Honouring Kojima Sensei

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ November 28th, 2013

A few months ago I posted a UBC blog entitled “Honouring Tanaka Sensei”. I described the revelations and adventures I experienced from my encounters with that very great man.

Now it’s time drop the other shoe. At the same time I was studying with Tanaka Motonobu of the Dōmon-kai  (土 門 会) Kinko-ryū (琴古流) school of shakuhachi playing , I was also receiving instructions and insights from another great shakuhachi teacher, Kojima Toyoaki (小島豊明), of the Myōan Kyōkai (明暗協会) Taizan-ryū (男山流), a school of playing entirely different from the Kinko-ryū.

The Myōan Kyōkai  is an association of shakuhachi players who are based in a Buddhist temple called Myōan-ji (aka Meian-ji 明 暗寺).  The members are essentially laymen (and one or two laywomen) who pay obeisance to Buddhism and their quasi-historical founder, Kyochiku Zenji (虛竹禅師). The members perform Zen Buddhist rituals and group “meditations” in the form of solo and unison shakuhachi performances. The temple does not house a rōshi (老師)and his community of (male or female) Buddhist trainees and administrators, but it does have one resident monk who oversees the temple and  is sanctioned to conduct ritual activities. The building is found within a temple complex called Tōfuku-ji (東福寺), an inner city comprised entirely of temples and administration buildings with religious and intellectual Zen Buddhism at its core.

Discoveries and revelations

On my first visit to Tōfuku-ji, a group of temples inside a common compound, I found myself wandering through a maze of alleys and byways  until I finally found the modest Myōan-ji  temple and its beautiful gardens. I was greeted by the resident monk who graciously gave me an interview. He recommended Dr. Kojima as a source of more information and expertise.

I ended the interview by playing one of the sacred shakuhachi solo pieces (honkyoku 本曲) in front of the statue of Kyochiku Zenji. Much to his surprise, I played it on a western (Boehm) flute.

Despite the common belief that the performance practices of the shakuhachi are unique, they are all available to a proficient player of the western flute. Even the timbre shifts are accessible, given the new design of the head joints. I often wonder if I was the only person to have ever played a Western flute in the temple. The usually reserved monk was very intrigued.

Within days of the interview I found myself in the waiting room of Dr. Kojima, a resident MD in the Japan Baptist Hospital. It was the beginning of the lunch hour, just after his last morning patient. He greeted me warmly and led me to a traditional tearoom (ochaya (お茶屋) on the verdant grounds of the hospital. The medical centre takes full advantage of its location on the wooded slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountain slopes, Higashiyama. After a few brief words of introduction he asked me to play my shakuhachi for him. Then he did the same for me. From that point on, he shared his knowledge almost entirely in the form of music lessons instead of interviews. Unlike my lessons with Tanaka Sensei, Dr. Kojima and I rarely discussed the intellectual and spiritual basis of the shakuhachi. He preferred to teach in the traditional manner, through imitation and repetition of each melodic fragment (kata 型). Although that style of rote instruction is often interpreted as a mechanical process by Westerners, it is balanced by the teacher’s intense concentration on the each musical minutiae and a general spiritual demeanour which conveys the organic spirit (kokoro/shin 心) and “life” of the music.

My weekly lessons were bracketed by a long commute by foot to the hospital along the famous Philosopher’s Walk (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no michi) which borders a peaceful little canal that meanders between ancient temples, groves of cherry trees, and traditional houses. The lessons and the walks were intoxicating. And the music I was being taught was a major revelation, given that I was studying many of the same titles in the other school I was studying. The contrast between the music of each school’s piece with the same name was more than a subtle difference in performance styles. The many performance practices and even the notations were significantly different. Unlike the Kinko-ryū which emphasized melodic craftsmanship achieved with a multitude of complex performance practices, Dr. Kojima’s school valued utter simplicity and bareness. And yet both schools value wabi-sabi ( 侘寂), an aesthetic that valorizes primitive tone which is seemingly improvised on the spur of the moment.

Two conundrums

As I settled into a weekly routine of shakuhachi lessons with Dr. Kojima (and Tanaka-san), two vexing problems arose.

Because I was a professional flutist, I was learning how to play the repertoire at a furious pace compared to traditional beginners who normally learning how to play the instrument as well as play the literature. The marvel is that the repertoire perfectly suites their needs with its minimal melodies and ultra-slow pace. But rather than being an advantage, my advanced technique was viewed as a hindrance. I was missing the point. The long and rocky path to proficiency mirrors the struggle to achieve Zen Buddhist enlightenment. The slow and painful progress can even echo the near impossible demands of a kōan (公案). “How can I musically meditate when I can barely make a sound?”  My dubious advantage was complicated further by my extensive studies in Buddhology which allowed me to see behind the instruction to its Zen Buddhist context. But rather than illuminate Zen truths from hard-won experience, I was glibly identifying each moment of discovery with terms and concepts I had learned in my university studies.  I was not following Bodhidarma’s classic (and contested) explanation of the Zen experience:

A special transmission outside the scriptures; (Kyōge betsuden 教外別傳)

No dependence upon words and letters; (Furyū monji 不立文字)

Direct pointing to the human mind; (Jikishi jinshin 直指人心)

Seeing into one’s own nature and attaining Buddhahood. (Kenshō jōbutsu 見性成佛)

Even though my flute-playing skills were an obvious if problematic advantage, I never allowed them to obscure or detract from my deference and respect. We worked through each honkyoku note-by-note, with never a word of complaint from me. Later, I wrote down my experiences of each lesson at home, with academic commentaries and personal musings, in the same manner as my follow-up with my lessons with Tanaka Sensei. I compiled quite a tutorial for my personal use and my graduating thesis.

In addition to the flaw of proficiency I just described, I was confronted with another dilemma. By studying with sensei in two different schools, I was crossing a dangerous line where students never study outside their school for fear of having their allegiances questioned. I had already established my commitment to the Kinko-ryū. Although I had only intended to conduct interviews with Dr. Kojima, my interviews were transformed into a shakuhachi lesson designed for a beginner in his school. As I returned again and again for information, I was instead offered “lessons”. It slowly dawned on me that I was becoming a shakuhachi student associated with another school. This quandary is somewhat paralleled in the west where a music student might take music lessons on the same music instrument from two teachers simultaneously, also viewed askance if not out-and-out transgression. On the other hand, taking music lessons from one teacher, then another in sequence is commonplace, and even recommended. I look back at my own string of flute teachers with great pleasure. Unfortunately, for the purposes of my research, I had to telescope this well-known path of sequential instruction into a simultaneous learning experience.

The Inner Circle

Dr. Kojima was very kind to me. He drew me into his inner circle of students which included one other westerner, a man my age named David who was born and raised in Kyoto. His father was the director of the Baptist hospital where Dr. Kojima practised. Unlike me, his interest in the shakuhachi was confined to his own personal curiosity whereas I was steeped in a research project that occupied almost my every waking moment.

Both David and I were given extraordinary glimpses into a closed world – the inner workings of the Myōan Kyōkai association. One of the most surprising occasions was the invitation to participate in the Mifune “three boat” festival (Mifune Matsuri 三船祭). The festival features over a dozen traditional boats filled with three kinds of traditional performance artists, floating leisurely on the large Osagawa pond on the eastern side of Kyoto’s Arashiyama hills. During the time of the glittering courts, the purpose of the entertainment was to entertain the leisurely courtiers with art music and dance in a novel manner. (I was reminded of Handel’s Water Music.) We performers reproduced the occasion for the local populace and the few lucky tourists that got wind of the event.

More important occasions were the group lessons called Suizen-kai (吹禅 会) also known as  Kyochiku Zenji Hôsan Kai (虛竹禅師i 奉賛 会), and the yearly recitals (Shakuhachi Honkyoku Senkoku Kenso Taikai  (尺八本曲全国献奏大会).

The recitals were filled to capacity with some 50 plus players crowded into the main hall of the modest temple. They were exhausting. The association seemed to have a come-one-come-all policy to shakuhachi players of all traditional schools and associations which taught honkyoku according to the dictates of their school’s style. The open invitation meant that anybody could play, good or indifferent, resulting in eight or more hours of three-minute solo and unison performances, performed at the slowest pace possible, as required by the tradition in all the schools. At one of the recitals I attended, as a member of Dr. Kojima’s coterie, I had an opportunity hear Riley Lee (now a famous Australian shakuhachi  player). He made a very impressive entrance, surrounded by devoted fans. At the same recital Andreas Gutzwiller (another now famous European teacher/player) was hovering around the edges, taping all the performances. At least, I think it was them. Unfortunately both men left the recital before I could introduce myself. There was also an amazing and extremely rare performance of a honkyoku by a woman who played a honkyoku on a traditional transverse flute, a shinobue (篠笛).

The purpose of the group lessons was to maintain a consensus of the performance practices of a particular school of playing that exists within the Myōan Kyōkai assocation – the Taizan-ryū (男山流). The lessons were (and are) conducted by the head teacher (rijichō 理事長).  The Taizan-ryū originated with Higuchi Taizan (樋口 対山, 1856-1914) who was also one of the founding fathers of the Myōan Kyōkai. The association was created in 1883 (Meiji 16) for the express purpose of preserving the repertoire of the defunct Fuke-shū (普化宗) and its community of komusō  (虚無僧),  the Zen Buddhist flute-playing monks of long ago. The Fuke-shū had been banned in 1871 along with many other Buddhist institutions that were purged (haibutsu kishaku 廃仏毀釈) during the Meiji era and the rush to off-load redundant institutions that were dragging the pace of westernisation.

Even though the ban was eventually lifted in 1881, the Zen Buddhist sect was never re-constituted, presumably due to a lack of interest among young men who were more interested in becoming Zen Buddhist acolytes in the mainstream Zen sects. However, a large body of laymen players had been slowly arising, even during the earlier Tokugawa era, ready to replace the komusō with their own style of lay devotion. They were naturally following in the footsteps of the ancient precepts of Vimalakirti (Yuima 維摩) and other great “householder Buddhists” (aka Sk, upasaka, Jp ubasoku 優婆塞 ). Higuchi Sensei was one of the most prominent of these revivalists. For his efforts, he received the designation of 35th abbot and the official title of KŌDŌ in the newly formed Myōan Kōkai.

As luck would have it, Dr. Kojima is one of the most proficient teachers and scholars of the repertoire of the Taizan-ryū.

