before us. I know I’ve changed in this dusty, odd-smelling, and very special place. I’m too deep in the quagmire of my dissertation to thing more specifically about this topic at the moment, but I can say that each word I write or thought I think throughout the rest of my career will be influenced in no small part by my years shared with good people in this building.

Goodbye Annex.

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The Long Goodbye- Prologue

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Sometimes you can’t wait until your out of your PJ’s. Sometimes you just have to move.

We’re moving to Charlotte in July. Dr. E has accepted a fantastic tenure track position down in Charlotte, and its time for us to move on. Its strange to type, even stranger to say out loud. We are moving. After five years Champaign Urbana has become a home in a way we never could have expected. We sat still long enough and found ourselves rooted in this rich ground. So much life lived, so much growing in this little dot in the midst of all that corn.  We found community, with all its flaws and imperfections.

With the busyness of the upcoming move I was worried that I would let time slip away without really processing all that I’ve experienced here in this place, without really saying goodbye. I’ll have a chance to say goodbye to the people I hold dear, but I wanted to reflect on the places in which I have been lucky to live my life over the past five years. My plan is to post one per day, but we’ll see how that works out. Here goes.

Tempering Our “So What”

One of the most difficult questions that a researcher has to answer is, “So what?” An interesting question is worth nothing if it makes no impact on the world. This is doubly true in an applied field such as music education. I’m nearing the end of my dissertation proposal right now, and have recently had to wrestle with “So what?” I have watched my “so what” get smaller and smaller, from a sweeping gesture encompassing all of music education to a narrower focus on one rather tiny element of the ethical process of music teaching. I wonder what the pre-grad school me—the me who taught 6 separate preps every day, who had to write his own marching drill, who ate lunch walking around while working with students—would think of the current me with this small “so what.”

We hear over and over about the disconnect between research and practice. In one particularly egregious example of this disconnect, our national organization decided that researchers and practitioners didn’t even need to meet together at the same time, buffering the respective conferences by about 5 months and about 300 miles. I worry that one of the causes of this perceived disconnect is a misunderstanding of the “so what” problem. Practitioners, so we are told, want clear answers and practical solutions. The underlying question is supposedly, “How does this help me do my job?” Its a good question, but I think there’s more to this issue. Sometimes clear and practical misses the point. On occasion I also worry that some researchers underestimate and speak down to practitioners in their attempts to bridge the perceived disconnect. At the very least, I’m not certain that we have a broad enough imagination for what counts as “help,” nor do I think we should all be so quick to assume we mean the same thing when we say “job.”  Sometimes the “so what” is simply a provocation to change our thinking.

I can’t necessarily speak for others, but I can relay my own experience and hope it resonates. As a young teacher I thought “help” meant advice about choosing repertoire and “tool belt” pedagogical tips and tricks. My “job,” as I saw it then, was to take those kids and make them musical. The longer I taught the more my attention turned to the kids who I could not reach, especially those who were so clearly musical yet found no home in school music. At that point “help” meant learning how to incorporate forms of musicianship and pedagogy that were unfamiliar to me, that I had previously been told were a waste of time. “Help” meant rethinking the very nature of my “job” to fit those students who were left out. I didn’t make nearly the headway into that part of my job as I would have liked to before life took me off to graduate school. But I haven’t stopped learning, and I still think I can do some good in the world.

Others will have a different story. Their “help” and “job” will be different than mine. Thus the “so what” that matters to them and their students will look different than mine. Researchers have to accept that following their “so what” with passion and burning curiosity will be a “help” to someone. Researchers and practitioners also need to recognize that the barrier between those two professions is mostly illusion. We are all researchers. Research is inquiry. Research is curiosity. Research is care and attention— systematically and imaginatively looking into some important part of the world: observing it closely, thinking about it deeply, asking questions of it, seeking to understand it, sometimes trying to change or improve it, always letting it change and improve us in the process. We are all also practitioners, living a life shaped by the practices we hold dear, caring enough to subject those practices to our researching and scrutiny.

