Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I Interview Teaching Artists #2: Emma Alabaster!

One of the best things I did this summer was sit down with musician and Teaching Artist, Emma Alabaster, to talk about creativity, teaching, and much much more.  Check it out...

Emma inspiring some of her students with her bass.

So, here I am with Emma Alabaster, amazing musician and Teaching Artist, who I’ve had the pleasure of teaching with…so Emma, first of all, how long have you been a Teaching Artist?
About eight or nine years.
Cool.  You’ve been doing this for a while.
Who do you teach for?
Most recently, Brooklyn Arts Council, where we taught together.  I have worked for other organizations.  BAC is the only arts education organization I work for right now.  I also work for the Midtown Workmen's Circle School; I'm the music and arts teacher there.  And then, right now I’m also giving educational tours at Snug Harbor Cultural Arts Center and Botanical Garden on Staten Island.  And that’s sort of Teaching Artist work.  We do craft projects as well as educational tours and whatnot. So, it feels like part of the same spectrum of work.
Very cool.  So you’re not teaching this summer, correct?
No.  Taking a little break.  And well-deserved.  So tell me about your most recent teaching projects from the spring.  Who were you working with, what were you working on?
Sure.  So I had two residencies with the Brooklyn Arts Council.  One of them was the one we did together at a Catholic school in Bensonhurst, and I was working with third, fourth, and fifth graders, doing music with them, after school, once a week.  And we did some songwriting together, and we also learned some other songs that we sang at our final performance.  And then I was at a public elementary school in Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, working with first and second graders, also doing music.
Songwriting with the little ones?
I did some songwriting with them, yeah!  And also just general music.  For their performance, they sang some different songs and did a little bit of percussion.  Yeah, and they sang one original song and two other songs as well.
So tell me, what is the most memorable moment you had teaching music this spring?
One thing I can think of, and I told you about this moment, one of my students at the Catholic school where we taught together, a fifth grader, after the kids were dismissed, she came back upstairs and she said, “Miss Emma, can I sing something for you?”  And it was myself, and the intern that I was working with, we were like, “Okay, yeah, sure.”  And she sang this whole song, completely heartfelt.  It sounded like a pop song, and it was all about being stuck in a ditch.  (Laughter.)  It was like (singing) “I’m stuck in a hole.  And I don’t know how to get out.”  (Laughter.)
Did she write it?
And afterwards, we were all laughing and we said, you know, “Did you write that?”  And she said “Oh, I just made it up.”
Right on the spot?
Yeah, totally.  (Laughter.)  So that was really interesting.
She’s the future of music.
She’s the future of music.  And she was really into it.  And it made me feel really good that she felt like she wanted to share that, and she felt safe with us in that way. Yeah.  It’s pretty incredible.
Very cool.  Very cool.
Very inspiring.
So what about your own creative projects?  What are you working on right now?
I work with this band, Cornelius Eady and Rough Magic.  Cornelius is a well-known poet and playwright.
I know his work.
And he’s one of the co-founders of Cave Canem, which a retreat for African American poets.  And he is an amazing songwriter, although he’s not known as well for that.  So the past couple years, he’s been putting more attention on that, and I work as a musical director for his band and I play some bass and do some back-up vocals and whatnot, and that’s been kind of an ongoing gig that’s been really great.  Amazing to work with him, great to learn more about certain kinds of administrative band stuff, not just for my own band.  So that’s an ongoing thing.  We have an album coming out in the fall that is all poems by the poet Sterling A. Brown, set to music, which I’m very excited about. 
Recording on Sunday our last couple songs for that.  So…
Very cool!
Yeah!  And then I have new band that is a duo project that is not out in the world yet either, sounds like it’s at a similar place to your band.
Mmm-hmm.  (Laughter.)
Although we’ve been doing a lot of recording and haven’t figured out yet like how we want to do it live.  I think we are going to have to bring more people into the project.  We’ve been doing a lot of songwriting and recording, which is different for me in terms of the process.  I haven’t really written through recording in this way before, but we definitely have a lot of material.
Are you playing upright bass for it?
Not very much.  Yeah, so it’s my partner, Leo, and I.  I’m primarily a bass player, he’s primarily a drummer, and I sing, but we’re at home, so we’ve been putting in keyboards and guitars and all different kinds of stuff in Logic.
