Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jantelagen 2: The Case For Mediocrity

I conceived the handling of this topic in two parts.  It is worthwhile to read Part 1 before reading the present blogpost.  This is not a topic to be taken lightly.  I wrote the first part from a very personal point of view because any philosophy can only be experienced through our own lives.  Telling our own stories without fear of being judged (although we are more likely to be judged) is more likely to have resonance.  The previous blogpost was meant to show the challenges that await anyone who wants to achieve anything beyond his or her immediate horizon.  The dreamers are derided for being fools who think the impossible.  They are derided until they prove to be visionaries. To dream requires courage because those who will want to help a dreamer on his/her quixotic quest are few.  To achieve any dream, one needs help and encouragement because it is always easier for those around us to discourage us into aiming a little lower, dreaming a little smaller, aim for what is visible and proven, such that they may feel ok with their own lot.  Watching someone else achieve makes us wonder if we could.  It inspires those who dare and is a slap in the face to those who would not want to try.

Among singers who have had to overcome Jantelagen (the Law of Jante), Birgit Nilsson comes to mind.  Her biography is very discriptive of those in her town who would say: "who does she think she is to aspire to the Opera School in Stockholm?" Well, she went way beyond that and became arguably the greatest dramatic soprano in the 20th century and perhaps beyond.  The number of Scandinavians who have achieved greatness in the world is extraordinary.  In the world of Opera, they are legendary.  Among the Swedes, there is an unbroken line of world-class singers that stretch back since before the second world war and further back when we think of Jenny Lind.  Yet the social norm is to not dare!  In truth, this can be said of pretty much every country.  Those who dare to go beyond normal expectations are always derided.  But there are always a few who defy the low expectations.

On the other hand, when I have visited the poorer countries of the world, I rarely hear of dreamers being derided.  It is often the reverse.  In places where resources are few, those that can are encouraged to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  It is not unusual for people to migrate to more prosperous lands to seek opportunity and then send money and goods back to their country of origin.  As the world's powers are now innondated with asylum seekers and immigrants, racist and nationalist views become more popular.  This is an expected consequence!  A certain level of comfort is in danger of being lost with mass migration.  Scandinavian countries are the last to have their social comfort threatened.  Are those countries ready to produce on a greater scale? No reason they should not!  But there may be a tremendous adjustment to be made.

Whether a Scandinavian achieves or not, there is a social net that will prevent abject poverty.  Why would the average person want to achieve beyond what they need to benefit from that social net?  I have heard the term Jantelagen used often as a reason for why one does not go beyond his/her comfort zone.  Someone with my philosophy of pushing beyond boundaries is an anti-thesis to that.  I imagined as a teacher that those that chose classical singing as a path are already unusual types who would not need much pushing to work hard.  Yet we live in a world of immediate expectations and through Pop-Opera artists and contests like Eurovision, superficiality is often not distinguished from true competence.  Although I have experienced this lackluster attitude in many different countries, the combination of social comfort, the laziness instilled by pop culture, and this ideology of Jantelagen  in Scandinavia create the perfect storm for underachievement.  Finland has decided to halt its program of providing every citizen with a basic living income. It had proven very costly and created an atmosphere of non-productivity.  Finland is also revolutionizing its educational system, which hopefully will have a positive effect on the rest of the region.

Opera at its best is a discipline of Olympic-level difficulty.  To become truly competent one is challenged physically, mentally and spiritually.  Yet while Olympic athletes have a platform every four years where they are celebrated and pitted against their colleagues worldwide and dared to achieve beyond themselves, Opera (which used to be have that spirit of excellence as a given) is not relegated to a platform celebrated by the entire world.  Singers with weak voices and armed with a microphone will produce an inferior similitude on Eurovision, which gets a great deal more attention.  Eurovision is enjoyed even by classical singers for its sports-like format.  The classical arts are not celebrated anymore for what they can contribute.  At best, they inspire us to greater heights of physical coordination and strength, to greater mental development and to deeper spiritual questioning.  In short they inspire.  They also require greater effort, which unfortunately is not compatible with a world bent on minimal effort and the excuse of Jantelagen for not daring to achieve.

