John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Inspirations in a Concert

John N. Gardner
President

Many of us who are trying to increase student success are constantly thinking about what we could do to increase student motivation.  I found myself reflecting once again on that during concerts I have attended during the past several weeks. I know, many of you readers go to concerts, in part, not to think about work. But I have to take my inspirations where I get them.

The context for these thoughtful occasions are the concerts of the Brevard Music Center, in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, where I happen to have the good fortune to live with my wife, Betsy Barefoot. We were drawn to move to Brevard from South Carolina especially by the prospect of being able to sit outside on cool summer evenings listening to classical music under a covered roof with 1800 seats. This is something we could not do during my 30+ years in central South Carolina where sitting outdoors at night is the equivalent of a sauna experience replete with profuse perspiration. The Brevard Music Center and Festival is a 78 year-old non-profit educational and performance institution. It has a 180 acre residential campus where for seven weeks every summer 65 resident faculty and 420 students, aged 13-30, are also in residence for individual instruction and performance opportunities, along with an overall ambiance and framework for life changing experiences. In addition to being an ideal setting for the enjoyment of classical music as a patron, it is also an ideal setting for peaceful reflection. There are concerts every day of the week, and ticketed events on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

The opening concert this year featured world famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman and it was his performance I wished our students could have seen and heard. Mr. Perlman is 68 years old and is living in every step he takes, literally, with the effects of polio that he contracted at age 4. I found myself not only mesmerized by his rendering of the music, and his informal banter with the conductor, Keith Lockhart (also conductor of the Boston Pops), but with his initial entrance onto the stage. Maestro Perlman walks seemingly with enormous personal effort using two metal crutches attached to his arms and wearing leg braces, and somehow hoists himself onto a raised dais, unassisted, with the audience literally holding their collective breath following his every movement prior to the movement we thought we came to see and hear. After watching him making this tremendous exertion, followed by what I know was not effortless, but appeared to be his relatively effortless musical performance, we then watched with riveted attention his strenuous effort to propel himself down off the dais and off the stage swinging his braced legs in wide circular arcs. I felt drained and in awe after this total performance. And I immediately said to my wife that the next time I thought about quitting something I was doing because it was too difficult, I would remember Mr. Perlman and not give up. And that was the message I wished we could impart to our under motivated college students.

Who do we have on our campuses that we can expose students to for attention- getting, reflection, inspiration and motivation?

Fifty years of good research suggests that the greatest influence on students is the influence of other students. So how do we select students who could inspire other students and put them into positions of authority to motivate other students? There are many ways to do this of course, and we know how to do this and this is being done at many of our institutions. Now more of us just have to get on with it and be more intentional about it.

And we higher educators can inspire and motivate our students as well. The Brevard Music Center has reminded me of this as well.

In some of the Center’s concerts there will be special guest artists, soloists, who will be drawn from the Center’s faculty. The response from the hundreds of students in the audience is one of enthusiastic, just short of raucous, applause. The Center has three orchestras, one of which features the Center’s resident faculty and selected advanced students. After each performance the conductor will single out with the baton individual faculty in the orchestra, who when they rise to be recognized will receive resounding applause from the students in the audience.

So what could we faculty do that would generate such applause from our students, particularly undergraduates? If they came to a symposium or public lecture where we were making a presentation, what would we have to do to elicit a rousing applause? And let’s take that to the classroom. What kind of performance, presentation, stand, actions on our part, would generate student applause? Cancelling class or a forthcoming exam? Announcing that all students had exempted the final exam? Announcing that you were going to give all your students a final grade of A?

I apologize here for my apparent cynicism. I am attempting to ask a serious question. Just what could we do that would really generate a high level of student appreciation and respect like I saw being expressed by these music students for their star professors.

My list of cynical or facetious answers reminds me of one of the saddest examples I have ever seen of college student immaturity. It was late in the day, November 22, 1963. President Kennedy had been murdered earlier in the day. That was the Friday before Thanksgiving. My college had Monday and Tuesday classes only before Thanksgiving. When the newly sworn in President, Lyndon Johnson, announced that Monday would be a national day of mourning for President Kennedy, my college’s administration decided to cancel classes for that day in observance. That meant that all students would have in that week ahead were Tuesday’s classes. That led many of them to conclude that they might as well leave that very night, Friday, and get a jump-start on a suddenly extended Thanksgiving vacation. Something near pandemonium broke out, a celebration for an unexpected longer holiday. I was absolutely disgusted, repulsed by my fellow students. All I wanted to do was immerse myself in my thoughts of my murdered President, who I had many times silently applauded, as in when he spared me from nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis, or when he launched the Peace Corps.

Seeing these music students reminded me that the arts are and can be a source of inspiration for college students and that we need to be constantly vigilant for such sources of inspiration and motivation. I learned in my earliest teaching days that if I could motivate my students I could get them to do all kinds of things that otherwise would not have been possible, both in my course and beyond.

I will take my inspiration anywhere I can get it. And often it just arises out of contexts where I had not been looking for it, such as in these concerts the past two weekends.

Where are you looking? And what are you finding? And what are you doing with what you are finding?

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