Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The greatest concertina player in the world

Noel Hill, on soundstage in the '80s with Micho Russell among others:


President of my "shining city on the hill"

The Black President, standing in the downpour, takes us to the mountaintop. See if you can watch the full 4:00 minutes without weeping.

I couldn't.

That's why we understood that black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, rich, poor...it doesn't matter. We are all Americans, and our destiny will be shaped by us...The clouds, these too will pass. That a brighter day will come...Lock arms, talk to your neighbors, do some organizing; yes, do some 'community organizing'...we will win the general election, and you and I, we will change the country. We will change the world!
Mr President, I am with you. If they try to take you down, they're going to have to go through me and my people and millions and millions like us. We are behind you, sir.

Day 24 (Round II) "In the trenches" (reclaiming my life edition)

Last day of Grand Jury. Color me gone.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Aging is a good thing for whiskey and humans

I hope I have as much class as these people (even Madeline Albright, who was a pretty poor Secretary of State but at least possessed some ability to learn from her own mistakes and from others' expertise--unlike that office's current occupant, who does nothing but give academics a bad name):

Willie Nelson

"Necessity is still the mother of invention, and if we start really needing energy, we'll get it. We have solar, we've got water, we've got all kinds of things that we can use, and eventually people will start realising that there are alternative energies and you don't have to go around the world starting wars over oil.

If everyone just takes care of their own area then we won't have any problems. Be here. Be present. Wherever you are, be there. And look around you and see what needs to be changed."

Jane Goodall

"We've been very arrogant in assuming that there's this sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and we need to realise that we are not the only beings on this planet with personalities, minds and, above all, feelings and emotions. We need to be a little more respectful."

Dame Judi Dench

"The key to a good relationship is absolutely, undoubtedly: don't take the person for granted. Don't ever think that they're going to come back to you just because you happen to be married. Always make the effort; and hopefully don't make the effort recognisably."

Clint Eastwood

"Take your profession seriously; don't take yourself seriously. Don't take yourself seriously in the process, because you really only matter to a certain degree in the whole circus out here. If a person is confident enough in the way they feel, whether it's an art form or whether it's just in life, it comes off - you don't have anything to prove; you can just be what you are."

Madeleine Albright

"Being a parent is one of the most difficult and demanding and rewarding things that you can possibly be; you really are responsible for the day-to-day upbringing of your child. With grandkids, you can just reward. It's just a perfect relationship.

It's something new, but exercise is very important to my well-being. And I now leg-press over 400lb."

I hope I age that well.

Or this well:


He was smiling... That's right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker.
Yes, sir, he was.

Day 23 (Round II) "In the trenches" (movin'-on edition)

Week Six. Things rolling pretty well. Had the first Celtic Ensemble meeting for the new "hard" program . Fall semester, after the inaugural concerts, is always the "learning" semester: the September shows get the new players up to speed with our procedures, as well as accomplishing all the enhanced-visibility-upon-new-academic-year tasks, and also buy us the time to work on the "hard" repertoires in the Celtic complex that are less familiar. CE programs are thematic, but not just generically thematic: because the ensemble has a pedagogical focus--as it should--part of our work has to include learning unfamiliar repertoires, languages, instruments, techniques, etc.

Typically spring semester is full of public performances (May Day, Reading Marathon, little regional festivals, etc) and so we try to work up repertoires that are both very accessible and also admit of tutti involvement on nearly all pieces: English, Irish, Scottish (Spring 2009 repertoire will probably be Anglo-Appalachian--border ballads and fiddle tunes that crossed the Water). Conversely, fall semester is the learning semester, not just for the newbie players who may not some jump-start time for our procedures and idiom, but also for the returning veterans to learn the less-familiar repertoires which are part of our pedagogical obligation. So fall semesters are less familiar, more esoteric, and require all of us (me, too) that we accommodate a fairly steep learning curve: Breton, Galician, Welsh this year. In turn, we make sure that the performance obligations in the fall semester are quite light, so we're not staring down the barrel of performance deadlines. This year, the only fall semester obligation is the Celtic Christmas, seventh iteration of our annual fundraiser, for which over the past few years CE has been the core band. That's also good pedagogy, as it teaches the kids about staging, pacing, outreach, audience education, and so forth. But, because it draws on a range of ensembles and soloists, the total duration of music that have to prepare for that December show is relatively brief; it allows them both to "field-test" the first few pieces of the "hard" (Welsh) repertoire in December, in advance of a full concert of that same material in January, and it buys them a long-enough span of time--around 9 weeks--to dig into learning this unfamiliar repertoire. Makes for a good overall bio-rhythm to the year.

Quite a challenge for me, too: I've been playing English, Scottish and (especially) Irish music ever since 1974, but I don't have anything like the same level of familiarity with Cornish, Welsh, Breton, Galician, and other related-Celtoid repertoires. Which means that I myself also have a lot of homework, preparation, familiarization, etc to do. Which I tell the kiddos: I'm very out-front about saying that I'm learning those "hard" latter repertoires right along with them. I don't think it's a bad thing for them to know that there's a ton of stuff that falls under our rubric that I myself also have to learn. Kind of like the areas in my current graduate world-music class which are new topics in this iteration: notably South Asia and the Pacific Rim, about which I know (comparatively) little: certainly not enough to be able to lecture off-the-cuff as I am able to do with topic areas I know better and have taught before.

I like being forced--or forcing myself--to learn new skills, repertoires, or topic areas as a teacher: keeps the pipes clear and tends to cut down on the hubris, of which I still possess an "ample sufficiency", as they say. So I've been chasing Welsh folk-dances for the last two weeks (ain't NO Border morris teachers on the South Plains) but I think I've got a few specimens we're going to be able to work with.

Just got out of Monday-morning iteration of the Fall Freshman "Intro to Research and Style Analysis" class, whose students have their third Listening Quiz coming up Friday. In preparation for that, we imply that we plan to do a collection and spot-check of their "SHMRG envelopes", in which they keep separate worksheets with their own critical-listening observations regarding each of the pieces for which they are responsible.

Of course we won't actually collect the SHMRG envelopes 48 hours before a quiz for which they are needed as study material--but scaring them into thinking we might collect them Wednesday is a good way to get them starting reviewing now--rather than the night before the quiz. It's all mind games, really--like anticipating how a puppy you're training will think so that you can anticipate, in turn, how to make him/her think the way you want.

Below: the list of pieces for which, since the beginning of the semester, they are responsible for supplying a complete, detailed, thoughtful, SHMRG worksheet.

