“WOW!” (Thanks, Dorothy!)

Comforted by the presence of loving family members, physical pain lessened by the hospice-care morphine, she was lying in her own bed in the home she loved. No one knew that in only a day or two she would pass away, sooner than anyone expected. 

At her side was her priest, who’d come to offer prayers and give her not only God’s love and his own, but also to receive her love and appreciation, which had flowed through her to so many for so long. In her peaceful acceptance and embrace of the process of dying, she ministered to him, her family, and other caregivers even as they ministered to her, love flowing, as it does, in a circle of reciprocity. In his homily at her funeral Wednesday, he shared about this final visit with this parishioner he obviously admired and loved.

“I brought you a gift,” he said. Her eyes lit up as she smiled. As he placed the surprise–a communion wafer–on her tongue, she brightened even more. 

“Wow!” she exclaimed.

Dorothy Straub Genualdi entered my life when I was in eighth grade, and I can’t think of any better way to describe the spirit with which she embraced life, family, friends, and colleagues, perhaps even her transition from this life.

1972: She was in the early stages of what became a major career as a string educator. Her brother Ed and his family lived across the street from our new home in Tampa; soon he and my father were best friends. Dorothy came to visit, and walked over to hear eighth-grade me play the cello, which I’d been at for not quite two years. My new teacher had introduced me to playing with a very long endpin, which made the instrument almost horizontal. As I showed her what I understood to be the advantages, she was fascinated, and took obvious delight in what I now know was my intermediate-level, mostly-out-of-tune playing. She may not have said the word, but it was clear how she felt about me and my music (and I soon learned, about so many other children) and learning something new: “Wow!” 

1984: Twelve years later, I was working on my master’s degree at what is now known as Stony Brook University. Broke, with an assistantship that barely covered the rent for the tiny, dark basement apartment in which I was living. Life was a challenge. I was just a two-hour drive from her home in Connecticut, where she was now the coordinator of music for two school systems, and she was thrilled to have me so close. Soon she had set me up with a small class of fifth-grade boys to teach every Friday afternoon. I’d drive up from Long Island and spend the weekend in her home. Suddenly I had just enough money that I could eat, the embrace of this wonderful friend and the family of friends she had created, even a place to stay with windows! Somehow she made me feel that rather than accepting a great favor, I was honoring her and all of Westport by accepting her hospitality.

While I taught in the basement music studio, often struggling to connect with these children from my aspiring-concert-cellist set of skills and neuroses, she’d be in the kitchen preparing dinner. Occasionally she would pause to yell exhortations down the stairs. 

“Eric, just make them play in tune!”  Loving the young teachers she mentored, including me, didn’t mean she wasn’t tough with us.

Toward the end of the academic year, she brought friends down to Long Island to hear my master’s recital. Her review? “Wow!” (And I’m sure that’s an exact quote.)

In his homily, Dorothy’s priest said each one of us is a facet in the great jewel we call God, and spoke about how clear that was to as well as about her. So many times when I was deeply frustrated with my cello playing and angry with myself for not being the person I thought I was supposed to be, Dorothy was one of the people who saw part of the jewel I am. In the midst of the darkness and depression that periodically seemed as if it could swallow me up, a glimpse at myself through her eyes would help me keep going.

There were hundreds of people at her funeral. Everyone I spoke with had similar stories of this unique friend who offered transforming love while being a wise and challenging mentor.

The Fairfield County Children’s Choir (she was on their board) sang at the service with exquisite beauty. Moved and transported, I understood more powerfully than ever before how completely dedicated Dorothy was to the cause of children making music together at the highest level possible. Over and over again, she looked at them, and us, and what we did, and said, “Wow!” 

Wednesday we got to say it back to her, and to the energy that created her. I came back to my own students and looked at them through what I imagined to be her eyes. What better way to honor her legacy than to go forward and find the “wow” in everyone we meet? 

One of them could have used a bit more practice on his scales. I told him about Dorothy, and that I could hear her yelling down the stairs from heaven. Eric, make him play in tune! We laughed and did our work.



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The Franchomme Project

September 11 brought the release of the marvelous cellist Louise Dubin’s Delos album The Franchomme Project, which reintroduces the world to a wide array of music, most out of print for many decades, composed or arranged by August Franchomme (1808-1884), the greatest and best known French cellist of his day. 