It’s been really fun, and I’m super-excited about that band.  And you know, you should hear from us sometime soon.
I would love to!  And a project with your partner, too, which is like a…have you done that before?
Nope.  (Laughter.)
I always imagine either that’s going to be absolutely wonderful or it’s going to be frightening in that if anything goes wrong, there’s a lot at stake.
Well, he plays in Cornelius’s band too, actually.
Oh, okay.
So, we’ve worked together a lot, but we haven’t done a project that’s really both of us taking ownership over it in this way, so that’s new.
Very cool.
And you just got done with Sara Lyons’s bio-cabaret!
Yeah!  So with other random projects, I just did that piece with Sara that was the Margaret Sanger bio-cabaret, did a little performance piece for that and wrote a song as well.
Did you write the performance piece part?
So was it like a monologue with a song or?
Well, it was partially…so another job that I do, that I don’t necessarily consider Teaching Artist work is I work as a gynecological teaching associate.
I’ve talked to you about this, right?
Yeah, yeah.  Yes.
So I teach medical students how to do breast and pelvic exams.  So, shockingly, I have this job where I use a speculum all the time, but I’ve never used it for art…up until now!
Right!  Excellent!
I was really amazed that it took me that long.  (Laughter.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah!
So it was sort of interspersing some knowledge that I have from that work into, you know, I don’t know what you know about Margaret Sanger, but she’s really interesting.
Not a whole lot, besides what everyone knows, about Planned Parenthood.
Right.  Founder of Planned Parenthood.  But, you know, she invented the term “birth control.”  Also, a eugenicist.
Oh.  Huh.  Didn’t know that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.  So a lot of people that we may consider elders or idols in different ways, also can be like really complex fucked-up characters, that did a lot of amazing shit and also….so you know, it’s interesting, the way that Sara did the piece, she had a really cool process, she just kind of gave us the dramaturgy.  She had a timeline of Margaret Sanger’s life and she asked everyone to pick a moment and to make a piece under five minutes about one piece of the timeline.  So, I chose this moment sort of late in her life, when Planned Parenthood was giving her an award, and she had actually founded this award.  She got up and gave this speech and there was all this eugenicist shit in her speech.  And it was post-World War II, and that wasn’t really cool anymore and everyone was kind of like…hmmmm.  So, to me, it’s a really interesting moment in thinking about like intergenerational work and again the ways that we interact with and think about our elders and our predecessors in this way.  So I did a song and a monologuey-thing about the speculum.
It was fun.
I want more art about speculums.  Speculi?  Speculi?
Sure!  Speculae.  So, yeah, there’s random music and performance stuff, too, here and there.
Cool.  So, I know for me, this is my big important question, what I struggle for a lot is finding a balance between teaching and creative work, when I am teaching a lot.  So how do you find balance between teaching and creative work, and all of your other work?
Well, I think struggle is the word.  It’s definitely a struggle.  I think I’m constantly trying to reevaluate how much time I want to give to various things, and how much money I need to be making.  You know, there have been years when I do less teaching work, where I feel like I need a little bit of a break.  I’m always doing something, but sometimes I’m doing less.  There is, obviously, some built-in balance just in the timing of things, like summers are slower.  With the BAC work, a lot of it starts in January, so, it gives you time to kind of build up to that and then when I’m doing that, I know, January through June is going to be really intense, but I know I’ll have more time in other parts of the year.  So, that helps.  I think as I’ve taught more, having certain kinds of lesson plans that I’ve built up and different things I can use so I’m not starting from scratch all the time because I think lesson planning is like, it’s like being an artist.  You can always do more.  You can always spend more time tweaking and improving and coming up with new ideas and something I’ve had to learn and that I’m still learning is how to let things go.  How to trust that a lot of it is improvising anyway and you can plan and plan and plan and then you’re not going to do what you planned.  So, yeah, trusting in my skills such that I don’t have to put in tons of time outside of when I’m teaching.  Also, we know that lesson plan time is often unpaid.
Uh huh.  (Laughter.)
So, you know, having good boundaries about that so that you’re teaching “x” number of hours and then you’re lesson planning tons more, you know, the hourly wage can get a little bit bleak.
Yeah.  Do you have any systems or strategies specifically to make sure that you get enough time for music and creativity when you’re in the craziness, the busy times?