  • Shakti, "La Danse du Bonheur" (Indo-jazz fusion from John McLaughlin, L. Shankar, and Zakir Hussain; scary-brilliant playing which is the first music they hear in their college music history classes)
  • Aaron Copland, "Hoe-Down" from Rodeo (which they all know from either high-school band or, as West Texas ranch kids, the "Beef, it's what's for dinner" commercials)
  • Fiddlin' Bill Steep, "Bonaparte's Retreat" (field recording and direct source--as in, Copland copied it slavishly,--for the above)
  • Unknown Tuvan musician, "Borbangnadur with stream water" (magnificent overtone singing from the Smithsonian Folkways disc)
  • Duke Ellington, "Daybreak Express" (1930; 3-minute tone poem which captures both the virtuosity and unique sound of the great late-'20s Ellington band, and lets us talk about programmaticism, nationalism, and the African-American experience)
  • NRBQ, "12-bar Blues" (whose chorus is "1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9...10...11...12..."; once they learn to sing that chorus on the fundamentals of the chors, they never forget the metric/harmonic structure of the blues again)
  • Ivo Papasov, "Song for Baba Nadeyla" (great example of timbral and metric variety, and another scary-brilliant video performance)
  • Charlie Parker, "Now's the Time" (King Curtis, "The Hucklebuck"; reiterates the formal structure of the blues while contrasting rhythmic & timbral treatments)
  • David del Tredeci, "Speak Roughly, Speak Gently" from The Alice Symphony (great example of experimental/avant-garde/"difficult" textures as an outgrowth of programmatic experimentation; encourages them to open their ears and listen to new-music techniques as sound rather than "eewww...that's unfamiliar")
  • Public Enemy, "Don't Believe the Hype" (programmaticism; sound as form; quotation and allusion as essential building blocks of program music)
  • Charles Ives, "The Unanswered Question" (more on experimentation as driven by programmatic concerns; team assignments in which they work collaboratively to come up with a thesis statement summarizing the work's programmatic intentions)
  • Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, "Le the" from "The Nutcracker" (programmaticism; introduces exoticism's binary model of "Self-versus-Other"
  • Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, "Le Cafe" from "The Nutcracker" (same as above, but "Arabian" exoticism instead of "Chinese")
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony #3, II movement "Marche funebre" (programmaticism, autobiography, incipient Romanticism, intentionally alluding to or confounding expectations)
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, IV movement "March to the scaffold" (same as above, more on experimentation as driven by programmatic individualism)
  • William Byrd, "Sing Joyfully Unto God" (space as dictating texture and other SHMRG elements; idea of "reconstructing" older music; introduces idea of "historical performance")
  • Anonymous, "Epitaph of Seikilos" (more on reconstruction; text-priorities; influence upon early church music; primacy of rhetoric and music which reinforces text)
  • Igor Stravinsky, "The Rite of Spring" (programmaticism, exoticism; experimentation as driven by these; intentional confounding of stylistic expectations: visual, sonic, choreographic; context impacting content and vice versa; incredible video available on YouTube of the Joffrey reconstruction of Nijinsky's original choreography)
  • Anonymous Kenyan musician, "Thum Nyatiti Luo" (polyphonic and polymetric solo textures, hearing African and African-American thumbprints in ensemble conception)
  • Scott Joplin, "Maple Leaf Rag" (link to above in terms of stratified texture and polyrhythmic; next, introduce--especially enlightening to the band kids--relationship between ragtime form and texture and that of the band march: next up is Sousa's "King Cotton")
Is it any wonder I love my job?

Below the jump: Early-Fall ('round here, late September is "early-fall") sunset on the South Plains.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Geeks for peace

This is a photo of Darcy Burner, ex-Microsoft, and candidate opposing incumbent Bush rubber-stamp Dave Reichart in Seattle. This photo was taken a few minutes after Darcy ran out of her burning house, just after she'd made sure her husband, son, and dog were safe. Notice the T-shirt?

Geeks for Peace; Dirty F*cking Hippies. That's us. And this time, we're winning.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Day 22 (Round II) "In the trenches" (breathing-space edition)

Little breathing space all up in this crib: Fall Fest and Celtic Ensemble events dropped last weekend, this coming weekend is a by-week for football (so all 400 marching band kids will actually have enough time to do homework Saturday and Sunday), tonight's pub session is off because the local version of the archetypal Exploitative "Talent Agent" Club-Owner (tm)--everyone medium-sized city has one--who runs the "Depot Entertainment District" has basically got it cordoned off, with the collusion of the city fathers, so he can charge every single person who comes into the neighborhood, regardless of their business or where they're heading, a $15 "entertainment charge." And I'm fucked if I, my players, or our punters are going to pay to go play our music for free. So that's off--everybody gets a break, which is not a bad idea in thye life of any session, even if everybody also really enjoys and counts upon the weekly iteration. Local community orchestra plays this weekend, so that's another raft of my Celtic Ensemble guys off on that gig.

Also works out well because a crop of the kiddos are heading out to Points West for a little concert and master-class, so they'd be missing the pub session anyway. And next 2 weeks bring a crash rehearsal/re-revving of the medieval band, for a concert here on campus on Oct 4--we've got people coming from around the region and from across the country, and even though we've played together for a very long time, it's a while since we've done intense regular rehearsal--too difficult when living at long distances. so having a week or 10 days, or a weekend, clear to think about that is very useful.

And, we take the brake off on the new Welsh program for the Celtic Ensemble in about 72 hours--it'll all crank up again from that point.

Also lets me catch up with the video podcasts for the Celtic Ensemble. That stuff has been coming together very well, but when you have two videographers, shooting two rehearsals a week, it's easy to get behind on the indexing and editing. The initial plan--still holding, it seems--was create a kind of video diary of the ensemble over a full academic year. As I've said before, the academic year becomes, on a college campus and/or in a college town, its own kind of quasi-organic biorhythm. So the new academic year, commencing in late August, is like another chapter, or narrative arc, in the life of the ensemble, its members, and its constituent identity. New people come in, people are missing, new projects abound, the combination of new/old people/projects mandates a renewal--or at least re-assessment--of the group identity.

I personally find the internal dynamics of group work, relationships, and identity absolutely fascinating, particularly in the realm of creative enterprise, and I think there's a reason that so many books, films, or theatrical works take the form of a "play within a play" or other creative project as a means of telling a story of relationships (everything from Waiting for Guffman to Hamlet falls in this category). When a group of people who may not share a very wide range of other identifiers agree that they want to work together on a creative project because of that particular shared interest, challenging dynamics come into play. They can that they want the music to be good, that they all want to learn, that they want audiences to dig it, that, as our orcehstra-leaders says, "it must be bad-ass," but as to which of those factors are most important, or, even more crucially, how to achieve them--there's still a whole hell of a lot of larnin' to be done.

Sitting in an orchestra doesn't teach you this: playing in an orchestra, in my estimation, is a little like being a satellite republic in the old USSR--you can have animosities simmering for generations [just ask the Berlin Phil] and, because there's someone waving a stick over you, you can keep them in check.

You learn it a bit more in a chamber group; especially, for some reason, in a string quartet (I've had to do more than one intervention-and-facilitation with string players), because you have to play the music as if you're actually conversing with one another and in agreement about the goal of the conversation. But even the quartet setting doesn't work this skill directly, because there is the omnipresent omnipotent quasi-Godhead of the score and the "Composer's Intentions." Scores, particularly socres in the late-19th and 20th centuries, are highly dictatorial and don't leave many musical decisions either ambiguous or optional.

But playing a vernacular music by ear and developing a specific group's approach to that music through collaborative improvisation puts those kinds of negotiations right in your face. You simply can't be rigid about your own part, much less your vision of what the piece or performance is supposed to accomplish, if one or more of your colleagues disagrees; you have to come to some kind of negotiated compromise. Because in the democracy of a collaborative ensemble--particularly one playing without the arbitration of a conductor, composer, or score--everyone's opinion has to be considered. And negotiated. And resolved. The only remaining arbiter is the above cited "do what serves the music best." This can necessitate some absolutely brutal honesty with oneself, about one's skills, motives, and intentions. And usually it's worked out under the microscope of, in the petri dish of, the ensemble rehearsal.

And the only way to learn how to communicate this way and negotiate these kinds of resolutions, ultimately, is to engage in it. You can observe how others do it, you can certainly cobble together a repertoire of "Person A used technique 1 and that worked, Person B used technique 2 and that worked--I wonder if I can use both together?" and so on, but ultimately the way you figure out what your identity and procedure as a mature, self-realized, thinking, collaborative artist is going to be is to lock horns with the people and processes you're going to spend your life working with.

That's how it should be.

