Monday, 20 October 2014

Status and Learning.

Impro is a book written by Keith Johnstone in the 1970’s. It’s fairly well-known in theatre circles and has been a bible for theatre practitioners (and scriptwriters too) for many a year. A number of original ideas are contained within its covers which are a boon to improvisers and indeed to any creative person. It’s a funny book and instantly accessible to the reader. The exercises which Johnstone describes were dreamed up during a spell at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where he presided over script writing classes and decided the best way to test whether a play was working was get it on the floor and act it out. He devised Status games as a method to help improvisers generate stories for the stage. These were very simple and effective. He split human transactions into a sort of game of one-up-manship (and one-down-manship!) in which characters were forever trying to get a bit lower or higher than the person they were acting with. Characters do this in two ways – by what they say and by their body language. I guess we are all familiar with the sort of person who trumps every sentence we say in a manner which somehow belittles us.

A: I bought some new shoes yesterday.
B: Those are new?
A: I seem to be lost.
B: Haven’t much of a sense of direction have you?
A: I can’t do long division.
B: (Breezily) Oh, it’s simple enough.

Johnstone set out the physical characteristics of the high and low status character thus: high status characters hold eye contact and won’t break it. They have an open body posture, stillness, don’t um and ah. They speak slowly and project the voice. Low status, is the opposite. A low status character can’t hold eye contact long, their posture in its extremes might include pigeon toes, knock knees, slumped shoulders. Their voice is meek and their gestures, fidgety. As Johnstone says in a later book, Status is really about attitudes of dominance in human behaviour. He got actors to play different status’ to develop scenes, with hilarious results.

As an actor and director, I did alot of work when I was in my twenties around the concepts and exercises in Impro. At the same time, I was going on a journey into alternative education through the works of John Holt and AS Neill. (There is an interesting cross-over in Impro when Johnstone describes teaching at a primary school and how his work was influenced by John Holt’s ideas.) With the two interests – impro and alternative education - running side by side, I began to notice how adults routinely played high status to children, especially in educational institutions. Having been belittled and humiliated myself in school for many years by adults, I found myself watching the body language of teachers and educators. I was fascinated by their continual attempts to guard and maintain their status before the young people they were teaching. I could see clearly that the high status teacher (however ‘nice’ they might be) is continually attacking the status of the class. In other words lowering their status and making them feel small. This is incredibly destructive. The teacher, often terrified of chaos and a class running riot, keeps the young people down by frightening and subtly belittling them – ie making them feel less ‘clever’ than the teacher. I suppose, in schools, as children are forced to go there and forced to learn things they are largely uninterested in, teachers ultimately have no choice but to use this methodology. But these continual attacks on a child’s status and feelings of self-worth (attacks that go on for ten years of their childhood) have a devastating affect on their ability to learn – and live. They probably are the cause of all the anxiety related ‘learning difficulties’.

It is well documented that an important component of learning is confidence, not least having the confidence to keep trying when you don’t initially succeed at something. To play a musical instrument, you must fail to play it well for a few months before you begin to make sounds that another person might want to hear. The ability to try again when your last attempt at the Moonlight Sonata sounded like the Devils Mass, fingers bashing all the wrong notes, is essential. Trudging up the steep learning curve of a musical instrument, the learner must have the self-confidence and self-esteem to pick themselves up when they fall over. This mental and emotional approach to learning demands that the learner has something of an adventurer about them, it demands a small amount of indomitability. Good learners don’t care if they fail, they know they’ll get there eventually. But this is not an attitude that can easily develop if the status of a learner is being continually diminished,

Being in the company of somebody who can already do what you are trying to learn and who is belittling you (often unintentionally, or unconsciously) or testing you as you do it, erodes confidence in many people and destroys a learner’s morale. Going back to John Holt, he tells a story of two musical instruments he took into a primary school class. One day, he brought out a flute and played it to the children. He was fairly good on the instrument and was a little surprised when he offered the instrument to the children and none of them were interested in attempting to play it. He realised belatedly, that they were worried about failing to play it. They knew their playing would seem hopeless in comparison to what they had just heard. In a school class, even a humane one run by John Holt, they probably already felt small enough. Some time later, he took a trumpet into the class. He couldn’t play this, and this was obvious from the terrible noises he made. This time, the children leapt to their feet and clamoured to try it out.

