Month: March 2010

The Producers – Performed by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS)

Tonight we saw “The Producers”.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed musicals. In Massachusetts, musical theatre was a big part of most musicians’ lives. I haven’t played in one for years, and it definitely made me miss it. Being in a pit band/orchestra is a very interesting dynamic. You perform differently when you know your parts are cues for on-stage performers or act as program music and sound effects to what’s going on above you. The level of focus is intense and exacting, or it can’t be pulled off well. It’s also an understated humbling feeling to be a part of a whole production and see it happen from the first rehearsal to the last performance. I hear a lot of people say how people should have experience in two things at some point in their lives: waiting tables and working in a retail store. I’d like to add that musicians should experience playing in a pit.

So, “The Producers”. I loved it. I heard of it and knew some of the music, but had never seen it live before. I give several props (silly pun intended) to the Jefferson Performing Arts Society for putting on a fantastic production. The only two things that bugged me were the non-musicians on stage playing instruments – the violinist and the pianist. Neither of them was even slightly convincingly playing their “instruments” and it just looked nonsensical. I couldn’t focus on anything else because I was so frustrated at those moments, and let’s face it – it’s musical theatre. There will be musicians in your audience. Spending 30 minutes having a private lesson on the instrument even if you’re just practicing for a non-playing performance would have fixed all of that. It’s the only thing that tapered the production to me.

The music in the piece was fantastic, and the performers (except the aforementioned issues) were brilliant and faultlessly cast. I laughed the entire way through it, and walked away looking forward to their next production. I don’t think we have anything like that in New Orleans (it was in the next city over), and I never see this particular organization advertised within the city limits. JPAS is certainly a jewel.

Teaching as a Community of Music Educators

We don’t think enough about how to teach music as a community of music educators. We think about the importance of it, and the narrow sequences of how to do it in individual classrooms… but there’s no strong standard on what kinds of music should be taught, what students should be exposed to (and at what age), or what we completely leave out. We spend a lot of our time defending the art, the profession, the curriculum – talking about the value of music education for all students.

Indian Classical Music meets the Kids of New Orleans

I don’t use the term ‘classical’ with my students. Admittedly I treat it, sometimes, like it’s a “bad word” – there’s a stigma attached. The age-range of kids I teach is wide, but there’s a good chunk of them who see classical music as ‘evil’ music full of dead white men. Who can blame them with how we teach it? With how I approach it (or don’t)?

This weekend, I introduced them to Badal Roy, an Indian classical musician (see previous post). He came in as our guest artist on Saturday since he had a short residency in town anyway. He is an amazing musician, yet I also realized he is human, and flawed – a good lesson for me, and one I keep coming across with all of these amazing people I’ve been exposed to lately.

My students enjoyed the tabla, and enjoyed Badal – but I felt as though he didn’t talk enough. I wanted more. He walks through the door – a foreign accent, a foreign instrument, sitting on a rug in front of them, playing unfamiliar rhythms. I was itching to hear him teach the kids about the traditions of tabla, about the ensemble settings, the venues for performance, how to learn tabla, the spiritual aspects of playing. He burst that bubble pretty quick. He spent a long time teaching the tabla language, the syllables, the integration of syllables, the transfer of the language to the right hand, the transfer of the language to the left hand, the integration of hands plus syllables, Bol – the way Indian musicians talk about what they’re going to play (instead of “this piece is in B”, it’s “play dha tin tin na”).

As an aside, in the past month I’ve been exposed to Brasilian, West and North African, and Indian drumming – they all have so many similarities. They’re all based on spoken language, they all consider their drums to have an identify, a self.

