Monday, June 2, 2014

My Love Affair With Kurt

In the spring of 2004, I became bored with college. It wasn’t boredom in the classical sense where you have one of those existential crises about the role of education and what you’re doing with your life.  I simply got better at managing my workload and actually figuring out how to purposefully practice, study with a goal, parse out my workload, etc….2.5 years into college.  (I now also recognize it as a highly manic time in my life, but that’s something for a different op-ed piece.)  I nailed my first and only straight-A semester, so feel free to hate me for it.  I don’t mind.  Stay with me, though, because there’s a happy ending…which does not involve straight-As.  

My friend Sean and I were living off-campus in a tiny apartment that would have needed a coat of paint in order for it to be upgraded to “shitbox” status.  Since neither of us had the means to pay for cable TV and internet-streaming was a few years off, we both found ourselves with a little bit of leisure time coinciding with our early-20s boredom.  Sean’s escape was videogames and working—my escape was books.

After finishing Al Franken’s latest scree, I found myself with nothing to read.  I remember sitting in the music computer lab (another sign of my age) and turning to my friend Hayley for a recommendation.

“Hmm,” she thought, “what about anything by Vonnegut?  I’m sure you’ve read him.”

“Vonnegut?” I said, “You mean the Slaughterhouse-Five guy?”

“Yeah…wait…you HAVEN’T read anything by him???”

“No, just some excerpts from that one book in high school.”

“Oh Keith,” she said, as she closed her eyes and shook her head, “You have to CHANGE this!”

Fine, fine. I told her I’d wander over to the campus bookstore (yet more signs of age) on my way home that day and look for something.  My institution of undergraduate-teachy-us-thingies had two bookstores in those days, one of which was immediately adjacent to the subway station and had a decent fiction section.  I popped in, and I picked up a copy of Breakfast of Champions.  I shoved it in my bag and hopped on the subway.  I was lucky enough to find a seat not next to a crazy and/or homeless person, so I took out the book and began reading.  Almost immediately, I began to realize just how different things were in the mind of Mr. Vonnegut.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, in the first three pages of Chapter 1 of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut lampoons the National Anthem, flag-dipping laws, and our national motto—E pluribus unum.  By now my eyes were wide.  I stopped reading and looked around the car.  I hid the cover of the book in my bag as I read on…as if I was reading something embarrassing or pornographic.  You have to understand—this was at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the country had LOST ITS MIND around the idea of patriotism.  There was a lot of bogus binary-logic going around—either you were American or you were al-Qaeda.  If you didn’t wear a flag lapel pin and sing the national anthem loudly (and badly) you might as well have been burning aborted fetuses whilst dancing around a cenotaph dedicated to Saddam Hussein.  OK, It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was getting out of hand.  And here was someone poking fun at cherished national symbols.  I wondered…should I be reading this?

Which is right about when my crazy-paranoid-mind-voice started kicking in:  

“Had anyone seen me with this?  Am I going to be on some sort of list for buying it?  OMG, I used my debit card, they can TRACK me!!!  I like America, I don’t think the flag-dipping law is stupid…no really, please don’t draft me!!!!!!”

Fortunately, I also have a voice of reason, which soon chimed in:

“Hey dummy, Vonnegut is a decorated war hero who fought the Nazis so you COULD read things like this.  Why don’t you keep reading.”

Oh, right.  You’re right, Scoutmaster-esque voice of reason!

“…Reading it sure did give you a thrill, though, didn’t it?”


Back to non-crazy talk:  it did (and still does) give me a little bit of a thrill reading that passage—like being backstage at a magic act, or seeing someone drop a communion host in church (Catholic roots go deep).  You start to realize what things look like from the other side.  Symbols (like flags, anthems, mottos, and communion hosts) are only as sacred as we make them (I haven’t taken communion since 2002).  Take away the sacred-ness, and these symbols start to look pretty absurd.  Our national anthem IS a run-on sentence that ends with a question mark.  Why are we the only nation that has a flag-dipping law?  You start to wonder about these things.  

Do these absurdities make these sacred symbols less sacred?  No, I opine.  In fact, I would argue it is our collective will to accept and ignore these absurdities that actually add mystique to these items and reinforces their sacridity (a word I just inventified).  After 10 years of reading everything by and about KV I could get my hands on, I think his opinion was similar to mine.  He was clearly a deeply patriotic man who loved his country, and loved the fact that he could publish a book that has a hand-drawn scribble depicting an asshole in it.  Here was a guy who literally fought Nazis—and he’s telling us to back up, clear your field of vision, and try and see things for what they are, not as others tell us they should be--and draw our own conclusions.  This was immensely appealing to me, and is, I think, why his books have remained popular with young people for almost three generations now.

I finished Breakfast of Champions that very night.  I immediately wanted more.  What did I love about it?  The fact that the book ends with nothing more than a shrug was shocking.  My dark sense of humor lined up with his nicely.  The story also had such a strange climax--the action builds and builds and builds to a catharsis, and then...well, I won’t ruin it for you, other than to say don’t expect a “traditional story arc”.  Breakfast of Champions was also my first experience with so-called metafiction--KV inserts himself in the story periodically and tells us his thoughts on why he made the characters do what they did.  It was so unlike anything I had read before.  And it was refreshing.

I proceeded to tear through his novels at break-neck speed.  KV’s known as much for his short stories as he is his novels, but I’ve always been drawn more to the long works--just a personal preference.  Initially I expected more like Breakfast of Champions, but quickly discovered that his books are all quite different, though you can categorize some similarities.

Vonnegut excels at the “fake autobiography”.  Many of his books are structured as a narrative being written by a fictitious protagonist.  Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos (sort-of), Bluebeard, and Hocus Pocus all fall into this category.  He’s good at the first-person voice and amazingly, all of these fake autobiographies “sound” different.

There are the meta-fiction novels--Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Timequake.  These often throw people for a loop--is it fiction or is it non-fiction?  Answer:  both.  It’s tough to explain here--just read them.

