|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
Although New York City was saved the brunt of Saturday's snowpocalyspe that our southern I-95 corridor neighbors Philadelphia and Washington D.C. received, we did get some. And braving the snowy and strangely peaceful roads of Brooklyn yesterday morning, I rode my trusty bicycle to Edward R. Murrow High School for an audition. American Idol? Nope. Some reality TV show about teaching? No way. This was an audition for the first annual New York City Department of Education sponsored Amateur Night at the Apollo! Yes, THE Apollo Theater in Harlem! Yes, THEShowtime at the Apollo Apollo that I used to watch on late-night TV back when I was a young lad...and still had and wanted a TV. Here's the announcement from the DOE's site:
The Office of Arts and Special Projects in partnership with the Apollo Theater is pleased to announce the first NYCDOE Amateur Night at the Apollo to be held on June 2, 2010 at the world famous Apollo Theater to highlight the extraordinary talents of our teachers. Auditions for individual or group acts in dance, vocal and instrumental music, spoken word and comedy are scheduled for three consecutive Saturdays at sites in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
And all you had to be was:
1. A current New York City Department of Education public school teacher
2. A legal resident of the United States
3. Available on the performance date, June 2, 2010.
Check, check, and check! So Saturday morning with some of my colleagues at PS 321 in Brooklyn (John Allgood, kindergarten teacher; Bill Fulbrecht, kindergarten teacher; Elizabeth Heiser, 2nd grade teacher; Adam Lane, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade music teacher; Frank McGarry, 1st and 2nd grade music teacher), we headed deep into Brooklyn to audition for a shot on the Apollo Theater stage; for our chance at immortality in the annals of New York City teacher lore. Now this was not some group we threw together at the last minute to do the audition. We've been playing and performing for a number of years now and actually have done a few gigs. Our repertoire usually consists of old folk, rock, and bluegrass tunes and my role is as clarinet and (sometimes) saxophone player and percussionist. It is great fun and a chance for me to be in the band performing the music instead of in my other musical life, of composing and conducting (although that is great fun as well, just a different experience). So for our audition we performed the song "Glendale Train", and things went pretty well. While there were a few judges and one did offer a suggestion after the performance, there was no Simon or Paula critique of our "NYC Teacher Idol" worthiness. Below is a version of "Glendale Train" performed by another ensemble. And while our arrangement is different, our group instrumentally looks much like the group in the video. But of course, I think we sound better! I mean, clarinet and shaker adds so much more to the song...
Seeing as we sometimes play some of his songs in the 321 Band, a nice serendipitous moment after the audition was later that evening my wife and I passed legend Pete Seeger (moving quite well for 90!) and his wife and grandson on the streets of upstate Beacon, New York. So that's a good sign...right? Anyway, don't know if we are onto Harlem, but I'll keep you posted...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 4:55 PM
I mentioned in the last Notes from the Teaching Field (November 2009) that I was a high school music director many moons ago and I do plan on writing about some of those adventures later in the year but for now I want to talk about my musical adventures with the kindergarteners. I do find it interesting, after a years long hiatus between my teaching high school band/International Baccalaureate music and today, that now I'm in the position of teaching young kids. REALLY young. Never during my teacher training in college did I ever envision myself as teaching the 'little people' since singing children's songs, dancing, and snack time were worlds I could never really imagined myself in. In fact, when I was a substitute teacher the one grade I never really looked forward to, was...yes, you guessed, kindergarten. Partly it was because I just had no real experience with them and didn't know what to do. I mean handling high school banders surreptitiously stealing into each others hotel rooms after hours on band trips or a cheerleader confiding to me about her 'mistake' the previous night, while no cakewalk, were things I could understand and relate to. But an air infused with flatulence and pee or knowing what to do when one kid cries because another kid breathes on them! Argh! What are you supposed to do with that! Well, now that I'm a seasoned kindergartenologist, I just find it a wonderful circumstance of life that now not only do I teach 4-, 5-, and 6-year olds, but that I find myself thinking why would anyone want to teach any other age?