[Image by Ralston]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ran-out-of-time lazy flower blogging

Ain't no more time in this day--so here's the Indian Summer roses instead.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

flipping masterful

Dana nails little Johnny McCain, who's blown off coming to class for months, and now pleads for an extension via the email tubes. Dana responds appropriately:

to: john.mccain@maverickymaverick.gov

from: dmccourt@youhavegottobekiddingme.edu [Sent On Behalf Of American Public]

subject: extension?

Dear John,

While I sympathize with the demands of balancing both legislative and campaign issues, I cannot, in accord with historical policy, grant your request for an extension on the debate. Dean’s excuses can only be granted in the cases of health or personal emergencies, and would need to be submitted to me in writing. A physician’s note is also acceptable.

Dana McCourt

On Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 12:00pm, John McCain wrote:

sorry to bother you and i know this request is late but i have been really busy and i want to call an emergency meeting with the president and understanding all the material is taking up a lot of my time so i find myself woefully underprepared and i am throwing myself on your mercy. can i get an extension over the weekend on the debate so i can present my best work to you? or should i get a dean’s excuse?



Day 20 (Round II) "In the trenches" (visual synchronicity edition)

Bit of visual synchronicity in today's shot: across the table, Dharmonia; next table, Mac Tire; beyond that, Flute Colleague (who burned the house down Sunday evening and then got up Monday morning to teach her "Yoga for Musicians" 8am class). I am surrounded by brilliant people who work their asses off and I'm damned glad of it; kinda makes the job feel worth doing.

Freshman skills class today. Title is "Introduction to Research and Style Analysis" (basically, how to do research, and how to listen and speak critically and precisely to music) but the kiddos all call it "SHMRG Class." I've blogged before about the LaRue style parameters and the way we teach their usage as a tool for listening consistently and comparatively to a wide diversity of musics, though the class also implicates a lot of other skills: library, writing, reading, note-taking, etc, etc, etc.

But the fact that the kids all call it SHMRG Class reveals what they perceive to be the central mission of the class, and it's not-inaccurate summary. After the very first iteration of the class, back in 2004, we learned that students really hate repeating skills stuff that some (a small percentage from magnet- and home-schooling situations) learned in secondary school. Even if the vast majority of them don't know how to use a modern database or construct a bibliography, the small minority who already did were very very irate--and, being the particular demographic they are, very very vocal--about having to "repeat" stuff (not really "repeat"--rather "have reiterated reference made to stuff to which they were introduced in high school" but of which they don't have a whole lot more command than the rest of the population) they'd "already had." And parents, especially the parents who churn out magnet- or home-schooled kids, have a Pavlovian reaction against any course with the term "skills" in its title. Somewhere along the line, "skills" came to mean (at least in TX secondary-education-speak) "remediation"--and parents of such kids don't like being told their kid needs remediation (even if, in many cases, it's true). So we learned pretty quick that we needed to change the titular language to something which placated parents' dislike of "skills" (shit, back where I come from, we call "skills" good things to have), while still credibly reflecting the actual content and purpose of the course.

So we came up with the title listed above. And we still teach all those other "tools" that parents don't like hearing about as "skills" (because most of their lil darlings still need 'em; see the link above), but the straw that stirs the drink, the thing that we staff, the parents, and the students all agree upon, virtually without argument from any constituency, is the value, merit, and necessity of learning to listen critically.

I've mentioned in prior posts this week the "critical thinking-reading-writing-speaking" model the university requires, and our own adoption of a fifth "critical listening" component. At the time, we didn't really think too much about that adoption--I just learned years ago that, if there is a skill or topic you feel adamant about including, then employing upper administration's "preferred nomenclature" (cf Big Lebowski) is a wise political strategy for getting the green light.

But I also believe that it does accurately reflect what we actually are teaching them to do: to listen to (or look at) a piece of music, to actually see/hear what is there, to recognize the stylistic patterns that those details reveal, and to make informed, intelligent, accurate, and articulate links between those musical/stylistic patterns, and the contexts from which the music emerged, and comparisons with music of other periods or geographical points of origin.

What is rather remarkable is the degree to which all the different constituencies (including those cited above, but also the National Organization that certifies Schools of Music, and our own upper administration, and the state) likewise agree that this is an essential and central skill. It actually makes our job far easier, that we have now found a central activity, aptitude, and skill set--the art of critical listening--which all constituencies can agree upon. So we chunk out the boring busywork of "skills" (bibliography, research, reading, etc) to homework assignments which take the bright bulbs five minutes and the underprepared kids enough time so that they actually learn the unfamiliar skill, and we reserve the class time for critically listening--together.

Which the kids seem to have bought-into with remarkably little resistance: consistently, semester-after-semester, no matter the resistance that some one or another sub-group may have to some one-or-another component of the course, there is virtually unanimous--and typically very adamant and effusive--support for this central activity. Even the most rebellious or ennui-ridden type can recognize that learning to listen better is a necessary developmental area.

Hence, "SHMRG class." I can live with that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Day 19 (Round II) "In the trenches" (samsara abides edition)

Yeah boy yeah. It's hard all the way 'round, some days. We're into that fifth week, the first-round exams have hit, and the stress level is pegging. Fortunately, Fall Celtic Fest stuff has ended on a high note--though, I've discovered, conducting an ensemble I've coached in a performance is about four times as stressful, for me, as just playing the damned performance myself. But, the way I was taught, the ratio of learning versus instructor-performance involvement, in the musics I play, is roughly inverse: the less I play, the more they have to rely upon themselves, and thus the more they learn. There are other sides to this, of course--sitting in an ensemble with your teacher is a really great way to learn, because the right teacher energy can haul right along in its slipstream--but I would rather my guys got that from me in less formal/concertizing situations, such as the pub sessions and the one-off gigs we do that are actually more like the free-lance stuff I do. Those are good learning situations too, but as far as being able to walk out on stage and hold a performance together on your own, that's something you need not to do with the instructor sitting next to you. It's scary and stressful, but some percentage of that leadership and self-reliance can only be learned in the performance situations where there isn't somebody else to hold it together and it's on you. Bunch of the Celtic Ensemble kids heading off to a neighboring state to do precisely that.

Grand jury again today, and it's more of the same depressing shit. Not much else to say about it; one more weekly meeting and the month is over.

Anddd...a lot of suffering going on. The corollary to the above first-third-of-the-semester stress is that large numbers of them are encountering the "holy shit, I might not be able to do this" hurdle. The fall semester is a ramping-up for almost everybody: the high-school kids starting as freshmen, the freshmen/sophomores facing-up to 4000-level history classes, the newly-minted grads in their first couple of semesters of grad work, the pre-tenure folks grappling with or trying to polish new skills, and on and on and on.

Up to and including leadership stuff on my part. How to handle ups and downs, effective systems and systems that need tweaking, communications up and down the chain of command, coping with when to manage and when to let people solve stuff on their own. Pretty danged hard work for everybody.

And, occasionally, offering a little comfort. I am not a proponent of intervening in kids' lives--the old Buddhist adage "wait to be asked three times before offering opinions" is a good one and one I still struggle to realize--but dammit, sometimes (especially in the wake of the Web 2.0 and Facebook generations I've blogged about before) you know enough to know that somebody needs some comfort: a kind word, or an embrace, or maybe even just a break from the round of butt-kicking.

Or a comment (bootlegged from a response over on Mac Tire):

[Mac had asked, plaintively, "do they hand out the super-powers at graduation, with the hood?", and I replied]

We all have super-powers. Grad school, old-school, is a testament to an absolutely titanic investment and commitment of dedication, concentration, and guts. It takes massive stamina, great courage, and a healthy (and well support-networked) psychological profile to get through graduate school.

It's mother-f***ing hard and most people couldn't do it (which is fine, there's no reason that "most people" should do it). We spend years- broke, scared, stressed, and mistreated, in order to be able to spend large chunks of future years doing what we love. For those people who stick it out, it's the right choice--and by sticking it out, they demonstrate their fitness for the job.