Early in his publishing career, Vonnegut got categorized as a science fiction writer, a label which hasn’t really stuck.  He uses elements of science fiction, but they are inserted into works that are something else.  I don’t think anyone would argue Slaughterhouse-Five is a science fiction book, but it does involve time travel and a race of aliens (the Tralfamadorians).  This literary buffet of styles is what makes him difficult to categorize, but also unique.  You could (and should) say the same about Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, the Beatles, or any great modern artist.

His magnum opus is Slaughterhouse-Five, and it’s in a class by itself.  Vonnegut is a humorist, but Slaughterhouse-Five is not funny.  It wasn’t written to be funny. There is exactly one joke in the book.  I’ll leave you to find it.

My favorite book?  Probably Cat’s Cradle.  A story that outlines the end of the world with a fake religion, a banana-republic dictator, a midget scientist, and a xylophone gets an A+ in my book.  And when the denouement happens, you laugh.  And laugh and laugh.   

My least favorite?  Probably Slapstick.  I don’t really know why.

The hardest to read?  That’s a tie--between Mother Night and Hocus Pocus.  They both scare the hell out of me.  That’s what happens when fiction hits close to home.  Hocus Pocus is about a beloved teacher at a boarding school who goes down in flames over a series of misunderstandings--a fear I live every day.  Mother Night is about an American spy who pretends to be a high-ranking Nazi and does so well at it that he is brought up on war-crimes charges--having a Grandfather who is perhaps the only American citizen to also have been a Hitler Youth, can see the slight parallel.  

Vonnegut has finally taken his place in the American pantheon of writers, though he is not without his detractors.  “He’s anti-war.”  Not so—he’s antijingoist.  Big difference.  Never once did he argue World War II was not a necessary and just engagement.  The wars that followed WWII...well, I’ll just point out that he wasn’t the only one protesting.  The jury of history remains out on the more recent conflicts.

“He’s vulgar.”  He sure is—if by vulgar you mean writing complex characters that act and think like actual people.  This is not the vulgarity of some pre-adolescent using four-letter words to get attention.  The infamous “Move, you mutherfuckers!!!” line from Slaughterhouse-Five has been the source of more public school-board debate than probably any other 20th century novel--Catcher in the Rye excepted. The fact that that line was spoken by a private who had just thrown himself on a grenade in order to save his platoon often gets overlooked—you’d curse in that situation, too.  And so would Brigham Young.

There are some criticisms that stick—the biggest one I hear comes from my learned female friends and colleagues.  “He doesn’t have one single female protagonist in all of his work!”  There is actually one strong central female character in Galapagos, but they’re right—females are noticeably absent from his work.  Shrug.

I re-read a KV novel about every two months.  They’ve become like old friends.  I know the characters of Midland City, Indiana and Ilium, New York forwards and backwards.  I know the plots and twists and turns of all of them.  I know which cast of characters appears in which book and which characters reappear in others.  I could write Kilgore Trout’s biography.  What keeps me coming back?  I’ll say this--I find something new each and every time I re-read one.  Like all great works of art, they withstand time, and bear revisiting often and with fresh eyes.

I love the anti-romanticism.  I love the flawed characters.  I love the non-linear stories.  I love the wit.  I love the irreverence.  I love the Americanism.

I love how HUMAN it all is.

Thank you, K.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Is This Real Life?

There have been a few constants throughout my career. One is that I have always taught teenagers, almost exclusively. The other is that I’ve always had to teach some sort of dreaded “music elective” course. This course goes by many names—General Music, Music Elective, Foundations of Music, Musicianship, or the much-maligned “Music Appreciation”, which I’ve always found has at least two lies in the name.

Most of the students who take these courses do so willingly and are game to learn what I’m teaching, though there are always a few that are dumped in my classes to fulfill their arts requirements, citing the fact that they were tortured with a few piano lessons when they were five. Usually in these courses, it’s a combination of reading about music, listening, responding, and performing—through sight-singing (solfege, for those of you in the know). At Hogwarts, we also include composition in this veritable grab-bag. Some students really like this, but some (self-branded uncreative types, usually perfectionists to boot) can’t handle that there isn’t one right answer. There are many. “But I want it to be perfect!!!”

Ah, perfection. The dreaded “A+” that they so crave.

I usually retort with the last “perfect” piece of music that was written is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with the possible exception of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That’s usually when their face falls. And because I’m usually incensed by this point in the conversation, I usually hurl one last grenade in their direction by saying “And I’ve never, EVER, experienced a perfect performance of ANYTHING, either as a performer or an audience member.”

That’s not me being a snob (I certainly can be, but this is not one of those times)—it really is somewhat of an open secret that musicians strive for an ideal that we almost never, ever achieve. The best performance I’ve ever given was at my senior recital, and even then when I listen to the recording, I’d only give myself about a B+.

So back to the “wound-too-tight” perfectionists in my classes. The smarter ones have now figured out that it’s fun to “poke” me and get me agitated about something in order to kill about 10 minutes of class time. Every term since I’ve been teaching, the dreaded question has come up. This is the question jerk students like to ask because they feel it gives them the moral high ground and puts the teachers (or “masters” as we’re called here at Hogwarts) on the defensive. Every teacher who deals with teens has had to field the dreaded question, often from both student and parent. I’ve even had asshat administrators ask me the question. Every teacher of teens in every discipline has fielded it, and we all dread it. I can sense it coming, usually after an exasperated student fumbles through a poorly-prepared exercise or homework assignment. What’s that question? Here it is:

“Are we ever going to USE this in our lives?” …or some variation thereof.

Often I fumbled through some answer of thinking about something differently, of being well-rounded student, an appreciative audience member, how I’m not running a vocational/technical school, etc. My past tactic was to throw out a lot of extra words and hope that the gobbledygook buries the fact that I didn’t actually answer their question.

But this term, I was ready.