About 20 minutes into the program, he asked some of the kids to play with him and trade 4 bar solos on their instruments. Well, these kids have no fear. But they are still brand new instrumentalists. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well and he wasn’t sure what to do. The kids are learning 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 – not 11, 13, and 17-beat measures. So, as a result I asked him a few questions – gave him a few lead-in things to talk about: i.e. traditions, Indian classical music, his teacher and how he learned, information about ragas…

I was so impressed with his playing, and yet not so impressed with his ability to answer questions. Then again, if his answers are full, then my stereotypes of Indian classical musicians (based on all the previous ones I’ve met, which include some pretty prominent ones) are incorrect – which is good as well as thought-provoking. He didn’t seem as disciplined. He improvised rather than learn specific ragas and rhythms (any in fact). He had a teacher, but was not part of a lineage. All surprises to me considering his impressive resume.

I did learn a bit more about the language of tabla – and appreciated that a great deal. I walked away wanting (of course) to learn more about it, to play myself. I’ve always had an innate sort-of technique for playing drums with fingers rather than palms. Perhaps its early tabla exposure…

I am so grateful to have such great musicians at my fingertips these days. I know I keep saying that but it’s true. I’m so relieved when I find out they’re human.

(***Disclaimer: All of my students in these photos have parent-signed release forms allowing me to post photos & media)

Der fliegende Holländer

Last night we saw Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman. The story itself is about a ship captain who is condemned to the seas until judgment day. He’s only allowed off the ship once every 7 years to search for a wife who will be faithful to him even on his deathbed, and so the opera begins at one of these 7-year points.

It was originally written to air with no intermission. It’s not his lengthiest of operas, but with the current state of ADHD-audiences, it’s no wonder why it’s usually performed in III acts with an intermission between the first and second.

Wagner worked on the story in 1840, composed the libretto & orchestration in 1841, and the premiere took off in 1843 with Wagner himself conducting in Dresden. I’d love to find out some information on how it was received at that first performance…

*Notably, the Dutchman is Wagner’s earliest opera to be performed at Bayreuth.

So – last night’s performance was done well. I had not seen the production before, and so I don’t have one to compare it to. I wasn’t impressed with the modern screen in front of the on-stage cast that colored the stage with night-scenes in outrageous pinks and purples. It was a little much, and it distracted the audience (myself and those I was with at least) from what was going on. The set behind it was lovely, and it would have been nice to see it instead of squinting to gaze through the screen.

The pit orchestra was fabulous of course – and not at all because I knew most of the players. The tubist (okay so he’s my private instructor) had a full Wagner sound, and seemed to understand the nuances of everything that was happening on stage and putting every note into context. Perhaps I’m taking previous knowledge from seeing him practice sometimes and knowing how his mind works – that the music does become a story for him, and he tries to make it come alive. It’s what makes him different to me. The notes don’t matter unless they mean something. The conductor was wonderful as well, and I had never seen him before so I need to do a bit of asking around to find out more about him.

All of the voices were well-cast, although the Dutchman himself didn’t have as much of a vocal presence as Senta (the woman he wants), Erik (her boyfriend), her father, or the helmsman.

I love the Petrucci library. You can see the entire Dutchman vocal score here if you’d like.

Anyway, it was a lovely experience and a lovely production. It was also Kd’s first opera, so I’m glad it was a Wagner.

On another note, our conversation in the car this morning went something like this:

Kd: “I don’t like this piece. It’s too childish.”
Dani: “It’s called “Children’s March”.”
Kd: “Okay but I don’t like it.”
Dani: “Honey, my goal in life is to force-feed you Percy Grainger until you love it. That’s how I learned”.

Professional Goals, Integration, Ethnomusicology

Things tend to write themselves when they’re important. I was asked today to describe my professional goals, and since I recently realized that on paper my goals don’t line up with my background (they do – just not in a bulleted sequence without explanation), I need to be particularly clear about them. This is what I came up with. I think it’s something everyone should do – to have an idea of where they want to go and the important part – how to get there. As an aside, that’s also why I feel so strongly about Irvin’s “Road to Carnegie Hall” project.

