What’s behind “More Than A Song”?

So why name a blog about lifelong learning and adult education More Than a Song? A couple of stories provide the answer to that.

A Beginning Voice

Back in the spring of 1995, I was finishing my first year of teaching at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, where I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level assistant professor. It had been a grueling and sometimes stressful year. It started with a move from New York to Boston during the previous summer, followed by a heavy load of classes that required new course preps.

As the school year was coming to an end, I was looking for something fun, different, and distinctly non-legal to do. I had picked up a catalog from the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE) and saw a course listing for “Beginning Voice,” accompanied by a short description explaining that learners would sing in a mutually supportive setting. Although I had never done any formal voice instruction before, I had always enjoyed singing, and from the description I assumed this would be like a group chorus experience. On a whim, I signed up.

On a Tuesday night in May, I showed up for the first class, and I was in for a surprise. Jane, our Juilliard-trained instructor, explained the course format: Each week, students individually perform a song of their choice to piano accompaniment and then are coached in front of the group.

From the songbooks that Jane brought to class, I picked a Cole Porter classic, “I Get a Kick Out of You” (featured in the show Anything Goes). Eventually I got up and went to front of the room. Bruce, our accompanist, started to play, and I managed to channel Sinatra finish the song. After polite applause, Jane gave me a few coaching tips, and I sat down, extremely relieved.

Despite my initial shock over the class format, I returned for the remaining sessions. In fact, I registered for every session of the class thereafter, until the BCAE closed its doors in December 2019 because of budgetary and other issues. That class covered 25 years of my life! My repertoire revolved around the Great American Songbook, singing old standards made famous by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and other prominent 20th century composers and lyricists.

I’ve reached a point where I’m a decent singer, so this activity has definitely included personal growth and development, not to mention a lot of fun and source of valued friendships. Singing has also become a form of therapy, a sort of mindfulness practice. It’s about being in the moment and stepping away from everyday ups and downs.

I don’t have any great singing ambitions. We plan to revive the voice class at another adult education center once the current pandemic crisis is over. Regular karaoke sessions and occasional open mic/cabaret nights have become part of the mix as well. (At this writing, karaoke has gone online — a surprisingly fun option!) These modest activities aside, singing with friends has become an important part of my life.

A Friend’s Memoir

John Ohliger (1926-2004) was an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, activist, and public intellectual. John’s wide-ranging career included the fostering of a unique, self-styled non-profit entity called Basic Choices, Inc., located in Madison, Wisconsin and described as “A Midwest Center for Clarifying Political and Social Options.” Prior to that, he held a tenured professorship in adult education at Ohio State University. In 2002, he was inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame.

John was also a cherished personal friend. Although we met in person only twice — via visits to Madison and Boston joined by wonderful company of John’s wife, Chris Wagner — we maintained an ongoing friendship through hundreds of email exchanges and collaborated on several projects. After John’s passing, his work was the subject of a unique collection of essays edited by Andre Grace and Tonette Rocco, Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2009). I was delighted to contribute a chapter to the book, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” which can be accessed here.

Although I knew that John pursued an eclectic array of personal, intellectual, and artistic interests, I was nonetheless mildly surprised when he crafted his unpublished memoir around the framing theme of music and song. Titled My Search for Freedom’s Song: Some Notes for a Memoir, he repeatedly built the short chapters using anecdotes about the role of music in his life.

When I read it, however, I understood. This was no artificial literary device. Music and song were ongoing parts of his life. It became altogether clear why John chose this theme for his memoir.

Epiphany

Perhaps with the exception of my friends from voice class and karaoke sessions, many folks in my life are likely to associate me with the work I’ve been doing for many years as a law professor. (See my Minding the Workplace blog for a taste of that work.)

And yet, when it came to naming this blog, I found myself bowing to John Ohliger’s framing device of music and song. My life of learning has included both, in abundance. Music has always been a meaningful part of my personal culture. Singing has become my favorite pastime, thanks to voice class and karaoke. I mean, think about it, I took a group voice class for some 25 years, with the same teacher and an ongoing cohort of fellow students — and I’d still be doing so now if things were different.

So, dear reader, welcome to More Than a Song. I hope it will provide you with insight, entertainment, and inspiration to pursue your own life of learning.

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