Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Strictly in the Pocket, Musically in the Pocket

The phenomenon of participants being unable to return to their original preferred attack after 'pushing' is indicative of a lack of conscious control/determination: their preferred attack was subconsciously determined instead of consciously selected. This is not unusual; just like everyone has a natural cadence when they walk, everyone has a preferred attack when perform a rhythmic activity.

The original intention was to explore the limits (early and late attacks) of the beat boundary to engender the realisation at the beat, instead of being a small slice of time, is actually expansive. However, having participants being able to return reliably to a central position is more valuable for developing their sensitivity to what different attack positions feels like - in this case, 'pushed' and 'in the pocket'.

To help participants understand the 'in the pocket' attack without using a metronome (which can be a musical straight-jacket) I needed a metaphor...

Learning Metaphor
"Imagine you're dancing with someone whose timing is all over the place: early, late; and (s)he is hopping around unpredictably. We've all been there right? (nods of agreement). Imagine that you wanted to provide strict time to your partner, 'command time' if you will, telling your partner exactly and clearly where the beat is."

Exercise One: Dancing and playing maracas with the learning metaphor
Solo practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. The maracas where played with the learning metaphor in mind; in strict middle attack as if indicating to an imaginary partner where the precise centre of the beat was.

The outcome of the exercise could be divided into two groups:
  1. one group of participants interpreted the exercise correctly played their maracas 'in the pocket'; and,
  2. the other group interpreted the learning metaphor as if they where to accommodate their less-proficient imaginary partner as much as possible. They adjusted their attack to 'late' in order to do so.
While the latter was interesting and will be useful in a few sessions' time, it was the former group which was chosen to provide the group activity bench-mark. The difference between the two, put bluntly, is "dictating to your partner what to do" and "accommodating your partner as much as possible".

All participants, being socially-astute, observed that they would be disinclined to dictate timing to their dance partner in the former manner - it felt selfish and arrogant. I agreed, but indicated that there might be some conditions e.g. in rueda de casino performances when it would be appropriate.

The session was fortunate to have two participants whom played two variations of 'in the pocket': 'strictly in the pocket' (rigidly metronomic) and 'musically in the pocket' (flexibly metronomic). Both of them where used as benchmark references during the ensemble activity.

Exercise Two
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. Three roles where specified, with responsibilities similar to those in the previous session with some minor changes (underlined):
  • 'Director'
    cues the playing of maracas on or off while embodiment rhythm was maintained;
  • 'Producer'
    indicates the attack and its quality of implementation using the cues 'push' and 'in the pocket'; and,
  • 'Synchroniser'
    cues the ensemble to 'synchronise', and to reduce the 'offset' between maracas attack and embodiment attack.
The roles where made non-exclusive i.e. the selected participant had general responsibility for the allocated functions, but others could intervene when they felt appropriate. This was pitched as a maximisation of learning opportunities within the group.

The 'in the pocket' benchmarks succeeded in neutralising the forward creep of the middle attack when the ensemble moved between 'push' and 'in the pocket' attacks. (Observed last week.)

Rendering the roles non-exclusive stimulated playful exploration, eliminating defensive behaviour and uncertainty. (Observed last week.) This aspect was hyper-corrected: all participants keenly engaged with the exploration, leaving none of them with a strong sense of what each role entailed. This will have to be addressed in a later session.

Participants observed that the two flavours of 'in the pocket' was bench-marked as: tightly synchronous on the maraca tone marking the quarter beats (vocalised as 'chik'); and loosely synchronous on the maraca tone marking the eighth beats (vocalised as 'a').

Most participants observed that the 'in the pocket' attack was marginally earlier than their preferred/default attack. This will be the focus of further exploration in an upcoming session.

Issues noted in the previous session have been resolved. However, the roles have dissolved and will need to be coalesced for the sake of future activity. The number of roles will be increased, and the functions of each will be expanded in future workshops, to establish a broader palette of elements which participants may create from. In keeping with this trajectory, the 'late' attack will have to be addressed imminently.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"This is the path creativity takes"

Creativity is the hallmark of Mastery. Eminent educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom recognised it as such and manifested it in different guises at the pinnacle of his taxonomies.