So what is kindergarten music and what do I do each day with my 4 classes (of approximately 23 kids in each class) for 53 minutes a class? There are 10 kindergarten classes this year and since I do not have a classroom of my own, I travel between each classroom for music (and math games). My lessons are different depending on where we are in the year and while I'm not including everything I do, generally the structure of my time with the kids breaks down something like this:
1. Greeting and overview of the day's lessons
Usually here is where I find out who has a wiggly tooth, whose birthday is coming up, who has to go to the bathroom (or get water), or what they did over the weekend at their country/weekend house. Oh and yes, I do eventually get to say a little something about the upcoming lesson...
2. Sing a song, demonstrate instruments, kids composing their own music and/or playing instruments and/or conducting
This is where the sneaky learning of musical concepts comes in. While I'm not a big singer, I do introduce some songs that teach various musical concepts like soft, loud, fast, slow (these concepts are also covered when the kids learn how to conduct). I just bought two songbooks because one thing I want to do more with the kids this year is to sing more 'contemporary' songs, not just 'children's songs.' (just saw an article about Yo Gabba Gabba, which sounds like the kind of hip thing I'm looking for).
Over the year I do talk about and personally demonstrate each instrument family (those college instrument methods classes come in handy!) and depending on the instrument, the kids get a chance to either press/move the keys, valves, or slide while I play or they get to bang, shake, or rattle it themselves. Also I do teach them the basics of what a conductor does, including showing them a rudimentary conducting pattern (a 'V' or an 'U' since they are easy for most to do) with each student getting to conduct a band (with a REAL baton!) playing different percussion instruments. The students love being in control of the sounds the other students make and have a great time taking turns being the maestro.
Around January or so, I introduce music notation. I came up with a system to get them to learn music notation starting off with using 'X' for play and 'O' for rest. I came up with those because by January most kids are able to write those letters fairly easily. Gradually over the subsequent weeks, I ween the kids off the 'baby-stuff' X's and O's and into 'real' music notes and rests. By the time we get to our mid-Winter break in February, most of the kid's handwriting has improved enough that they are able to draw reasonable facsimiles of quarter, half and whole notes and rests. In fact a few years ago when part of my assignment, along with kindergarten music, was to teach a music class of pre-kindergarten and a class of the self-contained special education kids (for those of you not up on your teacher lingo, it is a small class of students with physical and emotional challenges such as down syndrome), I used a modified version of the 'X' and 'O' lesson which worked quite well and the students were able to not only write their own music but to perform it as well. I also have found that this system of reading and writing notes, reinforces basic concepts the classroom teachers introduce in reading and writing (starting from left to right, sequencing, moving the eye along the page to follow the words, etc.) Of course, not every kid gets it, but most seem to understand the idea. And from talking to the first grade music teacher, they seem to retain some inklings of what I teach them once they reach first grade.
3. Movement: usually singing and dancing to songs from Philadelphia Chickens.
This great book and CD by Sandra Boynton features fun and silly songs sung by people such as Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, and the Bacon Brothers. I have made up some movement/dance to go along with whatever song we do and the kids LOVE doing the moves and singing the songs. So far this year we've done "Philadelphia Chickens", "Be like a Duck", "Cows", and "Pig Island" (one of my personal favorites). Later in the year we'll do "Pajama Time", "Snoozers", "Dinosaur, Dinosaur", and "Jump Rope Jive".
Be Like a Duck music video from Sandra Boynton on Vimeo.
4. Reading a music related story.
I always try to read a story having to deal with music although it is sometimes difficult to find good books dealing with music that work well for a group, over the years I have a number that work well. Some of the many books I have and use during the year are (left to right, vertically top to bottom in the photo): Opera Cat by Tess Weaver and Andrea Wesson, Horace and Morris Join the Chorus (but What about Dolores?) by James Howe and Amy Walrod, Mama Don't Allow by Thacher Hurd,Drummer Hoff by Barbara Emberley, Doddle Flute by Daniel Pinkwater,Mr. Putter and Tabby Toot the Horn by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard, John Philip Duck by Patricia Polacco, and Music over Manhattan by Mark Karlins.
