The three pillars of good teaching

After years of thinking about teaching from both the perspective of a student and a teacher, I have come to the conclusion that good teaching is fundamentally comprised of three things:

1.) Competence

2.) Organization

3.) Passion

Without competence the students don’t trust the teacher. Without organization the students get confused. Without passion the students aren’t inspired.

Good teaching is based on trust, clarity, and inspiration, which result from competence, organization, and passion.

A good teacher needs all three. Many teachers have two out of three, some only have one, and the worst teachers have none. For example, when a teacher is organized and passionate but incompetent the student doesn’t trust the information. Why should he? If the teacher can’t do the thing that he’s teaching why would the student trust that anything he says is true?

Likewise, if the teacher is competent and passionate, but disorganized, the student quickly becomes confused. Organized pedagogy moves forward incrementally, without creating gaps or holes that require further repairs, thus wasting time and embedding bad habits.

And, a teacher may be very competent and organized, but if she lacks passion for the subject then the student won’t feel inspired. Passion is infectious, and can spark a fire in a student that lasts a lifetime, indeed, many lifetimes if that student eventually becomes a teacher and moves the knowledge to another generation.

Competence, organization, and passion. Nothing more, but nothing less.

Motorcycle overnighter

I recently revved out of town for a night of motorcycle camping. I’ve dreamed of doing this for years and I finally have the bike for it, a 2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 outfitted with full luggage, windshield, handguards, engine guards, and a phone charger from the battery tender line.

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I love that bike. It’s comfortable and easy to see (and be seen), but it’s got a Kawi Ninja engine and it can really rip, even when you’re up at speed. It will carve up twisties with no problem, it handles gravel roads just fine (even with the stock street tires), but even at sixth gear at 85 mph on the freeway it still has plenty of juice to zip away from lousy drivers. With about 64 hp and 61 Nm of torque and a top speed of 124 mph, it’s an awesome machine.

So I headed West, as all young(ish) men do, interstate 80 to Pennsylvania, then back roads to a campground in the middle of the state. I love those lonely back roads. They’re quiet, intimate, and they link one to the small towns in America that are still home to millions of people, worlds away from the urban and suburban trails I usually tread.

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I even found a bit of gravel.

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Eventually I made it to the campground. I got a fire going and enjoyed some pizza and pop tarts for dinner (yeah, yeah, not so healthy . . .)

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It was a sweet spot, with a stream running just a few feet away. It was cool enough to keep the bugs away, but not so cold that I couldn’t sit by the fire and sing Dhrupad for an hour as it got dark.

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I slept well and was back on the road by 6:30 a.m. I never leave much later than that. I’m up early and always excited to get back on the bike. I put in my ear plugs and don my fabulous Shoei full-faced helmet and off I go on that intense meditation, not so different than Dhrupad, actually. The feeling of that machine working right underneath me, completely connected to the road, and the undulations of the highway, is beyond description. The stakes are high, and so is my concentration, higher than almost any other time in my life. I was home by noon, refreshed and shiny, glad to be alive and able to ride that impressive bike throughout this diverse and epic country. I’m counting the days until my next adventure.

Memorizing mallet percussion music

Today I got to draw my favorite picture on the board for my students.
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That’s a percussion student standing on a dock and those are the shark-infested waters of memory slips in the water. One must build a dock with at least four pillars of support: (1) kinesthetic, (2) aural, (3) visualization, and (4) analysis.

Most developing mallet players only do 1 and 2, which is why they struggle with memory slips. 1 and 2 are important, but ultimately unreliable, especially when conditions are not ideal (e.g., cold room, no warm up, strange instrument, nervous, etc) 3 and 4 is where the real tedious work begins, but also guarantees a deeper knowledge of the piece, and is critical for preventing memory slips.

These ideas aren’t mine. Great pianists have been doing this for hundreds of years. I also learned this from Leigh Stevens when I attended his excellent marimba summer seminar in 1994. And then I learned it again in 2003 when I went on tour with Keiko Abe. Every day I would sit next to her on the bus as we went from town to town in Japan and she would have her eyes closed, in fierce concentration. Every once in a while she would pull out a score and study it for a few minutes and then put it back. She was visualizing herself playing the piece and whenever she got stuck and couldn’t remember which chunk of wood she was supposed to strike she would double check the score.

