Monday, February 04, 2008

Day 18 "In the trenches" (I'm movin' on edition)

Movin' along here on a Monday morning. In the event, the weekend wound up a little more productive than I had feared: a second radio show, banged out a bunch of recommendation letters and editorial comments, got a little bit more done on the Music Appreciation contract writing, and got the Celtic Ensemble jump-started on a new program. That last is always gratifying, because the final stages of preparing any program (say, the preceding Galician one) are pretty much all about hanging tough with the grind, of fine details, memorization, polishing interpretations--and it's hard to stay focused and excited.

But a new program is inherently exciting: you haven't yet uncovered all the frustrating bits that are going to resist realizing the thing the way you hear it in your head. It's kind of like unwrapping a Christmas present which you haven't been able to identify by shaking or tapping it--or taking a new and unfamiliar instrument out of its case--or (dating myself now) stripping the shrink-wrap off a new CD or, back in the day, an new LP. In all cases, poring over the exterior, and wondering what the interior will reveal, there's a wonderful sense of anticipation.

And it works not just for me, but for the kids also--we were on a quick break from the Super Bowl (the game broke my heart but I'll withhold my tears)--and they were visibly ginned-up. It also helps that now, in the 4th semester of the ensemble's existence, I have a better idea how to proceed, both employing new and better-defined ensemble preparation and rehearsal procedures, but still retaining the ensemble's core values: minimal "direction," maximal participation and group decision-making, playing by ear and from the memory, playing idiomatically and stylistically accurately, seeking consensus but allowing for a productive and organic juggling of roles.

I'm previously experienced in the great triumvirate of working-musician roles (sideman, democratic collaborator, leader) and have known for years that a full musical life for me combines all three. I've got that, in spades, these days, but what I haven't had much prior experience with is being explicitly the teacher/quasi-"leader". I've taught a lot of people over the years, in both one-to-one, classroom, and ensemble situations, but seldom where I've been so explicitly the teacher. Particularly in a situation in which you're trying to teach people not only a repertoire, but an interpretative style, and a set of learning and playing and arranging procedures, and the ability to synthesize all this information and do it on their own, self-directed, the number of dicta you want to deploy needs to stay pretty low.

It's kind of like taking our kids to Ireland in the spring seminar: teaching them not only history, geography, culture studies, folklore, music, etc, but also life skills, like how to travel, which ways the traffic flows, how to use the phones, where to stay cheaply and safely. Which itself is a little like hardening-off a plant in springtime: you leave it outside overnight, praying that you've read the weather forecast correctly, so that the cold overnight air toughens the plant and ups its resiliency, but without a hard frost that just kills it dead.

So with an ensemble: you want them to learn, and grow--and you never learn music quicker than when either (a) everybody else is better than you or (b) something goes south in a performance, and you all, collectively and in real time, have to fix it. But you also want them to learn how to do it themselves, when you're no longer going to be in the room. This is as much about teaching skills--music skills, and even life skills--as it is about teaching techniques or repertoires. Because ultimately, at some level, I think these are skills that make for musical, and personal, sanity: take responsibility, make your deadlines, seek consensus, act as you want to be treated, and so on.

Thus the new program uses some new procedures (I'm a slow learner, but I am learning how "teaching them to lead themselves" is its own pedagogical conundrum) with some new goals. This time, as usual in our annual rotation, the spring semester is for more familiar or less challenging genres (in this case, English and Scottish, as opposed to last fall's Galician, and the previous year's Breton), but with a more expansive instrumental palette, a longer repertoire list, and a good deal more switching and learning of new roles--in addition to a much busier performance schedule. Because it's instrumental dance music (mostly English Country Dance) and narrative songs, the latter (which are long, most of them) become more focal. This in turn suggests / demands more diversity of sound, which suits well with the goal of challenging people to try new things and to take a hand in teaching themselves.

So we start from first principles: find as many different people as want or can be persuaded to sing one song, and parse the songs out among those singers. That ensures a diversity of sounds and approaches, and some measure of switching roles--both good things. It also requires a much higher level of individual responsibility, but balances that higher level by limiting the overall breadth: one singer is in charge of one song--multiply that by 10 or 12 and we've got a program.

Then, make a bunch of preliminary orchestration notes, and decide which one instrument needs to be the first action-item added to the song, or the foundation of the accompaniment, or both. Send the one singer and the first-add instrumentalist off, and let them work out keys, tempi, form, etc. Expect that they'll return with something worked-out which can be the nucleus of an ensemble arrangement. Kind of like building any consensus idea.

It asks a lot of them, but so far they're rising to it.


masbrow said...

Dear Dr coyote,
Don't you think that Tom Brady needed to be taken down a notch?
Just kidding, heh heh

CJS said...


Because I don't think he, or anybody else on the Patriots staff, from Bob Kraft to Bill Belichek to the defensive line who came back from retirements, strokes, and titanium joint-replacement, were arrogant.

They were seeking perfection. People envy that, and assume it means arrogance.

It doesn't. Not always.

masbrow said...

I'll take your word for it, man, 'cause I actually don't know shit about it.