Well, something I’ve tried to do, and I haven’t always been successful, is actually scheduling that in.  I think so often when we become over-scheduled, the things that you don’t have on your calendar just don’t happen.  So, I think like, yeah, scheduling that in and being like this is the day and time I’m going to do that is very helpful.
Cool, cool, cool.
I think also I’ve gotten better at figuring out what kind of Teaching Artist gigs to take.  You know?  Like certain organizations that I used to work for that I felt were not respectful of my time that I don’t work for anymore.  One thing I like about BAC is that I think they don’t give us a lot of unnecessary paperwork, which is something that can be really time-consuming.
Also, feeling like, as I’ve gotten more experience, I don’t feel as desperate for work.  I feel like I can be more choosy and think about which gigs I really want to take, how far I want to travel, what schedule is really going to work for me.  It’s hard not to operate out of scarcity when you’re a freelancer and an artist, but I try to remember if I get offered something, it’s not the only thing that will probably come my way, and if it’s not a good fit for me, don’t take it.  You know?
It’s worth waiting for something better.
That’s a hard lesson to learn.
It’s really hard.
If you’ve mastered that, I applaud you.
I would not say I’ve mastered it.  (Laughter.)
If you’re improving in that area, I applaud you.
I’m working on it.  (Laughter.)
Would you describe for me the overlap between your teaching work and your creative work, in any way that you would like.
Well…I think teaching work helps me remember why art is vital.  Beyond just my own survival and enjoyment.  You know, I think I’ve never been interested in being one of those artists that is just creating art for other artists, you know?  So I really like working with young people because it reminds me why art matters and it makes me feel that in really visceral ways.  It also is a way for me to think through various things that I’m thinking about in my own work.  I’ve seen, even certain kinds of things that I’ve taught again and again over the past eight or nine years, the ways that I’ve changed them based on my own thinking about art-making.  The students inspire me.  You and I know each other originally from Rock Camp (Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls—K.B.).  Rock Camp is a really important place for me as someone who came from really formal music education, both in high school and college.  And I come from a family of artists that are very serious about art-making. To be reminded that art is also about self-expression and empowerment and the ways that people in general, and young people specifically, can make really powerful and amazing things without a lot of technical skills.  Seeing that happen with young people has really freed me up as an artist.  I would never have been making this album that I’m making right now, where I’m playing the instruments that I don’t really know how to play, if I hadn’t really learned that through teaching.
And then there’s also just silly things like playing guitar is something I started to do through teaching because it’s easier to accompany kids on guitar than on bass.  And now I’m using some guitar a little bit on some of my own songwriting and playing, so there are also ways that it’s helped me like that.
They bleed into each other.  That’s cool.  Do you feel like the organizations that you work for actively support and encourage connections between your teaching practice and your creative practice?
If I had to answer in one word, I would say no.  (Laughter.)  I think some do more than others.  Again, one thing I like about Brooklyn Arts Council is they’re thoughtful and respectful of our time.  They’re more likely to compensate you for a little bit of planning, or for coming to a training, or the Mannes Mentorship program you and I just did.  So that makes me feel respected as an artist, for sure.  And I remember when I first started working at BAC, I remember that they said, “We used to do all of this other paperwork.  But the feedback we got from our Teaching Artists was that it wasn’t working for them.  So we eliminated most of it.  And here are some sheets that you can use if you like to do weekly lesson planning.  Otherwise, here’s what we need from you.”  And that, to me, shows real respect.  But I think even there, they have all of this other work that they do, they have their grants department and everything else, and it feels very separate from the Teaching Artist work, and sometimes I wish that there was more of a relationship there.  I think that would be a way to support us as artists, to kind of make connections between their artists that are doing Teaching Artist work, and the other things they have going on. 
Right, right.
For me, on a more personal note, my parents are both artists.  My father’s a musician, and my mother’s a writer, and they both were New York City public school teachers, full-time teachers.  And so I think, growing up I saw the ways they struggled between teaching and being artists, and they really seemed counter to me, it really seemed like teaching was something that pulled them away from being artists.  And I think Teaching Artist work has this promise of not doing that because it’s not full-time…
And in some ways, that’s absolutely true, and I would not be making as much art if I were a full-time teacher, no question.  But I also still really feel that conflict sometimes.  And I don’t know.  I think the expectations for the work that we do are very high.
Mmmhmm.  And they should be.