A struggling student did not want to sing his composition assignment—which proves he missed the point, as the assignment was a short LULLABY. He was obviously unprepared and didn’t like that his unpreparedness was broadcast to his 11 classmates. His harmony was in a different key than his melody, and the melody was littered with un-performable rhythms that wouldn’t exactly “lull” a baby to sleep—proving that not only hadn’t he practiced it, he hadn’t even listened to it. He had spent about 3 minutes on it, and I (and his classmates) gave him our assessment of his situation. He wasn’t pleased. My feeling on that score is…too bad, next time prepare. His feeling, which he vociferated through his hands that were hiding his face was “When am I ever going to USE this in real life?”

I responded with a phrase neither he nor the rest of the class expected to hear: “You most likely won’t.”

There was stunned silence, and twelve heads turned in my direction.

I went on: “You haven’t learned anything you’re guaranteed to use in so-called ‘real-life’ since 6th grade.”

More stunned silence.

I continued: “In fact, the only guaranteed ‘real-life’ skill you’ll learn between now and graduation, (unless you leave Hogwarts and go to a vo-tech school), will be how to drive a car.”

Student mouths are now agape.

Think about it: by 6th grade (roughly), you’re moderately literate, in that you can read a novel or a set of simple directions. By 6th grade, you have some digital literacy—enough to type a Word document, send an e-mail, or search the internet. You can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, enough to keep track of your bank statements. That’s all you need, really, in a modern American life.

Then the voices chime in and try and disprove me “But I want to be an engineer, so I’ll need to know Calculus!” “Ah!” I respond. “You’re correct. How many of you are considering engineering?” 2 hands go up. “Yes, you two will need calculus, no doubt. The rest of you won’t need it. Ever. How many of you are considering music as a career?” No hands go up (we’re just not that kind of a school). “See? None of you will NEED this. How about the sciences? Medical?” 4 hands go up. “You will need biology, anatomy, etc. The rest of you don’t need to know how to balance a chemical reaction. You’ll never do it. You see, dear kiddies, you’ve reached the ‘IF/THEN’ stage of your education—IF you are going to do job ‘x’, THEN you’ll need skill ‘y’. The rest of the time, it’s not—as you say, relevant to your ‘real-life’”.

In a generic high school setting (read: non-magnet, non-vocational), less than 20% of what you learn past 6th grade has any so-called “real-life” application, until you get to college where that number goes up a bit…probably to about 40%. Less if you get a Liberal Arts degree. These are ballpark percentages, but I will bet it’s definitely under 50%. It’s nice to know that World War I was 1914-1918, but it isn’t absolutely necessary to know that to go pick up milk at a 7-11. It’s nice to be able to plot a quadratic equation on a Cartesian plane, but that doesn’t help you at 2 AM when you can’t get your newborn to stop crying.

So why do we torture the children of America by insisting they complete 6 years of largely ornamental education at a tremendous cost to the taxpayers and/or parents (private school teacher, here, at a school with a $53,000 per year price-tag, remember)? Because we need well-rounded individuals who can make informed choices based on knowledge and experience. And that is why I’m here, my dear students. To broaden the scope of your world-view because, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (my hero) “God d*** it, babies, you’ve got to be kind.” And willful ignorance of the world and the people in it results in tremendous amounts of unkindness. Hate, war, rape, murder, genocide…the list goes on.

Having lived through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (thankfully NOT as a soldier), we heard this talking point over and over “Isolation breeds terrorism”. It happens to be true. I would add that INTELLECTUAL isolation breeds INTELLECTUAL terrorism—that willful ignorance of those in other walks of life and the lack of ability to see beyond one’s own position. When these people get elected to public office (playing to their base of other intellectually-isolated people), bad things happen. And they are proud of their ignorance! That is my definition of an intellectual terrorist.

“I don’t need no rocket-scientist telling me about global warming!!!”

Well, see, actually…you do. We educate experts and then refuse to listen to them. You hear this talking point from those wanting to dismantle public education: “Why haven’t we seen returns on the billions of billions we throw at public schools?” I’ve got news for you—we have. Their perception of non-return comes from a simple fact—So few people listen to things they don’t want to hear. With the death of the city-wide daily newspapers impending, look at what remains. The left reads the Huffington Post, the right reads—no, watches—Fox news. The pragmatists with a brain read the Wall Street Journal (I never thought that would happen in my lifetime, but it did. Just avoid the editorials, they can get ugly.)  The above statement is as absurd to me as saying "I don't need to plumber to tell me about my cracked-and-leaking soil-stack."  While the second statement certainly has a more immediate and direct impact on the average person, the two statements are, for all intents and purposes, identical.

We seek out the opinions we want validated and connect the dots to what we think we know—that’s human nature. Imagine what would happen if everybody knew more—more dots to connect! There’s where the “ornamental” education becomes practical. And once you connect more and more dots, you start to realize your place in the world, and the importance of those around you, near and far.

So, my dear future world-conquerors, write that lullaby. Balance that equation. Write that poem. Learn derivative equations. They teach you how to make choices, synthesize information, connect dots, and THINK.

And that’s real life, folks. The realest form of life and living I know.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Philadelphia stinks. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. When the humidity and temperature rise, the city has an actual, fetid smell. Stand over a storm drain in Center City on a hot day in July and inhale. You won’t do it twice. We called it the “Philly Phunk” when I was in college—a music major attempt at a double entendre. We should have stuck to learning our scales.

Although this odor is one of the city’s less-than-endearing qualities, it’s almost permissible when you stack it up against some of the other traits of the City of Brotherly Love. We have an abundance of “authorities” in our town—housing authority, water authority, parking authority, port authority. Google “Philadelphia authority corruption” and you’ll get 2,750,000 hits (actual number, as of this writing), the first 1,000,000 of which are, in fact, relevant.

