Saturday, March 20, 2010

Look in the mirror. Are you a teacher or a performer?

Roberts, B. (2004). Who’s in the mirror? Issues Surrounding the Identity Construction of Music Educators. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education (3)2.

This article was based on a lecture given at Richland College, Dallas, Texas.

It opens with two versions of an introduction given about Roberts. The first focuses on his career as a music educator---where he teaches, publications. The second focuses on his career as a performer---where he studied, recently performed works, where he has performed. The latter he mentions because “most musicians tend to believe only other musicians about musical things” (p. 4). This sets the foundation for the main concern of the article, which is the process of a willing identification of students as music teachers.

He is particularly interested in “how [a student] convinces [oneself] and others…that [one] is a musician” (p. 3) and how you or I might come to convince ourselves that being a teacher is a desirable way to describe ourselves.

Role identity is therefore of primary interest. Executing acts as a musician or teacher is what defines one’s role as a musician or teacher. So, if I want to call myself a teacher, then I should teach. This label is one that he has found, through interviews with music education students, to be a difficult one to accept, because of a need to support the part of one’s identity that is a musician.

According to Roberts, the music school community plays a very important role in identification. To begin with, music students already feel bound together and separated from other university students because of their pursuit of musical studies. Roberts further identifies sub-groups within this community and looks specifically at music education majors and performance majors. Groupings are further reinforced by the fairly inflexible set of courses set by the institution. The result is a tight-knit group in which “differences between members are stressed [italics in text]” (p. 12). This usually leads to perceived, and perhaps exaggerated, differences in performing ability, such that performers are defined to be superior to those in other programs.

Difficulty arises when students with an interest in other areas of music maintain a desire to develop as performers. According to Roberts, “students report frequent examples of members of faculty treating those ‘non-serious’ students with disdain or worse” (p. 13).

Roberts then highlights the idea of “status points”, which are used by students to establish themselves as musicians within a hierarchy. To succeed, the “points” are gained by:
    a) attaining good marks in school
    b) going to a top-rated school
    c) being involved with classical music
    d) being a senior student, particularly in a performance program (in certain schools, seniors and/or those in performance are given priority in ensembles, for certain roles, etc.)
    e) playing a particular instrument
    f) studying with a particular applied music teacher
    g) involvement in the right type of ensemble (if an audition is required, more points!)
    h) being in a particular program (since performance programs provide more opportunity to perform, this is at the top)

The result is that being a music student is still equated with being a musician, and usually, this means being a performer. Of course, not everyone is as concerned with becoming a performer. For those in this situation, others impose the label, “non-serious musician” (p. 24).

For the music education student, being labeled a musician is continually sought. As a result, one’s music teacher identity becomes secondary, and sometimes, of little importance.

Upon entry into the teaching profession, music teachers are less able to identify with the teacher group as a whole. Roberts therefore concludes that the music identification process is “like a war, where the teaching self and the musician self battle it out for control over the person” (p. 38).

Thinking back to undergraduate auditions for music education and performance programs in various schools, I realize that I primarily thought of myself as a pianist who had many years of studio teaching experience. By the time I started my Music Education Degree, I had already taught for 10 years. I had not differentiated between the two supposedly separate identities of performer and teacher.

In fact, upon entering the program, I didn’t think that I was any less a pianist, until I started to get the impression that as a music education student, not everyone thought of me as equally capable. Despite being admitted to every program to which I had applied, I suppose being away from music studies (I completed a different degree before this) had already made me a bit self-conscious, because I started to wonder whether I could really play at all.

A particular classroom experience is still vivid…
The teacher asked for a sight-reading volunteer for a rather easy piece. Upon calling on a student, the teacher asked, “Are you in Performance?” Turned out the student was in Music Education. “Can I have someone in Performance?” was the next question.

With less time to practice as a result of course work and a demanding out-of-school job, I became more and more disappointed with my music-making. The hesitation to call myself a pianist began, aided by the exacerbated feeling that I was also becoming a non-musician in others’ eyes. Though I never hesitated to say that I was in Music Ed, I didn’t enjoying feeling compelled to choose a camp, so to speak. I was also starting to realize that expectations surrounding my playing were now lower (or at least that’s how it felt), though perhaps consistent with the short lesson time span. For someone that loved both to play and teach, the tension was not easily assuaged.

