I had my first ethnomusicology ensembe class last night. I am taking Afrocolombian Marimba this semester. Such fun. There is a very vibrant marimba ensemble at Wits, but I didn't have the time for that. Being able to take this one for credit makes a lot of difference.
Last night we began with a bit of background on the styles we will be playing (one of which is Currulao), before listening to the music a little. Our instructor is a fellow grad student who is quite far along in his PhD on this music, and so the examples we heard, and videos we saw are all from his fieldwork.
At first, the music sounded impossibly complex, and way beyond what I expected to ever be able to play. While I really love working with music, I am by no means confident in my musical instincts, and I have too little background in rhythmically complex music to feel at ease with the prospect of playing it. Gradually, though, we broke the music down into its component parts, listening for instruments, clapping different parts of the cross-rhythms, and learning to move in time, and even (rather hesitantly) to dance. By the end of the evening, it was feeling much more maneagable, even more exciting, and very accessible and enjoyable.
The whole experience got me thinking about the way we teach and learn music. I guess a big part of what was important here was seeing how easy it is to simplify things when you know what to listen for. Untill our instructor pointed out the two different rhythmic patterns, and indicated that they were cross-rhythms, all I heard was an impossibly complex rhythmic gesture that I couldn't pin down. As soon as I knew what I was listening to, though, it became two fairly straight-forward rhythms that are just juxtaposed. The effect is something similar to hearing the individual parts of a choral piece played on the piano, singing them separately, and learning them as independent lines, before putting them together in the complete sound. Now, after working with vocal harmony for so long, I find it generally easier to sing when I can hear the other parts, but sometimes it still is helpful to break the whole thing down again, and check notes and lines, and hear things on their own, before putting them in relation to the whole.
I'm beginning to realize how important being a student is to being a teacher. Far more than content, learning to teach is about figuring out how I learn.
And who knows. Perhaps in future years, we'll have a South African choral ensemble class in the department.