Many of my fellow cellists will be inspired to explore some of this fascinating repertoire for themselves. Franchomme’s 12 Caprices, Op. 7 have sat in my library for years, but I haven’t played or taught many of them. Having heard the album, now I will–and I look forward to playing, and hearing some of my students play, his Chopin transcriptions (which the composer found delightful), “Mélodies Italiennes,” Nocturnes for 2 Cellos, Caprices for Cello and Piano, and other works, most of which have not been available in print. (A Dover performance edition of sheet music of the works on the album is being released later this year.)

Ms. Dubin’s playing (and that of her collaborators, the cellists Julia Bruskin, Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir, and Katherine Cherbas, as well as the pianists Hélene Jeanny and Andrea Lam) is both warm and meticulous; the impeccable intonation, beautiful sound, and elegant phrasing will surely delight other listeners as much as they did me. These marvelous performances are inventive and creative, yet never overstated. They are what one of Dubin’s teachers, Janos Starker, would surely have described as tasteful (very high praise for him, indeed). I’m certain they would have also pleased Prof. Franchomme, the beloved pedagogue at the Conservatoire du Musique, who, as the extensive notes in the CD booklet explain, was as renowned for his lack of histrionics as he was for his extraordinay technique. (The notes, which provide a fadcinating biography of Franchomme as well as a thorough background of each piece, make this an album worth buying a physical copy rather than listening via a streaming service.)

Lousie Dubin is, among many things, an excellent role model for young muscians. She is developing a performing career in part with this project which is expanding the repertoire of our beloved instrument. Many of us are commissioning and creating new music; with this endeavor she is bringing delightful gems of the mid-nineteenth century to light. The works she’s brought to light are the fruits of significant labors of research, detective work, and serendipitous meetings with Franchomme’s descendents. Who knows what other delicious tidbits remain to be discovered by another enterprising musician/scholar/researcher? 

Let’s follow her example. 

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Read This Post and Get More People to Your Concerts!

What if there was one simple thing you and I could do when promoting a concert that would get more people to come? And what if it was an easy, inexpensive thing to do–no additional cost necessary?

Well there is, and here it is:

When You’re Promoting Your Event, Tell People How It Will Improve Their Lives to Attend, Not Just What You’re Going to Perform!

[Sidenote: I’m in New York (yay!–and where the weather is actually much better than in Indiana this week). On Wednesday I’m doing a teaching demonstration on Distinguishing Between Features and Benefits When Marketing Concerts for the Network of Music Career Development Officers, which includes not only people who work in career and entrepreneurship centers at music schools and conservatories, but also music faculty who teach entrepreneurship and other career-related courses.]

Overdramatic? Sure. But marketing professionals tell us that successful promotional material does just that–it tells the prospective customer (in our case, prospective audience member) how he or she will benefit from purchasing the product or service. Marketing and advertising professionals make a distinction between features and benefits. As I discuss below, most of us in classical music spend too much time on the former and not enough on the latter.

Look at virtually every classical music advertisement, press release, or promotional email. What do you see? What’s being performed. Who’s performing. When the show is. Sometimes there’s performer information (including pull quotes from reviews) and information about the works, sometimes with a few adjectives (“heart-wrenching,” “exciting,” etc.) thrown in.

Those are the details of the performance. They are are interesting–to at least some of those who are among the existing classical music audience. But rarely do they answer this question:

Why should I spend my time and money to attend this performance?

Features v. Benefits

Go to seminars and workshops aimed at people in the for-profit entrepreneurship world and read material on marketing, advertising, copywriting. Stressed over and over and over again–so much that it is a truism–is to focus on benefits rather than features in promotion and branding.

A post over at printwand explains the difference well:

  • Features are defined as surface statements about your product, such as what it can do, its dimensions and specs and so on.
  • Benefits, by definition, show the end result of what a product can actually accomplish for the reader.

Oil Gardner at unbounce.com provides a clear example. Two battery-extending cases for iPhones, side by side in an Apple store. One iteration (for the 4 and 4s models) stresses that the battery has a capacity of “2000mAh.”

What the heck does that tell me as a customer? Unless I am a technical geek, nothing. It’s a detail, a feature.

