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If the English language were a playground, the word “education” would definitely be a bully. Big and scary sounding, education grabs unsuspecting pronouns by the collar and throws them up against the wall with their untied shoes kicking above the ground until they prove themselves worthy and education plops them down and lets them pass. This personification of the word seems ironic to me, seeing how education is actually a great, empowering and liberating thing. I suppose the connotations of rigid, impersonal instruction that go along with an institutionalized education give it that feeling, but there’s a much better way of educating than that. An individualized, flexible, and engaging education is really what I’m looking for, and there’s no better example of my ideal education than my music theory class.
Two swinging glass doors separate the bright, spacious, high-ceilinged lobby from the darker, shorter music wing, forming an almost invisible wall between the two. The lowering of light and headspace gives the corridor homey warmth, sort of like a comfortably safe cave. The music theory classroom seems like a completely different building accidentally included on the school’s blueprint; instead of desks and blackboards, there is only a small round table with five seats and one larger armchair flanked by a C-shaped row of computers and a baby grand piano. Perched in the armchair is a stocky figure hovering over staff paper, scribbling notes in wisps on the page. His hands are wide and strong, calloused from years of accomplished guitar playing. After finishing eight bars, he caps his silver-plated fountain pen and slides it in the breast pocket of his French collared shirt, right next to his boldly embroidered initials “JC.”
“Check this out,” Joe Carbone says, looking up from the staff paper and around the table. “This chord isn’t technically in the diatonic key, but it still works here. You, bozo, tell me why that is,” he says, pointing at me with a wink.
“Because it’s the fifth chord of the diatonic fifth, the five of five, Master C-bone.”
“Hey, T-Bone, good work. Is anyone confused with this?” All heads shake no. “Is anyone confused in life?” All hands shoot up in unison. “Good, we’ll deal with that in therapy on Wednesday. But today, compose eight bars using the five of five and a flat two chord.”
The only place in school where I am absolutely unabashed by acting like myself is within the theory walls. My self-deprecating humor and open adulation of Mr. Carbone contribute to the constantly effervescent environment, even while learning advanced music theory. We have to keep up with our curriculum, so even on the most light-hearted days we accomplish a lot, except for “therapy Wednesdays,” when we just go around the table hashing out anything that comes to mind.
To outsiders, music theory seems more like a cult than a class. Around school we are known as “Carbone’s army” and even the workers in the garage down the block no longer find it strange when they spot us “singing in the C-bone,” which is what we call rushing out of homeroom with a classmate or two to serenade him with guitars as he’s parking his car and walking to our first period theory class. When he’s stuck in traffic, we still play guitar on the front steps of school until he arrives, even in frigid conditions when our numbed fingers get scraped raw from the frozen strings.
To us, theory feels more like a family than a class. Each one of us would stop whatever we’re doing to listen to another’s composition and offer advice. I never fail to have fun in theory, even while I’m wracking my brain over compositions or struggling to transpose a piano piece onto guitar. There is no greater motivation for me than enjoying the work, and I never even notice how much we’re learning because we’re laughing the whole time. I have never felt more motivated, engaged, or safe in an academic environment than I have in that class, and it defines what I look for in an education. This “education” sounds like he’d take you out to lunch, tell you some jokes, and then shake some genius out of you. He’s really a good guy once you get to know him.
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