Friday, September 24, 2010

Music and the Mind at NCSSM

This past week, I had the pleasure of team teaching an interdisciplinary class with NCSSM Anatomy and Physiology Instructor, Dr. Ashton Powell. We held two of his Anatomy and Physiology classes in the NCSSM music suite with the hopes of convening some thought provoking discussions on music, the mind, and their inter-connectivity.

We began each class with me giving a brief performance. My primary solo mode, as many of you know, is to create live audio loops on guitar (using a Boss RC 50) and then using my NS Design 5 string electric violin to play melodies and associated improvisations above the chord progressions. Following the performance, we began the class with discussions regarding the music, the process of making music, the process of listening to music, and a variety of other lines of thought that grew from the discussion. We discussed the communication process, the similarity to speech, the "spirit" of the music and relationship to tonality, and other a variety of other topics.

Next, we watched and discussed three extraordinary videos which I am sure that many of you have seen.

A. The TED Video of Bobby McFerrin leading an audience in a magnificent sing-along using the pentatonic scale.

Following this video, I gave a brief explanation of the pentatonic scale and then showed the students how one can create basic melodies with the pentatonic scale. Next, I showed them how other scales can generate a very different aural reaction. For these, I used a major scale, a mixolydian scale, a blues scale, and a chromatic scale. The student reaction and conversation was quite interesting and thoughtful.

B. A news clip of Oliver Sacks undergoing an MRI study of his brain's reaction to an excerpt of Bach vs. a similar excerpt of Beethoven.

The general idea of the clip is that Sacks' mind was significantly more active when listening to the Bach clip, possibly because he generally likes Bach more than Beethoven. Further, even when he wasn't sure which composer was being played, his mind was still more active during the Bach clip. I must admit, I found this news clip to fall a bit short for me. As I listened to the excerpts that they used, I found the Bach clips to have more dissonance and tension, therefore, potentially requiring more brain activity. The Beethoven clips seemed to be more consonant and I didn't find them to be indicative, at all, of the emotion that one finds in Beethoven's greatest works: his symphonies. On the other hand, this was not a referendum on Bach vs. Beethoven. It was merely a referendum on Oliver Sack's preference of Bach to Beethoven. The study, itself, was very interesting and I do find it quite interesting that our mind is significantly more active when listening to material that we find pleasurable or challenging at some level. No surprising, but fascinating.

C. A news piece of an MRI study of brain activity when playing composed music vs. playing improvised music.

I found this clip to be quite interesting, especially as I perform both composed classical literature and improvised music on a regular basis. The general idea is that the brain is exceedingly active when playing composed music and many parts of the brain essentially shut down when improvising. I must say that I don't find this hard to believe at all. Here is an example from my personal experience. Last night, I played my music for a reception held by the Eastern NC Chapter of the National MS Society. I performed my own music and spent approximately 80% of the evening improvising over my own melodies. This was an enjoyable evening and I did not find it to be physically taxing in any way. On the other hand, last June, I was invited to play the prelude music for our NCSSM Online Commencement ceremony. It was slated to be about a 20 minute recital. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, the ceremony was late in starting and I ended up playing for about a solid 75 minutes. This was one of the most exhausting performances I have given in many years. It wasn't that the music was so difficult. But, the mental energy that it required was clearly significantly more than a comparable length improvisational performance. Thus, I found this study to be on the mark in many ways. Interestingly, when polled before seeing the film clip, the students almost unanimously, felt that the improvisational performances would require more brain energy because the performer would be doing something extemporaneously. Now, all of us improvisers know that there isn't a great deal that we do in an improvisational performance that we haven't tried at some point or another prior to permutation of the song. I would liken in to speech. Which takes more brain energy: an extemporaneous conversation for 10 minutes OR a recitation of a 10 minute poem by another author. I believe the "composed" poem requires a great deal more brain energy. Again, the correlations between music and speech are apparently quite strong.

We ended the class with a short drum circle, giving every student the opportunity to experience music performance and improvisation in a non-threatening way. I think that the kids really enjoyed this and would have kept going with the drum circle long after the class period had ended!

This was a wonderful day of thoughtful scholarship, intelligent conversation, and free exchange of ideas and academic curiosity. It was everything that NCSSM should be. It was everything that school should be.

I went home that day with a real feeling of satisfaction that we had facilitated some higher order thinking and potentially unlocked some real interest for many of the students. I also really feel strongly that making connections between disciplines is an important part of the educational process. I feel like that happened in a concrete way today. I love being a teacher! May we all have similar experiences in our unique teaching experiences - in and outside of the classroom!


