Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Late Night Silent Disco Eurhythmics (or how I learned to teach with my eyes closed)


I love my job. Have I told any of you that lately? 

This last Friday evening we realised one of my latest dreams: to host an outdoor – silent disco – FM radio – late night in the dark – Eurhythmics class with 75+ students (and a few guests) – COVID socially distanced – and yet – musically connected – all while playing with glow sticks, light-up balls, and sparklers!!

It took a fair bit of planning + a special university permit (!) + the patience and good will of all involved and yielded a really fun time. 

We started the evening set-up around 7:30 PM just as dusk was really setting in. By 8:00 PM it was pretty dark and we ran some tests to see what we could actually see, and to test the technology for last minute tweaks. 

Students arrived at 8:30 and were given two thin bracelet sized glow sticks and two rubber bands. They were instructed to pocket the rubber bands and to experiment with the glow sticks throughout the opening exercises. Some students made them into bracelets, or halos, or necklaces. Others used them as conductor batons or frisbees. 

The lessons of the evening included classic conducting and stepping in varied meters, specific attention to the ensemble's collective 'shifts of weight', 'time-space-energy' games with ball tossing, a pre-plastique anime exercise where we improvised gesture phrases that became amazingly personal, and a fair bit of time playing in the 'straight 5'.

We started with glow sticks in all variations, then when we moved to the t-s-e ball games, we looped the glow sticks into bracelets and used the rubber bands to tie the sticks to tennis balls, and voilà(!) – we had light-up tennis balls that looked amazing in the night sky. 

I spent a fair bit of time the prior week, thinking about the evening, planning my activities, and considering how I might help the crowd get our collective groove-on all while working in very low light. It occured to me that the students would likely not be able to see me very well, and so I thought of lots of ways that I could use the FM technology to talk directly into everyone's ear and keep us together. What I underestimated was how hard it would be for me to see them! I was not really able to see anyone's faces most of the evening! It was like teaching into the abyss, but with just enough feedback to not be able to ignore anyone. If I were teaching in a truly dark cavern, then I would just go with what felt right to me. But to the extent that I could see anything, I attempted to adjust to my class to the participating students, but I was trying to adjust with only 10% of the normal feedback (no eyes, no expressions – only moving glow sticks, laughter, and outlines of bodies in motion). It was a challenging class for me to be sure. I absolutely underestimated that part of the formula.

All that said, I think we all had a grand time and built some lasting memories to boot. (The highlight of the evening was when I pulled out a blow-torch and 150 bamboo rod sparklers. The students were over the moon to play with the bright lights and make some great sparkler trails in the night sky.) Late Night Silent Disco Eurhythmics was a success and I will look for some special circumstances to improve on my attempts and share the glee with more students in the future. I'm just glad it is not my normal gig. 

Heartfelt thanks to all of my students who ended up taking two classes with me in the same day (the required morning class and the optional late night class). Thanks to my administration for your support in technology and permits. Thanks to all for your patience and encouragement allowing us all to PLAY and EXPERIMENT and try some zainy ideas with no guarantees of success. Thanks for the connections and the relationships and earnest work and generous spirits. I am thankful for you all. 


Dr. N

"Hug your knee...Hug your other knee..Hug your neighbor's knee (no, not during COVID!)"

no ceilings to bump into in this classroom. toss the balls higher!

Crazy thing about Silent Disco Eurhythmics is that outsiders cannot hear the music!
Ya gotta be 'in the club' to hear it.
It is all being broadcast through the FM radio station into everyone's headphones.

"I can't really see anybody's face!?!!"

"Hop Hop Hop!"

Saturday, October 3, 2020

FM Eurhythmics! (or Silent Disco Dalcroze)

A quick primer on the Eurhythmics classes at CMU School of Music
The Carnegie Tech Department of Music adopted the required four semesters of Dalcroze Eurhythmics coursework in 1921. Since then, nearly 100 years of music undergraduates have spent roughly 150 hours of their Freshmen and Sophomore semesters studying musicianship through the somewhat irregular methods of the Eurhythmics classes. The course places a high value on the inner game of music performance, and utilizes improvisation, gesture, clapping, stepping, singing, small and large group projects. The classes are traditionally led from a large piano in an open space with shoes-off, in close proximity to other studying colleagues. 

The Eurhythmics classes challenge the students to not only think and see music notation, and to not only hear and perform music, but above all to feel music. We build attention to the viscerality of musical experience through four semesters of participatory exercises that make the study of music personal and intimate. One way that this intimacy is encouraged is that the course is normally taught in a studio where the 9’ Steinway concert grand piano is so close that the students can literally feel the vibrations of even the most pianissimo of melodies. Another part of the winning recipe is that the Eurhythmics classes are always taught in participatory group settings. Everyone in the class is part of the ensemble; we learn from each other, singing, moving, sharing, and adjusting together, in real time, based on the musical choices of the participants. 

