To teach, or not to teach: that is the question

Jon Silpayamanant teaching an "Alien Music workshop for Kids" at Cyphan Science-Fiction Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

So this past week was the first week of school and I’ve been coaching two periods of cellos since Tuesday. Earlier this week I read a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about some research regarding the correlation between teaching and research.  Most studies of this type looked at the connection between research activities and teaching, with mostly equivocal results though perhaps leaning in the direction that there may be a positive correlation.  Few studies looked at the connection from the opposite end of seeing how teaching experience can enhance research.  And fewer still (if this article is correct) have looked at it quantitatively, rather than through qualitative and often subjective surveys.

It was timely that the article was published just as my teaching load has increased (as it always does this time of the year) as I often question the function of teaching and education and how this can be changed and whether or not things like this should be changed.  But I’d rarely looked at it from the standpoint of how teaching music could possibly enhance, say, musical ability.  In many ways, I can agree–in others I can just as easily disagree.  In the end, it really depends on the teacher/musician.

For example, being able to show someone how to do something on a musical instrument would seem to demonstrate that you know the instrument well enough to be able to teach how to do it.  On the other hand, if your ability to do it on the instrument isn’t necessarily the most efficient or useful or, just downright idiosyncratic, then what you may be teaching would be how you would do it–not necessarily how it can or should be done.  Whether that idiosyncratic way of playing an instrument is the result of previous ‘bad teaching’ or just willful ignore-ance of former instructors (or combination of both) doesn’t necessarily matter.  And in some ways, I imagine it can simply be the result of a tradition of performance practice such as the holding-books-under-the-arm technique of bowing that used to be relatively commonplace in cello pedagogy.

The thing is, we can’t necessarily predict what might be a more efficient and useful way of doing things in the future.  In hindsight, as the saying goes, we’ll see it as inevitable but that doesn’t help our abilities to know future ‘good performance practice’–much less future enhancement of musical ability due to the ability to teach music.  Really, in many ways we’re just walking blindly into a future with only our personal histories or institutional histories (e.g. teaching traditions) as a guide.

I guess one of the questions is, if you can’t teach someone else how to do something, how much does that affect your ability to teach yourself something?  Another thorny question.  Some folks just have an intuitive sense of how to play a kind of music and can easily learn something within those boundaries.  Which says next to nothing about their ability to learn something in a different musical style or genre (or on another instrument, for that matter).  It’s an almost autistic way of relating to a broader musical culture or, rather, a broader culture of music.

Continue reading “To teach, or not to teach: that is the question”


Klingon Music Theory (part 1): Intro

The late Ron Taylor (1952-2002) as the Klingon Chef, Kaga, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Kaga frequently serenaded his customers with Klingon folk songs

Ok, here it is, the post you’ve all been waiting for!


So yeah, as many of you know I’ve been playing “Klingon Music” for some time now (about mid 2009).  It’s basically a side project of my difficult to categorize group, il Troubadore.  We’ve simply named it the “il Troubadore Klingon Music Project” for lack of a better name (or rather, at risk of re-naming the group for the Klingon Music project, thus drawing away focus from “il Troubadore” as the group).  If you prefer, you may just refer to us by our “Klingon name” of bomwI’pu’ (which almost literally translates into English as the “Songmakers”).

So, for a number of years (well before il Troubadore was formed) I’d been a member of the yahoo group, the “Klingon Music Guild” and had on occasion research [what little] Klingon music existed since.  Sure, I’d come across ter’eS page (if you haven’t listened to his lurDech–DO IT–better yet, watch the video below–absolutely genius!!) as well as many websites with Klingon Karaoke lyrics, but rarely anything specifically about, well, Klingon Music.

And by that I mean music that would function as music that Klingons would have written.  Sure, once Youtube started the video self-publishing revolution, it became easy to find clips of Klingon songs and Klingon Opera from the various Star Trek series and movies.  And now Klingon related material abounds (do a search for Klingon Music on youtube–you’ll see) but still almost none of it is music developed in the style that Klingons would write.  Even the examples from the series leaves a little bit to be desired and I often wonder if this was part of the motivation for the current production of the Klingon Opera ‘u’ in the Netherlands.

It’s about time I started blogging about Klingon Music, so all that aside, here are some tidbits from Marc Okrand’s (the creator of the Klingon Language), Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, in the chapter titled simply “Music” (and some of this info can be easily found online).

Traditional Klingon music is generally performed only by those who have had a great deal of training.  The study of this type of music, whether composition or performance, is considered a discipline not unlike a martial art.  There are precise forms and complex rules, and mastery of techniques takes years of study and practice.  Traditional Klingon musical forms date back to the time of Kahless, if not earlier, and have shown little variation since then.  (Okrand, KGT:72)

Ok, fair and straightforward enough, right?  Actually there are a number of cultures whose art music still follow this kind of strict regime (though that’s starting to change now).  In many parts of Asia the musical training and other performing arts training as well as martial arts training all evolved in similar ways.  In fact, many dance-drama traditions in Asia still have a heavy martial arts component to the training: Kathakali in Kerala, Khon in Thailand, Jingju in China.  And some martial arts traditions are intimately tied to music: Southeast Asian kickboxing; Brazilian Capoeira.

The next paragraph is something that tends to get Westerners, or at least folks who aren’t familiar with musical styles and genres outside of the Western World.