Dr. Kojima

Born in 1928 in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, Dr. Kojima began his shakuhachi training in 1951 with Tanikita Muchiku (谷北 無竹, 1878-1957) ROAN, 37th abbot of the Myōan Kyōkai and a prominent student of Higuchi Taizan. Dr. Kojima eventually received his certification (Myōan Dōshu 明暗道主) and the honorary natori (名取) of ISSUI (一吹), in 1969 under the tutelage of the 38th abbot, Koizumi Shizan (小泉止山) RYOAN (ca. 1953-72). Since then, he has taught continuously, including many Westerners such as myself. He has been an active participant in the activities of the Myōan Kyōkai and can be heard every year at their recitals. He has also consulted for several television productions such The Komusō Temple (Komusō no Tera, 1973), The Spirit of the Shakuhachi (Fuke Myōan Shakuhachi no kokoro, 1978) and Zen and Shakuhachi (Zen to Shakuhachi, 1982). His dedication to the shakuchachi and its ideals is also evident in his magazine article “Zen and Shakuhachi”, published by Hanazono (1979, volume 29, pp. 12-18).

In 1991 (Heisei 3) Dr. Kojima was elected to the pre-eminent position of 41st abbot of the Myōan Kyōkai, and given a second official name, HOAN (保安).  His lineage extends deep into history, past the rejuvenation of the honkyoku repertoire and the formation of the Myōan Kyōkai to the traditional (and according to some, mythological) beginning of the komusō tradition in Japan by Kakushin (心地覺心, 1207–1298), now designated as the first Kansu. HIs student Kyochiku Zenshi (虛竹禅師) was designated as the second kansu and is depicted as a statue in the alcove of the main hall in Myōan-ji. The tradition of playing the shakuhachi in a Zen Buddhist manner is traced even further back to ancient China and one of Zen Buddhism’s most interesting pioneers, Zhenzhou Puhua ( 鎮州普化, aka Fuke-zenji  普化禅師 ca. 770-840 or 860). His disciple, Chang Po/Chō Haku (張伯) imitated Puhua’s ubiquitous and controversial handbell (rei 鈴) by blowing a single tone on a shakuhachi.

During the 2012 World Shakuhachi Festival in Kyoto, Dr. Kojima opened the program of the Myōan Kyōkai concert by playing Kokū (虚空), perhaps the most revered composition of the sacred literature. It was a very great honour and a fitting tribute to his august position as the 41st Kansu.

As is true of all lay members of the Kyōkai, Dr. Kojima had a “day job” that sustained his interest and dedication before retiring. He was a doctor of medicine with a long and distinguished career at the Japan Baptist Hospital in Kyoto, specializing in geriatric medicine. Not content with simply maintaining his medical practice, he actively pursued research programs which culminated in a presentation on gastric cancer delivered to the 6th International Cancer Congress in Florence, Italy in 1947. He is married with four daughters and several grandchildren.

For a young person such as myself in the long ago, bristling with anticipation and awe as I sat poised on the cusp of adulthood, mentors like Dr. Kojima and Tanaka-sensei are a godsend. They introduce a heightened awareness of life at just the right moment and with just the right spirit of guidance and patience. We should all be so blessed.

Bibliography

James Sanford (1977) “Shakuhachi Zen. The Fukeshu and Komuso,” in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter, 1977), pp. 411-440

Kamisango Yūkō (1974) “shakuhachi no rekishi,” translated and edited by Christopher Yōmei Blasdel as “The Shakuhachi – Its History and Development,” in The Shakuhachi, A Manual for Learning (Ongaku no Tomo Sha, 1988; second edition, Printed Matter Press, 2008)

Norman Stanfield (2013) “Two Perceptions of Music Compared: The Meian and Kinko Schools of Sacred Solo Shakuhachi Music,” in The Annals of the International Shakuhachi Society, Volume 1

Honouring Tanaka Sensei

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ August 4th, 2013

In my classes, I often talk about experiences that arise from either reflective or reflexive research (including the results of class ethnography assignments). The former are moments that cause you to pause and quietly reflect on the discovery that has come into your life. The latter shakes you to the core, transforming you into an entirely new person. You might be reminded of the same gulf of emotional difference between sympathy and empathy. Reflexive revelations make you shout, “eureka”.

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Such was my study in Japan. Although I went there to study the shakuhachi and write a thesis about the influence of Buddhism on its music, I came away transformed. I did indeed achieve the goal I set out for myself (research material for a Master of Music thesis), but in the process I discovered ways of thinking and feeling that were entirely new and previously unknown to me. Granted, I had prepared myself in the years leading up to my field trip, with language lessons and enough courses in Buddhism to qualify me for a minor degree in Buddhology. But the gap between reading and experiencing turned out to be a chasm too wide even to measure.

Tanaka Sensei (b. 1922)

My Kinko-ryu teacher/sensei, Tanaka Motonobu, 田中基展, was a major force of that experience. He has been given the honorific title of Yūdō  右童by the head iemoto  家元 of his association and school lineage, the Dōmon-kai – 土門会 of the Kinko Ryū 琴古流. My other sensei, Toyoaki Kojima Issui, 児島豊明  一吹, now head of the Meian-ji shakuhachi society, also played a large part which I will explore in a future blog.

Our once-a-week lessons were in two parts. In the afternoon, I would sit in the tiny replica of a traditional tea room (chashitsu 茶室) on the campus of Kwansei Gakuin Daigaku University 関西学院大学 located on the hills overlooking Nishinomiya 西宮市 (near Kobe). Tanaka-san worked on the campus as the manager of the student union building. There I received traditional lessons (okeikogoto お稽古ごと) along with about ten other young men, all Japanese, all students, all bemused and puzzled by my interest in something so old-fashioned. The lessons were conducted in a traditional manner with virtually no words spoken, only quietly spoken demands to copy exactly what the teacher was doing (kata 型) as he played a traditional piece (honkyoku本曲) one phrase at a time.

Then we zoomed off to dinner in a working class restaurant where he regaled me with exotic (to me) food and even more copious bits and pieces about Buddhism. He was on fire as he excitedly lectured to me about all the aspects of Zen Buddhism that filled his world of sacred shakuhachi. As the thoughts rushed out of his head, he scribbled notes and terminology on paper napkins which were sometimes then used later for their intended purpose. I scooped up these dozen or so food-stained pieces of paper tissue filled with ballpoint pen notes, and stuffed them in my pocket for study the next day. Sometimes we would return to his campus office to replay the day’s lesson later that night, but this time with explanations and answers to my ingenuous questions. And more saké  (nihonshu 日本酒).

Sunday, head pounding from the hang-over, I carefully laid out the napkins on my miniature desk in my miniscule student room (thanks to the Kyoto division of the International Student Society Kokusai Gakuyu-kai国際学友会) and poured over the scribbled Chinese characters. Oftentimes they were written in such a cursive style that I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. I would then go downstairs to the reception desk and ask the person on duty to clarify their written form. Almost always he or she was barely able to identify the characters because they were from the older bungo文語 style of Japanese language; many were virtually meaningless to them.

All of his valuable thoughts made their way into my thesis and my life. Even today they colour my various music activities and university lectures. He was not a Living National Treasure (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō) or a recording star; just an inspired person cloaked in the everyday body of a “sarariman” (salaryman). I still look back on those days as a rare encounter with a brilliant human, a meijin明人.

Tanaka’s Buddhist Frame

Lately, I have been wondering where he got his ideas about Buddhism. Given that Buddhism is one of Japan’s two major religions, the Japanese people, including Tanaka-san, have a very long history of exposure to the many schools of Buddhism and its vast body of literature and commentary. And of course, Zen Buddhism would have featured in his knowledge, given the shakuhachi’s long history of association with Zen at the hands of the original Zen Buddhist monk players, komusō 虚無僧. On the other hand, Japan has had a love-hate relationship with Buddhism (haibutsu kishaku 廃仏毀) ever since it adopted Western ways in 1868. The result has been a benign neglect by some of the population, and a fundamentalist fervour among others who subscribe to the old and new Buddhist Faith schools (Amida and Nichiren).

So my question about Tanaka’s sacred knowledge became, “Did he research any Buddhist writings as background to his impromptu lectures without bothering to tell me about their source?” Did he introduce me to ideas that he had adopted as his own, that he had applied them to his life, and that he had shared with me, without any kind of footnote or academic disclosure?

My first clue was Tanaka sensei’s term kōiteki chokkan  行為的直観 – “action intuition” which he applied to learning how to play the shakuhachi and its sacred solo music. The word combination describes a kind of understanding that comes from action rather than words.

A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of inspired randomness, I entered the words in Google, and lo and behold, up pops the words in the context of Nishida Kitarō (西田 幾多郎, 1870-1945), one of Japan’s great philosophers. The phrase does not appear in any of my standard and internet Buddhist dictionaries. As near as I can tell, the term was invented by Professor Nishida, although it is a loud echo of the famous chain of four-character idioms (Yojijukugo (四字熟, Chengyu 成语) traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma (5th/6th CE): “A special transmission outside the scriptures; (教外別傳) No dependence upon words and letters (不立文字) Direct pointing to the human mind; (直指人心) Seeing into one’s own nature and attaining Buddhahood (見性成佛)”.

Nishida Kitaro

File:Kitaro Nishidain in Feb. 1943.jpg

Nishida was a member of the Kyoto School of Philosophy that set out to reconcile Zen Buddhism with Western philosophy. Nishida was particularly concerned with finding common ground between Western philosophy and the essential Buddhist concept of Nothingness. He discovered parallel concepts in the writings of William James (1842-1910) and Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Nishida’s Buddhist-inspired writings also foreshadowed existentialism right up to the postmodernism of modern times, but with one important, uniquely Buddhist twist. Whereas existentialism struggled to reconcile the emptiness of existence with the purposefulness of ethics and morality, Buddhism has always made a convincing case for linking ethics with emptiness by invoking the principal of śīla (right conduct, morality, virtue; kai 戒) grounded in pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination; jp. engi 緣起 )

Nishida also struggled with the dense Western philosophy of the time, in the form of the German Idealists . An example can be seen in Nishida’s special take on Hegel’s theory of Dialectics (Benshōhō). But, rather than envisioning a final synthesis after thesis and antithesis, Nishida instead proposed a constant state of thesis and antithesis dynamism (soku-hi 即非) existing simultaneously, without resolution.

