Category Archives: World Music

Latin For Lunch and The Importance Of Showing Work In Progress

Yesterday, around lunchtime, I passed by Codarts (The Conservatory of Rotterdam) where students of two Latin music ensembles taught by Marc Bischoff were giving an informal work-in-progress presentation: Latin For Lunch. Although my purpose was only to get out of the house (in order to avoid the crazy research hermit thing), and to listen to some music, I found the presentations to be very inspiring for my research.

The first thing they made me think of was this: Music is communication, a shared experience between performer and listener. Having myself gone through a formal music education, with all its focus on skills and knowledge, I sometimes wonder if we are forgetting about the basic purpose of music – communication? Obviously, we do need a certain set of skills and a certain knowledge in order to be able to communicate what we want and need to express. These skills form an important base upon which we can express ourselves creatively. I’m just wondering, whether somewhere along the way we got so hooked on the importance of the tools of communication, that we lost sight of the importance of communication itself?

Naturally, every act of singing or music-making, every performance, comes with technical aspects. Examining work-in-progress (or “final presentations”, for that matter), provides us with a great deal of information on areas of singing and music including:

Presentation skills and body language
Knowing the songs and the repertoire
(Singing) technique and sound choices
Microphone technique
Musicianship skills such as ear-training and rhythm
Group dynamics, balance and interaction

…and so on, and so on.

Showing and observing work in progress gives us the opportunity to become aware of and correct habits, mistakes, technical issues and shortcomings, test interpretation ideas, try out whether we can use the skills and knowledge we have obtained in different situations, and learn to adapt to different (unexpected) circumstances. It gives us the chance to try out how the audience reacts to our ideas and expression, and is therefore also a valuable means of performance education.

Let’s play around with the idea of showing work in progress. An informal work-in-progress presentation or performance opportunity could be any of the following situations:

Record lessons on video and observe it (see the performance).
In the lesson, record songs on audio and listen to them (an audio recording is also a type of performance).
Let the lesson time of two individual students overlap a bit, so that they can perform work in progress for each other, or: combine the lessons of two individual students into a duo lesson.
Organise regular group lessons where the teaching is in masterclass-form.
Variations of the above, including students of two (or more) teachers.
Have all tuition as group lessons (I have good experiences with this form of teaching at a professional level from Complete Vocal Institute).
Once every so many weeks, have an open doors-lesson, that visitors (family members, friends, colleagues) can attend.
Look for performance opportunities within or outside of the school, in the community.
Latin For Lunch, Blues For Breakfast, Songwriters For Supper….you get the idea

I challenge you to come up with at least one more possibility!

“But it takes time off of my lesson time! And they still have SO much to learn! They are not ready for it yet!”

If you consider showing work in progress, and evaluating it, an integral part of the learning process, it does not take time off of your lesson time. These performance opportunities become just as important as learning technique, repertoire or musicianship skills. I’m not saying we need to go all wild and start putting every single step of the process on public display. What I am saying, though, is that valuable learning opportunities are everywhere, if we just think outside of the box. And regarding the last one – sometimes it might be good to check who is not “ready yet”: Is it the student? Or…is it the teacher?

“It’s so much work!”

Yes, we all have a big workload. I know all about it, I’ve taught singing and music in almost every possible setting from the private studio and shorter courses to schools and institutions. I am aware not only of the amounts of lessons and students combined with time-restraints, but also of the administrative workload and various meetings, shortcomings in payments for extra work, and other things which I won’t go into right now. What I have come to experience though, is that even the smallest things make a difference. Having two students share their lesson time now and then, or recording a lesson might require some organisation and extra effort, but we’re not talking organising a whole festival here! And regarding the effort, it’s good to keep in mind that nothing manifests by itself. Neither do performance opportunities or audiences “in real life” – they too require an effort to be made.

I’m not saying all teachers or institutions are focusing only on developing skills and presenting end products, neither is my purpose criticising anyone. What I do want to bring up, is the importance of presentations and performances at all stages of vocal and musical development. We should watch out that we don’t get too caught up in “learning the craft” and risk ending up forgetting about the important aspects of communication and performance. Also consider this: you might learn many skills and gather a lot of knowledge, but you might still end up not being able to use these skills properly because you have been trained to do so only in one fixed set of circumstances. Inability to adapt to various situations causes a lot of (performance) stress, and can even instill performance anxiety. Let’s not wait until we are / the student is “ready”. Because the fact is, we will never be “ready” for every possible situation along the way.

As an example of not being ready, this article is perhaps not “ready”. It’s just a trail of thoughts, with a beginning and an end that give it some structure. I can observe it and become aware of my grammar and spelling mistakes, learn different ways of composing my thoughts into sentences, or find out that I might have put too many thoughts into one composition. But should the risk of making those mistakes keep me from writing and showing it all together? If I would wait until I’m ready, I would never write.

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally posted in Katja’s blog

Flutes are for girls and percussion is for boys?

