Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day 26 "In the trenches" (Go-time edition)

Day 2 (first full day) of TMEA. This morning at 10:30am brings our round-table discussion (on "Approaches to World Music Pedagogy") and then 12:00noon the first of our workshops/lecture - demonstrations: on "World" (specifically Ghanaian/Ewe) percussion.

Those lecture-demos are a little different in actuality than they might seem based on their terminology. When I think "lecture-demo" or "workshop", I presume a space, and an audience, of a sufficiently limited size that the audience can actually hear the "lecture" part. That's not the case here. Here, the "lecture-demo" takes place in an enormous convention-center lobby, behind the velvet ropes, swimming out there in the vastness of the lobby's floorspace like a satellite, with hundreds upon hundreds of badge-wearing, swag-toting conventioneers wandering past. There's no stage, no lights, usually not even any microphones.

So anything you intend to present had better have a strongly visual component, and/or be so self-contained that you can amuse yourself even in the absence of any attention from the wandering multitudes. For a competent musician / performer, that's actually not so hard to do--provided you know it's coming. You leave the Mozart sonata at home and teach them to dance a minuet, or (in my case) leave the sean-nos songs and the harp tunes at home, and teach them the Irish 3's and 7's ("and-one-two-three, and-one-two-three, and-one-two-three-four-five-six-seven") and a Breton an-dro avec klem ("left-right-left right, left-right-left-right"), and you be a shameless carnival-barker about hoicking-in anyone who even slows down as they wander past.

Update, 1:13CST: two out of four presentations--50% of the total--out of the way. 9:30am was “Living in the Whole World of Music: Pedagogical Approaches to Global Musical Styles”, a round-table presentation/panel with two other colleagues: one a percussionist and ensemble director at a small, high-quality denominational college midway between Somewhere and Nowhere, and a specialist in Ghanaian Anlo/Ewe drumming; and a high-school jazz band and mariachi director from down near the border. Both great folks, knowledgeable, authoritative, and still easy-going--best moment: when the jazz/mariachi fella said "Well, I always dreamed about getting into the NBA, and now I can say I almost did (the Ghanaian guy is about 6'8" and I'm 6'5").

The key in presentations like this, for audiences like those at this convention, is to, on the one hand, present the idioms in a sufficiently-accessible fashion that the K-12 music specialists aren't scared away from trying to incorporate them, and, on the other, to avoid "dumbing them down." Really, in these cases, it's not so much that you risk over-simplifying, but rather that, because K-12 specialists are required to be so colossally results-oriented (there's that competition and teaching-to-the-test syndrome rearing its head again), they're sometimes afraid to employ the traditional pedagogies. It's not so much that they don't trust those pedagogies--though the word "trust" was certainly a key component of my own presentation--but that they don't "trust" that their kids, inured as they are to learning by staring at notation, can learn something by ear and imitation.

The irony here is that most secondary-school kids in Texas do learn most of their music by rote--by ear and imitation. One of the problems that arises with many of our incoming freshmen is that, though throughout high school they've spent anywhere between 3 and 5 hours/day sitting in ensemble (with bands, choruses, orchestras, jazz bands, and--often--chamber groups in almost every high school), sitting in ensemble is basically all they've done. That is, with 3-5 hours/day, five days a week, of rehearsal, kids don't really have to learn to sight-read, because they may take five weeks of ensemble rehearsal to learn a specific piece. In five weeks of daily rehearsals, a kid is going to learn a piece by rote--hell, just by saturation--even if s/he can't read a note.

What they don't tend to do is learn to read at sight, or to hear very well (if they're learning by rote, they don't have to be able to look at a C-G and "hear" that P5 interval in the mind's ear), or to teach themselves. They learn to sit in ensemble, to hear something over and over again, and to gradually memorize it by ear.

Which, ironically, is not so different from what a number of these world traditions also expect them to do: to sit in ensemble, playing a very simple part by ear, and gradually learn to "relax into" the part and be able to split their concentration to hear all the other parts interacting. It's why the relatively small number of pieces they learn in high school are nevertheless learned very well--and often as multiple parts. In such a situation, a K-12 music specialist's conviction that his/her kids "can't" learn a part by observation and imitation is really rather ill-founded--the specialist may idealize a situation in which his/her kids sit down and sight-read through a new band or orchestra piece, but that is not the reality of the way that most high-school ensembles operate. Rather, they take lots and lots of daily rehearsal time to, essentially, learn by rote. The main thing we're adding to--or subtracting from--the mix is the premise that there has to be written notation in front of them during this rote process.

It would be nice to persuade the K-12 specialists that their kids already know how to learn by ear. That's really what today's presentation was about. Ironically, I ended my closing speech by quoting myself (after the mariachi specialist had quoted myself back to me), and then extrapolating. I cited an article I had written entitled "Trusting the tradition...", and closed by saying, "we can trust the tradition. We can trust not only the beauty of the music but also the efficacy of its own indigenous pedagogy. We have to trust our, and our students', ability to learn in the traditional fashion.

"And, what that really means, is that, as educators and musicians, we have to trust ourselves."

Side-note: you realize that seven years have passed at your current job when, while sitting blogging, you're greeted by students you had as freshmen who are now two or three years into high-school music education gigs. Make you feel not only veteran...but old!

More later.

[Second update]: Dharmonia finishes her gig singing a pilgrim song from the Llibre Vermell with our colleague's West Texas Children's Chorus (best line from one of the kiddos: "but this is song is so's the same thing over and over," to which our colleague shot back "it's a pilgrim's song; that means it's supposed to pass the time, right?"), and we swiftly split for the Riverwalk and Boudro's made-by-your-table guacamole. We ate here yesterday, we're eating here today. We may even eat here tomorrow.

Update via text message from my grad students, chairing panels in my absence at this conference in ABQ. All goes well, which is no surprise: they're smart, tough, imaginative, quick-on-their-feet young women (best line, about a panelist who obviously "didn't get the memo" about a 20-minute limit, "well, we basically had to pick her up and throw her against the wall to get her to quit talking"). The real surprise is that I was able to figure out, not only how to receive a text message, but even to send one.

Then back to the hotel for a nap--still, one of the best parts of any conference trip: the chance to sleep.

More, still later.


Shannon said...

Great sushi. Fabulous sushi. Delicious sushi. I think we ate our weight in sushi. Yea.

CJS said...

Aw right! The hang is the best part of the job.