Sunday, February 28, 2010

La Divina: A portrait of Maria Callas

Colleen Skull Blog Entry 2#

Review of the Documentary La Divina: A portrait of Maria Callas


This documentary on Maria Callas uses interviews with those closest to the Greek soprano, news and performance footage, and Callas herself commenting on her life and experiences as a opera icon. Like many great artists it, Maria was racked with issues of performance anxiety, partly because as she says "Every time I go out there, they are waiting to get me" - a comment on the nature of operatic audiences, and partly because as a perfectionist she couldn't bear to give less than her best, explaining her notorious cancellations and walkouts due to illness. Maria began her career with the obstacles of being considered, ungraceful, shy, and a voice that conductor Serafin described as "great and ugly". However her legacy of delivering dramatic performances strongly resonated with opera audiences, not only making opera more accessible, it also solidifies her status as a super star.
Maria's physical transformation is said to have been inspired by seeing Audrey Hepburn filming Roman Holiday. She lost over 80 pounds in a very short period of time. It is rumoured she did so by swallowing a tape worm. This streamlined Callas allowed her the access to more publicity, high profile roles and performances, and perhaps led in part to her relationships to Battista Meneghini and Aristotle Onassis. It is asserted in the documentary that Onassis viewed her as a possession, devastating Maria permanently when he unexpectedly married Jackie Kennedy instead of Maria. It is still widely speculated that Maria ultimately died of a broken heart.
This documentary weaves the tale of a woman with an intense drive for music making and love. It touches on Maria’s lack of a supportive family, loss of her voice, drug use, and ultimate overdose in her Paris apartment. This film portrays an artist with a fierce dedication to the development of her artistry, the famous director of the day, Franco Zefferelli testifies that what made her great was that on stage she was "possessed", and completely committed to the realization of the characters she played. People have often commented Maria Callas walked a fine line between genius and madness. What this documentary really portrays is the intense pressures and difficulties opera singers have to deal with in their work and personal lives. For me this film represents a tragic end to an outstanding artist who managed to capture the hearts of the public and is still revered today.

I watched this film not only out of interest but as a source of insight into the experiences, and potential stresses and strains opera singers in the golden age of opera experienced. Surprisingly, not much has changed over the last 60 years. Pressures and expectations of perfection, issues of loneliness and isolation, drug use, and constant scrutiny from the opera community and the public are still the reality for professional opera singers today.

Form a socio-psychological perspective, this film addresses the constant pressures of Maria’s environment, her early dedication to practice and singing above all else, and the toll her lifestyle and stardom took on her psychological well being. Of particular interest was the film’s identification of the developments made in speed of travel that led to her vocal instability and her inability to manage the increased demands on her with regard to rehearsals and performance schedule. During the golden age of opera, rehearsal periods were very long in comparison to today’s frantic schedules, where singers are expected to step in at a moment’s notice, rehearse for less than a week, and develop their characters and musical ideas on their own. Although Gelb’s move towards “hollywoodism” at the Met has led to sacrifices in the artistic integrity of operatic performance, it is clear the pressures to emulate a larger than life, starlet persona was alive and well decades previous. I would highly recommend this film. It provides candid insights into the world of opera not only during the golden age of opera but as it relates to the current conditions of professional operatic career demands of today

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Learning music from collaboration
R. Keith Sawyer
Washington University in St. Louis, Department of Education, Campus Box 1183, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA
Received 1 January 2007; received in revised form 31 October 2007; accepted 5 November 2007

International Journal of Educational Research 47 (2008) 50–59
This is an article that brings up very valuable points as well as some questionable ones. Sawyer has written several articles around the subject of theatre and jazz improvisation as models to implement group interaction in other areas. I have read some of them and they present insightful analogies in theatre and jazz improvisation that he claims, can be applied in the classroom as pedagogical tools and style of delivery, that is an improvised lesson plan as to opposed to a scripted lesson plan.
In this article in particular, he focuses on one improvisational task from each field: theatre and jazz. He breaks down in deep detail the mechanics of the process. His argument for education is that through improvisation students construct their own learning and knowledge. He also shows that improvisation as a creative way to learn happens within structures. In fact, in this paper, he analyses a dialogue of an improvised theatre piece pointing to the constructs and constrictions that each line defines as the material emerges.
Originally, I found great value in Sawyer’s arguments and theories to the point that I was curious to read more about his research. This article focuses on the idea of learning music within the collaborative (his own word) setting of improvisation. For this to happen, the teacher needs to provide the necessary and appropriate scaffold, in the Vygostkian sense. So far so good. Half way into the paper, Sawyers develops the ideas of freedom within structures; in a nutshell, he replicates David Elliott’s theory of creativity: one can only be creative after knowing all the rules, history, conventions, and gestures of a musical style. At this point, the disappointment is such, that I want to go out on the street, sit on the kerb and cry with my head between my knees.
This approach sets teaching back to square one. In a way, it defeats the purpose of working around an alternative set of mechanics. What I find most annoying about Sawyer’s understanding of improvisation, is that all his examples and illustrations are based on the jam session scenario. Jam sessions are, in my opinion, the worst music making situation in all the history of civilization. It is curious that Sawyer chooses such an archaic and uncreative setting to talk about creativity and innovation; as he points, in a jam session players call out tunes that they all know from before, they follow a standard procedure of head-solos-trade choruses-head, and they play established licks and gestures that are well ingrained in the tradition so as to sound within the style. Rather than a collaborative learning setting that propels innovation, I would claim that the jam session is a stale setting that intends to perpetuate and freeze musical traditions.
Another annoying comment of Sawyer’s raises my temperature when he mentions that it is important to know the tradition to innovate as it is the case of jazz players. There are some players who have indeed innovated after learning the language of jazz inside out, but there are many players who innovated not having a jazz background necessarily. For instance Branford Marsalis had a strong schooling in jazz playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before breaking off with his own projects. But I wonder what jazz training Alex Acuna had before joining Weather Report only a few days after arriving in the USA from Peru. Did Jaco Pastorious know all the standards from the “real book”? Pat Metheny for sure, but I doubt if Jaco did...

