Wednesday, April 08, 2020

School as Leisure

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and their meanings. In studying the etymology of the English word "school," we find two origins: the Greek word skohle, meaning "spare time, leisure, rest" and the Latin word schola, meaning "leisure for learning."

In the Middle Ages, most individuals had to work as soon as they were old enough. In order for families to survive, most children needed to contribute to the family income soon after adolescence. Only a minority of the population (usually sons from rich families) had the opportunity to use their leisure time to go to "school."

In the 21st century, school can seem anything but leisure, especially for the university student. Demanding course loads, part-time jobs, employment uncertainty, rising tuition costs, and exploding student loans all seem to put stress upon a young person's decision to go to school. These days, school and leisure may seem like opposites.

In an unprecedented way, COVID-19 and social distancing are imposing a new type of conflict between school and leisure. As teachers and students alike now find ourselves isolated at home for weeks and months, we perhaps have much more unscheduled leisure time than we expect -- yet, we're also expected to keep up our scholastic obligations. Students are moving out of their dorms and home for the summer; normally this would indicate months of leisure and rest, but at this juncture these students are still expected to finish all of their academic commitments. How do we reconcile school and leisure?

A Posture of Leisure

To be clear, I am not advocating lower standards or a lack of commitment to academics and artistry. Quite the opposite; I'm advocating a posture of leisure to our efforts -- a posture that brings us joy; a posture that inspires us to pursue our studies with passion and excellence.

In Kelly Rossum's book Trumpet Roshi, he writes:

Roshi was speaking to his students during sosan,
"The essence of play is joy.
If you do not find joy in playing,

you may be performing.
This is for you to decide."

Perhaps our COVID-19 social distancing may force us to rethink how school and leisure time might co-exist. To be sure, there will be many disappointments, challenges, and frustrations as we move classes online. But maybe this is an opportunity for us --  not only to re-tweak our syllabi to finish out the school year, but a bigger opportunity for students and teachers alike to envision a new and better path forward.

Ways for Instructors to Make School Feel More Like Leisure

Since many universities around the country have announced their COVID-19  response as online-only instruction, professors are dramatically reshaping their courses. As we tweak our syllabi and course requirements, let this be an opportunity for us to realize where we can do it better. Those requirements we nix due to online limitations can perhaps be nixed altogether. Replace assignments that simply require students to regurgitate with ones that challenge them to create; inspire students to mesmerize audiences of the future rather than memorize facts from the past. And our concern for the student's health, and a desire to teach them in the context of their overall wellness -- let's keep doing that long after COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past.

Ways for Students to Make School Feel More Like Leisure

Stay on schedule. One of the pieces of advice I see frequently shared on social media with regard to surviving isolation at home is the importance of setting an alarm and maintaining a regular daily schedule. There are many reasons for this, including the promotion of positive mental health.

Many students are reluctant to make a regular schedule because they are afraid it will limit their free (leisure) time. But the opposite is true. By making a regular schedule and sticking to it, you take ownership of your time, and will end up with more control and more leisure time. (This is much like gaining control of your finances by making a budget.) And what's more, you'll enjoy your leisure time more, when you don't have the guilt hanging over your head of "I should be ______ right now instead...."

Know that your applied teacher can help make playing your instrument physically easier for you. One of the reasons being a music major may not feel leisurely is the physical challenge of learning a musical instrument. While it can be fun, playing an instrument (or singing) can at times feel like work. Your applied teacher has the training to make this easier for you. Sometimes, the changes your teacher suggests may initially feel uncomfortable; in fact, sometimes new approaches may seem much harder at first. Trust your teachers. Know that they want to make it easier for you. When playing your instrument is easier, it will feel less like work, and more like leisure.

Remember your star is just beginning its ascent. Recently, when John Wittmann of the Yamaha Corporation visited the University of Kentucky, he told our students, “Don’t compare your chapter 2 to someone else’s chapter 15.” It’s easy to get discouraged when we compare ourselves to those whose star has perhaps ascended higher than ours. Remember that you did not come to school to show how much you know. You came to school to learn.  Relax, know that time is on your side, and eventually you will get to your chapter 15 – and beyond.

Find ways to turn boring or frustrating experiences into positive, productive opportunities. For example, if you feel you’re in an ensemble where you’re not playing very much or not being challenged, find ways to be engaged. It’s often easy to complain about ensemble experiences. Rather than join in the complaining, find ways to be positive and productive. For me, I like to try to transcribe in my head what other instruments are playing. Or maybe I’ll work on my posture (Alexander Technique). Or maybe I’ll try to learn from the conductor’s rehearsal or stick technique. Rather than be bored, consider this leisure learning; Enjoy your ability to explore and learn in these new ways, on your own terms, and at your own pace.

Have an attitude of gratitude. Lastly, be grateful. Be positive. Show appreciation to your teachers. Show respect to your colleagues. Relish the opportunity to take this time in your life – this leisure time – and learn. Be grateful for the opportunity to pursue your passion, and know that the challenges and bumps along the way will make you stronger.

Final Thoughts

Many of us in the arts chose to go to school to turn our avocation into our vocation. Unfortunately, in some cases, school turns that leisurely avocation into an onerous obligation. Yes, absolutely, students need to be held to high standards, and universities should offer a robust and diverse curriculum; nevertheless, there may be some areas where we have been doing it wrong. As we navigate this new world of social distancing and online courses, let us not merely seek to fill our leisure time with the programs of school, but also to fill our schooling with a posture of leisure.

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

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