The (Life) Lessons of Art

December 31, 2011

My creative practice has taught me more than a few invaluable lessons through the years.  Lessons acquired through the process of expression inform daily life.  Once the lessons of art are internalized, key principles become relevant in contexts which are independent of art, as well.
I’ve written about lessons before, such as the ability to See Anew or Explore Multiple Angles.  And I’ll be writing about others in the future, no doubt!  But for now…

  1. Edit, Edit, Edit: Communicating an idea can be messy stuff. With any creative process, a “refined” idea is the result of a once “fuzzy” idea that has been articulated more fully.  Through the editing process extraneous elements fall away, allowing the crux of the idea to become more clear.  Early drafts and studies serve as evidence that this takes place.  As a result, this universal transition from “fuzzy” to “refined” is made more apparent.
  1. Experience Dynamic Interaction: An important part of my process is allowing a painting or drawing to evolve in an organic way. Each step builds on the steps before, the result of dynamic interaction between my aesthetic judgment and the marks left on the page.  In many ways this practice of dynamic interaction that is integral to painting serves as a metaphor.  A similar type of active engagement helps us to thrive in the world; dynamic interaction with our surroundings develops qualitative reasoning skills.  The act of painting makes me more cognizant of this process in all contexts.
  1. Embrace Mistakes: “Happy Accident” is a phrase that describes those fortuitous moments that sometimes shape the process.  It’s not uncommon for an artist to experience a mistake that ends up improving their work in some way.   Although the cause of the change was unintentional, the effect of  the mistake sometimes leads to an outcome that is more preferable.  The happy accident is about discovery, at its best.  When we persist through a mistake  we learn that unforeseen obstacles do not need to deter our progress.  And, in this way, we experience that a mindset of flexibility and adaptability often produces the most satisfying end.

© 2011 Kira Campo

Last time, I touched on some of the musical connections between Mozart and the Insane Clown Posse.  Today, I look a slightly less intuitive combination –  Mozart and  Brahms.

“Brahms’s secret weapon is rhythm. Nineteenth century classical music is not prized for its rhythmic invention…but Brahms paid close attention to the science of the beat.”
-Alex Ross

In “Blessed Are The Sad” – Alex Ross’s Brahms essay from the Listen to This collection, Ross points to the composer’s middle-period as a time of deepening rhythmic sensibility and prowess.  In large part, Ross posits, this is due to Brahms’s engagement with Gypsy music and German folk songs.  This is undoubtedly true.  His engagement with non-classical European music is, to me, one of the reasons he is so clearly a Romantic rather than a retrograde classicist. However, I would suggest that, alongside his Romantic-era nationalist interests, his immersion in pre-Beethovenian classical music also helped to shape his specific rhythmic sensibility. Mozart, for example, is well known as one Brahms’s favorite composers and, as such, is very likely a strong influence on his rhythmic sensibility. With that in mind, I would like to take a short look at the opening of Mozart’s concert aria “Bella Mia Fiamma…” to examine how the work of a Classical composer, such as Mozart, is rhythmically different from (Ross’s description of) the Romantic style of rhythm in which “composers would generally put a 4/4 time signature at the outset of a piece, set a pulse in motion, and attempt to sustain large structures through harmonic means.” In this Mozart example, harmony and rhythm work together to create slippery, mercurial phrases that tease the listener’s expectations of musical place and time.

The score for Bella Mia Fiamma can be downloaded from IMSLP

The aria’s opening utilizes six-beat gestures that serve to swap the perceived downbeat between beats 1 and 3 of the measure. In effecting these swaps, Mozart composes a fourteen-measure (plus a downbeat) opening section without allowing the music to feel asymmetrical and/or markedly unbalanced in the way that a later composer like Prokofiev might.

The main shift in metric emphasis appears at m.8, beat 3 (from here on measures and beats will be indicated with a decimal: m. 8.3).  At 8.3, the voice reenters with an altered statement of its original material from m. 2.3. However, because of the way in which Mozart manipulates his harmonic rhythm (that is, the placement and pacing of his chord changes), the entrance at m. 8.3 feels like a downbeat, while m. 2.3 feels, as expected, like a mid-measure entrance. Juliane Banse’s performance with the Munich Chamber Orchestra (streamable on Spotify) emphasizes this by entering her voice slightly later than the strings at 2.3, but with the strings at 8.3.