Older Klingon music was base on a nonatonic scale–that is, one made up of nine tones.  Each tone has a specific name, comparable to the “do, re, mi” system used in describing music on Earth.  The nine tone names are (the first and ninth, as with Earth’s “do,” being the same): yu, bIm, ‘egh, loS, vagh, jav, Soch, chorgh, yu.  While the first three (and ninth) of these words apparently are used only for singing the scale, the remaining five are also numerals: loS, “four”; vagh, “five”; jav, “six”; Soch, “seven”; chorgh, “eight.” (Okrand, KGT:72)

Ok, now things are getting a bit more interesting.

I’m going to assume that Okrand, by “nonatonic scale,” means a nonatonic scale within an octave (which is misleading as it presupposes an eight note scale in the first place–maybe we should refer to it as a nonave?) distance since the starting pitch name and the ending pitch name are the same (implying both pitches are the same separated by an octave/nonave).   A typical Western scale would have eight tones that are usually some combination of major seconds and minor seconds (sometimes misleadingly referred to as “whole tones” and “half tones” respectively).  In the Klingon scale I’m going to assume Okrand is referring to an equal tempered scale rather than some odd combination of major and minor seconds within an octave.

Given an equal tempered scale of nine tones, we’re left with a whole mess of pitch intervals that don’t appear in Western scales.  Which is not to big a deal, really, since I’m intentionally highlighting as the point of reference a Western scale, you folks can correctly guess that there are non-Western scales out there.  In fact, there are plenty of them (quite literally thousands) but I’m only going to mention one class of them found predominantly in the Middle East.  This is primarily because there are music intervals within those maqamat/makamlar/modes that come pretty close to sounding like what a Klingon nonatonic scale interval would presumably sounds like–namely, a three quarter tone [interval] or neutral second (technically the interval is very close to a just minor second otherwise know as a semitone maximus).

The other interesting issue here is Okrand’s discussion of the musical names as being numbers–continuing from the paragraph quoted above he says:

It is possible that, at some time in the past, the numerals were “borrowed” into the lexicon of music in order to sing the scale but, for some reason, the first three (presumably wa’, cha’, wej [“one, two, three”]) were either changed or never used.  It is far more likely, however, that the borowing went in the other direction.  As is well documented, the Klingon counting system was originally a ternary system (one based on three, with numbers higher than three formed from the words for “one,” “two,” and “three”).  Later, owing to outside influences, it changed to a decimal system (based on ten).  The independent words for the numbers three through nine were not originally a part of the Klingon counting system, but they had to come from somewhere.  The musical scale is the likely source.  (Okrand, KGT:72-73)

Since this is a book from the future talking about the history of the past which has not yet happened in our time, I’m wondering how much Okrand is “presaging” a future co-dominance of Chinese as well as American (i.e. Western) culture in referencing musical theoretic notions that are obviously Western (the solfège “do, re, mi” system Okrand mentions) as well as a numeric notation system which is what the Chinese use for their traditional music (i.e. jiǎnpǔ).

But this is the Star Trek universe and not the Firefly universe and more than likely it’s an unintentional Western-centric musical bias, which is fine.  Marc Okrand is a linguist, not a musicologist (much less ethnomusicologist), afterall.

Stay tuned for Klingon Music Theory (part 2): Music Intervals

Also of interest, I was at the Louisville Science Center singing Klingon Songs outside and posing for photos everywhere this past Saturday (May 21).  Tracy Canfield of Alien Tongues and Michael Roney, Jr. (aka naHQun) were inside giving talks about the Klingon Language during the final weekend of Star Trek: The Exhibition.  It was a grand time and much honor was won!

“Spaced Out: Klingon music? It’s just one of the many languages mastered by this inventive band”

"Spaced Out" article illustration of il Troubadore by Jon Silpayamanant (2010)

So the interview with me about the il Troubadore Klingon Music Project is out now (see the online version at this link).  We’ve got a pretty busy weekend as we’ll be making an appearance at a local production of The Pirates of Penzance (in Outer Space) given by the New Albany High School choral department (May 15-16) as well as making an appearance at the Louisville Science Center as part of their current exhibit Star Trek: The Exhibition (May 15).  I will also be playing in the pit for the production so will be sweating it out in full Klingon uniform for a couple of hours.

This weekend I’ll also be playing a couple of other shows (as if it wasn’t busy enough for me, eh?).  The Louisville KlezmerFest with my Klezmer band, River City Klezmer.   And il Troubadore will be giving a (non-Klingon) performance at the Batesville Public Library (Saturday, May 14).

Now I need to make some repairs to my Klingon costume from the last convention!

Continue reading ““Spaced Out: Klingon music? It’s just one of the many languages mastered by this inventive band””

Final Count: 8,263

il Troubadore playing Klingon Opera and Sci-Fi themed tunes during the Sci-Fi Day Celebration at the Indianapolis Children's Museum "Incredible Costumes From Film and TV" exhibit on March 26, 2011

That was the official number of paying patrons that attended the Sci-Fi Day Celebration at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis that I performed at this past Saturday.  Granted, the performance was just a small part of the total event and there were many activities for the patrons to participate in–the Frog Prince play; all the wandering folks/fans in full costume with all the concomitant photo opps; and the raison d’etre itself–the Incredible Costumes From Film & TV exhibit itself.

So no, most of the folks there didn’t come to hear il Troubadore play tlhIgan QoQ (Klingon music)–not most of them anyway–they were there for the total experience that Eric Edberg and Greg Sandow are talking about here and here.  And while I have some misgivings about that issue that I commented about here there’s a different issue I’d eventually like to blog about relating to what we might call an audience development issue that I was reminded of regarding the whole “Pop vs Classical” [non] issue that was being discussed in Greg’s blog.

Continue reading “Final Count: 8,263”