The influence of the music community, in my case, and apparently in the case of the many students interviewed by Roberts, is profound. I am still asked who I studied with, and reading through concert programs, apprenticeship under certain teachers is still an important part of bios. These big-name teachers are those who are themselves incredible performers, with a reputation for producing other incredible performers.

Interrogating the student teacher experience is rightfully seen by Roberts to be important, as teachers will likely propagate the same identification process in their students.

There is a positive side to all this, of course. I find that I am always mindful of why I choose to teach and why I choose to play. Not that this mindfulness allows me to define my identity in any simple way (I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to accurately label it. Maybe I don’t have to, except on a business card). But it does mean that when I teach, I am aware of the messages I might be instilling in my students.

Blog #3) The Rex: “Where Jazz Lives”

Blog #3) The Rex: “Where Jazz Lives”

In the (almost) heart of downtown Toronto, the small, unassuming, quiet corner of Queen and St. Patrick Street hosts some of North America’s best and brightest jazz folk on an (almost) daily basis. The Rex Hotel, established in the late 80s is a “retro-chic” play on the standard, be-boping, horn-wailing jazz establishments found in New York City, a prime stomping ground for jazz and jazz artists throughout the 20th century and to this day. In the style of New York City’s Birdland and 55 bar, The Rex strikes a wonderful balance between laid-back artists and high-energy performances. The dimly lit, frequently packed bar features a tiny stage in the front on the right. Musicians often spillover onto the floor in front and sometimes off to the side near the door. The second floor features a number of guest rooms, as it is in fact a hotel.

The music is incredibly broad ranging, featuring styles that stretch from hard bop to acid jazz. There is often pop-flavoured jazz, vocal jazz, rhythm and blues, and big band jazz. Inherent within the structure of the establishment is an apprenticeship model based on early jazz clubs like Birdland, where younger musicians would come in to learn by watching the seasoned musicians play for hours. Eventually, the younger musicians would (if they were lucky enough) be asked to come up onstage and join in. Many seasoned jazz musicians frequent The Rex including teachers at institutions such as the University of Toronto and Humber College. Often, these musicians bring their students to “jam” on Monday nights, the night specifically designated for musicians who attend these institutions. Other times, a big band will be arranged in which seasoned musician and amateur student will be playing side-by-side. I see this as following the traditional model, which taught musicians such as John Coltrane (who learned from Charlie Parker) and Wynton Marsalis (who learned from Art Blakey) how to play. Although traditional in this sense, the modern aspect of this practice comes through in the extremely wide range of musical genres heard at the Rex. Many varieties of instrument groupings, ensemble sizes, and musical styles are found on any given day.

The social nature of the establishment is evident in that the community is very tight knit, yet very welcoming. Many of the players know each other, or have studied under the same teachers. Although a large number of the players leave the city (oftentimes to go to New York to study or gig), they frequently perform at the Rex when they are back in Toronto. This consistency also contributes to the familiarity of the place.

Atmospherically, the Rex is very intimate. Dark, sometimes crowded, but always laid back, the unassuming exterior and informal interior mirrors the outward attitudes and appearances of many of the musicians. The walls are covered with pictures of jazz legends past and present, and many of the photos were taken in the Rex itself. The space is slightly crowded but very cozy. Midway through a set, the musician(s) will generally hang out in the crowd and mingle, and typically the musician(s) know many audience members. As the tip jar floats around in between sets, the musicians often joke around about need for generous contributions as they are in need of bus fare. All of these facets of The Rex contribute to its intimate atmosphere.

The commonly prevalent gap between performer and audience that so often surfaces in Western classical performances is all but eliminated at The Rex. Whether it is because the stage is so close to the seating, or because most of the time the performers know many audience members, or whether it has to do with the more relaxed and acutely unique energy of the music itself, the performers are very much a part of the audience, and the audience is infused within the performance. The standard acknowledgement of a soloist’s improvisation allows the audience to interject and permeate the divide between the stage and the seating, allowing for a more intimate relationship between the two “social classes” that surface as a result of the stage set-up.