Hanging next to it, the next generation of the same device. “Up to 120% extra battery” life.

Yes! I got it! That’s how it will benefit me–my phone will last more than twice as long as I’m out roaming the streets of NYC. This packaging also points out that the battery is pre-charged. Great idea–it’s when my battery is running low that I’m most motivated to buy something to extend its life.

How much longer will my I be able to use my phone without recharging? That’s the benefit. (Actually, it’s still phrased somewhat like a feature. I think it would have been even better to put “Use your phone more than two times longer without recharging!” in big letters.)

Gregory Ciotti’s helpscout.net post Features Tell, But Benefits Sell uses Apple’s introduction of the iPod as an example.

Apple understood this when they released the first iPod. MP3 players were nothing new, and the technology trounced CDs. The problem was marketing; the right pitch hadn’t been made to explain just how much better customers’ lives were going to be once they owned an iPod.

How do you think Apple decided to frame the magic of the iPod? Around its technical prowess, or what customers could do with it?


The message was persuasive because, in the words of Seth Godin, it was all about “Me, me, me. My favorite person: me.” Gigs of data have nothing to do with me, but a pocket full of my favorite songs certainly does.

Here’s the Apple ad itself:


I like that Godin quote. “Me, me, me. My favorite person: me.” 

Well, maybe I don’t like it. After all, we want it to be all about the music, the music, the music.But human nature is human nature, and it’s a keen insight. For the audience, it’s really about what’s in it for them.

People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves

That’s the tittle of a recent post by Belle Beth Cooper. She points out the in the (evidently famous among marketers) iPod example, “When everyone else was saying “1GB storage on your MP3 player”, telling people about the product, Apple went ahead and made you a better person, that has 1000 songs in your pocket.”

Me, me, me.

The other day, my partner and I wandered by a Hästens bed store not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s an expensive neighborhood, and the handmade Swedish beds must cost a fortune. We went in. There were no prices anywhere, on the beds or even in the catalog (maybe it’s one of those if-you-have-to-ask, you-can’t-afford-it places). There was a big sign over one of the gorgeous blue-and-white beds that said that three days of good sleep could change your life. On their web site, they explain,

“At Hästens, our mission is to change the way people think about and prioritize sleep so they can enjoy a better quality of life.”

Would we be buying a bed? Yes, but more than that, a “better quality of life.” Better mes. Now don’t get me wrong, they also presented plenty of features–the handcrafting, the natural materials, the old-world traditions. But that was all to support the prime message of how our lives would be better if we got one of these beds.

A useronbaord.com post has a great graphic (to which Cooper links):

So you see how this works in the for-profit world.

That’s the thing I rarely see addressed in promotion for performing arts events. How is attending this going to make me, for the lack of better words, a “better person.”

So let’s explore this features vs. benefits issue a bit more.

The printwand post mentioned above has a several excellent examples of benefit-focused selling. One is for Martinelli sparkling cider. I used to buy a lot every holiday season for my kids, so they could have something special when the adults had Champagne or wine.

What are the features?

  • It’s inexpensive.
  • Tastes pretty good (if you like cider).
  • No alcohol.
  • It’s bubbly like Champagne.
  • Little kids think it’s special.

What are the benefits?

Well, if you drink it you don’t get drunk. You can have a good time without spending a lot of money (assuming you don’t want a buzz). Kids like it. So if you or I were creating a promotional campaign for Martinelli, you’d find a benefit to focus on for a particular market. Don’t get drunk and don’t spend a lot.

I’m not sure how to spin that. But someone did, in this case for the partying-adult market.


Pretty cool! You can have a good time, save money, and actually remember what you did the next morning.

Applying This To Promoting Events

Now we are moving into imagination mode. I think the entire field of classical music, including many of the classically-trained musicians who combine genres, can do a better job of, well, evangelizing for our art. Unfortunately, none of us have the kind of cash flow to pay for the sophisticated marketing materials of international corporations like Apple, Hästings, or Martinelli. Most of us have to be our own publicists.