This is a chapter of my master thesis ‘Women in Salsa’ (2009). Are gendered instruments still a fact, and what are we music educators doing in order to break with this cliché?

Gendered instruments

First, there is an extensive range of studies analyzing the gender-stereotypes of musical instruments. Hallam (2008) conducted a research among British school children aged between five and nineteen years, where she studied which instruments are the most gendered, and illustrates some of the possible reasons for those differentiations. According to her findings, girls’ (and women’s too) choice for an instrument depends on such factors as the shape or size of an instrument, its pitch and sound quality, and the physical characteristics necessary to play the particular instrument (Hallam, 2008: 7). In accordance with her results, girls are more probable to play small and higher pitched instruments, as example the flute, which is one of the most gendered musical instruments.

As Gourse writes in her study about the jazz scene, female horn players experienced insults, or were even occasional physically attacked. It was unacceptable for men to see a woman blowing an instrument, which let to comments such as “I hate to see a woman do that” (Gourse, 1995: 8 ).

While today brass and woodwinds instruments are still extremely gendered, the saxophone is gender neutral. Amongst the various percussion instruments, there is a clear dominance of boys playing the Kit drums, whereas African drums are gender neutral.

Those numbers are conforming to traditional views on gender and practice of music instruments. Nicholas Cook wrote that practically all of Jane Austen’s female characters played the piano (1998: 106). This female preference for the piano, or keyboard is still ongoing today, as the research of Hallam (2008) proves. Eklund Koza (1991) is noticing a comparable fact while examining the role of women in music as described in Godey’s Lady’s Book, popular in the nineteenth century. At that period, keyboard instruments were the most prominent among women, while men preferred instruments of the orchestral woodwind and string families such as violin and flute. The book does not mention any female musicians in connection with percussion or woodwind instruments (1991: 107).

As Zervoudakes and Tanur (1994, cited in Hallam, 2008: 9) remarked, a change in girls’ choice for instruments between 1959 and 1990 can be noticed, and one realizes that girls are gradually opting for both, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ instruments.

It is important for girls or women to have role models. As Bruce & Kemp (1993, cited in Hallam, 29008: 9) found out, girls are more probable to choose a ‘masculine’ instrument if there are other female musicians playing that same musical instrument. This phenomenon has also been confirmed by Maite Hontelé, a Dutch trumpet player:

Well, girls find it in general nice to see that there is a woman who gives the lesson. Then they see that it is possible for a girl to play the trumpet. What I do while teaching is to support the girls in their choice to play the trumpet. (Interview on July 6th 2009)

She had two role models herself, from whom she could receive the confirmation that it is possible for women to play the trumpet successfully (interview on July 6th 2009).

May Peters, while teaching at the Puerto Rican conservatory was interestingly not only a role model for girls but also for her male students.

They [the male students] also tell me: wow, I think you are so great, Maestra! They even tell me that they would enjoy having a mother like me. This is for me the reason to be there; being a role model. (Interview on August 3rd 2009)

A further influence is the social environment. Especially during the adolescence, peers have an enormous influence and one runs the risk of standing under enormous pressure if one is opting for ‘the wrong’ instrument (Hallam, 2008: 14). Again, the same occurred in the case of Maite Hontelé who found it extremely important in the early stages of her musical experience that female friends of hers played the trumpet as well (interview on July 6th 2009).

If, on the one side female musicians are slowly accepted playing ‘masculine’ instruments, on the other side one is still making differentiations in performance practices of women. The most apparent example is the one of female percussion players. Waxer states that, while men are playing the congas or bongos (both Afro-Caribbean percussion instruments used in Salsa, next to the timbales) mainly being seated, women are expected to play them standing up, since it is considered “unlady-like for a woman to be seated with her legs spread around a percussion instrument” (2001: 242). She further mentions the female keyboardists, who also play standing up. The reason for this, according to Waxer, is the expectation that women show legs and dance while performing (2001: 242).

By Jeanne Schmartz

The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

“Pentatony is an introduction to world literature: it is the key to many foreign musical literatures, from the ancient Gregorian chant, through China to Debussy.” – Zoltan Kodály

Any music educator who has taught songs or musician who has improvised melodies using the pentatonic scale knows the power of the five tones. The five-tone pentatonic scale has been called the most universal of scales, because of its substantial use in music cultures around the world, including West African music, Sami joik singing, Hungarian folk music, Indonesian music, Appalachian folk music, Celtic folk music, Chinese music, and Andean music, to only mention a few. The pentatonic major and minor scales are commonly used in jazz, blues and rock music, and the blues scale predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale. In classical music, the pentatonic scale was used by Western impressionistic composers including Claude Debussy.