The Rex offers the traditional features of a classic jazz bar, but with just enough informality to make it genuinely intimate and inviting. I argue that it is one of the most “authentic” jazz spots in Toronto, as it invites the blurring of the lines between performer and audience and between teacher and student. The Rex, with its apprenticeship-based structure pays homage to the jazz greats of the 20th century, and invites young and upcoming artists to add to the tradition without any fear of straying too far from it. The opportunity for eclectic new styles is ample, and the support for young artists is immense. Students frequently pack the bar just as much if not more than seasoned jazz lovers and professional musicians. In an age where jazz is being institutionalized and “Classical-ified”, the Rex fights back and opens its doors to allow for free-flowing, improvisatory and extremely varied creativity, a tribute to the art form itself.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Genius in the Family

A Genius in the Family: An Intimate Memoir of Jacqueline du Pré
This is an account of the life and death of renowned British cellist, Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987), as told by her sister and brother, Hilary and Piers. Aside from her charismatic image as a prolific artist and national treasure, this controversial book reveals the personal life of Jacqueline du Pré and the life-long impact her tremendous musical talent has had on her and her closest family members.
In great detail, Hilary describes their musically nurturing home environment and how music was a central part of her and Jackie’s childhood. As Jackie’s outstanding talent manifested at a very early age, it put Hilary and Piers in the shadow and dominated the du Pré’s household routine.
After her Wigmore Hall début at the age of sixteen, Jackie’s professional development took her out in the world and abroad. Alone and out of her family’s protection, self-care and personal independence became a struggle for Jackie, to which her increasingly active musical life was of little help.
Her marriage to Daniel Barenboim in 1967 and their marvellous musical collaboration put Jackie in even greater demand as a touring musician. She started showing signs of exhaustion in 1969 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973. As Jackie’s physical condition deteriorated, it also caused terrible emotional suffering to both her and her families.
This tragic narrative is most thought-provoking in several areas: 1) the impact of “musical talent” on the lives of individual, family, and community; 2) the challenge of instilling the notion of self-care and independence while a person’s potential ability is in development; 3) the danger for instrumental instructors to over-emphasize the “how/what to do” instead of teaching music.
While a young individual's musical talent is being developed, it usually involves the whole family in their investment of care, time, and financial resources. Instead of taking the result of this talent development as the sole goal, the awareness of how the individual flourishes in the human context of self-identity, family relationships, and community deserves equal, if not greater attention. When we are taking care of a student's musical development, information about personality, family, and their interactions is usually helpful.
As Hilary was a victim of her flute teacher and his insistence on her blowing perfect single notes for weeks and months, it is a reminder to us teachers of our real intent in teaching music. Is it so important for a student to achieve technical perfection that she becomes scared of touching her instrument? Is a “good performance” so significant that a student may lose desire of making more music in public? While students learn the meaning of hard work to enjoy the fruit of their effort in music-making, there is always this fine line between helping them to achieve their best and pushing them over the edge. When we are dealing with difficult situations, it shall be helpful to keep this in mind.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Music as Resistance

Blog Entry 4#

Colleen Skull

While currently contemplating my existence in the art music medium and in consideration of its relevance I decided to watch the clips on Aljazeera addressing the area of Music of Resistance.

I loved the quote made by Sean Kuti “empty pockets leads to obedience” in reference to firing a musician who is late in his band. Unfortunately this adage can be applied to the professional world of opera in a negative context. Due in part to the current financial constraints of the opera world high level administrators are able to demand often ridiculous things from artists and artists comply for not only financial considerations but also in the interest of career preservation. This is currently a powerful area of control and implementation of behaviour modification in professional singers. Human rights violations are actively implemented in Western art music performance regularly and are largely ignored.

I was also interested in the described need for much discipline in music making. It seems across all cultures and genres “deliberate practice” and “focus” are required

While watching the clip on Tinariwen I was struck how across cultures the call to remain positive in music making and to work in a calm and peaceful music environment produces the experience of “flow”. Relating to my last blog entry addressing music-making as a powerful communicative agent I was fascinated how passing along cassettes made by Tinariwen specifically in the song “Shatma” indicated to nomads the need to rise up against oppressors and to unify. The power of music as communication is heightened to exciting levels of protest in within this community.