Nishida had a profound influence on the intellectual understanding of Zen Buddhism in Japan, to the point where his interpretation has been called neo-Buddhism. Nishida’s explanation of Zen Buddhism was to Japan, what Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki’s (1870-1966) was to the West. And even more remarkable, Nishida and Suzuki were life-long friends of exactly the same age who exchanged ideas and quoted each other throughout their careers. Also, both have been criticized in the last decade; Nishida for his misreading of Hegel (Suares) and Suzuki for his “reverse orientalism” (Borup). Both are accused of bending Zen Buddhism to conform to Western tastes and philosophies. The jury is still out on that controversy.

Tanaka sensei also had much to say about nothingness – mu無. He often quoted Nishida who famously said, “u soku mu, mu soku u 有即無、無即有 – everything is nothing, nothing is everything”. But he could just as easily have sourced the idea from traditional Buddhism which makes nothingness central to the experience of human existence. The Heart Sutra (aka Prajnaparamita Sutra), perhaps the most ubiquitous Buddhist text in East Asia, says quite plainly, “form is the same as emptiness (色不異空 shiki fu i ku), emptiness is the same as form (空不異色 ku fu i shiki 色即是空) form is nothingness (色即是空 shiki soku ze ku), nothingness is form (空即是色 ku soku ze shiki)”.

More to learn?

Tanaka described a paradox where enlightenment (kenshō 見性) is experienced in an instant, and therefore timeless, state, but within the context of the linear thread of time. Tanaka suggested that enlightenment is comprised of moments of great enlightenment (daigo 大悟) and little enlightenments (shogo 小 悟) acting like glimpses into the former. The latter are comprised of revelations that become stepping-off points to more discoveries. He compared the process to traditional music lessons. But rather than seeing the musical development of shogo as a simple linear progression, Tanaka described it from two simultaneous points of view – as a spiral seen from the side, illustrating its historical progression, and as a circle, seen from the top, illustrating its eternally now cycle. I have never seen this line of argument in the writings of Nishida (although I’m ready to be proved wrong).

There is probably so much more to learn about Tanaka sensei’s research and experiences but we lost contact after I moved on to new vistas of ethnomusicology. Regardless, the bits and pieces he bestowed on me were the “stepping stones” (shogo) to my own growing understanding of music and life. I also have to admit that I am reluctant to go much further down the road of classical philosophical debate because I find the dense logic of its quandaries, especially among the Idealists,  and even more so among the philosophers of the Buddhist schools (e.g., Nagarjuna), to be mind-numbing.

When I lived and studied in Kyoto, I often walked down a magnificent tree-lined, rural path that ran alongside a small, irrigation canal in an older outskirt of that great city. The walks never failed to inspire me. I learned later that the path is called the Philosopher’s Walk, in acknowledgement of Kitaro Nishida’s many strolls along its banks on his way to and from Kyoto U, pondering his own shogo, as I did.

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Postscript

I wonder how many students delve into their teacher’s inspirations, as I have done? How many teachers have been asked about the core sources that made them who they are today? A new spin on the familiar world of ethnography, don’t you think?

Select Bibliography

“Studying Nishida Kitaro,” in Amazon.com

Robert Wilkinson (2009) Nishida and Western Philosophy

Norman Stanfield (2009) “A Canadian Pilgrimage to Japan,” in Canadian Folk Music / Musique folklorique Canadienne magazine Vol 43, No 4 (2009-2010)

Peter Suares (2010) The Kyoto School’s Takeover of Hegel: Nishida, Nishitani, and Tanabe Remake the Philosophy of Spirit

 

 

 

The performer/audience, duck/rabbit paradigm

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ July 21st, 2013
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In an earlier posting about amateur music ensembles (“Learning to be an Amateur” March 23, 2013), I asked the question, “How do you motivate amateurs to seek perfection, unlike professionals whose livelihood depends on it? We know that everybody wishes to be perfect in every way, but reality often has its own way of disrupting such wishful thinking with mundane real and imagined limitations.

Some say that “talent” takes care of the problem of perfection because the latter is a natural consequence of the former. But I am taking “talent” out of the mix because, like Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyne and others, I suspect “talent” is a chimera or at least, a distraction. No matter the individual’s innate predilection for playing a music instrument or singing, a person can become as good as they want to be, given motivation, focus and direction (i.e., lessons).

The answer to my March question recently came to me in a flash. But the answer is rather complicated.

It begins with the premise that the music performers in an ensemble are simultaneously the audience of the ensemble. The players listen to each other while playing, for the same pleasure they get from listening to a concert from afar. And these “concerts” happen over and over again, in the form of rehearsals, and almost incidentally, public concerts.

One example of this paradigm is particularly vivid. During the performance of certain compositions that feature brief solos, individual listener-performers listen intently to the fellow member who is playing the solo, set to the ensemble’s accompanying murmur. Each listener-player silently cheers them on, winces in sympathy, or grinds their teeth in dismay. I never fail to be amazed at the dual nature of this experience, where I am simultaneously staring intensely at my music on the stand, keeping my place when playing or counting bars of tacet, while listening intently to the soloist in the same manner as a sit-down audience member.

I should add that the performer-audience paradigm also takes place in the mind of professional musicians, but it is background to the sobering, if not tense act of making a living as a professional musician. Also, when professional musicians were young, they switched over to a kind of intense practice regimen when the goal of making a living in Western Art Music pulled into view. Both scenarios are clouded by the constant threat of imperfection and its consequences – failure and ultimately, disgrace. There are 20 if not 200 people waiting anxiously to replace every professional who stumbles twice, or even once.

I should state up front that likely none of this discussion has any relevance whatsoever to popular, jazz and ethnic music ensembles (unless they are state-sponsored). They may have other kinds of shibboleths, waiting to be discovered by me some day.  My discussion is limited to performers of WAM (Western Art Music) gathered together in large ensembles (full orchestras, string ensembles, and wind bands).

The Parallels

There are several parallels that immediately come to my mind.

The world of Western Art Music is famous, some would say notorious, for performing programs of music only once, twice or perhaps three times, then quickly moving on to rehearsals for the next concert. Contrast this parsimony with theatre, where an individual stage presentation will be shown dozens of times. The theatre experience of multiple performances of the same program is played out for amateur WAM listener-performers because for them, all the rehearsals represent multiple performances. But with one important difference. The “concerts” are flawed, sometimes showing improvement, sometimes failing due to one or more audience-performers’ limitations. Nevertheless, the performer-audience members are ever hopeful of a perfect performance perhaps after several run-throughs, perhaps even timed for their public concert. Granted, theatre ensembles rehearse before their “run” but the style of rehearsal is far more piecemeal than a music rehearsal where the music ensemble plays the score as nearly perfect as possible from the very beginning.

I am also reminded of team players who observe their current game unfolding towards victory or defeat as each member of their team provides the technique and the spirit to not only win the game, but also to work seamlessly in the face of adversity. The post-game elation (or depression) represents the good or bad concert, and during practices (read “rehearsals”) the momentary failures are down-played in the hopes that another run-through will show improvements.

A final parallel is seen in concerts of Western Art Music chamber ensembles, such as a string quartet. They all take pride in being conductor-less. In order to pull off such a feat of artistic integration, the group of four or more must seat themselves in a semi-circle or U-shaped configuration so they can see and cue each other. This performance practice is well-known and even obligatory but what is not equally understood is the fact that the performers are “concertizing” to each other in the most intimate manner possible while the audience is largely ignored until the last notes are played. The audience is placed in the odd role of cultural voyeurs looking into the intimate conversation of close friends. Contrast this inward configuration with any group in popular music where the quartet always faces out to the audience, an almost impossible configuration by Western Art Music ensembles, or so they claim. Not so, the Carion Woodwind Quintet ensemble.

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The problems

Being a listener-performer inside the music has its problems.

The seating is a liability. The further one is from another section of the ensemble, the less one hears that “voice”. More important is the distraction of playing while listening. Think “cell phone use while driving”. These problematic conditions are obvious, and some would say, go without saying. The liability is tolerated because the positive rewards, the mutual construction of the music, are far greater.

One of the most interesting problems of amateur audience-performers is the participant’s perception of musical failings within the group. Personal musical failings take on an ethical, even moral dimension. Fellow musicians who consistently fail to achieve perfection due to lack of practice degrade the listening (i.e., concert) experience and corrode the camaraderie of the “team”.

Even tuning of instruments can be a satisfying or cringing experience for the entire ensemble. Despite having tuned to a tuning note, individual notes need to be constantly tempered, a skill many amateurs seem not to understand.

Interestingly, amateur ensembles can be very tolerant of random mistakes, infinitely more so than professional ensembles. “Cast not the first stone…” You may be reminded of the frequent positive critique of many a performance of professional musicians where the audience members judged the concert to be “authentic” and “human” because of occasional lapses in perfection.

Many ensembles have a “come one, come all” policy, with no audition requirements. This attitude is in keeping with the very best in cooperative community thinking, where members join in order to share their deep mutual pleasure with fellow enthusiasts, no matter what their creed, religion, ethnicity, etc. There is even a place for beginners, found in positions labelled second and third chair, where the music is lower in range and often not so exposed. The positions operate somewhat in the manner of an apprenticeship, with the understanding that one can always move up in the “corporation” as one improves and develops confidence. The marvel is that composers sometimes purposely write their compositions with this human dimension in mind. Isn’t that a wonderful thought!?

But when a member is consistently imperfect, the ethical component reveals itself. The amateur player with the problems may invoke the postmodern shrug and sheepish smile after they botch a music phrase, claiming “that they tried”.  But they can seriously degrade the listening experience for fellow ensemble members. They can even damage the morale of the ensemble, sometimes beyond repair.

Amateur musicians are often caught between a rock and a hard place, given that their musical pursuit is a hobby, one of many life-style activities (making a living, parenting, continuing education). Some may even be proto-beginners, having returned to the music instrument of their youth after years, maybe decades of neglect. But these impediments become irrelevant during the heat of performance (including rehearsals).

The conductor

It is well known that the conductor’s job is to establish and maintain the beat for the benefit of the musicians. That includes changes in tempo, some of the most terrifying moments in music (and one of the reasons why marches succeed so well, given that they never vary their tempo). To this end, performers are constantly badgered and admonished to “look up” at the conductor instead of intently reading the page of music in front of them. Television announcers used to have the same problem, until the advent of Teleprompters.

