Episode 007 Transcript

"My Brothers, Teachers" with John and Gregory Horn (11/29/17)

JORDAN HORN: This is Horn. Jordan Horn. Welcome to the Point of Learning podcast, episode 007.  

[00:32] PETER HORN: On today's show: moments after Thanksgiving 2017, I'm grateful for two of my greatest teachers, my brothers.

JOHN HORN: So whenever I give a talk, if it's a good talk, it's because I've taken the time to set it up. And I'm talking—when I'm addressing a jury, when I'm addressing a judge, when I'm addressing colleagues. Whatever it is, setting it up with why they should care. Why is this an issue? Why is this urgent? Why is this relevant? That's where the gap was, for me, is that—you know, I did pretty well—but why it was relevant, why it connected, why it mattered, why I should care … I don't recall that ever having been established.

PETER: That was John, the eldest Horn brother. He turns 50 the day this episode drops. Happy birthday, Johnny! And here's Greg, the middle Horn, two years younger than John, and six years older than me.

GREGORY HORN: Often the memory that I conjure up first when when I reflect on my high school years and how I spent them, or rather misspent them, with respect to learning and applying myself … I remember this specific World Regents class. It didn't seem to have any validity, any relationship to my life at the time, and I couldn't figure out how to get excited about it enough to apply myself. And so it was really excruciating. And I just remember going like, you know, I can't believe they're making us do this.

[02:23] PETER, voiceover: A week before Thanksgiving, I asked John and Gregory to join me at a table in our hometown of Buffalo, New York, to talk about learning, school, education and music. Here's how I set it up:

PETER, in interview: Here you are, brothers, 21 months apart. Having known you for 42 years, I feel confident in saying you're both wicked smart and capable of learning anything. John, your work as a trial attorney means you have to prepare for cases involving everything from safety features on power tools to the proper remediation of radioactive waste. Gregory, as a firefighter currently preparing for the examinations that would qualify you to make lieutenant, you're committing to memory voluminous details about how you deal with a wide range of emergency situations. Yesterday morning I saw a sheet of equations taped to your bathroom mirror that nearly made my brain snap [see image on show page]. John, you went right from high school to the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester to study jazz trombone. You adjusted your course a little, graduating four years later with a degree in Political Science. A Master’s and a law degree followed. Greg, after high school, you played trumpet in the Great Train Robbery, an alt-rock band that had a huge local following. And I should say you started that as a sophomore in high school. You made money as a carpenter, framing houses at first, and eventually running your own home improvement and restoration business before becoming a firefighter. You elected not to go to college. So, my first question for you both: As you look back at it now, how do you think your experience in high school, or school more generally, affected your decision to choose college or not? (Gregory answered first.)

[04:21] GREGORY: Well I think the institutional, conventional approach for education is certainly suitable for some percentage of the students. There is—it’s of course a one-size-fits-all approach which, of course does not fit every student. I wonder what percentage it really does fit. It certainly didn't suit me.

PETER: What could have been better for you?

GREGORY: Well, all right, so the force feeding of it, and the pressure of it, and the deadlines, and grades even…You know, it's about as free as it gets, but the degree to which I'm familiar with something called a “Free School,” in theory, at least, makes the most sense to me, and it's about the most opposite approach from the conventional approach that I can think of.

PETER: “Free Schools,” as Gregory is referring to them, grow out of an education reform movement in the 1960s and ‘70s to establish very independent, privately funded alternatives to public education. As one example, the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts has been around since 1968. As far as curriculum, students are free to spend their time and learn as they wish.

GREGORY: What's your interest? What do you want to learn about? Let's make that happen.

PETER: Also unusual and appealing to this educator, Free Schools are often radically democratic—small ‘d’. Sudbury Valley, for instance, is run as a direct democracy in which students and staff are equals.

[06:26] GREGORY: The line I was giving everybody, and I think it was more or less true, was that when I decided I was going to go for—you know, higher education—when I figured out what it was I wanted to learn, and when I felt like I was ready to do that, and then I was going to go. There certainly was a time as an adult when I felt like I was trapped in the job—you know, all of the details of my life, but the profession I was in, and I was not able to transition—at least, not in any easy way, in my 30s or something like that. There was not any easy way to transition, to quit my job and go back to school, and be able pay my bills, and raise kids, and all that.

