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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January 10: A Roomful of Teeth and Some Organized Chaos

This trip is going by so fast!

When I last checked in with you,  I’d taken us only as far as last week’s New York Philharmonic concert, and Friday afternoon’s  Midsummer Night’s Dream videotaping (see the previous two posts).

Friday night (January 10), we all headed down to Greenwich Village for the NYC Winter Jazzfest. There were seemingly countless performances at at least six venues that night. We began with Roomful of Teeth at Judson Church on the NYU campus.  A terrific vocal octet, whom I don’t know I would have put a “jazz” label on had I heard their performance in another context. As far as I could tell, everything was fully composed. Check out their website; they are part of the post-genre era, drawing on many western and non-western influences, commissioning works from composers like Caleb Burhans and Judd Greenstein. Composer Caroline Shaw, a member of the group, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Partita, movements of which were performed at that concert.

Most everyone else went off to explore other events. I was having a lot of (thankfully very temporary) leg pain, and having snared an actual front-row balcony chair–it was a mostly standing event–I decided to stay put. A good friend was with me. Neither one of us liked the Mary Halvorson Septet which followed, and my companion wanted to move on. It seemed much less coherent than Roomful. Oh, heck, it was much less coherent than Roomful. But that made me want to stay and listen. Sometimes I like incoherent music, and my improvisation students and I have found that listening closely to seemingly chaotic recordings, we often discover there is a lot more going on than we first hear. Part of it that night was the very casual and messy visual presentation of the group, and they were following a super-organized group. Once I closed my eyes and listened, I enjoyed the music making. So I stayed, and, humoring me, so did my friend.

Nate Chinen in the Times called the set “lean but expansive” and seemed to have liked it; my friend never did, and by the time it was done, my leg felt fine, and I walked her to the subway. I stopped in briefly at the overcrowded Groove, where Otis Brown III was playing, but I realized my ears needed a rest.

Now the question was whether I should go back to the hotel or wait for the 12:30 AM “Improvised Round Robin Duets” back at Judson Church. “Don’t be old tonight” my colleague texted me, and even though I knew I was already tired and I’d pay for it the next day if I was up really late, I decided to follow his advice. After all, I coach my own improvisation students in duets where one person starts, another joins in, a third person takes over from the first, and so on. When else in my life might I get to hear “legendary New York improvisers” (as the evening’s host said in promoting the show) do this kind of chained improvising?

It was amazing–much of the time. I have no idea who the performers were, because they weren’t listed in a program or announced from the stage. If I’d written this a week ago, I’d have a clearer memory of the details. So you’re spared them. What impressed me is that the 90-minute performance started with an extended piano solo before anyone joined the pianist on the stage. There were lots of tremolos, lots of crashes, lots of special effects and soundscape sorts of things. 90% of the time or more there was no steady pulse, so when there was one it was quite powerful. Lots of fragmentation; very little actual melody or melodic development.

Occasionally it was a mess, but a coordinated mess. As my colleague Chris observed, in situations like this you have the choice of listening to the other player and not playing; or matching what the other player is doing, or contrasting with what the other player is doing. He found it tiring after a while; I pretty much loved the entire thing–which is why I’m the improv guy, I suppose. What was interesting to me is areas the performance avoided: extended consonant harmonies, simple grooves, regular phrases, etc. It was mostly restless, dissonant, and often angular music.

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New York Philharmonic, 1/9/2014

More on our DePauw WT (Winter Term) trip (I’m working backwards from today, Friday.)

My colleague Chris Lynch and I want the students to see a broad array of the arts in NY. Last night, we went to the New. York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. A terrific concert, which I’ll discuss below. First though, the experience.

We gathered near the fountain (since it wasn’t too cold), and asked the students to look at the architecture and get a sense of the Lincoln Center complex, this set of majestic, grand, clean, modernistic temples of high art. To me, Lincoln Center represents one 1960s ideal of a great urban arts center. It is set back and removed from the surrounding area, an effect that must have been much more pronounced when it opened than it is today.

