Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Perceiving the World Through Sound and Finding Ourselves In It

Back in the days of Bach, music lessons were taught daily from father to son.  I doubt this task was a choice left up to the children and I doubt it was optional.  It was simply a way a of life.  Children knew what was expected of them;  they worked hard and they listened carefully. There was plenty of time spent in the silence of a pre-industrial world; silence which bore the fruit of creativity. Hours of contemplation, practice, and play became an endless world of discovery about nature and about the self. 

Today, it is a known fact that creativity is endangered.  Children are conditioned to give the "correct" answer to a given question in schools, rather than encouraged to expand their mind to the possible ways of experiencing the world.  Individuality is sacrificed in favor of working toward a general standard.  These days, I don't think it is common for a child to "pretend" a sauce pan is a crown or to make a fishing pole out of a string tied to a stick.  There are too many available toys already made.  Children never have to use their abstract thinking.

What are we loosing when we surrender our individuality, our sensitivity to the world,  our abstract thinking, our creativity and our playfulness? We loose a deeper connection to ourselves, empathy for our fellow man, and a magnitude of beauty that our world has to offer. Music is a creation of the active, abstract mind.  It is a realm where the spirit can roam and expand into any form.  It is a means of growth and a means of therapy.  It is not hard to understand why children today have less discipline and generally less interest in everything including classical music yet I think it is urgent that we engage them anyway.  As performers, as pedagogues, and as teaching artists, we may not be in demand among the youth like any other consumerist product of the 21st century but we are among the few that have the power to turn these children into open vessels, sensitive to interesting noise, the stillness of silence; vacuums which can then be filled by all the complicated expressions of a child getting to know himself.

Through Longy school of Music's experiencial education program.  I had the opportunity to work directly with a class of urban teenagers at one of the city's Boy's and Girl's club locations in Everett, M.A.. This group of teenagers met after school every day to play beats and sing the lyrics to their favorite songs.  My goal was to expose them to some music they had maybe never heard before and challenge them to find themselves in it.

During the first session I asked each teenager to pick a beat but to refrain from sharing the lyrics or the title of the song.  Instead, I asked each to walk out to the beat in a manner that reflected the meaning of the lyrics.  Each experimented with weight, tempo, facial expression, use of space, and a variety of other subtle expressions in order to represent the mood, the character, and the energy behind the music.  I asked those in the audience: What is this song about? Who is the singer? Tell me more about her.Upon second performance of each song, I asked the teenagers to include the lyrics but to put just as much expression into their body language, their facial expression, and the way they move. It was clear that the teenagers had made the  discovery that  human and emotional qualities  can be found in the abstract sounds that surround the lyrics in their song; that words are not always necessary to express something.

During the second session, I shared a bit of myself.  I performed Liszt's concert paraphrase of Verdi's opera Rigoletto. I told them, "This piece is actually a showy version of an opera piece.  The music is from a place in the opera that includes four different characters all expressing different emotions at the same time. What can you tell me about the characters? What can you tell me about the dialogue?" The teenagers's feedback proved that they were really exploring the sounds within the music, the dynamic shifts, the differences in texture, among many other characteristics. Then I shared the libretto and talked about the active dynamics as if we were gossiping about people we knew.  I also played Prokofiev's third piano sonata and asked the same questions.  Of course, the sonata does not have lyrics or a story written into the score; yet every performer creates one.  I was impressed with how much detail the teenagers came up with to describe the sonata.  "This was my story and I was the main character," I told them.  "However, all the stories and characters that you came up with are just as correct; they are expressions of you!"

During the third and final session, I created a workshop in composition. "Think back to last week and the experience that you had listening to the  Prokofiev sonata.  Everyone get out a notebook and write down a list of feelings, emotions, characters and/or scenarios that came up last week. Let's talk about what specific things you heard that gave you those impressions, and why. As we crudely work through the score, notice what elements you are the most swayed by; is it the underlying rhythm?  Tempo? Melodic Contour?  Volume? The Physical way that I approached the section? The thickness of the section?" The teenagers worked for twenty minutes on these ideas.  All were engaged. I led them toward a musical expression of themselves and their own stories:

"Think about the tempo and rhythm.  We talked about the emotional qualities that rhythm and tempo can have.  Think back to the entrance walk that I had you experiment with during our first session.  You agreed that the slower walk showed more cool confidence.  A faster tempo had a lot of you thinking about drama and action.   Give me some descriptive words to describe your rhythm and tempo."

"Think about your melodic line.  Remember when we were analyzing some songs in the first session and we decided that melodic lines that twist and turn are reminiscent of wailing or crying? Remind yourself what kind of melodic line you would here from someone cool and collected. “ Give me some descriptive words to describe you melodic line."

"Now, finally put some words to the musical excerpt that you just created.  Allow the words to guided by the emotions in the music.  Take note of what affect reversing this approach has on your outcome? How much more affective is your music?' Do you feel that may be able to rely on the words less to explain the whole story? Maybe you don't even need many words at all?”

The musical and personal results of this workshop inspired me.  I made friends through the process; in fact, many of them requested to attend my recital. As performers, pedagogues, and teaching artists, we have to teach the language of music.  We must encourage a relationship between engaged listening and active creativity because the world is just as beautiful and interesting as it ever was.  It is the bridge between the sound world and the self that needs to be repaired.  Unfortunately, we are dealing with a society where sounds abound as a constant drone and individuals stop listening.  Once we succeed in getting their attention however, we also must help them find themselves in the sound.  After all, isn't that how we all got seduced by this profession?


Questions for Dean Chin:

1) What role do you think future ethnomusicologists have in future compositions? What role do you think they have in targeting today's multicultural audience?

2) Since it is impossible to perform a truly authentic historical performance, how much freedom do you believe the modern performer has to express his or her unique influences, soundscapes,  life experiences, exposure to other genre, etc. within his or her performance of Classical works?

3) Do you believe that the classical performer has any values that he has a responsibility to preserve as times and tastes continue to change?

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