Friday, September 29, 2006

Final session with this rotation

Today we had our final session with this rotation. Great students; I wish I could be with them longer.

We started by sharing the societal/world issue that most concerns each of us. The students were very open; one was, I think, crying at one point. Then we made music. I don't have time to describe the pieces now; I'll just mention we ended with a blues that took a while for everyone to get the hang of. But it seemed especially appropriate that, focused on what causes us emotional pain, we ended up doing the blues together--it's the great authentic American form for expressing pain.

The main purpose of the post is to provide a place for members of the class to post their observations and reflections.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reading from Matthew Fox

This class I'm teaching is DePauw's School of Music seminar for first-year students (I described part of yesterday's session in my previous post). Our 52 first-years (formerly known as freshmen) are divided into four sections, and they rotate among five different faculty for units on creativity, music software, writing about music, the effect of recording technology on classical music, and Dalcroze Eurythmics.

The section I'm teaching has been game for all the improvised and African-inspired drumming and improvising with their voices and other instruments. But they've been more held back than the last group. Rather than go deep, they've been going a bit silly.

Now I have a lot of room for silliness; fun and play are important. But getting giggly can be a way of avoiding dealing with something else. So I've been a bit frustrated and looking within myself to see if it's something to do with where I've been coming from. It's true that classes have their own personalities. And it's also true that leaders and facilitators and conductors set a tone and can change it.

Today's Thursday. Sunday evening I learned that my brother-in-law had a serious stroke and was in critical condition. He's just 44, and I've literally been worried sick. Feeling nauseous at times, having anxiety attacks, and great difficulty sleeping. I made a decision at the start of the week not to tell the students about this. Why should they be worried or distracted by my problem? The professional thing to do is to keep this private, I decided.

And one of the students had a seriously ill aunt and would be going home in a few days. Again, I didn't mention it in class or ask her if she wanted to share it. Let's focus on the improv techniques. Be professional. Get her mind and mind off of our worries.

Is it any wonder then that in this workshop experience, which is so much about being emotionally authentic and spontaneous, found itself veering away from deeply expressed emotion? That it has felt like the group was avoiding something?

That's what we were doing.

This is just becoming clear to me now, as I write. But last night I was wrestling with what to do. Often in Music for People we emphasize not talking. Because we want to keep people in their experience, in that creative place, and not going into their "left brain" to analyze what they are doing or try to deduce what they should be doing.

So talking didn't seem like the answer. Talking, I knew, was not the answer. I found myself drawn to one of the most important books on creativity I've read, Matthew Fox's Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet. In all his work, Fox talks and writes about the central role of creating.
We are creators at our very core. Only creating can make us happy, for in creating we tap into the deepest powers of self and universe and the Divine Self. We become co-creators, that is, we create with the other forces of society, universe, and the Godself when we commit to creativity. (28)
As I reread passages of this book, I realized that what was missing in my work with the class was a sense of this central role and deep power of creativity. That we are not just playing games, but exploring this extraordinary force and learning how to access and use it. Fox also writes:
Prometheus stole the fire of the gods and gave it as a gift to the humans who so needed fire to create civilization. When he did this, Zeus was outraged and condemned Prometheus to be lashed to a rock where a vulture would feed each morning on his liver. But his liver grew back again each night. Psychologist Rollo May interprets the Prometheus story to mean that the artist becomes utterly "beat" after a day's work and is exhausted at night. But during the day, his energy (the liver) grows back again for his work the next day.

I would go further in examining the archetype of the liver. The liver cleanses and recycles. The artist, too, cleanses and recycles the toxins in a culture. Artists turn pain into insight and struggle into triumph and darkness into remembering and grief into rejoicing. Artists add awe to awe and beauty to beauty and wonder to wonder. When the liver is healthy, the person is healthy. The artist is to the community or body politic what the liver is to the human body: a cleanser and recycler of waste and toxins. (88-89)
I got up this morning still asking myself what new musical activity I wanted or should do with the class. The answer was nothing. I didn't want to make music. Oh crap, I said to myself. What am I going to do? Am I just so overtired and worried that I'm out of touch with my creativity? Is it that this class just isn't going deep and I'm getting bored with them

In the shower, it came to me. Talk with them. Talk about where we want to go. And I had the good sense to know not talk at them but to facilitate a discussion. To get us talking together about the importance of music and creativity and why improvisation is such an extraordinary opportunity for each of us.

I thought we'd just drum for a while first, but it was clear that like me, no one was in the mood to play. The sick aunt of my student had died, and the student had left for the funeral. That came up. And I shared the news about my brother-in-law and a bit about the difficult time I've been having.

This created, finally, some emotional honesty and reality. Maybe if one's teaching physics or music theory it works to be coolly professional. But to lead people in discovering their innate ability to express themselves honestly and openly, I've got to be fully open and human and present myself.

