“What the pill provides is an opportunity…”

This NPR story caught my attention for obvious reasons – I’m a voice teacher and of course I’m interested in the idea of learning perfect pitch as an adult. I’m also a bit paranoid after the person I happen to live with keeps talking about how robots will be taking all of our jobs. I see things like this and I’m worried that even voice teaching will be left to the Cylons in our near future.

But as usual, this sort of thing is deliciously complicated. The drug discussed is Valproic Acid, which is used as a mood stabilizing drug. This study, led by Takao Hensch, was investigating its effects on the plasticity of the human brain. It seems as if the subjects were able to learn perfect, or absolute pitch, which opens up a lot of possibility for all types of skill acquisition, particularly language learning. Perfect pitch is generally a skill thought to only be learned quite early in life.

The part that was most intriguing though was Hensch’s caveat in terms of our learned and performed identity:

I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason. And it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly … If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised —acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

It is fascinating to reflect on the idea of how and why we have shaped our identities through our development and environment and how the brain loses plasticity, a view of ourselves become much more fixed. I’ve noticed recently how many people like to cling to absolute narratives about themselves using words like “always,” “can’t” and “never” (ie: “I was never into singing” or “I always avoid confrontation”) and I wonder where and how do things become fixed in our sense of who we are. Culturally, this has interesting implications for those of us who grew up as part of diaspora or those who simply moved around a lot as children. What would happen to our identity and sense of who we are if we changed the plasticity of our brain in a different cultural context during adulthood?

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“I guess I’ll go this way. I think there is a Staples down there.”

Ok, so this is only tangentially related to my research foci, but it is evocative and intriguing. I had thought about doing a similar video installation (on my list of 9,383,832,928 things to do) that explores our running narrative about seeing people and their visible identity locations (or the assumptions I’d make about them) in public spaces.

Anthropologist Andrew Irving has recorded 100 people verbally narrating their inner thoughts in New York City as they walk through the streets. I found this part of the artist’s particularly compelling:

“…once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.”

The idea of inner speech, imagery, muscles, blood, and nervous system all working together in a symbiotic relationship – this is exactly what many of us are trying to do with our acting students when they are working on text. And I particularly enjoy the emphasis here on urban life. Often, as voice teachers, we resort to a lot of nature imagery and metaphors. We often use our voice classes to escape our modernized world and get back to what is “natural” and “organic.” I’m interested in shifting the binary of nature = good/urban and modern = bad. Is nature imagery important to voice work, text work, poetry work? Omigod, yes. Especially if the text was written among those landscapes of yore. Can urban living create habitual tension in our bodies from low levels of the fight or flight reflex? Definitely. Living a city can have a negative impact on our ability to be vulnerable. That being said, what I like about this video project is that I see some green shoots springing out of some of these established paradigms. How do we, as students, artists, society, find a way to be expansive, empathetic, and vocally open within an urban environment? Can we challenge ourselves to use urban landscapes to explore our vocal potential?

For more information on Irving’s project, you can go here.

“The ability to go un-examined, lacking introspection, in fact being rendered invisible…”

Dr. Jackson Katz is an expert on violence, media, and masculinity. Even though his expertise is only tangentially related to my research and pedagogy, he offers a wonderful and articulate definition of privilege as it relates to race, gender, and sexuality. The whole damn thing is worth a watch.

Bling quote:

So let’s talk for a moment about race. In the US when we hear the word race, a lot of people think that means African-American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, South Asian, Pacific Islander,  on and on. A lot of people, when they hear the word ‘sexual orientation’ think it means gay, lesbian, bisexual. And a lot of people when they hear the word ‘gender’, think it means women. In each case, the dominant group doesn’t get paid attention to, right? As if White people don’t have some of racial identity or don’t belong to some sort of racial category or construct. As if heterosexual people don’t have a sexual orientation. As if men don’t have a gender.
This is one of the ways that dominant systems maintain and reproduce themselves. Which is to say the dominant group is rarely challenged to even think about its dominance because that’s one of the key characteristics of power and privilege: the ability to go un-examined, lacking introspection, in fact being rendered invisible in large measure, in the discourse about issues that are primarily about us; and it’s amazing how this works …
Katz does an effective job here of depicting hegemonic culture as, by definition, invisible. When it comes to the pedagogical terms we use in our classrooms like neutral and standard, I feel a connection between these terms and the idea that dominant culture is so embedded, established, and unquestioned, that it becomes an epicenter where the minority constructs are all outliers. Outlier means exotic means inferior means substandard.