Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • A Word of Gratitude, Please

    • Posted on Nov 24, 2013 by Scott Cawelti
    Published in this morning's Courier---Thanksgiving is here, and thanks is not the same, quite, as gratitude.   


    Thanksgiving approaches, and it’s about time.  Because we’re usually too busy, tired, angry, distracted, sick, full of ourselves, or downright depressed, we don’t notice how much we need to thank and be thanked.

    So, thanks to Thanksgiving, we give thanks once a year, anyway. 

    When you’re feeling down and out, lift up your head and shout--thanks.

    For what?  To whom?  To anyone who remotely deserves it, and everyone we know deserves thanks for something.

    Now, life contains very few panaceas—for the body, there’s aspirin, daily exercise and hydrating.  These standard cure-alls help keep sickness at bay for millions.  

    For the mind?   Thankfulness.   It approaches a universal cure-all for unhappiness and depression.  It’s free and universally available.  

    Unfortunately, thankfulness only gets the attention it deserves once a year, and it’s forgotten the next day, “Black Friday.”  

    I’ll admit that power shopping for gifts the day after Thanksgiving might include thankfulness, but mostly it’s just obligatory bargain-scouring.  Thanking gets forgotten in the rush for bargains.  

    Maybe we should take thankfulness to another level, into gratitude.

    Much thankfulness, after all, comes easily after almost any service, small or large. A polite waiter writes “thank you” on the bill and garners a larger tip.   We thank flight attendants, cab drivers, UPS delivery folks, and neighbors when they bring in the mail. 

    it’s the penny in the change jar—plentiful and not worth all that much. 

    Gratitude, however, requires more.   All gratitude includes thanks, but not all thanks include gratitude.   I’m thankful for cheaper gas, but don’t feel gratitude for it. 

    We’re thankful for clean air and water, but do we owe gratitude?  Not really.   And I’m thankful when someone recommends a good restaurant in an unfamiliar town, but no special gratitude comes.   

    Here’s when I feel gratitude:  Someone tells me about a great eatery, then takes me there and pays. It happens—especially when there’s a genuine need.  

    Feeding the hungry for no special reward, after all, gets special attention in Christianity, and gratitude sits at the center of most religions.    

    Gratitude arises when someone goes out of their way, puts themselves out, and does a genuine good turn for no expected reward.

    I feel thankful for getting paid to sing and write, then gratitude to people who respond, since they don’t have to.  I feel gratitude for the teachers who worked hard for low pay and little recognition, just to help me learn.   And to my dad, who sacrificed so that I could get an education he never could. 

    I never gave him the gratitude he deserved.  But he didn’t do it to get anything, so it doesn’t matter.  At least that’s what I tell myself.  

    Ideally, Thanksgiving Day can be a day of offering not only thanks, but also gratitude to those who gave just because it was right, who didn’t look  for a reward.  After all, gratitude must be freely given or it’s merely commerce, a payback.   

    Gratitude gets explored in detail in an interesting new book by Cedar Falls educator and long-time colleague, Len Froyen.  

    Froyen’s book, “Gratitude: Affirming One Another Through Stories,” offers a collection of extended anecdotes about how gratitude has worked in his life, and by extension, all our lives.  

    He insists that gratitude is the “seedbed” of all other virtues--and you can’t be depressed if you can feel and show gratitude.   He asserts, “Gratitude helps us take pleasure in recalling what has been taken for granted and aimlessly deposited along the pathways of life. We need only look over our shoulder to see how gratitude has been overlooked an underappreciated.”  So true.  

    I plan to offer both thanks and gratitude this Thursday. 

    Maybe even Friday.  



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  • In the Company of Virtuoso Musicians

    • Posted on Nov 04, 2013 by Scott Cawelti
    Published in the WATERLOO COURIER on Sunday,  October 27.  It's the culmination of our London trip, really, and explores what happens when gifted people develop their gifts with fierce passion and discipline.    

    For the past three weeks I’ve been surrounded by music and musicians, and it’s been—well, read on.

    By “music and musicians” I mean the highest of high-end virtuoso musicians, principal players in the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras, among others.   

    Because I’m married to a UNI flutist who’s researching a book on British flautist Geoffrey Gilbert, we’ve been in London interviewing those Gilbert students who are now accomplished concert performers and teachers.  

    Gilbert taught several major flautists in the United Kingdom, including Sir James Galway, William Bennett, Trevor Wye, and Susan Milan, among many others.  We’ve been interviewing them all.      

    I’m here to tell you:  Musicians at the virtuoso level are special people.  Being with them has offered a chance to ponder music and its place in our lives.    

    Having taught music briefly myself, I know a little about how music works.

    Humans seek it, play it, listen to it, yearn for it, use it as therapy, and wish they could play it better. 

    I’ve now become more aware of how music affects those who devote every waking hour to it.  All the musicians we’ve interviewed have done just that from childhood.

    What else makes them special?

    First and foremost, they’re disciplined.   They spend hours in daily practice, and all emphasize the need to love and play their instrument, virtually constantly. It’s not for the uncommitted or lazy.     

    When we arrived at Galway’s hotel suite in Belfast, the first notable object was a music stand with music on it.  He had been practicing that morning, and every morning, beginning with scales and difficult passages.  

    Galway emphasized during his interview that no one wants to listen to musicians who don’t practice daily.  Susan Milan, the first woman principal flutist of the Royal Philharmonic, told us that she spent a full year, seven hours a day, practicing nothing but scales and studies.

    And she loved it.  Every minute of it.   Those are her words. 

    That’s the second trait of accomplished musicians.  They spend their lives in love.  Totally, completely, unequivocally in love.  Not necessarily with a romantic partner and certainly not with themselves.  But with making music.  

    Many are in happy relationships, but their partners have a rival in music.

    All accomplished musicians overcame doubts, complaints, critics, personal hangups, and devoted themselves completely to music, to improving their playing to the point of near-perfection.

    I asked William Bennett, another superstar of the flute world, how he managed to teach nine one-hour master classes in one long day with such high energy.  We visited his master class at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where only the best students get admitted.  Forty students also attended.

    I observed two hours, and his intensity and devotion to each student was beyond admirable.

    Bennett said, “This is a like a vacation from worries for me.  It’s plain fun, all day.”

    He’s about to turn 78, by the way. 

    That’s the third trait of these virtuosos:  Longevity.

    Because these musicians never “work” in the sense of grinding through a day of resenting what they do, they’re often able to carry on for years beyond the norm. 

    Besides Bennett, Sir James Galway may be the best example.  He’s 74, and when we interviewed him he was about to headline the Belfast Music Festival, playing a concerto with the Ulster Chamber Orchestra. 

    Though busy with interviews, rehearsals, master classes, and constant demands on his time, he seemed relaxed and full of good humor.  Clearly he enjoys fame—he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2001--but not nearly as much as he enjoys making music.

    That’s the whole key:  Making music. Nearly everyone I know has made music, or makes music, or wish they had made music.  It seems the very stuff of life, akin to breathing and eating.      

    Virtuoso musicians, by virtue of their talent, practice, and commitment, just have more of it.

    “Music has charms to sooth the savage breast,” wrote William Congreve in 1697, then the striking second line: “To soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”

    That’s the power of music:  sooth, soften, bend.  

    Now I would add:  Transform.   

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