A secondary responsibility of the conductor is to act as a sound engineer, gauging and tweaking sound levels of the ensemble to match the wishes of the composer and the acoustic conditions of the performance space. It is in the variable nature of loud and soft moments, interestingly called “dynamics” (as in a dynamic, as opposed to a mono-tone/monotonous, event or person), that amateur ensembles show their true colours. Despite the best efforts of a conductor, some/many amateur ensembles play medium loud from beginning to end, with an occasional moment of extra loud. Amateurs (and beginner music students) are generally unaware of how dramatic dynamic levels must operate in order to be musically expressive to listeners.

At this point, I should say in full disclosure, that I am a listener (and RCM examiner) who needs and demands musicians and ensembles to “go big or go home”. I know there are some conductors who aspire for the subtle side of dynamics, but I’m not in that camp. Subtle for some is a grey wash of sound for others. But that’s my bias I suppose.

Be that as it may, the regulation of the tempo and dynamics can take on new meaning when the conductor steps out of the picture, that is, off the podium, at a concert. After the conductor has “set the mix board” in rehearsal, the ensemble without conductor in concert must take collective responsibility for itself by listening to each other (as I described already) in order to mutually realize the beat, including tempo changes and temper the dynamics.

In a conductor-less concert, a passage marked quiet (i.e., pp/pianissimo) is not quiet enough if a player cannot hear his/her stand partner. During the performance of a melody or occasionally, a solo passage, the accompanying voices must play softer than the principal melody, regardless of the dynamic marking in the music notation page. In other words, if he/she can’t hear the person “speaking”, he/she is too loud.

Last but not least, is the most important role of the conductor of an amateur ensemble. Mediator. Relationship counselor. Morale booster. Conductors of professional ensembles are one of the last bastions of autocracy. Not so amateur ensembles. The conductor of an amateur ensemble is usually there at the pleasure of the players, usually receiving a modest stipend for their efforts, but more often than not, because their love of the music propelled them to move up in the music performance world to the ultimate position – manager. Like a professional conductor, they must manage the musical resources of several individuals to form a unified sonic event, but rather than impose their will on the membership, they bring unity to a motley event, at the behest of the membership. The “audience”, that is, the membership in the ensemble, bestows gratitude and loyalty in exchange.

The amateur musicians also give an amazing gift to the conductor – absolute silence between run-throughs of passages, or an entire piece, while the conductor muses about this or that improvement. This self-imposed silence can last up to two hours long, which is remarkable, given the fact that the room is filled with a multitude of excited individuals deeply and passionately sharing the experience with each other. As you read this description you may be reminded of a typical lecture or even performance where the listening public is absorbed in the listening experience without interruption. But remember that the members of the amateur ensembles are team players in the act of cooperative goal-making. Quite the paradox.

When each ensemble rehearsal comes to a close, I cast my mind back to dance classes I have seen, where the dancers will clap in appreciation to the work-out provided by the
instructor. I have never seen this moment of appreciation in a music ensemble, which is a great shame, I think.

Conclusion

The actions of listener-performers I have just described recall Christopher Small’s several books about musicking. Each player is immersed in the intoxicating pleasure of the magical mix of sounds in a way that can never be equalled by the listening experience of a passive audience member who sits passively, contemplatively, while mustering acts of attention that defy normal behaviour. Each performer-listener becomes an insider. Each player lives the music structure instead of analysing it with pen, paper, and score in hand.  And the production of the music is supremely interactive, perhaps the most important concept in this twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Ruth Finnegan (1989) The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town

Susan Bennett (1997) Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception

Christopher Small (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening

Malcolm Gladwell (2002) “The Talent Myth,” in The New Yorker, July 22, 2002

Stephanie Pitts (2005) Valuing Musical Participation

Harris M. Berger (2009) Stance: Ideas About Emotion, Style, and Meaning for the Study of Expressive Culture

Henry Jenkins et al (2009) Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture

Daniel Coyle (2010) The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown

May Day, again

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ April 29th, 2013

Hooray, hooray
The first of May
Outside s—x
Begins today (anonymous)

On Wednesday I’ll be making my yearly trek to Trimble Park in Point Grey to attend the annual May Morning celebrations of the Vancouver Morris Dance Community, staged since 1990. I’ll have to get there at 5:30 AM to take in the first event – the ritual, disorganized stroll from the parking lot to the basketball court, the farthest distance from the homes along 9th Avenue who complained decades ago about the “noise”. Philistines. Then its one round of morris dance after another, first the men’s team (Vancouver Morris Men), then the women’s team (Tiddly Cove Morris), witnessed by a small crowd of die-hard enthusiasts, some dressed in vaguely renaissance costume. The sun creeps up over Mount Seymour at about 6:00 AM. Sometimes the morris community marks the occasion with a cheer and a song. Other times they’re busy dancing so the sun appears without so much as a “hello”.  At one point in the evening, rousing song May Day songs are performed, such as the Padstow May Day song and the Helston May Day song.  When they fire up the Padstow song, one of the members appears in the costume of a Padstow Oss (horse) and prances around under the supervision of a jockey called “all-sorts”.

 

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Tiddley Cove has been mandated to elect a May Queen from their midst. She is given only cursory attention; more often than not, she simply participates as a dancer. Over the years various high-profile members of both sides take turns being an announcer.  Much to the credit of both teams, they each have two to five musicians providing live music. That may not appear to be momentous, but almost all ethnic folk dance associations use recorded music, often broadcast from a nearby boom box. I believe that the use of recorded dance accompaniment is near tragic,  but most dance groups shrug the problem off. Apparently they are reluctant to pay for musical services, and yet the musicians of the morris communities around the world happily donate their services. Be that as it may, the dancing and singing wraps up about 6:30 AM, followed by a group breakfast in a local restaurant. Many of the dancers then go off to work, knowing that come 3 PM, they will be desperately fighting the urge to nap right there at their desk.

History

It has been over a decade since I retired from morris dancing, and it’s been many more years before that when I stopped producing the Trimble Park May Day events. I joined the morris community in 1986 after being “discovered” at EXPO 86 when I was an artist-in-residence portraying Will Kemp on the “streets” of the exposition playing the pipe-and-tabor, Kemp’s favourite instrument. I was unaware that it was also a highly prized musical accompaniment for morris dance. When I was invited to attend the practices, I realized that I would enjoy dancing as much as playing, thus beginning a very long and deeply satisfying association with morris dance in all its guises and seasonal celebrations.

Shortly after joining, I learned that crack-of-dawn May Day was the high point of the morris dance year. Morris teams in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and of course, England,  would join together in the pre-dawn hours of May 1st and “dance up the sun”, sometimes with a faithful audience of 100 or so, sometimes only “a man and his dog”. Why? It was then that I was introduced to the mythology of the morris dance that centred on the alleged pagan power of fertility that was kept alive by “the old morris dancers” long after they understood why there were going through the motions. It was only the new generation of morris dancers of the third revival (in company with the folk revival) who were a lethal combination of post-hippies and academics that allegedly uncovered the reasons, thanks to careful reading of The Golden Bough. It helped that the Western world was also just waking up to the call of the environmentalists and the back-to-earth movement.

Historicity

Our first foray into a May Morn was organized by one of the stalwarts of the VMM and took place in a park nearby Georgia Street near Stanley Park. Drivers studiously ignored us as they rushed to work. It occurred to me that I could use my concert programming skills to create an “authentic” May Morn event for the next May Day. I choose Trimble Park because it had the requisite hill top ambiance overlooking the city with a clear view of the rising sun. There was a small sense of irony that we were a group of English folk dancers far from England, looking down on British Columbia’s English Bay. I arranged for a full agenda, with a procession, Maypole, a May Queen, and May Day songs. I was especially proud of the Maypole that I had arranged to be on site the day before. It was to be the centrepiece of the morning celebrations. I eschewed the fake Maypole dancing with ribbons and skipping round dancers, and elected instead to have “nuts” or knots (i.e., wreaths) of flowers flowing from the top like a flag. The pole itself was carried in a ceremonial manner from the parking lot, accompanied by music and dancers, then hoisted up to the sky in a style reminiscent of the famous statue of the American Soldiers raising the American flag in Iwo Jima.  True to form, the agenda needed to transparent in addition to being well organized.

The morris community was, for some unknown reason, cool on being so “organized”, preferring to participate in a casual manner with no agenda whatsoever except the plan to dance. Perhaps more important, some of them felt that I had made the dance subsidiary to the occasion. And they were right. The Morris dance had become just one component of a much larger event – the “theatre” of May Day. Some of the VMM complained that they were morris dancers, not branch members of an English Folklore Society, or worse, the Society for Creative Anachronism or some sort of LARP club. From my point of view, as an ethnomusicologist, I wanted to frame the dance in its cultural context. (The truth of either perspective can only be determined by some earnest ethnography who would interview all parties.)

Even given their reservations, I loved the opportunity to create such a magical time with its deep roots in nature.  I had spent my teenage years climbing and hiking in Banff National Park so my reverence was well placed. But after a few years, the cracks began to appear in my enthusiasm. I suppose it began the morning I was interviewed by the police! I happened to be the last person in the parking lot before setting out for the dance area when a police car casually drove up to me and signalled for me to speak with them. They didn’t seem overly concerned, and were probably killing time before the end of their night shift. Nevertheless, they expressed concern about our intentions with the May Queen. I laughed and said it was just a bit of fun, but later I realized they were expressing concern because of the reputation of morris dance as a fertility custom, like other pagan rituals both real and imagined.

 

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I had never fully realized how absurd that sounded, until I heard their puzzled and worried voices. I explained it away with academic rationalisations, as we had all done in countless explanations of the “meaning” of morris dance, but I suddenly realized how absurd the explanation was. Thoughts of the Merrie England movement and Cargo Cult crept into my morris thinking.

Fall-out

My ethnomusicology training and theorizing kicked in, so I began to investigate the alleged role of morris dance as a vestige of a fertility vestige. It didn’t take long to realize that academics who specialized in the study of morris dance scoffed at the theory, claiming it to be an enormous impediment to a proper accounting of morris dance. I found a more compatible explanation in Bakhtin’s theories of Misrule which aligned me with the great historians and theorists of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. At one point, I attended a living May Day ceremony in, of all places, New Westminster, a suburb city of Greater Vancouver, now produced by the School district. Like many May Day customs in Canada, the US, and the homeland, England were alive and well, there was absolutely no record of morris dance in their proceedings. This discovery was corroborated over and over again by the academic and historical literature.