[07:18] PETER: John, what would you say? Was it something you considered—not going to college—or was that just going to be the way it was? Firstborn son, go ahead.

JOHN: Right so. So somehow early on, Dad and I were both on AOL.com, and I was in the graduate program there at Northwestern, and was taking an ancient Greek—something—course. And you had to have a pass phrase or a catch phrase or something like that by which you would be identified to … AOL. So I wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” You know, Socrates. So Dad wrote back, “True, but the examined life is just plain scary!” So we can pick that up later, perhaps, maybe in another podcast.

But look, for me, the unexamined life was my life for a long time, and by that I mean I kind of did what was laid out for me. I did pretty well in high school and it was everybody's expectation, I think, and therefore mine, that I would go to college, just because that is the thing that happened next. But also, I was a trombone player; I really wanted to be a better trombone player; I had spent the six weeks between my sophomore and junior years of high school at the Eastman School of Music Summer Jazz Studies Program. That was a transformative period. That six weeks, in so many different respects, changed my life and cemented my love for music, and made me know that I could do pretty well in it. So I wanted to go to Eastman, and I wanted to be a jazz trombonist. Dad said, “On the off chance that doesn't work out, why don't you go to a school that has a good liberal arts, a good academic pedigree, alongside the music credentials?” And so, Eastman was the choice for me, because the U of R was a great school on top of it.

So it was kind of a combination of things. It was conforming. It was understanding that, you know, to move ahead in the society in which I lived, moving to that next level, and succeeding at that next level was going to lead in some form or fashion to my success, or at least be sort of, in my view, that was the bare minimum. You just needed to do that. If you didn't check that box with an undergraduate degree, you weren't going to reach whatever that next level was, whether it was going to be music, or whether it was going to be something else. I felt I needed to do it. And I just didn't think a lot about it. It was almost reflexive that I was going to go to college.

But also, I loved to learn. And I knew that if I was going to learn more about trombone, one of the ways to do that I was going to go it was going to be to go to where the masters were and where they were teaching really good stuff. And I still feel that way about learning. I mean, learning is critical. I don't know that it's in formal education where you are going to learn the most. In fact, I'm convinced that there are lots of other places where you will learn gobs more.

[10:50] PETER: It leads me into the next question, because I just mentioned the kinds of things which are a couple of the things that have stuck in my head from cases that we've talked about, you know, just that you have to as a trial attorney acquaint yourself with. I'm sure sometimes you have to learn some, you know medical, information. You know, it just depends on what the case is. And this is sometimes called “just in time” learning, as opposed to “just in case” learning, which is what most of school is. So “just in time” learning you learn because you need to know it right then; there's a there's an exigent, urgent situation that requires you to master some new material. Do you feel like that kind of learning, and you mentioned that you love to learn, but do you feel like the kind of learning that you did in the school carries over into the kind of learning that you'd need to do when you prepare for a trial and try to get yourself acquainted with a new body of material, or is it different, or how do those things fit together?

JOHN: Right, so when I hear Greg talk about a “Free School” or whatever, you know, the notion of your interest—

PETER:  Really unstructured.

JOHN: Really unstructured—and your interest being nurtured or facilitated by somebody who's just listening to what you think you want to do and helps you get there … I immediately recoil against that in a visceral way, and can’t even explain fully why that is … Just because, I feel like you know, on the one hand, what does a high schooler know, what does a middle schooler or what does a college student know about what he really wants to know, what he should know in order to succeed in life? And you're taking your cues, you're taking your pointers from people who have been there. So I recoil against that, and yet I think that there's something really important there, because the “just in case” thing is about learning to learn. It's about a sort of foundational set of skills, a foundation of knowledge and understanding, and so on and so forth. And I think that's necessary, at least in my case, for me then to be able to get to a case where now it's “just in time” learning, right? I need to learn engineering principles, I need to sit down with a civil engineer or a structural engineer, or an orthopedic surgeon or somebody who's going to help me understand what I need to understand in order to advocate for my client. And I don't think I could do that if I didn't have a certain threshold reservoir of “just in case” learning built up. So I think that, for me anyway, it goes very much hand in hand.

