Former rock Hall of Fame curator Bruce Conforth wins Golden Apple as U-M instructor
Kody Klein | For AnnArbor.com
The student congratulates Conforth -- a former curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who now teaches American music culture at U-M -- on winning this year's Golden Apple Award. It’s an annual honor to a U-M instructor or professor who exceedingly inspires and engages his or her students.
"I really want to get together and jam soon," the student says.
"You let me know," Conforth replies. "I'll be there."
It’s this type of personal connection that may explain why Conforth was nominated by his students for this year's Golden Apple.
"Students have value as individuals, as students, and as teachers," Conforth says of his teaching style. "That's why I call teaching a sacred undertaking. It really is about honoring the individual. It's not just about saying, 'Here's your facts -- learn them and I'm going to test you on them.' It's about honoring people as human beings with tremendous unlimited potential."
It’s that potential that Conforth is most interested in.
At the Golden Apple ceremony, Conforth was asked to give his ideal last lecture. Instead of discussing ethnomusicology, Eastern religion, or the psychedelic effects of visual and aural stimuli on consciousness, all of which he could spend semesters teaching, Conforth focused on a simple poignant message. Standing before the throng of students sitting in Rackham auditorium, he bade them, "Heed your calling."
Conforth defines a "calling" as what a person feels intrinsically driven to do, something that provides unparalleled happiness and purpose. He thinks it's especially important to encourage students to discover and pursue their callings.
"They're told by their parents, their advisors, their families, their friends to do this or that, but how often does what they're told by other people really mesh with what they feel inside themselves?" he asks.
Though his message is directed at individuals, Conforth stresses that people who live their lives with passion ultimately improve the lives of everyone around them.
Photo courtesy of U-M Photo Services
Conforth says he's realized that in all of his varied endeavors, as an artist and professional musician, a psycho-musical researcher and ethnomusicologist, as the first curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a trekking guide in Nepal, and most recently as a U-M instructor in American studies, he has always been heeding his highest calling: teaching.
"What really interests me, what makes me feel like my passion is being filled, is to turn people on to new ideas, to make a difference in peoples' lives," he says.
Fiona Clowney, a sophomore who took Conforth's course in American blues music, says his teaching is very personal and based heavily on discussion.
"I think Bruce is an amazing teacher," Clowney says. "He hasn't learned his knowledge about the blues from books. He's really learned it from experience and that comes through in his teaching. It makes him much more interested in hearing our opinions and listening to these different views."
Conforth says he's interested in hearing his students' opinions because, whether they realize it or not, they're teaching him as well.
"We're all teachers, constantly," he says. "The very act of being alive, of being human, is to be a teacher. You're showing something about yourself. You're displaying something about the way you perceive the world. You're interacting with other individuals. Just looking at the people walking around, they're all in some way displaying something about themselves."
True to his ideals, Conforth has taught people to heed their callings by first being true to his own.
Though he externally exudes the contentment of voluntary modest living, dressed in a simple black T-shirt and blue jeans, Conforth says he lived a lavish and decadent life during his time at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a life he says ultimately hindered his happiness.
"It was too seductive," he says. "Being put up in the best hotels in the state, driving around in limousines, making a lot of money, it becomes really easy to become seduced by that lifestyle but at some point you have to ask yourself, 'what am I accomplishing? What am I accomplishing by sitting in this hotel suite? What am I accomplishing by people liking me for what I do instead of who I am?'"
Watching the people walking by along South State Street on that recent sunny afternoon, Conforth says he hopes they're actively asking themselves similar questions.
"When I see crowds of people, I wonder how many of them lead lives of introspection," he says. "Who really wants to go through life without ever asking the important questions? Why am I here? Am I making a difference? Am I helping make the world a better place? Those are tough questions but they're the most important questions."
Conforth speculates that society has discouraged people from asking these questions by allowing personal success to be defined too much on wealth and the acquisition of material possessions.
"Too many people are into accumulating wealth and accumulating stuff rather than making a difference in the world," he says. Conforth says that material possessions should be kept as secondary concerns.
"I think it's very important to recognize that all of those things are very transient," he says. "Even if it's not until you die, ultimately you lose them."
"On your death bed, are you going to sit there and say, 'I'm happy because I had a couple of cars,' or are you going to sit there and say 'I'm happy because I did the things that were important to me'?"