Most of us have no training in this. I just received a flyer from a chamber group in which a friend of mine plays. “The XYZ Ensemble Plays Music By A, B, and C,” the time and date, the location, and the suggested donation. Which is about all most classical-music posters do. Sometimes there are more visually engaging photos, but rarely is the engaging nature of the experience communicated. Who, what, where, when? Those are features. Unless a prospective audience member happens to know the players or is really into those composers, there’s no reason to come. Especially at a time when we are looking to expand audiences, we need to find ways to attract new people to our concerts. If we start thinking about promoting the benefits of attending, we may find new areas of success.

So I’m going brainstorm a bit, using myself as an example. Let’s say I’m doing a concert of Bach Suites. “Edberg Plays Bach.” Cellist Eric Edberg (me) plays, say, the first three Bach Suites for Solo Cello.

You see advertisements for concerts like this all the time. “Gilbert Conducts Swan Lake” is on the New York Philharmonic site and in print advertisements right now. If I’m an Alan Gilbert fan and I like Swan Lake, I may be sold. If I don’t know who Alan Gilbert is and I’ve never heard of Swan Lake, or it brings to mind only images stereotypically affected ballet dancing, then I’m not going to care.

To those in my circle of friends and fans who love both the Bach cello suites and my cello playing, the benefit of coming will be self-evident. But to the rest of the world, I need (or whoever is promoting the concert needs) to let them know what’s fantastic about this music (which many of them may be unaware of), what I’m like as a performer, and why they’ll be better off for having come. And, of course, I’m going to have to play them really, really well–with life and engagement and commitment.

I’m now thinking out loud. It’s extraordinary music that takes us through virtually the entire gamut of human emotion, from calmness to playfulness to heartbreak to anger to violence to triumph, spiritual solace, and unbridled joy. And to me, the great benefit of of a well-played concert is to feel more fully human, more truly alive. It’s inspiring in very true way. (Of course, a boring concert isn’t going to inspire anyone.)

So how about:

An Emotional Journey Ending In Joyful Triumph.


Let Bach Remind You Why It’s Great to Be Alive

And then of course we’d need something about the program and what a great cellist and performer I am, why the venue is a great place, etc.

There are many dimensions to the experience of a particular event, of course. There are the visual aspects, the social aspects, the atmosphere (formal? relaxed? interactive?), and what we might call the theatrical aspects–it can be amazing to see someone come out on stage and play an entire program of music from memory, and that’s something those of us who do it all the time can forget. Depending on the audience, performers, venue, and program, there are infinite varieties of features and corresponding benefits.

The thing I’m getting at is that for individual concerts and for classical music in general, we have a great opportunity to increase our audiences if we communicate the benefits of concert attendance. Not in a “it’s good for you way,” but it an enthusiastic and energized way.

So let’s go tell people why their lives will be better for coming to our concerts. And if we don’t believe that’s truly the case, then let’s put on concerts that are life enhancing.


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Dignity, Humiliation, and Music. Who Knew?

When George Wolfe asked me to come improvise with him at a conference at Columbia University, I of course said yes. Then I saw it was the International Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies conference, I told George we might need to come up with a good rationale for the cello professor to use professional conference funds to attend this particular event.

But once I arrived at Columbia, I was struck by how much I felt I was part of this work. Humiliation and shame are not just tools of control in relationships, personal, professional, organizational, and societal. They are also deeply part of the experience most classical musicians have as we study are craft and learn our art. There are very few of us who are not on some level ashamed of, or healing from years of feeling ashamed of, our playing or singing.

For my entire life as a teacher, I’ve worked with students to learn to trust themselves and find their voices, while at the same time presenting the exacting standards that can be so intimidating and which can cause so much hurt when we don’t meet them. All along, I’ve been healing, too.

It’s what led me into the safe-space, accepting world of Music for People improvisation and the community drum circle culture articulated by Arthur Hull.

I never framed this work in terms of humiliation and human dignity before. But as I heard scholars from many disciplines around the world speak, and as we spoke together in discussion groups, I realized that I’ve been working in this field.

And that there was much I could take back to DePauw, where we are dealing with how to make the campus climate more hospitable for students and faculty of color. Where we are collectively looking for how to participate in the national and international conversations that relate to ongoing humiliation that is racism.

The contribution that George and I were able to make was to use performances of free improvisations as a model for a way of relating that is rooted in what I now realize can be called dignity. Listening. Responding. Taking turns leading. Supporting and challenging. Neither dominating or submitting.