The hammer and anvil at the top of this post are tools for shaping raw materials. In the hands of one craftsperson they can make a sturdy and useful tool. In the hands of another they can make a beautiful sculpture that challenges our understanding of the material itself. The most skilled artisans can accomplish both in the same piece. But developing such skill is the process of a lifetime of work. Improving practice through research, improving research through practice, it takes all forms of effort; tiny adjustments with precision instruments and small “so whats,”  great showers of sparks and ash from white-hot questions that threaten to reshape us, and sometimes a cooling bath to temper the heat, perhaps shrinking the scope of the “so what,” yet making it that much more durable and useful. But nothing happens if we leave the tools sitting on the bench.

At the end I suppose my point is that both researchers and practitioners have to temper their expectations of research. Not to engage with less of it, but to seek out more and more. No single study is likely to have a huge impact on the lives of students and teachers. But small acts of curiosity, undertaken by caring and dedicated individuals working together, can add up to something useful and beautiful. Read, listen, ask questions, change, be changed.

Stretching Out of Silence

I’m grateful for many things. Dr. E’s patience, my dog’s need to put her face really close to my face when I come home, C’s new habit of looking at things upside down through his legs, my own opposable thumbs. But tonight I’m especially grateful for the “Perfectionism” chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Apparently one of the body’s defense mechanisms is to tense the muscles that surround a wound. Left unchecked this tension can drastically prolong the pain of recovery. It might not be a happy moment, but healing cannot begin until those muscles are stretched and utilized again. Wounds aren’t always physical. This seems a silly thing to have to say, but there are a lot of wounds in the world, a lot of tension around those wounds, and seldom a clear sense of how to work that tension free. There were two shootings on university campuses today. There were countless other acts of violence, large and small, that won’t ever be broadcast into our awareness. In light of these horrific moments it seems self-indulgent and rather shallow to think of a wound in writing. But I think there’s a parallel, that these wounds leave can leave us silent when the right words are most needed.

This morning I sat in a conference working group about the problems of disseminating research to practitioners in our field. It was one of the few really challenging moments of the past few days, and a reminder that as a Ph.D. student, as a public intellectual I am supposed to be writing. Not just that I should write a dissertation, or a journal article, but that I should be writing. We should be writing. Actively engaged in the creating, challenging, constructing, deconstructing, motivating, imagining, exploring, expanding, and distilling that writing allows. Perhaps not always writing in text, certainly not always in “scholarly” venues, but writing as a way of being in the world.

To get personal for a minute, I had a weird and pretty overwhelming summer. It started out with online courses and qualifying exams, continuing through to the final revisions on a journal article and a conference presentation. Coursework came to an end and I felt like I had given everything I could give. This blog sat silent. I tried to jumpstart it on our Ireland trip, but I dropped that ball too. The little journal we are trying to keep for C was (is) gathering dust on a bedside table. Hanging over all of that was a the specter of a dissertation, only a blurry shape haunting the edges of my awareness. Its hard to describe what it feels like to look at your own dissertation. Its like the promise of a wound to come. Of course a big part of me was excited to get the thing in motion, and the core ideas of the project were still really important to me, but the blank page haunted me. It still haunts me, though I’ve managed to get more than a few words down. But each one of those wounds feels like a drop of blood squeezed from a clenched fist. I’ll write a page then delete it, write a sentence and stare at it for an hour. The end of a dissertation is the beginning of a career, right? With each word comes a doubt, the impostor syndrome, fear of the unknown, the open wound of not knowing if you are really able, the guilt about worrying over such seemingly petty things. Each word is constantly challenged by an internal voice. I know I can write a better sentence than this, so I should write that sentence now. I don’t know this literature well enough, so I shouldn’t write any more until I’ve read all the books in the world. Its the wound of a perceived failure where tension builds and builds… and builds… and builds.

