Some quick impressions 3 weeks into the project:
This week I announced a surprise playing test for beginning orchestra. Pretty simple--play a D major scale, play Twinkle Little Star and play a piece of my choosing. As students arrived they saw the pop quiz announcement and unpacked quickly to prepare. I could hear a difference in the group's sound even during warm-ups.
The students played for me one at a time. The rest of the class continued their individual practice. A happy cacophony. Another difference--they are making more sounds during down time. Some new tunes; some noise. Right now I think any sounds are good sounds. As for the playing test, I was astonished to hear every single student play with a well developed tone. I observed some technical issues such as droopy violins and make-do bow hands. But they all seemed comfortable playing their instruments. That is such a plus!
What have we tried so far? We experimented with volume of sound. How loud can you play? How soft can you play? We've also tried moods--playing with characters or playing with emotions. Without discussing the technical aspects we've tried to make our instruments sound happy, sad, tired, scared, proud. And we learned that adding mood impacts tone production. We are conveying feeling and that covers an enormous range of sound.
It could be that after 20+ weeks my students would feel more at home with their instruments in spite of the improv project. Certainly there will be improvements after a semester of lessons. How about this?--Improv is a great way to Improve! My guess is giving students permission to wail away on their instruments in class has carried over to home practice. I'll bet they are playing louder, stronger, and more courageously at home. My hope is by taking them out of the book and off the page we can find the spark that made them choose an instrument in the first place. They're making more sound--and that's what makes them sound like musicians.
Ever since I attended Mark Harris' fantastic clinic on developing musical expression I wanted to explore his concepts with my students. The idea of using an instrument as a way to communicate is something I've written about before. To teach musical improvisation based on spoken language concepts instead of chord structure is something new. It seems obvious to try this out with private students so they could receive the benefit of one-on-one coaching. You might be surprised to hear that I thought my beginning orchestra class would be the ideal place for this experiment.
My class played their instruments for the first time in the last week of August. They have been working on the notes of the D major scale for weeks. Most of this time with the same quarter note rhythm pattern. Half notes and eighth notes are a very recent addition. We're really just drilling the facts--like multiplication tables. As with any classroom, some students want to race ahead and others want to linger on the familiar songs. Let me tell you, the fact that tunes like "Jingle Bells", "Twinkle Little Star" and "Hot Cross Buns" all can be played with the notes of the D major scale has been a great motivator.
The biggest stumbling block for any student is reading music. Playing a stringed instrument is challenging enough--then you throw in note-reading? It's like learning a whole new language. In my private studio, I introduce most beginning violinists and violists to the Suzuki method which teaches music by rote. The method is geared towards very young students so we only tackle one new skill at a time. Fourth and 5th grade students have better developed muscle control and already know how to read so they can begin playing and reading at the same time.
It's a challenge for my orchestra students to focus attention on holding the bow while holding the instrument while reading notes on the page while listening to the teacher and all the classroom noise. It's an awful lot to filter. That's why I was eager to show my beginning orchestra students what they can do with their instruments right now--in spite of forgetting their books and forgetting how to find F#.
Last week I started the "Improv Experiment"--my name for this project. How is it working? Well, the best news of all is it seems to make the kids happy. No matter their level they can play and play together. I'm excited to see what will develop over the coming weeks. And I'm working on a plan to document their progress. Next time, I'll talk more about the details and results.
It's been a long time since I've written. I remember last writing in May, 2010, finishing up my school year tasks and then taking a very long break from the keyboard. Life is always busy. It's easy to get distracted by schedules and deadlines, routines and surprises. Dashing from this errand to that appointment. That's something we all share. Our ability to live on the surface.
Well, deep down we also share the tough stuff. When my mother died in March, I used this forum as a way to examine my feelings. I put my head down and marched through the days and kept writing. Sharing with anonymous listeners seemed to work for me. It was a comfort to express myself creatively. I was able to sit in front of my monitor and write and remember and cry.
After school wrapped I hit the road with my husband. We camped and hiked. Outdoors is such a good place to heal. You can't help but see renewal everywhere. But when opera season started in June and I reconnected with my colleagues I found myself back in the depths of grief. And I didn't like it. I didn't like talking about it; I didn't like publicly crying about it. I couldn't face the vulnerable feelings so I stopped sharing. Oh, it wasn't possible to ignore. I did my best to work through the process privately. I called on a very tiny support group and got myself to a place that felt somewhat sheltered from the pain.
That protection helped me through a fall that was bursting with new tasks. It helped me through a Thanksgiving that was fraught with potent family memories. And it helped me through a December that felt joyless and empty. After the holidays I withdrew from everything. And without realizing it, my shelter became a barrier instead of a safe haven.
Two weeks ago, something changed. Something caught my attention. Encouraging words, a surge of confidence, a dream--who knows? If I knew I'd capture the essence and save it for another time. Whatever it was, I stopped, I looked up, I realized I don't have to carry this inside any more. I can either hang on or let go--it feels like a choice. Now I can reach out.