What Being a Fish Means to Me: What Kind of Music are You Making?

My reading lately has led me to John Cage’s book Silence, which oddly reminds me of our team’s desire to embody the FISH! Philosophy of Seattle’s Pike’s Place Fish Company. Cage, an avant-garde composer, is famous both for his writing and for the experimental piece 4:33, in which each of the three movements begins with the sound of the solo pianist CLOSING the keyboard cover. What ensues has been called four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The first performance of this piece took place at a rustic music hall where the sound of the breeze in the trees, rain on the rooftop, and a dog barking combined with other audience sounds to create this particular four minutes and 33 seconds of ‘music.’ Cage’s work helped to break composers from the chains of hard and fast judgments that equated ‘good’ music with sounds, rhythms, and structures that resembled Bach, Beethoven, and the great works of the past. To restore freshness, Cage tried to free himself from judging sounds as good or bad, pleasing and musical or annoying and noisy. Who’s to say there isn’t ‘music’ in the sublime daily sounds of the birds outside your window or even the percussion of a workman’s hammer?

When fish go flying overhead at Pike’s Place, the ‘music’ is composed of a ‘Heeeeey-Yaaaaah’ from the thrower and often a ‘Whooah’ from the receiver, along with the percussion of cold, weighty scales smacking into the flesh of an employee’s hands. With each toss and the smiles or wide-eyed astonishment of tourists, the normal expectations of a fish market are shattered and something else is created, something playful and original that calls out to a place in our hearts.

So how can a group of college counselors heed this call as we work with young people anxious about the school and college application process? Simple. We begin by following one of the first guidelines of The FISH! Philosophy — “Clear your mind of judgments.” Which schools and colleges are ‘good,’ really? How do we know? Good for who? Is my application ‘good’ when I do my best to imitate what my mom/cousin/acquaintance-of-the-guy-next-door-who got into Harvard did in their application?

We can have some fun in the application process by blowing up the habit of mindless repetition and the search for an external ‘right’ answer and outcome. We can try NOT to be shepherds of Excellent Sheep, the title of a provocative book by a Yale professor bemoaning some of the traits of the students he encounters in his classes. I haven’t read this book yet, perhaps because it’s too close to home. I attended an elite university, and I’m still working to let go of trying to do everything ‘right’ so I can just show up for my life authentically and unabashedly as myself — damn the torpedoes! – rather than getting lost in my head and calculating anticipated results and repercussions.

Sure, my colleagues and I are students of the ever-changing college environment, which includes everything from campus cultures and programming to how applications are read and how decisions are reached. We’re also students of adolescent development, so we’re focused on two dynamic and complex ‘environments.’ These challenges and another FISH! Philosophy practice (“Look for the Best – You’ll Find it Everywhere!”) are what make our job worth doing. As our students grow before our eyes and share their enthusiasms and doubts, we can always meet them in the moment, be authentic, and celebrate who they are and how they’re showing up as best they can at this key, mysterious, and often fraught stage of life. We know from experience that who they are and how they show up — with us and in every aspect of their lives – is what matters most. While everything is constantly changing, we’ve also been here before, in some very real sense, and have seen that the process works when students focus on what they can control and are empowered to make their own music – whatever t

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