Lessons from the road

What life as a touring musician has taught a former teacher

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Nearly ten years ago, I stood in the principal’s office to discuss my resignation. It was formulated as a one-year leave of absence we both knew was just a goodbye in the polite costume of a maybe. It was a departure from an eight-year teaching career I truly loved and was choked up about letting go of. I told her that the messages I was trying to inspire in the classroom, I believed I could get out faster and wider through my music. I guess this sounded a little too idealistic, or downright delusional, because she thought I was lying and secretly going to work in another school. I was dead serious.

I had just completed a master’s degree in theological studies, an admittedly strange choice for a secular woman, but it was the only department I could find that let me explore my notions about the structural connections between ethics, language and symbol. My exploration, I felt, might address the political violence I had lived through in Jerusalem in my twenties, my educational passion, and my creative artistic endeavours. I was not wrong.

My graduate work allowed me to articulate my methodology as a teacher, but it also gave me the permission I felt I needed to pursue singing and songwriting without thinking it too self-indulgent and narcissistic. Using linguistic philosophy, philosophy of ethics and theology, I claimed and tried to prove that the most ethical form of communication is metaphor, and that we can learn from metaphor how to exist ethically in the world. My definition of “ethical” came from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who claimed that ethics was not a set of moral rules, and that, in fact, claiming to know ethics as such was wrong and dangerous, both in personal and socio-political realms. Instead, he suggested that ethics was an event rather than a body of knowledge, and the event was the encounter with the “other,” who was always outside our capacity to fully know.

I demonstrated in my thesis how with “plain” language there is an implicitly one-way transfer of knowledge from speaker to listener, but with metaphor, there is an explicit invitation to the “other” to participate in the interpretation of meaning. This invitation to participate, open rather than closed, was what made it ethical.

This had profound practical applications to the student-teacher-knowledge dynamic. I argued academically what I had experienced personally. Being open to the always-new encounter with students meant that if I wanted to be an ethical teacher on Levinas’s terms, it meant I couldn’t come to the classroom thinking I knew what was right, or good, or even important. I could suggest it, open it to question, but I needed to find ways to engage the students to participate in the meaning of those terms, creating them as we went, taking their input into account.

I had no idea what would happen when I stepped out of the school-system I’d been in since I was in the first grade myself, into the great abyss of full-time artistry. It did not occur to me that, though I had songs of supposed wisdom to share and some strongly-felt theoretical convictions, I would immediately become the student par excellence. As a classroom teacher I already held on very lovingly to the notion that my students taught me as much as I taught them, but the learning curve I suddenly found myself on was radical, and everything I believed in from the teacher’s perspective was now being put to the test.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, no skill set to administer it. I had one album out and some shows under my belt, a strangely prolific outpouring of songs and some spirited defiance in the face of notions that I couldn’t be a full-time musician. Since making that leap, in what turned out to be a decade of living on the road full time, I have lived with no fixed address, constantly out of a suitcase, travelling back and forth across Canada and Europe by bus and train (I have never learned how to drive), living in people’s homes for a day or two, or a week or two, booking my own performances, learning to communicate with media for interviews and album reviews, and accepting recording offers and navigating the diverse world of studio gear, engineers, and co-producers. I have been not only open to the “other,” I have been at its mercy. It has been challenging, dizzying, rewarding and enthralling.

The only reason I have survived, and in non-mainstream ways, even succeeded, has had to do with an extreme openness to “the other,” and my admitting from the get go that asking “is it so?” is better than proclaiming, “it is so.” Everything I have learned in ten years on the road would undoubtedly serve both me and my students if I return to teaching. The lessons have served me as a human being who believes in small and large-scale authentic, loving community-building. And these lessons have had everything to do with my humbling encounters with “the other.”

