Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Stretching and Consolidating - The Best Of Both Worlds

What constitutes a 'stretch' session, and what constitutes a 'consolidation' session?
At Solares last night, we spent the workshop: performing the Caribbean sway; partnered in Caribbean hold; with atiempo embodiment rhythm; mentally articulating on-and-off the boogaloo back-beats; and changing partners.

This was where we'd left off the week before.

Would this be considered a consolidation session?
On the face of it, "yes". I consider consolidation to encompass naturalisation, as per the lower tiers of Bloom's taxonomy. In neurophysiological terms, it constitutes locating the motor engram out of the pyramidal system into the extra-pyramidal system (for an introduction, see 'Brain and Learning a Motor Skill' by Paul Roper).

But what about the level of challenge each participant faces in improving the quality of execution?

Should this be considered a stretch session?
All the refinements to movement; the personal reflexion engendered through comparison by juxtaposition with changing dance partners; the interpretation of increasingly fine musical nuances, should these not be regarded as legitimate learning challenges which stretch the participant?

The detailed attention and effort required to modify an extra-pyramidal motor engram is immense. That's why articulation and precision are qualities of skills located in the upper tiers of Bloom's taxonomy.

Are we privileging the quantitative over the qualitative?
Is a 'stretch' session that which has quantitatively new material e.g. a new move, a new rhythm?
Is a 'consolidation' session that which has qualitatively new material e.g. neater execution of a dance basic, a clearer articulation of a musical expression?

They are both new. It's just that 'stretch' is sexier because quantitative newness is overt. The covertness of 'consolidation's qualitative newness is an understatedly elegant grey suit. The brain is stimulated by the novel (see 'Multitasking: The Brain Seeks Novelty') to such an extent that we even learn better when stimulated by novelty (see 'Learning By Surprise'): I ensure that every workshop is designed around at least one novel element.

My concern is with the labels of 'stretch' and 'consolidation' which are unhelpful, even misleading, to the detriment of qualitative progression; such that I'm inclined apriori to reject them in favour of an as-yet-to-be-determined something else. I've flagged an investigation into them and and their meaning as a matter of priority.

In the meantime, I will continue to execute sessions of qualitative and quantitative advancement, through the introduction of new content and use of novel approaches.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Clarity Of Purpose

Up until this point, all experiences with the backbeat timeline were individual. I considered it necessary, so that each participant would develop a personal understanding between their developing instrumentalism and the music.

The ethos has yielded more success than I'd allowed myself to anticipate. But I wanted more. The quality of the practice, whilst good for individual consumption, was not yet on par with my higher ambitions for them. So tonight I upped the ante.

Exercise 1: Rhythm virtualisation, boogaloo, solo
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Single shaker, played into the opposing palm, boogaloo rhythm (beats 4 & 2). Participants were encouraged to listen to the shaker rhythm, memorise its timbre and timing, then mentally maintain it through sporadically stopping and resuming the playing of the shaker.

Exercise 2: Rhythm virtualisation, boogaloo, partnered
Partnered, Caribbean hold, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Since they were in hold, no shakers were played; thus there was a reliance on the mental articulation of the boogaloo rhythm.

The emphasis was on maintaining the virtual sound of the rhythm in the mind. This was targeted though my calls of: "boogaloo off", when mental articulation was suspended; and "boogaloo on", when mental articulation resumed.

First Cycle Outcomes
Participants were perturbed in their personal mental articulation of rhythm because of the addition of a significant real-life variable: a dance partner.

They found it challenging to maintain the virtual boogaloo backbeat in the presence of additional noise/vibration. One participant called it a complete "eye-opener", illuminating the stringency to which Exercise 1 (above) had to be performed.

With this new clarity of purpose still ringing in their minds, I charged them to pay better attention to their execution of the solo rhythm virtualisation practice to the purpose of rhythmic resilience.

Exercise 1, repeated twice
A participant asked as to what level to insulate himself from external rhythmic input.

I iterated that the exercise was, at this basic level, to develop rhythmic resilience of the self. If that meant a complete rejection of external rhythmic input was necessary, then so be it. I cautioned that in the long-term, the rejection approach would lead to an imperative, non-collaborative, partner relationship. Hence it is necessary that all dancers become so self-resilient that they would accommodate with high levels of external noise/vibration.