St Julian of Norwich said "all the way to God is God." I'd say--and meaning no blasphemy--"all the way to the job is the job."

It's mother-f***ing hard. But it's goddamned well worth it, too. We are some of the people who hold the world together. And we are some of the people who create the bigger worlds into which young people can enter. I would not be where I am (with, yes, a house and a family and a job and tenure and even a crotchety elderly cat) if I had not stuck with it, through--in my case--literal decades of abuse.

But, even more, I would not be where I am, if my Great Teachers had not stuck it out in their jobs before me, and, by therefore being where they were when I needed them, saved me.

Being in graduate school is the hardest thing I've ever done (emotionally) other than live through a loved one's protracted terminal illness. But it is also one of the most important and, I believe, constructive things I've ever done, as well.
I still believe that.
Now playing: Thomas Mapfumo - Hondo (War)
via FoxyTunes

Liars, thieves, and monsters

If I even needed another reason to vote Obama-Biden: the goddamned rape-denying back-stabbing wolf-murdering monster has lost the Humane Society:

Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R-Alaska) retrograde policies on animal welfare and conservation have led to an all-out war on Alaska’s wolves and other creatures. Her record is so extreme that she has perhaps done more harm to animals than any other current governor in the United States.

Palin engineered a campaign of shooting predators from airplanes and helicopters, in order to artificially boost the populations of moose and caribou for trophy hunters. She offered a $150 bounty for the left foreleg of each dead wolf as an economic incentive for pilots and aerial gunners to kill more of the animals, even though Alaska voters had twice approved a ban on the practice. This year, the issue was up again for a vote of the people, and Palin led the fight against it-- in fact, she helped to spend $400,000 of public funds to defeat the initiative.

What’s more, when the Bush Administration announced its decision to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, Palin filed a lawsuit to reverse that decision. She said it’s the “wrong move” to protect polar bears, even though their habitat is shrinking and ice floes are vanishing due to global warming.
These people are monsters.

Mad skillz inna Old-skool stylee

Few-moments-ago mobile phone exchange with Dharmonia:

Dr Coyote: Hey, I just got sprung from the Grand Jury! Want to go play hookey and drink margaritas?

Dharmonia: Well, I agreed to have a medieval music-xeroxing party with some of the kiddos tonight, but I could do for margaritas earlier?

Dr C: Are you gonna be able to get your xeroxing done after margaritas?

D: Are you kidding? I could xerox while whacked-out on methadone.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Day 18 (Round II) "In the trenches" (content/context edition)

Rolling into the middle-third of the semester now. Last night brought the closer of the Fall Fest, and the Celtic Ensemble rocked the house. This is also the week when, across the campus, many of the professors administer the first round of exams. So the coffeehouses have been jammed, the kids have been distracted--but they're focusing!--and the general goofy "hey, it's still September, it's not really 'school' yet, is it?" from the undergrads has largely dissipated. Now they pretty much know they're in school and that it's For Real. Tomorrow brings another installment of Grand Jury duty--which despite the fact that it's eating forty hours of my life (Toby Ziegler: "well, that's 20 seconds of my life I'll never get back"), has been interesting and educational, and has confirmed a bunch of things for me:

  • the ready accessibility of alcohol and American capitalism's dependence upon using alcohol to sell meaningless lifestyle materialism is the single biggest factor in domestic and acquaintance-upon-acquaintance violence. Booze makes people violent;
  • the criminalization (as opposed to legalization and regulation) of small-quantity recreational drugs is responsible for (a) most of the property crime in medium-to-small-sized cities; (b) the catastrophic development and spread of bathtub drugs like meth and crack, (c) the massive, ridiculous overpopulation of low- and medium-security prisons, and the development of an incarceration state where it costs taxpayers more, but earns corporations more, to jail than to treat addiction;
  • most people in a city this size have no idea where, when, how, or by whose actions crime occurs--but they are willing to make presumptions based upon their ethnic and class prejudices;
  • I am more of a Dirty Fucking Hippie than most people. But that comes as no surprise to anyone, least of all me.
Very rewarding conversation with a new musicology colleague today. We were talking about the challenges of teaching upper-level history courses to target populations whose prior preparation may wildly diverge. So if you have a top 10% who have tons of skills and prior experience, and a bottom 10% whose background is very lacking, and a large majority in the middle, how do you teach--really, the question should be, how do you focus seminar time--in a fashion that keeps everybody on board without boring the snot out of the top students?

Well, the first things you learn are three you can't employ:

(a) you can't teach only to the top 10%, because at least 3/4 of the balance will be lost and probably fall away or under-perform--which benefits no-one;

(b) you can't spend all the time jump-starting the bottom 10%, because that will make-miniscule the amount of actual material you can introduce and make-work;

(c) you can't keep all the plates spinning and teach to all three populations, because you'll lose all three.

So what do you do? Well, a couple of strategies present themselves:

(1) you identify the areas where there is the most comparative parity--where the disparity of ability is least pronounced, and the playing field most even;

(2) you identify those other areas in which the route to remediating the disparity mostly involves the individual student doing the (bibliographic, editorial, background reading, score study, or other fundamentals) skills-work on their own, rather than a lot of one-on-one coaching;

(3) you prioritize time spent on those group activities that cannot be replicated outside the seminar room.

What this means is that, ideally, you create outside-class assignments which can address Area (2)--that is, skills--which, even if redundant for the more advanced students, can be completed in just a few minutes, yielding an "easy A"; while the less-advanced students, who really need the remediation, can take the extra time required to complete the assignment and at the same time enhance skills.

It also means that you seek to find ways to combine Area (1)--areas in which there is a relative parity of skill-level, a relatively even playing field--and Area (3)--the in-seminar time where the only real, I would say the essential, group stuff goes on.

That's still very open-ended, but if we take the above model (short form: find the common areas that need work and make those priority in the seminar room, chunk out the skills-stuff where there's disparity and create outside-class assignments to be done on the individuals' own time), and combine it with the mission of teaching "critical thinking - critical speaking - critical writing - critical reading - (and in our formula) critical listening", the day-to-day goals become clearer.

Critical thinking (reading, writing, speaking, listening) is the skill of examining a body of data and learning to recognize its patterns--the patterns by which the data is conceived, organized, or employed, and identification of which is the essential task of analysis. Whether a score, a prose text, a poem, a language, or a historical phenomenon, understanding the patterns by which human agency has shaped the data is key to (a) analyzing the item and (b) using that analysis to make comparisons and predictions. As I said to my colleague today, "if the students have analyzed 10 1780s symphonies' structure and intentions, then when they encounter an 11th, they are likely to be familiar with some patterns of musical style and musical usage and to recognize those patterns if they recur." Or, for that matter, to be able to take those 1780s patterns of organization and usage and compare them to 1830s variants. Or to other large musical forms across cultures. Or to other art forms of the period.

That is the point of critical thinking (listening). It is also the skill which, maybe more than other, these students have not previously encountered. Whether in high school or as undergraduates, they are likely to have high experience with concrete data memorize-and-regurgitate models, and almost none at analysis, synthesis, critical reading, etc. And they mnostly know this: they know that they don't have much skill at analyzing the patterns of musical style, and they're receptive (that "level playing field" again) to working on those skills in the seminar room.

Likewise, they know that they don't know much about history (damn--Smokey Robinson!), and they definitely don't know much about history's patterns. So if you, as the teacher / discussion facilitator do have the knowledge of both historical/contextual patterns, and musical/stylistic patterns, and, as a scholar, have worked at linking these two (this is how your "research" duties can link up with your "teaching" duties), then you can demonstrate as well as facilitate practice in this process in the seminar room.