My partner and I are both fans of historic architecture. I’m an armchair architect, he is an actual architect. Because of this predilection, we purchased a lovely Victorian house in 2008. September 22nd, 2008, to be exact. I remember the date vividly, as on September 18th, Ben Bernanke famously said “We might not have an economy on Monday”. And we were set to sign on a mortgage that very Monday. Thanks, Bear Stearns and Lehmann Brothers. Blessedly, neither George nor I lost our jobs (though it was touch-and-go for a while…), so we could keep up with our mortgage. Nevertheless, we will be residing in our house for the foreseeable future.

The city is broke. Fiscally insolvent. Running deficits. No money. Because of this, the Board of Revision of Taxes reassessed the tax value of (supposedly) every property through a process they called “Actual Value Initiative”—a nice way of saying “we think you all were underpaying on your taxes, so now’s the time to buck up”. This coming on the heels of a 2% sales tax increase (we’re now up to 8%), and the fact that Philadelphia has this quirky thing called “local wage tax” (3.9% for residents)…and it all starts to add up. I’m not a TEA party idiot—I realize the importance of paying taxes. I like the cops and firemen to be there when we need them, I like the tap water to be clean, I like the sewers to work, and I like the schools to be able to afford luxurious things like…copy paper.

Because I am a white male in 21st Century America, I get to complain about first world problems. (If you now see me as some sort of privileged pariah, please re-read that sentence with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek). I often bemoan the fact that we are anchored to our 140-year old Victorian ark that requires more maintenance and upkeep than a British sports car. Once, over a lunch, I made milk come out of our Headmaster’s nose as I referred to historic structures as being like aging movie stars—they require constant facelifts and look really great in dim light. The lion’s share of our income goes to our labor of love. Read: “Wah wah wah, we can’t take vacations!”

Our city’s cultural hub is the Kimmel Center. It is the home of our beloved Philadelphia Orchestra (which recently emerged from bankruptcy…seeing a trend?), and a center for all things music. There are two concert halls in it—Verizon Hall and the Perelman Theater. When it opened in the fall of 2000, the entire city (me included) was excited about it. Now, almost 15 years later, I refer to it as “a dead mall with two nice rooms in it”. It’s dated, ugly, and has some huge design flaws. Verizon and Perelman have held up acoustically and somewhat aesthetically, but the building itself is an abject failure. The glass roof makes it look like a failed design for one of the Biosphere projects, and the building has ZERO relationship to the street. To try and correct this, Kimmel Center Inc. has recently installed a trendy wine-bar in the space that was once the Orchestra’s gift shop. It’s a prix fixe affair—at $175 a plate. “Open and democratic” are not the first words that come to mind. I’m not saying we need a McDonalds in that space, but something that is a little less “off-putting” that might draw in the average ticket purchaser would have been, in my bloviated opinion, a better choice.

The place is also just downright worn out. Just because the city hasn’t done maintenance on any of their buildings in 25 years doesn’t mean the Kimmel has to follow suit. But old habits die hard.

So I was already crabby last night when George and I were at the glorified bell jar-turned concert hall to hear Emmanuel Ax play a solo recital in the Perelman Theater (the smaller hall). Though a pianist by training and trade, I somewhat share Stravinsky’s opinion of the piano—a colorless instrument with the potential to be a real bore. And Mr. Ax was playing a mostly Brahms program (snore). Better hit Starbucks, it’s going to be a long night.

Oh, how I was wrong.

The Brahms F# minor sonata is one of those works that takes down pianists. It’s very developed, extremely dense, and has a harmonic complexity not often associated with Mr. Brahms. If you’re not a musician, here’s the translation: it’s long, has lots of notes, and the pianist spends a lot of time on the black keys. The performance was stunning. To hear an artist make actual MUSIC out of that piece was really something. There were two modern works on the program (homages to Brahms). Both were done very well. He finished with the great “Variations on a Theme of Haydn”. This piece is the musical equivalent of those Tough-Mudder races that keep appearing on my Facebook feed. It has every challenge imaginable in it.

And Manny brought it home.

What’s my point in all of this? Here’s the thing—this was a last-minute affair that we went to, on the good graces of a generous neighbor who happened to have some extra tickets. We didn’t have to plan an elaborate trip, hotel rooms, meals, or anything. We just showed up at the Biosphere, walked in the door, and listened to one of the greatest living pianists. No fuss. Just great music.

And that, my friends, is why I live in Philadelphia.

(Despite the smell.)

A Family Affair

“You know you’re playing with fire, right?”

When I was formulating my thoughts for a book about family businesses, I told my brother about the idea. The above quip was his response. He’s not alone—throughout the interviews I conducted while gathering tales for this going-nowhere book this was a common response. People continually shared some trepidation about telling the tales of their family businesses, usually out of some combination of shame and regret. Even I, the author, had many second thoughts when I decided to begin this collection.

But why? Businesses come and go, and everyone has a family. Shouldn’t these just be tales of various businesses that have the added spice of having related people working there? Maybe, but that’s certainly not how it plays out in real life. Why do these tales of family businesses—large, medium, small, old, new—why do they all have the common thread of being somewhat volatile?

I think it boils down to a fundamental fact about people, and what makes us uncomfortable. Family businesses combine two things that routinely make us crazy—family and money. Many people find respite with their families after a long hard day at work—that line becomes very “blurry” in family businesses. Conversely, there are those who use work to escape family dysfunction—not so with those in family firms. When you work for or with your parents, grandparents, or other people involved in your personal life—the clock doesn’t stop at 5, even in the best situations. And if money is the root of all evil, then the implications for money plus family are dire.

Questions abound, usually unanswered, those in family employment. Where does the job description of “boss” stop and the role of “parent” begin? Which employees are “qualified” and which are there for “family patronage”? What happens when a family patriarch/boss becomes incapacitated or dies? Who carries the mantle from generation to generation? How does expansion affect the family dynamic? What happens when there are no more heirs willing to carry on said mantle?