These techniques work. I tell my students about a book I read some years back that cited some research where scientists got together a group of people who had never thrown darts before. The scientists had everyone throw darts and they recorded the scores. Then the subjects were divided into three groups: a group that would physically practice throwing darts for a set time every day, a second group that would just visualize themselves throwing darts (and hitting the bulls eye), and a third group that would do a combination of throwing and visualizing every day. At the end of a period of time they all threw darts again and their scores were recorded.

The results were interesting. All of the subjects improved, but the group that improved the most was the group that did the combination of throwing and visualizing. But here’s what is really fascinating: the group that came in second was the group that only did the visualizing! The group that made the least progress was the group that only physically threw the darts.

Marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and glockenspiels aren’t much different than the bulls eye on a dart board. If you want to hit the right chunk of wood or metal every single time, no matter how adverse the conditions, you need to spend time visualizing yourself doing it successfully.

You also need to do some analysis of the piece so you have the structure mapped out in your mind. That works hand in hand with the visualization. The kind of analysis will change depending on the language of the piece. Obviously chord analysis won’t apply to a modern piece of chromatic music or a minimalist piece, but it really doesn’t matter how you analyze it or what terminology you use to label the different parts of the piece. What matters is that you have a road map in your head and that you can explain the piece to someone. Only then do you really have it learned.

Some thoughts on anger . . .

All my life I’ve been around people who can’t control their temper. I made a vow when I was young that I wouldn’t be like that. I’ve always felt that showing explosive anger towards other people is unproductive, unkind, and unprofessional. Even now as an adult, I’m still subject to this from time to time from colleagues in various situations. I’ve begun to understand that my role in this world to some extent is to absorb these outbursts. Of course it hurts. It’s offensive and it’s mean, but many people just can’t seem to master themselves. They struggle to see specific situations as part of a bigger picture, and they’re quick to point fingers at others without taking responsibility for their own failings. But we all fail at times. Not one of us is perfect. I’m not perfect, and that’s why I don’t scream at people when they make mistakes.
 
I’ve been criticized as a teacher for not being harder on my students. Some of my colleagues have suggested in the past that I “blast” them and “scream” at them when they make mistakes. But why? I see that as nothing more than arrogance from the teacher, showboating and posturing. How is it productive? In fact, it’s counter productive because then the students are only trying their best out of fear. How is that effective for their long-term growth and ability to solve problems on their own? And then I have to carry around that anger. I don’t want to carry that anger in my heart. I try to be honest with my students, but not mean.
 
It really boils down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. I try my best to live by that rule. It works. It’s logical. It makes the world a more productive and beautiful place.

The Scourge of Medium Yarn Mallets

One of the aspects of my career I enjoy most is performing and giving master classes at  universities and colleges.  I meet fabulous people and I like engaging with the next generation of composers and percussionists.  However, it seems that no matter where I go students have been afflicted with the scourge of medium yarn.  That is, when it comes to mallet playing, especially marimba playing, most of the time they default to medium yarn mallets.  Soft yarn comes in second and hard yarn a distant third.  In eighteen years of traveling all over the globe I have yet to hear a student use anything else.

But why not?  When I play marimba I use all manner of mallets, most of them home made.  This includes rubber, wood, plastic, paper, and regular yarn mallets that I cover with all sorts of different materials, including Tyvek, paper and plastic bags, Styrofoam, duct tape, flip flops, string, bags of bells, etc.  Sometimes I will also cover the marimba with bubble wrap or cloth or whatever else is on hand.  I frequently drop the upper manual of bars upon the lower manual; they then chatter away as I move around the instrument.  Sometimes I throw loose bundles of small dowels on the bars.  I’ve also experimented with preparing the instrument by taping various things to the bars that then rattle and buzz with each stroke or mute the bars, including plastic spoons, pieces of rubber, and cotton balls.

None of this damages the instrument.  Even wood mallets can be used in the low range of a marimba if one’s technique is sound.  To date I have not cracked a single bar and sometimes I play very, very hard.