So you can put up 3 pages of a 1781 symphony, maybe after having them listen in advance, and lead them through an articulation and discussion of the stylistic thumbprints that yield a characteristic sound, and a group consensus about stylistic patterns (and lots of modeling) occurs. Then you spend 10 minutes talking about 1780s Hapsburg musical expectations, contexts, and responses, maybe after having them read a short excerpt in advance. Then facilitate a discussion wherein participants try to find echoes of those patterns in both musical content (e.g., "the notes") and musical context (times, places, people).

"Context informs (reflects) content. Content informs (reflects) context." That's a fundamental premise in our particular approach to teaching "Music as Cultural History." And critical thinking (listening, reading, writing, speaking) is the arena in which the two link.

Sunday, September 21, 2008



They rocked the house.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 111 (back in the saddle edition)

Blogging light this weekend. But for the sake of both the blog and my own concentration, a status report on "Office" (e.g., professional musicology) chores:

Draft of book chapter on Afro-Celtic interaction for The Irish in the South collection: submitted;

Third chapter of rock-history text drafted--but I'm holding off on submitting, as this particular editor never seems to get it together to request the next installment until the night before he absolutely has to have it. I'm happier if I'm a draft ahead of his requests, so as I complete each one, I hold onto it until requested, and as soon as I send it, I start on the next one, which I'll likewise delay until requested. Makes for a much less stressful life.

Haven't done near as much work since August on the minstrelsy project, with the very significant exception of the work for the "Irish" chapter above. That "chapter" wound up being about twice as long (around 8700 words), and it became pretty evident pretty early in the composition process that, as is typical for me, I was going to wind up writing the "whole-picture" story; e.g., the historical/cultural/economic factors that shaped Afro-Celtic musical interaction across the continent, not just in the South and over the entire time-span between the Revolution and the Civil War, not just the 1830s-50s. As I say, this is typical for me--I have a hard time understanding how I want to cut or specify certain aspects of a historical/analytical narrative until I have the whole narrative laid out before me. It's kind of like wanting to make the whole batch of sausage before I go slicing individual links.

In this case, that works out, because, by framing the big picture first, I can then slice out that portion of the narrative that pertains specifically to the topic of the Irish in the South, while retaining the full document. And, with comparatively straightforward and self-evidence adaptation, that becomes Chapter Three of the minstrelsy book.

So I guess maybe I have been getting some book-stuff done.

Excellent pub session last night, part of the Fall Fest. First of the Celtic Ensemble concerts drops tonight.
Now playing: La Musgaña - Lubicán
via FoxyTunes

Bearable green beer

Now this is a kind of green beer I can get behind:


Not so much.

Attention "Palin - McCain"

Friday, September 19, 2008

Day 17 (Round II) "In the trenches" (blogging-downhill edition)

About to take the brake off and start rolling downhill on the Fall Fest weekend. Blogging will likely be text-light and image-heavy as we go forward.

Killing time in the office (looking ahead at next week's teaching materials, when I should be doing is booking various conference flights and taking stock of just where the hell the relevant writing stands). In about an hour I'll head across campus to the university's NPR affiliate radio station, about which I've blogged before: an absolutely crucial, foundational part of our alternative-media audience education and outreach programs. As is so often the case in small-sized cities--especially those outside the Left and Right Coasts--the budget in the local traditional media (especially newspaper) for arts coverage is slim to nonexistent. The local paper (best typified by a back-East friend, who refers to it as the "Lubbock Daily Disappointment") is a really pretty terrible regional newspaper, entirely obsessed with covering local weather, sports, occasional City Council activities (but never the sub-rosa back-scratching and kickbacking between local pols, developers, and investors), and, like so many regional newspapers, is more than anything else concerned to avoid any editorial positions, reportage, or even mention of any items that might (a) offend, (b) intimidate, or (c) rile their perceived readership. The reason the paper sucks so badly is that it so transparently caters to the perceived audience: graying, shrinking, conservative, insular, taking pride in "small-town values" (how's that worked out in the life, conduct and "truthiness" of the current Republican VP candidate?), and so the coverage is similarly narrow, incomplete, monochromatic, and though wildly oscillating from a model of "local Small Town Values = Mom & Apple Pie, while [foreign/distant] Big City Events = dark, scary, new, different, complicated, ambiguous, and to be avoided," consistently manifests a "mission" which is the tritest kind of timidity and conservatism.

So the arts coverage in such a paper (it was true in Bloomington, too) tends to be limited to a couple--or even just one--person(s) who is/are massively overworked, typically began life expecting some other career, has a limited knowledge outside the specific area of original arts interest--so that the Comic Book Guy ends up writing about opera or the Retired Sportswriter about symphonic music or the Failed Screenwriter about music--and so the coverage either (a) doesn't even happen or (b) sucks. Or both. There's just not enough conviction at the paper that there is enough of a population to actually care about a local arts scene...so there's not enough money to pay for individual(s) who actually know about the arts they report upon...so the person(s) are either overworked, bitter, or ill-informed, or all three.

Locally-producedd television news is, surprisingly and by comparison, pretty darned good--but you have to understand their priorities and, especially, their time scales. A musician, poet, dancer, or actor--much less a novelist--is accustomed to getting 3 minutes, or 10 lines, or a stage, or 3 acts, or 400 pages, in which to convey the artistic essence. But on TV you're lucky to get 20 seconds. So the craft of using local television to promote your arts event becomes the art of (a) recognizing the kind of material that they believe will work for them and (b) giving it to them in 10-15 second chunks. If you do that, they're very responsive and helpful.

Usually this translates as "give them good images, especially of interesting or unusual instruments." They love dancing, because it makes good video. They love weird instruments or instrumental combinations, for the same reason. Unusual locations. Interesting combinations of individuals. And so on. The stuff that the refugees from 1952 at the newspaper are convinced is hopelessly weird, off-the-track, or intimidating for their readership can, with the right framing, and a solid understanding of how TV people think about content, work very well.

So you give them the weird instruments. Or the dancers in interesting costumes or formations. Or dancers interacting with musicians. Or unusual staging or settings. You make the hard (for a musicologist) realization that they don't want to hear you talk--they want you to get out of the way and let them tape the weirdo, visually-interesting stuff. When we had two NYC-based archlute players here for a masterclass and performance, two of the three local news channels sent film crews to the concerts. And when the boys were going through airport security next morning, the local TSA folks were saying "Hey! We seen you on the TV." The lutenists felt like rock-stars, and inquired, while standing in line at security, when they could come back for another concert.

By far the best of the traditional media--for us, really the only relevant source--is our local public radio station, where we joke that we have virtually a turn-key operation. Producing a weekly Celtic program for them? Here's a key to the building and the studio--feel free to use the gear on weekends for whatever projects you need. Helping them fund-raise during Pledge Drives twice a year? Sure, you can come in to promote your arts events any time you want through the rest of the year. Need a little extra time? Here, have 30 minutes during drive-time to talk about your stuff.

So we're able to hit the local NPR/classical music/student-recital-attending overlapping audiences pretty well. But that's actually a fairly small segment of the local population, largely defined by economic class, occupation and (usually) ethnicity. It doesn't catch the multi-ethnic folks, or the students, or the people in the outlying farming communities.

Now, some percentage of those latter folks are unreachable for us by almost any means, because the only traditional media they deal with are the newspaper (extensively) and evening 30-minute TV newscasts. So if we can't get 12 seconds of video on the newscast (difficult to do, because the stations want to send their camera crews out to the event, and broadcast the footage at 11pm after the concert, which doesn't help us advance-promote), and the local Arts Guy on the Daily Disappointment screws up his job as fundamentally as such are wont to do, we pretty much have to use the alternate methods.