Through the aria’s first six measures, harmonies basically change at the rate of the half note despite a touch of filigree here or there. Beginning with m. 7, the chords are changing every quarter note. In e minor, the progression from mm.7 – 8.3 is: |i – V/V – V7 – VI – | iv – V – i. However, not all chords in this progression are created equal. In m. 7, it is, of course, the i and V7 chords that fall on the strong beats. Following that, the VI and iv chords that come after the V7 are more of a chordal embellishment of m. 7.3’s dominant harmony than they are independent chords in their own right. If you didn’t quite follow that last bit, look at the bass line between 7.3 and 8.2 and notice how, without the rests, it looks exactly like a double neighbor figure of the sort you’d find as an ornamentation in Bach.

Following this prolonged dominant, m. 8.3 marks that first time in the piece that the voice enters at the same time as a cadence.  The combination of an authentic cadence, pseudo-repetition of melodic material, and a re-normalization of the harmonic rhythm following the speeding up of m.7 – 8.3 creates the sense that the next musical cycle is beginning. That is, in every way but the notation, m. 8.3 is the downbeat. Mm. 9 – 14 work in almost the exact same way, so that when the next substantial section of the piece begins at m. 15, the perceptual and notated downbeats have re-aligned.

So, while music of the classical era may often look somewhat rhythmically stilted from beat-to-beat, it can often contain a wealth of subtlety and sophistication from measure-to-measure. A musician of Brahms’s character would have surely internalized the lessons of Mozart and brought them to bear wherever they might be beneficial to his vision.

Crisis or Opportunity:

Tales from a Music Educator in the Trenches


“A man has no more character

than he can command in a time of crisis.”

— Ralph W. Sockman

            My allotted teaching space from 11:15-11:55 am was a brightly-lit, yet bare and uninspiring, second-floor multi-purpose room of a 98% minority public middle school in downtown Augusta, Georgia. I smiled at the boy opposite me, a stoic seventh grader named Christopher Quiller, whose solemn eyes only rarely connected with mine. I could hear the rowdy noise of his classmates in the hallway as he approached this room, and as he sank into the deeply scooping plastic chair, he seemed conflicted. The way his jaw was set told me he didn’t want to be here. The way he cradled his viola suggested exactly the opposite. His reputation, as supplied to me by his string teacher of the previous year, supported both of my observations.

This was my first teaching day in the fall of 2006. I taught chorus and general music classes at another Augusta area middle school for the two previous years, but there was an opening in the Richmond County Orchestra (RCO) faculty and I was finally able to get into my chosen musical field, being a violinist myself. Chris, on the other hand, had spent the last couple of years getting detention or in-school suspension for the occasional scuffle with his classmates while proving to be something of a natural on the viola. Due to a perfect storm of circumstances, he and I began our year of one-on-one lessons. Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing Sarah…

December 16, 2011

Greetings fellow IPAP contributors and readers,

My name is Sarah Greenwald and, as of today, I am officially a contributing author on this wonderful blog. I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself to you.

I’m a native of Augusta, Georgia and was a resident for 24 years until this summer when I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During my time in Augusta, I received a Bachelor of Music from Augusta State University. I went on to teach at many Augusta area schools, mostly through the Richmond County Orchestra Program, which is the same program where I started at the age of nine. I also freelanced on violin and viola for the Augusta Players (a professional theatre group) and performed with local Beatles Tribute band Ed Turner and Number 9, while raising money for charities such as the Humane Society and Child Abuse Prevention.

Very shortly after my move to Pittsburgh I became involved – quite incidentally and extremely luckily! – with a performing ensemble here: The Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra. This was where I first crossed paths with the kind and talented Laura Lentz and the brilliant and resourceful Alan Tormey, who both went out of their way to greet me on my very first day with the ensemble. A few weeks ago Alan approached me about writing a guest blog for the current Alex Ross Project.

I said I’d be honored and the rest is history. I’m thankful for the opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas with the fine writers on this blog.

Thanks for having me.


“To this day, the arts in America, when pressed, define themselves in opposition to society.” – Alex Ross, Listen to This, page 236

Turning through the pages of Alex Ross essay on education – “Learning the Score: The Crisis in Music Education” – in his book Listen to This, I was struck by his attention to the plurality of outcomes that music education may realize. It got me thinking about the necessity for re-evaluating how we measure the importance of integrating arts training into our educational system. But as Sir Ken Robinson has already proposed, do we need educational evolution, or revolution?

Read the rest of this entry »

Orchestras that are embracing the new and more on twitter seats and their popularity

And read up on the Scrapheap Orchestra, making instruments out of trash

Greg Sandow on BORING Orchestra Photos

Alex Ross on Copland and the Republicans

Tips for Collaborative Criticism, the latest from the Musician’s Way blog

Play Before Work May Be Key To Greatness

And ever think of yourself as an expressive Energy Grid?

