prejudice

Every time I think or say or hear the word prejudice, I think of the Tim Minchin song:

(NOT SAFE FOR WORK!)

I’m working young kids, and I’ve been surprised by the strength of all kinds of prejudices among them: what’s cool, who’s good looking, etc.  And it came out in a way that startled me when I started teaching them to conduct.

I plan to spend about four minutes on it when I first introduce it to the class.  “Stand tall,” I tell them, “raise your right hand in front of you like this.  Then drop it down.  Then towards the shelves.  Then to the window.  Then back to the ceiling.”  We do it eighty-seven times, changing tempo, then I find a well-coordinated kid or two who pick it up and have them conduct the Orff orchestra in our classroom rendition of “Funga Alafia.”

In one class, some students complained “it doesn’t even look like you’re doing anything.”

“Whaddaya mean?  I’m conducting.  See?”  I continued somewhere amid the eighty-seven repetitions.

“No.  Our teacher last year taught us.”

And I thought to myself, “Great!  Wow!”  And I said, “She didn’t teach you this?”

“She taught us this,” replied one boy, who pulled himself up into a soldier-ish posture and brought both hands up into a mirroring pattern with drama and, admittedly, a bit of panache.

“Yeah!” joined some other kids, who sucked in their guts, stuck out their chests, raised their noses to the ceiling, shrugged their shoulders into their ears, and flailed wildly.

“Mh,” I replied.  “No.”

I doubt any teacher told them to do any of that posturing and flailing.  I suspect that their perceptions of what conductors do and how conductors appear has turned into this exaggerated cartoon activity just as their perceptions of different cultures are exaggerated cartoons: all African music played in class gets the same two faux African dance moves, all Asian music gets mocked with squinty eyes, all Native American music makes them pat their mouths and chant rhythmically.   They’re learning who is who and what is what, and how things work.  Maybe their former teacher was an instrumentalist with a few drum major habits left in her gesture; and the kids’ minds filtered and sorted her appearance into this caricature… conductors are jerks who flail.

“But you’re not even doing anything,” they complain when I simply beat a four pattern to keep their Orff orchestra in time, “you’re just…” and the boy does what he perceives as an imitation of me, with droopy, lazy arms barely moving with any organization at all.

“Mh,” I replied. “No.”

When things are only vaguely familiar to them, all they see are broad strokes.  I’m not giving them any broad strokes, so they don’t see any strokes at all.  I’m not putting on a show of conducting, so they don’t see the conducting at all.  But I don’t have time to go any further into it that day.  I’ll have to wait until I see them again next week and somehow work it into the four minutes I plan to spend on it.  And then four minutes the next week…

This is why I write a blog.  Because what ten-year-old kids know about conducting is pretty much the same as what the typical amateur knows, and only slightly less than musicians not trained in conducting.  Grown-ups learn not to do fake pow-wow dances when they hear Native American music, but they probably don’t know any more about the music than they did when they were ten.   But grown-ups still say stupid stuff to me when I tell them I’m a conductor.  Because ignorance doesn’t prevent us from making assumptions, because it’s so easy to fill in the gaps of our knowledge with prejudices.

“Do you aspire to conduct orchestras?” one woman asked me when I told her I’m a choral conductor.

“Mh,” I replied.  “No.”

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