We can catch a good percentage of the older and more blue-collar folks by old-fashioned flyers and posters: at grocery stores, restaurants, and the like. A big breakthrough came when we realized that, no matter how sacrilegious the content or texts of the songs, hanging posters at local churches was a great way to get the word out in this community, because "church home" is still a fundamental part of how people self-identify (and attempt to identify you, as in "Have you foun' a church haome? Well, wha not?!?").

It's also a big part of the lives of many of our Ensemble kids, so we can send them out with a couple of flyers apiece to hang at their respective congregations, and catch a lot of community people that way (haven't yet gotten to going and giving short "informational" performances at those churches, but we should, because congregations in this region still believe very strongly in the "adoptive family" model of church-going--and if you can get 'em to adopt the kids in yoru ensemble, you've got a huge social network going).

The final demographic group for us is the college-age kids, who largely eschew email, read the local paper only for local sports and the Sudoku puzzles (I'll save for another day the rant that Sudoku is like a crossword puzzle for people with no vocabulary and no problem-solving ability), get the vast majority of their data input (much of it hopelessly inaccurate) from each others SMS text messages and--centrally and essentially--from the social networking sites, most especially Facebook.

I've blogged briefly about our pilot use this year of Facebook as a means of communicating with students about class business. Regardless of whether they should read their email or visit the course website or, y'know, pay attention to announcements in class--our fundamental object is not to change or even improve their communicative responsibility and responsivity. Our object, in this case is to communicate the damned data. So if copy/pasting all email messages over to the Facebook "message all group members" function actually improves the total percentage who get and retain the information, so bet it--we'll suck it up and do that.

Last spring's Celtic Ensemble concerts were the first time we asked our various Facebook ninjas in the band to create "events" and then run invitations across their whole friends-lists to promote the concerts. And the positive impact was immediate and remarkable--like, doubled audience numbers from one show to the next. It's hitting NPR and other trad-media outlets now (was just a feature yesterday about gigantic open-air silent raves in public parks promoted purely through FB), and for once our little traditional band is at the front of that curve.

We've got two CE shows (the kids call everything "a show"--as a working musician, I still think of them as "gigs") this weekend, both of which we've promoted heavily via all available traditional media, through our seven-years-built alternative routes (mostly email and the Web 1.0-based distribution lists and calendars), but this is the first year that we've got a third leg to the tripod--which is the Web 2.0-based social networking sites. I'm interested to see whether/if/how much that impacts turnouts.

Here's a little taste:
[image by Ralston]

Now playing: Dama & D'Gary - Mpanjono Mody (The Fisherman's Return)
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Day 16 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Stone Age communications edition)

Winding down Week 04, cranking up Weekend 04.

Every year around this time (mid-September, 3rd or 4th week of the semester) we run a little music & dance festival. It's a jump-start for a bunch of things: cranks the Celtic Ensemble up quickly--sometimes a little too quickly, though fortunately not with the current crop of players; puts the Ensemble and the range of vernacular music activities around the South Plains back on everybody's radar (in a university town, even the folks who don't attend or work for the university have a tendency to order their year from Fall semester to Fall semester), and helps us forward-promote the year's activities; most immediately the Celtic Christmas which has been a crucial scholarship fundraiser for us for the past 7 years.

So every September about this time we crank up the Caprock Celtic Fall Festival and Harvest Dance, a weekend slate of activities that includes listening sessions, pub sessions, a dance concert, and a listening concert. Like any smart shoestring-budgeted arts organization, we do this by cobbling together a variety of sources, contributors, venues, and regular/weekly events, and subsume them all under the heading of a "Festival." In any environment in which you're seeking audience development and education (and, where we live in the Buckle of the Bible Belt and "two weeks from everywhere", we are always seeking this), it helps a lot to have some kind of umbrella term or title that creates a sense of Event. This helps with turnout, raises visibility not only for the event but also for the participating organizations and, perhaps most importantly, sets up a track record--being able to say "Second Annual" or "Fifth Annual" or, in the case of the Celtic Christmas, "Seventh Annual" does a whole lot to legitimize your activities and convey to potential stakeholders that it's worth investing their time, money, effort, or attention. Plus, the West Texans love a sense of occasion: a chance to dress up, go out, socialize, and feel valued (rather than denigrated) for their support.

So that's what we do. And, over the years, we've built up something of an annual calendar:

Fall Fest and Harvest Dance in mid-September (get the ensembles back in the saddle, put us back on the academic community's radar, forward-promote for the Celtic Christmas);

Madrigal Dinners first week of December (service performances, Morris dance dog & pony show, provide dance element for what's otherwise a bunch of singers standing still),;

Celtic Christmas third week of December (previewing bits of the Fall semester "hard repertoire" program, late in the season to avoid stepping on anybody's prior-calendar turf, big splashy fundraiser, community/campus groups participating and contributing, family-friendly);

"Midwinter" show (third week of January, not long after we get back, full program of the "hard repertoire");

late-Spring "Mayday" performances (longer, simpler but more impressive "festival" repertoires).

Break (or "summer band") in June-July, and then we start all over again.

This kind of annual cycle has a bunch of pragmatic, pedagogical, and ritual functions:

Pragmatic: provides a regular schedule that both engages the CE's returning vets and provides the new recruits a chance to work in; keeps the ensemble visible on the campus/community horizon, by providing a series of events each of which we can forward-promote from the previous one; generally keeps to the cycle of attention, availability, and free time the audience pool can accommodate;

Pedagogical: as above, but also gives the kids, both recruits and returning veterans, a sense of what's coming next, of the strategy that dictates the schedule, of the necessity of both planning for the future and also chunking through the day-by-day work; also a sense of accomplishment, reward and confidence ("accomplish your tasks and you'll improve, develop more confidence, and be rewarded for your effort"); also a good practicum in how to be a working musician and public artist--how to take care of musical business, performance business, and promotional business such that your survive and thrive;

Ritual: this is less obvious than the previous two but, in my view, way more profound. It is an old, old, old paradigm--one that I would argue, after 40,000 years, is engrained in our DNA and collective unconscious--that life, experience, accomplishment, meaning, identity, and survival of the tribe are--must be--tied to the cycles of the season. Long before the first civilizations in Asia Minor discovered that if you planted and cultivated certain wild grasses, you could raise large crops of grains whose complex carbohydrates and enhanced proteins could both feed large numbers and be stored for long times (and thus made possible leisure, wealth, and the literacy and nation-building that leisure in turn enabled), it had become apparent that the tribe's chances of survival were best if you understood when to plant, when to hunt, when to store food by, when to lay in fuel, when the cold would come, how you could turn when new plant life was emerging and four-footed protein was beginning to move. Tribes or groups that failed to develop and retain this nature-based expertise (or forgot it) either didn't last long, or had to become warrior empires so as to subjugate others who could raise the food for them. Tribes that did recognize the essential survival embodied in this knowledge learned likewise that one of the best ways to ensure that information's survival was to teach it, and to provide it ritual and spiritual importance.

For 40,000 years--at least--homo sapiens has ritualized the cycles of the seasons: hunting or harvesting, planting or reaping, summer or winter, spring or fall, and most crucially at the moments of transition from one to the next, we've learned the value of recognizing the cycle of the seasons through ritual. You may be sitting in an air-conditioned office with airtight windows and artificial light and spending most of your day in the glow of an LCD or a cathode-ray tube. Your water may come mysteriously out of a faucet. Your heat may "come from" a thermostat. Your entertainment from electrons driven by marketing. Your sonic world and the air you breathe dictated the internal combustion engine. But somewhere, deep in your brainstem and your DNA, is the recollection that, somewhere under the concrete, past the smoked glass, behind the roar of the engines, there is a quieter world driven by chlorophyll and Vitamin D, and that the cycles of that world are--or should be--the cycle of your own body.