I’m not the first marimbist to explore a broader timbral palette.  Keiko Abe used big, soft cluster mallets for many years.  My mentor at University of Michigan, Michael Udow, also used a wide variety of mallets, depending upon the situation.  But few percussionists of my generation or younger have explored a more wildly creative approach to sound when it comes to mallet instruments.  When I propose a more dramatic approach to mallet selection in master classes I’m frequently met with incredulity or even outright hostility.  There are many reasons for this.

First, I’ve observed that most developing percussionists are primarily concerned with their own physical comfort.  Medium yarn mallets feel good.  They sit nicely in the hands and they produce warm, resonant sounds across most of the instrument.  But while medium yarn mallets might be appropriate for some solo repertoire, they rarely sound good in ensemble situations.   They’re generally too soft and inarticulate, even when the players are amplified.  For most ensemble situations the player will need mallets that are much harder.  Unfortunately these are not nearly as comfortable.  Hard mallets reveal rhythmic imperfections in one’s passage work.  It is much harder to create the illusion of sustain when rolling.  Double, triple, and quadruple stops require greater precision to avoid flamming.  The trick to getting used to them is simply to practice with hard mallets.

Second, more than any other instrument save electric guitar, the percussive arts are subject to intense industry influence.  Part of the reason for this is that we play so many different instruments.  Between the different instruments and the actuators used to make them sound, there are hundreds of opportunities for companies to make something that they can sell to you.  No other instrument allows for someone to get up before a concert and thank five or six sponsors before performing.  This is especially true with mallet companies.  The bulk of their income comes from drum set sticks and marching band sticks and mallets, but they do make some money from selling marimba mallets.  And their primary output is yarn mallets.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  These companies make a great product and undoubtedly the majority of marimba parts call for yarn mallets, but the result of all this yarn-mallet-making activity is that students are led to believe that yarn mallets are the only option.

Part of this has to do with the number of percussion teachers who have sponsorships.  I’m one of them.  I enjoy a Malletech sponsorship and the folks there have been incredibly supportive of my artistic activities.  And Malletech makes quite a few mallets that I couldn’t make at home. They have patents on some of their designs and even if I could get the materials I doubt I could make the mallets as well as they do since they have an entire infrastructure built around making great mallets. I’m not arguing to do away with beautiful mallets made by great companies like Malletech, I’m only suggesting that these be part of the entire picture.

The problem with developing percussionists is that after being subjected to a barrage of yarn-mallet advertisements and sponsored artists, most young students conclude that indeed yarn mallets are the only way to go.  And then the tail is wagging the proverbial dog.  Instead of artists dictating the direction and shape of the musical landscape it is the companies.  As a friend pointed out to me, the situation then becomes ever more circular, spiraling down into a vortex of materialism and convenience.  The companies influence the players on their mallet selection, the players then commission pieces for that sound world, the composers write the pieces and then the mallet companies respond accordingly.  The circle is complete.

But the truth is you can hit a marimba (or any percussion instrument) with virtually anything.  Yarn mallets are only option among many, and a rather new one at that.  In fact, for years marimbists preferred rubber mallets.  (Early vaudeville xylophonists even used wood mallets on occasion.)  If get your hands on early recordings of Vida Chenoweth or Claire Omar Musser you’ll hear that much of the time they were using rubber mallets.  And their playing was expressive and technically accomplished.

So what happened?  Leigh Howard Stevens happened.  Leigh took the marimba world by storm in the last 1970s and completely revolutionized the approach to playing it as well as the construction of the instrument itself and the mallets we use to play it.  Leigh advocated using longer birch shafts and yarn wrapping around the ball of the mallet.  This approach allows the player more accuracy and helps produce a sweet, mellow sound with a pleasing blend of the fundamental and overtones of each bar.  Leigh is not only a consummate artist, but also a savvy businessman and he was able to convert his vision of marimba playing into a thriving and innovative company that makes some of the best marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and mallets available, especially yarn mallets.  What people missed, though, is that Leigh’s approach works for Leigh’s style of playing and for the repertoire he has commissioned and championed, but it’s not the only way to play the instrument.  It is a testament to Leigh’s artistry and business acumen that he was able to influence several generations of percussionists the world over.  There’s a reason why he’s in the PAS Hall of Fame. But in blindly following him we have become like lemmings running off a cliff, jumping to a death of timbral conformity. I say all this with the utmost respect as Leigh is a friend and a mentor.