But here I am now, full of gratitude for Anne Lamott for hanging out on my shelf, for a challenging moment at a conference, and for this venue to stretch out of silence. Don’t get me wrong, I love silence, and its an increasingly rare occurrence in our household.  But the further I get into this Ph.D. thing, the further I move into the academy, the more I feel ethically driven to write against silence. I may have worked pretty hard to get to this point, but I am also working pretty hard to recognize how privileged I am to be in this position. Everyone has something that the world requires of them. I don’t know exactly what that means for me yet, but I am certain that I won’t find out by being quiet. I have to believe that uncomfortable writing is more important than comfortable silence.

Ireland: Day -1

Tomorrow my family and I are taking a trip to Ireland. Such an adventure might be commonplace where you are from, but its kind of a big deal for me. In fact, I’ve only ever had one opportunity to leave the country up to this point. But I didn’t take it. We were on a vacation out to Glacier National Park and our plan was to spend an afternoon in Waterton, Canada. Leading up to the trip I kept forgetting to submit my passport application. So instead of piling into the car to make the short trek north with my fellow campers, I had to sit on the front porch of the Rising Sun Motor Inn, reading “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and drinking can after can of Moose Drool. It was a glorious few hours. The backdrop for that afternoon:

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That was a bit of an aside, but the point is that this Ireland trip is a big deal for me. I’ve gotten to see some cool things in my life, but have never set foot on someone else’s soil. Now after years of talking about it, and months of planning, its really going to happen. Five of us are going, Dr. E, me, C, and my folks. We’ve spent the day packing, cleaning, discussing the itinerary, visiting the farmers market, and eating custard. C seems to know that something is up and was in rare form, quite a bit of dancing and general hilarity all day long.  Here he is at the farmer’s market walking with my dad.

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I think we’re ready to go, but that doesn’t mean I have much of a clue about what to expect. Well, exhaustion. I imagine that the end result of traveling across the ocean with a 15-month old will always result in exhaustion. But we’re going to earn that exhaustion.

I’m going to do my best to blog at some point each day, wifi permitting. Hopefully with a lot of pictures. Feel free to follow along if you’d like.

Library Dust

I sat down in a comfortable, if threadbare, chair and cracked open yet another methodology text. The words skimmed by, registering briefly against my distraction. The smell. Dusty. Dust. Not just on the shelves, not just on the tables, in the books. Not on the books, or in between the pages, but in between the lines. The ideas were dusty. A paragraph about phenomenology draws me back to the smell of my front porch on an October afternoon my first year in grad school, where I had my first (and one of only a few) encounters with Heidegger. Another page of the text has swum by now, and I have not registered a word of it. Just the smell of it, drawing me back to a moment of change. The dust on the library shelf is more than an eyesore. It is the mark of a book wearing down, leaving its trace, its author’s trace on the shelf. It is the presence of each reader passing through, bringing the world in with them. It is the mixture of ideas, a communion of thought. The cellulose of the page is dead, as are the cells we leave behind. But as we read we see the author’s world come to life, we are animated by their ideas, intermingling and being changed by the encounter. The smell of the library, breathing in those who have left the room, both author and reader. Quite literally sensing our place in the trajectory of human experience. I love a dusty library.

A year… well, sort of.

The daffodils are poking up in front of our house. They haven’t bloomed yet, just a few green stalks pointing towards the sky. Easter came early this year. Last year our daffodils were in full bloom during Holy Week. That might be a strange thing to remember, but its pretty vivid for me. It was the first really beautiful week of the year, when the threat of cold finally fell off of the 10-day forecast, and you could be certain that the sun would shine clearly all day. Not only would it shine, but it was the kind of sunshine that you could feel in your bones.  I took a picture of the daffodils late that Easter Sunday, mainly because they were the last thing I remembered seeing the Friday before Easter, Good Friday, when C decided to show up unexpectedly.

