September 25, 2016

The Fist Clap

I was recently at a live music event where the music inspired audience participation in the form of clapping. The people on either side of me looked in puzzlement when I chose to fist clap. Afterwards, one of them said, “What’s with that?”
For many years I’ve been involved in the field of aesthetic education where teachers and students study works of art and find ways to connect them to their grade level and curriculum. A work of art could be in the field of dance, writing, visual arts or music. I’ve been fortunate to be able to witness some incredible performances, none more so than the a cappella Gospel group The Fairfield Four, from Nashville. My first impression of them was visual: the five members (yes there are sometimes five members in the Fairfield Four) wore blue jean overalls with black tuxedo jackets and bow ties, suggesting earthy elegance. During one song, “Standing in the Safety Zone,” they started swaying rhythmically to the music while fist clapping on the back beat.
The Fairfield Four

So what is it? The fist clap simply looks like this:
It struck me as one of the hippest things I’d ever seen. We normally associate the fist with aggression. In this context it portrayed subtle power and provided just enough rhythmic backbeat to propel the music but not interfere with the vocal harmonies. From that day on I was a fist clapper. Next time you’re at an event where the music inspires clapping, give it a try. Make sure you’re on the backbeat: 1, 2, 3, 4. Of course it’s best done while standing and swaying in time with the music. Don’t be bothered by those around you who might look askance. If they are hip at all, they will get on board with their own fist claps. As a bonus, it’s easier on the hands.
Just for practice, try fist clapping with this version of the Fairfield Four’s “Standing in the Safety Zone.” Feels good, doesn’t it?

September 5, 2016

Return of the MOOC

Last spring from July 2015 through February of 2016 I was engaged in an intense new experience creating a (FREE) Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for Hamilton College entitled Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players. The tech team at Hamilton brought to life my ideas for presenting jazz to a worldwide audience. In its inaugural run, over 9,200 people signed up from 134 countries. The response was overwhelmingly positive after the 6-week run. We explored such major concepts as swing, improvisation, and group interaction. The course was designed to appeal to casual fans and musicians alike.
Acknowledging the success of the spring launch, Hamilton decided to run the course again. We have added new material and revamped modules in response to class discussion. The first week of the course launches at 7 PM EST tonight, and it is not too late to sign up. You may take the course at your own pace and there are no deadlines. Each week’s content is delivered to your email exactly one week after the previous week. Even if you are reading this well after the launch date, you may still sign up and begin participating in the course.
Here is alink to an introductory video which takes you to a sign-up. Hope you’ll join us.

August 20, 2016

The Universal Language

We recently took a trip outside the U.S. borders, specifically across the pond to the U.K. The impetus for the trip was attending and presenting at the bi-annual conference of the International Society for Music Education (ISME). Glasgow was the host city for this gathering, that saw 1500 participants from every continent except Antarctica. In addition one thousand performers displayed their talents during the 5-day conference. While the phrase “music is the universal language” may seem quaint, it sums up the character and flavor of this organization and the conference.
Music educators gathered to present their research and expertise on music education, both current practices and future initiatives. At any given time during the week you could attend an interactive demonstration, hear a research paper presentation, or watch a student concert. The sessions went from the practical, such as “How to Get Parents/Guardians on Your Side” to a session that should have received an award for creative titles: “Featherless Dinosaurs and the Hip-Hop Simulacrum.” About 95% of the presentations were forward-thinking, embracing the latest technology and pedagogy. I was pleased to see brisk business at a corner kiosk, where a couple demonstrated their approach to introducing music with ocarinas. I presented a series of video excerpts from the Fillius Jazz Archive, and a workshop on the poetry of the blues.
The best part of the trip for us was the confluence of musical styles and performers from around the globe. A sampling of the live performances I heard included: Håkan Rydin, a Swedish jazz pianist playing a medley of “Here There and Everywhere” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”; an African Dance/Music ensemble from Kent State, Ohio; the Palestine Youth Orchestra performing a thrilling version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”; and a raucous English pep band whose repertoire included “The Theme from Hawaii Five-O.”
My conviction that music more than any other art form or product crosses all borders was confirmed when I heard a Scottish bar band across from our hotel playing “The Wanderer” by Dion & the Belmonts.
The Scottish people are incredibly cordial, and even when we couldn’t understand what they were saying, I admired their inherently musical speech patterns.
In my role as Director of the Fillius Jazz Archive I took advantage of the opportunity to gather interviews with non-U.S. artists. My delightful session with Swedish jazz pianist Håkan Rydin was followed by an intense conversation with guitarist extraordinaire Laurence Juber.
Monk Rowe and Laurence Juber
While not a household name, Laurence is a Grammy award winning guitarist and has been a first-call studio musician in both London and Los Angeles. He has performed and recorded with three of the four Beatles, including a three-year stint with Wings. We might assume that having “done it all” would lead to a sort of musical retirement, but Mr. Juber constantly seeks new challenges, championing the acoustic guitar in multiple settings, and paying it forward by working with young people in educational settings. I smiled at his recollection from his early years:
MR:         Can I ask what your parents thought about your path?
LJ:         I mean they were fine with me playing the guitar, from their point of view, as long as I had something to fall back on.
We indulged our Fab Four fandom with a Beatles walking tour through London, a stroll across the Abbey Road crosswalk, and the requisite Beatles bus tour in Liverpool. I’m not sure which was cooler – seeing George Frideric Handel’s resting place in Westminster Abbey, or the house where John and Paul wrote many of their early hits.
The U.K. sent us the Beatles, Handel and David Bowie, while we exported Ellington, Chuck Berry and Leonard Bernstein. Quid pro quo I guess.