Posts Tagged “Sightsinging”

I spent much of February preparing and giving 4 workshops in RÄ«ga on rhythmic organization in music outside the European tradition. Antra DreÄ£e, the director of the women’s vocal ensemble Putni (whom I wrote about in this blog previously), applied for a grant to bring me to RÄ«ga, ostensibly to help the ensemble cohere better when tackling complex rhythmic passages by introducing them to approaches to rhythm from other parts of the world.

I’ve thought about this a lot, actually, the way that musicianship is taught. And the way that World Music is taught, too.

Back in grad school, I took a grad-level Introduction to World Music course. I think it was pretty typical of such courses. The textbook material spanned the continents, focusing on the music of Africa, India, Asia, Native America and South America. There were a couple of cassettes that came with it. Each music was handled with two ranges of vision, namely a broad description of the music culture and then a focus on some individuals’ stories within the culture. It was ultimately all very biographic-socio-anthropological. And while my appreciation for that music was genuine, it also seemed somehow insubstantial. Okay, it was an introduction. But what I mean is that there was nothing hands on about it, nothing the equivalent of a laboratory experiment to get that music somehow in my nervous system. I guess my point is that the experience was very passive.

I taught Sightsinging and Ear-Training at Hofstra University in New York for 6 years as an adjunct. Frankly, I think the title of such a course is a misnomer. It should be called Musicianship for Musicians, or something like that. It combines singing individually and in parts, clapping, keyboard skills, dictation and analysis.

At some point in the middle of my ”˜tenure’ (ha!) there, I had something of a revelation regarding my class that led me to try some experiments with my classes. It requires that I tie together a few divergent strands, so bear with me, please.

Rhythm
My first serious musical experiences were as a drummer, though I put it aside for voice and composition by the time I got to college. Nevertheless, it’s always been a critical part of my musical and compositional thinking, and I’ve never abandoned it completely. Apropos of my comments above, over the years I’ve dabbled with West African drumming, Japanese Taiko, and the Irish Bodhran. Even here in Liepāja I’ve played drumset at a local pub with some local musicians on a few ocassions. Anyway, I never neglected rhythm in my classes.

Vernacular Music
I am one of the now quite numerous and therefore no longer quite so unclean great unwashed. Most of the guys I went to school with would not shudder with disbelief at say, a serious examination as opera of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or fail to appreciate just how cool it is that The Police’s quirky and twisted Mother from Synchronicity is a 7/8 12-bar blues, for example. Many of us played in bands, and most of us take this music seriously. While I’m talking about Sting ”“ he is an excellent musician. Just think about the complexity of singing Spirits in the Material World while playing that funky bass line. I know for damned sure that most of my students at Hofstra would have broken down and cried if I’d given them an assignment that complex.

World Music (and Folk Music too) ”“ A rose by any other name.
I hereby join the chorus of those who bemoan the term World Music to describe anything that is basically outside the mainstream of the European concert music heritage, Jazz, or one of the many bastard stepchildren of American rock music. Be that as it may, the term isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And if we can live with the duality of the term Classical Music both as a style and an era, we can live with this one too.

I’ve noticed something about some of the musicians in this category. I saw the great salsa drummer Bobby Sanabria at a percussion conference, and he played the cinquillo (the 5-note clave pattern) with his right foot (with a bass drum pedal against a mounted cowbell), while playing congas with his hands, all the while telling a story in a completely natural fashion. I saw a salsa band at the South Street Seaport one Cinco de Mayo, and the lead singer was also the conga player. The polyrhythmic complexities he performed between the vocal and rhythmic lines were staggeringly sophisticated, yet he made them seem effortless. At another percussion conference, I saw an Arabic doumbek player accomplish much the same thing. Actually, at the same conference, I also saw Vinx, a djembe-playing pop singer who’d opened for Sting in the 90’s. (How’s that for tying things together? Maybe I’m the new Kevin Bacon. Or Sting is.)

The music field as a whole recognizes the sophistication of Indian classical music or West African drumming (we do, don’t we?), but nobody has yet surveyed that literature in a systematic way with an eye toward making it at experientially available to all music majors. There are several gamelan ensembles throughout the country, many African (and some Latin) drumming ensembles, and a handful of programs that offer Arabic or Indian music ensembles. Several universities have umbrella World Music Ensembles, and most have Introduction to World Music classes. I began thinking about the pedagogical value of this music, though, and to wonder why, despite all I mentioned above, it is only available on the margins and not integrated into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

Here’s a very broad statement about the development of music (from a composer’s point of view): it is a constantly evolving conception of how to carve up musical pitch space and musical time. The 20th century saw a grand speciation, continuing the evolution metaphor, yet even in the 21st century our universities barely engage students with this music. Add to this mixture the myriad ways that musical space and time are treated outside the concert music tradition, and maybe we start to see an error in our calculus. Maybe the effort spent creating young Schenkerian listeners is the equivalent of clothing them in an aural straightjacket. (Schenkerian analysis is extraordinarily effective, but only for a narrow slice of the repertoire.)

