Monday, January 13, 2020

The Professor

A friend sent this to me and I can't find who drew it to credit them.
If you know please let me know.

Author's Note- Like most of my stuff, this does not immediately come to an educational point, even though this is an education-based blog. Like most of my stuff, I do have a teacher-centric point and you just need to trust me and come on the journey.

Neil Peart is my favorite drummer. He is a lot of people's favorite drummer. Somebody said that Neil Peart is your favorite drummer's favorite drummer. Neil Peart was the best for a million different reasons.

Neil Peart died on Tuesday, January 7th after a three and a half year battle with brain cancer. It sucks. A lot.

First some context for those of you reading this who have not yet been initiated into the world of wonder and rock that is the greatest rock band to have ever existed- Rush. Rush was three men- Geddy Lee on bass and vocals, Alex Lifeson on guitars, and Neil Peart on drums (except the first album, which featured John Rutsy on drums). Rush is a progressive rock band from the Great White North. Even if you don't think you know Rush you've heard Rush. You probably know "Tom Sawyer" or "Limelight" at least. Rush didn't write hits. Rush didn't write for record sales. Rush was, in the words of Geddy Lee, "The most popular cult band in the world." The easy pigeon hole for Rush is that they wrote twenty minute long prog rock odysseys with seventeen time changes, and that's true, but only for a few early albums. Eventually they moved away from that and wrote five minute long prog rock adventures with fourteen time changes.

Prog rock gets a bad wrap, a lot of it is the fault of prog rock bands. People will hear a millions notes a minute and songs so long that the listener and the band need a road map, a snack, and a power nap to get all the way through it, and say, "That must be prog!" And at one point it was. But, much like punk, by defining progressive rock with boundaries you box it and therefore take what is progressive about it away.

Rush was progressive in the most real sense of the word. They were constantly evolving and changing. Every Rush album sounds like Rush. A neophyte to the band could listen to the self-titled debut and to Clockwork Angels, their final full length published forty years later, and say, "Yep. Same band." And not just because, love it or hate it, Geddy Lee's voice is unmistakable and never really changed that much. But while it's still Rush, the band has changed, and if you care to listen with your ears on you can hear that. Most of my favorite bands, like jazz-rock-orchestra shapeshifter Frank Zappa and Canadian prog-extreme-atmospheric-pop-metal genius Devin Townsend (and even Metallica, who always evolved even when we weren't thrilled with the evolution at least they did it), never made the same album twice. But they always always made the album that was true to them in the moment. Rush mined their hearts and passions for songs and expected us, the fans, to come along...or not. Their wider popularity ebbed and flowed but after a certain point they never failed to sell out any EnormoDome in whatever town they were coming to. Because authenticity matters.

Even though he wasn't the literal voice of the band (he was fond of saying, "Singing is the worst job, but drumming is the hardest") it was his words that sprang from Geddy's throat. Neil wrote nearly all the lyrics to every Rush song. I say nearly because he was the lyricist but he'd give the words to Geddy, Geddy would decide what was too much to sing or too complicated or didn't flow right, make changes, give the words back, and Neil would edit from their. In a band of three guys you can't have factions or people ganging up on each other. It wouldn't work. Rush worked together like only three good Canadian boys could.

And what words he would write. Diving into the lyric sheet of any Rush album is a journey that is akin to diving into your favorite piece of literature. Bring a dictionary too because his vocabulary is bigger than yours. He's not showing off, it's just that, much like his giant drum set, if he's got the exact right word he's going to use it. Neil read voraciously and you could hear that in his lyrics. Whether it's a massive science fiction story about government control of art and individual thought and accomplishment, a five minute metaphor about the things that separate and alienate us from each other, or processing the loss of his daughter and wife within a year of each other Neil was clear and quoting his heart.

He also rode bicycles and motorcycles, taking long adventures through the back roads of countries the band was touring in instead of traveling in ease and boredom in the bus the whole time. These treks led to books about his travels. For those of you paying attention, yeah, he was a motorcycle riding author and musician who loved to read. No wonder I feel such a strong connection to him.

"Ok great!" I hear you cry, dear reader. "But what does this have to do with teaching? My recess/bathroom break is almost over and you still haven't gotten to the point."