Towards the end of my association with the May Morn productions, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the very creature I had created. I even suggested that the event should have no morris dance, just community singing and dancing in the light of May Day celebrations found not originating in the Merrie England, movement but the customs of small rural communities in England.  That went over like a brick balloon. In the end, the controversy became grist for my Ph.D. dissertation – Rough Music, Rough Dance, Rough Play: Morris Dance and Misrule.  And I withdrew from my role as May Morn producer.

Nowadays I feel whimsical when I watch morris teams and May Morn celebrations. I can’t shake the horrible feeling that the “hobby” mentality of morris dancers clashes with the serious responsibility of maintaining and transmitting a heritage custom and tradition. Regardless of these feelings, I view the members of the morris community as good friends, all of whom are valued members of society. In the end, the controversy seems to amount to nothing more than a difference of opinion, even though they can’t resist pulling out what I call the Fertility Card whenever they explain the basis of morris dance. As recently as last year’s May Morn they made the bogus claim when they were filmed and interviewed by a local television news team. Oh well.

Readings

Roy Wagner (1981) The Invention of Culture
David Lowenthal (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country
Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase (1989) The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia
Robert Cantwell (1993) Ethnomimesis: Folklore and the Representation of Culture
Stephen Eddy Snow (1993) Performing the Pilgrims: A Study of Ethnohistorical Role-Playing at Plimoth Plantation (with a foreward by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett)
Robert Ackerman (2002) The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists

Karaoke versus Folk Singing

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ April 25th, 2013

The other morning I was walking down the main street of my neighbourhood, take-out coffee in hand, when I walked by my local karaoke store for the umpteenth time. I use the word “my” advisedly, because I’m not a karaoker. And I am not their target consumer, given the all the posters in the window with notices only in Chinese and Tagalog. The sight of the familiar little shop reminded me yet again of the huge interest in karaoke among East, Southeast and South Asians.

My walk-by this time was different however, because I suddenly began thinking about English traditional folk-singing.

Hootenannys and the musical cringe

During the mid-60s, folk music sat triumphantly on the top of the charts in North America and England. Although folk music’s popularity was fueled by the likes of Bob Dylan, it also democratised music-making by strongly advocating solo and group singing, no matter the skill level, from beginners to almost-professional.

There were two forms of participation at the local coffee shops and late-night folk clubs. People took turns at a microphone on the miniscule stage or, if they were intimidated by the bravery needed for solo performance, they could always join in the group sing-along featured in the choruses of each song. Today, most people understand the repeated chorus in a popular song form to be a representation of the theme of the song while the verses unfold the narrative.  That is true, but it’s easy to forget that the word “chorus” also refers to a choir. No doubt both meanings are relevant, while the former definition has been long forgotten.

At the height of the impulse to sing out loud, a magazine called Sing Out was founded and their book with its circa one thousand lyrics, entitled Rise Up Singing, is still in print. Group singing can be seen in a television program called hootenanny, the term often used by folkies to describe the chorus sections. They were especially popular on university campuses. I have to admit that I cringe whenever I see archival footage of the episodes, as I did when hootenannies were big, but that tells you more about my generation than the culture of the event.

Vancouver had its folk-singing community and its folk clubs, in keeping with the times. Born-and-bred Vancouverites now in their 70s remember the Advanced Mattress Coffee House at 10th and Alma. The even more iconic Inquisition Coffee House was featured in the wonderful movie American Boyfriends (1989), the sequel to My American Cousin (1985). The stories of both movies take place in Penticton and Vancouver, and in AB, several scenes were shot in The Inquisition in Vancouver at 726 Seymour Street, complete with checkerboard table cloths and dripping candles in empty, straw-wrapped bottles of Chianti.

In a highly ill-thought-out response to the folk-music craze, and especially the phenomenon of the hootenanny, Columbia Records commissioned their top exec, Mitch Miller, to produce sing-along LPs under the general category called Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang. His productions are some of the most exquisite forms of music kitsch known to mankind, right up there with Liberace, Lawrence Welk and Andre Rieu. The Silent Generation thought nothing of playing Mitch Miller’s LPs at their early 60s suburban barbeque parties. It is the likes of Mitch Miller that explains the birth of rock and roll. Picture an episode of Mad Men.

 

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Social Isolation

The roots of folk music are found in the almost mythical stories about pre-industrial rural people and the urban working poor gathered together to sing lustily or longingly in pubs and kitchens , or at various massed hard labour where they needed to synchronize their combined physical efforts (e.g. , sea shanties).  In addition, there is a mountain of proof of recreational singing in the form of thousands of printed ballads and song-sheets. One of the most eloquent descriptions of home-spun entertainment is found in Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson where she describes life in rural England at the turn of the 19th century. Her depiction of a sing-around at the local pub is one of the most endearing and largely factual narratives in English bucolic literature. These musical soundscapes were pedestaled by the New Left of the 60s as evidence of the “humanity” embodied in “the people”, as opposed to mass consumerism fueled by mass advertising and driven by the capital of the elite ruling classes.

Since those halcyon times of 60s protest songs and folk ballads, group sing-arounds in folk music clubs have largely disappeared, save a few niche organisations with dwindling membership. Today, die-hard folkies lament the end of public singing, either in folk song clubs, kitchens and pubs. They point to the advent of digital PM3 players to explain the collapse of community music-making and even community building.

They aren’t alone. Sometime after the end of the popular folk music era and its hootenanny craze we find the development of personal listening devices, beginning with the Walkman. Although the convenience of PLDs is undeniable, the advent of personal music players and their ear bud attachments, now called headphone culture, has had a curious blowback. Sociologists around the world are expressing concerns for young people who seem to be retreating into themselves, rather than expanding outwards as they come to occupy the mainstream of public culture. This trend towards emotional solipsism is creating such an alarm that it has spawned an academic discourse, led by the pioneer Michael Bull and before him, Robert Putnam. Writing in 2000 Putnam expressed outrage and sadness at the precipitous decline in the number of people participating in social groups (such as bowling leagues, his first discovery), to the detriment of the very foundation of collective will – democracy. The solitary life-style of the MP3 listener has been a constantly recurrent theme in the ethnographies compiled by my students, year after year.

When I discuss the collapse of pre-industrial age home entertainment in favour of the solitary pleasure of listening to music on PLDs, I then take a round of votes to learn who uses the musical skills (mainly piano), the core of their bachelor of music studies, in a recreational setting, either in the form of singing or instrumental music (e.g., parlour piano). No hands are raised, confirming the fears yet again.

Then it occurred to me that I should ask a second question after the gloomy response of the first one.  “Who does karaoke here?” Half the classroom shot up their hands, almost all of them East Asian. This was followed by lots of excited chatter, with students spilling over each other’s descriptions of how much fun it is to go out with friends and sing all night! The other half of the class stares in disbelief.

Sing-arounds from two worlds

Karaoke, a Japanese fad from the 60s, ultimately extends back in time through 50’s crooning, enka, to traditional folk song, minyo, where singing around the kitchen fire and in the agricultural fields was as endemic as it was in England. Last year I ventured into a Western Karaoke bar (actually a Legion) and discovered a lot of serious-minded (i.e. non-ironic) white singers having a great time apparently on a weekly basis. At about the same time, I discovered the Huey Lewis-Gwennyth Paltrow exploration of Western karaoke in the film Duets (2000).

 

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So, what are the differences between a sing-around in a folksong club and a karaoke bar? Forgetting the surface for a moment (i.e., the radically different style of the songs) the differences on first glance appear to be centred on memorisation and performativity. Folk-song circles are notorious for requiring all singers to have their lyrics memorized. The concern seems to be replicating an “authentic” performance where pre-industrial singers supposedly never used (and perhaps couldn’t read) sheet music. The great English pioneer revivalist, Ewan MacColl, had a hand in this style when he developed his unwritten code of behaviour in his Ballad and Blues folk song club, the first folk music club in England (which abandoned American blues in favour of English ballads.) I have to admit my support for this position, having seen groups of singers (like modern-day choirs, actually) staring intently at their music books instead of each other during a sing-around. Karaoke is solidly built on the idea that singers, and even their audiences, have easy access to the lyrics because they’re broadcast on a television monitor, sometimes with the 21st century iteration of the bouncing ball pointing out the words at the moment of their place in the song. My impression is that some (many?) singers don’t even need to see the lyrics on the screen, but regardless, the convention removes the fear and listener barriers to understanding the words of the singer. Secondly, folk- singers in folk clubs today tend to take the stance of a serious even meditative story-teller, whereas karaokers are as effusive and flamboyant as their singing models. In other words, karaokers don’t appear to take themselves as seriously as folk-singers.

Conclusion

I want to see these two scenarios brought together. Then I’ll give it a shot.

Readings

Niall MacKinnon (1993) The British Folk Scene: Musical Performance and Social Identity

Michael Bull (2007) Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience

Robert D. Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Roelof Hortulanus, Anja Machielse and Ludwien Meeuwesen, authors (2006) Social Isolation in Modern Society

Noah Arceneaux and Anandam Kavoori , editors (2012) The Mobile Media Reader

Flora Thompson (1939/1973) Lark Rise to Candleford

Rob Drew (2011) Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody

Brian Raftery (2008) Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life

A Radical New Classroom

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ April 13th, 2013

As I prepare for my summer class, it occurred to me that I could radically re-organize the classroom experience for the students. But at what cost?

In the last few years I have worked inexorably towards an educational environment that moved steadily away from rote learning, and towards collaborative education.  The most vivid example of this evolution is my assessment procedure (formally known as exams). Although assessments have been the scourge of every generation and age of student from time immemorial, they also seem to be a necessary evil.

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Like democracy, the theory of the assessment is flawed, but it is currently the only effective means of measuring acquired knowledge. The results of an assessment (e.g., a degree) assure an employer that the potential employee really does have the necessary skills to complete the job. However, even this bald fact of life is under review as more and more employers are conducting their own assessments during their job interviews, having lost faith in the degree process. Be that as it may, I have abandoned that silent rite of passage – the hushed exam room with a ticking clock, pencils at the ready.  I began with in-class assessments that could be written inside or outside of the classroom during exam times, then added an open-book policy, until I finally graduated to online exams.

The growing dilemma

With the evolution of my classroom and its procedures in mind, I was recently musing about a new classroom procedure that was radical even for me. Before I explain my latest thinking, I need to explain that my summer lectures are about three hours long, consisting of two weekly winter classes back-to-back. Three hours may seem like a vast amount of time to lecture and even more challenging, to sit through as a student, so I countered the potential for lapses in concentration by using a video and audio excerpts, and even music performances conducted by myself. I overcame the boredom factor, and encountered another problem. Now, with the bells and whistles cutting into actual lecture time, I did not have enough time to say everything I felt needed saying. I sometimes found myself having to finish up a previous lecture in the first few moments of the next lecture.

