Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Day 12 (Round II) "In the trenches" (blood-flow edition)

Mid-point of third week of classes and the kids by-god by-now know that they're in college: raining and about 62 degrees at 8am, and all these shivery little Texans are making their way across the parking lots and posting "I'm so cold!!!" messages to Facebook. On top of that, the HVAC in our building has been screwy for the past 6 months, with humidity fluctuations of 40 and 50 percentage points--which is death to a complicated wooden contraption like a piano. So they're blasting AC to try to take the humidity out of the air, but at the same time, that's dropping the temperate down to around 60 degrees--which is at least 8 degrees below the typical Texan's comfort zone.

So when, on a cold, rainy, shivery day in a chilled room, we get 100 kids, it's damned difficult to get them to wake up, look up, and start internalizing information. They're more like hibernating puppies--they hunch their shoulders, drop their pencils, close their eyes. And you can only flail them awake through threats 'n' imprecations to a certain degree--after a certain couple of minutes, they stop hearing the words you're saying and your voice just becomes another line of static along with all the other multifarious data sources they're used to encountering and tuning-out.

So what do we do? We change the interactional dynamic. Last week we had a couple of classroom presentations and a couple of guest-artist events in which issues of time, rhythm, and feel came up. And, today was a day already planned in the schedule for discussion of the different types of "musical knowing" that can be created by reading versus listening versus score-reading versus description versus--as of today--participation.

We talked about "ways of knowing" (and Belenky's great book Women's Ways of Knowing--never a bad time to introduce, in a male-centric W TX environment, that there might be other-gendered ways of comprehending information and that those other methods might be uniquely efficacious) and that provides a good lead-in to a discussion of "other ways of hearing"--and experiencing--music. In marked contrast to the undergraduates I went back to school with 20 years ago, the contemporary crop of up-and-coming classical/orchestral players don't bring many prejudices regarding what is "good" or "bad", "worthy" versus "unworthy" music. The Prokofiev heads also listen to Tricky, the Skinny Puppy fans also like Cage (actually, neither of those pairings seems that incongruous, come to think of it). This also makes it much easier to introduce diverse musics, and musical aesthetics, to the entering crop of freshmen: fewer preconceptions equals enhanced receptivity. They live such a multi-tasked, multi-sourced, and--let's face it--decontextualized informational life that they don't perceive any conflict with liking multiple kinds of musical experience, even if the originators themselves of those musics would disapprove of or discount one another.

Here's the first of the exercises. Start one chunk of the group clapping one eighth-note rhythm (clap - rest - clap - rest - clap - rest - clap -rest), then have the other chunk of the group "cut" into between (rest - clap - rest - clap - rest - clap - rest - clap), then, once they're in balance and keeping the constant 8th-note micropulse with a reasonable degree of relaxed flexibility, layer a third rhythm (clap - rest - rest - clap - rest - rest - clap - rest) on top, and you've demonstrated both polyrhythmic ensemble balance (between one group and the other), and polymetric layering (between the two interlocked groups and the third, triple-oriented pattern on top. Typically, they struggle to make that balance work, because as Western-trained musicians, they're programed to seek a common downbeat, and so the two groups' parts will tend to drift together. Laying the 3's on topo of their 2's is initially disorienting for them, but as they learn to relax and listen to all parts, they realize that the 3's can help them line up.

So the teaching is easier. And, in a cold, wet, air-conditioned cavernous room full of shivery little West Texans, it means that you can get them up out of their seats, divide them into groups, and teach them to play West/Central African polyrhythms. Which gets both their blood and their brains moving, and drives home, in the most visceral, intuitive, and persuasive way possible, that there is more than one way of "knowing" music. Hell, in these demonstrations, there's revealed more than one way just of hearing the downbeat--or of its absence. Take a bunch of orchestra and marching-band kids, demonstrate to them that there are polymetric musics in which no one has a dictatorial downbeat, and you've created a teachable moment in which they have brought home to them, not only that there is more than one way of hearing--and thus conceptualizing--musical rhythm, but that those other ways, while different, may be just as--or more--virtuosic than the ones they were raised with. A salutary signal lesson.

And it warms them up and gets them engaged. They can't fog out or feel alienated when they're clapping and dancing and chanting.

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