Klezmer Caravan Feedback

The University of Manchester Klezmer Ensemble - pilot project
“The Michael Kahan Kapelye”
Spring 2011

This pilot project built upon the positive response by undergraduate students in the Music Department at the University of Manchester to a lecture/class (by Richard Fay) on the klezmer music revival. The Michael Kahan Kapelye project – which ran from Feb – June 2011 - was initiated to: i) develop such interest in Klezmer music within higher education in the UK and in music departments in particular; and ii) provide an ongoing legacy for the memory of Manchester klezmer musician Michael Kahan. The project also provided an opportunity to research the differences in pedagogical approaches to non-classical music education with classically-trained musicians studying within a higher educational context. Supported by the JMI Klezfest caravan, the project consisted of the following stages:

  • Initial Research into possible University ‘inroads’ and resources required to run an ensemble: facilitation by Richard Fay in developing communication between Klezmer specialist and the University;  identyifying starting points in learning for students, identifying e-resources required and identifying appropriate designer/facilitator to assist setting up within the University; planning of session content and repertoire; application to JMI for financial assistance .
  • Initial preparation: collecting repertoire copies and audio/visual material; uploading repertoire onto electronic learning system (Blackboard); arranging dates and inclusion in university timetable.
  • Weekly delivery of a two hour session for a six week period, with two additional introductory sessions providing a cultural and historical context and backround designed and delivered by Richard Fay. 
  • Creation of informal performance (some student –led) opportunities: busking at the university; performance at the Michael Kahan Music day; performance at the University’s  ‘Estival’. 
  • Evaluation of project as part of Richard Fay’s research project (for his MusM in Ethnomusicology); interviews with students and tutor, writing up of research.

Tutor Evaluation
Although a relatively short project, I was extremely impressed particularly by the development of a core of music students who ran with the opportunity to learn and play Klezmer, but also by the whole group, who, despite huge constraints on their time showed a genuine interest in learning about the contextual and musical aspects of the klezmer tradition. As with any folk or world music, compromises had to be made in terms of how best to deliver the material; learning by ear presented challenges for any of the students who found themselves  out of their ‘comfort zone’ , and had to be balanced by the finite number of sessions available to the group and the desire to have experienced playing a satisfactory amount of key repertoire in order to feel that the students had had a grounded introduction to the music itself and had experienced playing together as an ensemble. Modal concepts were also new to most of the students and again took their listening into another zone of awareness – whilst not fully grounded in modal structures during this time frame, they were at least aware of the basic modes and how they may recognise these within the Klezmer repertoire they performed. Comments in the form of feedback forms were extremely positive and included in Richard’s research write-up (see Appendix).

I feel that not only did the students come away with an introduction to understanding klezmer music, they also developed an awareness of a musical tradition outside the classical sphere (their ‘home ground’), of the differing approaches required to learn and study the music of other cultures and the flexibility of developing a dual sense of musical learning/appreciation through studying the music of another culture. I also feel that they were able to revisit aspects of their own musical learning through another process – thinking again about ensemble skills, listening and awareness of melody, accompaniment, harmony and bass parts, interpretation of written scores and improvisation skills within the new framework of Klezmer music. Caroline Bithell commented that the learning of Klezmer provides a more instant way of learning music from another culture because the students can cross over whilst still playing the instrument that they feel most confident on – they don’t have to learn a new, unusual instrument from scratch first before playing the music – they merely have to learn to approach and play their existing instrument in a new way.

We are currently waiting to hear if the university will take on the funding of the Klezmer ensemble as part of its curriculum (i.e. klezmer as an Ensemble Performance option) next year. The achievements made in such a short space of time have encouraged us all to keep the profile of the ensemble and Klezmer music alive within the university and we will wait and see if we get the required support.

Thank you to...
JMI,  Dr.Caroline Bithell, Senior Lecturer (Ethnomusicology and World Music), Richard Fay, Eva Kahan and the students of the University of Manchester.

Ros Hawley July 2011

Appendix – Extract from Richard Fay’s Evaluative MusM Assignment

4.     Reflections on our ensemble experience
The participants, their participation and musical worlds
Student interest in the possibility of a klezmer ensemble arose initially from a guest lecture I gave on klezmer (in the context of music revivals) as part of the MusB. Year 2 World Music course. As I left the room, I heard some of the students humming the tunes we had just been listening to, and one said, “We should get a klezmer ensemble together”. From this seed, the idea grew. A sign-up sheet placed (without much fanfare) on the departmental notice board attracted 30+ names within three days. We started the ensemble with a dozen committed participants and this disappointingly dwindled over the ‘trial season’ . However, the enthusiasm of the ‘hard core’ who ‘stayed the course’ and took part in the busking and in the café performances was uplifting and their feedback was personally gratifying.