My point here is that in order to create, an individual needs a creative mind, rather than knowledge of tradition; to know the rules first and then break them, is only one way to create. If improvisation has a place in music education, is in my opinion, the purpose to redefine creative thought.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nurtured by Love: Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education, by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Published in 1983, Translated by Waltraud Suzuki.

Summy-Brichard Inc.

Prepared by: SarahRose Black

Shinichi Suzuki’s classic approach to music education, known as “Talent Education” is outlined in his 1983 publication “Nurtured by Love”. To briefly summarize the content of the book, Dr. Suzuki’s premise is that every child is capable of achieving a level of excellence if they are trained correctly; this “training” involves Suzuki’s famous “mother-tongue approach”, during which a child is exposed to the music they are going to learn many months before they actually pick up the instrument. Suzuki’s idea came from his observations of Japanese mothers interacting with their children. He noticed that the constant talking of mothers to their children led to the (almost) inevitable reproduction of the sounds from the baby some months later. Suzuki used this approach and found that if children heard “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and other folk songs for months before, the children were able to replicate them with ease. Suzuki’s teaching methods rest on the philosophy that all people are born with a natural ability to learn. Most newborns adjust to their environment and most adults do the same. Dr. Suzuki believed it was possible (and very important) for every person to foster and improve their natural abilities. Essentially, he strove to nurture “fine and noble human beings”. These premises are the foundation upon which his philosophies and pedagogical practices sit.

Dr. Suzuki worked to bring out what he called “natural ability”. His belief in the potential of every human being to be “fine and noble” drove his desire to develop a pedagogy. From a sociological standpoint, Dr. Suzuki’s background is interesting and relevant to examine. He survived war-torn Japan during the second world war and fled with his family and some family friends into the mountains where they all remained in hiding for the greater part of the war. It has been said that Suzuki went without much food for weeks in order to provide food for the children he was with at the time. Since then and until his death, he suffered from severe stomach problems as a result. His undoubtable capacity to love and care and give back to his community shone through in many different ways. His enormous contribution to the world of music education has spread to over 30 countries and has inspired and ignited students and teachers alike.

Many of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophies have personally influenced and touched me very deeply. My bias is that I was raised as a Suzuki piano student in a very traditional fashion. The “Suzuki triangle” was formed with me, my father and my piano teacher. I listened for months before I played, and I listened long after my fingers were able to execute the pieces I had heard to often. Today, I am a Suzuki piano teacher and hope to offer my students what my teachers offered me.

Talent education is an interesting approach to learning and teaching. It is based upon the arguable premise that all children are naturally ready to learn and can be taught to play just as beautifully as anyone else. Furthermore, a nurturing environment is essential to the Suzuki approach. The child must be positively reinforced and nurtured by those surrounding him or her. Although these premises are arguable and questionable, I have seen the effects of the right amount of listening coupled with a nurturing environment and a supportive teacher. Many Suzuki students play with grace, eloquence, technical proficiency and passion. However, one of the major problems with this approach is that the process necessitates several components which may not always be in place for the child. A child may want to have a music education but may not have the required parental support needed for Suzuki education. If the child/teacher/parent triad is not in place, is the Suzuki method not possible? Some would argue that it would not work in the same way. Suzuki purist are staunch about the commitment needed to become a Suzuki student. Others argue for flexibility within the method. Pedagogically speaking, many would argue that one method cannot fit every child to a tee the way Dr. Suzuki argues it can. For example, an older student starting with the Suzuki method might not experience the same effects as a younger student. This raises the question of whether talent education works if a child is “too old” to experience the benefits of the mother-tongue approach. I am inclined to believe that the ear training/mother-tongue approach works mainly with young children, just as language acquisition works much faster for young children than it does for adults. Dr. Suzuki himself might be the exception; he learned violin by ear around the age of 18. Although Suzuki has limitations, the method also has wide-ranging benefits.

Suzuki’s method, although staunch, has been shown to be highly effective in many different countries. Dr. Suzuki was an inspirational human being with a lot of love and musical expertise to offer. His optimism and passion for teaching have ignited the world of music education. I have found Dr. Suzuki’s life and teachings to be highly motivating for me as a music educator, and for the parents and students with whom I have used this method.

Some quotes for thought:

"Filled with the joy of love, I have given up saddness"

"Talent education is life education"

"My dream is for the happiness of all people"