Workshop and Strike

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December 22nd 2009
Published: December 22nd 2009
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This last week I took a short vacation from writing to spend some time with a dear friend of mine who came to visit me in Kathmandu from Taiwan where she works as an English teacher. We had a wonderful week of visiting and sightseeing, but as it has little to do with my purpose on this site I’ll spare the details. If you’re interested, please write me individually. This also marks a period of long stretches of time between posts, and I intend to remedy that in the coming weeks. I’ll make it a priority to post at least once a week during the next five weeks.

I took a vacation from writing, but not from teaching. Recently I started teaching a class at the fine arts campus of Tribhuvan University. The opportunity came through one of the teachers I’m working with at the grade school; he just started teaching a classical vocal class at the university, and he thinks it is very valuable for his students to learn notation and basic western theory. He invited me to share his class—he teaches classical vocal for the first half of class, and I teach western notation and theory for the second half of class. He’s a rogue, rebellious teacher—he was a student at the same university, and he spent much of his time fighting with the administration and teachers about reforming the curriculum. He said (and I’ve heard it from other teachers as well) that the curriculum hasn’t changed in over 40 years, that the students can’t compete with musicians from other countries when they graduate, and that they’re learning nothing about the state of music in the modern world. He believes in the importance of learning Eastern classical music (the strong point of the curriculum), Nepali folk music (not stressed, but included in the curriculum), and Western classical music (absent from the curriculum). Now he wants to see a course of study that reflects these priorities. Because of his history with the teachers and administration while he was a student, he’s having a hard time being accepted by them as a teacher. On his first day of class as instructor the other teachers padlocked him out of his classroom, and there seems to be a passive-aggressive undercurrent during light interactions in the hallways. Jealousies and rivalries are commonplace in any institution, unfortunately, and I relate this just to show that they have an effect among music teachers in Nepal as well. The teacher whom I teach with has the support of the current campus chief, and it is unlikely that he will be forced out any time soon. What frustrates me is that I’ve spoken with many other teachers, most of whom have the same attitude toward the inadequacy of the current course of study, and yet there still seems to be little motion or cooperative action toward getting it changed. Despite this environment, I intend to use my time on campus to do a lot of interviews and get to know the university system much better.

In any case, I’ve started teaching a class of college music students (grade 12). The class has about 25 students—24 guys and 1 girl—and most of them are completely new to the western notation system. I’m proud to say that they’re learning very quickly; in four classes they can now divide up the 4/4 measure into 16th note divisions; recognize notes, rests, and where the notes fall; count using ‘1 e + a’; and can read fairly complex notated rhythms. During my most recent class the students had a breakthrough moment, and they really became excited about the rhythms they were learning. I wrote three rhythms on the board—the first was very difficult, the second was not quite as difficult, and the third was the easiest. I started with the easiest one, getting them to work it out and explaining the things that were confusing them, and then some of the quicker students used that understanding to move on to the medium-difficulty rhythm. I could see them using their learning and applying it to new problems, and it was a very exciting thing. By the end of the class they had all figured out the most difficult rhythm on the board. I’m personally learning how to pace the lessons—I probably should have stopped there at the moment of wide understanding, but I decided to see if I could introduce another concept in the remaining 10 minutes of class. I tried explaining dotted rhythms, but the students didn’t really catch on. Finally I had to have them copy some dotted rhythms into their notebooks for further explanation at the next class. The students so far have been very cooperative with both myself and the vocal teacher, and they say that they really value the things we’re teaching them. Of course they are supposed to say that, but they are backing up their words with enthusiasm and cooperation.

Tomorrow will begin my music teacher workshop, as described in the post, ‘Next Step of the Project.’ I’ve been planning and coordinating for the past month with the director of the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory to hold this workshop, and now all the details are finalized and we’re ready to get started. We held an informal meeting with prospective teachers/participants last week, and though only three people attended, they were a very motivated three. The expectation is that many people will register on the first day, and that teachers will trickle in during the whole first week. It may or may not happen—we’ll see. At the workshop I really want to focus on brainstorming and organizing a curriculum for grade school music. This curriculum will have to be well thought-out, easily accessible, and attractive to teachers for no other reason than that it can provide them with some easy organization. This last point is key; it seems that the only way for a music curriculum to catch on widely here is for it to be adopted voluntarily by many individual teachers. There is no system in place for accountability in music teaching (no standardized tests or performance contests or reviews), and therefore no way to force or enforce any curriculum. I’ve heard that a curriculum has been put forward in the past, but that it was a hasty thing and didn’t catch on. In all my dealings with grade school music teachers I’ve never seen a curriculum. This workshop will bring teachers together to help make it themselves, and as a result I hope they’ll feel some ownership in it and incentive to use it. From this small group of teachers it can reach other teachers through the connections networks that I wrote about previously. In my view a curriculum could be immensely helpful for the whole system because it will establish a standard skill set for students graduating with an interest in music. Right now all students who study music at university are regarded as beginners during their first year of study because there is no standard skill set expected of them, this because there is no standardization at the grade school level.