Another property of creativity is its ability, and requirement even, to disrupt. It's our curiosity to explore the side-streets off the main learning avenue which good teachers plan to accommodate, keeping learners in tune with their inventive minds. But in the realms of social dance (and the martial arts) a traditional lesson structure is commonly deployed; illuminating only the one main thoroughfare, leaving learners with the impression that only one route exists. And yet these learners are expected become creative at some juncture.

When should learners be encouraged to be creative?
Can educators tolerate, let alone accommodate, the kind of disruption creative expression causes?
Worse yet, have Michelangelos and Artemisias of dance been overlooked, because tradition has driven them elsewhere?

These are the very questions driving the revision of my pedagogical system, structure and style:
  • to preserve, stimulate, and develop creativity from the onset;
  • to provide a learning structure which can flex to accommodate creative disruption; and,
  • to establish a place where creativity and artistry can be recognised in oneself and in one another.
To that end I've adopted a two-pronged approach:
  1. The first is the 'sticking plaster' of illuminating the side-streets and accommodating their exploration. I consider this a sticking plaster because creativity is more accommodated than it is integrated - an adaptation of a conventional approach.
  2. The second, still being articulated, brings creative decision-making into the core, where all routes are potentially valid - a paradigm shift. To provide the requisite structure (staving off learning anarchy), possibly two or more recommended routes will be explored as serving suggestions.
For the creative approach to succeed, the manner of delivery must be person-centred and it must stimulate artistic thought. The latter is the focus of current endeavour, and I am helped by a wonderful discovery: Will Gompertz's 'Think Like an Artist' (2015) (reviewed in a later post). There is one particularly apt observation:
"Passion - enthusiasm if you prefer - is the spur that makes us want to know more. It provides the impulse for the thoughtful enquiry that generates the knowledge, which fires our imagination to come up with ideas. These lead to the experiments that eventually result in the production of a realized concept. This is the path creativity takes."
From that one simple paragraph a taxonomy in the creativity domain might be created:
  1. Passion,
  2. Thoughtful enquiry,
  3. Knowledge curation,
  4. Imagination,
  5. Realisation.
It might not be refined, but it already presents itself as a workable premise on which to hang principles and practices.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Early Attack, Middle Attack

Today began the laying of the foundations for a true learning ensemble. Unlike previous group work where a participant might learning from oneself or one other per exercise, the group exercise (there was only one) was configured specifically for opportunities to learn from everyone simultaneously, accelerating the pace of development yet further.

Exercise One
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. Three roles where specified, the:
  1. 'Director'
    cues the playing of maracas on or off while embodiment rhythm was maintained;
  2. 'Producer'
    indicates the attack and its quality of implementation using the cues 'push' and 'return'; and,
  3. 'Synchroniser'
    assesses whether ensemble synchronisation is maintained or lost, and cues the group accordingly.
Multiple iterations were performed, with the roles being switched from person to person so that everyone had a go.

The exercise, for all its simplicity, proved highly successful. The ensemble underwent continuous improvement because participants: had to observe actively, and observe critically; experienced personal discovery through juxtaposition; and interacted constructively.

The latter, constructive interaction, was less successful because each designated person had assumed that their role was exclusive - possibly a custom imported from rueda de casino calling. Others where reluctant to intrude even if it was for the greater good, and there was a small measure of defensiveness from the role-holder when there was an intrusion. This will have to be addressed during an upcoming session. An example of this was when a Producer thought that the ensemble was pushing at the limit of the beat, when in fact there was room to push earlier, and a non-Producer was aware of this, yet was not comfortable to say so.

Some individuals had a better natural feel for one role over another. It leads me to think of potential talent being overlooked in rueda de casino where only one role - the caller - is prevalent.

A participant astutely observed that the role of 'Producer', whose responsibility is quality of implementation, should be a federated role i.e. that all dancers of the ensemble should assume that responsibility. I agreed completely, noting that the first step to doing so was to render participants aware of this role before rolling it out.

As for the attack itself, participants had improved since the last session. They understood the concept of 'push' and where able to mobilise themselves into the front part of the beat. However, that distorted their perception of where the 'return' (their original attack in the middle of the beat) was; their 'return' was earlier than when they began the exercise - and they where aware of this phenomenon. This will be addressed in an upcoming session.

By distributing various simple responsibilities across the ensemble, a heightened engagement was realised. This has led to a more involving learning experience, improved performance, yielded a better sense of musical self, a clearer understanding of others' abilities, and endowed the group with independence and a new coalescence.