[13:39] PETER: You're each the father of two amazing kids who but I can assess impartially in this way as their beloved uncle. All four kids are now in high school. How do you think your own experience with education affects the concerns or goals that you have for your kids in school?

GREGORY: Well with both of my kids, I talk about what I think is a good idea is that they have some sort of plan. And so their plan can be college, for example, and so sort of a conventional approach. Now it’s from the perspective of a parent that I am able to advocate for the more conservative general approach of, you know, keeping your options open. What I do remember and what figures into my perspective now pretty heavily is the degree to which you can be absolutely certain as an 8 year-old or a 12 year-old or a 17 year-old what what you're going to be doing next. And it’s certainly as a 17 year-old that you have all the answers at that point, and all the other invincibilities inherent to being that age.

PETER: How about you Johnny? How does your experience in school, any of it, affect the way you think about Brooke and Ava in school?

JOHN: What I want for them with education is what I experienced with my formal education that is to say the exposure to lots and lots of different ways of thinking about the world, and the problems of the world, and the joys of the world, and developing relationships … And I think about my time in high school and college and graduate school and law school as opportunities for me to develop wonderful relationships and friendships that sustain me to this day.

And for me to be exposed to a variety of opinions, some of which took hold and shaped my life, and some of which I rejected out of hand, and probably therefore shaped my life in a different way, by being exposed to all of those different people, whether they were professors, whether they were fellow students, whether they were people protesting in shanties in the mid ‘80s at the U of R— Whatever it was, I was caused to think about who I am and what I wanted to do and why. And I think unfortunately there's not enough of that in our country and our world, you know, being open to and bombarded with different views. My experience was one of horizon broadening, every successive step of my educational journey. And that's what I hope for for them.

PETER: You mentioned how motivated they are to study. Does the flipside of that, does the stress, or the potential for stress, concern you as you as you as you think about that?

JOHN: Yeah it really does. It really does. They are achieving at what I think frankly is an unsustainable clip right now, such that they are certain to fall off at some point.

GREGORY: I worry about sort of the opposite end of that pressure, because I remember all too well the stress that missing some classes and not doing well in school and having homework hanging over your head, that kind of stress and pressure I really worry about. There's pressure either way is my point, I guess, at either end of those spectrums. Only if you find yourself happily somewhere in the middle maybe can youget away from the pressure.

[18:05] PETER: Let's talk about music. Growing up mom and dad both sang and played piano. Eventually we all sang and played piano. Dad also played cello. Mom not only played but taught violin lessons for many years. Johnny played trombone, guitar. Greg, trumpet, guitar, percussion. So you two Horn brothers were also horn players, a fact many people found hilarious but probably—

JOHN: Many still do.

PETER: —probably drove me as little brother to study violin. Is learning music like learning other things?

GREGORY: Well I was going to mention this earlier, the idea that the internal motivation is ideally the impetus for all learning but—and there were certainly—I recounted many times over the years the number of times I'd throw myself off the back of a piano bench—

PETER: Trying to break an arm?

GREGORY: Something. Maybe I wanted to be sitting on a different bench than the piano bench. But at some point, and this is the way I think that music learning has been different for me and for my son Alex, for sure—and I think he had very similar experiences. We more or less made him do cello lessons starting at the age of three. The idea was at some point it would be his own idea, his own choice. And that has happened. He still plays the cello, not as much as he has over the years, but he's really taken to guitar and that's been almost, no that's been 100 percent under under his own wind, in his sails, whatever the expression is. Yeah if learning could always take place with that much enthusiasm and that much interest that would be the idea. But again, it's a good example of him needing a push to get started with that and you know maybe that's an approach that you could employ with different endeavors, in various endeavors.

JOHN: Is it like learning other things. That was the question? Look, I think it is in a lot of respects, right? I mean if you don't learn basic vocabulary, it's tough to communicate at any higher or more intimate level. You’ve got to learn the notes and you've got to learn how to put together basic sentences. So like one of the things that we learned again, during that six week magical period for me between sophomore and junior year in high school at Eastman School of Music, I remember watching the really, really accomplished jazz musicians, high school jazz musicians that I was just wowed by, this one guy in particular, John Bailey, sitting in his room on the floor with his trumpet in his hand and a Harmon mute at the end of the horn, and he was listening on a turntable to a Miles Davis solo, and he would play about eight bars of it, on the record, and then he would play. And he picked the arm, the needle up and he played what he thought he had just heard. And then he would come back and he would play again—it was a lot harder on a turntable, than you know today, right? But the idea was Learning from the Masters, right? And learning the vocabulary and then when he hears what Miles does with a particular chord progression he then gets comfortable in his own skin, with what he can do. But only after he listens to the Masters. It's a combination of skills and aptitude, and then something more, right? Just a love, a desire to to reach the next level on that thing. And the people that combine those two things—because the skill without that desire is kind of a dead end. But sometimes the desire without the requisite skills or the requisite discipline to learn those skills, that doesn't get you very far.

