IN SOUND THINKING: On Listening / We Are Music

by Keith Johnston 

I believe we are all born with gifts, talents and abilities.  On our journey, we engage in the great unifier, “music”, but the question is, are we listening to the ebb and flow of what this life is offering? Regardless of race, gender, culture or nationality, music is central to the human condition. We are sound personified, vibrating at specific frequencies that define who we are as living breathing instruments.

Music is all about listening, affecting and being affected, feeling and experiencing the power of orchestrated sound. Whether we are aware of it or not, we listen with all five senses and then some. At the heart of all music is listening. Whether we are playing music, or even unconsciously exposed, we are transformed by the sound in some way. It doesn’t matter how good of a musician we are as much as how well we listen and respond.

Life is all about making music. In our everyday activities, walking, talking, eating or dancing, we exercise the three elements of music; rhythm, melody and harmony. Take notice of how nature has its own orchestration with a plethora of instrumentation through all life forms. Even when listening to people speak—the tone, rhythm and melodies of their native language create a unique musical exchange, a conversation grounded in rituals that are foundational to their identity.

The power of listening is evident in the most remarkable displays of music; an African drummer’s ability to calculate a dancer’s next move in a split second, a jazz musician’s telepathy or the ability to spontaneously spit rhymes in complex rhythms and melodies is an example of this high science from the cosmos. If we are fearless enough to study, practice and observe we can reach new heights through the sound of music. This universal language is essential to our health and unifies people as nothing else can. It is also an effective way to enhance our academic facilities; math, science, literacy, etc.

Anything that breathes is music, shifting the atmosphere, making a statement or raising a question. Sound is the source of all life. As we venture on our personal path, interacting in various ways, we are making music. Our individual journey is orchestrated by choices, circumstance and relationships composing an original piece.

Music is sacred in whatever way each individual might define that term. So, as we create, let us strive to harmonize or at least find relevance in the dissonance in this improvisational jazzathon called life.

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A Reflection on the “Play” Jam Session and Documentary

by Nia Blankson

Two Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of receiving an invitation to an event that I could only dream about prior to participating in Sound Thinking NYC. Whilst in the middle of my vacation, an email appeared in my inbox stating I, along with 6 other members of the cohort were selected to preview an unreleased documentary by Dave Grohl, as well as perform in an in-studio jam session, all in Downtown Music Publishing Studios. My immediate reaction, of course, was to re-read the email a few more times to make sure I read correctly, but I instantly started panicking, as I realized I’d never actually played piano with other people before. The extent of my playing up to that point was playing extremely rehearsed classical pieces alone on a stage in front of an audience in a performance hall. Regardless of how daunting that seems, I was feeling more overwhelmed by the fact that I would have to play unrehearsed, among other people, and having to add onto what they were doing on the spot.

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Finally, the day arrived, and unaware of what really to expect, I headed down to CAT, then to Downtown Music Publishing Studios to meet the other 6 chosen. When we arrived, we met Max, who was going to be the bassist of the group, and we found out that he was seventeen, plays other instruments as well as the bass, and has had quite a bit of experience working in studios. After our friendly introductions, we were seated in studio to preview Dave Grohl’s short documentary, “Play.” The first part of the documentary featured Grohl talking about music, and interviewing kids who are a part of a music program where they learn how to play instruments in private lessons, as well as come together in a band to play through the same program. This was quite interesting to see, as the music schools I have attended, as well as most others I’ve heard about, have all been centered around teaching children how to be solo musicians, unless you’re playing in an orchestra, or an occasional duet with your teacher. It was quite inspiring to watch the kids working things out by themselves (of course under the tutelage of their instructor,) and get a glimpse into their lives in music, plus being able to relate to them in several ways as well.

The second part of the documentary included the 23 minute instrumental completely composed and played by Dave Grohl himself, in which he plays multiple instruments edited together to create a lengthy masterpiece. We all listened and watched in awe as Grohl’s instrumental took many twists and turns, almost experimenting in various genres, showcasing his multifaceted skill-set and expertise of every instrument. When the documentary and the giant, high quality speakers in the studio went quiet, everyone in the room followed suit, and you could almost hear a pin drop. It remained completely silent for a few seconds, everyone exchanging glances, before we all burst into applause.

