When I made up the syllabus for my "Hip-Hop in American Culture" course this fall, I decided to add the following requirement:

Dance: Dance is an integral component of the hip-hop experience and a key mode through which hip-hop is understood. Accordingly, we will begin each class by dancing briefly to the music to be discussed that day. You do not have to be a good – or even adequate – dancer. You only have to stand up and move while there is music playing. Students who arrive late to class must dance by themselves, so don’t try to get out of it!

Unlike most of the crazy ideas I come up with in my teaching, this one has actually worked out exactly the way I had hoped.

First of all, it loosens everyone up at the beginning of class, facilitating discussion, questions and off-handed comments that I can tie in to the larger points I’m making. But it also gets people thinking about the different ways that people use movement to engage with music. For example, on Monday I made them dance to "Bang Bang" by the Joe Cuba Sextet (1966). I made the point that, although Latin Boogaloo music of the late sixties may sound very different from the African American music of the era, it was conducive to similar dance styles. Specifically, the rhythmic emphasis on the 2 and 4 meant that you could dance to it as if it was Soul or R&B, which arguably makes Boogalo a precursor to Hip-Hop, in that it was made to be danced to by both Latinos and African Americans. I could have just told them this, but letting them experience it for themselves, I think, was a much deeper educational experience.

My experimental/experiential/doing-whatever-it-takes-to-get-a-point-across teaching style was particularly on my mind a few weeks ago, when my friend Michael – for reasons that remain a mystery – sent me an excerpt from an interview with guitarist Joe Satriani in which he talks about taking lessons with the famous Jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. I forwarded it to my friend / grad-school mentor Howard Becker, who was also a student of Tristano. This sparked an interesting exchange on a number of topics, including playing Jazz, practicing, talking to former teachers, and especially teaching style, including the following insight from Howie:

One thing that might interest you is that just about everything I know about teaching came from Lennie and from a photo teacher I took a class with when I was in my forties. The latter convinced me that students had to teach themselves, you could sort of steer them a little in some direction but it was really up to them to teach themselves. The other thing I learned was to always teach how to do something. In other words, not theories or facts but how to do something. How to use a theory to guide your research, how to make a fact talk to you and suggest more to do, things like that. That's what I've always done. Everything we try to teach people can be turned into that and it worked a lot better, at least it does for me.

- Howie

As with many things said by good teachers, this short paragraph sounds simple at first but becomes deeper and deeper the more you think about it. In fact, when I first read it, I kind of disagreed with some of it (the part about not teaching theories for their own sake), but when I followed my critiques to their logical conclusions, they tended to evaporate. Try it!

Oddly, though, the thing that really struck me about this paragraph was not so much Howie’s insights on teaching, but his attribution of them to Tristano. Which in turn means that my own teaching, being so influenced by Howie’s, is indebted to a famous Jazz musician and I didn’t even know it! Which somehow makes me feel much cooler than I did before I read the email, despite the fact that nothing has really changed.

On a deeper level, it lead me to think about the chains of human interaction that underlie the transmission of knowledge, the emotional value of being aware of those links, and how things like the mass media and internet are changing that.

For example, one day about fifteen years ago when I was studying South Indian Carnatic music with Karaikudi Subramanium, I realized that the song I was learning had been passed down from its original composer to me without the intercession of any media at all. What I mean is that the legendary composer Tyagaraja (1767-1847) wrote the song and taught it to a guy who taught it to a guy who taught it to a guy…etc., etc….who taught it to me. Subramaniam actually knows who each of those people were, by the way. I only know some of them, but even so, just knowing that I was a link in that chain made me feel a responsibility to the music that I would not have felt if I had learned it from a CD.

In Hip-Hop, with the tradition being so young, those chains are still relatively short. Whatever Hip-Hop discipline you practice, it’s still fairly easy to meet and study with the pioneers of that form. Nevertheless, people are still very conscious of their educational pedigrees. Ask any veteran b-boy or b-girl about any move they do and they can tell you exactly who they learned it from, and who that person learned it from, all the way back to whoever invented it. They wouldn’t bother to preserve that knowledge if they didn’t think it was important.

And they are absolutely right. When you have that kind of consciousness about your art – whether it’s South Indian Veena, Jazz Piano, teaching or b-boying, you realize that you haven’t just learned it, you have been entrusted with it. That as hard as you may have worked to master that song or that move or that scratch, it’s still only half the story. Someone - or someones – have worked equally hard to deliver it to you, whether you know it or not.