There was a time when it was accepted that greater effort yields greater achievement.  Now the world is run by realists who proclaim that it does our children a disservice to tell them they can achieve anything they set their minds to.  It is easier today to say: "You are not all that!  You are not special!  You're just a normal kid who can only achieve normal things. Don't fool yourself in thinking you can ever do anything special."

I would have never gotten this far if not for my crazy teachers who told me that I could go further, that I can achieve more with greater effort.  Not getting to the stage of the Metropilitan Opera has not discouraged me in the least.  Quite the contrary!  I look at what I have achieved and I tell myself:  "Just one more step!  And another, and another...ad infinitum!" Who knows where I might end up?

My average college-age student sees me as a relic from another time, who dreams big with no sense of reality!  Maybe it was always like that!  Maybe it was always only a few that took the Quixotic path because they were instilled early on with a sense of possibility.  

In one of my favorite movies, Le maître de musique, the protagonist, Joachim Dallayrac, played by celebrated opera singer, José van Dam, took on two students: one rich and talented soprano and one poor thief of a tenor with a raw voice.  He was thought to be insane for taking on only two students. But he saw something in them both.  A passion and dedication in one who was rich enough not to need it, and a resillience and daring in a poor young man who would not be denied.  Alas this movie was made when I was a young singer, at the same time that movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid were worlwide successes--a time when the impossible was considered merely a barrier to overcome and not the implaccable pronouncement of fate that condemns the realist to stagnation.

Regardless of what I say, the inspired will be further inspired and the fatalist will have already given up.  The challenges of our times are great, but I would not compare my lot with those who lived the great depression or faced Nazi Germany on the battlefield.  Jantelagen is the excuse of the privileged and the reason of the lazy.  Achievement is not measured by how high you climb, but by what distance you have covered.  The fact that many have a headstart on us is no reason for us not to take the road.  The race is not against others, but with ourselves.

I write, and speak, and teach in the hope that I might provide the necessary push for someone who may be at a tipping point, the flicker that might ignite the ready wick, the thumb that may tip the scale, in the direction of hope, of possibility of inspiration, just as it was given me.  For those who would take it in derision...I don't have time for you!

© May 19, 2018

Jantelagen: Not Just a Scandanavian Principle

Jantelagen or The Law of Jante is the description of a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. The Jante Law as a concept was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose,[1] who, in his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933), identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose's novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.[2]

Used generally in colloquial speech in the Nordic countries as a sociological term to describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that diminishes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while simultaneously denigrating those who try to stand out as individual achievers.[3]

The preceding comes from Wikipedia and is a term that has resurfaced in conversation often since I made Sweden my home.  Having lived in several countries, I can guarantee that this pattern of behavior is far from restricted to Scandinavia.  The Scandinavians give it a name more than likely because the Nordic countries are largely rural, with the exception of a few larger cities.  In smaller social contexts, this tendency is much more noticed.  And even in situations where the principle is considered to be limiting, the habits are difficult to undo.  

For better or worse, I have always aspired beyond my current state.  My schooling with little exception was done in very inspiring situations that extolled personal development to the highest level possible.  I began formal schooling at École Jean-Marie Guilloux, a school founded by four Catholic priests over 150 years ago and even today considered the best school my homeland has to offer.  It was an honor to be there.  As with all such schools in Haiti, at the end of each month, report cards were given and students were announced in reverse order of their standing in each class.  The top two students were given medals, which they wore to school for the entire month until report cards were given again the following month.  I wore those medals several times and I remember the names of the students who often wore them.  We were three who most often wore the medals and I remember being very sad to fall to 6th one month.  The school was demolished during the earthquake of 2010 and rebuilt in 2011.  I'm glad that piece of my history still exists even if in a different form.