Some of this ‘survivors’ group’ had some previous klezmer experience, some had encountered it mainly via my guest class on the klezmer revival, and, for some, it was entirely new. Those with existing entry points made explicit links between klezmer and their previous musical backgrounds - links which help explain their enthusiasm and motivation - but, for one, its novelty was also excitingly motivating. The connections many of them make to other parts of their experience remind me of Rasmussen’s description of “a musician’s musicality as a patchwork of experience [and] collections of encounters and choices: pastiches of performances they have experienced, the lessons they have taken, the people with whom they have played, the other musicians they admire, other musics that they play and enjoy, and the technical and cognitive limitations of their musicianship” (2004: 225). For example, one participant has become almost obsessive about the way in which klezmer is played on his instrument; and for another, the realisation of the role of her instrument in the music is key to her developing enthusiasm for it.

Klezmer pedagogy reviewed – participants’ perspectives
Most of the participant feedback related to a small number of pedagogic issues. Most feedback was about the value they saw, but difficulties they experienced when learning by ear:

I struggled a lot with playing by ear, the more we did it, it became easier. [B]
I found the learning by ear hard, although I think that if we had done some every week it may have become easier (although I did not mind that we didn’t do that at all!). [S]
I think that had the group been going for the full year it could have benefitted from more learning by ear, since this is a skill that does take a lot of time to develop usually, but given this was not the case it wasn't really plausible … [I suggest] more playing by ear, but … this would only really work/be useful to you as a group if done over a longer time period or too much time will be spent learning/absorbing and not enough on actually practicing.  [R]
Playing by ear is fun to do, as a kind of learning memory technique … [more playing by ear] would be helpful not only to improve playing klezmer music, but also to improve our playing techniques. [I]

The need for immersion in the music via listening also came across strongly with suggestions about pedagogic possibilities also:

I think possibly more listening could have helped somewhat though you did provide the means with the collection of CDs - but perhaps we could have listened to one piece to open each session? [R]
Listening to recordings helps too because it gives us a guide of how it should sound like, so we know how we should play. [I]

There was a mixed response regarding the context-setting introductory sessions – for some, they were “extremely helpful as it gave us an insight into how and where the music originated from” [B] and “… helps a lot for us to get to know the style of music, which is very useful to help us while performing” [I] but others sounded an equivocal note (“I'm not sure we needed both of the videos shown, especially given limited time, but they were interesting!” [R]). The regular information emails were much appreciated. So too were the resources we produced and the technical aspects of klezmer playing also stimulated quite a bit of feedback response:

And also, I think to learn the scales are very useful, it helps us to know which piece should be playing sharps or flats. [I]
That there is so much more to playing that what is written. In Klezmer, it’s extremely difficult to have the exact same performance twice. [B]
The different ornaments that gave Klezmer music its individual “sound” and how we could recreate that on our modern instruments coming from a Classical viewpoint. [S]
Especially for cello, playing with other people helps me to hear the music and in order to adjust the moving chords in bass line. [I]

Solis (2004b: 6) notes the “problematic … formal evaluative concert” through which, despite the “sterile and unbecoming presentation environments”, world music ensemblists demonstrate their bona fides. Our time constraints amongst other things made the performance agenda difficult, and participants commented disappointedly on the lack of a final concert (“The only downfall was the lack of performances” [B]) but this was offset by their pleasure in “Busking outside the music department!” which scored highly “because no one had ever done that and it introduced Klezmer music to people” [S].