My content became even more challenged when I introduced an entire half hour of student presentations in each “week”. Suddenly I had even less time to talk, and yet the presentations turned out to be wildly successful. Students were anxious to share their experiences, either in World Music or Popular Music, using my guidelines and the media resources in the classroom. I was astounded at the variety of interests, so there was no turning back to the old days of lecture downloading/uploading.

I have managed to retrieve some of my missing lecture time by mounting the assessments online, instead of in the classroom, but I am still haunted by the specter of the modern needs of the Millennial generation. They are surrounded and engulfed in knowledge available at the fingertips. I think they need experiences to contextualize their place in that vast ocean of information.

Workshops

So with this in mind, I imagined the following scenario in which workshops would occupy the entire time of the second lecture. Here is a preliminary list of those workshops:

Class 1: Introduction and key concepts including ethnography
Workshop: Students pair off to conduct 5 minute ethnographies of each other, then present their findings to the class

Class 2: a personal sample of Word Music interests based on cultural diffusion
Workshop: Student learn dances to additive rhythms

Class 3: introduction to ethnomusicology and hybridity
Workshop: Students pair off to create pop fusions, then present their conclusions to the class

Class 4: Canada’s Intangible Cultural Heritage: the fiddle
Workshop: Students learn to jig, reel and “chair dance” (i.e., podorhythm)

Class 5: an introduction to Canada’s songcatchers
Workshop: Students conduct a sing around / karaoke (on a purely voluntary basis)

Class 6: Powwow cultural background
Workshop: Students listen to a First Nation guest speaker

Class 7: Powwow music and dance
Workshop: Students learn powwow steps

Class 8: Zen Buddhism and meditation
Workshop: Students participate in a Zen meditation exercise and ritual

Class 9: Zen Buddhism and music
Workshop: Students perform choral Zen music-making

Class 10: English country dance
Workshop: Students learn a country dance

Class 11: English morris dance
Workshop: Students learn a morris dance

Second thoughts

Obviously these workshops would be highly entertaining, but would they fulfill the mandate of the university and the educational needs of the students? I’m not certain. One obvious change is the greatly reduced amount of lecture time. Instead of the current 2 hours and 10 minutes (not including presentation) the lecture time would be 1 hour and 15 minutes – almost half. On the other hand, in the world lectures, 1.25 hours of lecture time is very generous, almost taxing the attention span of the modern audience.  A puzzle, to be sure.

I can hear critics scoffing at my scenario. “It’s nothing more than edutainment.” “Learning-light, perfect for the student who is looking for a quick and easy 3 credits.” “Students will emerge from the course with a pocketful of stories and scant information about ethnomusicology.” “With classes like the one you are proposing, there’s no wonder that the baccalaureate degree is so severely devalued today.” “How is a student supposed to get gainful employment if they take courses that don’t give them facts and theories to use in their jobs.”

No doubt about it, my proposal would be monstrously out of place in most of East and South Asia. It would not even remotely prepare them for their graduation exams.

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Full-time ethnomusicology faculty members can fulfill this urge to contextualize ethnomusicological theory by directing ethnic music ensembles. The ensembles are, for all intents and purposes, year-long workshops. And they have real-time value – 2 credits towards graduation.

In weak defence, I could say that my workshops offer greater variety than the four ensemble offerings currently available, even if my versions are somewhat facile and introductory in nature. They would be perfect for the student interested in ethnomusicology but who doesn’t have the time to participate in a year-long ethnic music ensemble. And they certainly contribute to the 21st century’s concern with experiential and collaborative learning which could be applicable across the work-force.

But there’s no escaping the criticisms mentioned above, which is why I won’t be doing the workshops any time soon.

What do you think? Add a comment, below.

Readings

James A. Davis, editor (2012) The Music History Classroom

Thomas Rudolph and James Frankel (2009) YouTube in Music Education

Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, editors (1996) Senses of Place

Lucy Green, editor (2011) Learning, Teaching, and Musical Identity: Voices Across Cultures

Ted Solis, editor (2004) Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles

 

 

World Music week at UBC

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ April 6th, 2013

Last week Professor Hesselink of the Ethnomusicology Department announced an exciting program for a World Music Week. It will feature four dynamic groups representing traditional China, Bali, Korea, and sub-Sahara Africa.

The week of special performances is a chance for the hard-working ensemble members to display their passionate commitment, wrested from their precious time normally spent on the usual demands of a typical university year. It’s also a great opportunity for the rest of the music student body and the university in general to see the excellent work being done on behalf of the Canadian multicultural landscape.

My position as a sessional instructor does not allow me to create and maintain a World Music ensemble for credit. But if it did, what would I chose to do?

Morris and Mummers

In a previous post, I nominated two candidates – a fife and drum corps, and a Canadian fiddle ensemble. Now I’d like to recommend another ensemble, also worth 2 credits and a world of exciting experiences to bring life to theory.

I would mount an ensemble devoted to morris dances and mummers plays. Their repertoire would come from deepest, darkest…England! Working class England, to be specific, both rural and urban. The group would be comprised of beginner dancers, which is the same mandate as the other ensembles.  Like all the other World Music ensembles, the membership would be open to non-music students. Given that UBC has an enormous dance community with many clubs and special interest groups, I should imagine that the interest among those dancers would be massive, even if their immediate interests are in salsa, or a host of other genres. Dancers know only too well that when you gotta dance, you gotta dance.

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The dancers would be accompanied by musos – one or more musicians who would be drawn from the violin community on condition that they convert their pristine technique to rough-and-ready, off-the-shoulder  fiddling. More than one fiddle, including beginners, would be an asset.  Penny Whistlers and tambourinists might be added to the mix. If an accordionist should come along, they will be treated like kings and/or queens. And perhaps the truly adventurous students would like to try their hand at pipe-and-tabor, taught by me.

Although it is tempting to invoke “come one, come all” to all music instrument players, from trombone to oboe, but I am leery of this catholic approach. Morris teams in England are famous for their motley morris musos, are comprised of tenor saxophones, sousaphones, guitars, and other assorted mis-matches but the motivations of the English teams to form such ensembles is rather different from mine. English morris teams and their musicians know the custom from the inside out, and are playing with it (I hope!); the UBC ensemble needs to become acquainted with the real thing, before they become “ironic”. Such irony is at the heart of the internet videos that feature morris dance hybrids, reminiscent of Monty Python.

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The repertoire of dances would be drawn from the four major traditions and most important, each custom would be tied to its customary season. Naturally, appropriate costume would be rough-and-ready with a wide margin for self-expression. Finally, and most unusually, the ensemble would be open to all ethnicities and sexual orientation. The only requirement would be the physical ability (and passion) to dance vigorously. Musicians would be required to memorize their music, and everybody would have to be comfortable with being completely mobile, travelling all over the campus (and outside of campus) by foot. The ensemble would never, never perform in a recital hall to a sit-down audience (unless required to, by some sort of higher authority).

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Learning Objectives

The university administration (and I suppose the students) need to be assured that they are having a learning experience, and not just a whole lot of fun. We know that the African, Balinese, Chinese and Korean ensembles promise new adventures in rhythm and metre, some of it expressed in dancing. The Chinese ensemble also provides an opportunity to gain an appreciation of the traditional music of the world’s current economic power-house and its massive diasporan communities, here in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere.

All four groups are also exercises in cooperative behaviour from cultures with agendas quite different from Western Art Music.  The most obvious difference is the seeming lack of conductor, although directors of all the ensembles are present to keep the ensembles together. But they are inside the group, as lead players, reminiscent of many Early Music ensembles and a few rare and wonderful chamber choirs.

What would a morris and mummers team get out of the experience? Where do I begin? In no particular order…

The members of the ensembles would discover first-hand the original yearly seasonal customs common to Western culture (mainly from England), and practiced at home and around the world in profound (some say monstrous) transformations. Christmas and Easter, to name the two biggest high days, will take on new and revitalized meaning, stripped of their materialist cores.

Secondly the students would experience the essence of performance. The team would play ”on the street”, where  the audience is happenstance. The morris or mummers would put out a “hat” (which would largely be symbolic) for the audience to vote with their spare change. Or their feet, walking away from the performance with disinterest. Each “presentation” is 20 to 30 minutes, and then repeated over and over again, until it’s time to go home.

Perhaps most important of all, the members of the ensemble would discover how central dance is to an appreciation of music, high or low. They would learn how right Friedrich Nietzsche was, when he said that “we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

Readings

Steve Roud (2006) The English Year: A Month-to-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals from May Day to Mischief Night

Keith Chandler (1993) Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles” The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900

Georgina Boyes (2010) The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (revised illustrated edition)

Paul Spencer (1985) Society and the Dance: the Social Anthropology of Process and Performance

Your first shakuhachi lesson

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 30th, 2013

You’ve decided to study the shakuhachi – a traditional flute from Japan.

You know that it’s steeped in history and tradition, but what’s really grabbed your attention is its focus on meditation, using the sound of music. You have some prior experience with Western music instruments, and you can even read the notation of Western Art Music (WAM). But WAM’s steep learning curves and obsession with theory, history and technique ultimately seems hollow, for some unknown yet deeply personal reason you haven’t been able to fathom. In contrast, the shakuhachi appears to be nothing more than a simple stalk of bamboo with five finger holes and its music moves at such a slow pace that there is an ocean of time to think about the next note. The look of the bamboo surface is mottled and “natural”, unlike the gleaming machinery or stained-wood perfection of WAM instruments. And yet, despite its physical and musical simplicity, many claim that shakuhachi is the singular and uniquely musical voice of Zen Buddhism and its promise of enlightenment (kenshō 見性)

A Traditional Lesson

The success or confusion of your first lesson will be determined by its context. Will it be conducted by a traditional sensei (先生) or in a Western teacher?

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If it is a traditional Japanese music lesson, then be prepared for practically no conversation. After a friendly greeting, the sensei plays a single note and then shows you the fingering. You play the note. “Again (mo ichidō; もう一度),” he says. You play the note a second time. “Again”. You…Well, you get the idea. Before you realize it, you become immersed in mind-numbing repetition, and yet the teacher has an exemplary sound and an almost spiritual presence. So you persevere.