Exercise 2, repeated once

Second Cycle Outcomes
Participants displayed and reported markedly less rhythmic perturbation. Moreover, they were showing signs that they were:
  • negotiating rhythms with their partners, observed by the quality of establishment of partnered synchrony at early "boogaloo on"; and
  • meshing the embodiment rhythm with the boogaloo back-beat into a personal compound time-code, observed through their rhythmic placement and attack, and consistency.
The value of any exercise lies not simply in the skills it develops, but equally in the understanding of its possible applications. This means that hindsight provides a powerful lens through which an exercise's value can be appreciated. Tonight's experience is a case in point.

The realm of instruction centres on the setting and attainment of achievable goals. One elemental question a teacher faces is, "when can we move in?"

For its ability to illuminate Clarity of Purpose, Hindsight is a potent ally.

Yeo Loo Yen

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Güiro and Campana

I've been striking a balance between 'stretch' and 'consolidation' sessions, and have been finding it particularly challenging because I'm having to rely on my observational feedback than verbal feedback from Solares participants.

That's because these practices are so novel in this context, that participants don't have any reference points in how to articulate their experiences, and what experiences are useful. Recognising this, I shall devote some part of the next Solares to the framing of feedback responses, so that I can help them better.

The other challenge is that of the pacing of delivery. As a person already proficient in the skills being developed, I can observe the external signs of competence but cannot reliably gauge the qualitative level of internalisation. My instinct is to give them more time for practice, which is in tension with my ethos of having a high 'Teachers Expectation Factor' so that participants benefit from the Rosenthal Effect.

Again this is something I will have to articulate at the next session. I think everyone is far enough adapted to the format to be able to provide a contextually considered response.

Back-beat components of the güiro rhythm
So the session developed, after a recap warm-up, with the use of the shaker playing double-beats on the backbeat i.e. on beats 2,2+ and 4,4+.

The fundamental rationale was that these beats were a literal interpretation of a compnentnt of a basic rhythm played on the güiro (gourd scraper). I contextualised this with a demonstration on the güiro, and participants synchronised their shaker tones with the backbeat strokes.

I also gave them the traditional vocalisation of the güiro rhythm as:
"aeowh-chik-chik, aeowh-chik-chik..."
where: "aeowh" intiates on beats 1 and 3 and lasts the entire quarter note; and "chik-chik" initiates on beats 2,2+ and 4,4+.

A key improvement to their articulation on shaker was to draw attention to their over-use of the top of the shaker shell; the tonal strikes for the top and bottom of the bead enclosure were roughly equal in number and volume. I expressed a desire for a greater contrast: using the bottom of the shell, and hardly any strikes on the top of the shell. They got the idea and cleaned up their articulation after just two songs worth of practice, allowing them to engage with higher tempo music.

Introduction to the concept of rhythm surfaces
The same rhythm was played, but instead the shaker moving in free space, it was played into the horizontal palm of the opposing hand. This gave the sound: a sharper initial envelope (shaker shell onto skin); and, a longer tail (uncontrolled impact of beads all over the interior of the shell). One rhythm, two very different voices.

Back-beat components of the campana rhythm
The introduction to 'rhythm surfaces' segment served as a bridge to exercises using the campana rhythm, which is idential to that interpreted on the güiro. The salient difference is the envelope of the tones, which has a profound impact on: how the rhythm is perceived, and the instrumentalist's relationship with other musicians.

I demonstrated the complete bongó bell rhythm, where participants synchronised their shaker tones with the backbeat strokes. I did not provide the vocalisation. Participants seemed quite taken with the güiro vocalisation, and I was loathe to distract them from their fun.

Participants found that:
  1. they could get into a state of entrainment sooner because of their level of practice. I indicated that the objective was to be able to slip into entrainment within the opening seconds of a song.
  2. the güiro rhythm initially diffused the backbeat modulation on their dance rhythm. When asked whether this was still the case after sustained practice, the answer came back as a 'no'. This indicated that they'd made a snap judgement, before sufficient proficiency had been gained. The take-home learning point was "keep practicing the rhythm until it grooves".
  3. in some cases, they were beginning to synchronise the movements of different parts of their bodies to different instruments. (This was very good news to me, for research purposes!)
The session was wrapped up by highlighting:
  • what a difference a single beat made to the feel of a rhythm - the comparison was made between the tumbao moderno and the güiro rhythm;
  • that attention needed to be paid in the quality of their practice, as demonstrated in the shaker technique;
  • changes in playing surface have a profound impact on the way a rhythm is perceived; and,
  • that they had an additional two instruments to which they could synchronise their embodiment rhythm.
Loo Yeo

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A Musician's Relationship

"So why is it that playing a different rhythm, even a very closely-related one, causes the performer to listen to different things in the music?"