Overall, the main value the participants attached to the experience related to its World Music ensemble dimension and the broadening of their musical horizons. For example, in reply to my ‘What aspects did you enjoy most?’, they said things like:

I enjoyed playing in a group that wasn't playing classical music! Having more fun with pieces and the interaction between members. Also for me was nice to be playing in a small group again … [R]
I enjoy the most when we all play the repertoire and dance together. When we get the feel of playing klezmer music, it feels really good ... To play as an ensemble also helps us to listen to the music, instead of playing our own. [I]
Learning about a different culture and their music. [B] 
The musical experience of a different world music, which is very interesting to learn. [I]

Klezmer pedagogy reviewed – leader’s perspective
After the eight-week ‘trial season’ I exchanged emails with Ros about her reflections on the ensemble experience (which was her first time leading a klezmer ensemble in a university music departmental context but not her first time of leading workshops on klezmer). For her, the “whole experience was shaped by time constraints”, i.e. an hour or so for consecutive only eight weeks amid the students’ busy musical and study lives. For example, these constraints impinged upon the pedagogical issue of learning by ear:

It would have been good to have more time to learn by ear, although we touched on this a couple of times, there was always the issue of only having a few weeks and the need to have repertoire ready to perform by the end of the project. If the project was to be repeated/ developed it would be nice to be able to incorporate some work by ear into each session. When we did learn by ear I think I had expected the students to be more comfortable with this than they were, and next time round I would break this aspect  down into smaller learning ‘chunks’ over the sessions so that they could develop step by step over time.

But, working within this constraint, Ros was impressed:

… by how far the students have come in the short time we have had, and their enthusiasm for playing/learning about klezmer.  …. A fantastic group of inspiring students – I was impressed with their openness to learn and their interest in learning about another musical culture- a non- classical tradition and its associated differences in learning approaches/techniques. I have been so impressed with the core of students and their passion for learning and playing – wonderful to see students ‘fly’ with their interests and see how far it takes them. I was impressed by how far their sound had developed in the short time, and how much they had absorbed stylistically. 

This satisfaction in the progress made is tinged with some frustration about what the ensemble could have done with more time, e.g. “[gone] into detail, develop ear training, improvisational concepts and modal awareness, as well as a larger canon of repertoire”. However, we work with what we have and pedagogic practices build upon this acceptance of the time-pressed repertoire-building:

Ilana’s book was really helpful for this as sekund/bass parts are easily available for the students, and provide easier parts for other musicians if they need them - the only thing missing being Bb parts. The book is also useful in providing a comfortable reference/starting point for classically trained musicians – a tool they understand and feel comfortable with from their other learning experiences. It also immediately makes the students aware of the music happening around them – the other parts being played and how they all work/fit together to make the music sound like Klezmer – visually they can see this too from looking at the page and the accompanying notes clearly root the use of written material within a klezmer context.

The theme of classical musicians learning to play klezmer is one to which she often returns when reflecting on the ensemble experience:

To place the study of klezmer within this context is very exciting. I am interested in how students learn about music within classical/conservatoire structures, and what the learning of other/different/new approaches to learning and playing music can bring to the student’s musical experience – how it differs from their classical pedagogical approaches, how it changes/ influences their thoughts and experiences on music making, how it makes them see and hear music differently, how it changes their experience of the world of music. It is completely different contextually to teaching at a klezmer school – because the teaching is within the university framework you are automatically placing the study of klezmer within this context and are subconsciously and consciously aware of how this impacts on the transmission of learning/understanding.

And again:

Having not met any of the students and coming as an outsider to the university I had no idea how the students would respond to the experience of learning a music outside the classical sphere. This group has proved to me that there is a place for this type of learning experience and that it offers them a different way of playing their instruments that connects to other cultures, traditions and musical legacies that are part of the modern day world, as much as they were part of the past.

She concludes by noting how, for these positive outcomes to be optimised, then the time-constraints and students’ over-committed schedules would need to be addressed:

Also students seem to really struggle with commitments – anything that is mandatory to attend comes first and as a result they struggle to attend due to other commitments. If the Klezmer ensemble could be managed on the same lines as other groups students would be able to choose more fairly as to which ensembles they wanted to be a part of and their time commitments, practise and study contributions be awarded and acknowledged more formally.