Being around an expert can be handy at times when you really, really want to do something, but if they are always there, judging you, marking you, correcting, the learners status can plummet irretrievably and they will give up, or not even attempt to learn things. It is often better for a learner if they are not around somebody who knows it all.

I’m not suggesting here that adults should falsely bolster a child’s self esteem with lots of well done, or you can do it. If you think about it, that still leaves an adult in a position of high status encouragement, offering rewards and incentives. I’m suggesting that adults get out of the way and that they don’t elevate themselves or bolster their own prestige around young people or learners. There is a large temptation to do this. Many a teacher feels that they won’t be taken seriously by a learner unless they look really impressive and come across as an expert. Maybe so. But it will also whittle away at the learners belief that they can ever be so good. And that temptation to elevate oneself, is usually more about the teachers need to be taken seriously, to be esteemed, to feel BIG, than it is about helping someone to learn. It is more about a teacher’s fear of not being thought worthwhile by those they are teaching. It is about the teacher’s own insecurity. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird is the best shot in town, but he never tells his son and his son doesn’t know. Atticus doesn’t need to elevate his status over his son because Atticus is already big inside. I’m suggesting teachers do as little as possible around those who are learning, and intervene when asked and then not for too long. And also in a way that doesn’t elevate themselves into some wonderful high status expert. Dropping one’s status around other people, especially children, when they are learning is nearly always helpful to them. (By this I mean quite literally changing our body language and watching that we are not always raising ourselves above them by what we say.) It might not be so gratifying to that part of us that feels small ourselves and wants to be esteemed, but I think it leads those we help to learn, to have a different form of respect for us: that which we always feel towards those who treat us with the dignity that every human being deserves, no matter how young or old or insignificant they may seem.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro is widely available. It’s the only book about creativity I have ever read that is genuinely useful. It also has in it, many games that are great to play, for young and old, which foster the imagination, spontaneity, storytelling, and above all laughter.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Speaking Shakespeare's Verse


Shakespeare’s verse is not written in iambic pentameter. Apologies if that comes as something of a shock. It is written in irregular verse with a predominant iambic pulse, which is something rather different.

The key to understanding formal verse structures is the foot. The foot is a unit of rhythm usually containing a stressed syllable and one or possibly two unstressed syllables.

The word going is stressed on the go and not stressed on the ing. Try stressing the ing and people will look at you strangely. Tomorrow has three syllables. Unstressed to, stressed mo, and an unstressed row. Again, putting the stresses in the wrong place will get you funny looks.

Stresses are obvious enough in the pronunciation of words, but we also stress some words and not others, depending on our meaning.

In a sentence such as I am going to the shops, it would be normal to stress the go in going and shops. To put the stresses on these words would suggest that a person is informing a friend or partner that they’re just nipping down to the Spar for some milk. To stress any of the other words would imbue the sentence with other slightly less ordinary meanings.

I am going to the shops (you are not)
I AM going to the shops. (Don’t try to stop me)
I am going TO the shops. (Not away from them)
I am going to THE shops. (The only important shops around)
Sometimes, as a parting shot in an argument for instance, we might stress alot of syllables.

So the stress we place on words in sentences has a vast impact on their meaning and nuances. Get the emphasis wrong and it could impact an the entire scene. Shakespeare’s work is so subtextually rich that misunderstanding stresses can lead to disastrous results for both actors and the audience.

Generally we don’t place stresses in sentences on the little joining up words. The the’s and the ands and the to’s. But then again, just occasionally, it is vital to do so get our meaning across. Is that THE Mick Jagger?

So in theatrical renditions of Shakespeare, how do we know what words to stress and what not to stress? This brings us back to feet and the iambic pentameter.

Formal verse is made up of lines with a certain number of feet.

Tetrameter has four feet in a verse
Pentameter has five feet in a verse
Heaxameter has six feet and so on.

A verse written in pentameter will therefore have five units (five feet) of rhythm. Each of the five feet will have a stressed syllable, and one or two unstressed syllables. And here I must become a verse chiropodist for a few moments.

