Education Opinion

The Mix Tape Metaphor

By Nancy Flanagan — December 22, 2011 3 min read
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When I was growing up, my family’s (exceedingly modest) Christmas record collection was composed of LP compilations, the kind you get at the Marathon station--ONLY 99 CENTS WITH FILL-UP!! I loved those albums and played them over and over, listening to Johnny Mathis back-to-back with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the banality of the Mitch Miller Singers followed by the massive chords of the New York Philharmonic. To me, the records always seemed like the musical counterpart to the actual experience of December: a little sacred, a little commercial, a touch of rock and roll--a glorious mess.

When I left home, my mother gladly relinquished those albums, and I started building my own collection. In 1984, I created a mix tape of my “greatest holiday hits” and gave it as a gift to my teacher colleagues. It became an annual tradition, a built-in excuse to buy lots of new music every year, and drive my family nuts auditioning versions of “Greensleeves” for the annual Holiday Tape (and eventually, CD) in October. I suspect my holiday CD gifts are like fruitcake: some people really love them, and some just thank me politely.

My collection now tops 800 holiday LPs, tapes and CDs (and yeah, I realize this is no longer a hobby, but has probably crossed the line into a sickness). There’s a little bit of everything--bluegrass, Motown, jazz, klezmer, folky guitars, brass, exquisite vocal ensembles and the odd bagpipe. The advent of iTunes moved my obsession to an entirely new level; everything’s digitized and categorized, so custom CDs can be created and shared throughout the year.

My holiday collection is a more than a bit unusual, not the annoying, ubiquitous, holly-jolly stuff you’re involuntarily subjected to in the produce aisle at the grocery store, beginning November first. In fact, I never listen to 24/7 Christmas channels on Sirius. Frankly, Burl Ives gets on my nerves. Somewhere along the line, I developed taste.

I used the mix tape as a mental model for nurturing that aesthetic judgment in every student musical performance I directed, for 30 years-- a little syrupy pop, a classical melody, a lively folk tune-- to whip up a diverse smorgasbord of music, around a central theme. Selecting music--like choosing literature, films, hands-on experiences with nature, debate topics--is part of the art of good teaching. In fact, that’s one of the things that worries me most about the Common Core-porate Standards: the reduced opportunity for teachers’ creative autonomy to expand artistic discrimination in the student populations they teach. Every year the same. Standardized. Kind of like the radio channels where holiday playlists never vary.

Here’s the other thing I fret about: we’re losing our cultural roots. Seasonal music draws from deep cultural wells located around the globe, from the distinctive societies and environments we came from, as well as our common beliefs. Playing familiar melodies every year (in the richest sense of the word “play”) lets us bend and adapt iconic tunes with new elements of music. A jazz-rock flute tootling through “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is spanning two millennia of Western music history and technology, from the ancient story about “Bethlehem, in Jewry” combined with thick jazz harmonies and electric amplification of sound waves.

Kids don’t have time to explore their musical heritage. And it’s not on the test.

I don’t know what it is that makes music so powerful, capable of pushing us to catharsis and delight. We have always banded together against the darkness of December--the season of grace coming out of the void, and possible miracle cures. If we leave a little room for wonder and joy in our music-making, we follow in the footsteps of the ancients. Isn’t that the very definition of education?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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