remembering armsted

the past three months have been a time of mourning for me. during the first part of this year, a college roommate, an academic elder brother of sorts, and a dear colleague and mentor all took leave.  the colleague, armsted christian, will be missed greatly here around berklee. it is up to those of us who remain to try to teach and create in ways that honor his memory

i first encountered armsted during a committee meeting. no–not armsted really; i should say, i encountered a piece of his writing.

serving on a committee for an annual conference on teaching and research at berklee, BTOT (berklee teachers on teaching), i read an intriguing proposal. it was a description of how to create what we would call in the overly bureaucratic-psychobabblist register common around university campuses these days a “safe space” for students to “engage in meaningful dialogue.” or was it? the proposal talked about the necessity of those of us on this side of the desk to exhibit concern, interest, and–no, he didn’t just use that word, did he?–LOVE (as i remember it, in screaming all caps) in our interactions with students

the session proposal was called “the love connexion.”

gen-xer that i am, i had written a few blistering, if ironic,  comments about the title in the margins. still, the proposal did seem to have merit.

at the meeting, one of my colleagues in music education said, “well, we need to tell armsted that he needs to change the title.” one of the administrators on the committee concurred as the rest of the committee noted that any presentation armsted would give on teaching would be fabulous; the music education professor added that “of course, armsted means love in a completely innocent sense, but this title looks a bit too title ix!” we laughed and moved to the next proposal

i was assigned to the presentation as its host and later had opportunity to see armsted in a class he designed called “flo-ology.” flo-ology was a vocal improvisation class that encouraged students to bare themselves completely in the process of creative work. the work was often critical, as armsted pushed students to find a creative center that was genuine and often painful, a place in which one’s heart ached, one’s spirit broken, but from which a kind of healing could flow.

i was reminded of a line from regie gibson’s “touching the hulls of salvaged slave ships”:

to touch the ship is to know nina simone’s voice is the cut of the lash and the salve that transforms hurt into healing

armsted was strengthening his students to do this work as vocalists for themselves and others. as he described it, flo-ology was part vocal pedagogy, part hip-hop, and part therapy. when i witnessed flo-ology, i too was pulled in to the process. trying to think about what made it work, i observed that apart from the skills of the accompanist and armsted’s ability as a voice teacher, much depended upon armsted’s knack at creating a space that was creative and non-judgmental.

i thought that armsted must have some method that he could outline, but as you might expect, his terms were not common technical ones. in fact, he preferred to describe his method as love. he created a space where everyone was held safely in love. that was the gist of it

the pace of teaching, research, and performance at berklee meant that most of us interested in armsted’s method did not spend enough time observing him at work. and–something that he was honest about but did not let crowd out everything else in his life–armsted was chronically and, as it turns out, terminally ill. although he remained active at berklee until the end of his life, he never had the opportunity to pass on to us how he managed the classroom. all we have is the memory of a contagious and powerful love

now that armsted is gone, i search for ways to honor that memory in the classroom. and yet, i fear that flo-ology was a method that ended with its maker


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