On Visibility and Invisibility: How Music Mirrors our Human Experience

December 5, 2017, 10:57 AM · There are many reasons why I advocate for expanding classical music education to include the study of music from traditions beyond the European canon. In this post I will focus on just one.

Things unfamiliar to our personal experience, upbringing, or education often remain invisible to us.

This inconvenient truth is practically screaming at us in conversations related to how people with different backgrounds and experiences interpret the same events.

This is also true in Music.

For classically trained musicians, the idea of pulse, groove, or clavé is largely invisible.

Any groove-based music remains mostly invisible to many conservatory musicians, as it was to me before I ventured out beyond my training, because these styles are not taught or recognized in the classical canon.

For example, Black American music, Latin music, Appalachian music, African music, and Indian music all rely on groove, pulse, or clavé.

My aim here is not to denigrate classical music, which I love, but rather to inspire classical musicians to discover more by listening deeper.

In the same way, when we listen deeper to the experiences of peoples who are different than ourselves, we can't help but become enriched.

The difficulty of many political conversations around us currently has to do in part with how uncomfortable people feel about listening deeper.

Because the need to listen deeper threatens us to our core through the implication that maybe there's something we've been missing or that we are in fact missing.

That maybe we need to reexamine some deeply ingrained assumptions.

And maybe we don’t have it all figured out.

I am humbled by the realization that MANY things are invisible to me.

At the same time, I feel empowered by believing that these things will become more visible if I listen deeper.

Since my classical training, my musical journey has included a series of eye-opening introductions to music from people with different experiences, backgrounds, and educations.

These include introductions to Black American music, Appalachian music, Cuban music, and Spanish Flamenco.

I may have condescended certain styles at first listen, because of my own ignorance and training that told me there was a “right” way or a “wrong” way.

It was only once I stood IN THE ROOM with musicians from other traditions that I was able to start to appreciate the music, and then, over time, come to have deep respect for it, and begin to partly understand it, by listening deeply.

That's what I wish for all classically trained musicians.

Because a more broadly informed view of music, or of the human experience in general, is a better view.

And besides, it will only improve their classical playing and teaching!

This is a core value of Creative Strings, which we attempt to present through our workshops, online training, free videos and free podcast series.

It’s part of why I will continue advocating for broader inclusion within the culture of classical musicians.

Our latest episode of the Creative Strings Podcast features a Spanish musician informed by intersections between Classical, Jazz and Flamenco.
Among other topics we discuss,

>- Clavé as a mantra

>- Overcoming fear in classical music

>- The academizing of jazz

Subscribe to get ALL 25 episodes free on Stitcher, iTunes, or Google Play and look for more great episodes coming soon.


December 6, 2017 at 11:33 AM · I'd like to challenge the proposition that pulse (groove, whatever) is alien to classical music. In fact it is more important there, as there is often no drum or bass that is more or less forcing it upon you. So you have to feel it naturally. I also think that good classical music teachers do emphasize the ability and practicing of keeping to a steady pulse. Mine certainly did! It is essential in Bach for example, for otherwise the music degrades to a sea of notes.

December 6, 2017 at 03:32 PM · Jean makes a good point, that in classical music the pulse must be there even when there's no rhythm section laying that down.

Now let's just agree that it's very hard to articulate this kind of thing. But I would argue that those of us who have studied and performed on both sides of the fence have perhaps a little more perspective on the differences.

For one thing, if Christian decides to take a measure or two of "space" in his solo, the "groove" is still there. When there's a grand pause in a Beethoven string quartet, the "pulse" is immediately suspended. Nobody's tapping their foot then.

Where things cross over a little is in classical music that is directly inspired by dance forms -- waltzes, mazurkas, gigues, etc. Even so, there is a difference between the "pulse" of a Bach Gigue or Strauss Waltz, and the "groove" of a jazz tune (like John Coltrane's C-minor blues "Equinox" featured here) or representative tunes from the other genres that Christian mentioned.

Again hard to articulate but my own experience is that a "groove" elicits a much more visceral feeling from the performer and response from the audience, whereas classical "pulses" seem more likely to stay in your head. I guess that's just my own take on it.

I think Christian is right that one who wishes to claim expertise in "music" should have at least some broad exposure to the diversity of genres. Likewise the greatest weakness of some Christian theologians is that they have only studied Christian theology. The good news is that the gulf is really not that wide as far as listening is concerned. You quickly learn not only that there are differences but also a lot of useful things in common. To perform, well that's different because then you are wading into the waters of improvisation, which some find very intimidating. It needn't be so, and I would argue that exposure to improv is one of the best reasons to spend some time "on the other side."

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