New times require new plans
When the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, all of the faculty and administration of the School of Music scrambled and brainstormed for solutions for continuing the richness of our study in a new, spatially distanced environment. This posed specific challenges for the Eurhythmics classes. 

We are normally very close together, in a room with a big piano, creating quite a stir. The move to full-time Zoom would require nearly all of the collaborative, in-the-moment, creative work to stop, leaving us with a shell of a course. After doing some soul searching and some investigations to non-traditional interaction possibilities (THANKS VDM!) I ran across two interesting projects, both outside of academia. The 1st is from a NYC based group called Improv Everywhere. They are a large-scale theatrical improvisation community who have mastered the art of the no-rehearsal flash mob (among other things). They have a recurring event called the MP3 project where they invite their mailing list to a certain hill in a park on a named day and time. The participants are instructed to download a playlist and an app and to bring their headphones. Then at the assigned time, they push play in the app and the technology synchronizes their playlist to every other of the 500+ participants on the hillside and everyone can then magically hear the exact same playlist at the same time. A narrator named Steve offers instructions and provocations and hilarity ensues while everyone in the club learns what to do next. Of added interest is the experience of everyone else at the park who are forced to  guess at a how 500 people can move together and all seem to all know what to do next. 

A second interesting event I found is called Silent Disco. Silent disco is an alternative dance club format, where participants show up to a dance club, pay the cover charge, and are immediately handed a set of headphones and a receiver belt pack. The club is silent until one puts on the headphones and turns on the receiver. Once on, the club is as loud as the attendee chooses to turn up the volume. Everyone in the club can hear the music, and everyone has the option of returning to silence at any point by just taking off the headphones. Everyone can dance fully, feeling immersed in the music without the aggressive sensation of amplified sound that one can not get away from. 

My summer 2020 teaching was all through zoom and some of my adult students who had good cell reception started taking the classes outside in their yard or even at the park. The zoom version of Eurhythmics actually works better outside than inside as the audio is the same but the room to move is so much better. It was a revelation to me because we have always joked about taking Eurhythmics outside but have never found a good way to overcome the many obstacles. Thinking about the success of zooming in the park + the MP3 Experiment and Silent Disco I started obsessing about ways to combine these projects: the great outdoors + sound receivers + headphones + broadcast instructions. All that was left was to find a technology that permitted live instruction instead of pre-recorded playlists and the answer was a time-tested technology, FM radio (Thanks Jesse Stiles!). 

A successful new routine
Since the beginning of the fall semester 2020, the Carnegie Mellon School of Music Eurhythmics classes have met outside on The Cut, the large lawn in front of the College of Fine Arts building. The school purchased FM receivers for each of the 100+ students enrolled in the Eurhythmics classes. The students arrive to the Cut donning headphones and their small FM receiver and I have a full rig set-up to both broadcast video and audio over Zoom for the students working remotely and a second audio feed for the students on the field. The FM broadcast allows the students outside on the field to receive a close, intimate, high-fidelity audio support directly into their ears. This allows us to bypass the rock-concert aesthetic and permits me to perform with a full range of dynamics and articulation. The passers-by are somewhat mystified as to the goings-on as none of the sound is amplified outside of the FM radio feed. They can see the students moving around but are often at a loss as to how they know to synchronize and collaborate on what appears to be a silent field. The students are close enough to feel the community and the shared experience of chamber music, yet distant enough to reduce fears of infection in the fresh air. The plan is to continue as many outside FM radio classes as possible until the weather makes the experience too cold to be productive. 

The next plan is to host LATE NIGHT EURHYTHMICS. I am looking at a date this week where we will all meet on the lawn in the dark, glow sticks, sparklers, and light-up tennis balls in tow....stay tuned for some pictures!!

Here we are working on a simple right-hand/left-hand 'follow'. The students are attempting to step the rhythm of my left hand and clap the rhythm of my right hand. I repeat patterns independently in each hand and then evolve the patterns without any cue. The students have to listen, entrain, and adjust as the rhythms in my hands evolve. 
Here we are working through a classic echo game. I sing and play a one bar pattern, the students conduct the meter, sing the echo, and step the rhythm that they are singing. 

the set-up

the rig!

my classroom

the College of Fine Arts building (1903, Henry Hornbostel architect)

my classroom (Pitt Cathedral of Learning in the distance) 


The weather in Pittsburgh is ALWAYS sunny and 72°.