“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Maya Angelou.
The lesson begins and the music starts. We hear the opening strings of the orchestra, the brass section and drums. Then a majestic voice breaks into the first verse.
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Today the lesson is based around Civil Rights and we are discussing the subject by using the song as a platform to begin. The teaching space is crowded but we have used this to our advantage, creating an atmosphere of intimacy and interaction. After the music stops, a brief pause, and then a lively discussion, with each student developing their own interpretation of what the song means.
As the students talk it over, their voices gradually simmer down, and we discuss the meaning of the lyrics, and the background of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. The setting allows young minds to express deeply held beliefs and convictions about race, identity, class, and equality; and to begin a critical dialogue using the medium of words and music.
I grew up in the suburbs of Dublin in the 1980s and remember what seemed like endless car journeys visiting relations up north. It was during these journeys, gazing out the window at the rolling fields and sky, that I would sit alongside my brothers and sisters in the back seat of our car listening to cassette tapes on repeat.
One of the first songs that captured my imagination at an early age was The Beatles classic Strawberry Fields. I always wondered in my youthful innocence what those colourful words could mean. There was a childlike quality to the first verse, yet the meaning held something back – a sweet melancholy – hinting at a kind of lost world, or a life interrupted. I could identify with some kind of loneliness within the music, but couldn’t quiet put my finger on what kind of spell the song was casting:
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone but it’s alright
It doesn’t matter much to me
In the winter of 1997 I lost my elder brother Kevin to suicide, and my whole life changed forever. I felt a massive sense of pain and loss, confusion and sadness. I was 18 at the time and my brother had just turned 21. I found tremendous solace through this period in particular songs and their words. In all forms of music – more than ever before – there was a kind of spirit companion wherever I went, no matter what trouble lay waiting in the outside world.
Nevertheless, I was in my final year of school and it felt like my whole world had been turned inside out. I lost interest in studying, and withdrew into a dream world, discovering the self-medication of drugs and alcohol. I left school with not much to show, receiving poor results in my final exams, and was turned down a place to study my first choice of English at one of Dublin’s prestigious universities.
“I was instantly transfixed by the combination of the ethereal artwork on the cover and the complete otherworldliness of the music and the poetry that lay within.”
I always loved English and Art, so I decided to enrol on an Art course at a local community college. I remember, in the first few months, borrowing some records on recommendation from a friend. Some that made a massive impression on me were Patti Smith’s Horses, Marquee Moon by Television, Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd and Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. I remember hearing the opening lines to Astral Weeks on a north Dublin 17A bus journey home, and having the everyday world around me illuminated in a new way by Mr. Morrison’s lyrics.
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me? Would you kiss my eyes?
To lay me down in silence easy
To be born again, to be born again
I was instantly transfixed by the combination of the ethereal artwork on the cover and the complete otherworldliness of the music and the poetry that lay within. I became completely immersed in this heightened form of magic surrealism, and it gave me a feeling of homecoming, even though I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere at all. This kind of music made me want to explore and connect with this mythological landscape.
“Here was a measured discipline of how to examine the world in greater detail, to look at life under a sort of microscopic glare.”
Also around this time I began learning some chords on guitar and would sit and mimic my favourite songs. I found a place where I could always retreat to; a magic space where I could seek refuge and nothing could reach me. When anxious or stressed I knew which songs could help me relax; when lonely I knew I could place my thoughts in the comfort of these strange entities which somehow acted as a soothsayer.
I also began forming bands with friends and playing in pubs and clubs around Dublin. This was the late 90s. I found that everything I did at the art college was an extension of my passion for music: I studied painting, drawing, composition, printmaking, graphic design photography, and found that I had a massive outlet and freedom of expression that I never had access to before. Here was a measured discipline of how to examine the world in greater detail, to look at life under a sort of microscopic glare.
Through the music I was listening to I also began to read a lot. I had read between the covers of my favourite music magazines like Q and Mojo. I had read early Pink Floyd interviews about how Syd Barret was influenced by the writings of James Joyce; a writer who was was right there at home in the bookcases filled with my dad’s well-worn volumes of Irish verse. I was fascinated by how the Beatles had referenced Oscar Wilde on the cover of Sergeant Peppers; of how Bob Dylan was influenced by Jack Kerouac.