I bring this up to articulate a third point, which is that the present yarn-mallet culture is historically new and was preceded by a very different aesthetic.  Just because most people use a type of mallet now does not mean it was always the case.  Styles and attitudes change.  Nothing is set in stone, not even the hallowed medium yarn mallet.

If we don’t explore radically different mallet options then we limit our range of expression on the instrument.  Violinists have all manner of expressive devices literally at their fingertips (or bow), including sul tasto, pizzicato, sul ponticello, different vibrato speeds, spiccato, etc.  Our choices are seemingly much more limited.  But in fact we can explore dead strokes, playing with the shafts, playing on nodal points, and different beating spots on the bars.  Few marimbists do this, but those sounds are available with little effort.  Combined with different mallet changes and even preparations of the instrument, the sound possibilities are truly limitless.  We actually have more color available to us than said violinists.  (Though admittedly switching between them is a bit cumbersome.)

With all the problems in the world it may appear petty for me to be griping about mallet selection.  After all, if someone prefers manufactured mallets it’s their own business, right?  Sure, but these details matter because they bespeak of larger issues.  When one reaches into a bag and grabs a pair of mallets one is making a political statement whether one wants to or not.  It may be a statement that only fellow percussionists fully appreciate, but it still ripples out and beyond the specific activity of tapping wooden bars and the community that surrounds that activity.  This is why I make so many of mallets.  Besides the fact that it is cheaper, it gives me total control over the sound, the sound that is appropriate for that specific musical situation. I would love to see mallet companies follow suit and offer more variety of mallets made with a greater variety of materials.

I admit that much of what I’m saying follows my predilection that when it comes to interpretations I lean towards the fringe.  Glenn Gould is my favorite pianist and always will be.  I’ve always thought that in the pantheon of great pianists there’s a whole bunch of them swarming around together in a bubble—and they more or less sound the same—and then there’s Glenn Gould.  His output wasn’t complete (one needs Horowitz for Liszt, for example), but he’s still the most unique and creative pianist of the last 100 years.

When a whole generation of percussionists relies solely on manufactured mallets their range of expression narrows considerably.  Manufactured mallets produce a manufactured sound.  Most of the young men and women I’ve coached in the last 15 years are in their late teens or early 20s.  Typically this is a time of searching and discovery in one’s life.  The most important aspect of going to a college or university is to learn to think independently, analytically, and creatively, and to question systems.  If there’s one time in one’s life to really think about giving it to The Man, this is it.  But I’ve found a curious lack of rebelliousness among young people.  (This is as true in New York City as it is in Idaho.)  I don’t know if it’s the mind-dulling deluge of Netflix, reality shows, internet, advertising, and pop music, or the addiction to processed fast food, of the pervasive lack of exposure to nature or all of the above, but something seems to be preventing our young people from taking a more creative approach to interpreting music on the marimba.  The points I’ve discussed above only exacerbate the problem.

At any rate, it is time to move to another stage in the evolution of marimba playing.  And it is time to encourage the next generation of percussionists to approach their mallet selection with more creativity and faithfulness to the essence of each piece. With the world at our fingertips through the internet we have unprecedented access to more music than any other time in recorded human history.  It is an exciting time to be a musician.  In mere seconds we can traverse the globe, listening to master musicians from many diverse cultures.  When we zoom in on different kinds of mallet playing from different parts of the world we hear a cornucopia of color blasting from our speakers.  Why not let that us inform and inspire us?  Why settle for only medium yarn?