It may be so deep you don't even know it. You may not even know that you miss it. You may not even think you would recognize it. But then a moment comes when a flame flares in the darkness, or the wind shifts to the north, or you hear the call of south-bound geese overhead in the twilight (Robert Graves's "poetic moment, when the hair rises on the nape of the neck"), or a knock sounds upon the door and the masked dancers caper forward into the light, and at that moment...

at that moment...

at that moment, if the musicians and singers and poets and dancers know and understand their central role and contribution over forty-thousands years of human ritual,

You are one with The Ancestors.

That's why we do what we do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day 15 (Round II) "In the trenches" (eleventh-hour edition)

I'm a post-modern, post-60s, post-psychotherapy, contemporary educator. I know about different learning styles and contrasted adolescence experiences and hyper-saturated informational input and the alphabet soup of learning disabilities and the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals that are alleged to be advisable for mitigating those disabilities (though I think if you took a bunch of digital input, and mercantile overload, and hormones/steroids/chemicals out of their nutritional intake, some percentage of those disabilities would be just as effectively mitigated) and contrasting learning modes and the iPod bubble and the extent to which most (generic) undergraduate college students resent the necessity of doing any, y'know, work in college because it gets in the way of the social experience which they have been hypnotized to believe is their right, their due, and the point of a 4-year $100,000 paid sleepaway camp--and I'm cool with it.

But when a bunch of the new freshmen email me freaking out after 12:30am on the day an assignment is due, frantically informing me "WebCT is down! WebCT is down! I can't upload my assignment!!?!?!"...

There's a part of me that thinks "you know, if it even crossed your radar that you might consider completing your assignment as soon as possible after it is assigned--if you "cleared your inbox" quickly, as the Getting Things Done folks propound--then this whole thing would be a non-issue. And the caliber of your work--and your life--would probably be a lot higher. And less stressful."

And then I think of Dana Carvey and realize that My Time Has Come:


(Dana Carvey on SNL as the "Grumpy Old Man")

Below the jump: autumn (70-degree) sunset on the South Plains.

Now playing: Dama & D'Gary - Mpanjono Mody (The Fisherman's Return)
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fuzzy people 42

Grizzer bars making a comeback. For as far back as I can remember, grizzlies have been a totem animal for me--a realization snapped into focus by Lanford Monroe's great grizzer portrait Surveyor.

Glad to hear it. He and we go back a long way:


Monday, September 15, 2008

Day 13 (Round II) "In the trenches" (boot-camp edition)

Sluggin' away up here on the South Plains. Into the fourth week of classes and the focus from the undergrads is really pretty good; course, a three-day weekend initiated by a Friday "flood day" doesn't hurt their morale. It's really been a hell of a stretch for some of these freshmen: at least a couple of them thought that the way to express their admiration for Mark O'Connor's "new American classical" music was to diss other kinds. Which diss I don't despise, but which at the same time I damned sure, in a freshman class part of whose charge from the national accrediting organization is to enhance students exposure to diverse musics, I want to try to nip in the bud and/or re-educate. And so far, the content of this freshman "Introduction to Research and Style Analysis" class has included close listening analysis and reportage on the following repertoire:

  • Tuvan singer, Throat-singing with stream water
  • Ellington, Daybreak Express
  • Fiddlin' Bill Steep, "Bonaparte's Retreat"
  • Copland, "Hoe Down" from Rodeo
  • Shakti, Le Danse de Bonheur
  • del Tredeci, "Speak Softly, Speak Gently" from The Alice Symphony
  • Public Enemy, "Don't Believe the Hype"
  • Charlie Parker, "Now's the Time"
  • King Curtis, "The Hucklebuck"
  • NRBQ, "Twelve Bar Blues"
That's a lot to ask an eighteen-year-old to relate to, partly because they (most of them) have spent most of their developing life as musicians trying to figure out the particular agenda of the particular adult authority figure (choir director, conductor, band director, youth minister, whatever) has power over them. "This" music is good, while "that" is bad, etc, etc, blah blah blah.

I don't have that agenda, but they don't really yet know or understand that. As I say in class, "You don't have to like anything we play--that's not our business. But your business, as an educated musician, is to understand why it is the way it is and how it works." I say it, but they don't yet know how much I mean it. So to that end, we model--something I've spoken about before--an attitude of professional, critical thinking and listening, and we seek every opportunity to reinforce that modeling.

So the wide and diverse playlist is just another way to send that message: to engage the youngsters in the questions "how do I listen, what can I hear, and what can it tell me?" and to encourage them to keep up that self-questioning--this is how critical thinking develops.

This practice "how do I listen (to a recording or, in the mind's ear, to a score), what can I hear/see, and what can it tell me?" is something we continue to address throughout the undergraduate experience, in the upper level courses, in placement exams for admission to the grad programs, and in the comprehensive exams for those exiting the various grad programs.

Second half of the day brought the second installment of the two-part "qualifying exams boot camp" that we run at the beginning of every semester in which grad students are expecting to take the comprehensive music history exit exams. We developed this practice after (a) realizing that many students had no idea about how to study for a comprehensive, repertoire-driven, essay style exam; and (b) realizing that providing a set of strategies, practice points, methods, and target goals could be better done in a group than in a succession of one-on-one interviews (there were a few years there where I was spending 1 hour/week x multiple prepping students for months). It also lets us codify the approach, articulate it as driven by a set of assessment goals which are in turn driven by a philosophy of of preparing them for their eventual jobs (and job interviews).

We need to assess and confirm their ability to employ a grasp of Western classical music history as it is likely to be necessary in a given job. So a choral conductor will require a different set of music history skills than a flute soloist than a band director than a composer than a music theorist and so on. However, the way we teach music history here, both musical content (the actual notes written or played and their sonic results) and musical context (the times, places, and peoples from which the musics emerge) are treated as essential. This is for three reasons:

(1) because, philosophically, I believe it to be a profound and meaningful truth of the history of any art--that its technical construction and intended expressive impact is both driven by and revelatory of its originating contexts (this is the hsitorical performer and ethnomusicologist in me)--and, as chair and current senior member of the musicology staff, I get to decide;

(2) because, pragmatically, I believe that understanding content as revealing context and context illuminating content also vastly aids retention: this is why I often explain the goal of an answer to an essay question (or, in the future, to a question from a prospective student) as a "coherent and defensible narrative"; to say "this is what happened over time, and this is why it happened";

(3) because, empirically and as a result of fairly extensive observation and experience, I am convinced that teaching music history as the interaction of content and context--of transformations of music style as reflecting and reflective of changes in social, cultural, economic, political, ethnic, and aesthetic contexts--makes sense to young students and helps them learn, retain, relate to, and use the information. So, if we're going to give a master's or doctoral degree to a candidate, I really do need to know that s/he can convey music history knowlege of sufficient comprehensivity and coherence that a youngster will understand, retain and use that information.

This is what I want to see from an exiting grad student: can s/he use data and interpretation, content and context, narrative and analysis, to help his/her own students understand the direct impact of events from the past upon the present. I will not abandon the conviction that knowing and understanding the past can help us better survive, thrive, and make art in the present.

It's the most revolutionary thing I know how to do.

Now that is a Fightin' Democrat!

Care to go knife-to-knife with Iowa's Patty Judge?

"Sarah knows how to field-dress a moose. I know how to castrate a calf. Neither of those things has anything at all to do with this election. But since we know so much about Sarah's special skills, I wanted to make sure you knew about mine too."-- Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D), quoted by Iowa Politics, on Sen. John McCain's running mate.
Right on! That's what I'm looking for in a campaign rhetoric!