Interestingly the third clip interview exists in the area of Brick Lane in London. When visiting London for several auditions in 2007, my British relatives would not accompany me to Brick Lane for Indian food because they considered it such a “bad” I went myself.

I find myself questioning the relevance of Western popular music making when the current trend in the messages of popular music is to convey the importance of sex and the loss of love as the most prevalent themes. Where are we going as a society with these messages? Inherent in our music messages is such a selfish focus on the individual. With racism and serious social concerns still prevalent in North America why are popular artists ignoring this? Or are they being censored by the music industry? With the highest selling artists on itunes singing about being “hot” being “the best”, and getting or losing a boyfriend, are we in essence making ourselves irrelevant and superficial as a culture? I would like to see some music made here in Canada addressing the current Canadian immigration practice of charging a head tax to incoming refugees or the recruitment of refugees into gang life the minute they step off the plane in Canada, or in the current practice of Canadian insurance companies denying coverage of new drugs developed with less side effects for individuals ingesting them thus forcing citizens to continue taking prescriptions with more side effects simply because they are covered.

Feeling utterly disillusioned today...perhaps I should go get a manicure, buy another pair of shoes and grab a Starbucks in an attempt to make myself feel better about the relevance of my existence and work and effectively comply with the social norms of society. Perhaps I should take the words of Chullage to heart “Don’t let the system make you hate your people” in reference to my experience in the classical music community of performance. To perhaps take heed o f the Cape Verdeans in Lisbon practice of drawing on past music practices while seeking new meaning in music-making in the present day...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Derek Paravicini

Colleen Skull

Blog Entry 3#

Derek Paravicini: “In the Key of Genius”

I was just watching 6O minutes when a segment came on following up on the extraordinary musical life of Derek Paravicini. This segment sparked my interest partly due to my work with autistic children as a musical educator, and also inspired me as a researcher and performer. After watching the segment I went to his Derek’s official website and began digging around for information on his mentor Adam Ockelford.

Derek is autistic and due to treatment as a premature baby also has severe learning disabilities. Adam Ockelford was teaching Derek’s sister piano when Derek is reported to have challenged Adam to teach him and subsequently displayed high levels of musical ability. Adam requested to teach Derek and has remained his teacher for the last 20 years. After searching for information on Ockelford, I discovered he has his doctorate in the psychology of music and is an accomplished academic in the areas of music teaching with disabled children and in the area of music cognition. He gained a PhD in music at Goldsmith's College in London in 1993, in which he set out his 'zygonic' theory of musical understanding. This theory has proved a valuable tool in music theory and analysis, in investigating musical development, and exploring interaction in music therapy and education. “Zygonic theory” is a theory of musical understanding that holds that the cognition of structure stems from a sense of derivation arising from the presence of repetition in certain contexts. Using this framework, a new, composite theory of expectation in music is developed, which acknowledges the potential implications of three sources of regularity in music: patterns within groups of notes, and between them - as encoded in short-term memory and long-term, both veridically and schematically. I am not sure what this definition means entirely but considering our upcoming topic on music therapy I intend to read some of the numerous academic writings Ockelford has written. Adam’s research interests are in music psychology, education, theory and aesthetics, particularly special educational needs and the development of exceptional abilities; learning, memory and creativity; the cognition of musical structure and the construction of musical meaning. On the website of Roehampton University in London, Adam welcomes enquiries from PhD students with any of these or related areas of interest which I think is fantastic and a new found resource for anyone interested in music cognition and all of the other areas he investigates.