A few months into my first year, after a bizarre and anxiety-filled autumn where I watched back-to-school ads that for the first time did not pertain to me, I ended up moving to Berlin. I spoke no German. One of the first things I noticed was that my confident independence suddenly disappeared. I needed help from other people, translating the world around me, filling out forms, navigating the subway system. Simple tasks like going to the grocery store were extremely frustrating and demoralising. I kept turning the tins of food around in my hand expecting the English ingredients to appear, but there were none. I could not decipher my basic surroundings.

I had taught second language for eight years, first English, then Hebrew. I leaned toward whole-language learning, and had enthusiastically explained to my students that they did not have to understand every word in order to make educated guesses. But for the first time in my life I understood the fear involved in this. I thought back to my students who had been weaker linguistically and the frozen glares they would have when confronted with an entire text. I recalled their disheartened sighs when I would circle the mistakes on their assignments, even though I always tried to encourage them by highlighting the passages they had handled correctly. For the first time in my life I understood what it meant to feel inadequate and clumsy in both comprehension and expression.

A retrospective empathy I had not had opened up in me. The effect of this loss of confidence was so all-encompassing I even witnessed my body posture change from the confident, straight-backed ‘go-getter’ woman I had been, to a slumped and shuffling unsure entity. Though I had understood cerebrally that weaker communication skills would feel like a barrier to enthusiastic participation, I had never experienced it directly.

Learning to engage in baby steps, to celebrate my small linguistic and administrative accomplishments, to accept encouragement from my friends and to see my inadequacy with humour were all pivotal aspects of my confidence-recovery. I thought about how I would apply this if I returned to teaching. I thought about how much the ability to engage and communicate had to do with our sense of worth in our community, and how it was precisely a caring, patient, encouraging community that was needed in order to facilitate it, for it was only through the help of newfound friends that I progressed.

The diversity of the community around me was in and of itself a humbling experience. Hearing multiple voices was imperative. I heard Germans speak of the problem of the Turkish population not integrating, and then heard Turkish people speak of the problem of Germans not letting them integrate. I wondered what awareness they had of each other’s position. I wondered what kind of classroom discussion I would facilitate if they had been my students rather than people in the city at large.

The diversity, of course, extended beyond cultures and ethnicities. In one particularly poignant encounter, a woman approached me after one of my barroom performances. She was immediately annoying and fatiguing. She talked too much and too fast, and though most of the people at the venue approached me to briefly congratulate me on my show, this woman occupied my space and did not let go. She asked me, between a barrage of sentences, how to make an F chord on the guitar and if I could show her, right then and there. Her frenetic energy made me uncomfortable and I looked for nice ways to say it wasn’t something I could do in a noisy bar.

When I returned to my rented room and checked my messages, I saw that she had sent me a MySpace request. MySpace was the site-du-jour on which you could have either a musical or a personal profile. It was a way of connecting and networking before Facebook and Twitter had really taken off. I glanced at her profile and giggled because what would normally have been a quaint paragraph describing oneself was, in her case, a rambling monologue which read the way her talking had sounded at the bar. But as I got to the end of it I came across the line, “I have A.D.D.” I suddenly gulped in shame. Somehow, to my own dismay, it had never occurred to me that the special-needs students I advocated for so passionately grow up into adults that I would interact with in the world outside the classroom.

Remembering my love for my students helped me navigate a world of adult versions of special-needs, or at the very least, overly intoxicated adults who frequented the bars I performed in. This two-way vision, the memory of my special-needs students and my encounters with special-needs adults, often considered nuisances at performances, enhanced an overall compassion in me and a sense of responsibility in demonstrating both love and boundary.

As with teaching, performing at a venue meant all eyes were on me when someone was disruptive or rude. How to be inclusive was less of a given when it didn’t involve children I was being paid to teach, but it remained a goal in mind at all times, and it always came down to creating space to listen and let others express themselves, even at the “expense” of my own show. And sometimes it meant that the people in the venue had to work together to resolve the outburst. I used to do that in my classroom as well, deciding together what was acceptable and unacceptable for the group.