In Shakespearean verse, there are, for the most part, four different types of foot. These are known by quite tiresome and offputting names, easy to skip and, to the brain, a chore to assimilate. But they are worth the effort. You probably know the first already. So that’s only three to take in.

Iambic – a two syllable foot which goes di-dum and forms an unstressed word or syllable and a stressed syllable. Ie Disgust. Remorse.

Trochee – which goes dum-di. A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Ie Rotten. Ballcock.

Anapest – a three syllable foot, which goes di-di-dum. Ie Decongest

Dactyl - a three syllable foot,which goes dum-di-di - Ie Interplay. Selfishly.

Just occasionally, to keep us on our toes, a poet might also throw in a monosyllabic foot – ie a foot of one stressed beat, such as the word Two at the beginning of the Romeo and Juliet prologue. Two Households, both alike in dignity.

Shakespearean verse uses all these different kinds of feet, mixing them up to get varied and interesting rhythms. As Shakespeare was attempting to hold the mirror up to nature, he wanted to mimic normal speech patterns as far as possible within the constraints of formal verse. Whilst, as I have said, there may be a predominant iambic pulse, he did not slavishly stick to iambic beats. That would produce an unnatural and robotic sound that is neither poetic to the ear, nor anything like real speech. So Shakespeare regularly threw trochees, anapests and dactyls into the mix. This is easy to check. A strictly iambic line would have only ten syllables in it. So, what of Theseus’ lines in Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I must confess, that I have heard so much,
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

The first line has ten syllables and so could be iambic, (though it isn’t). The second line has eleven syllables, so it cannot be iambic. Even allowing for the four syllables of Demetrius to be compacted into three syllables, there is still an extra unstressed syllable somewhere

And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

Spoken as strict iambic pentameter this last line would come out:
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

This is rhythmically ugly and stressing the ‘have’ is nonsensical from the point of view of meaning. Also we would not normally stress the ‘there’ in ‘thereof’.

Treated as irregular verse it might run:
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:
All I have done here, is put the five stresses I know to be there, where a speaker would normally place them, given the context of the play. Simply, there is an anapest on the fourth foot ie ‘to have spoke’

The first line is also interesting. Ten syllables, but spoken as iambic pentameter, I must confess, that I have heard so much, comes out as:

I must confess, that I have heard so much,

From Theseus' point of view there is no sense in stressing the second ‘I’. The sentence makes more sense spoken with the stresses thus:

I must confess, that I have heard so much,

This makes the third stress an anapest - di-di-dum - that I have, followed by a monosyllabic beat - heard.

So in interpreting Shakespeare's meaning, it is probably not productive to read the lines as strict iambic pentameter. You will be getting your trochees in a tangle if you do. Not to mention your dactyls and anapests. You might sometimes, find interesting interpretations by stressing iambs, since Shakespearean verse does have alot of them. But you will make more discoveries by paying attention to the likely stresses of the feet in the context of the play and local meaning of the lines.

There’s a little bit of diverting detective work in this. Take a line from a little further down Theseus’ speech:

I have some private schooling for you both.

There are ten syllables with five stresses in all likelihood. The ‘ing in schooling cannot possibly be stressed. So that narrows down the five stresses to nine possible candidates. An iambic reading of this line would be:

I have some private schooling for you both.

If I were to say this line naturalistically (ie not in verse), and without any of the context of the scene, I would stress the line:

I have some private schooling for you both.

But that would leave only four beats. This does sometimes happen in Shakespearean pentameter, but not often and usually only for a strong reason. Yet the fourth stress spoken as an iamb is unconvincing. Why stress ‘for’? Spoken naturalistically it seems clumsy. So I would look at some other contenders for that missing stress. Both ‘I’ and ‘have’ could possibly be made to work as stresses. It would then perhaps mean Theseus had just come up with a bright idea that he wanted to impart to Egeus and Demetrius. But the most likely stress is on the ‘you,’ so the line would run:

I have some private schooling for you both.
Which would give the sense of an impending paternalistic lecture.

This detective work is absorbing and the actor will find Shakespeare’s lines, when explored as irregular verse, more revelatory than casting about for meaning in an iambic rhythm that isn't actually there. Take Lysander’s line, half a page on after Theseus’ exit.