Loo Yeo

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Benchmarking The Push

The previous session had me questioning whether I'd pushed solares participants too hard. An instructor can tell when people are at their learning limits by observing the quality of inconsistency: the larger the swings, the closer the limit. Last week the percussionist-dancers at Solares where at cliff's edge.

I was inclined to ease up on the development pace, but because we'd been working together for a long while, I felt it important that participants able to feed back their thoughts and experiences to me. So i consulted each of them in turn, in private conversation. They were all of similar mind:
  • Yes, they found it hard at first to grasp the concepts. That made it difficult for them to know how to perform the exercises. But they all felt that, now they know what was required, continued reiterations of the exercises would improve them.
  • None of them wanted the pace to be slowed.
  • All of them wanted more exercises in ensemble.
  • Every one of them felt they understood the importance, relevance, and desirability of the skills being developed.
  • Each of them wanted me to stick with this theme and develop it to its fullest possible extent.
It seemed to me that the most appropriate solution was to concentrate on one attack position until consistent fluency was achieved, before moving on to the next - a process which I estimate will take more than a month per position. Ordered from easiest to most challenging, it would be 'pushed', 'laid back', then 'in the pocket'. I would provide the benchmark attack against pre-recorded studio tracks as reference.

So that's how last night's session panned out. Just one exercise, reiterated:

Exercise One: Benchmarking to music, 'pushed' attack
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. I then joined the ensemble, providing the benchmark through playing the maracas in the early 'pushed' attack position.


The ensemble's attack kept slipping towards a later position whenever the benchmark was absent.
This was because the consciously-played maracas 'pushed' attack was being pulled back by the subconsciously-played embodiment 'in the pocket' attack. There are two possible solutions to this, either: fully-decouple one attack from the other (very challenging), or fully align the maracas and embodiment attacks (slightly less challenging). We went for the latter.

Pushing the embodiment attack earlier resulted in maracas attack being too early. This is because each individual had grown accustomed to the interval-distance between the two attacks - the offset - and subconsciously preserved it as the embodiment attack was 'pushed' earlier i.e. the same offset was maintained as the embodiment attack was pushed earlier, making the maracas attack earlier still, to the point when it was off time. The solution is to decrease the offset.

I anticipate that we will continue with the practice for a few more weeks, until participants gain a sense of: 'push' attack; how to adjust offset; and completely aligned attacks (maracas and embodiment). Along the way, we will be exploring parts of the beat which they have hitherto never explored before.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Percussion Concept: Reference-setting And Benchmarking

Exercise One: Reference-setting, embodiment+conga compound timeline
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, tumbao moderno on conga. The introduction of the conga was to provide an external timeline to which participants could combine with their embodiment timeline (external synchrony) thereby creating a compound timeline as a reference.

I called for changes in attack of the maracas timeline, moving from the extremes of 'pushed' and 'laid back' through an intermediate point labelled 'return'. 'Return' was used instead of 'in the pocket' because the inconsistency of maracas performance could not have allowed it to be located.

The primary objective was to set up a reference timeline. This was successful.
The secondary objective was to begin the performance of attack in ensemble. This was quantitatively successful in that everyone did move in the correct directions, but qualitatively needed improvement in synchrony and magnitude.

Exercise Two: Reference-setting, embodiment+maracas compound timeline
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, tumbao moderno on conga. This changed the reference timeline to an internal one; where the compound timeline is formed from the embodiment timeline and the maracas timeline (internal synchrony) autonomy, and external synchrony. They were to maintain this in ensemble at a steady pace, while I played the tumbao moderno in the three attack positions. Participants found this exercise:
  • illuminating, because they where able to experience the extent to which a relative timeline could be 'pushed' or 'laid back', and complemented 'in the pocket' relative to their reference timeline; and,
  • challenging, because their lack of stability made it easy for the conga's attack to pull their reference timeline around.
"In light of the positions of attack, what is the importance of synchrony and autonomy?"

Exercise Two(a)
Repeated as above, but this time the ensemble was arranged in a group facing inward to each other. This configuration (typical of ensemble playing) draws performers in together, promoting synchrony.

Exercise Three: Benchmarking to music
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. I then joined the ensemble, providing the benchmark through playing the maracas in the three attack positions. This gave participants a flavour of the extent by which attack affected perception of beat duration, providing with the scope of upcoming developments in Solares.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Percussion Concept: The Positions Of Attack

Warm up
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. This exercise was to assess how participants had developed over the week with respect to the 'second state of independence' - the ability to execute both rhythms without using music as a crutch. They were much better able to do so.

