Modern Classical and Afro-Dominican

Lately my listening has been divided between several curiosities, modern classical music and Afro-Caribbean  music. Sometimes these make for weird listening combinations, but that’s just where my head is at this moment. Along with those interests, I often take time to look into my origins as a son of Dominican parents and explore a bit more of my history. When I take this time to expand my understanding of the Dominican Republic, I tend to keep a running interest in the music that happens to be on my mind. Often these two things run parallel to one another and are compartmentalized, so each has it’s special place and feeling in me.

However, sometimes these ideas run into each other, that’s when I start to ask the “what if” questions. What if this composer wrote a piece for that ensemble? What kind of project would those artist create? Could these groups work together? What would that sound be? Right now I have these two sounds in my ear. I love them both and want to hear them work together. The vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, and a band from Santo Domingo called SonAbril. Crazy, Right!?

Imagine if Roomful of Teeth arranged a piece by SonAbril? Perhaps William Brittelle could be commissioned to write a piece for SonAbril. These are just thoughts, but it might be a wild set of collaborations. Check out these two tunes, and wonder for yourself.

Movies and Articles

My viewing habits on streaming sites like Netflix have been varied the past few months, but after reading a NY Times article, I realize that I binge watch more than just sci-fi movies and shows. I get caught up into music documentaries and watch three or four in a sitting. The latest have been a series of blues and hip-hop  documentary.

I’ve managed to used some of these movies as part of my classes as well. My students seem to like them and they are a good jumping off point as points of conversations. Here is the latest one to capture my attention.

However if you are into reading about some of the other great music documentaries, the ones listed in this NY Times article is a good place to start.

More Album Covers

I didn’t feel the need to keep a day by day accounting of the album covers I chose like in the previous post, however, I think I will mention the combination of day 2 and day 3, and why they struck me as significant. Significant in part because they were both introductions to several aspects of music for me. Coincidentally both of these albums found their way to me around the same time.

In the case of the Low End Theory; yes it was a big deal for me culturally because I was a teenager growing up in NYC, and I was starting to form my own opinions about Hip-hop. From my teenage point of view, I started down an explorations of sounds from this album which enviably led to a greater appreciation of jazz. Which is not difficult to hear in tracks like “We Got The Jazz”. I didn’t see it then, but the intersectionality of both of these forms of music is why I still listen to both genres today.

The other album covers is about the first brass quintet in saw live. The American Brass Quintet often performed recitals around NYC. My trumpet teacher at the time insisted her studio go to Lincoln Center to listen, learn, and enjoy. I remember hearing Ewald, an arrangement of Elizabethan music, Eric Ewazen, and perhaps some Gunther Schuller.
In any case, I became an instant fan of the group and soon after saving up some cash to buy their album. I can point to that concert as the inception of my love for brass chamber music, and my obsession with brass quintet literature.

Facebook Challenges

We’ve all seen social media challenges. The idea is to record yourself doing something which will draw attention somehow. I first one of these I can remember is the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS and the Movember for prostate cancer. Some of these challenges are for good causes. I was recently nominated to participate in the 10 day challenge on Facebook.

The idea is to show one album cover a day for ten days that influenced me. This may raise awareness of an artist or just remind us to appreciate the music that helped shape us into the people or artists we are today.

As part of my first day in this challenge, I showed the cover to “Chuck Mangione Concert Land of Make Believe“. I remember picking up this album on CD sometime in 1990. Land of Make Believe was a tune my junior high school marching band played and I was still fond of the song at that time. A simple bassline and a singable melody, which would immediately turn into an earworm.

I remember not wanting anyone to know I listened to this album. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Perhaps I’ll listen to it tonight.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 15

Close One and Cheers:

Like most Friday’s before a break from school occurs, thing are bound to go wrong. Sometimes it’s students behaving unruly or planned events that disrupt the day, like a class parties. You never know what might come up of these days. Today my “WTF” moment happened due to poor bandwidth.

Now that my kid is also doing school from home, for the foreseeable future and my partner is also working from home, I believe we have met the limits to our wifi home connection. The three of us were working our network as hard as we could. After suffering through several classes with poor connections, where both my kid and I were wondering what was going wrong with our computers. A few dropped meetings later, and then having to reconnect to virtual classroom I worked in all month,  it dawned on me that we have never done this at the same time in our home.

We quickly jumped into our prospective computer’s Task Manager & Activity Monitor to figured out what which apps and extensions needed to be running and which did not. This really helped and made it easier to get through our meetings in without disruptions. Soon I’ll need to contact our provider to ask for either more tips or an increase in bandwidth. When I take into consideration that we will be working like this for at least another month, making sure our network can support us, is crucial. 

Just when I started to think I was getting the hang of my virtual classrooms, and got too feeling like this is normal. The universe reminded me not to get cocky, and that I am lucky to have the privilege of work from home and still teach music. I’m glad it all worked out, lesson learned.

Now that this week is over, and my school is in spring break, I feel like I can take a moment to reflect on the past three weeks of remote music teaching. However, I’m tired and want to sit and pour myself a sip of scotch. With that tumbler I’d like to toast all the teachers and parents who pulled resources together to provide an educative experience of our kids and students. Who knows, perhaps I’ll have two drinks… 

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 14

Tired:

On a typical day I feel like I get to move around a fair amount. With conducting ensembles and moving around campus, I might even say I am very active. On occasion I might get a work out before my day starts. However, since the coronavirus era of teaching started, my movements have been more confined. I move from my bedroom, to the garage to the room in my house which serves as my virtual workstation. A bathroom break every once and again. With the occasional trip to the kitchen for coffee and meals.