I learned so much, too, which I’ll write about at another time. Meanwhile, it was a genuine miracle for me to discover that there was a group of people of whom I was already a part, without knowing it.

Thanks, George.

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Sponge Shoes

If it seems to be good to be true, it probably is.

That’s the saying, anyway.

On the other hand (and isn’t there always another hand?), miracles, unexpected, undeserved wonderful things, happen too. If you are intentionally open to minor miracles, as I am, you can mistake too-good-to-be-true for a minor miracle.

I spent about 45 minutes this morning using daughter’s hair dryer to make my new dressy-casual black leather “sponge shoes” comfortable to wear.

They were one of those minor miracles. Just $19.99 at the Bass Outlet Store on Black Friday.

Sponge shoes, you ask?

Yes. It turns out the soles absorb water with extraordinary efficiency and transfer them to my socks with a speed and thoroughness I would have thought impossible. A bit of drizzle in New York and just walking a few blocks on a damp sidewalk and my feet were suddenly and unexpectedly wet.

Ha ha! A more minor miracle than. I’d thought.

How This Happened:

My partner loves shopping and in particular Black Friday. I’d always comfortably hid at home on Black Fridays until we met, and at first absolutely refused to go anywhere near Black Friday madness.

But then we found a win-win solution. There’s a big outlet mall in Edinburgh, Indiana, a little over an hour from where we live. Adjacent to it, just off I-65, are several motels, one of which is virtually in the parking lot. So two Thanksgivings ago, we had dinner at a nice restaurant in Indianapolis, drove down, and checked in to the motel-in-the-parking-lot. he could shop all night, I could sleep.

I did venture out with him for a while, to see what it was like.

And ended up buying shoes and socks (really good socks, too) that would last me a couple of years, at terrific prices.

We did it again this year. And I found these amazing looking black leather loafers at the Bass store on a super clearance for only $19.99!They look great. They fit beautifully. They are wonderfully comfortable.

I wore them for the first time Wednesday night as I performed a chamber music concert at DePauw. I liked them so much I wore them Thursday morning as my only shoes on a pack-light, long-weekend trip to perform and speak at a conference in NY.

Friday there was a very light drizzle in the late afternoon. As I walked a few blocks to a restaurant to meet a friend for dinner, I noticed that the ball of my right foot felt a bit damp. That’s strange, I thought. These are new shoes. I know there’s no hole in the soles. After dinner, we walked a few blocks to a concert. Both feet felt damp.

I hadn’t stepped in a puddle. The sidewalks were just damp. It was drizzle, not rain. By the time I made back to my daughter’s apartment in Harlem, my feet were wet.

I was going to buy some other shoes Saturday, since it was raining again. I met a friend for a late lunch, then others for a group drink. In between a haircut with my favorite NY barber. Somewhere along the way, I got used to the wet feet. There seemed to be a certain limit to the transfer of moisture.

I toughed it out. Dried the shoes this morning, and it was dry all day. I love these shoes today.

Maybe that’s the latest minor miracle.

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What Does It Mean to be a Musician?

At DePauw, we are deep into the process of redesigning a curriculum for 21st-century musicians. The unique opportunity is that we are small enough and have the right mix of faculty and administrative leadership and support to actually recreate a curriculum. In many larger institutions, the faculty/student population is so large, the systems are so set, the traditions are so engrained, the egos are so big, the individual focuses so narrow, that it just can’t be done. Or if it can be done, the process is going to take an immensely long time.

In my own little corner of the DePauw universe, I have the opportunity to coach improvisation ensembles (in which the students are focused on expressing themselves and connecting with others through sound) and a cello ensemble in which we use focused improvisations as warmup games to develop listening and awareness chamber-music skills in addition to learning composed music. This creates a laboratory to work on how to integrate improvisation into how classically-trained musicians learn, rehearse, and perform.

Is this exciting for me as a teacher you ask? Absolutely!

Another course I teach is currently called “Understanding Music.” It’s a class for first-year undergraduate music majors; it’s evolved over the years, but has always been intended support students as they make the transition into college life. Team taught, the course has three units, all three experiential, each giving the students an opportunity to experience making, learning, and learning about music in a way they (most likely) have not previous encountered.

