Ramblings from a seasoned field worker

Jeff Dahl

Jeff Dahl

I am designed to work. I feel alive in my work. My work is exhausting and it is refreshing. My work holds endless possibilities, renewed exploration and things to try out. It involves artful planning, constant reflection, rethinking and revising. It holds the freshness of many new beginnings as I try to embrace the ability to start each day with grace and wholeness: How to begin again.

I was invited to write an article on inspiration by one of ACDA of MN gifted editors, my friend and former student teacher, choral conductor Ben Henschel. My brainstorming about what to write started with questions. How does one get inspired to start a school year? What energizes me? Do I even feel inspired to start year number 31? What experiences from my summer were going to change and ignite my new school year? Was it summer dialogue and networking with gifted fellow comrades? Perhaps it was the new techniques, approaches and observations I made while being a section coach under the mastery of the inspired Eugene Rogers and the engaged musicians in the TTBB All-State choir? Or, what inner work of renewal was captured from the restorative activity of this summer such as my invigorating bike rides, quiet kayaking on the serenity of a Minnesota lake, or the numerous trail runs in the ever-changing glories of wooded paths of the summer landscape? I have always been more interested in the questions than the answers. Do I like the process or the product? I guess I like the process. Therefore, maybe all I will write about are the questions themselves.

A couple of years ago my treasured colleague, Dr. Don Krubsack, head director of the Wayzata High School Band department, and I went on a long bike ride before school started. Don is one of the truly gifted in the world. He is bright, compassionate, contemplative, a consummate musician, composer and much, much more. We had intentions of starting a discussion about beginning of another school year while we rode. We discussed the possibility of having a theme for our music department that year that would unite and inform us, and energize our work. Our conversation began to center around the word “inspiration”. Some of our conversation included thoughts about the Latin root word spir, which means breathe. We brainstormed words that contained the word spir such as spire, perspire, aspire, respiration, conspire, etc. We contemplated that what we breathe in as a thought has a direct impact on how we think and how we speak. Don came up with the question, “What is on your breath?” The wind was whirling with the idea of being inspired to inspire as it circled around our discourse. Whose job is it to inspire? How do we inspire one another?

I love the life giving work of Craig Hella Johnson and the professional choral ensemble Conspirare. The ensemble’s name comes from the Latin word that means to breathe together. I love the unity of action and thought in the name and celebrate the implications for an ensemble. I believe that even in the naming of things we begin the process of understanding that we breathe life into things. After all, it is the singer’s breath that carries the phrase. This thought evokes for me the book of Genesis; a creative account of beginning, including concepts of breath and name giving.

I recalled performances at Orchestra Hall where I noticed my breathing becoming in sync with the music. In each breath, a shared phrase and shape for me to experience, know, and understand, amongst a community of listeners and musicians. To breath in and out together is an inspirational act of community. A communal intake that is like the sharing of a meal prepared with love, intention, and work. Sustaining our living with the same nourishment brings people together. In spiritual formation we often equate breath and spirit as the same concept. A spirited work is full of vitality; so is the inspired classroom that is fully alive.

Don and my spirits were lifted as we designed a plan for the beginning of the school year. We decided to present a brief lecture and lead a discussion on inspiration in each other’s classrooms. We aspired to build a foundation and shared a departmental approach to the process of building an environment that would allow everyone willing to breathe in and out inspired thoughts. This process would change us and hopefully change the world we live in for the better. The lectures and insightful thoughts of the students created a responsibility to evoke spirit in our work.

One repeated pattern in my teaching that I have used for several years to inspire and benefit my practice is to begin my year with a couple of poems. I find that poetry can be a terrific vehicle to open the classroom to an environment of inspiration. Sharing poetry in community can be a centering act. “To Be of Use,” by Marge Piercy is a poem I use at the beginning of the year. I find that my TTBB choir responds and connects to this poem. The poem generates conversation and awareness of our desire to work and connect.

To Be of Use

by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

Bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward.

who do what has to be done again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

And work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in the common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

Has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

I ask students to pick a word or phrase that struck them or one they connected to. We discuss the satisfaction of creating and working in a collaborative ensemble. We acknowledge the joy of working together in a rhythm that mirrors the seals bouncing like half-submerged balls. Every year a majority of the students like the phrase “harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart.” We reflect on the repetitiveness of our shared work; repeating each phrase again and again. We consider the yoke of the harness, which requires shared work, making the individual burden less and the interdependence on one another an essential component to ensemble. We conspire to conspire together, but not a plan devised for evil, but for the good of all. We ponder the paradox of exhaustion and restoration of hard work. A great rehearsal leaves us feeling completely spent yet provides the energy and creative powers to face the world that we live in on the other side of the choral rehearsal door. Together we wonder about the mystery of work that is real and why we cry out for it. And then we begin the work.
Another poem that has called me at the beginning of several years is “On The Other Side of The Door,” by Jeff Moss.

On The Other Side of The Door

by Jeff Moss

On the other side of the door

I can be a different me,

As smart and as brave and as funny or strong

As a person could want to be.

There’s nothing too hard for me to do,

There’s no place I can’t explore

Because everything can happen

On the other side of the door.

On the other side of the door

I don’t have to go alone.

If you come, too, we can sail tall ships

And fly where the wind has flown

And where we go, it is almost sure

We’ll find what we’re looking for

Because everything can happen

On the other side of the door.

My SSA 9th grade choir seems to find release in this poem, something we invite into their vocal sound as well. I suggest they consider the other side of the door as the choir room. I want them to leave the culture of our high school; all of it’s rules, labels, definitions, and limitations outside of the choir room. We embark on building a culture that is set apart from that which is on the other side of the choir door. We lay a cornerstone of structured rules that allow a safe and unified culture to develop. Weston Noble once said, “Vulnerability grows in a garden of trust.” Together we imagine a choral culture that values everyone. One that is inclusive and open. There is an expectation to bring all of yourself to the work and to empty yourself out at the same time. I believe art can be selfish and selfless at the same time. We begin the process of opening ourselves up to all the promises of an authentic choral classroom experience in which we breathe together.

As I sit and finish writing this ramble on inspiration, I have concluded the first week of the new school year. I am surprised to once again feel grateful for the gift of being able to teach. The circular joy of inspiration already is a refreshing breeze in the classroom and in my life. I am ready to begin again. I hope this short musing allows you to embrace breathing in and out inspired thought and a belief that you are more than equipped for the beautiful experiences ahead that will shape you, your classroom, and others.