A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

Do you dream about your work? A colleague of my father’s once invoiced an employer to compensate his sleeping hours. (Purportedly, he had solved a problem in a dream.) Because chemical engineers are expected to sleep on their own time, his request was denied.

Billing for dreams may sound ludicrous and pretentious, but I get it. Invest enough time and energy into your work, and it will seep into your subconscious and haunt your dreams.

Doc Wallace David Wallace Teaching Artist Nightmare New York Philharmonic

A young Doc Wallace breaks down a violin concerto for a New York Philharmonic music educator’s seminar. Photo Credit: Rob Klein

Teaching artists spend the majority of our waking hours helping others to connect to an artwork’s essence. When all goes well, people become transfixed or transformed by it. We dream about this, figuratively and literally.

On a good night, a teaching artist dream inspires a new, complete lesson plan: you have a vision of people standing in a circle and simulating a fugue as they bounce and pass basketballs. On a bad night, we relive the times that we miserably failed to bring others into the magic of a masterpiece. In the teaching artist nightmare, things get weird and nerdy pretty quickly. . .

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A young Johannes Brahms sits defiantly enough to inspire a teaching artist nightmare

Johannes Brahms: Musical dreamboat or teaching artist nightmare?

Last night’s teaching artist dream was abysmal. At a noisy, crowded dinner party, the stranger seated beside me randomly asked me why I love Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. (Go ahead; judge my repressed desires. . .)

Taken off guard, I rambled incoherently. Oh, I was passionate all right. I listed musically solid reasons: intervallic relationships, compound meters, architectonic layers of rhythmic pulsation. . . Perceptually speaking, though, I gave my polite listener absolutely nothing of value. (Did I mention Phrygian melodies?)

I summarized the finale’s greatness with a simple sentence:

“The fourth movement. . .”

[emotionally charged pause; right index finger rises unconsciously for added emphasis]

“. . . is a passacaglia!”

With that utterance, I choked up and held back tears. -In dreams, who doesn’t weep at the thought of an inspired, German genius concluding a romantic symphony by resurrecting a seventeenth century Spanish dance form?

-The normal guy sitting next to me, that’s who. He repays all my vapid effusion with a blank stare.

He’s right, of course. As an advocate, I’ve been an idiot. Abstracted from musical experience, my subjective emotions, formal analysis, historical knowledge, and classical music jargon provide no vehicle for listening, comprehending, or caring. The man neither hears what I’m hearing, nor knows what I’m knowing. He can’t tap my dopamine.

The Teaching Artist Nightmare Never Ends

So, the stranger tries to help by asking some well-meaning questions: “Yeah, but is it going anywhere? I mean, does it lead to something? Is there some kind of highlight?”

It’s my turn to stare blankly back.

So that’s it? For you, music goes somewhere? Symphonies revolve around a main event, some kind of climax that you can point to and say, “Whoah! How ‘bout that bass drum?!” The entirety of Brahms IV culminates in a marvelous passacaglia; did I not make that clear?!

“Well. . . kind of. Things really amp up at the golden section. But for me personally, the highlight is this flute solo. . . Um let me. . .”

I fumble around, looking for my score. (Doesn’t every teaching artist bring a reprint of the Vienna Gesellshaft der Musikfreunde’s complete Brahms symphonies to the dinner party?. . .)

I stop rummaging, realizing that I forgot to bring my music- a common occurrence in a teaching artist nightmare. Even if I had, notes on the page would have proven silent and impotent. My only recourse is to stand and sing the flute solo myself, finally channeling my passion into music rather than verbiage. I take a deep breath. . .

Mercifully, I awoke. I felt terrible.

Escaping the Teaching Artist Nightmare

This cartoon from the New Yorker nails it!

I felt awful because I had violated just about every tenet of effective teaching artistry. Instead of listening, I was talking. Instead of questioning, I was telling. Rather than cultivating a listener-centered inquiry into the symphony, I fell into the trap of focusing on my own personal enjoyment and interpretation.

Unfortunately, I drowned perfectly valid entry points with unexplained terminology. I conveyed information without engaging through actual musical experiences. Honestly, the guy didn’t really want to know why I love Brahms IV. On the contrary, he wanted to love Brahms IV himself.

I’m reminded why I give pre-concert talks with a fiddle in my hands and a piano at my side. I’m recalling why I make my learners conduct Brahms’s phrases, sing his melodies for themselves, or perform his complex rhythms as a group.

When you are teaching others, consider which technical terms you critically need to communicate, and which are superfluous and omissible. Ask questions of an artwork, rather than assuming that you already have all of the answers. Instead of forcing people into a prescribed experience, set them up to discover the highlights for themselves.

Let’s wake up. The strangers are listening.

-Doc Wallace, 9 February 2017

Charles Ives Meets Metallica. . .

Charles Ives Meets Metallica. . .