Or else misgraffed, in respect of years.

It is a nine-syllable line which suggests a lurking monosyllabic foot. The second half of the line cannot be read as iambic without falling over itself.
Or else mis/graffed, in respect of years.

There appear to be only four obvious stresses that work.
Or else mis/graffed, in respect of years.

But the fifth stress is the mis in misgraffed, The monosyllabic foot, putting two stresses in misgraffed, then suggests that Lysander is extremely impassioned in his speech.
Or else mis/graffed, in respect of years.

Take Orlando’s lines from As You Like It – Act I scene II,.

I am more proud to be Sir Rowland’s son,
His youngest son, and would not change that calling
To be adopted heir to Frederick.’

The final line is ten syllables only if you pronounce Frederick, Fred-er-rick as opposed to Fred-rick. An iambic reading leaves a stress thus:

To be adopted heir to Frederick.’

The last stress will end on rick. Nobody stresses the rick. It must then be the case that the stresses fall elsewhere. Not the To at the beginning. That would make even less sense. But the to in the middle would give an angry feel to the rhythm.

To be adopted heir to Frederick.’

A further drawback with treating Shakespearean verse as strictly iambic is that it will make the actor sound like a robot or a terrible bore. Or a rock drummer playing in swing time. Stylishly monotonous. Shakespeare’s verse is more like jazz drumming which can miss beats and put in odd fills whilst still keeping time overall. This is also of course, what real speech sounds like. My advice to an actor interested in delivering Shakespeare’s verse would be to get used to speaking in feet rather than iambs, and even better, in five beat lines. But, despite all of the above, I would also say to an actor, that it's not actually essential to understand the mechanics of verse, so long as you are in character, comprehend the context of the scene and mean what you say. Shakespeares verse, if you play the play as it was intended, will actually look after itself. Let me bring in Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the kings men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It’s a great bit of verse. The trochaic beat on Humpty and Dumpty giving a strong sense of how heavy Humpty is. Helped by associations with Dumplings and humps. The third line is written in galloping dactyls suggestive of hooves. I always think it was made up by a medieval mum bouncing her chubby baby on the bed. It’s inspired. Now, let us dramatise the verse. Imagine you are a friend of Humpty Dumpty who has just seen his demise, and that you meet a friend or friends of Humpty and have to recount to them Humpty’s misfortune.

Humpty Dumpty sat ...(Pause, whilst you struggle to articulate to the friends the foolhardy nature of Humpty in sitting on a wall – they obviously know how fragile Humpty was.) ...on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty ...(It’s almost too distressing to tell them about the next bit.) ...Had a great fall.

All the King’s horses and ...(Pause whilst you sadly shake your head) ...All the King’s men,

Couldn’t (Sob) Put Humpty (Sob) together (sniffle) Again.

Despite the natural pauses one might put in this recounting of Humpty’s accident, the verse remains perfectly in rhythm. It’s so clearly written and robust it’s hard to break the meaning. For who would stress the ‘on’ of the first line? It would mean that Humpty sat on the wall as opposed to off it. And besides would strike the ear with a great ugliness. Who would stress the ‘a’ before great fall? There would be no reason to. If you are clear about the meaning of Humpty it’s fairly difficult to step out of the verse. To do so merely destroys what it is saying. So the notion that you cannot stop or pause in the middle of a verse line is nonsense. It might be extremely important to do so to put over the meaning of of the writing as it was intended. If a verse is well written (and I think we’re all agreed that Shakespeare's is), then the rhythm of the verse is pretty indestructible if you say it in character, in context and meaning what you say. The verse can probably only be destroyed if it is not properly understood. Actors and directors have got hold of a notion that verse is written in a sort 19th century romantic cadence. A kind of verbal knitting, in which one purls off at the end of a line with never a dropped stitch (or aitch) A soothing la-di-da sing-song, which totally destroys the vitality of the language and the meaning of the words. Take Gielgud’s prologue from Romeo and Juliet.
The stresses are pretty much in order, but you can hear this deadening approach to verse in his voice, stripping the blood and thunder of the words, which are vivid and telling, to something that wouldn’t stir porridge. I’m not being iconoclastic here. I know it was the 70’s, and I believe Gielgud was a great actor in his way. But the misconception that verse is ‘beautiful thing’ that must be said ‘beautifully’ and in perfect time that must be kept preciously unbroken, like waves lapping on a shore, or it isn’t verse, is not true. Moreover it leads actors to kill what the verse is about. If you are in character, and you say your lines truthfully, as the person in that situation would, you will not be very far, in terms of stresses and beats, from the way that Shakespeare intended the words to be spoken. And you will therefore be perfectly inside the verse, however much you stretch it about.

