balancing creative force with technical knowledge

There’s a distinct difference between my approach to music software in my undergraduate degree versus my graduate degree and beyond.

When i switched my major to music composition in my undergrad years at West Chester, my creative force was still in development. I had written random piano pieces and drum cadences in high school, but a lot of that was based on my musical instincts and innate musical talent. I never took a lick of music theory or counterpoint until i was in my undergrad, and the idea of honing my compositional skill through private lessons, seminars, and general exposure to contemporary music and the techniques contained within that music didn’t really happen until my junior year.

My understanding of music notation software and sequencing software was similarly very “basic skills” at the time. I was pretty computer saavy having been an early adopter of networking and on-line communities before the internet became mainstream, running my own BBS and being a regular member of about fifteen others through my high school years, but as it related to the programs being used at the tech lab at West Chester (Finale, Studio Vision, Max), i was starting from square one.

Because of this and because of the structure built by both my compositional/counterpoint classes and my music technology classes, a lot of my initial education was to learn these things well enough for it to become a honed instinct by going through a lot of small repetitive exercises to hammer a concept into my head. Here’s how to do proper voice leading; don’t write parallel fifths when you’re doing harmonic progressions; here’s the shortcuts for speedy entry; here’s how you can manipulate the numbers out of the notein object. And although those would lead to some bigger musical projects, most of those were just that: projects that were written not to be serious works of music but to showcase and exemplify how well i learned the skills that were taught to me.

As a result of that sort of education, there wasn’t a whole lot about Finale that I didn’t know how to do after a year and i had a pretty great understanding of the mechanics of Max and a lot of its objects. But my output as it related to those programs wasn’t that great – a lot of college projects that didn’t have any lasting power because my creative force was still maturing and developing as was my use of the tools to realize that creative force. But as I continued to hone my skills, direction, and vision as a composer/creator, the expertise i had gained in my musical vocabulary and use of technological tools helped accelerate and define that vision in a way that i think i would be lacking or not nearly as instinctual if i didn’t have that sort of education. I recognized this early on and started to adopt this concept when approaching any new skill or piece of technology – learn as much as you can about it, practice it until you become an expert, use that expertise to help create.

When i started doing electronic music in grad school, this changed.

reinventing the concert paradigm

It’s a pretty easy statement to make that the evolution of technology has contributed greatly to the evolution of entertainment. The video arcade industry crashed once the home console market was able to match and surpass its capabilities. The traveling circus as a unique exotic entertainment show is pretty much extinct now as people can be offered similar or superior entertainment through easier means. And “classical music” (as most people term it) concerts, particularly orchestra concerts, are threatened with a similar state of extinction at least in the US as that music is losing its appeal with the newer generation and less people are inclined to go to those concerts.

As a musician, composer, and educator, i’ve put a lot of thought into the audience of my craft, and recently those thoughts have led me to a radical sort of idea involving audience expectation. Most entertainment contexts these days have either a casual approach to audience protocol or have a more interactive/reactive approach to audience protocol. Sports crowds are a constant chatter of conversation and encourage loud reactions and interactions on big plays. Movie crowds are generally pretty quiet, but it’s still not unusual to get a loud reaction when one is warranted, particularly for comedies. Well-designed marching athletics in all of its forms have “reaction moments” built into the design so that the audience can applaud or whoop and holler if need be. Music concerts, whether big acts in stadiums or small acts in bars are set for a casual atmosphere where people are able to mill about, order drinks, &c.

In contrast, art music concerts have an implied audience expectation and protocol of “sit still and pay attention until we say that it’s okay to clap.” It forces the live concert-goer to completely internalize reaction until protocol dictates the time when it can come out, and to a degree even the manner in which it can come out. While i think that there’s a lot of valid reasons why this is set in place, there’s a part of me that can’t help but think that this rigid structure is part of the reason why these concerts lack appeal for newer audiences. It feels like an old-fashioned aesthetic that lacks context and thus is in its own bubble, which, while once had the strength to stand on its own, is now shrinking and will eventually dissolve into nothing.