Cars are the problem, bikes are the solution

I put up a lot of posts about how great it is to commute to work on a bicycle. In general they’re quite upbeat and positive because I figure people have enough struggle in their lives that they don’t want to read a negative post, but what I hide from you Dear Readers is the frustration I feel living in a country that values cars more than people. Riding a bike to work is more than an effort to stay fit, it’s a giant middle finger to a culture that values automobiles over people’s lives. Everything proves this to be true: our laws, our infrastructure, our civic planning, our budget allocations, our attitudes towards driving, everything. We care more about cars than people. Cycling to work for me is a celebration of human potential, of the vast potential we all have inside of us. It’s a way of walking the walk and proving that it can be done and that the first thing we need to do is change our attitudes towards transportation.

Yesterday a man high on opioids plowed into a gas station and killed three people right here in Wayne, NJ. He survived and guess what? This was his SECOND conviction for driving under the influence of drugs. Why was he allowed back behind the wheel after that? Because it’s more important to us as a society that he be allowed to drive a car than the safety of anyone else, and because we’ve created a culture where other forms of transportation are not available or ridiculed. Guess what else? You, Dear Reader, can go out right now and kill as many cyclists and pedestrians as you like with your car. As long as you say “I didn’t see them” when you get to court you go scotch free, no matter that you may have been texting or half asleep or applying makeup. THIS ISN’T RIGHT. Of course, I’ll be the first to point out how many cyclists I see riding poorly, with no visibility and in dangerous ways. They too, should be subject to traffic safety laws, just as we are with seatbelts. But they’re not because bikes are not recognized as viable forms of transportation in most American municipalities.

In our neighborhood, every day I see parents driving their kids to school, and they live ONE BLOCK from the school. One block! It takes them more time to drive their kids than it does for Jessica and I to walk our kids the four blocks. And what have those kids learned? They’ve learned to be lazy, to be afraid of the elements, and they’ve learned that cars are the only viable source of transportation.

And yes, I’ve written letters to our elected officials, and I’ve donated money to organizations that work to improve the legal system. These things help, but I also think it helps to point out once in a while that the best way to beat a system totally dependent on cars is to opt OUT OF IT as much as possible. Despite what our culture tells us, cars are NOT the only form of transportation, and they are in fact one of the most dangerous and destructive forces of modern society, the cause of much of our country’s woes. This is why I ride as much as possible and why I encourage other people to do the same.

It’s very simple: cars should only be used as a last resort, when there is no other option for getting somewhere safely or if one needs to move large objects or the distance/time ratio doesn’t work. They should never be used as a form of primary transportation. Never. Cars are the problem. Bikes are the solution.

However, if you’re considering biking to work, call me first. In order to survive you have to know what you’re doing. It takes FAR MORE SKILL than driving a car to stay safe. Many cyclists are killed each year because their skills are poor and they don’t know what they’re doing. And you need a basic set of gear. I’m happy to help and if you live in North Jersey I’ll do the commute with you a few times to show you the ropes. Safety, safety, safety!

To Hell With it, I’m Going to Make More Experimental Art.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to many of the people around me thinking the music I love is strange. Most of my family, friends, a lot of the percussive arts community, even some of my students and colleagues. Forget about the American public as a whole; if they pay attention to what I’m doing at all it’s only to ridicule it.

But it’s a newer and tougher pill to swallow to see how much my daughters dismiss my work. I knew I wouldn’t be the center of their universe forever, but still it came up faster than I anticipated how marginalized experimental and Hindustani music is in their world view. I’ve had a privileged life so I don’t publicly complain much about things, but it does get tiring having to justify my existence over and over again. People seem to understand that my teaching has value–and my daughters do see that my university job translates to money which translates to a roof over their heads and food on the table–but beyond that I think they’re at a loss as to why I spend so much time and energy composing music that few people listen to, making films that few people watch, practicing pieces that most people dislike, and singing a style of Indian classical music that most people find tough sledding.

Maybe they’re right. I could quit it all tomorrow and the world would keep spinning just fine. I wouldn’t even get fired from my university job. Nothing would happen at all. Except I’d rather die. Seriously, if I can’t make experimental music I’d rather not be on this planet. It’s what I was made to do.

So, to hell with it. I’m going to get up tomorrow and make more experimental music. The world needs it, even if it doesn’t know it. And more importantly, I need it.