5. Goodbye song
Generally most students are excited for music and of course when it is time for me to go, I can't give them back to their classroom teachers all filled up with the fun from their musical 'sugar rush'. So I almost always end with a 'quiet' goodbye song which we all sing and clap to. The song I use is called First Cryand comes from a wonderful CD collection called Welcoming Children into the World. I heard about this CD many years ago while listening to PRI's Sound and Spirit one day on WNYC radio. The CD is a beautiful and diverse collection of songs about bringing new life into the world. From "Nursery Rhyme" sung by the Baka Forest people to "Hey, Pretty Baby (Who's My Pretty Baby)" sung by Woody Guthrie to "C'est La Vie" sung by Henri Dikongué to a wonderful adoption song sung by John McCutcheon "Happy Adoption Day", Welcoming Children into the World are mostly songs that are NOT 'children's songs', but songs that kids would certainly like. "First Cry" is sung in Navajo by Navajo songwriter Sharon Burch and the main refrain means "The baby is crying!"
For me the whole idea of kindergarten music really is to have fun (and we do!) but also begin to introduce basic musical terms and concepts. And if they do learn those terms and concepts, that is great; if they don't, that is fine too as long as they remember music as being fun and interesting. One evening I told my wife that teaching kindergarten, with the constant attention needed of me, is like being on stage for 6-7 hours straight, every day. This is in no way to suggest that teaching is all an act (although any teacher would probably admit that some dramaturgical skills are necessary and even required). I think of my teaching self as just a different part of who I am. After teaching kindergarten music for a number of years now, frankly one thing that is amazing to see is just how much they improve over the course of the year. Sometimes it is quite dramatic to see a girl who is completely uncoordinated in September or a boy who barely spoke those first weeks, really coming into their own by June. And this is one of the joys of teaching the little ones.
Another joy can be related in the following story:
A few weeks ago on a very cold day the kids couldn't go outside for recess. On those days, the 250 kindergarterners go to the auditorium to watch a movie. Well since it was my prep period, I was on my way to the computer lab and was just passing through the auditorium as students were gathering and beginning to sit down to watch. Almost immediately frantic waving of arms and trying to get my attention began to billow through a small section. However within seconds, like a flash forest fire, the entire auditorium was ablaze in the wildly enthusiastic chant, "Joe, Joe, Joe..." At that moment I felt what it must be like to be center court at Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game (well, at least back in the days of the 'good' Knicks of the Willis Reed-Walt Frazier-Bill Bradley 70s or the Patrick Ewing-John Starks-Charles Oakley 90s). Anyway, here's what I said on Facebook about it all:
I was very tired at the end of the day when this happened, but indeed I must say that it made me smile and think that that is how everyone should end their work day!
Stay tuned for another installment of Notes from the Teaching Field!
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:01 AM
This afternoon I attend the second in pianist Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series at P.S. 321 in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The concert featured Simone performing along with violinists Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Clarice Jensen of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).
After a brief introduction from Simone, the concert began with the first two movements from Jefferson Friedman's String Quartet No. 3 written in 2005. Overall the work took various inspirational musical references and melded them into a cohesive and enjoyable whole. At times I was reminded of Henryk Górecki as the music took some prayerful, almost Eastern European-like reposes, at other times, as the strings were beautifully stretching into the upper registers, the music was reminiscent of Aaron Jay Kernis's string quartet, Musica Celestis. However, with its rhythmic twists and turns, the general atmosphere of the Quartet had a Bartok-ian perfume to it without being fully derivative (a tough trick to pull off successfully, which the piece did wonderfully). There were a number of interesting effects, some I'm planning to appropriate someday: the sul ponticello passages in the cello and viola which came out almost as an electric guitar distortion-like sound or the moment in the second movement where all the strings were arhythmically playing sliding high harmonics which slowly evolved into a more rhythmic passage.
