Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 093 (from Known to Unknown edition)

Kind of marking time around here, waiting for Zoukfest to crank up on Sunday. On the other hand, this is the week (post-China) that sets work patterns for the upcoming academic year. That means getting everything (textbooks, syllabi, calendars, staff assignments, online support materials, flippin' everything) done now in anticipation of August 25 start date--which'll be here in basically an eye-blink. So we do that now in order to avoid train-wrecks later.

And, it's when I set the patterns for the research work I want to try to get done this summer, as well. Two requested book chapters (one on 16th century Irish music manuscripts, the other on Irish/African interaction in antebellum new Orleans), plus this damned minstrelsy project.

The minstrelsy project is a tough one. Three chapters are done in draft, the editor and preliminary readers have given a qualified positive response (basically, "yes, this is a legitimate topic, but there's an awful lot more to be done, even on just these"), but there are at least three more to be done, and everything has to be massively rewritten. From where I'm sitting, it seems like an awful lot more is still to be done than is completed.

But, even if, as you age, you don't get any smarter, you at least get more experience. This is not the first huge writing project I've undertaken without believing I could finish it. I only survived the year-and-a-half that I spent rewriting my dissertation--this on top of the four or five years of seminar work that yielded the original papers which formed individual chapters--because I got up every day and said "you only have to work on it today. Tomorrow you can bail, if you can't take it any more." And the damned thing got done. I don't know how, exactly (I honestly have no memory of much of that time), but it did get done, and defended.

So I have some prior experience. I don't have to depend upon certainty that this damned thing will get done (on the basis of emotion, I don't believe that I can get it done). Instead, I can depend upon the rudimentary efficacy of saying "just do today's work. You can bail tomorrow--but today you have to work." It's actually a hell of a lot easier to suck it up and do one day's work without conviction, than to try to flog-up enough conviction that I believe that a year from now it will be done. All I have to muster is today's.

This ties in with both last night's ceili dance (see yesterday's post) and the teaching coming up next week at Zoukfest. One of the things I've learned in developing a method for teaching people to play an oral-tradition music by ear--since around 1992--is that the North American/West European "banking" model of education (that is, learning is a standardized and streamlined process of amassing maximal data) actually serves much music-making and almost all apprenticeship systems very poorly. One does not primarily improve one's ability to play by ear, or communicate in a new language, or diaper a baby--or teach a class, for that matter--by memorizing more data. Data is a wonderful thing, but maximal data does not yield greater facility. Reading 1000 tunes from notation (which I've done), or memorizing vocabulary (same), or reading Dr Spock (same), does not itself provide ability.

Going to China, a place where truly very few people speak any English at all (and where, though I didn't realize this in advance, almost no one uses or recognizes any kind of sign language), was a signal lesson in choosing your vocabulary. For years in improvisation classes, trying to get people to refrain from playing beyond their level of commanding facility, I've used the analogy of language, saying "memorizing vocabulary does you no good if you have no facility with that vocabulary. Better to learn just a few of the most essential words, applicable in the widest diversity of communicative situations, and develop a high degree of facility with those few words." I used it for years as an analogy--a good one--but on the China trip its reality was borne out as well. "Yes," "no," "please," "thank-you," "hello" and (especially when the street vendors are converging on you shouting "Hallooooo! Boatie boatie?!?" [e.g., "Hello; do you want to purchase a boat tour?"]) "no thank you" ("boo yong ner shay"), and being able to use those to communicate, is a hell of a lot more important than having 200 words you can't recall or employ.

Data does not equal skills. Data is left-brain knowledge; skills are right-brain. In music, it is far more important to have very high command of the data-set, big or small. So at the dance last night, I said to the teacher, "Look, let's start with the shortest and simplest pieces they've already learned, and let's go over those a whole lot of times. And in the second hour, let's repeat 'em in sequence. Aand then, let's learn one really short and simple new one. And then let's repeat all the existing ones again." Because, especially (and see again yesterday's post) in a situation in which it's at least as important to build motivation and enjoyment as it is skills, people need to spend a bunch of time--like, more than half the total number of minutes or hours or days--doing stuff that is well within their abilities. It's only when well below the ceiling of "the hardest stuff I can play" that people can split their concentration sufficiently to focus upon what playing it well--simply, but well--feels like. And it's only when playing (or dancing, or speaking, or otherwise operating the body) well within one's skill-limits that you can register what doing it right feels like. Move from a majority of time spent in the Zone of the Known, and only very gradually introduce the Unknown.

People learning new things need time to learn what doing it right feels like. You can't think your way into a perfect jump shot, or set-dance, or interpretive phrasing; you can't even see or hear your way into that. You have to do it a lot, repetitively, wrong, with feedback and critique, until you stumble upon doing it right, and both your brain and your body go "Ooooohhhhh, that's it! That's what it should feel like!" And then your brain and even more your body need a whole bunch more iterations so that the ability to "do it right" by feel becomes more and better integrated into your body. Not your brain.

As with dance, so with improvisation and playing by ear. This year for the first time at the music workshop I'm teaching two sections of my accompaniment class, one more advanced and one more fundamentals. Ranking students at a music camp always presents a bit of a quandary--typically, students' own estimations of their skills can be inaccurate, either two pessimistic or (more often) too optimistic. They are not the best arbiters of their own abilities.

Which in turn means that someone with more expertise has to observe and assess those abilities, and assign people to those course levels that best serve their current skills. With the highly-fraught emotional perspective that some people, particularly first-timers, bring to these situations. Typically, those who attend such camps have the money, the leisure time, and the breadth of musical exposure to do so--and typically those same folks are deeply un-accustomed to being beginners. At anything. They're mostly well-educated middle- to upper-middle class folks who are highly accustomed to a left-brain-oriented, incremental, verbal, linear, and transparent learning method. When confronted with something like music--playing by ear--which simply cannot be taught this way, some percentage feel uncomfortable or intimidated. So some percentage of these folks bring a fairly high emotional investment to the question of which section they're placed in. Or into which they attempt to place themselves.

So what we've done this year is to make assignment to Section I or Section II purely on the basis of a prerequisite: you can't take II until you've taken I. This means that those placed in II may or may not have greater facility, but that I can count on them having some familiarity. So I can move forward, and more swiftly. Introduce one simple (but significant) musical idea at a time, and push people to develop high facility at using that single idea or technique in as many and as diverse musical situations as possible. Only then add a second idea, and then work that one just as hard and with just as much diversity. And then push them to use those two ideas in as many different combinations and permutations as possible. And only then add a third. And so on.

I learned from the great David Baker how to teach groups to play a music by ear. I was never a very good bebop player--as far as I can figure it, it was a combination of lacking aptitude and lacking single-minded focus, both (playing bebop is like doing gymnastics at a high level: you have to work it multiple hours every day, you typically don't have time to develop much facility in a different skill set, and you can never ever take a day off). But what I did learn was how to teach people to play by ear. The genius of the David Baker method is confirmed by the fact that the same methodology (demonstration, imitation, critique; minimize material, maximize facility; play everything by ear first and parse the theoretical bases later) can be used for an entirely different kind of music than bebop. I may be teaching people to play and accompany Irish traditional tunes, but the methodology is remarkably similar to the one David taught me.

For which I once again thank him.

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