We wanted the students to take it in, and then after the concert look at the new Alice Tully lobby in the redesigned Juilliard building, for a one example of a very contrasting 21st-century ideal. We asked the students to give us one adjective. “Awesome, grand, exciting, overwhelming,” were some of them (I wish I’d made a video!). Then we went in to what I find to be the coldly modern, boringly beige space. These main lobby spaces have always felt dully antiseptic and slightly intimidating to me. When I was a Juilliard student, I had this sense I ought to like this place but I never really did.

We attended Victoria Bond’s enthusiastic pre-concert talk. It’s always wonderful to hear a composer talk with animated appreciation about the brilliant construction of a Beethoven work; she discussed the First Symphony at length. It’s such an ingenious piece, such a fantastic way to announce to the world, “I am Beethoven.” She covered the rest of the program (Fidelio Overture, Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris) as well, but it was the symphony she seemed most excited about.

Chris Lynch is a musicologist, very interested, as am I, in how the spaces in which we experience music shape that experience. He pointed out later how appropriate it seemed to him that we had the students listen to a talk that focused on the formal structure of the music we were about to hear in such a formal and structured place.

We found our third-teer center seats. I didn’t mind the distance from the stage, and I thought the sound was excellent (it is often the case that the best place to listen in a large concert hall is in the highest and least expensive seats). I kept trying to remember the excitement of my first concert in this auditorium, and the excitement of hearing a truly great orchestra for the first time, as I sat with these 13 students having their first NY Phil experience.

Our usher, a genuinely warm and friendly lady, was so happy to learn what we were doing. “What a great concert for their first symphony experience!” She had heard that the dress rehearsal that morning was spectacular.

It was about the most unusual program order, and collection of pieces, I could have imagined. a Beethoven overture, followed by an emotionally wrenching Shostakovich concerto. After intermission, the witty and light Beethoven first symphony followed by George Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris. I’m a champion of shuffle concerts, and pairing Beethoven pieces with 20th-century works on each half had a bit of a shuffle quality to it.

I still haven’t figured it out. I said to Chris and some of the students that I didn’t get what the emotional progression was supposed to be; Chris, who loves to argue (in a delightful way that playfully challenges my middle-aged tendency towards pompous pronouncements), asked, “why does there needto be an emotional progression?” So there.

The Philharmonic, which has long been my favorite American orchestra, was in top form for the entire concert. the precision of the strings was a joy. Fidelio was suitably dramatic, and the Shostakovich, more a symphony for violin and orchestra than a typical concerto, was played with richness and depth,

Somehow. I’d never heard of the extraordinary violinist Lisa Batiashvili before last night. From her first note, I knew that I was hearing a great player, and soon I recognized that she is a great artist as well. She’s in her mid-thirties; from our distant seats she looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. I felt the same excitement I did one night in the hall in, I think, 1978, when I was at a Philharmonic concert in which Yefim Bronfman, Schlomo Mintz, and Yo-Yo Ma made their collective NY Philharmonic debuts performing the Beethoven Triple Concerto.

The lively wittiness of the Beethoven First Symphony was captured delightfully, as well as you can with modern instruments. Some of the violin runs didn’t seem as precise as in the first half; others were dazzling. In the second movement, there was a slight accent on the second beat of the main motive. As string geeks like me know, the upbeat is slurred to the downbeat, two notes in a down bow. Then there’s a single, short note on an up bow, followed again by two slurred notes. I like to hear (and when I have the rare chance to, play) that second beat lighter than the first. The Philharmonic strings played it with a slight accent. To me, it seemed inadvertent–it’s a notoriously tricky thing. After the concert, I mentioned it to Chris, saying I was a touch disappointed. He said he liked it, finding it a Haydnesque misplaced accent. We argued about it all the way down to the Brooklyn Diner on 57th St., where we had an amazingly expensive post-concert snack.