Nicole Brockmann takes them through four weeks of Dalcroze Eurythmics; Randy Salman gets them doing some beginning jazz improvisation, and I teach them how to lead community drum circles and do “free” improvisation with instruments and voices.  For years I called my unit “Understanding Music Through the Creative Process.” This year as I finished the syllabus I found myself typing “Understanding Music: What Does It Mean to Be a Musicians?”

We are discussing all the activities we do in the context of this open, no right-or-wrong-answer question. As the students come up with partial answers to the question, we find ourselves focusing on the different roles musicians can play in the context of society in general and local communities in particular.

When I first asked the students to tell me what it means to be a musician, everyone gave be a variation of what is to the most obvious answer to classically-trained music students: to perform music. And by “music,” virtually all of them meant compositions that someone else had written and and yet another person had taught them.

Yet here we had just experienced playing together in a drum circle in which everyone was instructed to “make up your own” rhythm and had taken turns dancing as a group and individually to the music of the circle. That doesn’t fit the musician-as-performer-of-composition-by-someone-else model.

Over six sessions, we’ve had a variety of experiences and read quite a bit.  We’ve discussed the musician as member of an intentional learning/musicking community; musician as leader; musicians as supporters of each other; musicians as dancers; musicians as healers; and musicians as people who make a difference in their communities.

On that last point, the students have told me they take so many music classes all in one building that they feel isolated from the liberal arts students. “We need to find ways to bring the School of Music and the College of Liberal Arts together,” they told me. So I led them in brainstorming a bit and when many of great ideas they came up with didn’t seem practical within the time limits of this unit, I suggested what was (to me) the obvious:

You’ve spent a number of class sessions working on how to lead a community drum circle. The purpose of a community drum circle is to bring people together to experience being part of a community. Why not organize and host a community drum circle with the express intention of bringing liberal arts and music students together in a shared activity?

They loved it (thank God, or my work might have been for naught).

And so we have found yet another model: musicians as people who present participatory music events.

What does it mean to be a musician? The possibilities really are infinite. And for me, it is a joy to have my younger musician friends join with me in the process of articulating those possibilities.




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Rigorously Playful: Today’s Adventure in Improvisation

This semester at the DePauw School of Music (where I’m on the steering committee for our developing 21st Century Musician Initiative), I’m having a blast teaching, well make that facilitating, a section of our team-taught first-year seminar, Understanding Music, as well as two sections of Improvised Chamber Music, coaching a cello quartet, and, of course, giving cello lessons.

Today was the first meeting of one section of the improv group. We’re based in the principles outlined in the Music for People Bill of Musical Rights, as well as embracing aspects of what was once avant-garde experimental music and throwing in a bit of theater improv as well.

I crossed out the word “teaching” above because my job with the improv groups is rarely to instruct, to tell people what to do or how to do it or what I think.  I’m there to create a safe space for people to express themselves, to connect with each other, and to see what happens when you disable the usual self-censorship mechanisms.

Today, it was just two students (both guys) and me. We started with some very familiar (to me) Music for People activities, both taught by MfP’s co-founder David Darling. They are so familiar, in fact, that they become effective transitional ritual into the improvisational energy. First comes “release,” a gesture in which we put our hands at the crown of our heads, inhale deeply, then let our arms fall slowly to our sides while exhaling and letting go of whatever we brought with us.  And then we shook out our hands, wiggled our fingers, and let our tongues move with our fingers, making babbling sounds.

This silly activity isn’t so silly of course–it’s all about freeing up and letting go of doing something correct or predetermined.

The two young men who joined me today, both first-year students, and both, it’s accurate to say, bursting with assertive creativity, joined in eagerly. One had been at a session last week, where we’d emphasized body movement as well as sound making, and soon we were interacting with each other freely, moving about the room. I should have recorded it, because, as is often the case when one is really in the moment, I don’t remember everything that happened. I do remember that we stuck with our voices for quite a while, moving from la sounds to hard-consonant sounds (“katakatakata” “tikatikatika”) to conversational exchanges to ostinatos (repeated figures) over which we took turns singing long notes, to long tones forming drones which we took turns exploring.