For the moment back to Derek, it has been purported that autism and his blindness is the source of Derek's extraordinary musical ability because the part of his brain that would normally be used for sight and light detection could be used for extra auditory ability. Derek is able with a great deal of precision and accuracy to detect and recognize not just one but multiple notes played at once (so far he can distinguish over 20 notes). I have no idea whether or not this might be the case, but what struck me was how powerful the medium of music was as a form of communication for Derek. He has been able to not only perform at the highest levels of performance but has participated in charity concerts that have raised millions of dollars to aid in the further musical development of individuals suffering from disabilities. He has also dedicated his time to play in senior`s homes. Ockelford discusses the profound benefits of music as therapy in elderly individuals pointing out that music cognition starts before individuals are born and is one of the last memory facilities to go. Of course Derek may not understand these deeper implications of what his performing does for the seniors but what is evident is his love for performing and interacting with the audience whoever that might be. I volunteered for years with a music therapist in a senior living facility and I was inspired to see Derek`s participation in the ``giving back” aspect that music so powerfully provides. What I found equally intriguing was Derek’s continued weekly lessons with his mentor and his interest in composition. When he performs audience members will choose three random notes and from that he will instantly improvise a composition with those notes in a certain style. What also resonated in me was when the “experts” weighed in and predicted Derek’s music ability would eventually plateau. Which it never has...fascinating.

For those interested, Ockelford wrote a biography entitled “In the Key of Genius”, there is a documentary available for free online in which Derek is one of the participants and he is also featured in the NOVA series “Musical Minds” featuring Oliver Sacks. Worth a watch for anyone interested in music therapy or working with children with disabilities. Personally I think it is just worth the watch.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Invisible Students and Safe Musical Spaces: The role of teachers and students in creating an inclusive, musical classroom environment

Hourigan, R.M. (2009). The Invisible Student: Understanding Social Identity Construction within Performing Ensembles. MENC: The National Association for Music Education, 95, (4), 34-38.

Summary: This article, published in MENC is a case study of a seventh grader named Jason, a band student who has an extremely difficult time associating with and fitting into peer groups at school. The article, written by Ryan M. Hourigan, assistant professor of music education at Ball State University in Michigan was written for the purpose of providing the reader with insight into social identity construction in musical ensemble contexts, as well as the various issues that surround the needs of students in these settings. Although Jason is a talented trumpet player, his inability to connect with other members of his ensemble has contributed to his lack of self-confidence. Jason suffers from a traumatic brain injury, and as a result is commonly ostracized from his peers. Hourigan labels Jason as an “invisible” student, based on social identity theory which claims that how a person feels about his or her value to a group can directly affect his or her self-worth.
“Invisible students” are generally students who are challenged socially and as a result are overlooked in social settings, as well as by peers and teachers. The problem for Hourigan is the disconnect between the nature of music as an interactive and social experience that often leads to the formation of relationships, and the lack of ability of many music teachers to be inclusive of so-called “invisible students”. According to social identity theory, the longer a teacher waits to provide information and model appropriate social behavior, the more vulnerable the group is to form a social hierarchy. Hourigan claims that “it is our job (as music teachers) to assist our students in creating an inclusive social atmosphere”, and it is his suggestion that modeling appropriate behavior is one of the best ways to help students understand expectations. There are a number of ways for a teacher to model appropriate behavior, both through teaching and outside of the classroom including positive and engaging interactions with students. His specific suggestions for promoting and facilitating positive interactions between students include giving ensemble members an opportunity to reveal as much about themselves to as many people as they feel comfortable doing right at the beginning of the year. He suggests activities that can facilitate that kind of communication, and encourages teachers to recognize and identify who the invisible students are, so that action can be taken as soon as possible to help them feel more included, at least in music class. Hourigan encourages peer teaching, as well as being aware of the “invisible students’” school experiences outside of the music classroom. There are critical social issues that affect such students, and need to be understood and recognized. For example, “invisible students” may be bullied in other contexts. The synergy of a group of students may heighten the bullying, especially if teachers are not aware or not engaged in the students’ experiences. To close the article, Hourigan encourages music teachers to ask themselves whether invisible students exist in their classrooms, and if so, to critically examine what they (the teachers) are doing to promote social identity construction and acceptance.