However they displayed two typical traits of novices: they were not yet assessing the quality of execution from the perspective of musicality i.e. it was mechanically correct but sounded lifeless; and, the maraca rhythm relative to the embodiment rhythm was passive and languid.

Briefing: late or 'laid back' attack, early or 'pushed' attack, 'centre' or 'in the pocket' attack
I asked them to maintain a steady embodiment rhythm without maracas (using it as the reference rhythm) and played the maracas as they had done defining it as a 'late' or 'laid back' attack. I then played the maracas in a brighter, more forward musical position defining it as an 'early' or pushed' attack. Finally, I played the maracas in the time-keeping central position defining it as a 'centre' or 'in the pocket' attack.

Exercise One: Synchronising to 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. A steady embodiment rhythm (as reference) was maintained by all participants in ensemble. I provided the maracas rhythm moving between pushed, laid back, and centre attacks (as benchmark) to which they synchronised their maracas rhythms.

Exercise Two: Individual practice, 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks
Solo practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. Having gained a taste for the three attack positions, participants were encouraged to replicate and manipulate attack using the maracas rhythm with their embodiment rhythm as reference. Their learning point was to play at the extremes of earliness and lateness whilst still being musical, returning to the centre as contrasting relief.

Exercise Three: Ensemble synchrony and autonomy, 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. A steady embodiment rhythm (as reference) was maintained by all participants in ensemble. This time, each participant was empowered to explore attack position (using their maracas) while in ensemble. The only two caveats where that synchronicity and musicality be maintained.

Exercise Four: Effect of 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks on relationship to music
Solo practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants were encouraged to discover if their relationship to instruments in a track changed when they adopted a different attack. For this exercise, a participant selected and played an attack position, then listened for which instruments (s)he had a clearer relationship with.

They all came back with a "yes".


1. The instruments you have a clear relationship with have a different attack
Let's take as an example, if the piano was 'in the pocket' and the congas were 'laid back'.
Playing maracas (or any other instrument):
  • 'in the pocket' would mask the piano, and one would experience the relationship the pianist has with the conguero;
  • 'laid back' would mask the congas, and one would experience the relationship the conguero has with the pianist; and,
  • 'pushed' would cause one to experience a qualitatively different third-party relationship with both the pianist and the conguero.
2. Percussion attack is affected by accustomed dance attack
This is particularly so with novices whom have yet to achieve 'attack independence'. If a participant is accustomed to dancing 'laid back', then the maracas attack will tend to it as well. Even if the participant intends a 'pushed' attack on maracas, early attempts will tend for it to be later than intended i.e. somewhere between 'pushed' and 'in the pocket'.

With novices. the attack of playing will be close to the attack of dancing, but it won't be identical. Both embodiment and instrument attack will have a close, comfortable relationship. Most people find the masking effect of identical attacks to be disconcerting.

3. Attack can be used as a diagnostic method
If a participant where to play and dance at his/her accustomed attack, then his/her relationship to the instruments can be used to derive the position of his/her attack. For example if there where three instruments of different attack:
  • lead vocals 'pushed'
  • piano 'in the pocket'
  • conga 'laid back'
A strong music relationship with the conga and vocalist would indicate an attack closer to 'in the pocket'. Taking it one step further, if there where two participants, each having a strong relationship with the piano, but one with the lead vocals and the other with the conga; it would indicate a potential challenge in dancing together, especially if the leader was the former and the follower was the latter.

Yeo Loo Yen

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Synchronous Rhythm And Autonomous Rhythm In Equilibrium

Last Tuesday's solares began not quite as well as I would have liked.

It was supposed to start off with a simple warm-up of son montuno maracas rhythm, "slowandslow" embodiment rhythm variation, and infinity engine; and build from there. What I got instead was one out of three: the "slowandslow" embodiment rhythm variation. The infinity engine was a no-show. More disconcertingly the maracas strokes were played in direct correlation (1:1) with the embodiment rhythm instead of the proper twice the cycle speed.

Evidently the participants had failed to invest in themselves with practice. But at least they were honest about it. There was nothing to be gained from anything other than turning the workshop into an extended practice session. So I shelved the intended content and designed the practice session on-the-fly. For the practice session to be useful, it could not be a dry punitive exercise in drudgery; that would hardly be an incentive for later self-practice. The session needed to be interesting and challenging and rewarding.

