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

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Compression Hold

A weakness of the basic contredanse hold without pelvic contact between partners is exposed when the follower is led to move directly backward.

The only lead force in that direction comes from the picture arms (lead's left, follower's right) which, extended distally from the bodies, introduces a turning moment around the vertical axis of the spine.

An equilibriating moment cannot be provided by the enclosing arms unless:
  • the palms of both dancers are able to extend to the far side of their partner's spines;
  • the follower provides 'hand brake' resistance by pushing her left hand against the ventral face of the leader's right shoulder; or,
  • the partners to maintain contact along their embracing arms as a integrated member - follower's underside, leader's topside - using friction, and resolving the turning moment via core muscles of the abdomen.
These strategies are less than ideal because they rely on the follower's core muscles' ability to resist rotation. How much resistance is enough? How would the dancer distinguish between a turning moment as a by-product of the hold, or one actually intended as a lead-information, without prior knowledge of the intended choreography?

The Compression Hold
places the follower between two gentle and equal opposing forces so that no turning moment is created when led to move backwards. This is achieved through simple modifications to the contredanse hold.

From the lead's perspective:
  1. the palm and wrist of the picture (left) arm is oriented to the follower's spine on the vertical plane;
  2. the wrist of the enclosing (right) arm is placed on the point of the follower's torso such that the lead's left palm, the follower's spine, and the lead's right wrist lie on a straight line; and,
  3. a gentle force inward to the follower's spine (vertical turning axis) is applied from each wrist, thus placing the follower under compression.
From the follower's perspective:
  1. the palm and wrist of the picture (right) arm is toned to complete the compression frame, requiring a matched resistant force against the leader's inward-squeezing force.
The remainder of the session was spent assessing the effectiveness of compression hold in linear cardinal directions; and, in rotations of the partnered-frame where the vertical turning axis was located: mid-point between the partners, through the lead's spine, and through the follower's spine.

Loo Yen

The Infinity Engine

It's the first workshop of 2017 and Solares participants have officially surprised me.

I've never had the luxury of laying down such a comprehensive foundation before (three years in March) and there had been hints, through questions asked and connections made, that we were on the cusp of a critical advance.

Last night we began with a "slowandslow" warm-up; which functioned as a recap for those who had attended the week before, and a chance for me to bring those whom hadn't up to speed. By the third song, after some minor remediation of foot 'turnout' to free up the hips, everyone displayed a smooth rhythmic flowing joint cascade from ball of foot to hips.

I thought I'd 'risk it, biscuit'

The Infinity Engine
I paused the music and asked everyone to extend the joint cascade "upward to the floating ribs and across into the (solar) plexus".

Although bio-mechanically inaccurate since the floating ribs can't be articulated in a manner in-line with the cascade, the learning point still manages to encourage lateral movement of the torso using the lower back. The 'floating rib-plexus' learning point:
  • elevates the part of the body calibrated to the beat from the foot to the torso;
  • enables the torso's rhythmic articulation to function as the master clock, distributing timing to the extremities;
  • activates a kinaesthetic unit (i.e. torso) which is universal (i.e. involved in all movement activity) and congruent with the perceived seat of emotion (i.e. heart), laying the foundation for linking the feeling of movement with the feeling of emotion (i.e. how we move affects how we feel); and,
  • promotes earlier foot-placement in preparation for transfer of weight, subconsciously, rendering the dancer less perturbable to partner vibration due to the earlier traction event.
When the music resumed, I could see each and every one pulling the rhythm up from the floor like a long pair of socks, up to their ribs. A little learning intervention was involved where I performed the practice with each participant behind me, his/her palms pressed to either side of my rib cage.

As their lateral torso movement came under improved control, the rounded hip action (due to torque from the joint cascade) began filtering through. The result was a lower-torso or 'floating rib' action which described on the horizontal plane a symmetrical infinity symbol ∞. This was how it was described by one of the participants, and I think it's a snazzy description (for those with a maths/physics background) for the Cuban son engine.

At the end of the exercise, I asked for their feedback. It was seismic. Everyone felt a greater response to, and a heightened engagement with the music. Dancers whom considered themselves extremity-centric or internally silent discovered themselves transformed, alive with a new palpable feeling of rhythm at the centre of their being.

The big leap for me was that, in the past, I would have to teach the infinity engine deliberately; which was not always the best solution - the results would look forced, and it would always take more work to make it look natural. This route, with the right building blocks in place, resulted in the natural generation of the infinity engine. "At last!" I thought to myself.

The discussion bounced back and forth with passionate energy. One observed that the infinity engine was unforced compared to the rumba engine. Another wondered if her hips were moving too much. Then someone asked, "how do we translate Tuesdays (workshop material) into Saturdays (dance nights)?" There were nods of agreement.

Giddy with success, I risked another biscuit... (see following post)