Neil talks about building drum parts like I think about building lessons and projects. Correction- Like I aspire to thinking about lessons and projects. His drumming is famously complex and layered, with a million things happening at once. But the secret that other prog drummers sometimes miss is everything, every flourish and hit, is in service of The Song first. Like our lessons should be. So how does he write these complex drum parts? By starting simple. Play the beat. Play the beat until the heartbeat of the song is strong. Then add something. Does it work? Can he do it? Ok, now add something else. Change it slightly. Can he play it? Ok, repeat. He builds these massive palaces one beat at a time, checking and revising each time. That's why they call him The Professor. No one thought about playing drums like Neil thought about playing drums. He wasn't a drummer. He was a composer.

Now I think about how I try to build things in my classroom. You always have to start with The Point. What's the point? Ok, now what can I add to flesh it out? How can I add technology or movement or choice or making? Where are the places it can be given to students more freely? How do I grow it bigger, fancier, but always in service of The Lesson. Done right, at the end I've created something big. What makes what I do, what we do, different from what Neil did is that's only the first step. He needs to be able to play that complex behemoth every night on tour with exacting accuracy, and I need to be able to hand it over to ten year old so they can create something with it on their own. He builds something to set in stone and make perfect. I build something to be broken and re-purposed. But the process is the same.

Neil was widely considered the greatest drummer in his genre for a long time. It would be easy for someone who was The Best to be happy being The Best. But that's not who he was. Neil wasn't happy with his drumming and wanted something more. He found a teacher, Freddie Gruber, thirty years into his career and dedicated himself to relearning an instrument he'd mastered a hundred times over. He learned new styles, new techniques for playing, new ways of thinking about beat and rhythm. The best in the world went back to school to be better.

The connection to education and what we do seems pretty obvious, my friends. If he can see places to improve, and be brave enough to deconstruct his practice in order to build it back up stronger, anyone can. And should. He said when he got together with the band again after doing that the other two said he still sounded like him, and for a minute he was disappointed. "But of course it still sounded like me. The difference was the clock at work had changed, and as we played we could all feel that."

Neil gets labeled as a sourpuss sometimes, and if you watch him play you can honestly see why. It does not look like a man having a good time. But Rush songs are hard and no one has higher standards than Neil himself. He compared playing a three hour Rush show to running a marathon while juggling and doing complex equations. You try to smile. He was also deeply shy and never did the fan meet and greets. Leave that to Geddy and Alex, who actually enjoy it. It was never that he was above it, he just didn't like it. He'd say that, "extroverts will never understand introverts." This is a lesson I need to take to heart more often in my own classroom, and something some education speakers should probably have pinned to their shirts before they start talking about what good teaching looks like.

Shy though he was, he was also fun and funny and silly. Those sometimes get put in two different camps as though you can't be both at the same time. Watch either of the wonderful Rush documentaries- "Beyond the Lighted Stage" or "Time Stand Still"- to see that. Or just listen to "Limelight" and hear what he has to say about fame from the man himself.

One last education lesson than I take from Rush and Neil and then I'll let you get back to your life, especially if your life consists of investigating the decades of Rush material I'm jealous you're about to discover for the first time or rediscover or just listen to for the thousandth time.

My favorite Rush album is Hemispheres. It's the one with a naked guy standing on a brain on the cover. It's also their Big Long Complicated Album. It's got a side-long beast called "Cygnus X-1 Book II" (Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage is on the album Farewell to Kings and clocks in at a mere ten minutes) that's just science fiction and virtuoso playing nirvana. That's not the song that's the lesson though. The song that's the lesson closes the album- a nine and a half minute instrumental called "La Villa Strangiato". Here's what I love about that song, and why it inspires me as a teacher, an artist, and a creator- They wrote a song that was too hard for them to play when they wrote it.

They wrote the song, and then were determined to record it live, as a band, in one straight take. Nine and a half minutes of perfect playing. And they couldn't do it. They spent days trying to get it exactly right. Eventually they had to break it up into smaller chunks and record it that way. BUT that doesn't mean they can't play it all the way through. "La Villa Strangiato" was a staple of the live set. You've never been a music nerd until you've sung passionately along to an instrumental song.

How inspiring and empowering is that? That these master musicians could overreach themselves and fail. Would write something beyond their own abilities. If Rush can do that I take plan a project that I don't know will work. I can step beyond my technological knowledge to bring my kids closer to a greater learning goal. I have to be willing to go so big that failure is a true reality, learn from it, and then learn to do it anyway later on.

Neil has a million great quotes, but I want to leave you with him quoting someone else, because it sums up why he means so much to me and so many others and why I just wrote a Rush-length blog post about Neil Peart. He would use this line often. It's from Bob Dylan, taken from a 1978 Rolling Stone interview: "The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?"

Thank you, Neil.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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