Musical Connections with Avo Randruut

Never has there been a time in human history when music is so ubiquitous.   Whether we are traveling, shopping, eating, or walking down State Street, music is inescapable. Unfortunately for the world of classical music, society at large hears so much sound at such a quick pace that the deep auditory experience of listening to classical music seems difficult to the everyday citizen. However, there is a hidden gift in the omnipresence of music and sound; people seem to know a lot about music without even realizing it. In the often music-less schools throughout Chicago, Avo Randruut has exploited this implicit knowledge to not only teach students about classical music, but to even make music with them.

On November 3, musicians of Civic Engagement Ensembles (CEE) of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago met with Avo Randruut, a Chicago-based drummer and teaching artist who has worked alongside the CSO to present the Music Activity Partnership (MAP), a program of the Negaunee Music Institute that shares a variety of musical resources with ten Chicago Public Schools (CPS) partner schools each season. The aim of Avo’s seminar with members of CEE was to explore ways to effectively connect with students as we formulate our own school presentations.

The MAP program, launched in the fall of 1998, was created in an effort to provide access to musical training to schools lacking comprehensive music programs. Since its inception, 38 CPS schools have benefited from the MAP program. Avo has worked with hundreds of students through this program and is well versed in creating experiences that engage students with music.

His advice was simple: students already know about music, and while that music may not be Beethoven or Bach, Minaj and Swift still have the key ingredients of music – rhythm, sound, and pitch. When properly coaxed, this implicit knowledge gained from years of listening rears its head. For instance, Avo shared many basic rhythmic exercises, revealing that students often are just as proficient as trained musicians.

To build our own in-school presentations, Avo Randruut first reminded us that we are going into MAP schools, meaning that the students have been exposed on a fairly regular basis to music; in fact, they will have a page in their MAP notebook devoted to reflections on our performances. Then, he presented “5 key modes of audience response to consider:” movement response, drawing response, musical response, written response, and passive listening response.

These sorts of responses were aptly titled. For instance, movement response involves physically moving a part of the body as a reaction to music. When music is loud, the movements are larger, and when the music is soft, the movements become smaller. However, with creativity, these responses can become unique experiences. If space allows, he suggested that we bring props (like ribbons) to create a visually moving object that responds to the music.

I found Avo Randruut’s explanation of passive listening confusing. He described it as “listening with some kind of focal point to pay attention to (possibly multiple listening with deeper or different focus).” I understood this as active listening, where students have an anchor to latch on to that holds their attention. Passive listening, I believe, is what happens to many listeners at concerts when they doze off – becoming distracted and focus on something other than whatever is happening on stage. Avo’s activities help children pay attention to a piece from start to finish, which is quite an active process.

But terminology aside, all five of Avo’s response modes require some foresight on the part of the performer. He recommended we always keep a few things in the back of our mind. How large is the space? How many students will there be? Will they have room to move around? These questions, and many others, determine whether certain activities are practical (assembling ribbons for a hundred students may not be practical, but bringing markers and paper could be).

This deep understand of students and their environment is ultimately the most important part of putting together a performance. If we can understand the musical context that students understand, then we will know how to lead students as we expose them to an art they know more about than we think. Perhaps, with inventive spirit on the part of musicians, the universality of sound and music holds not the doom of classical music, but the future.

By Davis King

Photo by Todd Rosenberg