I asked them to speak about why they are in music school. It was a remarkable time of sharing. For each of them, being was a musician was something about themselves that they came to realize that they innately are. You don't decide to become a musician so much as to choose to accept the fact that you are a musician. That you love it more than anything. That it's what you go to when your are sad. That it's what you do best. Each of the students had different understandings, but they was this common element of discernment rather than of calculation. (It was so much like a group of LGBT people telling coming out stories that my head was spinning.)

I talked a bit about music as an activity as opposed to music as a product. How we are all music makers. I was struck suddenly by the artificiality of recordings, of how they are a substitute for real human interaction.

Then I asked the students to talk about the importance of music and art in the larger culture. At your high school commencements, I said, someone probably told you that you are leaders of tomorrow, that your generation can change the world. How do you see yourself using music to do that? Again, fascinating comments. This was harder for them to articulate. They are just 18 or so and naturally more focused on themselves than transforming the world. But throughout this there were times in which I was struck by how wonderful each of them is and what strong gifts and insights and dreams they have.

In the course of our conversation, I read them two passages from Matthew Fox, first what follows below and later the Prometheus story and Fox's reflections on it.
No one can consider twentieth-century history and not see the demonic in human creativity that was birthed in that era: the first and second world wars with their wiping out of civilian populations on an unprecedented scale; the making of the first atomic weapon ("now we know evil," spoke Oppenheimer, that father of the project); the amassing of nuclear weapons and delivery systems; the invention of gas ovens to more efficiently exterminate an entire race of humans; the genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot; in Rwanda; in Stalin's Russia; the gradual warming of the planet as we dump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, oblivious of its consequences for other species and other generations; the fouling of our rivers, oceans, fisheries, ozone protection, forests, and soil; and terrorism in the name of fundamentalist religion. All these took creativity. They all took imagination. They were misuses of our imaginations. Can we learn the lesson of that? Can we come to grips with our Divine/demonic power in this century?

We must. We have no other choice. Whether our species is sustainable or not depends on our wrestling creativity back from the brink of its demonic potential. To move our Divine powers of creativity from serving the demonic to serving the Divine is to move from art for art's sake ad art for advertising's sake and art for power's sake to art for compassion's sake. Art for the sake of planetary health and well-being. Art for building bridges' sake. This constitutes an aesthetic revolution, which is a nonviolent revolution. (10-11)
It was, for me, a powerful conversation. I was inspired by the students. And at the end, when made music together. Sensing and feeling and touching each other. And it was in the place we had all been wanting to go.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Dancing with the metronome

One of the activities consistently taught in the Music for People musicianship and leadership programs is doing rhythmic improvisations to a metronome. The metronome, which we so often relate to as an instrument of torture, can become a friendly accompanist and partner.

In this morning's first-year seminar class, we started out with a relaxed group jam session. Then I placed a metronome on the floor, in the center of the circle, and did a vocal percussion improv to it while dancing a bit. Then each of the students did a vocal percussion improv to the metronome. They were a bit restrained and few of them really got into it. So I went back to the middle of the circle, picked up the metromome, held it to my ear, cradled it, etc., while doing a sort of rap about loving and dancing with the metronome. Then each student took a turn holding and dancing with the metronome and the difference was amazing. Getting the body involved is so powerful!

I'm emphasizing more and more with the students the three main focuses of improvisation I've observed: part of a performance idiom, as a mode of exploring the languages of music and the techniques of one's instrument, and as a mode for self-expression and emotional release. How can you take these approaches I'm passing on and use them in the rest of your musical life?

You can actually have fun with a metronome. A lot of them got that today. I got it all over again.

OK, time to go dance again!

Improv in Cello Class 9/26/06

In our cello studio class at DePauw yesterday, we started out working on shifting. In particular, using the ear to control the left hand by playing scales and arpeggios with just one finger. The game, so to speak, is to slide/siren/glissando between the notes, stopping the movement of the hand when the desired pitch is reached.

Then it was improv time; our first group cello improv session of the semester. Using pizzicato open strings, the six of us created our own individual ostinato patterns, listening to compliment each other. Then we took turns playing an arco (bowed) solo over this background. First, just jamming on one note. Then sirening, bending pitches. The idea was to have fun, to be creative, with the newly-introduced skill of playing with one finger. These solos were more creative, more free, than those on just one note.

Then came the improv work. After this pretty free, loosely structured activity, I taught the students how to do a one-octave dominant seventh arpeggio, and to use a standard fingering for it. Then we went through the circle of fifths, doing this arpeggio with the same, consistent fingering. Some got a bit confused or lost at times; but this is part of learning a new vocabulary.

And then, poor things, I made them work on orchestra music!