We don’t have to be overly restrained by compositional intent, he insisted. I agree; by the time we got to the restaurant I was imagining it with a fun accent on that second beat. He thought Alan Gilbert was conducting an accent–I hadn’t noticed that. To me the issue was whether it was intentional or not. I’d been in an orchestra in which the conductor insisted that second beat be lighter than the first, and for decades I’ve heard it that way in my imagination. So it didn’t even occur to me in the concert that it might be intentional. Still, it didn’t seem to be enough of an accent to truly work as a playful syncopation.

The students enjoyed our debate for the time we were still in the hall. And. I must say it’s been a long time since I spent 30 minutes arguing over minutiae of a classical music performance, and it was absolutely wonderful.

Finally, if ever there was an orchestra meant to play American in Paris, it’s the Ny Phil. What a thrill to experience.

And then we found our third-teer

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NY Winter Term Trip: We Were Directed by Julie Taymor Today

Back in NY, this time with 13 DePauw students and my DePauw faculty colleague Christopher Lynch for our New York City Arts and Culture Winter Term trip.

Winter Term takes most of January, and is a time when students focus on one subject, often in an experiential learning format. I just love it, because I’ve been able to lead off-campus trips like this one, do “Drum Circle Spirit” in which we explored leadership and community using a community drum circle as our laboratory, and even do discussion courses on LGBT rights and, another time, the US Constitution. Because WT doesn’t currently have academic credit, it’s a time when faculty can teach classes outside their official area of expertise.

We are seeing Broadway shows, concerts, going to museums, etc. This morning, the entire class attended a filming of a scene from Julie Taymor’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s visually dazzling; we were there as children dressed in white carried branches, the tips of which lit up like fireflies, and also for the filming of a fight scene in which the well-built Demitrius and Lysander, for some happy reason, stripped down to their boxer shorts (several times, too; multiple takes). Hermia and Helena were already in their underclothes. The four of them were whacking each other with pillows, thrown down from the balcony by the children, and then an enormous pillow fight burst forth, with all the kids.

Amazing. And fascinating to watch the video director, Taymor, and the cast and crew work so professionally and efficiently.

At one point, Taymor asked us in the audience to loosen up and laugh, as if we had been at the entire show. One of the actors looked at us and announced with a smile, “You’ve now been directed by Julie Taymor! You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren.”

No grandchildren of my own yet, so I thought I’d tell you.

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“A degree in music is the best preparation for anything.”

Everyone in the music world has now sent each other Joanne Lipman’s NN Times article, Is Music the Key to Success? (We seem to agree that yes, it is.) Lipman writes about the many  people who are highly successful in other fields while being active musicians.

Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.

The article reminds me that Harold Best, who was the dean of music at Wheaton College for over twenty-five years, once told us at DePauw that “a degree in music is the best preparation for anything.”  (I’ve written about this before.)

We are very excited  at DePauw about our 21st Century Musician Initiative, supported by a fifteen million dollar gift from Judson and Joyce Green. I spent a good part of a sabbatical three years ago developing courses on music entrepreneurship and audience development and then participating in the process of developing this program.  Music entrepreneurship courses are fast becoming central parts of professional music education. We in the higher education music establishment collectively turn out thousands of graduates with performance degrees each year, while the job market for classical musicians seems to get tougher each year.

It can be hard on us. We know that music is a calling that does not always lead to a career. Some of us struggle over whether or not to encourage young people to study music in college.

My answer? Yes.

Even as we work to do a better job preparing music students to succeed as professional musicians through entrepreneurship and career skills programs, we can take comfort–even rejoice–in the fact that we are also preparing them for a life of making and otherwise engaging in music, regardless of their profession.  Their musical and  liberal arts education has been central to their development in every dimension.

I’m proud of my former students who make a living in music (especially those like Jon Silpayamanant who do it in an entrepreneurial, creative way). I’m equally as proud of those who grew into extraordinary people through the process of being a music major and make their difference–and earn their living–in other ways.
As Harold said, a degree in music is the best preparation for anything.


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