Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Different Drummer Percussion Ensemble

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
-  Henry David Thoreau

Blend in. Stand out. These four words have been the mantra of my music class for decades and they still hold up. Two opposites paired together that means art is in the neighborhood, one of the few human endeavors capable of holding both together at once. The trick is to know when each is called for and how much and in what combination.

When it comes to music, the “blend in” mandate is clear. No group agreement about beat, rhythm, pitch and such means no music. I demonstrate this in workshops by asking everyone to sing Twinkle Little Star. I then sing it at a slower tempo or in a different key or overbearingly loudly or with different words and everyone immediately gets that what we take for granted, our mutual agreement of text, tempo, rhythm, key, melody, is an unspoken blending that we are capable of achieving without too much effort. But to sing with precise rhythm, good diction, good intonation, adding harmonies and counter-melodies and elaborate forms is the very stuff of music education, formal or informal. Blending at higher and higher levels of expression, nuance and subtlety. And when all parts are in accord, are harmonious with each other, whether we are the musicians or the listeners, we are refreshed, lifted up into a glory larger than our small selves. It’s not the kind of blending in that asks to narrow ourselves, give up identity to join the masses, it’s the kind that asks us to enlarge our identity.

Not all music equally accents the standing out part, but virtually all musical styles and practices have the idea of the soloist, whether it be the singer or violinist or improvising jazz saxophonist. Here’s the moment when the musician reveals a long-cultivated character that carries an unmistakable individuality, a sense of personal voice that will remind of us of our uniqueness and win our admiration. Every time we compose, choreograph, improvise or create in one way or another, we are stepping forth and standing out from the ensemble, supported by them and giving energy back to them at the same time. The Orff approach is big on the standing-out part of the equation, with so many ways for kids to express their unique character and developing voice.

How does this work in music class? When kids are out of control and subverting the group process by calling attention to themselves—dancing the wrong step, going too far into the circle, playing too loudly and so on—I have a way to talk to them beyond “Stop! You are bad!” I ask them to consider if this is a moment to blend in and stand out and if they don’t know, I’ll tell them. Occasionally, I’ll stop the activity, form a circle around the kid, set a timer and say, “Go! You have one minute to express yourself however you think you need to now and we’ll watch you. When the timer goes off, either join the group or sit on the side.” That gets their attention.

Equally troublesome, but more benign and often unnoticed by the teacher, is the child who refuses to solo. It’s a delicate affair. You can’t force them into it until they feel safe, confident and ready. But it’s important to let them know that their voice is needed in the world and no one knows how yet, but this is the time to start practicing and trying it out. We need the boisterous ones to blend in and the shy ones to stand out and that frames the way we plan our lessons and run our classes.

And so to Thoreau. He was clearly a loner in a way that I (and others) admire. Someone courageous enough to listen for his own drummer, especially when the beat around him seemed too boring and monotone and tedious and uninteresting. We would all do well to tune our ears to the rhythms that speak who we are.

But some New Agers took this as rampant permission for everyone to do their own thing, everyone soloing and no one supporting and what kind of music is that? So while we tune to our own drummers, we also need to tune to the drummers around us and try out each other’s beats. Not at the expense of our own, but joining in the collective need to make ensemble music, a kind of Different Drummer Percussion Ensemble where somehow the parts blend.

We often stand out in the wrong way, parade around banging out drum just to be different and showing indifference to the greater community. We also might blend in in the wrong way, mindlessly following the current trend or kowtowing unthinkingly to the party line. Like I said, finding the blend that animates life and refreshes the community is an artful endeavor, not easily won or understood. And thus, worth our while.

Blend in. Stand out. The music of different drummers brought into accord.

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