When George Wolfe asked me to come improvise with him at a conference at Columbia University, I of course said yes. Then I saw it was the International Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies conference, I told George we might need to come up with a good rationale for the cello professor to use professional conference funds to attend this particular event.
But once I arrived at Columbia, I was struck by how much I felt I was part of this work. Humiliation and shame are not just tools of control in relationships, personal, professional, organizational, and societal. They are also deeply part of the experience most classical musicians have as we study are craft and learn our art. There are very few of us who are not on some level ashamed of, or healing from years of feeling ashamed of, our playing or singing.
For my entire life as a teacher, I’ve worked with students to learn to trust themselves and find their voices, while at the same time presenting the exacting standards that can be so intimidating and which can cause so much hurt when we don’t meet them. All along, I’ve been healing, too.
It’s what led me into the safe-space, accepting world of Music for People improvisation and the community drum circle culture articulated by Arthur Hull.
I never framed this work in terms of humiliation and human dignity before. But as I heard scholars from many disciplines around the world speak, and as we spoke together in discussion groups, I realized that I’ve been working in this field.
And that there was much I could take back to DePauw, where we are dealing with how to make the campus climate more hospitable for students and faculty of color. Where we are collectively looking for how to participate in the national and international conversations that relate to ongoing humiliation that is racism.
The contribution that George and I were able to make was to use performances of free improvisations as a model for a way of relating that is rooted in what I now realize can be called dignity. Listening. Responding. Taking turns leading. Supporting and challenging. Neither dominating or submitting.
I learned so much, too, which I’ll write about at another time. Meanwhile, it was a genuine miracle for me to discover that there was a group of people of whom I was already a part, without knowing it.