Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Or, to be clear, do they always need someone beating time? Of course they don't. But, so many music educators who are leading school ensembles make the mistake of beating time, all the time. Let me provide a bit of perspective.
I was recently at a public school concert where an ensemble of terrific young string players were being accompanied by a bluegrass band on 2 fiddle tunes. The conductor of the group, who is a fantastic musician and teacher, was beating 4/4 time throughout the entire performance. It really seemed out of place and even detrimental to the success of the performance. He would have been so much better served to get the pulse out of the way visually, and to give some other meaningful information from the podium. This might include musical cues or appropriate style and/or dynamic information. Instead, he was waving his arms (almost furiously) and not really providing any real visual information that could be used by the young musicians. Ultimately, the pulse driving the ensemble was coming from the professional bass player that was accompanying the group, not from the visual information the conductor was providing. It was a shame that the kids weren't informed of this and encouraged to direct their listening skills in the bass player's direction for the pulse-portion of needed information.
So, when exactly does a conductor discontinue giving pulse and allow the musicians to find that information from a different source? Here are some examples from my experience.
Drum set: Any time a drum set is involved in an orchestral performance, I believe the conductor need not beat time. So many of us string educators are programming eclectic styles repertoire nowadays and a drum set is often part of that instrumentation. In my experience, encouraging the players to use the pulse generated by the drums as their tempo and rhythmic guide tightens up the performance. I look at it this way: if the best rock bands in the world can stay together with a solid drummer, so can my ensemble. The conductor can get out of the way here and give other appropriate cues and style information.
Groove section: If a section of the orchestra is providing a clear groove - perhaps repeated, regular notes, they are essentially providing the information that a conductor would provide with the stick. This can happen in repertoire from Mozart to Beethoven to modern stuff. There is something about repeated eighth or sixteenth notes that can be a great groove for an ensemble to "lock-in" on rhythmically. I refer to this as "the engine" in my conducting work with student groups . I find that if I can get all sections referring to the engine for rhythmic subdivision and tempo information, it makes the performance much tighter.
Pieces that are imitating alt styles that would not normally use a conductor. (ie: bluegrass, jazz, rock) Here, I just find it odd to conduct these styles in the same way I would conduct a more classical piece. Again, if it wouldn't happen in the original concert hall setting, I wouldn't do it in the orchestral setting when we are imitating the other style. At least not continuously.
Music with a heavy back-beat: The idea here is that if a section of the ensemble is providing back-beat, then I would encourage the ensemble to listen to and react to that for tempo and pulse. No, to be clear, I (the conductor) might be working to be sure that the section providing the back-beat is together and steady. But, that probably doesn't involve simply beating time.
Music that is essentially chamber music: This again gets to the idea of being authentic with your performance. If a string ensemble is playing a work that was originally a string quartet or trio, perhaps it doesn't need a conductor beating time throughout the performance. Is this an opportunity for you (the conductor) to pick up and instrument and lead with an instrument in your hands?
Think: Authentic. If the style would not use a conductor in it's original form, it probably doesn't need a conductor in the orchestral form. It also comes down to listening purposefully. Musicians need to know when to look to the conductor for meaningful information as opposed to when to listen for meaningful information from other members of the ensemble . Similarly, they need to know when they are giving them information as well. I sometimes called this knowing when you are the teacher or when you are the student. Everyone plays the role of teacher at some point in a performance. Sometimes it's the conductor. Sometimes it's the first violins. Sometimes it's the celli. Sometimes it's the violas or 2nd violins. It is a very empowering concept.
I took a minute to look up "conductorless orchestra" on the web and really didn't find too much. Here is the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conductorless_orchestra
Also, here is a great conductorless ensemble: http://afarcry.org/
In the end, it comes down to the condutor providing meaningful information at all times. If the information that you are giving isn't needed, then find something to give that IS needed. Always think about what you are doing and how that visual information is enhancing the ensemble's task and performance.
Monday, January 22, 2018
This past weekend was a busy one at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. We had a number of performances and the weekend finished up with the magnificent lecture by our current featured guest visual artist, Heather Gordon.
Heather Gordon is a magnificent, scholarly visual artist who's work centers around complex origami patterns based on a variety of data sets. Her lecture last night served to explain her current installation at NCSSM entitled "Elements." Her work centers around the concept of alchemy and features 4 large works which are made out of tape on two dimensional wall surfaces. They are titled, "Sun," "Moon," "Sulfur," and "Mercury." She explained the significance of these 4 "elements" as part of her lecture and went on to describe her creative process and the highly sophisticated mathematical equations that are required to complete this type of work. The artwork is simply magnificent and inspires me every day when I walked into the building at the school.
As part of her lecture, she introduced a couple of concepts that I can't stop thinking about today. One is that "ideas + material = transformation." The other is her commitment to what she referred to as "Immersive Installation." That is, that the consumer of her art is immersed in art. They are literally inside the art. This is achieved by creating an actual space that the consumer walks into. Obviously this requires large spaces and large artwork. The installation at ncssm is an example of this very thing. When viewing this exhibit, the consumer is literally in the middle of Sulphur, Mercury, Sun, and Moon. The experience of being immersed in this exhibit is quite powerful. I was moved by her explanation and commitment to the immersive art experience. (There is a great deal more to the implied metaphor here. I will stop short of explaining all of it now. But, if you are interested in it, there is much to learn about alchemy on the all powerful Google machine.)
