Sunday, September 4, 2011

Def Leppard Epiphany

Andrea Gillies

DTE was packed. The pavilion and lawn reflected a sea of faces mouthing familiar words. Most faces in the crowd were lined like those of the band members onstage, but every now and then younger faces appeared.
I found that despite my initial hesitation to attend, I knew more songs than I wanted to admit and found myself singing right along. I watched these guys—all original members—traipse across the stage, playing to the crowd, breaking into guitar solos (Phil Collen can still shred with the best) and even performing a surprisingly touching acoustic rendition of Two Steps Behind. The energy, power and joy was apparent. There were no costume changes, no elaborate set designs, no back up dancers, and I was struck by the authenticity of the concert.

Earlier that morning I had watched the Disney channel with my six year old. It was in the middle of her show of the moment, and a video came on featuring a young starlet right out of the Disney machine. In the 30 seconds of the song, her outfit and the scenery changed eight times. She was a vamp in a night club. She was a goddess in a field. She was a futuristic sexpot on a stark set. It was choreographed, bright, shiny… and lifeless. Although the singer had the sultry stare down to a science, there was no soul, no life.
Maybe because it was mid-August, I immediately made a parallel to my students’ writing.

Rubrics are solid—the kids know what to expect and they know what they need to do to earn a good grade. Rubrics are necessary—the MEAP and ACT lay it out explicitly for students so they know what to do in order to earn a high score. But all rubrics really do is choreograph a bright and shiny show with no real voice. It’s like writing the music and compiling lyrics kids can’t possibly identify with, and then expecting them all to sing it flawlessly in 30 minutes or less.
When students are allowed to learn the instrument, collaborate on the music, and draw on the talents of others to hone their craft, creativity flourishes. When students write the song that is inside of them waiting to break free and then sing it with the rhythm it necessitates, the soul comes alive and the voice becomes timeless.
Although Def Leppard played its part of showmanship in the 80s, what they wrote and how they performed was authentic to who they were and still are. It was something that drew crowds to their concerts 30 years ago, and the band’s devotion and belief in what they have to say still draws them today.
The Disney starlet lacks all authenticity. She has followed the rubric for success, but her performance lacks individuality. It’s a wonderful show of lighting, costumes and stage props, but she is not an individual—she is a produced show. In 30 years, no one will remember her.
This fall, I want to make sure that my students find their own authentic voice. I want them to work together to hone and develop a craft. I want them to be as excited about their writing in 30 years as they are today. I want them to learn to love the process and create their own masterpiece. Yes, they’ll ultimately need to “sell” their writing to the judges of the MEAP and ACT, just as Def Leppard still wants to please their fans. But I want them to maintain their authenticity and voice. I want them to execute a concert, not blend into a show.

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