an important conversation about how we share our musicTom Lloyd | March 15, 2010
Right in the middle of our tour – on Wednesday morning in Bursa, just before we left for Istanbul – I decided we needed to talk after breakfast as a group about tensions I sensed within the group regarding spontaneous performances in public places. We had had a couple of those in the previous two days, the most recent being while we were waiting for everyone to come to an agreed upon location in the middle of the grand bazaar in Bursa. This was a very fancy bazzaar – lots of gold jewelry unlike any I had seen before. While waiting for the last couple of students to show up, Firat, one of our guides, came over to suggest to me that we sing one of our Turkish songs.
I hesitated at first as to whether this was a situation where I should just say, “ok folks, we’re going to sing” or whether there was enough reluctance among the students that we really needed to talk first. Since my inclination as a teacher is usually to push students to confront their own inner questions rather than having me give them answers that they will later discard, I decided to say, “ok – we’re not going to sing this time – let’s go (back to the hotel).
This issue has come up before on some tours but this time the resistance to spontaneous public singing (“busking” I’m told is the term) was harder to get to than usual. In spite of the fact that I have told the students many times that before singing in non-concert public situations I always check with our local guide to see if it would be appropriate and welcome, and in spite of the fact that in the incidence in question the suggestion was made by our local guide, and I asked confirmation from him three times before saying “let’s sing,” about a quarter of the students felt we were still imposing our cultural will on a captive audience.
In our discussion some students even said they doubted that the dance improvisation students at METU really wanted us to be part of their performance in spite of the fact that all the initiative in that instance came from the METU students themselves. Some of our students sensed hesitancy in the dancers’ faces at the beginning of our first song, while others suggested that they were probably just listening carefully before deciding how to move.
Some of our students even felt they couldn’t be sure the METU students really wanted us to sing unless we could confirm that with every one of the METU students in the club – a very high standard, and one I suggested could be perceived by the METU students as an indication that we didn’t trust them on a basic level. I had invited our three guides to sit in our discussion to offer their perspective on Turkish perceptions, but even their reassurances and encouragement of our public singing (especially how rare it was for foreign choirs to learn several Turkish songs, and how appreciative Turkish people they had spoken to were of us for this reason). But for some students this was evidence that simply couldn’t be trusted.
The discussion became very emotional for some of the students as my questioning of their assumptions about how others perceived our singing sounded to them like an invalidation of their own feelings of discomfort. I began to fear I was pushing too hard here and risked throwing off the fragile emotional dynamic of a group like this on an intensive tour together.
On the other hand, some students, especially several from Haverford, felt that taking it personally when disagreements were voiced was a problem endemic to their college, where they felt students shied away from intellectual disputes for fear of offending. Other Haverfordians thought there was too doctrinaire a line at Haverford about being “pc” when it came to cultural exchange – my Haverford colleague Maud commented after that several of the Bryn Mawr students seemed more than a bit perplexed and amused by the intensity of the Haverford students’ feelings about these kinds of issues.
Some students pleaded for me to just decide for the group – they trusted my experience and wanted to just get on with it. But while thanking them for their confidence (and apologizing for what to them might have seemed to them like too much self-questioning by the group), I argued that if I took that approach, we wouldn’t be confronting as a group a central question at the heart of an experience like this – what are appropriate and constructive ways to share cultural expression when we are guests in someone else’s country? Towards the end, a senior who had been on the Ghana trip pleaded tearfully with his fellow students not to be so self critical that they passed up for him what was one of things that meant the most to him about these experiences.
In the end, I reassured the students that these decisions are always a little complicated in the moment, and that ultimately one person, the conductor, needed to make a quick judgment call. But that following this conversation I now had a much better sense of where the student sensitivities were on the issue (as they now did themselves) so that I could make a better decision for the group and the people around us in that moment. While I was still second-guessing myself a little about launching such a difficult discussion, it was obvious the students now felt much more “on the same page” about singing together in public, and there were several other such opportunities that followed that would have been fraught with unwelcome tension otherwise – this is what I meant when I blogged to parents that they should be very proud of their progeny!