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If I’m being completely honest, strangely enough, my favorite part of the documentary was just before it showed the final cut of the instrumental piece, and there were scenes of Dave Grohl making mistakes, doing parts of his instrumental over and over again until he got it perfect. He would either mess up a part, or simply want to give it another go as he knew for a fact he could perform much better than what he just played. These scenes highlighted my personal favorite section that stood out as it showed me that no one is perfect, and a huge part of music is trial and error. Even a professional like Dave Grohl needed multiple takes in order to get his piece to a standard that was acceptable for him.

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After the documentary ended, we ate lunch, and got ready to play in the recording studio. I personally have never been in a setting like this, and I hadn’t a clue as to how things would work. For the most part, I played the piano, occasionally switching between the synthesizer and the keyboard, but I wasn’t as comfortable with them. However, as we came up with our first melody, and began to add on to each other, although I was extremely nervous, I was becoming more comfortable with playing, and was able to figure out what to play, and how to fit in what I was playing into what everyone else was doing. The whole experience was extremely fun, and it challenged me to think quickly and collaborate with others live, but I also found it extremely helpful when Keith Johnston (CAT Program Director) was giving us some advice as we were playing that enabled us to try new things and think outside of the box.

The fact that the guest bassist, Max, that was playing with us was a male was of no real importance to me. In fact, I was quite excited that we were going to be working with someone who was already experienced working in music studios, and we all got along with him from the start. Everyone had the same goal, as at the end of the day, were just 7 musicians working together creating songs from scratch.

From watching Dave Grohl’s documentary to actually playing in the recording studio, I feel there needs to be more of an emphasis on music education. This experience had a positive impact on me, and I feel that more people could easily benefit from music education as a part of the core curriculum. Not only did both the documentary and the experience itself give me a deeper understanding into the music world, but they both highlighted the importance of collaboration, trial and error, and trying new things. Having to work with others to spontaneously produce a song, making mistakes, and attempting new things were all very prevalent in our jam session, and these are attributes that should be given more attention when it comes to music education.

I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of this experience first-hand, and my wish is that more students who are passionate about music have the opportunity to go through something even similar to this. Through watching the documentary, and being able to participate in a jam session in a recording studio, I was able to understand how important it is to sometimes just set everything aside, focus, and simply play.

A Day at ‘Play’

by Annalise Jaffe

A few weeks ago, me and five other Sound Thinkers had the opportunity to go to Downtown Music Publishing, a legendary studio in Soho. Filled to the brim with equipment used to make groundbreaking records, we were asked to spend a few hours in this incredible setting to experiment with collaboration and improvisation.

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How did we end up here? Dave Grohl, the highly talented musician and the lead in the Foo Fighters and former drummer for Nirvana, made a documentary about the process of learning to play an instruments as a young person. He wanted young musicians around the country to watch the documentary and then, inspired by the film, collaborate in making music.

As a singer songwriter, I often write songs alone in my room and rarely have a space where I am composing music with others. Jamming was difficult. I had to be attentive to other musicians, aware not to take up too much space. Everyone has their own genre that they play.  Collaborating with no set genre in mind let me practice a whole new style of singing. Through this experience I found new appreciation of getting out my comfort zone, abandoning my fear of making mistakes, and recognizing you kind of need to mess up, to find your sound.

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Sound Music Reviews

Hi, Clara and Jasmin here! We are two students from the inaugural cohort of Sound Thinking NYC! We decided to come together to create this column to share some of our favorite pieces of music to all of our readers in hopes of expanding your palate. With our reviews of production, sound and background information, we hope to help you discover new music and artists that you normally wouldn’t listen to. Music is a very large area of opportunities and we hope through this monthly column, we could make it a little easier to get to know some great artists to watch out for! Thank you for reading!  – J & C.

Review By: Jasmin Bota

Sweetener, the fourth studio album by American pop singer Ariana Grande, is an album full of symbolism. When this album was in the works, Ariana Grande had found herself feeling “upside down” due to her rough circumstances as a result of the Manchester terrorist attacks that took place during her world tour in 2017. This event seemed to put Grande into a spiral of dangerous situations regarding mental health and a need for eliminating the toxicity within her life.