My response to this has changed dramatically in the past ten years. While I agree with Frank Battisti on the concept of music teachers as teaching artists and the need for a conservatory education rather than a liberal arts education, I also strongly feel like I never would have been exposed to nearly all of my current interests if I had gone that route.

So, my response:

My professional goals include an integration of the European art music and music education background I’ve already received with the research in ethnomusicology that I plan to do. My ambition is to research and publish topics related to this integration, and ultimately hold a faculty position at an institution with both a growing ethnomusicology department, and a strong music education department.

On a large scale I wish to study individual non-western traditions, and more narrowly to research and archive the music of eastern religions. I aspire to discover their learning processes, gain a deeper understanding of musical transmission, learn the impact of both the social and political context of music, untangle the global effect of technology on music making and its reception, and lastly, to study the struggle between traditional and popular music. While lofty, this subject matter will enable me to connect with the global community of ethnomusicologists and network with music educators to ensure that traditions are kept alive, and that a logical sequence to world music education is produced.

My Afternoon with John Mayer & the Grammy Foundation

My theme lately seems to be dealing with musicians with personality flaws, and having to be an advocate for myself in these dealings.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with several other students from all over to meet John Mayer at a program through the Grammy Foundation. It’s really quite a smart program. It has an agenda of course – the Foundation wants you to become a voting member of the Academy (which we all did), and to be a part of their industry network list. In return, we got to spend two hours watching John’s sound check (he was performing last night at the N.O. Arena), and had an intimate Q&A session with him afterward.

Again – my theme. He doesn’t have the best reputation among non-pop musicians, for lots of reasons. On the other hand, I was very impressed with him. He was articulate, knowledgeable, and not at all the prima donna others make him out to be.

Some notable points from the sound check:

1. It was wonderful to see an artist who was tech-savvy. I deal with a lot of people who don’t know how to use a fader on a soundboard, never mind have all the board patches memorized for his drummer’s kit.
2. It was interesting to see first-hand how he handles balance at such a large venue. As the main guy, he was up front. The rest of the band’s sound was almost a watermark on the page. We were a few feet from the stage and could barely hear the drum kit – the drummer was Steve Jordan, by the way (Steve was the drummer for Stevie Wonder, Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers, & even Eric Clapton at one point). Later, he explained it in a way that didn’t make him sound so narcissistic. You never see a band of all-stars. It doesn’t work. “A band needs to be a game of Indians and Chiefs, otherwise it’s all Chiefs – and then there’s a battle”.
3. Even at his level, it was refreshing to see them messing up and redoing things until the sound was ‘right’. It was refreshing to see them having to teach the drummer a new piece mid-sound check.
4. One thing I was impressed with (not so much his guitar playing – but I’m constantly surrounded by amazing guitarists) is his vocal control. For an artist to sound nearly identical in a live performance as he does on a recording means a few things – 1. They don’t use a lot of touch-ups to his voice on the recording. 2. His recordings aren’t completely (although I’m sure there are some) full of retakes for skips and jumps of the voice. He had control of 6ths, 7ths, 9ths.. again, it was nice to see.

Some notable points from the Q&A:

1. I really enjoyed his role model approach to being a “star” and partying all the time. He flat out said that he parties, but he has a limit – because there’s nothing more revealing of what you’ve done the day before than your throat. It’s always the first thing to hurt when you’re sick, always scratchy if you’ve been drunk the night before. You can be a garage band and drink all the time, but if you’re performing night after night, you need to preserve your voice. It’s an instrument. It even has a case!
2. People he looks up to? Stevie Ray Vaughan & Eric Clapton.
3. Elton John was talking to him one day after some personal relationship drama came out. With a pat on the back Elton John said, “See? You’ve made it. Welcome to the land of bullshit!” (That was in response to “when did you realize you “made it”?”
4. My favorite question someone asked was “Did you turn out to be the artist you expected yourself to become?” His answer – yes. He said “there’s always unexpected things that come up. I even think I expected that there would be unexpected things that would come up early on”. He went on to talk about a photo he saw of himself recently at 17, in a goofy t-shirt that said “Soil Me” – one of those hot-press t-shirts you can get done at the mall. He laughed, had no idea how or why he made the shirt in the first place, but thought to himself ‘that was John Mayer at 17.”