Our discipline has become so fractured by specialization, not to mention frustratingly turf-protective, that this idea is actually more radical than it should be. Hell, when I suggested we offer an Introduction to World Music course at Hofstra, one of the tenured professors suggested it better belonged in the Anthropology Department, which struck me as elitist at best, or racist at worst. I had a job interview last year at a sizable Midwestern university (I didn’t get the job), but one of the questions I was asked during the interview process was: why do we do melodic dictation? I answered that melodic dictation was part of a gradual process of moving from the relatively simple to the complex by isolating a single element. But he said, no, why do we do melodic dictation at all? He then elaborated, saying that it was pointless to separate melodies from their harmonic framework, and what should really be instituted was a gradual process from melodies together with simple harmonies to more complex melodic and harmonic structures. An interesting point, actually. But one that also highlights the scope of his musical concerns (approximately 300 years of the Western European common practice period) while failing to recognize the existence of so much music that is primarily melodic in nature or devoid of functional harmony. I really, really love Bach. But there is so much more music to love.

I think this situation can be summed up by a scene in the Simpsons, from an episode called “Homer the Heretic:”

Ned: Homer, God didn’t set your house on fire.
Rev. Lovejoy: No, but He was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid, be they [points to Ned] Christian, [Krusty] Jew, or [Apu] … other.
Apu: Hindu! There are 700 million of us.
Rev. Lovejoy: Aw, that’s super.

There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s called Eurhythmics.
Clapping, stepping, playing or conducting while singing or vocalizing simultaneously is what is broadly known as eurhythmics. The Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze developed a eurhythmic, or whole-body approach to teaching musicianship nearly a century ago. A sizable sub-culture has arisen in music education circles devoted to this approach. The Dalcroze method currently places a heavy emphasis on teaching children and is thus invaluable to music education majors, but it has yet to be integrated into a broader music curriculum geared toward non-children.

Wouldn’t some of this World Music stuff qualify as eurhythmic? Absolutely. For example, I have my students clap a clavé and sing a salsa melody. Or they sing an Arab melody while clapping an Iqat (a rhythmic mode that accompanies it). I also use Glen Velez’s Handance Method, where we play frame drums, step in a pattern and vocalize rhythms in patterns, all while cueing off each other (which by the way, is also a great framework in which to introduce some simple improvisation).

By way of analogy, consider the possibilities in a weight room. You can use the nautilus machines or you can use free weights. Which is better? The free weights, of course, because you have to stabilize the weight yourself through the entire range of motion, thus using more muscles at once. What’s even better than free weights? Free weights on a physio-ball, because you have to stabilize the weights through the whole range of motion while using other muscles to counterbalance that motion (you are after all, on a ball). Any trainer knows that you get more from exercise if you concentrate on what you’re doing. Your whole nervous system is involved in that activity. Now that’s focus.

It’s the same with eurhythmics. If you are stepping, clapping and singing at the same time, your whole body is awake to the activity. I’m sure that those of us who are educators have had the experience of watching students make mistakes and (outwardly, at least) not even notice that they’d made a mistake. Once I started incorporating this way of thinking into my classroom, when students made rhythmic mistakes, they knew it, and it helped them with pitch too, mostly because they could not possibly sleepwalk through any activity.

It’s a classroom, stupid.
One of the things I found frustrating about teaching Musicianship is the need to individualize the experience while at the same time having the reality of 15 students in the room and 50 minutes to work with. An attractive element of some World and Folk Music is the communal aspect of their music making, and in effect, by including things like sung drones or call and response, I can create a small musical community of the classroom. An added benefit of this is that I can assess an individual student’s performance of a homework assignment, not with 14 other kids sitting silently, but with them involved too. It makes it more interesting for them and creates a supportive environment.

The workshops.
So, back to RÄ«ga. Over the course of a week, I gave four workshops. I devised performance exercises, created broad summaries, found good illustrative listening examples. Here’s what the schedule looked like:
February 20th – Flamenco. Clapping technique, palmas and contrapalmas. Melodic/harmonic organization in Flamenco.
February 22nd – African rhythm and song. Introduction to rhythmic organization in West African music. Some simple folk songs that include singing, clapping and stepping all together.
February 23rd – Gamelan and Ketjak from Bali and Indonesia. Emphasis is placed on interlocking rhythms within larger rhythmic cycles. We will sing some Gamelan-like examples and chant Ketjak.
February 27th – Indian music. Solkattu, bols and tala. Introduction to solkattu and bols, which are vocal syllables used to reflect the sounds made by playing the tabla and mridangam drums. Tala is the way that time is organized in Indian music. We will try to speak these syllables while ‘keeping tala”.

There were between 10 and 20+ people at each workshop, mostly the singers in Putni, but also some students, pedagogues and amateurs. They all seemed to have fun, and the experience was rewarding for me, too.

Ultimately, I have absolutely no desire to supplant the canon. I love it, too. But it’s not only part of a continuum, it’s part of a world. My revelation at Hofstra was that what I wanted to do most for my students was to equip them to solve whatever kind of musical problems they might encounter, and if possible, to make the encountering and the grappling with problems fun. Many composers speak of having ‘a tool box’, a set of skills that they can bring to bear when dealing with the sometimes puzzle that is composition. The more tools, the better. My goal with these workshops was to try to bring the participants as close as I could to hearing and feeling this music the same way that the musicians who create it hear it and feel it. And maybe walk away with a new tool or two.

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