It's a situation I have some familiarity with. My grandfather, Roy G. Monde, Jr., started a wholesale electrical supply business in 1965. Though there were lean and difficult years, the business—Progress Electric Supply Company—was largely successful. At one point in time, it was the largest single-site electrical distributor in the state of Pennsylvania, and the business employed about 40 at its height. Grandaddy, as we called him, passed away in 2002, and the business became entrusted to my mother and grandmother, both of whom had worked there for many years—my mother managing the lighting showroom and retail aspects of the business, my grandmother as the secretary/treasurer. During the 40 years of the Monde family operation, no less than eight family members worked there—including my brother and I. This doesn’t even include those relations who would provide temporary assistance during busy times. In 2005, after much debate, the difficult decision was made to sell the business to a local chain and former competitor who immediately began remodeling and restructuring.

I was strangely depressed when I saw the gutted building—more depressed than when we had moved homes. I attribute this partially to having grown up there (seriously—we were there all the time as little kids), and partially some uncertainty about my mother’s future employment situation…but mostly my feelings were because it was like losing a family member—a family member with whom we all had a strange, mixed, love/hate relationship that was at times quite stressful and at other times very rewarding. And really…what other kind of family member is there?

It is often said of the families of immigrants that it takes three generations to fully assimilate and become a part of average American culture. To quote my favorite fictitious businessman--Jack Donaghey--"The first generation works their fingers to the bone, making things; the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas; the third generation…snowboards and takes improv classes.” The immigrant family experience and the family business experience overlap in this way--it is usually the third generation that makes or breaks a business.

And while I neither snowboard nor take improv classes, I had a freedom that my mother did not have--I chose my career...and my choice didn't involve selling light bulbs. My grandparents worked more than anyone I have ever known to build their business (generation one). My mother expanded the business two-fold (generation 2). My brother and I....well, I hung chandeliers in the showroom and my brother stacked boxes in the warehouse, and then we went to college for completely unrelated things--digital art and music education (generation 3).

People in families with businesses often feel pressured to enter the business. I only recall one conversation with my grandfather involving my future. I had been putting in a lot of hours at the store through the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and one day he nonchalantly asked me what my career plans were. Grandaddy was a loving grandfather, but he certainly could inspire fear when he wanted to. He was a no-nonsense former Marine who saw active duty in World War II and Korea. So naturally I fumbled a bit when I said I wanted to study piano and music education. He immediately said, "Oh, good!" That was the most we ever talked about it. He was always supportive of his grandchildren.

My mother never pressured me to make it my career either, though it certainly was an option. My mother's chosen career was as an art teacher (very similar to my career choice), but after having kids she found it hard to reenter the profession, so she chose to continue her work with the business. She puts it a bit more pragmatically--"I needed to work, so I worked." Had my teaching career not panned out, it is likely I would have landed exactly where she did.  I don't regret my choice not to keep the store going, and neither does my brother. But there is a lingering sense of "what if"...and if the third generation "makes or breaks"....then we broke. We didn't break with expectation...but we did break with tradition.

It's always hard to end a tradition.  Granted, 40 years is not so very long in the grand scheme of things.  Kongu Gumi, a Japanese construction company, recently folded up shop and sold to Takamatsu conglomerate after 1400 years of business.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Our family dynasty lasted 1/35th the length of Kongu Gumi's--imagine the guilt of the owner who ended their reign!

But times change, circumstances change, and people change.

Light bulbs eventually burn out.

One Year Ago Today

Mistakes Were Made

(Originally written on 4/16/2013)
One year ago this Friday, a terrible mistake was made and I was offered employment as Director of Instrumental Studies at the Lawrenceville School—one of the premiere preparatory boarding schools in the United States. I remain unclear as to why I chose to apply for the job, and I remain even more unclear about why I was courted and offered a contract. I can, however, say with great certainty that I am a great fit for the job, and that the job has been a great blessing to me personally, professionally, and musically.

My departure from the School District of Philadelphia was not without regret—in fact, I still carry a good bit of something akin to “survivor’s guilt”...why did I get out when so many didn’t? How can I justify abandoning my post? Given my world view (and thoughts on education)…how could I leave the 5th most persistently dangerous—and chronically underperforming—high school in Pennsylvania to take a position at one of the top 10 private high schools (…and the second most expensive private high school) in the nation?

I could justify my leaving by citing a toxic work environment or insurmountable challenges and unrealistic goals—but I’d be lying. Not only that, but I was GOOD at urban education! Yes, that’s a bit of hubris coming through, but it’s justified here—I pulled an urban instrumental program out of the grave at Lincoln High School. Of course I had help (lots of it), but I led the charge. And I can say with 100% certainty I left the program in far better shape than I found it. I snapped a picture of the Lincoln Band Room on my last day there—it still makes me very reflective when I look at it. I succeeded in an environment where many could not—and my students succeeded as a result. Yes, the tide turned at the end—a building administration that could only be characterized as moronic and the constant layoff threat got to be a bit much, but I would have weathered the storm. Was it perfect? No. Were there days when I ran screaming from school? Yes—quite literally. But there were many moments when I knew someone’s life had changed for the better because I helped move them in that direction. Talk to others in education, they’ll tell you it’s not an exaggeration.

There’s another interesting coincidence happening in my life at this moment—once again, I’m playing a show at Interboro High School. I first played in their pit in 2002. Delaware County seems to be a recurring constant in my life—especially when you consider the years 2006-2009. That was when the first “terrible mistake” was made—when I was hired at Ridley High School as Director of Bands. How do I characterize my time there? Quite good. I’m letting myself admit this for the first time (publically)—I probably shouldn’t have left. I chalk up my departure there to youthful stupidity. Don’t get me wrong…I love where I’m at. But I left a good thing behind when I drove down the Morton Avenue hill for the last time. Being back in Delco is giving me some very weird feelings—my departure feels temporary…almost like a leave of absence…time will tell.

