Saturday, July 27, 2013

Historical Example: How Valuable are the Arts Really?

Today, while continuing my frustrated lament of our modern educational system, I was thinking back to my undergraduate classes in world music. During those days I completed a number of PowerPoint presentations regarding Chinese stringed musical instruments and their history. I was surprised to discover that musical proficiency was not necessarily attained in order to pursue a career as a performer, but rather one of the main components that made up a learned person.  Colloquially, the important skills were known as “The Four Arts.”

The Four Arts of the Chinese gentlemen-scholars were thought to be: playing the Guqin (a seven stringed zither), playing the game of Qi (a chess-like board game), calligraphy, and painting.  In reading this during research I was surprised by the fact that three of the four “Arts” are actually fine arts – more specifically: music, literature, and visual art. Needless to say it’s quite a contrast from the subjects emphasized in our modern education where STEM (science, technology, English, and mathematics) are seen as the core “worthwhile” topics.

During the time that the “Four Arts” notion was popular (the Tang Dynasty, roughly 7th – 10th centuries) China enjoyed a thriving economy that included maritime trade as well as land trade with countries as far away as Greece and Egypt. They made significant contributions in medicine and philosophy and their civil engineering was the envy of the world.  China’s poetry, music, and theater influenced all of its neighbors including Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and India – and those influences are still seen today in the modern art of all these countries. China was a world leader in every sense of the word, including education. And when it came to their own education it is interesting to note that what they valued were things we might think of as “elective subjects.”

So, if history is any indication of what the future will look like – I would ask the question: “how valuable are the arts really?”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 4: Rhythm

Certainly rhythm is learned effectively in western musical traditions. Additionally, the western system of musical notation, in terms of rhythm, is phenomenally useful. Western music, however; on the whole doesn't tend to stray too far from triple or duple meter. This means that whenever an odd meter is encountered, it tends to be something that makes performers nervous.

While I think that the above presenter could certainly work on his organizational skills (just look at that mess!), I appreciate very much the points he is making - FYI, this system for learning is from South India and is somewhat different than the system used in the north. 

On the other hand, Indian Classical Music, with its system of taal is very well suited for teaching (what westerners would call) “irregular” rhythms.  The most typical rhythm cycles (like Western music) fall into duple or triple meter, but it is not uncommon to hear rhythms that are seven beats long (3+2+2) or 14 beats (3+4+3+4). Furthermore, the system of teaching how to identify parts of the rhythmic phrase (such as strong and weak sections) is incredibly useful. Once students are able to tackle a few compositions in the more unusual cycles, a simple odd meter will never bother them again.

Here is a primer on rhythmic concepts from a wonderful musician - Also the owner of the lesson site World Music 

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 3: Improvisation

Western classical music used to have a rich tradition of improvisation. Many performers during the Baroque period were expected to be able to spontaneously create music. During the classical period almost all the cadenzas of a concerto were improvised. What happened? Today, Jazz is really the only remaining vanguard of western improvisation.*

Every Jazz musician knows how vital it is to be able to think quickly when it comes to improvisation, so studying a system that has thousands of years of improvisational development under its belt seems like a good idea. This in many ways goes along with the ear training portion; Indian Classical Music’s study methods usually involve palta-s and Alankar-s which stress musical patterns over a drone. These patterns range from the super-simple to the ultra-complex (and every phase in-between).  Memorizing these patterns means that the performer is able to call upon virtually every scale degree and every interval almost at a whim.


Of course, calling up random scale degrees and intervals is not all that is involved in the task of melodic improvisation. As the above video teaches us; there is also the issue of making something that is pleasing and interesting – not to mention "novel."  Fortunately, the western-trained musician is in luck here. Where western music took the route to develop complex harmonies that supported melodies, the melodies in Indian Classical music had to thrive on their own. Anyone who listens to an instrumental or vocal alap during a performance can tell you that these musicians exercise incredible restraint and creativity in order to deliver the best possible musical product.

It should be mentioned, however; that instruments which are heavily dependent on harmony such as guitar and piano will benefit somewhat less from this.  The instruments that benefit the most from this portion of ICM training are monophonic instruments such as woodwinds, strings, and of course the human voice (please see the ear-training blog).  Best of all, the training is, for the most part, universal which means that a vocal instructor would be able to instruct a cellist, a sitar player would be able to instruct a flutist and so on.

*I understand that many jam-rock bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish are known for their long improvisations. I also understand that there are many popular acts that fall outside of Jazz that also improvise. Furthermore there are some modern performers within the tradition of western classical music who are attempting to bring back the older forms of improvisation – I made a sweeping remark for the sake of brevity only. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Intermediate Works for Violin, Cello, and Piano

Two new compositions by the composer Misha Kolesoski are available for purchase from The first is a three movement piano trio based off of Shakespeare's play Macbeth. The pieces are fun and playable, they are also brief and move quickly which makes them ideal for a student recital or other multi-musician event. The best part is that each of the three performers (violin, cello, and piano) have a chance to shine while playing. 