GREGORY: And I've got to cut in there. You keep talking about music in terms of being good at it and getting better and stuff with it. And there's certainly that approach that you can take with music. But I would suggest that maybe music is a little different from a lot of other disciplines and it can just be about expressing yourself. It can be, can and should be for amateurs, you know for the love of it, for people to just do once in a while or on the spur of the moment. You know it's a participation thing, it's an expressing yourself thing and as such doesn't have to be the culmination of any kind of practiced, disciplined, methodical approach to get you to that moment with any other particular goal. Communication, vocabulary, you know those things certainly can be part of and are part of music, depending on the approach, but don't need to be, is my view.

PETER: One of my goals—as you know, there was a baby grand piano in my classroom, in my English classroom—and one of the reasons I brought in visiting artists like you, like Jonathan Hiam and like Shayfer James, who was was an artist in residence, was to try to disabuse kids of the notion that we can learn internalize very early like “You can't sing, you know that’s not for you, it's for that group of people over there, music is for that group of people,” and of course there's, aside from language, arguably nothing more fundamental to human societies than music. You know, the upside of an iPod is that you can have any kind of performance you want. You know, right there [snap]. The downside is that it's very easy to let other people be the ones who are making music and not you because you're not good enough, you're not the pro and you're never going to be as good as those guys so why try?

[25:34] PETER: Greg, why are you better at percussion than John and me?

JOHN: Objection! Presupposes an answer. Not established!

PETER: You’re better at percussion than we are!

GREGORY: I don't know that that's true. I think I just expressed myself—

PETER: [scolding John, who begins drumming with his fingers] Not at the table with the microphones!

JOHN: Yeah, I got your percussion superiority!

GREGORY: I was gonna say, “I’m not better than you guys,” but maybe better than Johnny! [Dogs barking]

PETER: Production support brought to us by Dognanny, unusually perfect care for dogs, home services available for cats.

GREGORY: Well I've spent so much time playing, maybe developing what are typically typically considered percussion skills. But who's better expressing themselves with percussion?

JOHN: You. [Laughs] You know actually you just you kind of made my point there a little bit. I mean you, I think, just had a better sense of time than I did. Now I can hear when somebody is off, I can hear when somebody loses time, or picks up time, or can't keep it straight. But if I'm left to do it on my own, I invariably will screw it up. And it's because in part I just don't think I have the hard wiring or if I have it, I haven't worked hard enough to sort of cultivate it, which is the other thing. You have spent a lot of time listening to it, studying and working on it, and putting in the time, putting in the reps leads to a degree of accomplishment, which is what I was saying about music before, right?

So if you want to be at a level, you've got to put in the work to get to that level. And it does it mean that somebody who just does music once in a while can’t derive the same level of satisfaction as somebody who does it for a living, and maybe arguably derives much greater satisfaction, because there's no pressure, you know, to put bread on the table with the music, right. But look, if you want to be good at something, you've got to work at it, period.

GREGORY: I think it has to do with interest. You know certainly people have, everybody has areas that they gravitate towards and areas they would consider themselves sort of less adequate at. Peter is very good at—and I think it's due to his interest in—he’s very good at accents and doing impressions and that sort of thing. I'm horrible at it. And John, you’re not so good at it—

JOHN: Are we gonna get to a point in the program where I’m good at a thing?

PETER: You’re good at talking real loud when you’re uncomfortable, when you wanna make a point. I’ve heard a lot of that so far.