Fuzzy people 41

More evidence that animals are superior to humans:

Dog Dials 911 When Owner Has Seizure

"Man's best friend" doesn't go far enough for Buddy _ a German shepherd who remembered his training and saved his owner's life by calling 911 when the man had a seizure...On a recording of the 911 call Wednesday, Buddy is heard whimpering and barking after the dispatcher answers and repeatedly asks if the caller needs help...Police were sent to Stalnaker's home, and after about three minutes Buddy is heard barking loudly when the officers arrived. Scottsdale police Sgt. Mark Clark said Stalnaker spent two days in a hospital and recovered from the seizure...Clark said Stalnaker adopted Buddy at the age of 8 weeks from Michigan-based Paws with a Cause, which trains assistance dogs, and trained him to get the phone if he began to have seizure symptoms. Buddy, now 18 months old, is able press programmed buttons until a 911 operator is on the line, Clark said.
We should cherish our fellow beings. Not torture and murder them for "fun".*

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

*Links to an article about Sarah Palin's support for the "sport" of aerial wolf hunting. WARNING: do not watch the accompanying video--it is pure blood-sport horror. This is the "hockey mom" who far-right religious fanatics want to be a cancerous heartbeat away from the presidency.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yeah boy yeah!

Matt Cranitch, Donal Murphy, Steve Cooney. Sliabh Luachra rockin'.

Great stuff altogether.
Now playing: Matt Cranitch - Johnny Murphy's Slide, Michael Murphy's Slide
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Some anniversaries should be silent

I do not, did not, and will not write about Sept 11 2001 on the anniversary of that day--because in the face of some horror, silence is a more eloquent response than words. But here's the text of a note that's been hanging on my office door since Sept 12 2001, originally posted in the wake of a now-departed colleague's ignoramus statement that we should "bomb 'them' [unspecified] back into the Stone Age." I thought that was the wrong message to send to the then-18 year olds crying at their desks and asking "why do they hate us?".

What we do in teaching, learning, playing and sharing music can help us create a world in which it is no longer necessary that airplanes fly into buildings. In the midst of heartbreak, we do have that to give one another.

I still believe that.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What it is...

Student asked me "What do you do mentally and/or physically to prepare for performance?" I doubt she expected a response of this magnitude, but it's a good question, and if you give a musicologist a platform...

Here's my response.l

Both mental and physical preparation are important, of course. I’d break it down to three areas:



Mental state


Of course one wants to have a very solid and reliable command of the music that you’re going to play. If it’s pre-composed music, you want to have the notes all memorized well before the day of the performance. Ideally, I like to have the music memorized at least 10 days/2 weeks before the performance, so that the final days running up to the performance are spent in running pieces and just generally “getting in the zone.” So if I’m preparing a concerto, for example (back in the days when I played such things), I would aim to have the whole solo part memorized at least 10 days in advance, so that I could spend the final 10 days working with the accompanists or conductor, running the piece, experimenting with alternate interpretations, and so on.

In the case of improvised or by-ear music, the situation is a little different: there, you can’t necessarily “memorize” in advance—instead, you have to have played music of the same style or using the same techniques and have your skills well polished. So with this music, you just aim to spend a lot of time, prior to the performance, playing in the style or improvising over the same or similar pieces. You can’t memorize or pre-set the actual notes you’re going to play, but you can make sure you have plenty of prep-time listening to, thinking of, and playing ideas on the fly. That way, when you go into the performance situation, it won’t be unfamiliar.


Technique is another issue. I don’t tend any more to play musics of very high technical difficulty—the virtuosity in Irish music and blues is more one of subtle interpretation, phrasing, rhythm, and dynamics—but when I was (bebop, classical music, Ars Nova), I learned to set limits on the level of technical difficulty I would attempt to pull off on stage. After a number of experiences of trying to play, in concert, music that was at or near the top, 100th percentile of my technical ability—and crashing and burning—I made a self-rule that I should never try to play on stage music that demanded more than about 65% of my technical ability. That is, if the fastest I could play a bebop melody in the practice room was quarter-note = 240bpm, then I would make sure on stage to start the tune no faster than around 180bpm. If I could just manage to play the hardest 4-part Bach chorale in the practice room, I’d just an easier or 3-part piece for the concert. Great musicianship, great musical expressivity, does not emerge, it seems to me, from playing the most difficult pieces in concert. It comes from playing pieces well within your technical limits with great control, relaxation, intentionality, and expressivity. Playing simpler music more expressively is much better than playing harder music without any expression or control—and yet we’re all always tempted to play music that is too hard. I’d suggest that playing within your technical comfort zone is a much better choice.


In some ways I think mental state is the most important consideration in performance and yet it is sometimes neglected. I think many musicians only begin to think about their mental state in performance when or if problems emerge: most typically, if a musician suffers from performance anxiety. That is, if you have shortness of breath, or shaky hands, or palms sweating, or mental blanks, then you begin to ask yourself “what can I do to improve this situation?” But in fact, I think we would all be better musicians if we all asked ourselves, even when things were going well, “what is my mental state in performance and in what ways could it improve, and help me even more?” As most musicians know, “concentration” (on a performance, a composition, a paper, or even a conversation) is not something you can make yourself have—you can’t just say to yourself “Self, You need to concentrate now!” and have it improve your concentration very much. Instead, every musician ought to think about, reflect upon, and consider modifying all the factors that impact on your mental state in advance of and during a performance. What activities do you engage in? On what timetable before the performance? What do you eat? How do you warm up and get in touch with your body? What personal interactions do you have or avoid before the performance? What sorts of physical/mental/body relaxation techniques (meditation, breathing exercises, Tai Chi, yoga, prayer, stretching, etc) do you use, or could you experiment with? If you don’t have a regular pre-show mental/physical warmup, you should look around you at other musicians and see what their warm-ups might be. And even if you do have a routine warmup, you should look at the specifics of that routine, and see whether there are things you could add or modify to enhance your relaxation and concentration even more.

I’m personally a fan of two pre-performance routines, one (mostly) mental and one (mostly) physical: visualization (mental) and Tai chi breathing (physical). Visualization is especially useful if either (a) you’re prone to performance anxiety or (b) you’re having to perform something (a piece, an instrument, or a style) that you feel unconfident about. Both of those types of anxiety, in my observation and experience, result from a concern that you’re not going to be able to do what you have to do.

Visualization is a practice wherein you “visualize” (imagine in your mind’s eye) the performance environment, audience, ensemble colleagues, and visualize the performance going as well as you imagine. You do this both because it creates a sense of positive reinforcement (“yes, I can do this: I can imagine it going well and how happy I’ll be when it does”) and also because it familiarizes you wit h the psychological state you’ll experience. That way, when you do experience the heightened adrenaline, focus, intensity, etc in the performance, it will feel familiar, because you will have practiced visualizing it in advance.

Typically both relaxation and visualization work better if you couple them with some kind of well-thought-out body/breathing practice, such as yoga or Tai Chi. These practices have the benefit of involving your body and breathing, and linking healthy body usage and breathing with a positive visualization and experiential state. If, before each performance, you take a little bit of time to do the physical relaxation technique you’ve been practicing away from performances, it will help you get back to the relaxed state more reliably and confidently. It can even help you get to that relaxed state in the middle of the performance, by visualizing and practicing the same breathing as you play.

Ultimately, I think all of these techniques can be linked under the global heading of “motivation.” Why are we (you) playing this music? Is it to create beauty in the world? To help others? To express love? Remembering that, as musicians, we are conduits for something much bigger than ourselves can in turn help us take ego, nervousness, and ambition out of the equation—leaving the music. I think that’s a good goal, and that all the techniques we use to prepare for performance are actually the means to that greater end.