We began by interpreted the audible tones of the conga's tumbao moderno on the (more easily accessible) shakers. That exercise is designed for participants:
  1. to know, actively, where the tones are located in the music; and,
  2. to feel where those tones were relative to the embodiment (dance) timeline.
As proficiency increases, the actual tones of the conga in the music become obscured through the phenomenon of 'sonic masking'. This results in two displacements:
  • the conga tones become inaudible, replaced by the sound of the shaker, and
  • the participant assumes the position of the conguero within the context of the song.

Visualise the stage
In an example salsa ensemble, the (in this case, female) conguero is located at the centre of the stage. Immediately to her left is the timbalero, and beyond the timbalero, the bongosero, To her right is pianista, behind-right is the bajista. The metalles are arranged in an arc, curving from the bongosero's left, on the far side of the stage, to behind the timbalero. The singers playing percusión menor are in front.

The role and relationships of the conguero
When Arsenio Rodriguez brought his brother Israel a.k.a. 'Kike' into his ensemble to play tumbadoras (congas), he discovered that incorporating the drums increased rhythmic stability. When performing as conguero, I lock with the piano player's montuno and the bass player's tumbao, facilitated by clave phrasing. Then I listen to the vocalist. The congas provide the bedrock of percussion on which the timbales ride.

The role and relationships of percusión menor in boogaloo
My personal experience of the New York boogaloo (see Commentary: 13th June 2009 Joe Bataan @Rumberos, The Wardrobe, Leeds) changed the way I listened to the genre. Joe Bataan distilled the genre down to its very essence: just vocals and piano, punctuated by backbeat accents from hand-claps or tambourine. When I'm on hand percussion expressing the backbeats (clapping hands, shaking tambourines) I put the piano and vocals foremost; letting my backbeats frame the bubbly piano, and provide percussive counterpoint to the vocal interjections. Bandleader Pucho Brown famously described New York's boogaloo as "cha-cha (sic) with a backbeat", a sentiment I agree with. If the ensemble is interpreting boogaloo in this way, then I let the accents perch on top of the conga's tumbao, and lock with the chachachá bell on the timbales.

Salsa musicianship, and some approaches to its dancing, adheres the African aesthetic of 'individuals performing in unity' (Farris Thompson, 2011). To achieve this, co-operative musicianship is exercised where each musician plays his/her part of the story, co-ordinated through the clave-pulse relationship, which all combine to present the whole. Thus:
Each musician knows his/her part relative to everyone else's.
A solares participant displacing the conguero would listen to the instruments to which the conga has a keen relationship. If that same participant where then to change rhythms and displace the percusión menor boogaloo performer, then the instruments listen to and related with will also change.

State of play
Two of the participants has had prior experience in ensemble playing, neither of them in the context of Afro-Caribbean music. I expect that they will build relationships with the most obvious instruments first: those commonly present and with the most similar roles in European music. Indeed, I'm targeting those first, as 'easy wins'.

We might be high up the heirarchy in Bloom's taxonomy, but that's just with two simple rhythms. The sobering thought is how to get there with the complex members of the various timelines.

Baby steps.

Farris Thompson, Robert (2011). Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music. USA : Periscope Publishing.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Heads, Hearts And Hands

Last weekend, in between my DJing slots at ¡Parranda!, one of Solares' participants made a significant observation. It goes something like this (I'm paraphrasing):

"When I play the tumbao moderno rhythm, I listen to certain instruments. When I play the boogaloo rhythm, I listen to different instruments. Each rhythm I play, causes me listen to different parts in the music."

I've been waiting for that observation.

It indicates attainment in Bloom's: Analysis stage of the Cognitive (knowing/head) domain; the complex Valuing-Organisation stages of the Affective (feeling/heart) domain; and, the Perceptual stage of the Psychomotor (doing/hands) domain. Three other participants had alluded to being at similar points of development, but this was the first crystallised articulation.