Stay with me now as I draw a strong connection between these ideas and my experience of preparing for an orchestra performance and performing as part of an orchestra.
This past weekend, my Orchestra performed Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, No. 41. As we came to the end of the final movement, I found myself disappointed that the process was over. My students had been immersed in and in preparation for this performance for the past 3 months. To see it come to an end is certainly part of the process. Albeit, a somewhat melancholy aspect of the process.
As part of her lecture, Heather talked about the process of taking down her installations. She pulls this copious amount of tape off the walls of the exhibit space. Someone asked her what that process of tearing down the exhibit is like. Her response was, "Well, at the end I have a big ball of tape." And that too is part of the artwork. It's part of the immersive experience.
This is not unlike the final release of the final note of a great musical work. In the end we have our memory of the experience. We have a "huge ball of tape," one that will last and stay with us forever in our memory and in our heart.
Another event of the past weekend was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Southeast Honors String Festival. My youngest son, who is 15, participated in the ensemble as a string bassist. Now, it is important to know that his primary passion is not the string bass. Nor is it orchestra music. His primary passion is baseball. Given the opportunity to choose to do anything with his day, he would prefer to be on the baseball field. I love that about him. He is passionate about his sport and all of his activities. But, this weekend he was a bassist in a wonderful Honors Orchestra conducted by my dear friend Alex Jimenez from Florida State University. The concert was magnificent. They played works by Hovhaness, Kirk Mosier, and C. Armstrong Gibbs. On our way home from the performance, I was able to articulate to my son how important it is that he participate in this kind of activity. He, in fact, had the opportunity to be immersed in an artistic work. As a bassist he was part of the ensemble that created this incredibly beautiful sound. Sometimes that is lost on our students. The aesthetic opportunity to be immersed in a large ensemble making beautiful sounds is rare. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do this. I'm so happy that he has been exposed to these ideas and the materials and has this opportunity for transformation. He will be a more complete human (husband, father, partner, teammate, friend) for having experienced this.
Which brings me back to that phrase, "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." Many of you know that I've been involved in KidzNotes, an El Sistema USA program in Durham, NC. This is a classic example of this concept of ideas plus materials equal transformation. Through the generous support of individual donors, kids notes provides both the materials and the ideas for underserved children in the area to be transformed. We have seen over and over that families and individuals, through the infusion of classical music and opportunities to experience and create art, are transformed.
Teachers do this every day. I think of my many colleagues around the United States who are providing ideas and materials to so many students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to participate in ensemble music. They are all experiencing the immersive art of the orchestral experience on a daily basis. They don't always realize this rare opportunity in the moment. But, as they move on to various careers, cities, family obligations, and environments, they will look back on their school orchestral experience as a transformative time in their life. I have seen it time and time again.
So today, I share with you these two phrases: the concept of "Immersive Installations and "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." I encourage you to consider these today and never lose sight of the fact that we are instruments of transformation in the lives of our students.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
For those of us that lead orchestras, it is absolutely vital that we provide context music that we play. Lots of pedagogical repertoire even provides explanations of the composition on the inside cover of the score. This might include the story behind the piece, pedagogical priorities, and other composers notes. But, this wasn't the case in the time of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. My Orchestra is currently working on Mozart's Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter." We had been working on this piece for about four weeks leading up to the holidays. For the last rehearsal before winter break, I decided to take some time and outline the context of the piece. I wanted the students to understand many of the intricacies of the composition and the wonderful little secrets that within the piece.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
With that in mind, I thought for a while about my values in teaching and decided that if I could come up with a systematic, sequential system that outlined my journey as an improviser, I may be able to give the students something that would be useful and practical. I began putting my thoughts together and as a result of some discussions with Chris and with my wife I came up with the title, "Functional String Improvisation" for the weekend. This notion of being functional is very important to me. I am so aware that I am not a jazz performer nor an expert improviser. But, I am a functional violinist. I am able to go into almost any performing situation and provide something that is interesting, stylistically appropriate, musical, and enjoyable. I am as comfortable playing over chord changes in a recording studio as I am playing in the middle of a violin section of an orchestra.
So, here is the system that I articulated that weekend. It is my approach. It is an articulation of my journey and experience. I don't hold it up as the gold standard, but I know that it has worked for me. Working on and developing these concepts and skills has helped me to become the improviser that I am today. This is all built on time, practice and experience. The system is effective, but practice and repetition is the key.
I am providing my outline and annotations here. My hope is that other string teachers may find something here that resonates with them and begin the journey for themselves. Or, if already on that journey, find a different twist or approach.