Through this album, Ariana Grande speaks on mental health, abusive relationships, important friendships, her new fiancé and her road to recovery. Songs like “Get Well Soon” carry out the symbolic theme through its length of time. At the end of this song, Grande decided to add 40 seconds of silence to match the date of these attacks. Grande uses lots of harmonies and whispery singing to give the feeling of self-discovery and healing. So many harmonies were added to the point where Grande has admitted to maxing out ProTools various times! Produced by Pharrell, this album is an album of truth and promise.

Rating: 4/5
Song: Get Well Soon
Artist: Ariana Grande


Review By: Clara O’Connell

Underworld, the fourth studio album by Australian rock band Tonight Alive, is a journey through the process of healing, both physically and spiritually. When the band went to Thailand to record, singer Jenna McDougall was suffering with chronic eczema, severe allergic reactions to food, and chronic fatigue and irritability. But she believed that these symptoms were physical manifestations of the emotional scars inside. The album addresses finding who you are, becoming that person, and loving that person.

In “Disappear,” featuring Lynn Gunn from PVRIS, McDougall sings of both being invisible and wanting to be invisible, a reflection of how the music industry treats women. “My Underworld,” a song with an amazing guest appearance from Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, is about coming to terms with your dark side; conversely “Looking for Heaven” is about finding a heaven within yourself. But each song on the record offers its own powerful message, whether it be about love of someone else or self-love, accepting your differences or being unapologetically you. Sonically, the album is a mixture between their earlier work and their 2016 release, Limitless. At the time of its creation, Limitless was the album that their previous label, Sony Music Australia, was wanting from them. It was a departure from the pop punk sound that Tonight Alive was known for; instead, it offered a more polished, poppier sound. Switching to Hopeless Records, the band had more control in the process, which allowed them to combine and change their sounds in a more comfortable way.

Underworld offers both the head-banging, yelling moments of their first two records, and the danceability of Limitless.

Rating: 4.5/5
Album: Underworld, Hopeless Records
Artist: Tonight Alive

Luke Goes Full Circle

“OMG I’m the lead of a Shakespeare play!”

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Luke, center, with his class from PS/IS 127 Aerospace Science Magnet School at the 2012 Festival

Hi, my name is Luke Domond and I am 20 years old. When I was 14 years old, in middle school, I starred in my very first play. Once my teacher, Ms. Nicolson, told us that we would be in a play at the end of the year for the Shakespeare Festival hosted by the Creative Art Team, I couldn’t control my excitement, so that day I ran home to let my family know about the good news. I always wanted to be a part of play and this was my opportunity to be in one. Not only was I able to finally be in one, I was the lead role! The play was “Much Ado About Nothing,” a comedy by William Shakespeare. The day finally came, after days of rehearsing, it was finally go time. Walking into the building where we was about to perform was terrifying. Seeing the stage, seeing all the seats that will soon be filled with people, it was just a rush. Once it was our turn to go on stage and perform all I could think of was, what if I forget my line or say the wrong thing, all these things was just clouding my head. So, I decide to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and just do what I was doing for the last few months, having fun. To my amazement, we were a hit, everyone loved our performance! We won the award for best comedy.

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Luke’s scene, “Love Can Make You Do Some Crazy Things”

Thinking this would be the last time I would ever hear about this program and this wonderful festival they host every year since, I would be going to high school the following year, I was devastated. I would never have another experience like that again. To my surprise, 6 years later I was giving the opportunity to intern for them through an internship program called CUNY Service Corps. This was my chance to finally get connected with the people who created this wonder festival and made my middle school experience the best experience I ever had. Interning for the Creative Art Team was a blast, I got to work with a lot of great people who taught me so much like Krista, Rachel, David and so many others. Then it finally happened, I got directly connected to the people behind the Shakespeare Festival! Not only did I get to meet the people who brought me so much happiness as a child, but got the chance to be a part of the magic and help out with the Festival this year!

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Luke, center, on Sixth Avenue, with CAT’s 2017-18 CUNY Service Corps crew, Service Corps alumni who are current CAT staffers, and three CAT administrators

Going from being in the Shakespeare Festival as a child to interning for the company as a young adult and being able to be a part of making this year’s festival as amazing for the kids this year as it was for me 6 years ago is really a blessing.

Lucille Lortel Theatre, here I come again! Can’t wait!

