Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Laid Back, a little bit

Two weeks ago I introduced the percussion concept of 'laid back', where an instrument sounds late to very late relative to the central the beat. In truth some participants had already achieved this, albeit inadvertently, last month (see: http://salsadiary.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/ensemble-activity-strictly-in-pocket.html Exercise One, Result 2).

Although they'd become comfortable with the practice format, the ability of play late on the beat as a synchronised ensemble still eluded them. Whenever the 'laid back' call was issued from a well-synchronised 'in the pocket', the unit dissolved quickly into a mish-mash of lates.

I can only put that down to different individual offsets.

Offset: A physiological phenomenon
If a motor signal is issued from the brain to the arms and legs at the same time, the arms will move before the legs will. This is because:

  1. the signal path lengths are shorter to arms than to legs; and,
  2. arms have lower mass than legs and so can accelerate more quickly.

α-motorneurones have a nerve conduction velocity range of between 80-120 metres per second. That sounds really quick, but if there is a half-metre difference in signal path length between arms and legs, there would be a lag of at least 4/1,000s of a second (by simple calculation) and that's the best-case scenario. It might not sound like much, but that's the difference between an 'in the pocket' and a 'slightly late' attack. In practice, I see offsets in the order of tens of thousands.

So, if two concurrently-timed signals are issued from the brain to the arms and legs, and the arms play the maracas very late on the beat, the legs will step off-time. This is the challenge of playing and dancing late: there has to be near-zero offset.

Near-zero offset can only be achieved by sending impulses to the legs BEFORE impulses to the arms.

A mish-mash of lates
The phenomenon of everyone playing different interpretations of 'late' is unsurprising given the factors stacked against them, different perceptions of beat; signal path lengths; limb masses; and conduction rates.

The efforts where valiant, and occasionally successful. However at the third session of asking it was time to change tack. Instead of going the whole hog, as we did with the push, I started using the cues "slightly late of pocket" and "a little later". My scientific self wrinkled its nose at the arbitrary terms (how late is slightly late?) but the change worked. It got participants to play later synchronously.

We'll have to inch our way to the back of the bus.

Loo

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Opening the Timba chapter

"What is timba?" has become a recurring question in Solares. So much so that I knew the time had come to address it, because deflecting the matter further risked frustrating inquisitiveness (a damaging prospect) and allowing blurred narratives a chance to take root.

The timing of it couldn't have been better, I've been scouting out different themes for use as a contrasting activity alongside to the chapter on percussive attack. But the challenge lay in how to address the question of timba through the experiences of a dancer. Conventional approaches tackle the topic through its layers of percussion - explained by drummers for drummers. How can timba be understood by a dancer with a limited base of percussion experience to draw upon?

THAT's the sort of challenge I love to sink my teeth into.

Given the misconception, here in the UK, that rueda de casino should ideally be danced to timba, I think it would be useful to use rueda de casino as a lens through which timba can be examined, to reveal 'truths' and misconceptions.

Exercise One: Rueda de casino, federated calling
Partnered ensemble, to music. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Calling was devolved to all members of the group, each call was preceded by the 'oyé' aural cue with the simultaneous raise of the free arm as a corroborating visual cue. Conflicts where resolved by eye contact. This is the equivalent to co-operative musicianship observed in African music performance.

Four iterations of this exercise were required until a good level of proficiency was attained. According to all participants, the dynamism of the rueda was elevated to a plane not experienced before. They where no longer passively engaged in the interpretation of one person's call. Instead, they had to open their eyes and ears for calls emanating from around the circle, and decide upon the next appropriate call and issue it.

Participants also came to realise the importance of the timing of the 'oyé' cue with its concomitant raised arm visual cue. The energy of discovery from the federated calling exercise was perfect, necessary even, for what was to follow.

Briefing: "What does rueda mean?"
Gathering everyone into a circle, I asked, "what does rueda mean?" I received the well-intentioned published responses such as "it means 'a wheel'".

"Yes, that's right on a literal level" I said, "but what does it mean when we're arranged in a circle?"
Puzzled looks abounded. "The circle in this case, and also in rumba, represents the Circle of Creation; and that is what we're celebrating." You could have heard a pin drop. I launched into a short story on one of sub-Saharan Africa's many concepts of creation, Oyá, before and including its embodiment as a Yoruban Orisha.

Exercise Two: Rueda de casino, visualising the Circle of Creation
Partnered ensemble, to music. Federated calling. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Participants were asked to visualise the circle of creation while dancing rueda.

The outcome of this exercise was not as I'd expected. Although it possessed energy, that energy came from the practice of federated calling, but it lacked the textural quality which combined visualisation achieves. It turned out to be the case. I'd made the mistake of assuming that participants were (a learning point for me) already familiar with the relevant imagery.

Briefing: Oyá as the storm of creation
Participants encountered difficulty because they were visualising the Cycle of Creation - birth through death - and hence could not see its relevance in the exercise. I re-pitched the visualisation as the storm at the birth of Creation, immediately when the sky and sea where sundered.

Exercise Two (modified): Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation
The outcome was as I'd hoped: and ensemble performance of dynamism with a quality of emotional depth. I decided to stack on another layer of skill to assess participants' levels of naturalisation.

Exercise Three: Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation, attack 'in the pocket'
The refinement of an 'in the pocket' attack was introduced, intended: to create a powerful inexorability to the performance; and, to introduce a counterpointing element of restraint to the energy of federated calling. In this, no participants were successful.

I decided not to prosecute the contextualisation of learned skills further. Instead, I decided to work with what was successful this session: the use of metaphor.

Exercise Four: Rueda de casino, visualising the self as an Agent of Creation
In keeping with the concept of Oyá as a powerful event and the creation of the first land which followed, two sub-metaphors: 'drawing thunder' (with each arm-raise) and 'creating earth' (with each step) were introduced, helping participants visualise their equal roles as agents during the Act of Creation.

Conclusion
Power, cohesion, emotional commitment. These were present in the rueda performance at unprecedented levels. Such is the potency of understanding dance as moving metaphors.

"Will this session change the way I dance?" asked one participant before the session started.
I thought for a while before answering, "yes."
I heard another snort in disbelief. He wasn't sniggering now.

Instead I got, "how does this fit with learning what timba is?"

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

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

Briefing
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.

Results
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.

Observations
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.

Conclusion
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.

Discussion
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.

Conclusion
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.

Observations

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.
Question
"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.

Loo