Singing in Class

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Songs are not a frill or luxury, in a language class or anywhere else; they are part of what we live for. A language class without song–entirely without song–is incomplete, since songs not only help with language, but make language learning more worthwhile than it would otherwise be. A song takes a place in your life; you can sing it, hum it, play it in your mind, listen to it–at least one of these, whenever you want.

We learn more language from songs than we realize. Song lyrics are full of the grammar and words we use every day, but slowed down (or sped up), reshaped, cast in melody. But it isn’t just for their utility that we learn them. They are ends in themselves, or some combination of ends and means. They stay with us. We remember them years later. They connect, unexpectedly, with other things.

The evening before my first session of the year with one of my tenth-grade classes (with whom I meet just once a week), I received a message from one of the students in the class: “Look at what I foundūüôĄ maybe an idea for a warm-up exercise for tomorrow.” He had attached a photo of his own copy of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which we had sung last year. I agreed that we would sing it. When we did, I could see how much the students were enjoying the return: the song itself and the remembering of it. What it brought back, and what it was right then. I then taught it to the ninth-graders (pictured above).

The third week into the school year, I was in for a surprise. Yesterday I was filling in for another teacher (during the ninth graders’ math lesson), so I decided to do a combination of math and poetry. First I challenged them with Thales’s theorem, which they figured out with a little help, and which one student then explained eloquently from start to finish (in English). Then I taught them Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” First I recited it, then took them through it bit by bit, and then asked them to find a contradiction in the poem. They recognized it: on the one hand the two roads are “really about the same”; on the other, the speaker imagines a time far in the future when he will be “telling this tale with a sigh” and saying “I took the one less traveled by.” I asked them: Is this about the tricks memory plays on us, or the way we fool ourselves with our stories? Or is there a way that both of these things can be true: that the two roads are, at the outset, both equally untraveled, and yet, by the end, the speaker has taken “the one less traveled by”? We considered “how way leads on to way” and how, as time goes on, the sequence and combination of paths that the speaker takes must grow more and more singular. Not at the outset, but over time, not on that initial road, but on the long stretch of roads, forks, and turns, the speaker takes “the one less traveled by,” since the probability of anyone else taking that precise combination of roads grows smaller and smaller. That is just one way of hearing the poem, but it holds up and brings the many parts together.

Before this discussion began, a student made everyone laugh by singing the poem. But when I listened more closely, I recognized he was doing something serious, although it sounded comical. He wasn’t simply setting it to a random melody. He was chanting it; each line followed the same melodic pattern, which brought out the poem’s cadence and rhythm. I told the class that ancient poetry was often chanted in this way–that this was a natural thing to do with poems. And then the student said something that made me curious. “I see something similar between this poem and ‘This Land Is Your Land.'” At the end of our discussion we returned to his comment.

He then explained. “It isn’t that the two are similar, but they come out of a similar feeling. Of homesickness.”

Neither “The Road Not Taken” nor “This Land Is Your Land” mentions homesickness, but you can feel it in both of them. I stood stunned for a few seconds, hearing both of them in a new way.

But that’s the point: hearing. It’s when you hear the poems and songs that you understand them, that you go below the surface.¬† Singing and hearing go together; this is part of why I love leyning Torah, chanting liturgy, memorizing poems in different languages, listening to songs over and over again. This is why singing belongs in language classes–why it is not a frill, not an extra, but one of the necessities that you bring along.

 

I took the photo in class (in the first week of school) and am posting it with the students’ permission.

 

Unhyped

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In Hungary I am relieved of the pressures of hype. Here, by and large (with exceptions and shadings), people care more about the quality of a thing than about the publicity surrounding it. It is more important to write a good book, song, or play than to “succeed” in terms of sales and numbers.

Not that this is always true here, or always false in America. Here in Hungary, artists have to promote their work just to keep on going; to make a living off of it, they have to win a large audience. Conversely, in the United States, people are not always impressed with big publicity; especially with music, they look beyond the fame.

But often, in the United States, you are judged by your external success. If you want to be considered–yes, even considered–by a major publisher, you must find a literary agent. To persuade a literary agent to represent you, you must usually show that you have a “platform”–that is, a built-in audience that will guarantee sales. Or you must have connections with the big media outlets. Or else your idea must look like a big hit–something that will sweep the country and the world. Once the book (or other work) is out, you are judged by the splash that it makes–even though that splash, in many cases, has been pre-engineered. “Everyone’s talking about such-and-such”–people forget that sometimes the strongest reaction to a book is silence.

Beyond all of that, in the United States there is a fantasy of “making it”–of hitting upon something that makes you famous and rich and that tells the world that you matter after all. Many people believe that if they make it, they are legitimate human beings, and if they don’t, they aren’t. I know musicians who were profoundly and widely appreciated and who still believed they hadn’t made it. Some quit out of discouragement. Some shifted their attention to other things. Some switched to other kinds of music, where the “scene” didn’t matter any more. (Granted, this wasn’t always out of discouragement; sometimes they just wanted to take a new direction.)

In Hungary, from what I have seen, people recognize that life is difficult and bounded, that external success involves a lot of luck (and sometimes privilege too), and that you are better off focusing on your work itself than on the attention it is or isn’t receiving. Every writer or artist wants an audience that grows over time; audiences are necessary. Everyone wants recognition–awards, positive reviews, and so forth. But a small audience is not taken as a judgment against the work or its creator. Or maybe it is sometimes, in some places, but not everywhere.