After I left Haiti, I spent four years in American public schools through the first year of my secondary education.  I achieved highest marks, which caught the attention of my guidance counselor, who then recommended me to the small private school, The Vail-Deane School, at the time located in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My 10th-grade class had 13 students when I joined the school.  We were 9 when I graduate first in my class.  Because I stuttered and struggled hard to overcome it during my high school years, many of my classmates hoped I would make a fool of myself when delivering the valedictory speech.  That is Jantelagen!  It took me a long time to learn to forgive my classmates.  I had to understand where they were coming from.  The School closed a few years after my graduation due to financial difficulties.  It formed in large part the person I would become.

Right after Vail-Deane, I began my education at Westminster Choir College, when it was a school guided by principles.  Our dean, who taught freshmen music history, on the first day of class pronounced that we would not be musicians until we could see what we hear and hear what we see.  This remains the principal guideline of my personal musical development.  I am humbled by the directive every day of my life.  I hear more and I see more, but I will never see or hear everything.  This humility also drives me to better myself every day.  I began in what my colleagues called Bonehead Solfège, the lowest sight-singing class.  My third year I received the composition competition prize.  I began with 11 out of 12 teachers doubting my talent.  My third year, they named me along with a soprano colleague, most likely to have a professional career and awarded me the voice competition prize. This school shaped my musical philosophy.  It is in danger of closing from financial difficulties.

At the University of Michigan, my next destination, I began my first year with a less impressive voice than my voice performance colleagues.  By the end of the first term, with the help of my teacher George Shirley, I was cast as Count Almaviva, a role coveted by every baritone in the school. The competition was high.  It was a major personal achievement.  One black colleague, who had hoped to be cast as the Countess but was not, told me as I was reading the announcement on the Opera Board, that I only got the role because 'I could pass.' She meant that I could pass as white!  This is my first memory of black on black racism.  This too is Jantelagen.

Graduating with my doctorate from one of the most respected music schools in the United States, achieving high competence in singing, orchestral conducting and composition and having mastered five languages by that point, somehow I still did not think very much of myself.  I took the first teaching job I was offered because I had just become a father and was thinking of being able to provide for my son.  With my many experiences, in retrospect, I should have waited for a better offer. Underachieving schools are such because they have underachieving leadership.  I did not allow myself the benefit of the doubt.  I did not apply for any other position.  I was recommended by a colleague, I visited the school and was offered the job.  I did not research it to find out if it was commensurate with my values.  I judged myself from within as not worthy of more.  This too is Jantelagen.

I have continued my life in a similar pattern.  Taking on often what seemed promising but in a way was rather expedient.  Despite my own rigorous training and continuous pursuit to better myself, I kept settling for what came easily.  The pressures of life often cause us to make the choice for less--An eternal denial of what we ultimately seek for ourselves.  In essence, a waste of our natural resources in pursuits not worthy of our personal sacrifices.  Most social environments are controlled by the Law of Jante.  Societies would have us grow in their environments in ways that benefit the environment even at the expense of ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to seek an environment that benefits from us developing into our best selves.  Or perhaps, some of us need to go at it alone.  

During my time in Sweden, I have not found it any more limiting than other places I have been.  Whether this remains my final destination is yet to be determined.  There is a lot of potential here.  Whether this potential becomes realized and whether my own personal development matches with it will ultimately decide whether I remain here. For I refuse to ever become a victim of the Law of Jante, whether from within or from without.  

I find it sad and unusual that the three schools that shaped me the most to expect more of myself are all in danger of extinction.  Were it that Kashu-do could eventually develop enough to continue these lessons!


© May 19, 2018

Why I Enjoy Teaching Amateurs

First I need to make a distinction between Amateur and dilettante.  Wikipedia gives what I consider an appropriate definition.

An amateur (French amateur "lover of", from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, "lover") is generally considered a person who pursues a particular activity or field of study independently from their source of income.