Portrait of the artist as a developing klezmer musician
I have watched B. blossom over the last two months and tonight he is in full flower. He has worked harder than anyone else I think, listening to the recordings, asking for more leads and borrowing more resources, dissecting the performances, copying them, and practising around them, making them his own. And this all shows in his playing. He is happy, keen to experiment, and it takes only a little encouragement from Ros for him to jump around the octaves, improvise fillers, fill the music with emotion captured in the ornamentation, and so on. He was the ‘main man’ for the ‘flashmob’ busking outside the department and, on that sunny lunchtime with a crowd of 70+ at one point, I could see him loving the experience. And he was the one smoothing things over when the Head of Department came out to ask us to stop.
Tonight, things feel a bit ‘dregsy’, only the ‘hard core’ ensemblists have been able to come, and the venue is nice enough but there is no real audience. I feel both proud of them and also disappointed at the ‘flat’ end to the experience. However, two other klezmorin turn up and a session develops.
We begin with some of the repertoire the ensemblists have learned over the last few weeks, and then Ros leads the established musicians straight into a new tune to create a set. Deprived of any notes and unfamiliar with this new tune, and not knowing the ‘session’ schemata, I can see B. feeling a bit awkward, loving the music but not sure what his role has become. I sense he has never sat in such a session before and does not know how to behave, what to do with himself when the music moves beyond his grasp. And when Ros runs the music back into familiar territory, B. rejoins the playing with gusto. When the same procedure happens again, I can him more at ease, and able to listen to the unfamiliar tune, and begin to add occasional cadence runs and experimenting with a sekund line. He is a fast learner!
And now I realise that this is THE ensemble experience we have been aiming for all these weeks, this is why we are doing it, this is what we were hoping for, i.e. to see musicians like B. enjoying their part in a klezmer ensemble performance.
I also realise that this performance – like the busking before it – is happening literally and figuratively outside the department – in a ‘betwixt and between’ space, in between the ensemble’s departmental locale and the activities in the wider klezmer community in Manchester and beyond.

See Appendix D for a more detailed discussion of the issue of interest, participation, competing commitments, and the possibility of embedding the ensemble more securely in the curriculum. As this discussion is essentially about departmental organisation, it is fitting that it belongs in the Appendices.

For example: “I think everyone is loving the ensemble, especially the first years … To be honest, it is the best part of my week! ... You have given us a great opportunity to learn not just a different style of music but a different culture …” [B]; and “I would say it is a great experience to join klezmer ensemble and get to know a different type of music in musical culture … thank you for giving me such a great experience J” [I].

For example: “In one the bands I was in, we played a Klezmer piece and it began to open my eyes to Klezmer music. After that I began playing a little bit more but never had the opportunity to perform with other people. The Klezmer ensemble was perfect for carrying my interests in Klezmer” [B]; and “Because I am Jewish and I had played a kind of] Klezmer music before, I was keen to carry on with my playing experience at University as well.” [S]

For example: “I signed up because we had had a lecture on Klezmer as part of the World Music module and having heard little about it previously found it interesting and pretty enjoyable to listen to! I've also heard musicians busking in a Klezmer style before (in Poland) and it looked like a good experience live. I didn't know anything other than what was taught in the lecture about the modes etc or variety of playing methods in terms of interpreting the written music”. [R]

For example: “I didn’t know anything about klezmer before, but through the videos of the first two meetings, I understand more about the style of klezmer music and its music culture. And I found myself really enjoy playing this kind of music, which is very different from my existing playing experiences. It is fun and interesting to play in klezmer ensemble.” [I]

For example: “I am from Turkey and my granddad is a musician so I grew up surrounded by Turkish folk music. Learning Klezmer music just added on the Turkish folk music as there are many similarities” [B]; and “It was something I had done before, although having played mainly “popular” Klezmer music, the music played here was completely different to some of the music I had played before” [S]; and “I have only had similar playing experience as being part of a folk group (mainly Irish folk music) at home as this also carried a similar way about it in terms of improv/learning by ear etc. though I'd definitely gotten out of the habit by this year!”. [R]

“… definitely new to my previous musical experiences … A style of music which has its own kinds of scales, and ways or techniques of playing, such world music playing is really interesting to learn” [I].

This in turn reminds me of Marshall Singer’s (1998) intercultural challenge to essentialist and mono-dimensional ideas of cultural identity. He speaks at length about the ‘culturally-complex’ and ‘culturally-unique’ individual.

“I really want to hear the klezmer clarinet. I have been listening to how different players ornament and trying to get a feel for where it is natural on the instrument … I’ve had time to listened to The London Klezmer Quartet CD and I’ve got to say Susi is an amazing clarinettist. Her version of Firn Di Mekhutonim is fantastic. Are there any others you can recommend like that?” [B]

“[The] cello part is basically shaping the bass line and the rhythm or tempo of klezmer music, which it was quite different from I expected in the beginning, but I still enjoy to get involved in [sic] playing different styles of music. As without [sic] cello’s bass part, klezmer music loses its feeling, so I understand cello’s bass part is acting as a very important role in klezmer as well”. [I]

This suggestion echoes my own instincts as I watched them in the very 2nd meeting as they saw the klezmer revival documentary (see earlier).

Cravitz (2008).