Luke-Domond

Luke Domond
CUNY Service Corps Member
Student, New York City College of Technology

Field Notes

Field Notes

As a new employee at CAT, I’ve been really fortunate to be able to watch and participate with our Actor-Teachers as they share and create interactive stories with young people in grades K-2 at the start of this year’s Astor Program. The Astor Program stems from a generous grant that allows the Early Learning Program to engage in a mentor-modeling in-school residency (alongside after-school professional development sessions) to six schools in Queens on how to use interactive drama practices in the classroom to foster higher order reading skills. One of my favorite moments to witness has been each and every class being so excited to see their respective actor-teacher walk in the room, even if they have only met him or her once before.

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CAT’s 2016-17 Early Learning Team

I am also constantly humbled and impressed by how thoughtful and intentional our team is. The care they put into reaching each student on both an academic and personal level is truly moving. I have no doubt that the young people’s ability to recall the stories (and, in turn, skills) they have been creating is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our team. I’ve had a great time participating with the young people as our actor-teachers create stories with them, and look forward to seeing the growth of the team, the young people, and their teachers throughout the year.

What I love most about this work, and this may be fairly selfish of me to say, are the people that I’ve met and worked with who are out there practicing it in the field. Because I primarily prefer to work in administrative roles, I am fortunate to have connected with a multitude of individuals who operate under the umbrella of applied theatre, which encompasses work of this nature. Borrowed from CUNY’s MA in Applied Theatre homepage, applied theatre “involves the use of theatre and drama in a wide variety of nontraditional contexts and venues, such as in teaching, the justice system, health care, the political arena, community development, museums, and social service agencies.” Overall, the practitioners and artists that I’ve worked with are some of the most conscientious humans I have ever met.

I found myself working in applied theatre a little over two years ago when I messaged my high school mentor in a panic a few months before graduating college with a degree in English and Secondary Education and a minor in Special Education. I expressed that I really missed being involved in theatre (I had taken a hiatus from stage managing for a few years) and that I found the education system to be failing the students of America and was unsure if I could be a part of it. She asked me if I had heard of the term applied theatre, which I had not, and on something of a whim I found myself applying to get my master’s degree in it in London. While there is no denying that I rushed into getting a degree in a field of work I had next to no experience in, I was fortunate to be met with open arms by my fellow MA students at Goldsmiths University of London.

Over the past two years I have worked in administrative roles where the populations being worked with are very vulnerable ones. The work that our actor-teachers and teaching artists do is not easy, and I cannot emphasize enough how hard they work to make sure that they are practicing the work as ethically as they can. I feel very privileged to witness and hear about their success stories in the field. From a personal standpoint, I also feel pushed to use some of the strategies I have learned from this work in exploring how I can be a more politically aware and active citizen. In today’s political climate, I have found it especially necessary to examine my own privileges and how I can use them in supporting movements that challenge the many inequalities marginalized groups in this country face. The people I have met who work in applied theatre have been integral in that process for me, and I am very grateful to them for their patience, skills, and support.

While a goal of the Early Learning Program is to enhance higher order reading skills, it is also to encourage young people to ask strong questions. What I like about applied theatre (and why it’s a field I want to remain working in) is that these two goals are not mutually exclusive here – they shape and inform each other. Our actor-teachers and teaching artists work with populations who will be the artists, activists, and policy-makers in the years to come, and it’s very humbling to play a small part in that.  kady-stockman-2-elp

Kady Stockman
Program Manager
Early Learning Program

Gratitude and Immersive Learning in Briarwood, Queens.

Sharing a post by CAT Youth Theatre & MA in Applied Theatre alum, Michael Gargan Curtin, who has been working as an actor/teacher with CAT on and off for years – this time, as an elf. 🙂

Culture Faerie

ThankYouCard.BryarwoodShamilia McBean and I closed out our 12-week drama residency with first and second graders in Briarwood, Queens the Friday before last. The residency confirmed for me the effectiveness of using drama as a means of learning. Sham and I were there as Teaching Artists for the Creative Arts Team to support literacy using drama and role-play. Many times throughout the residency, the students, in role, were motivated by the story (which they drive forward) to use their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, as well as provide important critique.

For the final session, we were joined by parents and siblings of the students to celebrate and to bring the story in the drama to a close. By now the students were well accustomed to stepping into their alternate personas as Fix-it Elves and traveling to the Land of Letters, and they were happy to show off their imaginary outfits…

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