GREGORY: I've been really aware over the years, and I'm not the only one that this is true of, but, that I don't know the words to any pop songs and stuff like that. And there are some people that know every word, and it's not because I haven't heard it as many times as these other people, it’s because I don't pay attention, I'm not interested in that. It's not something I pay attention to. I think Peter pays attention to accents, and hears them and hears the details of them in a way that I don't perceive them. And maybe the way that I listen to percussion, or the way that I'm interested in percussion is a way that expresses more interest in it than you have in it. Maybe you're busy listening to other aspects, melodically, or you know chord progressions or something like that. Just a theory.

JOHN: I think it’s a good theory. I think it’s a good theory. I don't know why it is—so again, now we've reached a thing that you and I are less good at than another brother but I can't remember the words to stuff either. I mean there are a few tunes—

GREGORY: Maybe you're not that interested in it. That's my theory. I can't tell you how many times too—and this is unrelated, but—somebody will say, “Well what did you think of that?” You know we were just looking at, and I have no idea what they're referring to! You know, the whatever, the guy had a parrot on his head or something like that. You know I'd like to think I would notice that, but I have what I like to consider a gift for being able to focus on what interests me and sometimes it's at the exclusion of things that don't necessarily capture as much of my attention at that moment.

PETER: I feel like as a family we spent too much time wearing parrots on our head when Greg was growing up. It's just like, “Been there!”

JOHN: Right.

GREGORY: I didn't notice them, is what I’m saying.

JOHN: So that may or may not be true.

PETER: But as far as what Greg, and here’s another thing that Greg’s better than you at John—

JOHN: Was there a subtitle for this podcast that I wasn’t aware of?

PETER: I write them afterwards, you know, see how it shakes out.

GREGORY: [on Jeopardy] Alex, I’ll take GREG’S BETTER THAN JOHN AT THIS for $1000.

PETER: But walking into a room like at a restaurant and Greg’ll be just checking out the tile, like how the place is put together, like “Oh you know this is an addition right here” or like, “This place burned down at some point,” you know—

GREGORY: Or the drywall seams are making my skin crawl. And Johnny’s like, “What’s drywall? Not really, but—”

JOHN: [mock offended] Wow! You know, I walk into a room and I notice what they have on tap and who's in the room.

PETER: There you go, connector?

JOHN: I’m a big connector. You know, I think that my success in my career has every bit as much to do with my interest in, and affection for people, and helping them get where they want to be, which invariably involves introducing them to the folks they want to be introduced to, or maybe can benefit from being introduced to—so I'm always looking at that when I walk into a room. So now, it would be a good idea to say Happy Thanksgiving!

GREGORY: Happy Thanksgiving.

PETER: Happy Thanksgiving. That was awesome. Let’s do it one more time, let me turn this on.

PETER, voiceover: Well that’s it for this Thanksgiving edition of Point of Learning. My great thanks to my brothers for sharing a little bit of the ideas, music, banter, and firm but loving disagreement that marked so many mealtime exchanges around the table when I was growing up. Special thanks to Johnny for embracing what turned into a little bit of a birthday roast toward the end there. My niece Jordan represented her talented brother and cousins, all of whom make music, with the Sara Bareilles chord progression and song you heard midway through the episode. John played the rest of the piano parts, Gregory was on trumpet, I played fiddle. Also, a little bit of Gregory’s song “So Uncivilized” was featured when I was talking about his time playing in the Great Train Robbery. Thanks as always to Shayfer James for intro and outro, to you for listening, sharing, and—PLEASE!—subscribing through iTunes. There’s one more holiday edition of Point of Learning on tap for next month, with a Victorian take on what and how and why we learn. Back at you then!

PETER: What's the coolest thing you ever learned how to do?

JOHN: Taxi whistle without putting my fingers in my mouth. [whistles]

GREGORY: Scuba diving. I think it's real cool in that, you know, we don't belong down there. And so it's pretty cool that somebody figured out how to—under the water?

JOHN: We, people, don’t belong—

GREGORY: We don't belong to the bottom of the ocean.

JOHN: Well we figured out a way to be there.

GREGORY: We figured out a way to be there, not belong there.

JOHN: Well who of us belongs anywhere?

GREGORY: Ask anybody else you run into down there. I don’t really think so.

JOHN: There are a lot of places I wind up on a daily basis where that could be said.

PETER: Sit, Ubu, sit! [Dog barks] Good dog. (Oh that’s going in.)

GREGORY: That’s the plug.


Peter Horn