My eyes get tired, so I can do several things to help with that part of my virtual experience. My ears get fatigued from wearing headphones for too many hours, so I change my audio situation from cans to speakers now and again. However, the part that is surprising to me, is that my back and legs are sore. To no ones surprise a comfortable chair is an important items needed for this much virtual teaching while sitting. Along with the options of standing or walking while teaching sometimes, might in fact be necessities for this type of work.

II guess moving forward, I’ll have to get specific about changing my routine and perhaps investing in a recliner….for teaching purposes of course.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 13

Live sound in a virtual space:

Now that things are settling into what seem more and more a regular routine, I started to ask some fundamental questions about the user experience within my virtual platform. 

  • How is the sound of my voice received by my students? 
  • When I speak or demonstrate on my instruments, what exactly are my students hearing through their speakers, earbuds or headphones?

After recording myself using the USB microphone mentioned in a previous post, I figured out the mic I am currently using works better for speaking into and not prolonged playing into through my digital classroom. For recordings a Soundtrap track or a live performance situation in Microsoft Teams, an audio interface with another microphone really works better for the those circumstances. 

In my case, plugging in a Scarlett 2i2 and using an MXL 770 condenser mic worked wonders for controlling the sound I wanted my students to hear, as I demonstrate in virtual classrooms. However, when ever I need to speak, the USB-mic works much better for me. Switching back and forth was just a toggle of a button in Teams and each situation felt better to my ears.

It’s been three weeks of teaching band and orchestra in a digital space, and I still working out the kinks. 

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 12

Three Great Moments In One Virtual School Day

Today I had several experiences with students and colleagues which are cause for acknowledgement, appreciation and gratitude.

Teaching Assistant

Before the term started, one of my students in the advanced orchestra approached me about being a teaching assistant.  Currently, the school doesn’t have a policy regarding this, nor a mechanism for how to evaluate and grade in this type of scenario. Knowing that the term would start in a virtual setting, I assumed the student would politely ask-out of this experience, but instead, this student wants to help younger players learn, and what teacher would get in the way of that?  I’ve quickly discovered that having a TA is quite the luxury, especially as I work with the Intro to Orchestral Strings class. My TA has been fantastic with the less experienced students by proactively offering to work with students in the virtual practice rooms, and then also occasionally leading some sessions in the general lessons as well.  Leadership like this is impressive, appreciated, and a breath of fresh air.

Discussion with Colleagues

The second great moment today happened as part of a conversation involving differentiated instruction. The discussion at first seemed typical for our team, where we started to talk about these things as if we were still working in a standard classroom and the coronavirus did not disrupt the foundation of our existence. However, when we started to discuss the way in which we were meeting students needs through a variety of differentiated virtual assignments, (designed to help with a diverse pool of learners), the conversation offered more food for our artistic pedagogical appetites. It got so involved and intense that I felt re-energized about my current role as virtual educator, and gave me a renewed sense of purpose as I dove in to afternoon classes.

Student Slaying Assignment

The assignment was part of an exploration of the Blues, in both form and chord progression. Student were asked to play an exercise involving dominant 7 chords over a blues progression in the key of C. Afterwards, they were asked to improvise a solo using the elements we had covered the past two weeks. Those elements included the use of the blues scale, minor pentatonic scale and major triads. A large part of this class involves listening to the music we are studying and then discussing the elements observed, such as “vocal inflection”.  Today, one of my violin students, flat out SLAYED the exercise and the their improvised chorus of this blues progression.  Vocal inflection was definitely demonstrated, observed and appreciated.

 

Some days I love my job.  Today was one of those days.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 11

Duet with myself:

Today starts the 3rd week of the spring term. Some things feel normal and routine, as mentioned in the previous post and other things feel new. One of the actives I enjoy doing with students is active listening of music. This typically involves listening to a piece of music or two with students and then asking students questions about the piece(s) of music we listened to. 

What is the instrumentation or orchestration of this piece?

Tell me about the meter of this piece?

And one of my favorites, Does this sound like anything you’ve heard before?

The discussions can go in many directions, and I enjoy the different lanes of exploration when we do. But today I start an alternative aspect to the usual set of questions to my students. 

Since the beginning our venture into our virtual classrooms this month, my students have spent a significant amount of time recording themselves and listening back. The reactions from some has been totally surprising to me. I’ve consistently hear comments like “I can’t believe I sound like that” and “is that what I sound like”. Part of the issue for some students is not understanding how to get the cleanest sound from their microphones. The other issue is, really listening to oneself can be a jarring and humbling experience. Especially when you have been taught to listen to and become part of the sound around you. Which to my ears as their teacher, also means that I have been very focused on creating a group sound and not giving enough attention to the sound of my individual students.

To help my students learn to listen to themselves and be active in the evolution of their own sound, I’ve asked students to start using apps like Soundtrap to record duets with themselves. With the goal of having students learn to really listen to themselves, and know what they want from their own voice. With this in mind I think eventually I’ll add assignments for students to play all voice parts to chorales. As both a study for their sound and as a theory assignment. If the coronavirus ear of teaching continues, we may even have an entire exhibition of student original works for analog instruments and computer.