Pitched like that, it should be fairly obvious what my idea is: change the protocol. Create a new paradigm for audience expectation for those sorts of concerts to be more casual such as the jazz club bar or the wedding reception band, or more deliberately interactive at times such as the winter drumline/drum corps show, or maybe even completely free such as the big rock concert venue or sports event.

Clearly there are challenges with this sort of shift in audience protocol, particularly as it relates to certain types of concert literature. Some pieces demand a concentrated audience awareness to achieve the maximum effect and would not fare well in a more casual environment, either for the performers or for the audience. I think overall there would have to be some experimentation with different pieces to determine how casual of an atmosphere it could support and the nature of that atmosphere. A couple of years ago the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra did a “concert in the park” deal in honor of a local supermarket opening. The supermarket cooked a huge barbecue and was selling beer/wine/liquor while the LPO played in an ampitheatre area where people could eat and listen casually to the music being played. That worked for that concert because it was free, it was a pops concert, and it was in a large open park area. You wouldn’t be able to pull that off with, say, Adagio for Strings.

More to the point, I’m not necessarily suggesting that the paradigm needs to shift for established works (although i’m not closed to that idea either); it has more to do with new compositions and new composers making an adjustment to how they compose with that paradigm shift in mind, how that changes the nature or character of a piece of music when you plan to write for that sort of environment in the first place. Suppose you have a chamber group of fl, cl, vn, vc, pf, and there’s a section where you highlight an instrument or a duet of the instruments. A jazz club atmosphere would build in them being put more in the spotlight and there potentially being an outro transition moment that could be filled with applause. A large ensemble hit moment could lend to more stage energy from the performers that could support the audience reacting to that moment without it detracting from the music. Thinking about that sort of environment creates a different compositional aesthetic.

Maybe it’s a square-peg-fits-into-the-circle-hole sort of thing, but i think it would be neat to put on series of concerts like that, programmed with a bunch of pieces whether new or old that allows for and encourages the audience to have more freedom, and then gauge its success by the hype, the sales, the reactions. it would surely be awkward at first, but i think it has the potential to gain momentum and change/reinvent the concert paradigm in a way that would resonate more with current audiences and thus maybe provide a context in which the older concert paradigm could generate new life.

Maybe i just need to become a rock star.

Case Study: The Jersey Surf model of drum and bugle corps – part 2

Read Part 1

Given those sorts of struggles on top of other small or big struggles that they face, questions arise: should they have stayed in open class? should they have reached for a longer term goal of becoming world class but with more of a full tour model? is this “in between” model that they’re employing a failed model for the world class paradigm?

The answers to these questions are difficult to answer right now because they depends on a few factors: a) what the drum corps community has set as an expectation for the Surf, b) what the Surf itself as an organization and in its individuals has set as an expectation, and c) the fact that the long-term success of this model can’t truly be determined by the results of a single year.

Going back to that first struggle item i talked about in part one, one could argue that even beating a single full-tour corps during Nats Week would be a measurable success – Surf, on its limited rehearsal schedule managed to beat a full tour corps. That says something about the organization, about its commitment to excellence.

But the question is whether that is enough. That the Surf is in their first stint in world class is one of the more interesting things that’s occurred in drum corps this year, and thus has to put them under at least somewhat of a microscope in the drum corps community, and their expectations and projections of Surf may be higher. A more substantial success could also make a strong enough statement to secure more corporate sponsorships and donations as well as member and staff loyalty. Not only that, but it’s possible that if they *don’t* meet that substantial success, it would be perceived as a failure.

As an outsider with only vague ties to the staff, i don’t have a good idea of what sort of expectations Surf has for the next few years; make semi finals in two to three years, and then try to maintain a semi-final placement? Are there higher aspirations for individual aspects of the corps, the drum score, the horn score, the guard score? How does that differ from any expectations that the kids may have, the donors may have?

It’s a tricky balance to maintain because of the struggle between Surf as a pedagogical and educational organization versus a business and corporate organization and how those contradict each other.

As i said earlier, from a corporate standpoint, Surf struggles in a contextual environment of DCI as the equivalent of a small business market amidst a global business market, and by the difference between the two models alone it will never move beyond that. And for some of the individuals associated with the organization, it can be too easy to look at the immediate bottom line and think, “why am i here when i could be a bigger fish in a bigger pond?” And it would be resultingly easy for Surf and the greater drum corps community to react to that and contemplate the idea of changing and evolving their business model towards more of a full corps tour to take it to ‘the next level’. Some would see it as a natural evolution of the corps just as the move from Open to World was a natural evolution.