Another subject I will teach at the workshop is western notation. With notation skills teachers can preserve their programs for use by future students, they can write their program ideas to share with other teachers, they can write music to share with the international community, and they will generally have another way to widely communicate their musical ideas. Notation is equivalent to English as an international language, and even though Nepali music didn’t evolve with this kind of notation (just as the Nepali language didn’t evolve with English words or script), it can be very useful to learn for international communication. It needn’t change any styles, either—Nepali music styles can easily be preserved through western notation. Notation can also equip them with skills useful for performing and working in the popular music business, especially in recording studios. If they learn it and value it, they can teach it to their students.

Here is the workshop schedule we’ve come up with.

Week 1: Curriculum and Lesson Planning

Day 1: Brainstorm for music lessons to be taught in one year, including musical skills to be gained by each student.

Day 2: Organizing learned musical skills into a logical flow in which they build upon each other.

Day 3: Creating large music units, and fitting them into a definite time schedule.

Day 4: Breaking down the units into manageable classroom lessons and determining necessary resources.

Day 5: Accountability: making sure your students are learning.

Week 2: Rhythmic notation and dictation

Day 1: How notation and dictation can help in the classroom for any style of music.

Day 2: Western rhythmic notation symbols and uses.

Day 3: Basic western rhythmic notation—thinking rhythms and writing rhythms.

Day 4: Rhythmic dictation—hearing rhythms and writing them down.

Day 5: More advanced rhythmic notation and dictation.

Week 3: Melodic notation and dictation

Day 1: Uses for melodic notation and written melodies in the music classroom.

Day 2: Solfege and staff notation symbols.

Day 3: Notation practice—writing simple songs.

Day 4: Intro to melodic dictation—thinking melodies and writing them.

Day 5: More advanced melodic notation and dictation.

Week 4: Arranging Public and Contest Performances

Day 1: Choosing the music to be performed, the venue, and creating a rehearsal schedule.

Day 2: Rehearsing—getting the most of ensemble time.

Day 3: Teaching general music ideas in the context of preparing for performance.

Day 4: Issues of organizing the performance—resources, performance space, time, advertising.

Day 5: Showtime—how to make the performance run smoothly and impress the audience and/or judges

Week 1 day 1 was supposed to be yesterday, December 21. It didn’t happen yesterday because the Maoist political party called a three day banda, shutting down all businesses and schools in the country for three days to put pressure on the government. Transportation has been completely stopped, and business owners are under threat of a beat-down if they open their doors. It’s a sad thing to see, and it’s even more sad to see that the only consequences of such a demonstration for the everyday Nepali citizen are overwhelmingly negative. Kids can’t go to school, sick people can’t go to the hospital, people can’t buy food, people can’t earn money, people can’t visit family, projects aren’t completed, deadlines are missed, etc. All this in the name of dissatisfaction among political party leaders. It’s a shame, and the more I see it here the more I realize that the western processes of government don’t fit with the Nepali ways of conducting business. I can’t propose a good alternative right now, but I can easily see (along with every other thinking person in this country) that this system doesn’t fit and isn’t working. ‘Mildaina,’ in the Nepali language. For fun and for curiosity, I think it could be good to have a website or internet space dedicated to letting people put forward suggestions and ideas relating to a perfect government. Things like priorities, functions, structure, and processes relating to the running of a perfect government could be expressed in the opinions of contemporary, 21st century global citizens. Around 1776 a select group of men had the privilege of creating a new government for a new country, the USA, and their creation has lasted to this day. There are many countries in this world which are still in the process of creating a government, or changing their government, and this same opportunity is present for the leaders of such countries. Communication has expanded infinitely since the 18th century, and it is now possible for these leaders to access the ideas and opinions of a huge range of citizens. Why not make it available? Something like this may have already been started—I don’t know—but if it hasn’t then I will gladly make my ‘comments’ section of this blog available for ideas of more perfect governance.


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