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The CATS Method of Learning

Many of you know that in recent months, I have become more and more involved with KidzNotes ( )the Durham-based non-profit that is part of El Sistema USA and modeled after the well-known Venezuelan Youth Orchestra Program, El Sistema. The primary goal of this organization is to bring children out of poverty through classical music training in an intensive after-school program. Kidznotes will be launching this weekend in East Durham and I am thrilled to be involved. I am a member of the Board of Directors of Kidznotes and have been working on a variety of fundraising efforts as well as doing some teacher-training and performing to promote the cause. I am also proud to say that my corporate partner and sponsor, D’Addario Bowed Strings, has also jumped on board and has generously participated in preparing instruments for our young students to use. The will certainly be set up with wonderful instruments as a result of D’Addario’s generosity and the generosity of many other organizations and individuals.

One of the models that El Sistema uses is the concept of each student being part of the “CATS” model of teaching and learning. “CATS” stands for Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar. When I heard the acronym for the first time, it resonated with me on so many levels. In many ways, this has been the model that I have used with my students for almost 25 years of teaching. But, it was never stated so clearly and succinctly for me before my work with El Sistema USA.

For my students at NCSSM, I want you to take some time to think about the challenges that this model offers us. It is easy to think your job as a member of an orchestra or a class is fairly one-dimensional. That is, to assume that you are to come to class, participate fully as a musician and student, and move on to the next class. But here at NCSSM, we want to challenge you to be so much more than that. We want you to be engaged in class. We want you to own the environment. And we want you to pursue scholarly excellence in all that you do. So, let’s look at each word in the acronym and consider them individually and collectively.

First, we encourage you to be a CITIZEN. We expect you to own your citizenship. With citizenship comes responsibility. We expect you to care about the environment from start to finish. What does that entail? Citizenship, to me, equates to affirmative community membership – encouraging others, leading when appropriate, following when appropriate, caring for the injured, supporting the weak, loving the unloved. It requires a lack of self and a concern for others. In short, ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what you can do for it and the good of the whole.

Next is ARTIST. It may seem like a reasonable expectation that a member of a musical organization or class be expected to act and think like an artist. Personally, I never really became comfortable with the notion that I was an artist until well into my adult musical years. I am not sure that I was ever really encouraged to think that way. Or, if I was, it was never really articulated in a way that I understood or incorporated into my life in a meaningful way. What is it to be artist? One definition claims that an artist is one who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value. So, an artist must be imaginative, talented, skillful, creative, and aesthetically inclined. One who is interested in aesthetics is interested in the creation of beauty. I believe it is my job to encourage you in all of these ways. When you are truly using your imagination, talents, skills, and creativity with a goal towards creating beauty and moving people’s emotions, you are on your way to being an artist.

TEACHER: On the surface this is a curious one. After all, you are, by definition, a student. First off, trust me when I tell you that I have learned ten times as much as a teacher than I ever did as a student. When we teach, we really must understand process. We have to much more clearly define objectives and goals. We have to exhibit patience, too. When students teach, they develop much deeper understandings of the processes that they are going through. Students teach every day. Just ask my seniors. I look to them to set a tone in the classroom. A section in an orchestra is always better when there are a strong front couple of stands. They are modeling for the rest of the section. They are, for all intents and purposes, teaching. And every player can in some way, teach their stand partner from time to time. We teach when we do it right and we can also teach when we do it wrong. I have learned a great deal from less-than-exemplary models in my lifetime. We must all be teachers.

Finally there is the aspect of being a SCHOLAR. I would seem to be a no-brainer that we should be scholars. But, I want you to bring true scholarship to everything that you do, including orchestra. Again, how often I see students that come to class just expecting to go through the motions on a given day. That is not true scholarship. Scholarship requires a thirst for knowledge that has been accumulated by many over the years. It includes a desire for accuracy, an appreciation for history, a respect for the science, and understanding of the mathematical principles, a desire to comprehend the theory of everything that we undertake. True scholarship requires academic curiosity and academic enthusiasm. Do you bring scholarship to every rehearsal that you attend?

I understand that these are lofty goals. They are all-encompassing. They are a challenge. But why would one want it any other way. You are here to “accept the greater challenge.” So here it is. Adopt a fundamental commitment to the “CATS” model of learning. Every day, in every class, in every endeavor, I encourage you to be a Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar. Let me know when you succeed. I will celebrate with you!