On Being a Musician

In this post from two weeks ago (my brief reflections on teaching), I mentioned my long-range goal as a college freshman: becoming a professional musician. Twenty years ago this September, I entered Southwest State University (now Southwest Minnesota State University) intent on studying music which I viewed as the gateway to being a touring musician in a rock band. My view then was that any music education would be beneficial to my dream. So I was in choir. I was in concert band. I was in jazz band. I took voice lessons. I took piano lessons. I kept learning more instruments while trying to become better at the ones I already knew. I kept playing in the rock band with friends from high school, and I also played acoustic music with various college friends.

At the age of 18, excited about college, I imagined myself on the road four or five years later, playing in different cities, different clubs and theaters, seeing so much of the country. I imagined people singing along to the songs I wrote, people becoming fans of my music just as I was a fan of others’ music. Of course, that dream was not realized. As I noted elsewhere, I had my “writing conversion” during my junior year that altered the trajectory of my dreams. Yet even as my direction changed, I never stopped playing music regularly.

From the time I was finishing up my undergraduate degree (and through every step thereafter to now), I found that because writing and teaching became my primary vocations, I experienced more freedom, joy, and satisfaction playing music. Music wasn’t (and wouldn’t be) may day job. I still use all the training I had in those music classes (theory, orchestration, choral arranging, etc.) when I play on Sunday mornings as I have done for all the years.

I would even go so far as to say that I am having the most fun playing music that I’ve had since I was an 18-year-old. On Sunday mornings, when my alarm goes off at 6, I’m so excited to spend my entire morning (and early afternoon) making music and doing what I can to help people worship God. On Sunday afternoons, on Sundays evenings, the songs I played from earlier that day are still cycling through my brain. It helps, I’m sure, that in my current musical “setting” I play with some of the most talented individuals with whom I’m ever played–no offense to other musicians I’ve worked with before. 🙂 I’ve played with a lot of talented folks over the years and count myself blessed. (Here’s an “interview” I did with my current worship pastor, a super-talented, super-humble guitarist and vocalist: Adam Fischer. He also has an awesome EP, Reckless, that’s available on iTunes.)

Lastly, I have found that during the academic year, I look forward to Sunday mornings even more. For the 6+ hours that I’m occupied with music and worship, I am not only spiritually renewed and refreshed but also recharged for the week ahead during which I arrange (and rearrange) words on pages while also teaching others to do the same.

Summer Reading (and Writing)

Picking up on the summer motif of my previous post, I’d say that one of my favorite aspects of summer is the time I have to read more extensively. During the academic year, a majority of my reading time is dedicated to reading for my classes. While I manage to portion time for personal reading, I rarely attempt lengthier books because they can take me several weeks to finish, so as a result, I reserve the “bigger books” for the summer.

Among the six books I’m currently reading (all of which are in excess of 300 pages, with one close to 700, and another far lengthier) is the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. Since the beginning of May, I’ve read nearly 200 pages of this 1,200-page tome. in this second full month of spring, I’ve read such poets as Denise Levertov, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, Maxine Kumin, and Frank O’Hara, to name a few.

I’m aware that anthologies are “greatest hits” collections, but I enjoy anthologies for the primary purposes of appreciating more the writers whose work I do know and “discovering” writers whose work I do not know (or whose work I have avoided). Because of this reading, I’ll definitely be reading more full-length collections of some of the poets I’ve read.

Which brings me to one of the poets I’ve recently read (initially reluctantly): John Ashbery. First confession: when I was a younger poet (much younger), I bought a collection of his poetry and never read it. Ever. I don’t even own the book anymore. (I traded it off at an used-book store.) Second confession: I have avoided reading him. I’d heard that he was difficult. (I can imagine my writer friends groaning at my complaining. If I still had a personal Twitter account, I’m sure I would have lost several followers.) But I have been pleasantly surprised to find that I like his poetry!

In these few weeks, I have more fun reading poetry than in quite some time. I’ve sat on the floor of my home office, the book open on the floor, my body stretched out. I know that part of this enjoyment is because of summer’s comfortable pace, but I also attribute this delight to my main summer writing project: revising 5 poems a week from my in-progress manuscript, Your 21st-Century Prayer Life. (You can read the title poem here.) Absorbing the words, images, lines, and sounds of these great poets is providing me with additional momentum in my own writing, which in turn makes me want to read more poetry.

The reading-and-writing cycle is a beautiful thing to experience, and as I savor my journey through the rest of this anthology (finishing it by the time the fall term begins) and rework my own poems, I expect there will be dozens more poets I’ll be adding to my to-read list.

On Teaching

I recently finished year three at my university, and I feel excitement as summer is now before me. For most of my life, with a few exceptions, I have marked time on an academic calendar. And having been in a university setting for the last 19 years, I have had the luxury of summer being earlier.

Growing up in Minnesota, I savored the changing of the seasons and the build-up to summer. It’s not that I’m that much into being outside in the summer: it’s more the freedom, the rhythm of the seasons. That said, it’s been a joy to live in a climate that possesses summer-like weather more of the year around.

I find that the summer is time for me not only to accomplish much writing and reading but also to reflect and slow down. It also serves as a time for me to recharge my teaching batteries since the academic year races by. I’m grateful for a vocation that allows for that space, a space that then serves to generate anticipation for the upcoming school year.

When I began college as freshman 20 years ago this fall, I didn’t set out to be a university English professor, much less a teacher of any kind. I wanted to be a professional touring musician, playing in a successful rock/metal band. (But that backstory is a post for another time, although you can read part of the story here.)

Why do I find such satisfaction in teaching? (Please accept my apologies for a list that does not maintain parallelism.)

  • the way in which what I teach feeds and nurtures my writing life (teaching creative writing, literature, and composition)
  • writing is a solitary pursuit and teaching is a way in which I can share my experience (successes and failures) and background with others
  • I’m not sure what else I could do that would fill me with such satisfaction
  • I’m forced to adapt continually (to new students, to different courses, to different schedules)
  • there’s variety
  • I’m never bored
  • my students push me (to be a better writer, a better teacher)
  • seeing students succeed and be transformed

Then there’s the academic life itself and what I love about that:

  • working with colleagues who love literature, language, and who enjoy talking about big (and small) ideas
  • attending and presenting at academic conferences
  • a work space to have away from home
  • editing a journal
  • directing a writing festival

There’s more that I might say about either of these lists, but I’ll leave them alone (for now). Right now, it’s back to my season of recharging.