Next were the third ("The Blue Room") and fourth ("Tarantella") movements from Phil Kline's quartet The Blue Room and Other Stories. Originally written in 2002 for the string quartet Ethel performing with electronic live sampling pedals, the work was arranged in 2009 to be performed by a conventional string quartet. "The Blue Room" opened evocatively with a couple of strings playing a sul tasto, quietly undulating minimalistic eighth note figure while a melodic fragment sang above it. This little musical gesture, which briefly happened again later in the movement, was one of my favorite moments of the entire concert. The movement continued in a lovely melodic and singing way and after a brief pause lead into the fourth movement, which began with a loping, galloping rhythmic pad and a reaching violin melody and continued with a more frenzied and exciting pace until the end.
For the final two pieces of the concert, Simone joined ACME in delightful readings of the first movement of Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 and J.S. Bach's Keyboard Concerto in F minor (which Simone will also be performing with ACME on January 30th as part of Columbia University's Miller Theatre's all-Bach Concert). The Dvorak was performed with the lovely melancholic, Brahms-like winter-fireplace-hearth warmth that music requires while the Bach was clearly delineated with beautifully dispassionate passion. And the Bach's famous second movement, with its beautiful piano melody in an almost duet with the cello bass line, was another of my favorite moments from the concert.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, all of the artist on the series are donating their time and efforts in order for all of the proceeds to benefit P.S. 321. And if the size and attentiveness of the audience is any indication (the auditorium was completely full with a number of people standing along the back wall), then the Neighborhood Series is a much needed and quite successful outlet for world class quality classical chamber music in Brooklyn and if you haven't checked it out yet, you are missing something wonderful.
Remaining schedule for Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series
(all performed in PS 321's auditorium-180 7th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11215)
February 4th, 2010:
The Chiara String Quartet
April 15th, 2010:
Face the Music,
featuring premiere of the composition,
by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
(commissioned by Simone Dinnerstein and the Neighborhood Concert Series)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:01 PM
A few weeks ago I said I might give you a window into some of my experiences in my teaching life, so from time to time I'll be writing about various adventures, both present and past in a series called, Notes from the Teaching Field.
As I mentioned in that earlier post, I have been teaching kindergarten music at PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn for a number of years now. PS 321 is one of the most sought after and highly acclaimed public schools in the city (one in which many parents choose to send their kids to instead of the $27,000-a-year private school down the street; boy, that's a whole other topic which I could expound on at length) and I'm very honored to be a part of a community of highly devoted and excellent educators, administration, and families. Besides kindergarten music, I also teach math games to the kindergartens; I see each of the 10 kindergarten classes twice a week: once for music and once for math. In addition to music and math, I am in charge of lunchtime/recess for the 1st graders (almost all of the students whom I had the previous year). This year there are 11! 1st grade classes so, with another teacher and various aides and paraprofessionals, we have to manage about 250 kids in the lunchroom and on the blacktop. If you were to pass by the schoolyard around lunchtime one day, you'd hear me blowing my whistle and loudly projecting my voice (from the diaphragm, of course) over a half-a-city-block school yard to corral all 250 into straight-lines at the end of recess. So I have two full-time jobs: teach the little Jungen und Mädchen by day, composer/business manager/blogger at night. That old saw of "those that can't do, teach" doesn't seem to apply to me and many of today's professional musicians. And while I definitely don't consider myself a kindergarten music teacher but rather a professional musician/composer who happens to teach kindergarten, I do take my teaching responsibilities seriously, as I do I my composing. I am presently reading Peggy Tyre's book The Trouble with Boys and I'm conscious about my being a young-ish, male teacher in an environment which doesn't typically see many male teachers (although we do have 2 of the 10 kindergarten classroom teachers who are male and a number throughout various grades and subjects; all three music teachers me (kindergarten), Frank McGarry (grades 1 and 2), and Adam Lane (grades 3, 4, and 5) are male, for example). And for the students to daily see and have, not only good male teachers and role models, but in my case, a male teacher who also happens to be African-American, can only help imprint positive impressions on all the young boys and girls.