You’ll very likely be surrounded by fellow students, each waiting their turn. If you felt sheepish about making your first, halting sounds in front of them, your fellow students are far too wrapped up in their own concerns to give any attention to your failings.  (Your mind might flash back to those many master classes you endured, both as player and witness, surrounded by fellow players.) As you comply over and over with your sensei’s constant demand for exact repetition, you might recall the regimen of karate lessons. Those martial art students make the same thrusting gestures over and over again, while counting out the repetitions, all under the steely-eyed guidance of the sensei. Those gestures are called kata (型 or 形) and now you see the same operation at work in a music lesson.

A Western Lesson

If you take a shakuhachi lesson from a westerner it will likely have the same give-and-take as a regular WAM music lesson, with plenty of time to ask questions and make comments.  You will have access to many turorials and internet sources that give you the rudiments and musical background, and the teacher will likely inspire you with the same magical sound and flawless technique as the traditional sensei. And yet, you feel that something might be missing.  You may sense that the lesson is missing its cultural context, its unspoken frame that provides the Zen-like (zendō 禅道) experience.

In both scenarios, there is one huge, empty space (and I’m not talking about the Zen space (mu 無) – a Buddhist background on which to place the musical meditation experience. I suppose it’s possible to learn a music instrument without delving into its cultural context (such as the Western Art Music piano without reference to its 19th century salon roots, or Bach’s cantatas without an understanding of Lutheranism) but I know from experience derived from my years as an undergraduate and then graduate music students with a minor in Buddhology that I couldn’t possibly approach the shakuhachi without this ocean of knowledge.

Your First Sound

You put the flute to your mouth and blow across the top of the open hole, like a pop bottle. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a sound right away. This beginning procedure is very similar to the first lesson on the Western flute where you are assigned the task of making sounds on the mouthpiece detached from the body of the flute.

The sensei presents you with your first piece of music.  Of course, it’s in traditional Japanese notation, but you quickly discover that it is solfeggio, where each note is actually a simple syllable that represents a specific pitch.  He then points to the first note and plays it. Then it’s your turn. Again, and again. His sound is edgy and full; yours is breathy and anemic. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Your First Buddhist Sound

You may or may not be told that your first horrible sounds are also your purist Zen sounds. Rough (wabi), tentative (impermanent), breathy (i.e., the sound of nature, like the soughing of wind in trees) You might recall the title of a famous book by Shunryu (not Daisetsu Teitaro) Suzuki, “Zen Mind; Beginners Mind”.

Once you have established a sound that can be reliably duplicated you may or may not be told to hold that note for as long as you can breathe out. Think of a half note, where the metronome marking is “quarter note = 30 BPM”. Breath, and breathing seems to be the key to success. You may have heard of the same concern for breath control in yoga classes, where you assume a posture and then breathe slowly and deeply. In both worlds, the diaphragm comes into play. In Japan, it’s called tanden ( 丹田), the centre of the soul (and the point of sacrifice in the hara-kiri ritual).  To put it crudely, if your stomach (hara 腹) is not ballooning, you’re doing it wrong.

So what kind of sound should you be making? Definitely not the kind that undulates with vibrato, the essence of the Western flute sound, as well as a host of other instruments. The sound should be straight, in tone and pitch. Your sound will also likely trail off after a moment or two, like a decrescendo. I think that’s good, because I believe the sound of the shakuhachi was (and is) inspired by the natural decay of a ringing bell, especially the hand-bells (rei  鈴)  played by Buddhist priests during their rituals, the bowl bells (keisu   鏧子) during their chanting, and the huge hanging bells (bonshō 梵鐘)  found in their temple compounds.  Even the titles of the sacred solo music have the word bell (e.g., Reibo 鈴慕) in their names.

As your breath flows steadily out of your body, and the sound emanates simply and directly, you are asked to concentrate only on the sound, the sonic manifestation of your silent breath.  During the time of one breath, time should seem to stand still. The next tone, a repeat of the first, should not be played right away; otherwise you’ll feel light-headed and may even faint. Take your breath in as slowly as you breathed out. It is perferable to stand or sit up straight, allowing an unimpeded expansion of the diaphragm. If you sit in Japanese seiza (正座) style, kneeling with your legs under you, the one-tone exercise will turn into an unsolvable Rinzai puzzle koan (公案): “Can I realize one-ness with my one note while my legs scream in pain?”

When you can reliably make a flute sound, you will be shown how to use your fingers to flick a finger-hole open and closed, in the quick manner of a mordent, in order to initiate the sound. This is referred to as a strike (atari当る).  Although many see this word as a common term in Japanese martial arts, it is also used in the ringing of bells.

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉) described it best when he wrote the following haiku (俳句):

Temple bells die out / the fragrant blossoms remain / a perfect evening!

kane kiete / hana no ka wa tsuku / yūbe kana

鐘消えて花の香は撞く夕哉

Next Lesson

Two notes, connected together in one breath. Coming up in a future blog entry.

Readings

Andreas Gutzwiller (1991) “The world of a single sound: basic structure of the music of the Japanese flute shakuhachi,” in Musica Asiatica, 6, pp. 36-59

Jerrold Levinson (1997) Music in the Moment

John Singleton, editor (1998) Learning in Likely Places: Varieties of Apprenticeship in Japan

Jay Keister (2008) “Okeikoba: Lesson Places as Sites for Negotiating Tradition in Japanese Music,” in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring/Summer, 2008), pp. 239-269

Ethnomusicology in the band room

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 23rd, 2013

One of the ethnomusicologists I follow closely is David G. Hebert, currently a faculty member at Bergen University of College in Norway, but in fact, born and raised in Seattle.  His specialty is the study of concert bands in Japanese high schools which on the surface, would be as far as you could possibly get from the usual exotic location common to ethnomusicology. You could say in response that Japan is exotic enough, thank you very much, but Japan’s band program follows the “North American” model to a T, so you would find yourself in any high school band room in any province in Canada.  Except you’re in Osaka.

Or are you?

First exposure

Several years ago I was invited to attend a joint concert of a local band and a Japanese high school concert band. It was held in the Chan centre on a Spring evening and sorry to say, there was hardly anybody in the audience, not surprising, considering the basically unknown musical forces. So I settled in my seat in the midst of a sprinkle of moms, dads, friends, friends of friends…

The Japanese band appeared, comprised of the usual timid junior high school members in sailor boy and sailor girl uniforms. They looked very sombre, even a bit nervous, with expressionless faces set in studied determination. They quietly assembled in their chairs, and then arose as the affable conductor arrived at the podium, beaming his smile to audience and players alike. The first piece began and within the first eight bars, I found myself riveted to my seat in utter astonishment.

As the piece progressed, sections of like instrumentalists and soloists subtly, gently moved their instruments in response to the emotion of the phrases. The clarinets in particular were stunning as they lifted their bells upward as the crescendo in their music rose to double forte, then slowly dropped them back to position when the phrase ended. Other times, the brass players stood during their heroic moments, or also moved their bells in response to the emotion of the music, usually cued sonically by dynamic contrasts. The theatrical bodies told us in the audience that, “I am being carried away by the emotion of this phrase, but I’m still in control.”

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I was deeply moved.

Then the local band appeared. In standard fashion, they sat like stone statues, staring intensely at their music stands as they played, rigid in their chairs. The only movement was the hugely annoying tapping of feet by some (but not all) players, made even more aggravating by the lack of unison movement. Although I had seen this kind of clumsy performance practice a thousand times, I never let it distract me. Now I felt deeply ashamed of “our” (North American) lack of ability to convey music when compared to this gaggle of high school girls and boys.

During the intermission I attempted to ask the band director about the stunning performance practices I had just witnessed but my halting Japanese, even with an interpreter at hand, got nowhere.

Perhaps I should add that I am aware of the “theatre” seen in swing bands with their constant standing and sitting. And then there are the marching bands with their amazing half-time show choreographies. And then there are the new stage presentations of brass bands in England with their constantly shifting stage positions.

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But what I am describing is something different. It’s subtle, like the slowly lifting hand of a Noh actor as he touches his cheek, an expression of ineffable sadness, or the slumped shoulder of an actor when learning about a tragedy.

Sociomusicology

It was not until the publication of David Hebert’s book Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools that I got a glimmer of an answer. But only a glimmer.  More on that later.

Mr. Hebert studied high school bands in the early 2000s during several extended stays in Japan. As an American musician (trumpet) who had come up through the American band program, he knew what he was looking for.  But he was equally curious about oddities that he had heard about in the States.  American high schools and their band conductors had been engaged to conduct band clinics in Japan, and when they returned, they were beside themselves with admiration, even awe, at the sky high levels of technical perfection. If they wanted to highlight a point of interpretation missing from a performance, the young Japanese players were as responsive as a Porsche.  But even more revealing was the amount of time the students engaged in rehearsal – twenty plus hours per week, six hundred hours per year, week-ends and holidays included. After regular school hours. When I thought back on my own high school band practices, amounting to maybe five hours per week, scheduled as a regular class, I initially looked at the Japanese band kids with deep sympathy. Their staggering commitment of time and energy to the band, in addition to the after-hour tutoring and homework that is so much a part of Japanese high school culture, reminded me of the famous lead up to Examination Hell (shiken jigoku  試験地獄).

A case has been made that the Japanese band program is not morally questionable, but rather the perfect, all-consuming activity for restless tweenies and teeners – a perfect blend of socializing and focused dedication. I have read that the Japanese band program is like a typical sports team that also conducts the same insane hours practice. I suppose a comparison could be made to piano students, but their countless hours of effort in solitary confinement leave me cold.

Suddenly my memories of band program leave me feeling unsettled. Our level of achievement was hit and miss. We were always held back by those in the band who knew that the credits for band were practically a give-away with no real effort required. Granted, there were some high school bands in my home town that achieved greatness, and then there were the after-school city-wide bands that really fired the imagination of young players. But the usual band program seemed to struggle with half-committed students looking for an easy grade.

Ethnomusicology

Now that I have given you a very brief taste of the sociomusicology of Japanese bands in comparison to North American bands, “show me the ethnomusicology,” you say. We find a couple of areas worth considering.

The band program, along with so many other Western Art and Folk Music endeavours, are favoured over indigenous music-making. I have been following the efforts of the Japanese education ministry to introduce traditional Japanese music (hōgaku 邦楽) programs into the school system but it seems half-hearted. And I’m not surprised. WAM (Western Art Music) is a niche interest that is piggy-backed on the juggernaut of Western Popular Music, even if the latter is hybridized. Japanese traditional music can barely compete with it. WAM currently has the cache of upper class education, but that is not enough to sustain the interest. Symphony orchestras replace their audience practically by 100 per cent each season, as the majority of ticket-holders are given their single-season seats as a reward for graduating.

