A variation on the old joke goes,
Question: “How do you get to perform for the President of the United States?
Answer: Don’t ask Jessica Simpson. She has no idea.
According to “news” reports Jessica Simpson was a performer in this year’s Kennedy Center Honors program attended by President Bush and countless other dignitaries. Ms. Simpson was to sing the operatic classic, “Nine-to-Five,” as a tribute to Dolly Parton, but ended the song abruptly, muttered, “nervous,” and burst off the stage in tears.
While hardly cause for indefinite detention in Guantanamo, this sorry incident offers lessons for educators.
James Carville once said, “In America the last job you ever have is being famous.” Too many young people in our country see fame, the quicker the better, as their goal. Yet, Jessica Simpson has proven that fame doesn’t prepare you to perform in front of music legends, millions of viewers and the leader of the free world. Maybe she just had a bad night, but I don’t think so.
Once your failed reality TV marriage and B-movie career fades from the spotlight you are sustained by what musicians call “chops.” You develop chops by paying dues, studying and practicing for hours and hours each day for years. You don’t pay your dues by being photographed exiting a nightclub with your BFFs or by dating musicians. You are not entitled to be rich and famous just because you want to be.
Every great artist knows this. Even successful pop stars learned it along the road to fame. Motown artists spent countless hours studying music, dance and comportment before they left the studio. They spent weeks on the road honing each song before appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and yes, even Britney Spears developed a similar work ethic from working on The Mickey Mouse Club. Like the pop-stars of yore, they come “ready to play” regardless of the venue – in concert or in a variety show skit. I can see you wince when I say this, but they may be this generation’s Sammy, Dean, Frank, Diana Ross or Dolly Parton. Ask any musician in the know and they will tell you that Dolly Parton can play her…. uh, butt off.
This isn’t the first public meltdown in the Simpson family. Remember that little sister, Ashley, (the “punk” one) stunk up Saturday Night Live last year when she began lip-synching to the wrong recorded music track. She too ran off the stage in tears. Ashley was quick to blame everyone, but Milli Vanilli for her humiliation, but after a quick makeover came back for what was left of her fifteen minutes of fame.
Memo to Daddy Simpson…. No amount of reconstructive surgery or blonde/brunette ambition is a substitute for talent. Talent is the result of effort. Doh!
So, what does this have to do with school?
My nine year-old nephew has played the trumpet for about six weeks. He recently came home with four pieces of music to learn in order to perform in a public concert a week later. Without any instruction he had to figure out several unfamiliar notes and practice the new songs. Nobody taught him what “practice” means. After one short rehearsal he was to join a group of other children in concert.
While I fully appreciate the power of audience and the inspiration it provides for children, why do we indulge kids by offering the fame of the concert before the requisite investment of effort? I love my nephew and there is nothing cuter than seeing little kids in concert but what message are we sending? IS it true that we should have to sit in an uncomfortable gymnasium and listen to anything they play, regardless of the quality or effort just because the children want us to? Concerts are not rehearsals. They are special and should be held to a higher standard.
During the week preceding my nephew’s inaugural concert, I helped him practice the new songs – something his teacher left to chance. He plays OK for a beginner. He knows around six notes, some of which he manages to string together in a sequence. After playing four or five consecutive notes in a fashion only an uncle could love, he proclaimed, “I really nailed it!”
How does a kid develop such a false sense of triumph? The media is partially responsible, but the gold star, instant gratification of our school’s worksheet culture is culpable as well.
Every student should be made to watch Dolly Parton perform and then Jessica Simpson’s Kennedy Center disaster. They could then write a five-paragraph essay in which they compare and contrast the two performances.
Originally published December 04, 2006 in The Pulse: Education’s Pace for Debate
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.