In this interesting video from the World Science Festival 2009 Bobby McFerrin uses audience participation and the pentatonic scale to demonstrate neural programming, as part of the event “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus”. At the end of his “pentatonic brain hacking” McFerrin mentions that regardless of where he is, anywhere, every audience gets it. Aside from the fact that the pentatonic scale seems to be used in music cultures around the world, interesting questions arise. Why does it seem that the pentatonic scale is universal? Is our brain programmed to “think pentatonic”?

Perhaps it is. A Belgian research found the pentatonic scale could be heard in the vocal interaction between babies and their mothers. And whoever has listened to children on a playground, can recognize the so-mi / la-so-mi patterns in their chants. This natural use of the pentatonic scale by children lead music educators including Zoltan Kodály and Carl Orff to largely use the pentatonic scale for pitch-matching and improvisation in their music education approaches. Not only babies and children seem to gravitate towards pentatony though: military cadences, used to keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.

So where did the pentatonic scale come from? Doug Goodkin writes in Play, Sing, & Dance – an Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (2002):

“Some people (Leonard Bernstein among them) have theorized that the universal quality of the pentatonic scale comes from a subconscious sounding of the overtone series. A string produces a sound based not only on the vibration of the whole string, but also on vibrations of that string in halves, thirds, etc. Each division produces a soft, but audible tone called the overtone that becomes a part of the texture of the fundamental tone. This is not only true of strings, but any vibrating body, be it a tube of air or metal gong or drumskin.”

I find it interesting to theorize about the universal quality of the pentatonic scale or about our brains being wired for music, but what counts for me in the end is that it actually works. No matter what age, no matter what cultural background, be it with people who are completely new to music/singing or with music professionals…the pentatonic scale can always be used.  In my singing workshops I often use pentatonic songs from various cultures and music styles, and base a lot of my vocal improvisation and ear training exercises exercises on the pentatonic scale or pentatonic modes – often combined with accompanying drones or ostinato melodies.

Some musicians and music educators dismiss the pentatonic scale as sounding one-dimensional. Before you dismiss these powerful five notes, try exploring beyond the major pentatonic scale. Also, in my opinion, whether a scale sounds one-dimensional or not does not only have to do with the scale itself. It also has to do with how we use our instrument (in my case, the voice). A pentatonic improvisation can either sound like a “somewhat boring children’s song” or “sound like magic” depending on how the singer uses  rhythm/timing, sound color, volume, etc. and on how the accompanying vocals are built up. Perhaps more about that another time. For now, let yourself be inspired by Bobby McFerrin and his “pentatonic brain hacking”!

By Katja Maria Slotte

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Keith Terry’s Body Music

Following up from yesterday’s blog post with the Barbatuques video clip, today’s spotlight is on the work of percussionist/rhythm dancer and “body musician” Keith Terry. Keith Terry’s Body Music is a performance art that synthesizes body percussion, movement and cross-cultural rhythmic concepts. In Body Music, Terry draws upon rhythmic techniques such as polyrhythms, phasing, cross pulses, and polymeters. Terry’s influences range from Japanese Taiko and Balinese Gamelan to North American rhythm tap and Ethiopian armpit music. Terry  is the artistic director of Crosspulse, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the creation, performance and recording of rhythm-based, intercultural music and dance. In addition to performing and teaching workshops, Terry has created two instructional videos (Body Music Vol.1 and Body Music Vol. 2) that teach the basics and variations on Body Music. These videos are wonderful (teaching) resources for music educators and musicians.

I was first introduced to Terry’s Body Music by San Fransisco-based Orff teacher Doug Goodkin, who was the first music educator to use Keith’s ideas in his work with children and subsequent teaching in Orff workshops. Since the early 90’s, Body Music ideas have been introduced by Goodkin and by Keith Terry himself to music teachers worldwide, among others at the Orff Insitute, and at Orff summer courses and conferences. In addition to the use of Body Music in the classroom, Keith’s ideas are applied by many performing groups as well.

Body Music is suitable as a medium for rhythm training at all levels, and also for strengthening rhythmic sensibility in singing, instrumental playing and dance. My own musical training began with classical piano studies and singing. Rhythmical training was often a nightmare subject because of the way it was taught: focusing on the ears and the head/logic, but completely disconnected from the rest of the body. It wasn’t until I was introduced to music education approaches like Dalcroze and Orff Schulwerk, where rhythm is connected to movement and body percussion, that I had most of my a-ha moments in rhythmical training. Later on, I took some percussion classes – something I would strongly recommend too for all singers. Working with world music styles that are based on aural learning has also been an invaluable training to strengthen my own rhythm skills.

In Body Music, the playing of rhythm patterns, movement and vocalization are brought together. When rhythm is experienced through the whole body it demands a physical internalization of rhythm, that I believe music education on all levels and areas benefits from. Music doesn’t happen in the head, it happens in the whole body! Body Music can be adapted to virtually any music style or culture, and thereby provides excellent rhythm training tools for culturally diverse music education. Finally, a link to the Crosspulse Teacher Blog, where you can download a PDF of Keith Terry’s article on Body Music.

By Katja Maria Slotte