Monday, 7 July 2014

On Learning in Music

The Pirates In Short Pants

Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished!
Is it not strange that sheeps' guts
should hale souls out of men's bodies?
(Much Ado About Nothing. William Shakespeare.)

One of John Holt’s lesser known works, Never Too Late charts his struggle to become a musician late in life. As ever with his work, the reader is given much to contemplate. At one point, after writing of a child he once helped to play cello, he wrote (and I paraphrase) that however good or bad he may have been as a teacher, he never actually put anybody off music. That might seem like a pretty average achievement. But it is something that few music teachers could boast of.
Music is an area of human activity which is least suited to those teaching models commonly practised in schools – ie a person ‘with knowledge’ dispensing it to those ‘without knowledge’. Music is essentially speech of the heart. Appreciation of song and the creation of it comes from our very centre and is primarily a physical and emotional experience. The adrenaline rush of the early Beatles, the wrenching pull of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the mischief of Mozart’s middle period piano concertos – such stuff moves and tingles the flesh. If a child wishes to play or participate in music, it is nearly always because music has already touched them in some profound and joyful physicality. They want to be able to speak the language that has quite literally touched their heart. What a child can most helpfully learn, is how to develop and pronounce this emotional physicality that is already inside them. Whilst children do sometimes need assistance with this, my problem with music lessons is that they often press a child to sing from a place that has no physical and emotional meaning for them – ie detached from their heart – and then music becomes a chore. The first time a child is reminded to do their music practice they are playing for some other reason than their heart’s delight and their heart’s need to speak. Nobody should have to drag their feet towards playing an instrument. In learning to play, create and experience music, children should not come to see it as a commodity transferred from the ‘knowing’ to the ‘ignorant’ like a sack of coal from a lorry to a shed. That will undermine any sense that they can derive music from within their own self.
It’s tempting for adults who think of themselves as unmusical, when they hear a child say, “I’d like to play a musical instrument” or watch them tinkling on an instrument, to think – hmm, I know nothing about music – I’ll send this child to an expert – a music teacher. Somebody who will be able to direct the child along a programme in a ‘structured’ way. How easy that is. The responsibility is then somebody else’s. The responsibility for finding out what the child might want to do is then the teachers. The trouble with this is that most teachers won’t really engage with the child’s heart and where it lies musically. Even if they do, they won’t do the little that needs to be done and then leave the child to get on with it. They’re being paid to teach and teach they must. Most will have a pre-set proscribed way of working – a set of steps or curriculum they will insist the child follows. This will probably not speak to that place in the child’s soul that is responding to music. And the child’s part in the process – which is learning about what they love and how to get more of it and revel in it, will be negated. They will be deprived of taking responsibility for their own learning. They will not learn how to learn or how to articulate music from the centre of themselves.
The child may like the experience of lessons for a while, but eventually, usually pretty soon, however good the teacher, a child ends up fed up of having a teacher calling the tune, and stops wanting to go. Or they get used to music being detached from their centre and become unable to live it and truly speak it. The fire goes out. Sometimes never to be rekindled. I know very few children who have grown up to be passionate musicians who have been pushed. I know of a great many musicians who have been pushed who grow up to hate music and drop out of it, often after mastering high grades and struggling through degrees in music. I rarely meet a classical musician who has the love of classical music that I have – and I have virtually no musical training despite having been a part-time theatre composer for most of my adult life. Many classical musicians I have talked to have dropped out of orchestras and talk cynically or bitterly about their experiences and their hatred of learning music from teachers. Even the ones that still like playing can rarely compose. They are terrified of it. Most (but not all) music teaching destroys a student’s ability to speak musically. Their love of music is shattered by instruction.
But if you feel you are not musical, and can hear your child singing like a nightingale in the nest and wonder should you be doing something to help, what might that be? If playing an instrument is not something that happened in your family, it can be a bit daunting when your child suddenly wants to twang at a guitar or saw at a fiddle. Most children however, need very little assistance. I have on many occasions, helped young people play an instrument, or write a song and given them ten minutes of my time, maybe even less. Often, the next time I see them, they are well on the way to mastering their craft and need no more help. There’s no great secret to it. Just find out what a child would love to do or play musically and help them do it. Helping them articulate what they want as a next step is simple enough – only a question: what would you really like to be able to play? But it means properly engaging with the child. (impossible in school.) There’s no-one going to do that location work better than the child’s parents. A child might have seen a peer playing music or hear a song that interests or inspires them. It is essential that whatever caused the spark is traced. It is important because that will mean a parent can get close to what the child is truly interested in,
