Monday, December 07, 2009

Day 65 (Round IV) "In the trenches": end-game edition

Entering the end-game all up in this joint. Today was the opening of the last (short, 1/2) week of the semester. We've got a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday left; then one day off; then final exams commence.

That means that today was the second-last meeting for the classes on the MWF rotation, and tomorrow is the absolute-last on the TR rotation. I've been away so jeezly much this semester that I'm feeling dreadfully behind in both of my seminars, both of which are on that latter rotation.

The funny thing is that we're not actually behind--well, maybe 1 day. Because both classes are upper-level seminars (and hence much more capable of maintaining their focus and productivity, even in my absence), and because it is so much more possible now than formerly to deliver and maintain material and discussions online, even while at a distance, we haven't lost nearly as much content as I subjectively feel we have.

I think what, for me, feels short-changed, is the actual face-to-face time in the seminar room. Both classes I've been teaching--"20th Century Music" and "Topics in Ethnomusicology"--are courses in which the person-to-person contact is important. Both have small enrollments; both depend upon a great deal of individual student reading, listening, and thinking; both really demand the back-and-forth of the seminar situation. We can replicate the reading/listening/thinking online via threaded discussions; we can get them to do the critical thinking on their own; but at some point we have to be there face-to-face, in real time. And there's no way to replicate that, completely satisfactorily, at a distance. So, though we've got through the material, I'm feeling the lack of the in-person time.

I'm also conscious, continually, of the ongoing observable stress I've been blogging about all semester. It continues (mostly) to blow by over my head and Dharmonia's--though it sometimes feels like we're crouching in a foxhole while the shrapnel blows by just above us--but I continue to hear, formally and informally, via official communication and the jungle telegraph, and sometimes by the most elliptical and indirect methods, of all the ways that various parties in our little community are freaking out and falling short.

I have to be careful not to dwell extensively on this. Various folks read this blog, and I neither want to over- or under-represent the situation: I want them to know that they're not alone, but I don't, under any circumstances, want to exaggerate: that helps no one.

I've got some folks coming out of the pit, and some folks who are still digging, and my buddy Coop moving his head and responding, and an old lady fading away less fearfully and more happily than she might have, and a job and a life-partner and colleagues and students I love, and infinite additional blessings from the universe, but goddamn there are people suffering, near and far. When people on the street in Lubbock ask me for money, I fucking give it to them. When students break down in my office, I listen. When yet one more of my beloved students tells me s/he needs to take the final exam early because s/he is facing deployment to a war zone, I control my towering, homicidal rage at the sociopathic little fuck down in Dallas and his crew of war criminals and murderers and help them get the course requirements done. And, in all circumstances, as Coop put it, I seek to "control my demeanor" and count the universe's blessings. And help people.

On a happier note, we finished up the run of the Madrigal Dinners for which the Celtic Ensemble supplies service music. I like to do these lobby gigs, though they would seem to be low-profile ("pleasant background noise" is the way I describe it), of nowhere near as much significance or central focus as the stuff that happens inside the hall. But they're a really valuable tool, for both pedagogical and preparative reasons. The kids get to play 4 gigs in a row, 4 nights playing the same short list of repertoire, in much more typical real-world conditions, to make and fix errors on the fly, and that's good for professionalism.

But it's also good preparation: By playing as many different tunes (with dances) from the current repertoire as possible, on these gigs, we're actually running them through four more rehearsals of that repertoire in advance of the Celtic Christmas. By the end of the 4-night run, they'll have played those tunes a bunch more times, which means in turn that those tunes don't need much rehearsal outside of the Madrigal gigs. We've done this every year since we started playing the Madrigal Dinners and it's a really useful jump-start for that Christmas repertoire.

Added bonus this year has been the added necessity of having some "filler" music, at the end of the lobby set, for the last few minutes when the larger crowds are still trailing into the hall. We're playing a bunch of Appalachian old-time long-bow fiddle music with Celtic Christmas guests, these guys, and so for the filler we've been playing these tunes. On this final evening, I had a further inspiration: I said to the band as a whole "everybody think of one of the old-time tunes you can start." So, once they were playing a given tune, I could say (while they were playing--this is great exercise in concentration, to be playing a tune and also have to listen for instructions) "who's got the next tune?!?", look for the eye-contact, cue the end of the current tune, point to the volunteer for the new one, and let them handle the segue.

This is a whole other level of improvisational magnitude, one even more unfamiliar to the majority of these kids--classical musicians as they are--and a whole other level of practical-gig expertise. If they can be playing one tune, and thinking of the next one, and can count on one of their number to manage the segue and get them into that next tune, then my role as "conductor" has been rendered, at least for the duration of that set of tunes, is largely superfluous.

That's the goal. That's when they become fully autonomous musicians.


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Jonathan Bellman said...

This is seriously impressive, pedagogically and in terms of time commitments. Does this kind of thing happen at lots of other institutions? These young'uns are going to be sent away with some serious skills.

coyotebanjo said...

Brother, I dunno. The Madrigal Dinners thing seems to be pretty ubiquitous throughout the SW (especially Texas), but I don't know of too many other university "folk" ensembles who participate. UCLA has a bunch of such, but my sense is that they're more workshop groups--not working bands. And Mick Moloney has a terrific Irish ceili band at NYU. But I don't know of too many others.

It's been especially valuable, I think, for that large majority of my guys who are essentially classical/orchestral musicians--a chance for them to learn not only different repertoires and performance practices, but also a quite different range of on-the-gig procedures. At least, they keep coming back semester after semester!

Y'all stay warm up there, y'hear?