Then there is the hint of neo-Confucianism (rigaku 理学) in the rehearsal and performance processes. The level of “team cooperation” is much higher than that found in North America, but with the added dimension of a loss of individual expression in favour of group expression. The East Asian expression, “The nail that sticks up is hammered down” is at work in the bands. As the world adjusts to the new economy of the Far East, this style of thinking will no doubt get a second look, but for now it seems to work against individual initiative and imagination. In terms of the band, players learn to play their instruments as if they were cogs in a brilliant clock, rather than as individual musicians coming together to make a holistic experience. But then again, that was my memory of high school band for most players. Curiouser and curiouser.

There is a dark side to Japanese high school bands (and Korean high school bands, from what I’ve heard) that is called ijime (いじめ), bullying directed at players who do not match the intensity, dedication and skill-level of the rest of the band.  Professor Hebert told me that the topic will figure into his follow-up research.

The subtle and obvious source of the theatrical gestures come from a traditional world of acting techniques ( engi 演技, as opposed to gei, 芸 or藝, acting) which are largely based on kata (型 or

形), the time-honoured technique of repetition to achieve perfection. Both are highly studied and self-consciously applied, in the hopes that the core of their spirit (shin 心) will become internalized at some point. Thank “waxed on; waxed off.” In other words, the gestures of the band players were constructed, a fact I later learned to be true.

The theatre of phrasing

So what are we to make of the physical expressiveness of the Japanese high school players as they approached the apex of the phrase?  Professor Hebert was familiar with the topic but didn’t explore it in his book. I later learned about the process during a Japanese high school band workshop I attended in North Vancouver, of all places. (Right in my back yard!) I was told that the gestures were devised by the students themselves, not the band director.

I detect a Ph.D. dissertation in the making, asking questions like: Why do they make the gestures? Are they motivated by an inward need to be expressive? Or are they influenced by the histrionics of the Japanese pop world, called Visual kei (ヴィジュアル系 bijuaru kei)?  Is it a case of transformation suggested by Whistle a Happy Tune?

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!

Readings

David G. Hebert (2012) Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools

Boye Lafayette De Mente (2003) Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese

Carolyn Stevens (2007) Japanese Popular Music: Culture, Authenticity and Power

Lucy Green (2011) Learning, Teaching, and Musical Identity: Voices Across Cultures

Fife and Drum: a different ethnomusicology ensemble

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 15th, 2013

One of the intense pleasures of attending a music school in a large university is the opportunity to actually play music from other cultures, thanks to a department of ethnomusicology. The most common ensembles are gamelan from Indonesia, drum circles from sub-Sahara Africa, and various chamber music ensembles from East Asia and elsewhere. If the life-changing experiences were not enough, students are also awarded credit points for participation (given a certain level of commitment). The instruments in these ensembles require only rudimentary skills (although their execution can be honed to a fine edge) so the learning curve is entirely more forgiving, compared to WAM (Western Art Music) instruments.

But what about an ensemble closer to home? One seen through the same eyes of the ethnomusicologist?

Earlier I described a quintessential Canadian ensemble, with the violin at its core. Now I’m going to propose another ensemble that is definitely in left field, as far as ethnomusicology is concerned – The Fife and Drum.

Description

The fife and drum ensemble has been at the core of European and New World military music from the 16th to the 18th centuries, before they were replaced by military marching bands. For example, they were central to both sides of the American Revolution. Yankee Doodle Dandy was a fife and drum tune composed especially for the occasion to mock the Americans. And one of the central icons of American resilience is the famous painting called the Spirit of ’76, showing a drummer boy, and two determined yet weary men playing a fife and drum, as they engage the Brits in battle.

When dignitaries visit the American President at the White House, they are always treated to a brilliant performance of fife and drum by the (well-paid) Old Guard Fife and Drum Band.

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The fife is a very simple flute, with only six finger-holes, three for each hand. That’s right; no keys. It plays in 2 major tonalities and one related minor tonality, using occasional cross-fingerings. It is the shy and un-sophisticated member of the flute family. All that is required of the player is to finger the notes, articulate each one with the tongue in the classic gesture of “tu” (as in French familiar form of you), and blow like mad. It is meant to be played loudly, all the time. No arty dynamic contrasts need apply.  Further, playing in tune is not an issue.

The drum is the field drum, larger and more thunderous than the usual marching side drum. It is so central to the tradition that the fife and drum ensemble is sometimes simply called a Drum Corp, and its leader with the mace, the Drum Major. Many drum students are only too familiar with a snare drum study book called the Drummer’s Heritage, compiled by Frederick Fennell in 1956. The book is still used to teach the rudiments of snare drumming, and two of its classic pieces, Three Camps, and Downfall of Paris, are found on countless assessments and auditions. As beginner drummers leaf through the book, they must wonder why there is so much flute music interspersed with the snare drum studies, not realizing that the book is also a primer for fife and drum ensembles. When Royal Conservatory of Music percussion students play the two classic pieces mentioned above for their practical music assessment, they always bring a flutist or better yet, a piccoloist (or sad to say, a pianist) to play the accompanying melody.

The most famous maker of fifes and field drums is Cooperman Drums which has an extensive collection of historically-minded percussion and fifes. Browsing through their catalogue is like time travelling combined with the excitement of a military musical adventure. When you follow the fife and drum links in YouTube you discover that the performance of fife and drum music is combined with precision marching in intricate formations. Memorisation is a requirement. You can encounter occasional stage performances of fife and drum, but they are never sitting down.

Background

Up until the advent of the military band with its clarinets, trumpets, horns, etc. (likely an evolution of the Harmonie Band combined with the new fad in Turkish percussion) the dominant military band was the fife and drum ensemble.  Each group of 100 soldiers had one fifer and drummer, usually young boys, assigned to their unit, and all the various signals for daily life (e.g., wake up) and military maneuvers was signaled by the pair. When several companies marched together, they combined their fife and drummers to make up a fife and drum band. The signals were encoded in the drum part; the fifers simply provided a tune to elaborate and decorate the essential rhythm.  Like highland bagpipes, the combined sound of fifes was shrill and alarming, made even more effective because they were out of tune with each other. In effect, the pitch of each note of a melody was not a single strand of vibration (e.g., 440 Hz) but rather, a rope of pitches (from 435 to 445 Hz). Occasionally, the fifers are called upon to play bugles, the instrument of choice for cavalry musicians that must use the free hand to hold the reins of the horse.

My first exposure to a fife and drum corps was in Ottawa, on Canada Day. I was there with the National Youth Orchestra, and we flutists were on a break. The fife and drums of a Canadian regiment rounded the corner and stormed up the street, wreaking havoc on everybody’s ears while being thrilling and overwhelming to the bystanders. What most impressed our little knot of aspiring concert flutists was the degree of out-of-tuneness we avoided like the plague. For the fifers, it was a valued performance practice!

Fife and Drum in North America

Today, fifes and drums are found in two areas of activity; in the hands of re-enactors who populate historical forts throughout northeast North America, both in Canada and the US in the summer, and in clubs called, Ancient Fife and Drum Corps, found especially in Connecticut. The latter also dress in costume as re-enactors, often participating in re-enactments such as famous battles. They also march in town parades and most important, gather together every week for years to rehearse because they are avid hobbyist (i.e. avocational) musicians. The resulting close-knit bonds of friendships are often proudly displayed during competitions to choose the best marching fife and drum band.

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Then there are the marvelous fifers among the black people of Mississippi who formed the Fife and Drum Blues, with Napoleon Strickland at the height of the tradition. As can be expected, their music is loose and playful to the point of cheeky. Nevertheless, their brisk tempos belie the impression of casual performances.

Fife and Drum in Ireland

The Fife and drum appears further afield, in a controversial setting. The protestant Orangemen of Northern Ireland have adopted the fife and drum as their political and national call to arms. Every year on “the Twelfth”, the 12 day of July, Irish Protestants celebrate the Battle of the Boyne where protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic James II in 1690. Even today, the screaming sounds of fifes and the cacophonous roar of drums is heard on that tense day when the Orangemen marched through the catholic streets of Belfast and elsewhere during The Troubles (late 60s to late 90s). Orangemen have figured prominently in the history of Canada, from the Fenian Raids (1866-1871) to the modern-day parades through city streets until the early 70s. I once had a wonderful visit with the local Orangemen’s fife and drum band when they marched from their hall in Sapperton district, New Westminster to Hume Park. In order to hear their entire repertoire, I had to march with them along the entire route, parallel on the sidewalk!

Fife and Drum in Japan

Finally, the fife and drum band can be seen in the parallel universe of the Japanese traditional hayashi 囃子 ensembles, consisting of flutes (shinobue 篠笛), drums (taiko太鼓) and a modest little gong called a kane (鉦). The modern-day taiko ensemble is distantly related to this folksy phenomenon, but without the sweet little sound of the flute and the happy-go-lucky dums and tuks of the drums. Count yourself very lucky indeed if you are in Japan during a Shinto festival when the streets are filled with dancers, accompanied by a hayashi ensemble. The music for the hayashi has a very interesting layering effect where the downbeat is different for each layer, resulting in intense concentration and/or hilarity. For an entirely different mood, the hayashi ensemble can transform into a Noh drama hayashi, providing ritualized dance music in a mysterious and sombre atmosphere.

Fife and Drum at UBC School of Music?

The ensemble would be mostly visible in the greater community. Given that it is essentially a marching band, the corps would regularly play for the students by marching through the campus, perhaps at lunch time on Fridays, when students are celebrating the end of the week. Who would participate in the band? Percussion students would have a field day, playing their much loved instruments in such a spectacular setting. The flutists of the schools would likely enjoy “slumming” on a flute that is pure fun, with no career attachments. All students, including non-music students would be welcome if they can figure out how to make a flute face (i.e., embouchure) and march to the beat of the drum and the inner memory of their music.

So many possibilities. So much fun.

Readings

James Clarke (2011) Connecticut’s Fife & Drum Tradition

Stephen D. Mecredy (2000) Fort Henry: An Illustrated History

Raoul Camus (1976) Military Music of the American Revolution

Terence A. Lancashire (2013) An Introduction to Japanese Folk Performing Arts

The Regimental Drum Major Association (online military band marching manuals)
http://drummajor.net/1Manuals.htm

 

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