However, there are a few issues to consider with that. First, although Surf may have limitations as a corporate model for success, i personally think that the Surf model shines from a pedagogical and educational model more than a full corps tour does. When i marched in the Crossmen, i learned that being on a full tour may have taught me a lot and helped give me the tools to be the teacher that i am today, but i also am aware that full tour was an easy escape from reality. For three months you live on a bus and you don’t have to worry about paying bills, making money, doing chores, summer reading, &c. all you do is wake up, run, eat, drum, eat, drum, eat, drum, sleep on the bus or gym floor, rinse, repeat. On the other hand, the Surf model teaches more of a life lesson, how to handle the responsibilities of the drum corps on top of any other responsibilities that a member may have during the week. As opposed to being dictated a schedule because everyone is all in the same place, they have to work out their own schedule, find their own time to practice, otherwise face the consequences of letting themselves and the organization down when they show up for the weekend unprepared. That to me is more analogous to a real-life experience, learning how to juggle multiple responsibilities and be accountable for your own actions by the choices that you make, both within the context of the drum corps and how that fits in with everything else.

Secondly, while there may be members of the corps that may have ‘full tour envy’, the Surf model continues to grant an opportunity for kids that would not be able to afford the money or commitment for a full tour. This may be countered by the fact that there’s still a pretty strong east coast senior corps circuit represented by DCA, but the senior corps experience, while similar, has characteristics to it that are not comparable to a junior corps experience (which is a separate discussion altogether). If other drum corps existed already with a similar model to help fill that void, it would be less of an issue, but as it stands, Surf is the only organization that offers the DCI experience in this way.

Given that, if the Surf were to change to a full tour model, it may garner more success as an organization, but one which potentially sacrifices one of the more important lessons that the members can learn about life and takes away a particular membership pool that would then have an audience only with DCA. Maybe in the long term that decision will be the correct one for Surf, but at the moment it’s too early to tell, too premature to rationalize such a drastic change in Surf history and philosophy after only one year in the World Class market.

So then i return to the other question: is this a failed business model for a world class drum corps? should such a model only aspire to go so far in the world of DCI, stay in the realm of open class?

As the organization continues to grow and evolve and the DCI community reacts to that evolution, the answers will be made clearer at least in the model of drum corps that exists today. But again, i don’t feel like there is a clear cut answer to be made after a single year. Surf and DCI needs a larger and more long-term perspective to determine whether or not it can be competitive in that realm.

Regardless of whether or not it can exist in the world class paradigm or if it is a better fit for open class (or maybe the model itself will inspire DCI to consider another change to its structure, particularly if more corps come out and follow this sort of model in the future), i feel it’s important to pay tribute to and honor Surf for what they’ve already achieved and for throwing themselves into that fire as a modern drum corps history-maker in a way that none of the top drum corps can touch. it serves as an example of a model that may not be something to eventually be absorbed and identified under the current drum corps models, but as the potential birth and inspiration of a new sustainable model, something that can bridge junior corps membership in the context of today’s evolving world and serve as a catalyst and inspiration for other organizations to manage and maintain drum corps that might otherwise be forced to fold.

And despite the fact that drum corps remains and should remain a competitive activity, i feel that the mission of the activity is to provide kids and adults alike a conduit for which they can learn and experience life lessons that they would not otherwise have access to. So if more drum corps could be sustained, revived, or created through alternative models such as this, it is the responsibility of DCI and of the drum corps community to support it and grant it an avenue where those organizations can be successful. Drum Corps changed my life. Without it, i would not be the teacher i am now, i would not have made the connections that i have now, i would not have made the friends who i love and cherish and will for the rest of my life, and i know many people who feel the same. In that sense, there is no doubt in my mind that the dedication, bravery, and vision that has pushed them to this point already made them a world class success even before they took their first step on the competition field in Rome, NY.

originally posted on darkblog resonate. i prefer any comments there.