A common and difficult challenge of educators who have to manage and care for large groups at one time is the potential for some students to go unnoticed. It is difficult for teachers, because even when they attempt to consider everyone’s needs, many other facets come into play which distract and hinder the teacher’s ability to recognize all the social and psychological dynamics at play within their classroom(s). Teachers are dealing with their own personal challenges, as well as maintaining standards and adhering to curriculum requirements. Teachers are under pressure to answer to principals and supervisors, as well as parents are their students. Having said all of this, I realize none of these reasons are excuses to not recognize the social dynamics within their classrooms. They just need to be recognized and dealt with. Teachers need to be acutely aware of students’ mannerisms, conversations, gestures, comments, and attitudes. There are many indicators of social exclusion, and there are many subtle hints that students can give if they feel they are being ostracized. Lack of eye contact, unwillingness to communicate or participate, as well as minimal conversation with other peers are often indicators that students are struggling socially. It is the role and responsibility of the teacher to step in (appropriately and sensitively) and intervene if they notice patterns of social exclusion. I would go so far as to say it is the ethical responsibility of the teacher to watch out for and subsequently take appropriate action if they notice problems in social interaction. Music classrooms need to be structured as safe, positive, and inclusive spaces, and it is the job of the teachers and students alike, however the teacher needs to help the students create this space if they lack the direction to do it entirely autonomously. Musical ensembles can be the perfect venue for promoting mutual understanding and social inclusiveness because of the nature of the ensemble itself; instruments playing in harmony can be the first step towards engaging students to live as socially aware individuals in harmony with each other.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bobby McFerrin and other thoughts

This is clip of Bobby McFerrin performing along with the audience. He tells an anecdote in which he was encouraged to learn a Bach prelude (N1. from WTC book 1) and later on he learnt the Ave Maria by Gounod which as he says “sits in top” of the Bach prelude. In the concert he demonstrates both parts, and then sings along with the audience, him singing the prelude, and the audience on the Ave Maria.
McFerrin’s approach towards performing was first brought to my attention many years ago by the chair of the composition department at my college. He was very open minded and had just seen McFerrin live in Boston, and he commented on the experience. It did not mean much for me at that time.
(As a footnote for myself as a teacher, I realise that I tend to get discouraged when activities don’t work immediately, or when I see students not understanding yet; although it is not the main purpose of this brief discussion, this experience shows that as a teacher one must expect no reaction since it is likely that the lesson taught today may click in the mind of the students twenty years from now).
However, what I am able to appreciate now is the fact that McFerrin is pushing the envelope of established traditions and convections of performance. He is in effect creating a new art form in its own right. He is establishing an unprecedented—minimally preceded— relationship with the audience.
McFerrin’s casual attitude towards the audience, and overall manner, reminded me of Bersntein’s Young’s People Concerts. In a way, both performers make demonstration and communication with the audience, an element of equal value as the music making itself. This is an initial step to start blurring barriers between performer and audience, leading to and culminating in audience ‘s active participation.
Furthermore, there are two things that McFerrin does in this clip that are worth mentioning. One is that without rehearsal and with non musicians, he manages to put on the performance of great quality as everybody in the audience participates in music making of great calibre. The other salient aspect how he combines the resources available: his singing is virtuosic whereas he is accompanied by a very simple and well known melody; it is a situation in which everybody performs at the best of their abilities; he even addresses the fact that many people in the audience may not the Ave Maria, and therefore, it’s ok to sing slightly behind those know it better who act, as he points, as session leaders.
It is remarkable the simplicity an ease that he handles the situation with. One has to keep in mind that the performance is not rehearsed, and yet the outcome is captivating; the audience doesn’t lose the beat, the intonation is accurate; there is a sense of being in the present, of no anticipation or expectation, and no sense of fear.
This video triggered another memory. Many years ago, I went to a solo piano concert by Chick Corea who at one point in the concert did something similar to McFerrin. He told the audience to make certain noises for certain gestures; for instance, if he put his hand up, the audience would hum; if he moved his arm horizontally, the audience would make the sound of the wind, and so on. So, as he played the piano plucking the strings inside of the instrument, and stopping hammered notes with his hand, and other unconventional performing techniques, he would conduct the accompaniment from the audience. The result was his sort of alleatoric ultra modern sounding concerto for piano and audience soundscape.
I was thinking that there are some commonalities amongst these three performers. There seems to be an element of clarity and facility. All of a sudden, the seemingly impossible becomes attainable, and this is one of the great qualities of a great teacher. It does take an exceptional mind to conceive such ideas as these alternative performative experiences, and a lot of courage too. However, there seems to be no concept of the possibility to fail.