Thursday, May 31, 2018

Critical Mass

Last weekend, the North Carolina School of Science and Math held its 37th commencement exercises on the lawn of the school.  All week long we were concerned about the possibility of rain on Saturday. But, in the end, the rain held off and we had a lovely ceremony. The class of 2018 commenced as scheduled. And school is officially closed for the next week or so while we prepare for the beginning of summer activities.


There were a number of wonderful speakers at the ceremony.  The primary speaker was Dr. Billy Pizer, '86, Susan B. King Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Faculty Fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, both at Duke University. Among his remarks was a bit of an introduction to the concept of "critical mass."  He explained that critical mass is key to a variety of unfolding reactions. He further explained that in any system there is typically some sort of order. But given enough critical mass, the order can be broken. If there's not enough critical mass to break the system, the previous order remains. I believe during his remarks used the metaphor of people standing in line. One person breaks in line, it probably isn't enough critical mass to cause chaos in the line. However, if 50 people break into the line, there's a likelihood that the critical mass of those 50 people will break the order of the line.  My recollection is that his explanation of the concept was in regard to his thoughts about climate change and his work in that important area.  He encouraged our graduates to be aware of the inertia that can be created by committed groups of people.  Critical mass can both stabilize and alter systems.

Interestingly, "critical mass" is a concept that I have thought about a great deal over the years as it relates to music education and my work as an orchestra director. So, today I will share some of those thoughts and models.

Critical Mass is defined as "the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture."  Think about this as it applies to your work in the music classroom both as ensemble director and as administrator of the program.  Have you ever started a venture as music instructor?  Have you started a program? A new ensemble? A new initiative? Even a new job?  Once in place, we all must maintain our programs. At it's core, critical mass involves a venture and we all certainly have experience with ventures and undertakings!  As music instructors we are program administrators as well as instructors.  So, I hope you can already see how this concept is in many ways central to a variety of aspects of our work.


I currently enjoy directing fairly large ensembles at my school. I typically have between 40 and 60 string players enrolled in my orchestra during any given term. (Our total student enrollment is ~680, so those are pretty good numbers!) I often think back to my early years at NCSSM when the numbers were much smaller. I believe in 2001, when I first arrived at NCSSM, there were about 12 string players enrolled in Orchestra. This creates a very different musical and social environment on a daily basis. First, when there are large numbers (critical mass) in the room, the group simply sounds better. Large string groups generally have a very appealing corporate sound. (I am often reminded by my wind ensemble directing friends that this isn't always the case in a band class.) When there are only 12 or 15 in the room, every voice counts to a much greater degree. One out of tune B-flat can really adversely impact the overall sound of the ensemble. There isn't that "critical mass" to keep the system from breaking down. We, as ensemble directors, really rely on critical mass to generate a great sound.  And, as a result, individual players can take musical risks that they might not otherwise embrace in a smaller ensemble.  A wrong note or fudged lick here or there won't really be "heard."  There is freedom  in numbers.  A friend once told me of an experience she had playing the Bach Double Concerto with about 3000 violinists at an international Suzuki gathering.  She told me that she thought it would be confining and restricting before the performance, but in the end , it was actually the opposite.  She said it was one of the most freeing and musical experiences of her life. Cool!


But, there is so much more to it than simply generating sound. There is a real social impact to critical mass in the ensemble as well. When we think about enticing students to take our class, critical mass is part of it.  It is much more appealing to join an ensemble that has lots of people, lots of interest, and lots of potential each the individual student. Without critical mass in the ensemble, students may fear that their mistakes will be heard more prominently, that their role in the small ensemble may be more than they can handle as a musician, or that it will be less of a positive, large ensemble experience. Critical mass can play a role in all of these social implications.


My orchestra gave its final performance of the 2017/2018 academic year just a few weekends ago. Within two weeks of the performance, I found out that my principal second violin would be attending a science competition across the country on the evening of the concert. I also found out that one of my top first violinists would be in Singapore at a math competition. Additionally, another important member of the second violin section was scheduled to get her wisdom teeth out that week and wouldn't be able to play in the concert. I could mention couple other similar situations that occurred in that time frame as well, but you get the point. Now, I know that all music directors struggle with these issues of schedule conflicts. Some of this is par for the course at our specialized school. Students are involved in a large variety of activities and events. We understand that music program simply one cog in a very complex wheel. So, I try not to lose sleep over these conflicts that seem to come up from time to time. However, this attitude and reaction is much easier to implement when we have a critical mass of players in the ensemble. In other words, those three students missing the performance would not break the order of the system that I have in place. I have plenty of violins and, while we really did miss each of those players, the system remained strong and the performance was magnificent. Critical mass was really important on that evening. If I had an ensemble of 12 or 15 players, the absences would have been catastrophic.


Another area in which I notice the impact of critical mass is teaching various technical and musical skills to the ensemble. Let's use player movement as an example. I am always encouraging ensemble to "breathe into entrances." I ask them to breathe for any entrance as if they are in a string quartet giving a preparation beat. I want them to lift their instrument and prepare for the entrance in a way that is called for by the musical style. This clearly is not natural for all young musicians. It requires concentration and an active mind to play with this sort of proactive physical performance technique. It requires leadership and strong understanding of the repertoire. That said, when an entire ensemble breathes into an entrance, the musical impact is stunning. When I first introduce this concept to an ensemble, typically only one or two players really get it at first. I have to keep working with and coaching a section or the entire ensemble until a critical mass of the players commit to the action. Finally, when we get over the hump of critical mass, those that are not fully invested in the physicality of the performance become the outliers and eventually realize the importance of the action. They would rather join the system than break the critical mass.

This concept of critical mass can be replicated in many other facets of the ensemble. I find this to be true with commitment to dynamics and phrasing, commitment to appropriate playing position and bow technique, and commitment to eye contact and musical interaction within the ensemble. I know that I find it much more satisfying to teach and to learn when there is a critical mass of students and interest in the room. This can be one of the most difficult hurdles for young teachers to overcome as they are thrust into a new classroom or teaching environment. It takes time to generate a critical mass of interest, trust, and commitment in a community or classroom. A music program is a "system" and systems with a low critical mass can be compromised easily. This can create a great deal of stress for teachers young and old!


How do you relate to the concept of "critical mass?" I was really thrilled to hear Dr. Pizer bring it up in his commencement remarks last weekend.  Clearly, he is thinking about it through the lens of his work and I through the lens of mine.  What have I missed here?  Do you relate to this concept in your work?  What systems are you developing?  How has that system been compromised in the past? Can a critical mass stop it from being compromised?

I would love to hear from you. These are just some of my thoughts as we begin the summer of 2018.  I am sure there will be more.  Until next time...


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