I scoured the local libraries for ideas and inspiration. I embraced my first real introduction to literature: George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I found books of Irish Poetry by WB Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, and the American beat writers Ginsberg, Bukowski, and Burroughs. I discovered an exotic treasure of language, ideas, new worlds, and concepts that could direct me towards some new kind of adventure. I found out that you didn’t even have to leave your room in order to discover the great wealth of wonder that language had to offer. There was a magic in images, sounds and words that could become intoxicating in the right order.
“The job of the writer, musician or creator is to try and make sense of the patterns of our lives and of others.”
Picasso once said that a work of art is not meant to decorate, a work of art is meant to work as a weapon against the enemy. So here I am years later wondering how to teach these young people to fight the enemy, with ideas, words and music. Maybe the enemy is fear, hatred, intolerance, or depression. Maybe it’s division, oppression, exclusion; a combination of the negative forces that may conspire against us at various times in our lives. I believe that music and words have powerful healing properties, which – through its ancient ritual – we can understand the many forms of human connectedness and shared emotions.
Everything is connected for the artist. There is nothing off limits, and the job of the writer, musician or creator is to try and make sense of the patterns of our lives and of others. The question that often arises in art is “can you actually teach creativity”? The subjects which are taught within the broader sphere of the arts – music, art, poetry, literature – all have some thing in common which is difficult to define. We try using words like imagination, discovery, inventiveness, and intuition. It is a particularly difficult question to ask when trying to teach, because it depends on what you are trying to achieve, and the underlying cultural context. After all, a cure for one is poison for another.
I believe that at best we can create the right conditions for students to find their own voice. What we can do, is to set up the right conditions and best possible environment for the young person’s own innate creativity to flourish.
A few years ago I began teaching critical thinking through a module called Music and Culture. It is a wide area which builds upon prior knowledge gained through subjects such as English, History, Media, and Citizenship. I wanted to inspire an interest in these subjects through the foundation of music. The aim of the course is to engage students in a dialogue where they can develop their understanding of culture and develop their own critical consciousness. Many of the issues we discuss, cover divisive current events, and students generally have a passionate interest to voice their opinions on social, political, economic, religious, racial and multi-cultural issues when there is a respectful atmosphere where others are willing to listen.
“The ideas of a critical and creative community are water for the roots of society.”
It can sometimes be challenging to awaken creativity in a regimented system of education; to break the cycle of negative past experiences that some students associate with school and their own sense of self-worth. I believe that music is vital as a kind of stepping stone towards the critical thinking needed for further cultural literacy and academic progress. I don’t believe that students should simply be passive receivers of knowledge (this has its place in other areas no doubt); rather they should begin to form ideas of social, racial and political awareness. I also think that it is a continuous challenge to try and teach in a culture that is constantly measured on success rates, data, statistics, and mountains of needless paperwork, rather than towards a humanistic path of life, love, and wellbeing.
It is particularly relevant today as society is becoming more extreme and polarised, and we need our young people to grow up with real empathy and a consciousness that is willing to engage with the ‘stranger’ and the ‘outsider’. Many of us have felt this at certain stages in our lives. Much of the complexity of hatred and division arise from a sense of being isolated and disenfranchised from the rest, feeling disengaged and left out. This is the place where fear and intolerance begin to gain momentum. I feel that words and music are intrinsically linked with human freedom, and that initiating dialogue from an early age is a real form of empowerment.
The ideas of a critical and creative community are water for the roots of society: within this environment students can reflect on what they understand of their own social identity. The true meaning emerges when people can listen, speak, and learn from each other’s experiences. After all the goal of a real education is not the ‘end product’ but the production of free human beings, associated with one another in terms of equality. It is to “create wise citizens in a free community” as Noam Chomsky writes, quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell says that “we should regard the student as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature, which will develop into an admirable form, given proper soil, light and air.”
So to finish up our lesson we return to speaking about the long road of racism and segregation in society: a conversation that always creates a lasting discussion and in which many other contemporary issues come to light. A Change is Gonna Come plays again. It is still early morning, and we will awaken a kind of curiosity and wonder, begin discussions, and raise questions. We’ll see where the music takes us.
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
Conor O’Malley is an Irish musician and songwriter who teaches music at a vocational college in the UK.