Some other sources define the amateur as unskilled and unprofessional.  I disagree.  While an amateur may not rely on the activity in question (singing in our case) for an income, the amateur by definition finds pleasure in the pursuit and therefore is willing to invest the effort to achieve standards at times equal or surpassing the professional.  I knew a math professor at the University of Florida who had a spectacular bass voice and performed with symphony orchestras throughout the United States in concert and oratorio.  I sang with him in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.  He was a magnificent Kaspar to my Melchior.  There was nothing about him that was of low quality.  He was the Bass soloist for the University's performances of Verdi's Requiem and was by far the best among the soloists, two of them hired professionals from New York and the third was the soprano pedagogue at the University.  He is not the only one I have known and I have taught several such singers.

Google defines a dilettante thus:

a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.

Indeed there are sources that do not make a difference between the two terms.  I personally subscribe to the definitions above and more importantly, I place students of the art of lyric singing in two categories:  dedicated and superficial.  The so-called Amateurs that I have had the pleasure of teaching are very dedicated, sometimes more than those who call themselves professional.  The amateurs that I have taught come to singing with passion, a desire to become truly competent, an aspiration to achieve the highest level possible.  I currently teach several such students and they bring me a great level of energy and joy.  

One summer in Nice, France, while teaching alongside the celebrated collaborative pianist, Dalton Baldwin, I asked him why he had amateurs in his courses.  He could fill his courses with professionals and young aspirants alone.  He said (I paraphrase):


 the amateurs bring an element to his courses that the professionals often lose because they become jaded by the difficulties of the profession and the young singers often come to singing with a sense of haste because they have not had enough life experience to care about quality at the highest level.  The amateur retains a childish wonder and a fervent desire to become worthy of the art.  And because they do not rely on singing to make a living, there is an artistic purity in their pursuit that reminds of the rare young singer who comes into it wide-eyed before they are confronted with the darker sides of the music business.

When I organized the very first Härnösand Opera Academy in 2014, we had 24 students, a mix of professionals, college-level students, and amateurs.  One of the most memorable statements at the end came from one of the professionals who said:  "It was an unexpected pleasure singing with the amateurs.  They reminded me at every turn why I began to sing in the first place."

Perhaps I feel a kinship with the amateurs.  I sang professionally as a baritone for some 20 years.  When I started to retrain as a tenor, it felt like I had to learn to crawl and walk again.  I was making my living teaching singing to a mix of professionals, students, and amateurs.  I was not relying on actively singing to make a living.  This gave me the freedom to dig deep and become the singer I always wanted to become.  I continued to develop my piano skills.  I had time to look at my future roles deliberately, not only from a technical standpoint but also from a dramatic and musical perspective.  As I envision the possibility of being on the professional stage again, I consider my standards to be much higher than what would be expected of me.  I am not interested in just getting through a recital or a role.  After a grueling ten years of retraining, I desire to have the abilities I always dreamt about.  I wish for my instrument to be ready to execute the finest details of the score and for my heart and mind to be inspired to delivering the complete artistic message.  This fervent desire is something I experience regularly with the best among the professional singers I teach and with all the amateurs I am blessed to have in my care.  I experience this less with the average young singer who claims to aspire to professionalism, and this is often a source of frustration, knowing what awaits them around the corner when they must confront the brutal world of the music business.

In a way, the dedicated amateur, unfettered by money pursuits and the frustrations of the professional music business, is the best hope for the future of singing.  They may never see a professional stage, but in a church somewhere, in an opera chorus singing a single solo line, in a home concert, many of them will get up and deliver a song or an aria  in such a way that makes you wonder why the people who are paid for this and the youth that pretend to aspire to the highest levels so rarely have the presence, calmness of mind, and dedication to bring a performance to such a high level.

The professional singer has many challenges that make it difficult to do their best work.  Classical singing is a poorly paid job unless one sings at the highest levels. As such, singers find themselves often worried about money and not settled enough to produce their best work.  Incompetent conductors and stage directors often make the lives of singers a living hell to cover for their own inabilities.  Sexual harassment is rampant in the field and singers often do not have the means to defend themselves without retribution on them.

And yet, I remember experiencing a dreadful production, with the worst working environment I had yet been a part of and just before taking the stage, the wonderful conductor who noticed the weight on my face said lovingly:

"once you are out there, it is you, me and Mozart.  We can still make music!"

© May 19, 2018