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

Thank You, Maestro Kurt Masur

Thank You, Maestro Kurt Masur

Today, the New York Philharmonic announced the passing of Music Director Emeritus, Kurt Masur. In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of performing under his hands as a student at Mannes College of Music and The Juilliard School. Later, I worked as a Teaching Artist in the School Partnership Program (founded by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic), and I regularly gave pre-concert workshops and lectures for his performances. From these perspectives, I wish to express thanks and to highlight some of Masur’s many contributions.

Thank you, Kurt Masur.

Thank you for some of the finest performances I have ever heard. Especially, thank you for bringing Yevgeny Yevtushenko to perform an electrifying poetry recital before you performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in Bb minor, “Babi Yar.” with the New York Philharmonic.

After such a symphonic apotheosis of Yevtushenko’s poetry, a thirteen-minute standing ovation didn’t seem long enough. Our world badly needs palpable artworks that directly challenge governments to confront racism and genocide. Thank you for repeatedly demonstrating how music and musicians can bring peace, healing, and unity in troubled times.

Thank you for new music.

Bless you for commissioning Sofia Gubaidulina to compose Two PathsYou knew our world needed phenomenally expressive double viola concerto. Moreover, you knew what the New York Philharmonic’s virtuosic viola principals, Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young could do.

Thank you for Bach.

Autographed Bach St. Matthew's Passion Score Kurt Masur

Kurt Masur refused to take a bow after his 2008 New York Philharmonic performances of St. Matthew’s Passion, but he did sign the score I used to prepare the pre-concert talks.

Maestro, following your 2008 performances of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, you wouldn’t take a bow or even step back up to the podium. Instead, you held the score high above the platform, and offered the glory to Bach and to God.

Thank you for teaching.

Whether you were rehearsing students or professionals, you gave historical context, musical insights, and explanations of tradition. Thank you for singing, gesticulating, and cajoling until we all got it. Though I didn’t even play it, I still can hear you singing the viola solo from Kodály’s Háry János Suite.

Thank you for Bruckner and Mendelssohn, too.

Thank you for bringing out Anton Bruckner’s spirituality and his quintessentially Austrian folk influences. Your elegance and depth helped me to understand his symphonies for the first time. You did the same for masterworks of Felix Mendelssohn.

Thank you for jazz.

Thank you for celebrating and conducting the music of American composers, especially Duke Ellington. You introduced so many young musicians to Three Black Kings; Black, Brown, and Beige; and A Tone Parallel to Harlem. To help us understand how to articulate jazzy syncopations, you exhorted us to listen to vintage big band recordings. Listening helped tremendously.

Thank you for music education.

You said that every public school elementary school student should graduate with a diploma in one hand and a recorder in the other. Some of us questioned the idea at first. However, recorders proved effective tools for performing, improvising, composing, and internalizing musical themes.

You should have seen students walking down Harlem streets playing “Ode to Joy” of their own freewill while wearing their caps and gowns. It still happens, over twenty years later.

Thank you, Kurt Masur

Finally, on a more personal note, thank you for collecting and wearing bolo ties, whether or not New York fashion hounds approved. And thank you for always smiling, looking down, and asking, “How are you?!”

-Doc Wallace, Dec. 19, 2015

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!