To confer and to confront

Posted on August 3, 2016


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The “San Glasgow Team”. From left to right: Faith Foster, me, Mitchell Stokes, Kelsey Sexton and Dawn Carpenter

I miss the old days, when doing a conference entailed sequencing a few heart-warming anecdotes from Venezuela, and where the only challenge was choosing the right tone and tenor to leave the audience bathed in moral elevation having heard firsthand the power of music. I particularly missed those days at 3am last Wednesday morning when I was frantically, desperately putting the finishing touches to the spoken paper I delivered at ISME Glasgow on “Understanding Social Action through Music,” scrutinizing every sentence, every turn of phrase for logical sequence and precision of expression. This process of self-critique was motivated not just by personal pride but by the certainty that an extremely well-informed, discerning audience would be doing the same. And they did…

July was conference month. On July 5th, four students from UNC Charlotte performed, and I presented at a special session of the International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition in San Francisco. ICMPC accorded us an exceptional honor, providing airfares for the students (my participation was supported by the NEC Sistema Fellows Program) and presenting them as the only performance of the entire week. Conference Chair Ted Zanto extended the invitation after seeing this video from an early rehearsal that outlined the concept.

ICMPC is the largest, most prestigious event of its kind in the world, a 5-day exploration into the interface of music and the mind. This was not a Sistema conference but a highly scientific event with relentless emphasis on rigour of methodology and accuracy of data. Much of the research presented is fascinating in its own right, but rarefied, largely divorced from the art form that inspired it. The quartet represented a rare convergence of science and art, the summation of many perceptual principles explained in the literature, only represented in the act of performance.

This project represents an essential step in my ongoing work towards a social pedagogy. The quartet in the video is just one, perhaps extreme, manifestation of it, the ultimate act of cohesion, collaboration and negotiation, scaled down for reasons of economics, not feasibility. In my case, art preceded research: it was only after the quartet was formed and active that I attempted to understand how they were able to function. In my readings, I was encouraged by the realization that science can explain much, but not everything that happens on that stage. How 4 musicians, or 120 musicians, each with an individual concept of time, can execute a downbeat together with their eyes closed still remains a mystery, flying in the face of logic and conventional wisdom.

Pedagogical innovation, regardless of motivation or intention, is only of value if it can produce results equal to or better than existing tools. So a key element of this project was to compare the group playing in a “sighted” configuration against a performance in “unsighted” configuration, AND to ensure that any variance in the results was not simply randomly generated. This required a knowledge of statistical analysis that I didn’t possess, and had to acquire in very short period of time. So I cracked the books, set up an online study and crunched the incoming numbers. In every instance, the unsighted quartet played as well as or better than the quartet in the sighted position. (0.021 > p >0.00001). If the propositional logic of the ISME paper (on an entirely different but extremely complex topic) caused me sleepless nights, the ICMPC paper caused me sleepless weeks as I checked, double-checked and triple-checked the research and the math, getting comfortable with two-tailed T tests or Fischer z transformations. (Curious discovery: had these studies been compulsory in my degree program I would have resented them bitterly and faired far less well. In this instance I was highly motivated and personally interested.)


Working with the Big Noise students in Raploch

The external and impartial artistic validation was welcome, because this work continues to challenge the most deeply held, traditional beliefs in music. Even with peer review approval, international conference appearances and mainstream media, it leaves some individuals feeling very threatened. In particular, it seems to expose a dichotomy between performer and teacher. In every instance of public display – Baltimore in April, Raploch and Glasgow in July, informed music educators habitually responded positively, some ecstatically. Performers from the Conservatory tradition were generally extremely resistant and fearful, finding reasons to dismiss it out of hand. Conservatories conserve, of course, they are not in the business of innovation. When the quartet performed last Thursday July 28th in Glasgow at ISME 2016, the largest music education conference in the world, the audience was one of highly informed music educators (almost all holding advanced degrees) so the reception was uniformly positive – once some had swallowed their disbelief.

The performer/pedagogue reception gulf is an emerging concern. Richard Hallam’s research project on the Reflective Teacher (link is to an early version: more responses have since been tabulated) is as discomfiting as it is illuminating, making clear that public school music educators have as much if not more interest in the social and emotional well-being of their charges than their Sistema counterparts. In talking with one of my students in Glasgow, the only music education major in the quartet, I recognized that notwithstanding my efforts to engage the musicians in Sistema, he already possessed a very strong sense of social purpose and orientation in his work. Of course he did. That’s what motivated him to devote his life to the study of music and education through formal certification channels.

The quartet project is intended as a statement, a disruption, a way to challenge many deeply-held beliefs about music education, the nature of leadership, and what it truly means to empower musicians. It is a search for an artistic, cognitive and perceptual boundary that remains undefined and undiscovered. It is a manifestation of a social pedagogy, not the manifestation, an additional tool in the toolkit but not a replacement for the existing ones. The innovation is not in the act, since a number of quartets have rehearsed in this manner, but the extension of it to the entire performance process and larger ensembles, from the silence before the first note to the silence after it. Standby for further disruptions.





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