A deeper evaluation of their proficiencies was needed, so I asked them to perform the embodiment rhythm and the son montuno maracas rhythm without music. It didn't take long to see that participants:
  • were unaccustomed to playing on their own;
  • relied on music as a crutch; and
  • had never listened critically to the musicality of their playing i.e. it was purely mechanical in sound production.
These characteristics are not uncommon in developing percussionists. Therefore what had to be done next was principally well-established: to increase the quality of execution by improving musicality. The novelty was that I would use a balance of synchrony and autonomy exercises to achieve it. Synchronous practices would help diffuse my playing expertise through the group. Autonomous practices would promote the sense of individual ownership over their playing.

Synchronous Practices

Exercise 1: Side-by-side, facing the same direction
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration.

I deliberately didn't specify whether to execute this in phase or not, so participants freely experimented. Participants noted that their ability to synchronise with their partners improved with each iteration. When they partnered with me, their phrasing improved and their maracas began to sound less mechanical and more musical.

Exercise 2: Side-by-side, facing the same direction, "front" cue
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". Son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration. One partner designated static, the other moving.

With the "front" cue, the designated participant moves from the side position to in front of and facing their partner.
With the "side" cue, the designated participant returns to the side position.

This exercise introduces perturbation by requiring movement and the suppression of mirror neuron stimulus in the face-to-face position. With respect to the latter: all participants were dextral, and as a result, a mirror image cannot be maintained between partners' hands when they faced each other.

Participants were given the scope to explore the effect of phase under their own initiative. Again, each participant's ability to maintain synchrony with their partner improved iteration upon iteration as they 'toughened up' against the disturbances (i.e. became more autonomous).

Briefing: concordance and opposition positions
Synchronous rhythmic activities are easier in the side-by-side 'concordance' position. There is less reliance on the visual sense and, consequently, proportionally more use of the aural and kinesthetic. Confusion due to mirror neuron activity due to asymmetry is also minimised. The converse holds when partners adopt the face-to-face 'opposing' position.

Autonomous Practices

Exercise 3: Side-by-side, facing the same direction, "turn" cue
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". Son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration. One partner designated static, the other moving.

With the "turn" cue, the designated participant executes a half turn on the spot.

Partners begin by establishing synchrony. Upon issuance of the "turn" cue, the moving partner executes a slow half turn away from the static partner. This has the effect of decreasing the sound volume of their maracas (i.e. increasing autonomy) over the first quarter turn; and then increasing the sound volume (i.e. decreasing autonomy) over the second quarter turn.

Some participants experienced a sensation of 'tension synchrony' as if they were pulling against elastic when they turned away, and the elastic tension dissolved when they turned back to their starting position.

Briefing: "what's autonomous?"
Participants where not clear on the property of autonomy. This was because the requirement for autonomy is fleeting with Exercise 3 when the designated partner turns away from the static partner, presenting her/his body as a sonic baffle. The presence of 'tension synchrony' may have masked the sense of autonomy. I had a more involved exercise which would clarify that...

Exercise 4: Side-by-side, facing the same direction, "turn-back-turn-front" cues
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". Son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration. One partner designated static, the other moving.

With the "turn" cue, the designated participant executes a half turn on the spot, to face the opposite direction
With the "back" cue, the designated participant moves diagonally-forward into a back-to-back position with the static partner.
With the "turn" cue, the designated participant executes a half turn on the spot, to face the static partner's back.
With the "front" cue, the designated participant moves diagonally-forward to their original start position.

Autonomy is explored:
  • symmetrically after the "back" cue when both partners are unable to hear each other; and,
  • asymmetrically after the second "turn" cue when the static partner can hear the moving partner but not vice versa.

At the end of the session, participants felt that they:
  1. were playing more musically;
  2. understood each other's music-making personality better;
  3. were more capable of synchronising to others; and
  4. had greater autonomy and thus were less perturbable.
This session served as a taster in the delicate power possible when synchronous rhythm and autonomous rhythm are held in balance.

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the outcomes in synchrony, autonomy and self-realisation were encouraging. I foresee that solares will adopt this tack for the next few weeks, so that the good work done so far does not go to waste.

Loo Yeo