So say for instance, a child wished to play a song on a guitar, the help they need is only twofold. Firstly get a guitar. Easy enough usually. Ireland must have more guitars per capita than all of Spain and Latin America combined. Every 2nd person I see in Cork is carrying one. An electric guitar is actually easier for a child to learn on than an acoustic. If you’re buying, this costs a bit more - as a small amp (80 euro) is necessary too - but it’s much easier to hold the strings down on an electric guitar, and a learner gets a better (more encouraging) sound. An classical (Spanish) acoustic guitar can be a problem as the necks are wide and hard to wrap the fingers around. A steel string acoustic is painful to play until pads have developed on the finger ends, and until the child develops strength in the wrist and fingers. The resultant noise is buzzy and unconvincing which is off-putting for an under confident beginner. The noise an electric guitar feels powerful even if badly played - and power is important to people who are not confident in learning an instrument. Don’t worry, anybody who learns to play electric guitar, quickly falls in love with acoustic guitars. Half sized guitars are easier for children to play too.
Secondly, there’s the learning – and in fact the small amount of information you’d need is on the net. Find out which song the child really loves and then google it for chord diagrams, or buy a songbook (with chord diagrams) from a music shop. Chord diagrams are just pictorial representations of where to put the fingers on the guitar neck. They’re very easy read and use. There’s even tutorials you can follow on youtube. Most popular songs have relatively few chords and if your child already knows the tune, a song book/chord diagram will provide the chords that get strummed underneath. I think most young people need ten minutes to half an hour with someone showing them how chord charts work, then they’ve probably enough information to go a long way on their own. I’ve found a Beatles songbook helps learners alot. (Actually, one other thing – you’ll need an electric tuner – circa fifteen euro.)
If a child wanted to play piano I’d follow a similar procedure. If it was a song, I’d get a piano chord book and work from that. If a child wants to learn a classical piece then it might be necessary to work from musical notation, but even this needn’t be too difficult My eldest son started with the Moonlight Sonata because that’s what he loved. I got some sheet music of a slightly simplified version of it (basically the piece in an easier key – with less black notes) and showed him how to play it section by section. My input was ten minutes, twice a week, for about a month. I think it was important that he really wanted to know how to play it and my input stopped when he could. As I was able translate all the crotchets and quavers for him, the process was reasonably easy for us. But if you can’t read music, it wouldn’t be difficult to get a friend (or a friend of a friend!) who can, to do exactly the same as we did, thereby avoiding a programme of instruction set out by a teacher. My son very soon learned how to read for himself and so could progress without help.
From this small bit of assistance, I’ve found most children can go a very long way musically. Interest might wax and wane, but the process of as little interference as possible, just helping when it is absolutely necessary, means that the child only plays music when they want to and when they have an inner desire to do so, thereby never killing their love of music or playing it. They gradually learn to locate and nurture the spark of musical creativity for themselves, which is empowering and enables them to self-structure other areas of their learning.
I’m not saying one should never ask an expert or teacher for help in aiding your child towards their goal. But make damn sure it is going as directly as possible to that goal. And be prepared to check with quite a few different people whether it is the most direct route possible. Many music teachers would insist on all sorts of ‘preparatory study’ before allowing a pupil to progress. When I took up the piano at the age of 30, I desperately wanted to be able to play Chopin and Rachmaninov. For three months I was playing Three Blind Mice and Home on the Range in a music school with a very nice teacher, before I gave up and bought myself the sheet music of Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor Prelude. A very demanding and difficult piece – so full of flats that to read a single chord took fifteen minutes of patient study. Because I really wanted to play it, I was playing it within a year, without much outside help. I knew a musician who answered my occasional questions about reading the music.
If you are interested in helping your child approach music, one of the best things you can do is play and listen to music yourself without reference to your children. If you know nothing about music, learn something. Learning to read music is fairly simple. Much simpler than it looks. Let your own love for music be in the house. Learn an instrument yourself. Listen to the music you love. Not with an aim of indoctrinating your child with your choices, but if you enjoy the music you love, you will be creating an environment in which music is valued. Go out to listen to music, a band you’re interested in or an orchestra. And have fun with music. If your children are around someone who plays with music, they will be more likely to be able to do so themselves.
As my own children were growing up, pre-teens, I was constantly making up songs for theatre shows I was involved in. I made these up around the children, snatching half hours here and there. I never thought that what I was doing was in any way educational. So I was quite shocked – astounded even – when my youngest son, at the age of ten, out of nowhere, never having showed any musical inclination, invited us to listen to a song he had made up that was lyrically and musically complete and arranged. By living with someone who often composed music, he’d drunk it all in subliminally. He never needed lessons – and in fact went on to teach me more about music than I ever have taught him.
Helping a child build the fire of their musical passion, one must go twig by twig. As slowly as the child needs to go. And often that means leaving six months or six years before offering the next bit of help. Grown ups just need to keep out of it until asked, and then give just as little or as much as is requested – sometimes only a single word or a single chord might appropriately be offered. The process, like all real learning, (ie not the battery farm cramming of school) needs oxygen, space, time. Western civilisation seems to cause a detachment from what our hearts yearn to say. So although the heart’s utterance is rarely so profound as in song, we are easily struck dumb. That is why much gentleness and sensitivity is needed in helping children speak the most sublime and universal of languages.