I suppose time will tell a lot of things—I have a very good orchestral program here, some good private piano students, good classes of 12 or less highly motivated students, and just this morning an intelligent argument broke out in my advanced theory over the spelling of a French 6th chord. As I dig my heels in here, I’m reminded that I’m fortunate to have wonderful co-workers, an intellectually stimulating environment, motivated students, and a facility that most universities would kill for. Who knows what the title of the next chapter will be.

To All The New Maestros Out There

Advice for Music Teachers

Developed, mostly (read: completely) by painful mistakes.

1. Pick music you like. You’re going to have to live with it for a while, so you might as well like it. If you don’t like, say, The New World Symphony, don’t hand it out to 70 teenagers—they will use it as a musical weapon. You can find something good in any ability range. In most cases, if you like it, something magical happens—you teach it better. And when you teach it better, they perform it better. And when they perform it better, they feel better about their performance, and they start to like it!

2. “It’s about the kids! It’s about the kids!! IT’S ABOUT THE KIDS!!!” …Yes, but it isn't about the kids at your expense. If you don’t take care of yourself (health-wise, mental health-wise, fiscally, etc.), then you’re going to suffer. And then the kids will suffer. And then no one wins. So, take that half day to schedule that physical.

3. Plan long-range by long units. If you’re in a district with archaic, byzantine policies (like the School District of Philadelphia [just spell my name correctly in the lawsuit, Dr. Hite]), this is difficult because they want every godd@%n minute planned out of every class. And I've noticed that our ilk really hates lesson planning (me included). So save yourself by planning long-range. I don’t mean parse out every minute of your next month, but have a rough sketch that you can use when the lesson plan police come a’knockin’.

4. Take care of your car. While my 1998 Saturn SL4 provided much comic relief to the students and faculty of Ridley High School (culminating in the iconic moment where I held up a piece of the undercarriage and said to the band “You think you’re having a bad day, well THIS fell off my car, and I don’t know what it is!!!”), I really didn't need the stress. Get regular maintenance done and check the fluids regularly. Do you want to be stranded on the interstate on the day when Governor Write-In is visiting and you have to direct your kazoo ensemble in the playing “God Bless America” when he delivers his stump speech? Didn't think so.

5. Don’t give any kid a free pass to miss rehearsals or events for any reason. I don’t mean “I’m sorry that your grandmother lost her long fight with cancer and her funeral is tonight, but we have to work on our eighth notes”. I DO mean “No, I’m sorry, you can’t go watch your girlfriend’s basketball game. You made this commitment.” Work through the conflicts and be firm. Any perceived crack in your policies will quickly become a grand canyon. “You let Billy go to quidditch practice, why can’t I go to synchronized roller skating practice???”

6. For those of us in high school, go to the classics whenever possible. I got more mileage and student buy-in out of the Holst Suites than I did out of “Jensen’s Newest Grade 4 Hit”. I know we bandos can all solfege that Chaconne backwards, but remember—your students can’t. It’s perfectly OK to do “Suite From [insert latest summer blockbuster]” as a lighter selection, but remember—the English teacher is teaching “Great Expectations” and “The Scarlet Letter”. If you want our subject to be taken seriously, don’t program the theme from the Fat Albert Cartoon Series on your spring concert. …Even if my name is on the arrangement. OK, especially if my name is on the arrangement.

7. Work on your conducting, no matter what level you teach. I was never a great conductor, but I REALLY let it slide when I was at my second job. Now, I’m at a place where it matters and I’ve had to work to make up the deficiency. You don’t have to have moves like Muti, but if you’re clear and even mildly engaging as a conductor, they watch you. Even the little kids. Actually, ESPECIALLY the little kids. If, on the other hand, your ictus is everywhere and you look like an unmade bed, don’t holler at them for not watching. Would you?

8. Clean your room. I’m not the neatest person in the world, but I reach a breaking point with clutter. Your rehearsal room and/or classroom needs to be reasonably in order. It sends a message if it isn’t…and sadly that message isn't “Oh, what a free-spirit, artistic, laid-back guy Mr. Grunkin is!” The message is more likely “I wonder what else he lets slide.”

9. Talk with other teachers. Don’t kibitz about how much of a pain Calvin is or the evils of Mrs. Delacroix and her poisonous e-mails, but talking with other teachers about problems they’re having and they ways they've coped with them really helps, if for no other reason than to know you’re not alone.

10. Keep performing. I blew it on this one when I started teaching (well, I blew it on all of these, but this one sticks out). “I just don’t have the time…”. So…why’d you get into this business, then? You really like filing out purchase orders and entering attendance into PowerSchool? I know it’s hard, but blow the dust off your sackbut every now and then and remember why you started down this insane path. It just might seem less insane.

I Quit.

Note:  This originally was written in September of 2013.  I now see it as complete bullshit.

Why I’m Quitting “The Calling” of Teaching

My mother is a painter—her preferred medium is watercolor, and her preferred subject matter is abstract color studies. Though she does not make a career of it, she pursues this art as her passion, and she is quite talented and very creative. Her career was (and remains) in business—as the showroom manager of a lighting and electrical supply wholesaler. This, however, was not her first career. Previous to my being born, she was an art teacher at a local middle school. Family—especially raising one—has a way of interfering with a career.

To keep her skills sharp, my mother maintained a long-time relationship with a local painting teacher, a very nice woman who was married to an Episcopalian priest at a very large, very “old-money” congregation in one of the better ZIP codes in Berks County. My mother and I were invited to dinner at their house one time, not long after Watler had retired. We expected a short blessing before the meal—Walter being a priest, and all. Walter waved his hand and said something like “Oh…..nonsense. Let’s enjoy the food.”

Flabbergasted as we were, some conversation followed about what it’s like to be a “man of God”. The gist of it was this—for he, and a startlingly high number of his priest colleagues, the “life of the cloth” began as a calling…and ended as just a job. Walter, a gifted storyteller, recounted a story of the first time he realized what was really going on.

