Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Maracas

Warm-up: Refinements to back-beat definitions
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Single shaker, played to the campana-güiro backbeat rhythm (beats 4,4+ and 2,2+). The definition was augmented where:
  • the güiro backbeat variation was defined as being played by one hand, oscillating in free space; and,
  • the campana backbeat variation was defined as being played by one hand into the palm of the other.
This is because the scraper of the güiro moves in freely over the surface of the gourd, while the beater of the campana creates its sound through impact. The two approaches on the shaker are the best approximations in translation.

During early practice of the campana backbeat rhythm, some participants expressed inability to get into the groove (i.e. state of entrainment). This was because they had inadvertently 'frozen' their upper body by keeping their receiving palm rigid in space; and both elbows close to the sides of the torso.

Freedom was regained using a rhythmic clapping action where both hands were accelerated to each other, and the elbows kept a distance away from the rib cage. As the participants achieved entrainment, I pointed out how the clapping activity could be used to calibrate the rhythmic engine carried in the upper torso. I further suggested that the shaker could be impacted against the side of the thigh, like tambourine players do.

The arising of the problem and its solution was a fortunate happenstance. It made everyone aware of how physical restriction stymies rhythmic freedom, and it allowed me to pose the question,
"What is the minimum individual space needed for rhythm?"
That certainly caused a period of individual thought and experimentation. To which I then added,
"Do you allow your partner that minimum distance when you dance? For example, in Rueda (de Casino)?"
As I've come to expect (and encourage), every participant expressed her/his own preference for the variations, and feeling for the groove.

Backbeat Timeline: Maracas

Briefing: Maracas as a 'sexed-pair' instrument
Each pair comprises: a 'macho' [male] which is higher-pitched and more aggressive in tone, and an 'hembra' [female] which is lower-pitched and mellower in tone.

Briefing: How to hold maracas
The balance-point of a maraca should be slightly above the neck of the instrument. The neck is positioned between the first and second fingers of the hand, meaning that the head would tip over if uncontrolled. The first and second knuckles are the most stable in the hand, this allows for the most efficient transfer of force from the body, and the most control. Holding maracas by their necks is the shortest distance between the hands and the enclosed beads, without dampening the bead enclosure. It also allows the option for their handles to be played.

Exercise One: Playing the maraca backbeat rhythm
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Macho in non-dominant hand, hembra in dominant hand. Macho tones on the backbeats (beats 4 and 2), hembra tones on the backbeat upbeats (beats 4+ and 2+); hence the basic maraca backbeat rhythm is played as macho-hembra couplets on beats 4,4+ and  2,2+.


Participants found the rhythm easier to play because tones are distributed across two shakers, and enjoyed the experience more. This is because:
  1. return of the beads to the shaker-bowl (and their collection) was no longer a rate-limiting factor i.e. they could initiate the upbeat tones (4+ and 2+) before the beads of the downbeat tones (4 and 2) had regrouped;
  2. the wave-length of actuation, formerly limited to the shaker to the elbow, could be extended up the upper limb into the shoulder and torso; and
  3. the greater involvement of muscle units provided more kinesthetic feedback to rhythm - participants could feel the rhythm better.
A mark of how well their rhythmic foundation was laid came with a particular question, "do we play 'swish' or 'tight' tones?" It provided clear sign of good cognitive capacity, motor articulation, self-reflexion, musicality, experimentation, synthesis, and creativity - all of which are upper-tier properties in Bloom's taxonomy.

My response was, as usual, "it depends." The two main factors were: whichever the maraquero/a felt best suited the music; and whether the style of playing would help or hinder playing at higher tempi.

This session completed the basic vocabulary of back-beat rhythms for solares participants. A landmark moment. But we're just one step away from greater things.

Loo Yeo

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