Astrid Baumgardner on the five tips on positivity and developing the mindset of a music entrepreneur

Get Out, the latest from the Entrepreneurial Musicianship blog

This is cool: The App for Music in Central Park

Music and Boxing?? Eastman students are doing it

Video of the week–

One of the most eagerly awaited TEDxSydney 2011 speaker videos is this one by music educator Richard Gill, in which he argues the case for igniting the imagination through music and for making our own music. Thanks to for passing this on.

Quote of the week–

“[Meredith Monk]‘s mission statement had said something about how the ethnic cultures have it covered. They don’t separate music, dance, drama, theater–It’s all one. And that appeals to me so strongly, the idea of ‘How can you write a piece without considering the visual element of it, or the dramatic element of it?’–Not that it has to tell a story or have a plot or make sense, but we react to that as humans in the audience.”–cellist/composer/singer/dancer/flutist Malina Rauschenfels

Cartoon of the week–

The Weekly Digest will return the week of January 9. 

Happy Holidays!

Today I bring you a post from Coach Nick Tuminello. He has written a whole series on the rhomboids, lower traps, and all those key areas that can be problem spots to musicians and desk jockeys alike. Whether you spend your day locked in a practice room or locked behind a desk and yearn to have strong shoulders and a pain-free back, this article is for you.

I can’t highly recommend this series enough. The rhomboids are a muscle that has become chronically stretched and weakened in our “bent over” society: when one bends over a steering wheel, table, computer or music stand the arms pull forward stretching the upper back muscles (and the rhomboids) forward when their main job is to contract and pull the shoulder blades BACK. This can cause weakness, pain and ultimately lead to injury.

The YTWL is a warm-up that I have been seeing and using for quite a long time, sadly, I hardly ever see anyone in the weight room using these movements and if I do, they do them incorrectly. Read and learn and if you want more detailed information he has a whole series on his blog, but he sums it up pretty nicely here.

Read the rest of this entry »

I wanted to share some about Poetry Palsan interfaith non-profit creativity program building bridges between diverse communities, that I am directing here in Chicago.  We are experimenting with different ways to teach, engage, improve self-expression and have cross-cultural dialogue with kids–8-12 years old–through creativity.  We work on writing and performing poetry, and we also include a music portion.  We have some confines to work with, as the Muslim schools prefer no melodic instruments or overt dancing, but we have a theme song, lots of group voice play and two professional percussionists in the mix. Read the rest of this entry »

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the creativity-innovation partnership.

The title ‘An Imaginary Line’ referred to the figurative device in the post…an attempt to illustrate the connection between innovation and the type of activities which influence our capacity to achieve the creative outcomes we so prize.  The line I described looked something like this:


It seems that maybe I had the line all wrong.  I should have been thinking less linear.

I should have been thinking of a squiggle…

I am referring to Damien Newman’s spot-on, brilliant depiction of the design process, shown here, as “The Squiggle”.

The creative process is not linear.  And given the many constraints and imperatives associated with innovative outcomes, why should we assume that any process of innovation would have the luxury of being linear?

Each day we are met by experiences, observations and ideas which have tremendous potential to influence our creativity.  In some instances the impact of this new data can be directly mapped to a creative outcome, and in other instances outward evidence of such connections may be less overt.  I refer to those activities that impact creativity as foundational activities. Engaging in foundational activities ensures that we are equipped with the thinking skills that are needed to construct outcomes that break with the status quo.  Examples of foundational activities are so abundant, and varied, that the concept of plotting such examples hardly evokes the image of a straight line!  Enter “The Squiggle”.

All figurative devices aside, the heart of this discussion is not lines, squiggles or an exercise in plotting!  Taking time to identify and articulate some of the foundational activities that lead to innovation is what is really of interest.  Foundational activities that are important to my creative practice have included painting, shooting photographs, practicing intentional observation…to name a few.

What activities are important to your practice?

© 2011 Kira Campo

IPAP Update 12/8 – 12/14

December 8, 2011

Hopefully you’re all enjoying our new look this morning.  Here’s a brief update on what we’ll be doing the next few days.

1) First, I’d like to thank all of you readers who have been following our Alex Ross project over the past week.  Our hits per day has been very robust. We’re thrilled to have you reading and we hope that you’re enjoying our offerings.

2) As some of you may have noticed, the weekly digest has been put on hold for the week. It will return next TUESDAY.

3) Our Listen to This project will continue beginning next WEDNESDAY with a set of essays in response to Ross’s chapter on music education.

4) Between now and then we will be posting several new pieces of content by some of your favorite IPAP authors.

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