The second composition available is Seven Themes for Violin and Piano. These are more involved later-intermediate vignettes that focus on violin melody and piano accompaniment.  There are compositions in a wide range of moods and styles including a tango, a gigue, and meditation. This work would also be ideal for any pianist and violinist needing soft/elegant music for a recital or other musical performance. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 2: Ear Training

Don’t get me wrong, ear training is very much a component in western music pedagogy. What we are discussing in the section is the method of teaching the student to hear musical notes and identify melodic structure/contour.  In this respect, I believe the Indian aural system has a leg-up.

Consider the aural tradition in general, when melodies can’t be written down the pressure to memorize them immediately and quickly becomes a major priority. Of course, modern Indian musicians can easily notate their melodies, but the consensus seems to be that it loses something in the translation (or perhaps more appropriately, transcription). Therefore, the system of continuous “listen and repeat” until the melody is learned is a huge boon to the performing musician.

This can only be done with a very acute pair of ears, and training them to recognize patterns is an arduous and difficult task.  With perseverance, however; it can be accomplished to the point of mastery. North Indian music offers a system of “Alankar” and “Palta” which are essentially melodic patterns sung (and played) over a drone, they move from the hyper-simplistic to the extremely complex (and long).  The student is meant to master these both before and alongside their repertoire study.

From an anecdotal standpoint, I learned more ear-training in 6 months of doing palta-s than I did in my first two years at college.  This led me to consider a way to implement these methods in a more “western” context.  I now teach all of my students a hybridized version of Italian solfege patterns and traditional Hindustani Palta-s, and I am happy to report that the results have been wonderfully successful. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

An Open Response to "Want A Job? Don't Bother With These Degrees" by Jennifer Berry

Logging into my email I stumbled across the article: “Want a Job? Don’t Bother With These Degrees” by Jennifer Berry. It’s a recent trend in blogs and online writings that I am seeing more and more lately. It seems there is a slew of weekend authors turned guidance counselors who hold a major ambition to steer college students away from the fine arts. Citing high unemployment and the down economy, these fierce guardians of personal economic security are bent on warning parents and young scholars to avoid creative fields at all costs.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. The authors’ ignorance of history and total disregard for the long-term needs of our society leaves me with an irritation that I can hardly express in words. I can’t totally blame the authors though; it is symptomatic of the greater issues surrounding our culture, especially in relationship to the economy. When employment is scarce there are many who feel justified in their obsession with short-term gains and completely disregard what happens to the next generation, or the generation following. 

These articles (carelessly) advise students not to pursue degrees in arts, philosophy, or religion – all hallmarks of traditional higher learning. Instead (as Berry does) they recommend that young people look into more trade-oriented diplomas such as nursing and finance. This leads me to the main issue surrounding these ignorance-peddlers. There is a fundamental question facing our society regarding higher learning: does college exist to train the next generation of intellectuals, or is it simply there as vocational training? More and more people seem to be gravitating towards the latter.

If our research universities (now becoming dwarfed by the onslaught of “for profit” schools) currently exist simply to train young people to do a job, why fuss with a four year degree at all? Putting it bluntly, a nurse is not a better nurse for knowing classics, argumentative fallacies, or the history of the French revolution – therefore; if someone is earning an accounting degree, that should be all the student is squared to learn, why delve into any other subjects whatsoever? After all, it won’t boost their all-important earning potential. Wouldn't it be better to set up small, inexpensive vocational/technical schools where these positions could be filled?

So our destiny is to be cogs in the capitalist machine, we don’t need art, music, philosophy, ethics, historians, or advanced thinkers of any kind. All we need are human drones trudging off into the workforce to perpetuate a monetary cycle so that everyone can keep happily feeding the hyper-materialistic culture we have erected.

I wonder how long it will take society to realize that the power to change these ugly assumptions rests in all of us. We can make our colleges and universities a real place to advance human pursuits. We can embrace skepticism, music, art, and science which all feed into and support each other. Finally, we can reject the notion that intellectualism is something to be feared. The humanities are a pathway to a more enlightened civilization, which in our age of paranoia, selfishness, and celebrated self-centeredness is something we desperately need. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 1: Introduction

After several years of studying Indian Classical Music (still very much a beginner in many ways) it just doesn't sound that exotic to me anymore. This is actually something about which I am quite happy. Even more-so, Indian Classical Music has become such a regular part of my daily routine it's rather strange to me that not everyone knows what Raga and Tala mean. They have never heard of Ram Naryan, baba Allauddin Khan or Rabindranath Tagore.

Almost two years ago I posted a video on YouTube where I asked the question: “does anyone think it’s strange that the whole world studies western classical music?” Though no one created any responses, I would be wholeheartedly surprised if any person answered in the affirmative. The idea of violin/cello/piano schools in every continent of the planet seems to be something of a mundane fact. Nobody bats an eye over the notion that several of the most accomplished European classical musicians have family and cultural roots that go back to Asia, not Europe.

So my next question would be: “why then, if the rest of the world has embraced our classical traditions have we not reciprocated?” Why is it still a novelty to see a young American playing a spike fiddle or Sarangi? Is it possible that this ignorance stems from the same notion that (for so long) informed us that western classical music is the greatest/most sophisticated music that exists?

Surely in our modern age global intercommunication and cultural diversity we have overcome that outmoded idea. Therefore I suppose the short answer to the question “why should American musicians study Indian Classical Music?” could be answered with another question: “why should American musicians European Classical Music?”