The Other Side of Glee

September 28, 2010

I finally have a choir class at the middle school that feeds my high school; this is the first time I have had a feeder program. On the first day of class last year at the middle school, the kids asked me if I watch “Glee.” I told them I didn’t, because I am not usually home in time to watch it and, in reality, I have enough of teenage drama in my classes; why watch any more? So the kids proposed that we make it a class project to watch “Glee” and talk about it every other Friday, during tutorial. I thought to myself, “Sure, why not. It will be a great way to connect with the kids and a fun way to get to know them.”

I returned home later that night in time to watch that week’s episode. Imagine me sitting on the couch with my glass of cabernet thinking, “This will be fun.” And there on the screen is the cheerleader telling her boyfriend that she is pregnant and that it happened in the hot tub when he… well, you know… and she tells him because the water is hot “they” swim faster… gulp… I thought to myself, “Oh God, I am soooo fired!!!”

I immediately went to the computer and sent an e-mail home to the parents explaining that I had agreed that this should be a class project before I watched it. I received many e-mail replies from parents, some upset and some from those who saw the humor in the situation.

My first teaching job was at Mt. Eden High School. I started a show choir there which is still in existence. But at the end of the fourth year I realized that the program had become a monster. It was too expensive, involved too much time, and the competition to be in the class had divided not just students but entire families. If I wasn’t rehearsing or teaching the other five classes, I was designing and sewing costumes or making props or cutting music or dealing with melt downs there is a never-ending list. Did I love it? Yes#149; and I hated it. The more trophies that were won the more the parents wanted… and watch out when the choir had an “off” performance. I realized that I was yelling at kids who sang flat or wrong notes, or missed steps, or wrong facial expressions; I didn’t like who I was becoming, There was no time to fix those problems and no money to hire more staff. There were not enough hours in the day to get it all done and I was starting a family. It was too much.

When I took the job at California High School I had to ask myself what the real role of music in society was and how I wanted to extend that understanding to the high school music students. Music is an exact science and an inexact science. It is what math and science sound like, it is the voice of the cultures of the world, it is to be shared and examined and loved and hated, but I could not find a spot for the competitive element to fit. To me, that element only spoke to the hubris, the ego, the need to brag about the self… not the need to share the experience. It quantified what should never be defined.

Should there be a rubric in the education of vocal musicians? Yes. Should there be one sound or one person who is deemed better that the others? Possibly, but only at that moment in time. That’s why I got out of the competitive field and tried to become an educator of humans who were about to find their way to an adult life. Why should you love music? Love where you have been. Look with eager anticipation to where you are going and find the beauty and share the experiences along the way. It’s cheesy I know, but true. Every single kid will always remember that moment shared.

Having both participated and taught in them, I know that being in a high powered performing ensemble is exciting and rewarding. But it can also be dangerous and exhausting if it is done for the wrong reasons, for example, if the goal is always the prize or trophy.

That is where “Glee” comes in for me. The kids at Cal wanted to start a show choir. So we had a meeting where, using charts and graphs, I outlined the exact costs: $3,000 per student to participate, which covered materials, choreographers, custodial. The cost of the costumes and trips was additional. But the kicker was the time commitment: the students had no idea that they would be handing their lives over to this one event, which they had to do if they wanted to be competitive.

I am glad that we do a pops concert. The students do the musical theater thing, which, here, is really a watered down version of show choir. I am glad that there are teachers who can dedicate the time and energy to having show choirs. I do not oppose them; I just choose not to “go there” anymore.

With more than 20 years of teaching experience, Lucerne Mottaz is currently the director of Choral Music/AP Music Theory at California High School and the choral director at the Pine Valley Middle School, both in San Ramon, California. She is also music director at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Pleasanton, California, past-president of the Bay Section of the California Music Educators Association (CMEA), and the CMEA’s past state secretary. Ms. Mottaz places great value in a sense of humor, which she deploys when necessary.

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