Friday, 27 June 2014

This Wooden O


The Story of Kinsale College’s Amphitheatre.

Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?
Or may we cram within this wooden O
the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?

Around the turn of the millennium, my wife Belinda, was invited to run a theatre course for adults at Kinsale college. John Thuillier, the then Principal, was an educational visionary who had already set up the best Outdoor Education Course in the country and an arts faculty that was refreshing and different. We were allowed to design a fun, exciting and practical training where students could experiment with acting in a free and uninhibited way. It was quite unlike any other professional drama training in Ireland or any of the headbound University courses. One early difficulty for the course though, was a theatre. We didn’t have one. Though, back then, we had three light and airy rooms for rehearsals, when it came to performing our productions, we had to move house – pack everything into a lorry and tumble into the Town Hall, or a venue in Cork. Building our own theatre, never seemed an option. Who thinks like that? Well, Rob Hopkins did, fortunately for us.   
Once a drama training had been established, a permaculture course was next to take root in Kinsale college. As it was the only such course on the planet, people came from all over the wide world to join it. The numbers overwhelmed. Permaculture aims to create a more sustainable way of living with the earth. It emphasises the provision of local needs with the least destruction to the world and its resources possible. Rob Hopkins, (leader of the course) was interested in his students serving the college community and asked Belinda what the drama course needed. Only a theatre, she said. And so the idea of a mini-Shakespeare’s Globe, made from natural building materials and sitting in the grounds of Kinsale College, was born. Rob and Belinda were, of course, both quite mad.
Why the Globe? Partly because the sort of natural building techniques that the Permaculture students were using were common in Shakespeare’s day, and also because Belinda has this slight infatuation with a man from Stratford – though not the Shakespeare of set texts in the junior and leaving certs. There is a very different Shakespeare to that ghastly fellow, and people mostly love him when they meet him. Although Belinda was interested in all aspects of theatre, mime, clowning, tragedy, masks – she had just been to see the Globe in London and was fired up about creating a smaller version on the college grounds with Rob and the permaculture hordes. And so, with plans drawn on the back of an envelope, Rob set to work with a team of Permies (as they were affectionately known) and in a matter of months raised an odd-looking, but strangely attractive stage (a theatre that Bilbo Baggins might act on and not seem out of place). It was made out of cob (straw and mud) with wood frames. 