In his first year at Our Lady of Compound Interest, a wealthy congregant approached him and asked if he would perform a ceremony to bless…his new car. Wanting to please, Walter found some Biblical passage about “Carriages of Jehovah” and fumbled through the motions at the very WASP-y occasion. Unbeknownst to him, he had now opened up the floodgates to blessing everything from boats to sets of new china. One by one, these blessing ceremonies became less and less special and more and more routine, as person after person trotted out their new acquisition for Walter to bestow upon it the blessing of the Lord.

“And then”, he said as his eyes widened, “then came the pets.” I should pause here to say that, having been raised Roman Catholic, the idea of blessing ANYTHING beyond food, communion hosts or wine is a completely foreign concept to us. Things were just that…things. And since the Catholic Church has maintained a hardline stance about animals having no soul, you’re not likely to find a priest officially blessing little Fido or Spot or Brumhilde anytime soon. Back to Walter’s tale of tails—these pet blessings became a big event, usually planned in conjunction with St. Francis’s day. People would bring all of their furry friends to church, they would prance them up to the altar, Walter would do the blessing, and everyone would adjourn for a lovely brunch in the social hall. The only one who complained was the church’s cleaning lady.

“Don’t get me wrong”, he said, “I was happy to do it. But I entered this world to save souls and help people.” And here he was blessing cars, cats and catamarans. He remained dedicated to the job, but his feelings about people’s faith had faded. He finished his 40-some years on the pulpit loyally and (irony intended) faithfully, but what was initially a calling had become a work-a-day job.

I recount Walter’s tale now, as I have had this moment in my own life as a teacher of music. Any serious teacher (of any subject) will tell you that to get into this crazy job, you have to have a calling of sorts. Yes, we’ve all heard of failed performing musicians “falling back” on teaching, but those are few and far between, and they generally don’t last very long. I genuinely entered teaching with a passion for educating others, my life having been truly enriched by what was (in retrospect) a very remarkable education. (It was also an education that was free of NCLB and the “Reform” movement, but that’s a different op-ed piece.)

I, like many other millenials, inspired by Bill Gates and spurned on by Nickelodeon, started our post-9/11 careers wanting to go out and make the world better. We were not going to sit at a desk and pound out widgets and collect our zagnuts at the end of the week, no sir! We were here to IMPROVE THINGS! As teachers, we were the standard-bearers of this philosophy—we must smartify the children!!! Help those less fortunate…get jobs in poor, inter-city schools where their only hope is education!!! Blah…blah…blaaaah……………….

I started my career with this mentality…these children are going to be made better by music, and I’m going to do it the RIGHT way! Grades, mundane tasks and routines be damned, this is about EDUCATION and ART! I even committed what was almost professional suicide by leaving a good suburban job to take a questionable urban job, because I was that much of a fighter and the needier the population the better! I’m SUPERTEACHER!!!!!

It wasn’t long before the complaints started rolling in (I’m sure you’re surprised). Grades weren’t high enough, the music was too hard, you don’t teach a real subject so back off ‘cuz no one cares, stop encouraging them as there’s no money or future in this, stop teaching that black music, stop teaching that WHITE music, yadda yadda yada……….

Maybe it was one too many excuses about missing rehearsals, not practicing, or hearing time after time that their English essay was more important than the piddly amount of homework I give. Maybe it was one too many parent complaints about how I don’t see how special their son/daughter/other was. Maybe it was one too many a tiff with a colleague about how to do things or how NOT to do things. Maybe it’s one too many a politician or policy-maker bitching that my profession is glorified babysitting. …Or maybe it’s me. Whatever the case, my “calling” has jumped the shark…and looking for it has turned me into a depressed, anxious, overworked, underappreciated, irascible CRAZY man. Two hospitalizations for an irregular heartbeat later, and it’s time to make some changes. Forever more, it will be “just a job”, ala Walter’s pet-blessing escapades.

Let me be clear—you can still be good at “just a job”…and I will be.

You can still be dedicated to “just a job”…and I am.

You can still put in the extra effort for “just a job”…and I can, have and will.

So what’s changing? Nothing...on the outside. I’ll still be teaching, conducting, performing, and (first and foremost) helping those in my charge. But this all ends at the end of the day. My emotions about the day (what remain) will be left scattered along the interstate as I drive home. I care about the students, of course, but reasonable boundaries will be drawn, posted, AND OBSERVED. From now on, “Mister” Roeckle hangs up his corduroy sport coat after class and that’s that. The next time “the calling” happens, it will be met with a busy signal.

The “S” on my chest has vanished—which begs the question: was it ever there? Probably not.

I’ve blessed my last car.

The Calling of Nonsesne

It's 9:30 at night on a Monday evening in early May. It's one of those unseasonably cool nights that pervade the mid-Atlantic early spring. It is a lovely evening, with almost no humidity, clear skies, and the faint, pleasant smell that I can only describe as "damp deciduous forest". These are the kinds of nights you spend outside when you live in Pennsylvania or New Jersey--the kind you relish before the heat and humidity move in and signify summer is here.

I, however, am not outside on this glorious night. I am sitting in the 2nd floor common room of a 9th grade dormitory (or "house", in our quaint parlance here at this institution). I am sitting in a smelly club chair that was last cleaned during the Clinton administration, and I am looking at what appears to be either the nest of of a large, refuse-grazing rodent (a capybara, possibly), or the remnants of a multitude of teenage girls. I'm not ruling out either possibility. My task here, rather than sipping a nice hot mint tea on a terrace somewhere and thinking pleasant thoughts, is to keep 45 girls quiet, in their rooms, and focused on their schoolwork. They, in turn, see their task as to find any daylight within the house rules and to use it to irritate me. It is not exactly a symbiotic relationship. More of a hostage situation--and I'll give you three guesses who the hostage is.