 All Rights Acknowledged.
It means that for the majority of Solares participants, they are well up the hierarchies. There is much more case-example to be learned to facilitate Synthesis (cognitive) and Characterisation (affective), but we are within the threshold of Skilled Movements (psychomotor).

That tells me where they're at. Next, I have to explain the observation.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Introduction To The Boogaloo Rhythm

Tonight, I introduced Solares to the boogaloo rhythm.

It had reached that stage where the tumbao moderno practice was in danger of being entrenched, of participants feeling that the tones were synonymous with the back-beat; and they're not - they are one of a number.

So it was late on in the day, the last ten minutes of the session, when I put it on as a contrasting activity (they'd made good headway into the shaker-tumbao entrainment exercises).

It began as a briefing, that a feature of the boogaloo is in how the backbeat timeline is highlighted with hand-claps - present or implied.

We then listened to a number of tracks from the original boogaloo period out of New York i.e. 'chachachá with a backbeat' (e.g. Joe Cuba); to migrated interpretations in Puerto Rico (e.g. El Gran Combo), and Colombia (e.g. Grupo Gale); and modern versions.

Participants were then given one track with which to clap along to, using both hands or one hand against a thigh; and another track where the shaker single tone was substituted for a hand clap.

There is work yet to be done, for participants to be presented with a progressive flow of exercises next session. But the introduction served its purpose: to illuminate the path ahead for the backbeat timeline workshops.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Two Feelings, Two Walks

We began Solares as we did last week: playing the audible tones of the tumbao moderno: "gung-gung" and "pak" on the shaker; while performing the Caribbean sway basic. Having made such delicious progress last week, I was keen to maintain the practice so that participants could reliably and quickly enter the state of flow.

Throughout the session, entrainment was achieved more quickly at under two minutes and in songs at higher tempi ~160bpm. Encouraging though this is, there is still a distance to be made up, with my 'holy grail' objectives being entrainment: in less than thirty seconds, and at a tempo of +190bpm.

Additional challenge was incorporated by the use of two shakers, one in each hand, of differing tone and/or loudness.

Two Feelings
Participants began to "drive into the floor" i.e. derive more leverage (stack joint toque curves) from the floor. Because they had not yet been shown how to damp the resultant force, it evidenced as a more staccato 'punchy' movement. They were not aware that they were moving more percussively.

I drew their attention to this, and asked them to accentuate the sway in the cradle of their hips, to deflect (not dampen) the resultant sideways. This restored the smooth action, but with an intrinsic gain of power.

The shorthand for the two qualities was "punchy" and "smooth".

Two Walks
We also investigated the relevance of the two shaker tones: the single, and the double, with respect to the salsa walk. At this point, I introduced them to the concept of the two walks:

The 'rhythmic walk' where the vocalisation and step-sizes are matched as "short-short-long" to create the "quick-quick-slow" rhythm. This walk opens a clear space for the double tone of the shaker.

The 'pinch-a-bit walk' where: the first step is taken early on beat one; the second step is 'in the pocket' on beat two; and, the third step is taken late on beat three. It's called the 'pinch-a-bit' because the dancer pinches time from both sides of beat four to give it to the first and third steps. This results in a smoother, slower, flat-triplet feel to the walk. As the second step was taken in the pocket, this was synchronised with the single tone of the shaker.

We took the time to have a qualitative discussion on the merits of both, and the circumstances under which they might be preferentially employed.

Additional supporting information was provided by referring to my web tutorial on:

'Figure 2.2. Fault tolerance' illustrates the two variations of walks.

The row labelled 'Tones' corresponds to the back-beat timeline played on the shaker(s).

The row labelled 'Accurate' represents the 'short-short-long' rhythmic walk.

The row labelled '2, slow' represents the smooth 'pinch a bit' walk (for torneo and setenta). '2' means it's calibrated to beat 2 (single shake of shaker); 'slow' means a pinch more time is added between steps 1&2, and 2&3.

That we are now examining the qualitative rhythmic nature of dance in solares is encouraging. It shows that participants are developing an increased sensitivity to the aural and kinesthetic dimensions of dance. And the possibility of greater fulfilment. I wonder what that might look like.