Also, in Hungary there is intense emphasis on quality, sometimes to a fault. People readily criticize their own and others’ work, not always to put it down, but to point out how it can be better. The adjective “good” is a serious compliment, not freely given. People do not often laud creativity in the abstract; that is, they do not respect it as much as they respect a created thing, if it comes out well, and its creator. This has a negative side: judgments can be harsh, inaccurate, and overly self-assured. But in the best circumstances they can encourage discernment.

Take, for instance, the band contest in T√∂r√∂kszentmikl√≥s. I had never seen anything like this before. The bands were being judged by a jury on the quality of their musicianship, lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture. The results made sense. Contests abound in Hungary–academic, artistic, athletic contests of talent and accomplishment. These contests have limitations and imperfections, but they can bring out the good. In the U.S., there are contests aplenty, but one contest reigns supreme: the “buzz” tournament, the challenge to produce something that everyone will be talking about for months to come. As though talk were a measure of anything.

This topic could be the subject of a book, but it wouldn’t be easy to write. I would have to go much farther into the essence of the matter. Right now I am dissatisfied, knowing I have barely touched the surface. Much remains to be asked, considered, probed, rethought. We shall see.

I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the task. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference–at this level there’s no order–but just as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs in all the world; many others circle around them. But I will go ahead and name them.

The first is Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I heard them play it live in San Francisco. There was a time when I played it over and over again. But even after that, it kept coming back to mind. I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. It crosses boundaries of language, culture, age, musical style, and more. When they played it in T√∂r√∂kszentmikl√≥s in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song comes close to reminding me of when I was a baby in Brazil. She is from Cabo Verde, not Brazil, but her voice, the language, and the music bring back memories, not in any explicable way, but in a way I can’t shake off either. Maybe that’s what a good song does: take on the quality of an old, old memory. But besides that, I love the rhythm and Cesaria Evora’s deep, knowing voice. This video is beautiful, too.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.” It is majestic, with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the fourth selection.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Szolnok’s First Golden Age

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This evening I went to a lecture by Zsolt Bajnai on Szolnok’s first golden age (from 1867 to 1914). I learned about buildings I see every day, buildings I have never seen (because they don’t exist any more), buildings that have partly remained, and the ways of life associated with them. Mr. Bajnai showed photographs and postcards of the buildings that now house the Varga Katalin Gimn√°zium and the Ferenc Verseghy Library; the County Hall and City Hall, the building, which I often admire in passing, on the corner of Kossuth Square and Arany J√°nos Street; the buildings on Szap√°ry; the churches and synagogue; the train station; the old Szabads√°g bridge; the water tower, and much more. It was exciting to follow along; I understood at least 85 percent of the lecture and could figure out much of the rest. Besides learning about Szolnok, I was in awe of the occasion: a lecturer who knew and cared so much about this city, an inviting venue (the community center on Napsug√°r Street, right by the Alcsi-Holt-Tisza), and a rapt audience. This wasn’t just “worth” the bike ride to the outskirts of the city; the bike ride, lecture, audience, and surroundings were all part of the event.

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Afterwards, I bicycled in the wrong direction at first–but realized my error quickly and saw some lovely things along the way. Within minutes, I was back home. I have more to say, another time, about this event and about Zsolt Bajnai’s story “From the Pelik√°n to the Sugar Factory,” which I first read yesterday morning and which swiftly changed my life.

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Catching Up

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I have some things to say, many more things on my mind, but so much going on right now that it’s hard to catch up. Really enjoying the school year so far–the new classes and the familiar ones, the overall feeling of teaching at Varga for the third year. Now I enter the whirl: on top of the teaching, preparations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and two trips to the U.S. for literary events (in Worcester and Dallas). Even so, I managed to spend some time at the Szolnok Goulash Festival yesterday. Some of my students were staffing a Russian booth there, so I talked with them for a while. Just when I was leaving and crossing the Mayfly Bridge, I saw a folksong group approaching. I had to stay just a little longer to listen to them.

In addition, I saw two beautiful films this past week, Curtiz and A l√©tez√©s euf√≥ri√°ja (The Euphoria of Being), both of which I recommend to all. Both, in different ways, have to do with the Holocaust; both are about art (film and dance) and life; both have a way of unraveling you. I intend to watch them again. Curtiz is coming back to Szolnok soon–I will see it at least one of those times–and in November I will get to see the dance performance around which A l√©tez√©s euf√≥ri√°ja revolves. I want to say more about these films but will have to wait for a later time.

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On a different subject, I had promised to explain what it means to be a “vice form teacher,” one of my many roles this year. Against appearances and sounds, it is nothing like the role of the Sub-Sub-Librarian in Moby-Dick. In Hungarian high schools, the official form teacher (oszt√°lyfŇĎn√∂k) is the homeroom teacher for a particular class from ninth grade through graduation. He or she meets with them regularly, keeps track of their individual situations, grades, and so forth, maintains contact with their parents, gives them support and advice, and then, at graduation time, participates in ceremonies with them and handles their final diplomas and grades. Visiting teachers from abroad (like me) are not eligible for this role–but they can be “vice form teachers”–which means being there to help out. I am honored to be vice form teacher for the new bilingual ninth grade class, working alongside my colleague Marianna Fekete, the official form teacher.

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This is not nearly all that I wanted to say, but I have some more things to do before I sleep. More at a slightly slower time.

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I took three of these pictures: the first at the Goulash Festival, the second in Buda after the film A l√©tez√©s euf√≥ri√°ja (The Euphoria of Being), and the fourth this morning, outside my apartment here in Szolnok. The third (in the schoolyard) was taken by my colleague Kriszti√°n Berecz, who teaches geography and biology and photographs the school’s official events.