Doesn’t It Need To Be *About* Something?

My nephew is in the throes of writing essays for college applications so perhaps that is why a Twitter thread by author Kelly Barnhill caught my attention a month ago. She talks about how neighborhood kids have been coming and asking her for help in writing the essay. She writes about all the writing exercises and ensuing conversations she has with them trying to draw information and realization out.

“I have them write jokes, treatises, manifestos. I have them make graphic essays. Comics. Yard signs. I have them make lists. We talk about verbs. We talk about how we know what we know.”

But the part I really honed in on was this one:

She goes on to talk about how people often don’t know themselves well enough to write about themselves and in fact other people might have greater insight about you than yourself. Which is probably why it is easier to write about your grandmother.

But this resonated with me on a more practical level because I feel like the college essay about how you overcame obstacles in your life was a new enough subject when I was applying to college that it was relevant to your admission. Now, decades later it is cliched and overdone making it all the more difficult for a person with 17 years of relatively unexamined life experience to set themselves apart from other applicants. (And it probably doesn’t help that college admission consultants are telling his parents he would have a better chance of gaining admission to his top choices if he lived in the Midwest rather than East Coast.)

While Barnhill doesn’t say how successful her essay writers are in getting into their top choices, I appreciate that she provides a rather detailed accounting of how she helps create an essay that better reflects their authentic self.  She is giving them the bones of a learning how to learn process that can serve them well throughout their lives if they pay close enough attention.

Also, it occurs to me that she is inadvertently giving an answer to the oft asked query regarding a work of art – “What’s it about??, What does it mean?” Art doesn’t always have to be about SOMETHING to be about something.

The Oral Tradition We Have All Joyfully Perpetuated

About a week ago, The Atlantic had an article that answered a question that has been nagging me for quite a few years – are kids still passing down the silly, nonsense jokes, hand clapping rhymes, jump rope chants, etc that we inherited as kids or has technology basically diverted their attention from those experiences?

Apparently I am not the only one who has thought this, because in the latter part of the article that exact question is addressed.

Adults, it seems, are in a perpetual state of worry that Kids These Days just don’t play like they used to, probably because of whatever technology was most recently introduced. Roud and Willett both independently brought this up to me and insisted that it’s not true. As Willett’s research shows, technology and media do influence kids’ play—but that doesn’t mean play itself is in jeopardy.

To be honest, I found myself surprised to care so much because my sister and her friends would drive me crazy repeatedly clapping out the story of Miss Suzy and her baby Tiny Tim. But as I got older I realized that these games are a tie that binds generations together. Cootie shots, cootie catchers, applying and peeling glue off the palm of your hands, sketching out that blocky S on your notebook, all comprise a type of oral tradition whose origins are difficult to trace.

Technology does morph some of the games and occasionally adds new bits of cherished lore. I am pretty sure my grandparents weren’t typing 5-8-0-0-8 into calculators and inverting the device to spell BOOBS. That is the first thing the article validates as a piece of cultural heritage. (Though knowing my maternal grandfather, that is probably pretty tame compared to some of the things he did.)

On the other hand, making up a game based on the Weeping Angels episode of Dr. Who shares similarities to games played at least 120 years ago.

Apparently, this is an aspect of our lives which perpetuates itself in a type of decentralized democracy:

Our nostalgia for our own childhood shapes what kids get exposed to. But Steve Roud, a British folklorist and the author of The Lore of the Playground, emphasized to me that folklore is by its nature not handed down by an authority. It is of the people, by the people—even if those people are children.

Where Have All The Pledge Drive Guests Gone?

I have been listening to the pledge drive for the statewide public radio network the last couple weeks and been thinking nostalgically about my time living in Hawaii when I was a regular guest during the semi-annual drives. It was a minor point of pride feeling that I had worked my way up from being a guest an a 4:00 pm Saturday show to a midweek lunch time slot. I can’t say for sure if my clever patter as responsible for being asked to guest at seemingly more “visible” time slots, but there were times when I would finish up one slot and be asked to move to another room to appear on the second program stream.

But it doesn’t seem like public radio stations do this sort of thing any more. Having worked for organizations that depended heavily on volunteer labor, I can completely understand that it can take a lot of staff hours to schedule guests in dozens of slots across a two week period. That is in addition to the numbers you need to cover phones. With the increased move to online donating, I am not even sure if many stations need volunteers to cover phones any more. It used to be that you would hear acknowledgements of restaurants that donated food for the volunteers. I haven’t heard those in many year which means either there aren’t a lot of volunteers to feed or the stations are paying for the food directly now.

In any case, what I think has been lost by eliminating community guests from fundraising is the opportunity to provide social proof.

For the last few years, theaters like mine have worked to increase the number of audience photos on our websites and publications to show who is attending performances and the enjoyable experience they are having. I have frequently mentioned that people feel more comfortable participating in a cultural experience when they see themselves and their stories depicted.

There is a pretty distinct impression of who public radio is for. Even though the names of correspondents represent some pretty diverse backgrounds as do the stories being told, the voices telling the stories continue to cleave rather closely to the stereotypical “public radio voice.” Some of the podcasts associated with public radio diverge a little from the “voice,” but not many and few podcasts are part of the main programming stream.

In addition to adding some vocal variety in the programming, returning to having community guests on the pledge drives can provide the social proof about who values the stations and their programming. Obviously, choosing who the guests will be requires some strategy. My recollection from the past was that there were always a lot of lawyers on. That might not be the image of who the stations are for that they want to project. As much as I enjoyed the experience, maybe I am no longer the right person to be a guest any longer.

As much as I am citing the example of public radio here, I am basically using this particular situation to approach the importance of all cultural organizations providing visible social proof from a different angle.

Pittsburgh Likes Us, But Europe Loves Us

Jeremy Reynolds recently wrote a great piece about the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) European tour. The article isn’t so much about what happened during the tour as it is about why orchestras tour. The insight it provides about the way orchestra operate is pretty fascinating.

People interviewed for the article admit that PSO’s touring activities don’t really benefit Pittsburgh in terms of tourism or increased business opportunities and corporations are increasingly less willing to support the orchestra’s tours.

However, European tours are apparently a great recruitment and retention tool for the orchestra. There was concern that music director and conductor Manfred Honeck might be lured away by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which has a bigger budget and salary base, but he surprised everyone by renewing his contract with Pittsburgh–with the understanding they would continue touring.

Similarly, the role of concertmaster went unfilled for years until last Spring when David McCarroll assumed the position and part of the appeal for him was the adulation PSO received while on tour.

He said the opportunity to tour in Europe — and to be welcomed with such fervor — is something that defines a top caliber orchestra.

“I know these audiences,” he said. “The reaction to the symphony is not typical. This is not usual, it’s not normal.”

Who wouldn’t want a job where they got that kind of acclaim? Even if you have to leave your hometown to actually get it.

“We’re famous everywhere else except Pittsburgh,” said Bill Caballero, the orchestra’s principal French horn player. “We go to these places and they go crazy for us.”

Though touring can sometimes be something of a double-edged sword when it comes to recruitment. Apparently, when the Oslo Philharmonic visited Pittsburgh, PSO took the opportunity to wine and dine the music director and ultimately lured him away from Oslo.

Where you tour in Europe also apparently matters:

“Tours were this big benchmark that orchestras differentiated themselves with, right along with their base and how long their season is,” said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra consultant.

“If they went on tour, did they go to Europe? And if they went to Europe, do you mean Spain or do you mean Germany? It’s all a kind of caste system.”

There is quite a bit more detail about the tour in the article, including some nice multimedia components, so take a look and learn a little bit more about the nuances involved with orchestra touring.