Rosalind from college production of As You Like It. Photo by John Allen.

Colossal cedar beams held up the turf roof. With a view to practicality, I was at first perturbed at my wife’s eagerness to stage a large end-of-term play in a theatre so completely open to the elements. Any actor, stepping onto the apron of the stage in a downpour would have been immediately drenched. And as for the audience ... well, there were no walls and no roof for the groundlings, or any spectator. There were benches in a semi-circle that formed, with the rest of the theatre, a large ‘O’. But protection from the ravages of nature? There was none. And in Ireland, if I might import a quote, ‘the rain it raineth every day’. Or at least, sometimes it seems so. For some reason, this didn’t seem to overly concern Rob or Belinda. Faith, I dare say, wears no mackintosh.
It was however, a tremendous achievement to get a performance space ready for the end of term play, the Merry Wives of Windsor. We rehearsed in this open air arena, like ancient Greeks but without their blue skies and dusty olive groves. It wasn’t until the show went on that I realised that the amphitheatre was something out of the ordinary. The play electrified the audience. Of course, it is a great play, and the actors excelled. But there was more to it than that. The space had a magic that modern theatres entirely lack. The Globe and all early Elizabethan theatres, were designed to maximize contact with the audience: to connect with playgoers in as direct a way as possible. A modern theatre seeks to distance the audience from the actors. In Kinsale amphitheatre, the audience are in the play. Not in a way that will discomfort or embarrass them. In a way that will enchant and enthral. 
Jacques from college production of As You Like It. Photo by John Allen                                                        
That first spring – in early May, the weather held all week. The air was a little refrigerated. I was playing mandolin in musical accompaniment to the play and my fingers once went a funny blue colour. It was something though, to watch Falstaff’s antics with an awareness of a starry infinity overhead. We all realised, the permaculture students had raised something rare and unique. Alas, Rob Hopkins left for England before the amphitheatre went much further. But not before starting the Transition Town movement (now an international phenomenon) in Kinsale, from the college. The baton was taken up by lecturer Graham Strouts, with assistance from Paul O’Flynn, and gradually, year on year, the amphitheatre has been improved and enlarged by diligent permaculture students. Walls grew and backs appeared for the benches. But most difficult of all, was the provision of a roof for the audience. We knew our meteorological luck couldn’t hold out forever; but how could we prop up canopy across the wide auditorium? Nobody wanted great pillars obscuring the spectacle of a play. Eventually, Christie Collard from Future Forests arrived and designed a reciprocal roof: impossible Escher-like cross struts which suspended a roof above the audience like a conjuring trick. Christie’s experience with natural building, meant that he shaped structures entirely in keeping with the beautiful and idiosyncratic appearance of the theatre. Travel where you will, there is nothing like it. It is pretty and unusual as Elizabethan architecture was, because, as with buildings constructed back then, the amphitheatre has grown organically. Instead of the prefabricated square and rectangular monstrosities that modern architects inflict upon the landscape, this wooden O is human. The grass roof is a little prairie on the house. Throughout, the theatre is an arcadia of trunks and beams. The place seems to have a sense of humour and is full of inbuilt jokes, the windows being made from recycled portholes of washing machines. In a world that is becoming increasingly regulated and conformist, it is part throwback, partly a dream of the future. One could almost say, the amphitheatre is a physical embodiment of the spirit of the drama course it serves. Always growing, always different, always human, busily creative and comedic.
For many years, hardened amphitheatre devotees sat on hard seats and braved the chill of evenings in early May by arriving with cushions and even sleeping bags. Those days, for good and bad, are pretty much gone. The Auditorium is soon to get a thorough draughtproofing and stuffed seats. It’s not centrally heated, but on a May evening, there is no longer any danger of blue fingers or toes. I like to think that it’s the sort of place Shakespeare’s ghost visits now and then. Arriving unseen through the thick walls, seating himself at the back and enjoying plays – all manner of plays – even his own, in one of the most intimate and thrilling auditoriums a person could ever visit. 
photo by John Allen

Kinsale College:

Christie Collard and Future Forests:

Rob Hopkins and Transition Towns

photo by Alicia Falvey