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Musical Teams - Introduction: The Mexico Experience

February 16, 2017

To All My Friends in MEXICO

 

Three years ago I was invited to run a week long workshop for string teachers who work in school and neighborhood projects. This trip to Mexico was one of the most special trips in my entire life. I had the opportunity  to work with young enthusiastic teachers who understand the meaning of music in society, who understand the transformational power of music and who are eager to learn more and more about the music, about themselves and about giving.

 

In addition, I felt lucky to work with a group of about sixty young people who grow as people and as artists in an environment that hardly resembles the learning conditions we are used to see in conservatories in Europe or in the U.S. It seemed that for these children music is an integral part of life. In our conservatories, where people are getting an individual lesson every week with famous teachers, it seems that music is becoming more and more a luxury and an upper class activity. Those young musicians played with so much enthusiasm and were open to try everything our participants and I had to say. Further more,  they were absorbing very quickly, assimilating and incorporating the new information in a natural way that I have rarely  encountered. 

 

In this introduction I will discuss some of the important themes. The experience described here    has become the inspiration and  basis of this book,  Musical Teams- Principles in Musical Group Instruction.[1]

 

 

1. The preparation process:

 

Not knowing the participants I had to  find a way to design the workshop using my own experience and my set of values and priorities.

 

The first principle I used is that Teaching is an Art.

I have decided that we have to play a piece and really work on it artistically, for us and for the children that we will be working with. For that matter I chose Eduard Elgar's Spanish Lady Suite.

 

The next thing I had  in mind was that our goal is, that the children will also learn to feel and think like artists. For  that matter, I have chosen pieces that will represent certain aesthetic values and will be relatively accessible so that  we have enough time to discuss musical matters and not only spend time on technical issues.

I have chosen pieces that will enable us to apply all the things we will be discussing with the teachers during the morning sessions.

 

The third  principle  was that there are certain things which are universal and  are common to all string instruments. All the technical  exercises I have suggested, address basic technical skills and are all demonstrated in a simple way that can be used with even the most beginning students.

 

The forth  principal was the Role of the artist in the community: Do we as artist have to  look for a meaning of our artistic endeavor which is beyond art? What is the meaning of our work to other people ? to society?

 

Last but not least, was the subject called Meta-Learning. Thinking about the learning process itself. When we are aware of our learning process we can be more aware of what our students need, and we can better guide them in their learning and their practice.

This way we can help our students grow as independent and creative individuals, as artists.

 

 

2. The Workshop

 

We opened the first day with a very brief round of introduction. Afterwords, we had our first session on basic string playing skills[2]:

 

 

 

I.       Not holding the instrument and not holding the bow.

II.     Using large muscles.

III.    Weight and release.

IV.   Sound as a function of bow speed,  arm weight and bow placement.

V.     Left-hand relaxation exercises. (left hand Pizzicato).

 

The second session that day, was devoted to lesson planning. We worked in groups and we prepared the afternoon session with the young players,  were we would work on Beethoven's fifth Symphony.

Each one of the members had to decide the paragraph that he or she will be working on, and they had to say exactly what they want to achieve technically and musically. In addition, they also needed  to plan the time they devote to each activity and to each person.

 

In the orchestra session I was demonstrating  the principles we discussed in the morning:

We started by plying a scale in various ways and then we moved on to  learning the piece by Lully. We demonstrated the separation between reading the notes and solfege. We started by reading the notes, just naming them and reading them in rhythm. After that we played the passage, Then we sang it, and finally we combined everything together, singing and playing at the same time[3].

That kind of work also demonstrated  the idea that quality is the result of much time spent on very little material. Working on a number of measures from different  aspects using a variety of techniques keeps the children interested while going through  a very deep learning process.

Another advantage is that we are setting a very high standard of quality which will then be transferred to other parts of the piece as well.

 

 

On the second day we have started our first session with a technique that shall become very important throughout the whole workshop and hopefully our participants will use it for the rest of their lives.  We have started with 10 minutes of quiet reflection were the participants were asked to write everything that comes to mind.

We have done this every single day,  although this was the only time we have talked about this as the teachers have shared their experiences from the previous day.

The most  important thing I was trying to convey on the first day was that to my opinion, the secret of good teaching is letting the student into  our thinking process.

 

On  our second string exercise session,  we have discussed:

 

I.       The issue of coordination, right hand vs. left hand, which comes first.

II.     We have talked about shifting, moving effortlessly along the fingerboard.

III.     We have emphasized the idea of stop bow: stopping the bow,  moving the left hand and then playing

IV.    Evernote in the right-hand ends where  the next note starts.

 

In orchestra we  came to the conclusion that music is like Harry Potter: Magic and Fun.

 

Wednesday was  devoted to community ( intercepted by a touching surprise that the teachers had prepared for my birthday).

The birthday celebrations continued in the afternoon with a moving gesture of the children and their staff.

We continued our work in orchestra where we showed that even very complicated rhythms can be learned very quickly by using subdivision, as well as by playing just the rhythm, articulation and dynamics on a single note, thus working only on the right hand.

 

Thursday was devoted to creativity:  After the quiet reflection we started with an improvisation workshop. It was fascinating to see how beautifully and how easily people can open up and improvise and create wonderful music. After discussing our experience I have followed briefly with some ideas of working with the songs, inventing text, and tried to emphasize that there is expression in the very sound itself and there is music in the very rhythm.

in the afternoon we had master classes for the various instruments. I have seen some great talent among the children and I truly hope that they will be well taken care of, as they can be the next generation of agents of change.

The day ended With  the dress rehearsal for next day's concert.

 

Friday was devoted to learning and practicing. We all went through a learning process by doing a juggling workshop, where we demonstrated how we can move from zero to a nice achievement by understanding the process, by understanding the steps involved and by understanding some basic ideas about learning and practicing:

 

I.        Understanding the real motivation

II.      Preparation

III.     Planning the practice session

IV.    The physical condition

V.      The mental frame of mind

VI.     Repetition and variation

VII.   Relaxed concentration

VIII.          Replacing expectations with belief and trust

IX.     We should break through our comfort zone on a regular basis

X.      Concentrating on  the process rather than on the outcome

XI.    Loving our mistakes and Learning from our mistakes

XII.  Everybody can do anything. It is  just a matter of practice and method. None of them alone is enough but when we have both we can do and learn anything.

 

 

We ended the workshop with our usual ten minute writing session, followed by a discussion in which everyone shared what they have learned and what they are taking home.

My final words were about what it means to me to be an artist: Being an artist means being sensitive- sensitivity to the environment and  to other people, it means being aware,  which means looking inward, understanding ourselves and understanding  the process we are experiencing. And,  it means being perceptive which involves seeing the very fine details that most people do not see  and finding interesting connection,  all the possible connections as well as impossible ones.

 


[1] Phrases in bold are essentially the chapter outline of the book.

[2] Reference to all of the above exercises can be found in my book Mr. Karr would you teach me how to drive a doublebass? and in my youtube videos:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA34135CFAC1A5B49

People might question the order described here- playing before singing. This was done in order to save time in the given setting. But it is also useful with children who have difficulty singing. it might be easier for them, at least in the beginning to do it in this order. This is based on the fact that our mind is not a one way street.[3]

 

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