After eight months in Berlin, I returned to Canada but no longer had an apartment. I had a two-month tour booked and figured I would look for one after that, but while on tour it occurred to me that if I kept touring, I didn’t actually need one, or at least, there was no real point in paying for one and then constantly looking for sub-letters. On tour, I stayed with various friends, friends of friends, and strangers I carefully selected on a couch-surfing website.

Being in different homes constantly and wanting to be a good guest who would be welcomed back meant paying very close attention to the household norms. I could not just behave habitually. I could not have my own code of household conduct. I was attentive to many details and nuances of schedules, dishes, food, drink, degrees of cleanliness, background noises, types and topics of conversation. I answered many questions about myself, but I also asked many of my hosts. I looked for and found ways to participate.

The more people I have met and interacted with, the more “others,” the more I have understood that everyone has their skills and convictions and struggles, and that the most important skill is patient listening, caring communication. This means asking it of others and providing it back. And indeed, since the path I have embarked on is a musical one, patient listening and caring communication is at the core of it all. The songs themselves, they are my curriculum.

How do we build ethically relevant curriculum and how do we share it most effectively? These should be, as far as I’m concerned, the two primary questions of anyone involved in education. The questions are the same, I believe, for anyone who takes creative art seriously. Are my songs ethically relevant, ethically delivered, and potentially ethically inspiring? I cannot answer those questions without asking my audiences. We cannot answer those questions of curriculum without asking our students.

Of all the thoughts that I have in my head, most of them are questions and musings about identity, and they can range from noting a food preference or having a favourite fragrance, from trying to choose my reaction to having stubbed my toe, to questioning where I stand on a political matter, or how I am processing any one of my multitude of interpersonal experiences. I witness my reactions and behaviours and I listen to my thoughts out of a sincere desire to know myself, and to better myself. But I only ever identify a thought as song-worthy when I feel it speaks as much to the greater human experience as it does of my own personal one. When I catch myself thinking, feeling or doing something and suddenly smiling because, “ah, that is so human,” that’s when I figure I should write it and share it.

I believe the talent of the artist is to intuit this kind of resonance and act on it, and in sharing it, create even greater resonance. I believe, and so I wrote in my graduate thesis, that the reason art, its songs and symbols are particularly effective in transmitting these insights, is precisely because they are not prescriptive. If you stand there with an “I know this,” attitude and talk at an audience you presume doesn’t know it yet, if you see them as passive receivers of your insight, you are denying them actual participation in the revelation. But art, by definition and, more importantly, by intention, is interactive in meaning-generating. It is an invitation to participate. How do we translate this to teaching?

The best way to enhance one’s intuition as to what is human is to listen very carefully, both to one’s own thoughts and to the utterances of others. I would never be able to generate songs at the rate that I do, nine albums out and two more recorded, without intentionally and actively participating in this focused kind of listening. Ten years on the road have given me an astounding collection of stories and conversations with very different types of people in very different types of places, and these have generated more ideas and insights in me about what it means to be human. There is no question in my mind that this has inspired me greatly and enhanced my ability to write human songs.

I’ve thought a great deal over the years about what student-centred learning means, and years of sharing songs with diverse audiences have made me understand it in sharper focus. I sing thanks to my audiences, I write songs because of them, and when I sing them my songs, they mean what they mean to each listener based on their own interpretations. When they share these interpretations back with me, sometimes in facial expressions, smiles and tears, and sometimes in words, I am moved by the enhancement of meaning, and I am stirred to write more songs.

If we can stand as teachers in our classrooms with a sincere desire to facilitate, rather than present ethical curriculum, if we understand that ethical relevance is generated and determined in real time by the students as much as by us, and if we can be flexible and keep creating lessons based on their engaged feedback, then we become educational artists. The skill of listening in an engaged way, the skill of concise, relevant articulation with an openness to interpretation and more conversation, doing it and teaching how to do it, that is the curriculum, or should be. That is the song.

About Orit Shimoni
Orit Shimoni, a former teacher, is a singer-songwriter who has been touring in Canada and Europe on a full-time basis for the past ten years. A prolific recording artist, she has released nine albums.

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