Originally I was going to talk about how teaching little kids has nothing to do with my composing life, but in reality that isn't quite true. Being in the moment while writing music is much like teaching the students, especially the kindergartners. In writing music if you aren't really 'there', the ideas don't flow and you don't see or hear what your piece is (or will become) and your output will be disorganized and not cohesive. In teaching kindergartners, if you aren't fully engaged or engaging then things will also be unorganized and worse; you'll unleash the 24-kids-of-the-apocalypse who will wreak havoc on the classroom in their quest of knee-biter retribution for the sin of causing them boredom.
I mean really, can you see John Adams, Steve Reich, or David Lang dealing with one kid crying about missing their mom, two kids arguing about not having enough space on the meeting rug and being squished, one kid raising their hand to go to the bathroom with three more saying they have to go to the bathroom too because the one kid raised their hand to ask to go to the bathroom (kind of Kafka-esque, right?), the one kid that already went to the bathroom...in their pants, three kids simultaneously trying to tell me about their wiggly tooth or that their father or mom plays piano or that they love Star Wars or that they have a playdate later that day, and all of this at the same time as the class is singing one of our favorite songs, "Mama Don't Allow (No Music Playin' Around Here)"? Hey while a Pulitzer might have cachet with their parents, it gets you no love with a 5-year old! In fact that Pulitzer Prize Medal would make a nice plate in the pretend play center's kitchen.
Seriously, though, do you know how difficult it is to manage and teach a classroom of the students? Anyone with young kids of their own can tell you, just one is a handful. Now imagine having 23 or 24 to deal with! If you don't have respect for any classroom teacher who has to deal with all of the kids all day, every day, then you should! People on the outside of education assume, hey only 6 or 7 hour day and two months off in the summer, that's so cushy. Dealing with the education of kids is no easy ride; figuring out why one little girl isn't reading or writing up to her potential or why one little boy doesn't seem to be connected with other kids is hard work. And not only do teachers have to teach during the day, but also spend many hours after-school and at home, on weekends grading and planning (yes, planning even in the summer) on top of much bureaucratic paperwork and necessary record keeping. I've done many kinds of jobs over the years, and teaching by far is some of the most difficult. Of course it isn't all chaos and tears. There are many lovely moments and overall it can be some of the most rewarding and fun work you could hope for. Where else can you have 24 kids literally light up when you walk into the room or when they see you walking down the hall? where you often get marriage proposals, from boys and girls? or where you'll get an unsolicited hug or "I love you" just because? or where else do you get to see a kid who could barely read and hold a pencil at the beginning of the year, by year's end can read and write their own stories? While their innocence and openness to show their feelings naturally changes as they go up the grade ladder (I was a high school band director and International Baccalaureate music teacher many years ago, which I'll talk about in a future post, and that had different difficulties as well as it's own unique and beautiful charms and joys), it is incredibly wonderful to enjoy while they are in kindergarten and I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to be a little part of their lives.
And this brings me to the reason for this post. As any teacher of young kids could tell you, one thing you often receive from students, besides the hugs and smiles, are personal notes and drawings. And often they are so funny and warm and sincere, that you can't help but feel as if the sun is bursting through your heart.
These drawings above were given to me at the end of last year by one first grade class. I really love these because it is a little peek into how I'm viewed through the prism of first grade eyes. Each of these drawings were accompanied by notes about how the kids enjoyed having me be with them at recess/lunchtime. But what I find interesting is that after seeing all of these drawings I told my wife that, "Gee, I guess I do have a uniform!" Because all of the renderings are some variation of me smiling, wearing my red AC Milan jacket, jeans, baseball cap, and the all-important whistle. In fact I loved the top drawing by a little girl so much (that's her next to me), it is framed and sitting on my bookshelf in a place of honor next to a statuette of me conducting made by one of my high school students many years ago.