They should be!  They should be.  Yeah.  But…
But it’s hard to give all you need to give to your teaching work and your creative work and…
And I feel like even on the more generous end of how much these gigs pay, you work it out to the hourly wage, it’s not that great, you know?  It’s not something that for me allows me to put aside anything.  You know?
It’s pretty hand to mouth.
Exactly.  So, you know, I’m in a place right now where I have my own concerns about the long-term sustainability of this work.
Yeah.  I mean, I know for myself, I’m trying to think a lot, and part of the reason I started this interview series was to think about what are other ways that some of the organizations that we work for can, if more money is not possible, what are other ways they can support their artists?  To connect the teaching practice and creative practice more, whether that’s space or access to special grants or…
But so many of these organizations, the people in administration, they’re stretched really thin.
Yep, they’re over-worked.
So, they don’t necessarily know about everything that we have going on, and they are not necessarily taking advantage of everything we could offer.  And, in a way, that would also support our art-making.
Along that line, if you could change one thing about your life as a Teaching Artist, what would it be?  You’ve brought up a lot of different issues…
I’m actually going to go in a different direction and say that I think the one thing I would change is that in so many of the schools that I go into, I am the only art teacher that I see.  And that’s what I would change.  One thing that really disturbs me about Teaching Artist work is the way that it has become woven into the privatization of public education, so full-time public school music and art and theater teachers do not exist in, it seems like, the vast majority of the public schools in this city.  And instead they bring in people like us, which is awesome, but it’s not the same.  Having me come in once a week for ten weeks is not the same as having a music teacher in the school.  And I think it’s wrong.  I think they’re doing the students a disservice, and I think they’re doing us a disservice as well, in terms of the expectations that people have of us and in terms of, you know, the work that we’re doing with the students as well.
I so often wish that if there were full-time arts teachers in all of the New York City public schools, then we would have the opportunity to really focus on being Teaching Artists, meaning things like creating more specialized projects that really connect to our own creative work.  I mean, thinking about this project you have with Cornelius and the Sterling Brown poems, you could come in, you could play, you could have the band take part, you could have Sterling read his poems.
Sterling has died.
Oh, I’m sorry!  Well, then you couldn’t have that.  But you could perform some of it and form a curriculum around that work and have a residency that would be about the relationship between poetry and music which is something that you’ve been thinking about anyway, instead of, so much of the time, we’re doing work that’s very general, because they have to have the basics in order to be able to do anything.  And you can integrate stuff, but especially with the little ones…
And how much, even if you’re talking about doing foundational work, giving the students the basics, how much foundational work can you do in ten weeks?  (Laughter.)  For an hour and a half each week?  You can’t!
Even if you go in there every year, year after year after year, and then you go away and you come back, and there’s a lot of time in between…
And that almost never happens, too.  That’s another thing I would say.  I have never, ever had the same teaching gig twice in a row.  I know that people get that opportunity.
It’s possible.
It almost happened to me this year, and then it didn’t.  I think it seems like there are a lot of reasons for that, part of it is like the work being grant-based, things don’t get renewed, you know.  There are still certain teaching gigs I think about that I’m like, that was so dreamy.  I loved working at that school.  I loved that particular residency.  And it will never happen again.  And you spend those ten weeks getting to know the school and the administrators and the students, and how to get there on the subway or whatever, you know, and then by time you’re like “Oh, I have this down,” it’s over.
I’ve had the opportunity to have quite a few ongoing residencies from year to year, where I return to schools I’ve taught in before, but I think it really depends on the organization.  But yeah, I feel like too, if you want something, you have to make that clear.  You’re your only advocate.  Or you’re your biggest advocate.  You have to be.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Sure.
Last thing is, any plugs for upcoming work, either for you or your students or friends?  What should we look out for?
The Rough Magic stuff that’s coming up.  If you look up the Cornelius Eady and RoughMagic Facebook page or website, that’ll be out there, and we’ll have some upcoming gigs, too.  And I’ll be posting stuff on my website about this other band, the duo.
Does it have a name yet?
We do, but it’s not on the internet yet.  I don’t know if we should unveil it on your website.
Tell us!  (Laughter.)
The name that we’re working with is Decibelists.
Nice.  I like it.
Do you?
We will keep an eye out for Decibelists.
All right.
Thank you so much, Emma!  This has been a wonderful conversation!
Of course!  Thank you!
Emma in concert!

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