They must ask me to leave their rooms for any reason, though I look the other way if they're using the bathroom. The requests range from the very polite to the indignant. For instance:

"Mr. Roeckle, may I ask Zoe a question about our science homework?"


"Hey, K-Roc, gotta tampon?"

(Stunned silence.)

Nights like these try my patience, as the girls have been absolved from their classes tomorrow for "2nd Form (more of our quaint parlance) Mountain Day"!!! Something about bonding as a grade whilst walking up some glorified earth-pimple. We don't have any actual mountains in this part of New Jersey. I should also remark that the year has 5 weeks left in it, and they've already bonded--something the girls are eager to point out, as in tonight's battle cry: "Why do we have to do this?!? We already made friends!!!" And most of our clientele are not exactly what I would term "rugged". "Roughing it", to this crowd, generally means a townhouse in Brooklyn with only DSL Internet access. And taking a Land Rover to get there.

The girls are also completely undone due to one of our school’s more recent traditions--the campus-wide game known as “Splash”. If you elect to participate (and most do), you are put into a pool with other abiding students and faculty members who are a little too gung-ho for my liking, and you are assigned a “target”. Your task is to “splash” them with water. They are then out. You don’t know who is targeting you.

This year, the game has taken on somewhat of an “Escape from New York” quality--with students hiding in buildings to avoid people, shadowy alliances forming around friends and enemies, and students pouring over campus maps to find unknown ways to get from building A to building B without being left in plain sight. Tonight, one girl was 40 minutes late to check-in (a BIG no-no), because she was hiding in a corner of the history building whilst her attacker and his posse laid in wait. She eventually relented, and was “splashed”. And there was much outcry amongst the residents.

So the ladies are a bit distracted this evening.

If you've never worked in a school, then you probably aren't aware of the total amount of nonsense that goes on in any educational institution. I've worked in three different schools....all had tons of this nonsense. Field days, Congressmen visiting to stump for something, random community events, prom-posals (my latest bane), and testing. My god the testing. Testing for this, testing for that, preparation for testing, changing the schedule for testing, blah blah blah. We teachers always bristled at these things. We bitch and moan about the lost class time, the distracted teenage brain, and say with the ferocity of a Hardshell Baptist reciting the Lord's Prayer..."THIS IS NOT WHAT WE WENT TO COLLEGE FOR!"

It isn’t what we went to college for (generally)...but it is the nature of what we do.

Despite everything going on with our profession, I still think it's a noble one, and most agree. It's as much a calling as it is a profession, much more akin to the ministry than most of us will admit. We knew we'd be underpaid, but we still did it. That's long-established. The first teacher at the great St. Paul’s School was given a house, but no salary and no food, so he decided to teach fishing in order to feed his students and family. I promise you it’s true. Look it up!

We knew we'd be yelled at, challenged, cursed at, and vilified by "upset stakeholders", a common administrator nonsense term for, as I see it, anyone with an email account and a loose connection to the school--students, parents, board members, other teachers, alumni, angry neighbors, the editorial board of the local newspaper, yadda yadda. It happens, and it sucks, but we plod onward. I myself have had to explain and defend the fact that I am a (mostly) competent professional to far too many people for my own liking.

We knew we'd be giving up nights (like tonight), weekends, and holidays for our calling. And we did. For the first six years of my career, I worked on Thanksgiving. ACTUALLY ON THE HOLIDAY. Football games featuring local high school rivals on turkey day is a beloved Pennsylvania tradition. As the marching band director, I had to oblige, much to the chagrin of my family. But these things are what we do.


Because, my friends, we want to do it. And we value it. And despite the vitriolic hatred espoused by those who don’t like teachers, I think the public values what we do more than they realize. I've tried to quit "my calling" many times, and I can't do it. My frequent "it's just a job" mantras never stick. Every time I think "if one more entitled little brat tells me what they think about.....(fill in the blank)....." and I consider losing it en masse, a student comes along with the look of genuine terror in their eyes and says "Mr. Roeckle, I need your help!" And I fold like I'm holding a 2-7 off-suit. "OK," I say, "what can I do to help?"

And with the nonsense of things like “Mountain Day” and a (possibly illegal) campus-wide game comes the good--the successful concerts, the difficult assignments that the students complete with gusto. The unsolicited “thank you” e-mails from parents and students. The little victories.

It's now 10 o'clock, the time we release the girls from their cells--and they usually react accordingly. As I type this, there are four girls screaming about something I care not to know about. It’s either about a boy, something mean-girl related, or something to do with that damned Splash game. The shriek of a 14 year-old girl can cut glass and make local dogs form into packs. It's now time to get them to bed. The nightly jockeying for shower time begins. There are six shower stalls on the 2nd floor, so the girls have to take turns.

“You always go first!!!”

“You take too long and use all the hot water!!”


While this is going on, I start to think about my drive home. One of the peculiarities about boarding schools is that most faculty live on campus, often alongside the students in apartments attached to the student dorms (oops…”houses”). Due to a fluke in the amount of available housing and the amount of needed faculty, I am not a resident faculty member. While I would love a shorter commute, I have no earthly desire to live on our campus. The working/not working line is already blurred for teachers, and geography is one of the few things I have on my side in this matter. Not so for the housemasters--they're on-call virtually every night the boarders are on campus. I myself would rather be the guy who follows the elephants in a circus parade with the shovel than be a housemaster, but the housemaster arrangement appeals to a certain type of person. As they say, it takes all kinds.

I put the key in the ignition of my spartan but reliable Volkswagen (which has just crossed the 150,000 mile mark--hoping to cross 200,000 with it), I start the engine, and I begin the 40 mile trek home. It's basically a straight-shot on Interstate 95 from school to our house. I know every turn, hill, on-ramp, and pothole. The tail lights of the other vehicles have a hypnotic effect, which gets me thinking about why I do what I do, and I don't really have one BIG answer, just a lot of little ones, none of which make a whole lot of sense. But I do it, and will continue to do it.


And again.

And again.