He ended with telling us all to be a freak, to be freaky, to be different. He said he was so convinced that the world was going in a more outward direction – the 60s came, free love happened, and then the world closed in again. Pretty soon the world will be loops and robots playing sound bytes. There needs to be some freaky people who are prominent in the world doing their own thing regardless of the status quo, or we’re all screwed. Good point, Sir..

Anyway – that was my four hours with John Mayer. I got to shake his hand, take a couple photos with him (they haven’t been emailed to me yet), listen to a private concert for a few songs, and learn a little bit about a lot of things… and hey, now I can vote for Grammy Artists!

Professor Frank Battisti visits New Orleans

There is a lot I’ll recall from this experience with Professor Battisti. In him, I saw the way in which a conductor can stand on a podium and absorb the ensemble – know exactly what it needs after the first few sounds, and how to change his conducting style based on the ensemble’s skill-set as a whole. At times he went from communicating sheer expressivity with barely an ictus, to using his whole body to conduct each beat as if he was turning the ensemble into a beating heart.

(Steve Potter, myself, Professor Battisti)

He had so much to say about education – about the downside of a liberal arts education for college students. He spoke passionately about erasing the phrase ‘music teacher’ from our vocabulary and replacing it with ‘teaching artist’, about the need to eradicate 90% of our music education programs in the world and teach only performance as a music undergraduate degree – after all – you can only teach what you know. You can only teach musicians up to your personal playing ability. He believed teaching credentials should come after the student has proved that they are an artist on their on instrument, and never before… that it should be a revered honor to teach the art as an art.

He discussed music as a core curriculum – and that it never will be considered core as long as “band directors” keep purchasing music from lesser composers (his example, Swearingen), taking the easy way out and not teaching their students the core standards, by not taking it seriously. He compared it to English and Science – students don’t get past elementary school without learning the basics of Shakespeare, Milton, Einstein – they are classic. It’s core material. We no longer teach our music students (in schools) the core curriculum. We’ve dumbed it down so much that 90% of the students in America can get through 9 years of music education from grades 4-12 without having ever played Mozart, ever hearing of Shostakovich, ever playing Holst or Persichetti – our core. So then, the question came up – “Sir, how do we teach elementary students our core curriculum when the easy music of 100 years ago is the hard music of today?”… his response “Well, there’s not much out there. But consider this – most Bach chorales are half and quarter notes”. True. His other response: “Stop being lazy and arrange a Mozart piece to your kids’ abilities”. That of course, is exactly why he started the Ithaca High School commissioning project early on in his career, why he was so successful, and why we revere him today. The reality is that we use band/orchestra method books at the beginning because it is a way for us to teach skills in a sequence, to keep students interested (because new ones include familiar tunes to them), and quite frankly, it’s a script for lesser music teachers to be able to read from when teaching their heterogeneous-instrument classes.

It made me re-think my entire music program (the one I started, not the one I learn from). I’ve created the opportunity for these kids to learn the core curriculum, and yet even in my beginning instrumental ensemble, I’m using “fun” pieces that I know the kids will like, that teach them sequenced new skills as they’re confronted with them. This 8-hour music school that I run allows students to learn theory, music history, have a private lesson, and participate in ensembles. I’ve tried to integrate them all – and that is working well. Yet on the other hand, is the content core? I think it’s time to have a chat with the instructors. I struggle with stakeholders in the program who believe music education should not exist without jazz education – the heart of New Orleans. It’s one thing I regret not mentioning to Professor Battisti – I wonder what his thoughts would have been on that.