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Dr. E’s water broke late on Good Friday evening last year. My sister and family were in town for a visit, and we had just said goodnight to them. I sat at the dining room table, furiously and frustratedly trying to finish some statistics homework before the 11:59pm deadline, when Dr. E walked into the room with a strange look in her eye. The next 12 hours are forever etched into my memory, though are too special to be shared here. C was born healthy and happy just before lunchtime on Saturday. We spent the afternoon recovering, visiting with family in the hospital, and generally trying to wrap our minds around what had just happened (we’re still trying to figure that out…). Then on Easter Sunday morning, again just around lunchtime, we emerged from the hospital into the most beautiful sunshine that I’ve ever experienced. We bundled C into the car and drove home, starting the weirdest and most incredible adventure of our lives.

It wasn’t until a few days after his birth that the timing really struck us. We entered the hospital late on Good Friday, and walked out on a beautiful Easter Sunday. Easter has always been about new life, rebirth, and hope, but C’s birth has added an extra layer of meaning to this special day. We mark special days on our calendars to remember. Not only to remember the reasons for holidays, but to remember that time is passing. To remember that winter takes away, but hope springs anew. To remember that all evidence points to cyclical forces beyond anything we can yet fathom. Planets spin, atoms dance, leaves fall and bloom, flowers wither only to push up from the ground again. Life ends, life begins. I believe that the Easter message, both in Christ and in the motions and cycles of creation, can teach us something really important. I’m not certain that I can put that “something” into words, but I think its there if we are willing to look.

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The Scarred Faces of Music

He lifted his boot from the ground, towards the center of the circle, letting everyone know that this was the last time. As usual, the final chord was cut short. This is not a place to savor a ringing chord, its about getting lost in dance of the tune. Everyone nods in appreciation. “Good tune.” I said, “What’s it called?” “Well, I know it as ‘Mule in a Field’ [I made that up, can’t recall the actual title]” the fiddler said, and after a moment he sheepishly added, “…but it used be called ‘N-word in a Field.'” Most tunes have alternate titles, and part of the fun of each jam session is listening to the seasoned regulars hash out the lineage and aliases of each tune. This was just the first time that the alternate title banter raised this particularly worrying specter. We spent a few minutes talking about this, not in any deep sense, but the group must have sensed my discomfort. They named a number of tunes that were renamed in pursuit of political correctness, a brief glimpse of what we might see as the problematic roots of Old Time. “It was a different time,” the fiddler concluded, “people thought differently.” We launch into a new tune, the issue closed for the moment. It was a good night, and I had a blast trying out a couple of new tunes that I had been trying to learn. But walking out into the night I couldn’t help but wonder, what do we do with these troublesome roots of the musics we love?

Music education wrestles with similar issues. I have never run across a piece in a band library with a racial slur in its title, but I have certainly seen settings of Stephen Foster songs, songs whose lyrics, if written today, would never make it through a legal department of a publishing house. Lyrics that now can only serve as a cautionary tale and as fodder for difficult conversation. Bands especially come under fire for their roots in the military, in authoritarian methods of instruction, in their focus on competition, for their lack of creativity, and denial of student agency. What do we do with the past? Do we cast a musical practice aside because of its misguided or even hateful roots? Do we attempt bracket out the problems? Or can we actively learn from them and keep them in the open? These issues are the scars on our collective musical face. They tell our story, we should not efface them, or mask them with make-up. We should learn to live with them, exposing them to the elements, to soften them with smile lines and the wrinkles that come with a life well-lived. An alternate title can help a tune make it into a jam, or onto a festival program, but it should not plaster over the dark spots in its history.  Culture bearers should not make apologies for the past, but should share the good with the bad. Program notes should be honest and forthright about the piece’s history, and why we still think it worthy of being played. Maybe the tune/piece is great music in its own right. Chances are its even more valuable for the conversation it can start. There’s certainly another side to this story. There are those who would rather we do away with musical traditions with checkered pasts. I’d rather believe that rehabilitation is possible. You can learn a lot from a scarred, weathered face. Especially if you take the time to listen, to hear its story.