One note a few years ago from a 2nd grade girl whom I had back in kindergarten was quite nostalgic with a hint of wistfulness when she wrote, "Remember how much fun we had in kindergarten." In one kindergarten class last year I played the opening to J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor complete with spooky organ sound. At the end of the prelude, as the rising half-diminished chord builds, I give an 'evil' laugh (think Vincent Price at the end of "Thriller") with screams of delight radiating throughout the class. Well the next week in music class, one little girl comes up to me just as the class is starting and says she has a note for me. Since kindergarten spelling can be hard to decipher (as you'll see below), I asked her to read the note to me. Among a few things the note said was "please don't play that scary music, it gives me nightmares." But on the other side of the note it concluded, perfectly spelled, with, "P.S. But I still love you!" I like the above note because it recognizes that sometimes I have to put people in timeout during lunch/recess and they understand that. This one is a nice thank you, recognizing that I can be a game changer in the lives of the students...well, in the all-important kickball game. Keep checking back for more views into my 'other life' in the next installment of Notes from the Teaching Field.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:15 PM
In an earlier post in May 2009, I mentioned that world-acclaimed pianist Simone Dinnerstein was curating a new concert series in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Well, this week is the beginning of that series: the PS 321 Neighborhood Concert Series. All of the concerts are open to the general public and are held in the PS 321 Auditorium (180 7th Avenue). The musicians on the series are artists Simone has worked with or admired over the years and are donating their time and efforts in order for all of the proceeds to benefit the school's Parent Teacher Association.
Simone states her reasons for starting the series: "I wanted to start a concert series that would bring families together to listen to classical music, and doing this in my own neighborhood seemed like a good place to begin [and] my hope is that other musicians will similarly 'adopt' schools and bring performances to students in their own communities. We can all look just outside our front doors for opportunities like this."
Here's the incredible line-up Simone has put together for the inaugural season of the series:
October 29th, 2009: Clive Greensmith (cello) and Jean Schneider (piano)
January 10th, 2010: Simone Dinnerstein with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)
February 4th, 2010: The Chiara String Quartet
April 15th, 2010: Face the Music featuring premiere of a composition by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
Now the astute reader might have noticed that my name is part of the line-up. I do have a connection to PS 321 and Simone because it is where I have been teaching kindergarten music for a number of years now and where her husband is one of my colleagues and where her son attends (who I had when he was a kindergartener). PS 321 is one of the top elementary schools in New York City but you don't have to take my word for it, you can read this. Maybe one of these days I'll write another post about what it is like to stand in front of 24 cute little four-, five-, and six-year olds. As you might imagine, I'll have plenty of fun and interesting stories! So with my experience with kids, of course I said yes when Simone asked if I wanted a commission to write a work for Face the Music. The students of Face the Music are "20 classically trained musicians ranging from 6th to 12th grade"and come from the Special Music School at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan, a public school for "musically gifted children". They are champions of new and contemporary music and have performed compositions written by composers such as Phil Kline, David Lang, and later in 2010 Nico Muhly. In future posts, I will be writing more about my composition and what it is like working with the students in rehearsals, but for now, since I'm still writing the piece, all I will say is it will be in honor of Gustav Mahler for his upcoming 'Gala Years' of 2010 and 2011 ('10 being the 150th anniversary of his birth and '11 being the 100th anniversary of his death). And although it will be inspired by Mahler and his symphonic world, it won't sound like Mahler...
Coming out and supporting this great concert series means you are going to hear great music AND help benefit public school students at the same time. With the economy and the looming budget cuts in the state capital, public education needs all the help it can get. Even at a school such as PS 321 with an active and incredible PTA, we do feel the effects of less money from Albany. This series is a way to help alleviate some of those effects. Remember the performers are graciously donating their services so that ALL of the money earned from the concerts goes to the school! With starting this concert series Simone shows that supporting public education is important to her and she is hoping that you also share in that support. We hope you consider being a good neighbor (whether you live in Park Slope or not) and coming to one or more of the concerts!
PS 321 Neighborhood Concert Series
180 7th Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11215
To purchase tickets or more information, you can go to www.ps321.org.
Update: NY Daily News article about series
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:00 AM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.