I needed to do no explanation (just modeling), no active encouraging other than being part of the adventurous/playful energy, and very little attention getting when I wanted to shift things. When I moved things into the ostinato section, I may have sung the word “ostinato” or the phrase “repeated figure” once, but things didn’t break down, and I didn’t have to explain that we were now doing repeated figures, as is often the case when I work with new improvisers.

And soon two of us were playing inside the piano, strumming, plucking, and thumping (don’t worry, it wasn’t the Boesendorfer, just one of those long-abused grand pianos you find in rehearsal rooms in every music school) while the third was rubbing erasers on a white board.  We played the walls. We played the chairs.  We thumped everything thumpable.  The two teenage students were bouncing up and down on the floor and acting like apes for a while in a way I couldn’t quite match. Everyone initiated some new section. By the end, we were singing again, and I exercised my professorial authority only to bring things to an end. (Auditions were happening soon, and all good things must come to an end.)

It was quite exhilarating for all of us.  One of the students had never improvised with others before, and he had the kind of look on his face when we finished that I must had at the end of the first day of my first Music for People workshop.

This kind of improvisation, where you’re saying yes to your ideas, and saying yes to other people’s ideas, connecting when you need to, getting out of the way when it’s time for that, letting go of what you have been doing and spinning into the next thing–it’s not something you learn to do so much as it is something you discover you can do.  What I’m very clear about is that most of the time I’m not teaching people a new skill, but rather assisting them in discovering what they already can do.

When things really click, there’s a synergy that is indescribable.

I actually envied my young friends today–they were more free than I was at times, especially when bouncing around like chimps. They reentered a boys-playing-games, Peter Pan zone that I couldn’t quite get to.  When you’re 18 or 19, the boy in a young man is still very present. The Music for People book on improvisation is called Return to Child; sometimes, though, you don’t need a book to get there.


Was this rigorous?

“Rigor” is a word we use a lot in academia. We want to challenge our students. We sell rigorous education. You can go to your crappy local community college for unrigorous education, I think we assume, although I imagine there are some brilliant teachers at many community colleges. I tell my cello students that if they don’t hate me from time to time, let me know, because it means I’m not pushing them hard enough.

I was part of a very long faculty meeting later in the day in which we were debating changes meant to strengthen our Winter Term program. There’s a concern that some of the experiential-learning courses taught in Winter Term (and other times) aren’t rigorous or challenging enough. My colleague Nicole Brockmann pointed out that experiential learning can be rigorous indeed.

There are many ways to be rigorous and engaging and challenging. Frankly, I don’t even like the word “rigorous,” because it often seems to be used in a way that confuses difficulty (often for the sake of difficulty itself) with genuinely engaged learning, or makes a professor present some monstrous crap pile of things to memorize rather than genuinely engaging students in the process of learning. As we sat in the meeting, I thought of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and realized that someone ought to articulate a set of multiple “rigorousnesses” as well.

Many years ago, I sat across a table from David Darling, and he looked at me and said, “When you go to a jazz camp, they ask you what chords and scales you know.  When you come to a Music for People workshop, we ask you to tell us who you are.”

Is there rigor in, say, wiggling your fingers and babbling? In being silly? There’s no real technique involved. It’s not something you can really practice–we can each already do it. Heck, babies can do it.

But you know what? To do it in front of other people, that’s not so easy. As a matter of fact, it takes courage–doing something when you are afraid–for most of us. And to do it with abandon, well, that is a real challenge, because you have to trust yourself and the other people in the room.

You can sing a note that’s defensive, hiding behind a good technique or doing something silly. Or you can sing a note where you take a chance, where you express a raw emotion, where you don’t know if you’re going to hit the pitch you’re hearing. That’s where there’s rigor in this.

It might look like total bullshit if you walk into a room and see two people thumping strings inside a grand piano while a third kneels and rubs erasers on a white board behind the piano, intermittently crawling under the piano and tapping the case. But if all three people are genuinely listening to and responding to each other, and they are allowing themselves to follow their intuition and do this even though someone might look at it and think, “bullshit!,” there is a genuine rigor. Even if you get it and it works on the first try.

What can I say? I love my job.


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Filed under David Darling, facilitation/teaching distinction, improvisation, Music for People