FUNCTIONAL STRING IMPROVISATION
Basics of Functional Musicianship
- There is no substitute for core technique and tone
- Functional String improvisation is a combination of the following:
- Functional/Applied Music Theory
- Internalized concepts of harmony, chord tones, and voice leading
- Understanding the function or role you are playing at any given moment in the tune
Skills to Develop:
Free Improv and musical conversation
- Listen and respond/react
- “Yes, and…”
- Listen to the tune. Identify and imitate the various voices
- How do you imitate guitar, snare, bass, vocals, lead guitar
- scale patterns 3rds, 4ths, etc
- Alternate ideas on scales, jumps
- Pentatonic scale
- Shapes (finger patterns) - thinking like a guitar player
- Triads - know your 3rds and 5ths (7ths too!)
- Playing pads (whole notes)
- (Extreme ranges)
- 3rds and 7ths
- Does the range blend with or cut through ensemble appropriately?
- Importance of 2 and 4
- Strum bowing
- Check out Blues back-tracks in various on Youtube.
- Listen to blues artists and imitate them. Play along a ton!
- Slightly modify the melody
- Think “Theme and Variations”
- Build the piece dynamically
There is no substitute for listening with purpose. Think about the things you are hearing. Think about the function of every voice that you hear in the tune.
So, there you have it. Let me know what you think. And, good luck with your journey to improvisation. It is so much fun to be able to express yourself without notes in front of you. But, remember, it takes time. So, get to work!
By the way, if you are really ready to dive into the world of creative strings and improvisation and want some individualized training, I highly recommend attending Christian Howes' Creative Strings Workshop as part of your summer professional development. He's the best. Hands down. My son will be attending this summer. I don't give a higher endorsement.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
This will be a bit shorter and certainly less developed than some of my other ideas expressed in this blog. It is more of an observation today. Here is the quick thought:
- String players = start with technical, work toward expressive.
- Dancers = start with expressive and work toward the technical
My Recording Technology class recently completed an assignment that I call the Dance-Mix Editing assignment. The students are tasked with editing several of their favorite songs together in mo more than 32 pulse segments, editing for consistent tempo, consistent or complimentary key and tonality, 8 count phrases, and "cutting to resolution." The idea is that it could be used for a dance team or cheer-leading team routine with no difficulty. I am always pleased to hear the resulting ideas and themes that emerge with this first project of the course.
As we were reviewing all of the projects in class, I came to find out that one of my students is particularly interested in dance and took a particular interest in this project the possible applications to his art moving forward. A wonderful conversation about dance and movement ensued, spurring the following train of thought.
String playing and dance are certainly similar. Both require a great deal of physical training in order to become proficient. Both require a great deal of kinesthetic rhythmic movement. And both, when done well, can elicit a great emotional response. That said, it seems to me that string playing typically begins with a focus on the technical and can lead to emotional expression of ideas with perseverance and determination. Conversely, dance and dancers typically begin with a desire to demonstrate emotion and eventually develop the techniques that facilitate this pursuit.
A few months ago, I wrote a related post entitled What? and How? I that post, I explored the need for young artists to be aware of the areas of technique, artistry, purpose and perspective.
This may be a subtle difference, but I don't think so. Having been around instrumental string music education for over 30 year, I have observed students and teachers alike. I pay attention to string pedagogy and love to consider the intricacies of teaching. Us string players are obsessed with technique. I think that we all really want to be expressive, but I find that it is very difficult to attain artistry. In fact, I have written before that is was very hard for me to consider my self an "artist" until well into my middle-age years. I was a technician.
I have enjoyed watching various dance shows over the past several years, including So You Think You can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and others. One of the things that strikes me always is the artistry and artistic motivation of everyone from the judges, to the pros, to the students. The motivation of the dancer seems to begin with the artistic. From there, the best dances seek out the technique that is needed to further their art.
Us string folks seem get there from the opposite direction. Young students (or perhaps sometimes their parents) want to learn how to play the violin. They rent an instrument, go to their lessons, and begin the process of learning the techniques of playing. If they hang in there long enough, they will make the transition to artistry.
I head about 150 violin students audition for a regional orchestra festival yesterday. I will bet that I heard less than 10 get close to an idea of expression or artistry. Don't get me wrong: Artistry is hard. And, one MUST learn the proper techniques in order to demonstrate artistry. So, I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with any of this. I just find the dichotomy to be very interesting and telling.
By the way, I was just thinking about kids that start on the guitar and other "rock" instruments. Many of them begin with an artistry motivation as well. But, the techniques that are required for real expression with a guitar can be attained significantly quicker. Tone quality for a power chord happens pretty fast. Tone quality on a violin is a lifelong pursuit.
What are your thoughts? I welcome your feedback and remarks. Meanwhile, string players: seek out artistry. You ARE expressive. You ARE artists. Play with an ear toward moving your audience at all times!
Thursday, January 4, 2018
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Now I know that you can find almost anything on social media nowadays. Folks have all sorts of agendas and political leanings. And, I certainly can't give that one article too much of my time and attention. It is certainly representative of one groups misguided opinion. As for me, I am proud to have chosen teaching as my profession and passion. And I am pleased that teaching has chosen me. For all you teachers out there, these kids need us. They need our scholarship, our guidance, our care, and our encouragement. Keep fighting the good fight. And remember: those who can, teach!