Ives Stamp1997

All hail the Charles Ives commemorative stamp!

Study the life of Charles Ives. Learn about his father’s musical experiments and ear training exercises. George Edward Ives (Charles’ father) would tune a piano a quarter tone off-key for playing duets with a “properly” tuned piano. He’d make young Charlie sing a song in one key while playing it in another. He marched brass bands towards each other while they were playing different songs in different keys and different meters. From a distance, Young Charlie observed and listened.

EXPERIMENTING WITH IVES

One day, I decided to recreate Ives’s father’s experiments. I set up two boom boxes on opposite sides of a large room, and blasted recordings of two contrasting Sousa marches simultaneously.

Try it! Walk around and explore that world of clashing dissonance.  Enjoy the synchronous moments that sound like the two bands are musically responding to each other.

Eventually, this experiment became an annual event in my Music Studies for Dancers seminar at the Juilliard School. I’ll never forget the expression of pure ecstasy on one Juilliard dancer’s face as he found that sweet spot midway between the two stereos. Oh, the bliss of those disparate sound waves colliding upon you with ineffable synergy!

THE HEAVY METAL IVES EXPERIMENT

Tonight, while studying a post about classic electric bass lines, I stumbled into a similar experiment. A hidden window on my computer would not stop playing Tool’s “Schism” after I had started Metallica’s “Orion.” [Do try this at home, kids!]

Unfortunately, everything was coming out of the same lousy built-in Macbook speakers. (Because these speakers lack bass, volume, and spatial distance, internal speakers severely reduce the inherent antiphonal, polymetric potential of this musical collision). Nevertheless, the effect was powerful enough to made me wonder. . .

What if George Edward Ives had lived in the late 20th century and had liked heavy metal?. . . Instead of two brass bands, what if he had employed Tool and Metallica in his experiments?

Run and get yourself two equally loud audio systems and a room big enough to handle them. Then, go nuts with this idea and share what you learn. Apply what you discover.

-Doc Wallace, 7 January 2016

Reaching Out with the USCG Band

Reaching Out with the USCG Band

Thankfully, the U.S. government is back in business, and I mean that from the bottom of my pocketbook. A week ago, the shutdown threatened to cancel today’s workshop with the wonderful musicians of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

For the past two years, I have coached USCG ensembles on audience engagement skills. From a purely selfish perspective, I enjoy working with the USCG Band because their live performances replace my everyday, string-centric reality with fresh sounds and musical perspectives. In that regard, I am no different from the fourth grader or senior citizen attending their community performances.

Finding Entry Points with the USCG Band

This morning, the USCG band rehearsed an interactive concert designed for middle-school students. The program reveals how musical compositions can emerge from almost anywhere. The chosen repertoire’s far-ranging inspirations include historical figures (John Mackey’s Xerxes), the focused inner state of a dancer  (Warren Benson’s Solitary Dancer), and a Saturday Night Live punchline (Scott McAllister’s More Cowbell).

Although audience-interactions are still being refined and tested, the script definitely provides active engagement. Middle-schoolers will sing themes, clap rhythms with the ensemble, provide improvisational input for USCG performers, and visualize solutions to compositional problems posed by composers. Each segment aims to give the young listeners entry points or “hooks” to focus their ears and minds on the musical materials.

Unlocking a Modern Masterpiece

In the afternoon, I led the USCG chamber ensembles through the design process for creating activities that deepen listeners’ perceptions. Because I had worked with the USCG musicians before, I wanted to give them a challenging piece. I settled on György Ligeti’s Ten Pieces for Woodwind Quintet III. Lento, a slow, intense, atonal movement. Here’s an excerpt:

Click here to purchase or download the full awesome Ligeti album!

At first, many musicians struggled with Ligeti’s contemporary material, which could confuse or bore a typical audience member. By the end of the workshop, however, all five groups presented successful strategies and approaches for intriguing first-time listeners. One group focused on the delicate, subtle shifts of color and developed an activity where an onstage color spectrum would provide a basis for interpreting the sound at any particular moment.

Another group focused the audience’s ears on the organic blending and seamless shaping of the instruments’ pitches. Other musicians helped listeners to form personal narratives or make real-time artworks in response to musical details. Yet another group explored a movement activity simulating Ligeti’s diverse orchestrations of limited thematic material.

Barring any further shutdowns, in February, I’ll return to coach USCG chamber ensembles on their own original programs. Meanwhile, today’s work gave me some great ideas this Thursday’s New York Philharmonic workshop. After all, if the USCG Band can get middle-schoolers excited about Ligeti’s Ten Pieces, I can do the same for Krzysztof Penderecki’s dissonant, modern Concerto Grosso.

Peace & Prosperity!

-Doc Wallace, 22 October 2013

PS Enjoy a playlist of some of my interactive concert presentations!