Tuesday, July 12, 2016


I listened to an NPR link this morning that my son Chris sent me. 47 minutes of talk by police officers, sociologists, and the like. Both Chris and I had to leave the broadcast/podcast during the segment with Michael Dyson, but his words that stuck with me have been "We can't look at what's happening today without looking at history."

For some reason, I was reminded of a sweet man I had known a few decades ago. He was a retired lieutenant from the Newark,NJ, police department who had served there during the racial riots of the 60s. His solution to the problems that existed then was "ownership." If the disenfranchised owned their own homes, he thought, attitudes would change.

The lack of a sense of ownership holds all of us back. I fight this deficit, this barrier, every day in my teaching.

We must own our voices. Not only our singing voices, which we too often think of as "gifts" bestowed on a talented few, rather than an inherent ability that we all share. But also our speaking voices, which we learn to use by imitation and which, therefore,  seldom represent the unique persons we are. Add on all those years in classrooms in which we were told to be silent, the admonitions for being too loud, for speaking out of turn, and it's a wonder that any of us arrive at adulthood with any sense that we have a right to use our voices.

If we don't own our voices, how can we possibly own our ideas? Our thoughts? Our beliefs? Particularly, when our unique experiences don't conform with what we've been taught? I remember the shock and a feeling akin to terror the first time I read in a scholarly book a statement that I knew to be false. I no longer remember the name of the book, or the name of the Mozart expert who wrote it, or which aria he was writing about. I do remember that he claimed that Mozart had written an unusual (and supposedly difficult) interval in that aria because he hated his sister-in-law, who would be singing it. Nonsense. Mozart used that sort of wide interval in several arias—probably because he liked the effect.

What enormous freedom that discovery eventually gave me. The freedom, and the right, to question my own beliefs, as well as those of the experts. And to tell my students that they have the right to voice their own experiences, their own ideas.

And to claim the space in which they speak or sing. Here's one of the wonderful paradoxes of life. If we don't own the space in which we're performing, no one in the audience will believe us. We will merely be figures on a stage mouthing words. But when we claim the space, we allow everyone in the audience to own the stage, to claim for themselves, if they wish, what we're saying or singing. All of us are enriched by owning the same space.