Thursday 24 October 2019

The Barest Sketch of An Idea

Teaching is such a funny thing - there are days you think you haven’t got a clue what you are doing (“what am I teaching tomorrow?”) and there are times you decide to risk it all, to take a flyer on the barest sketch of an idea. This is a true story, in a sense, hundreds of years in the making.

A little more recent history. In 2009 a movie called “It Might Get Loud” came out. Three remarkable musicians sharing what they know about guitars, specifically electric guitars and the music they have made over the years. Jack White’s snippet of him assembling a Diddley Bow, with a chunk of wood, an old pickup, distortion pedal, mouldy old tweed-faced combo amp, a fist full of nails and a hammer totally captivated me. It didn’t take much to make something that worked, in its own gnarly way.

In mid 2011 I had to present a collaborative lesson plan as part of my graduation from the Faculty of Education at what was then the University of Western Ontario (now Western University). Having dabbled in guitars for years (I have never really learned to play one, but I did actually build one from scratch and own two more) and that little Jack White experiment still ringing in my ears I hit on the following idea: a lesson that incorporated French, French medieval music and a single stringed, monochord instrument.The French bit had nothing to do with me, save that my partner needed an angle to explore. I built several prototypes, one of which fulfilled the sculpture component in my Visual Arts section and the others ending up as part of the collaborative lesson plan thing.

It all worked - I got an A+ from both my music and fine arts teachers - save for one little bit: there was no amplification. I couldn’t find an easy to implement, no soldering iron required, solution. All acoustic was good enough, at least for then.

In the Fall of 2011, during my first teaching break while in Vietnam I went a wandering down in District One. I happened upon a musical instrument store and two things blew me away: a guitar pick-up, with a pre-wired jack and a single stringed musical instrument. The former meant there was a way to make my own amplified electrical instrument, my own Diddley Bow and the latter meant something already existed that was very Vietnamese traditional and eminently playable (the shopkeeper, in an effort to sell me one, played it for me). And it had a rudimentary pick up; it could be played through an amplifier.


The Đàn bầu, the single stringed Vietnamese instrument I saw that afternoon, has a history, dating back, for sure, to the 17th century. It is likely a lot older, maybe a thousand years or more. It is a countryside instrument, in the sense its playing has been largely abandoned in the large metropolitan areas of Vietnam, but likely to be backing some local village storyteller.

The Diddley Bow has not as long a history, but its place in the telling of country blues in North America is well established.It is a favourite of musicians seeking that authentic, (very) old school feel for tales of woe and unhappiness.

Late in the 2017-2018 school year our school administration approached us with a question: what else could you teach, what else could we offer our student population? Something fresh, new, something that could refresh the offering list. I suggested that Media Arts was something I could teach and something that could offer an enhanced, slightly technical approach to art production.

They agreed and it was offered for the first time for 2019-2020. There was certainly interest, enough so that we actually hired another art teacher (who ended up teaching 9-10-11 Visual Arts and 9-10-11 Drama) to make sure Visual Arts was still supported in the school while the Media Arts adventure began.

While I was reviewing the curriculum requirements for this brand new course I noted the hybridization element - wherein the students would have to do at least one project that blended two of the Arts (dance, drama, music and visual). Initially I wasn’t sure what I would do - I had projects with graphics design (so we could establish a base language of communication), photography, videography and digital portfolios, but nothing yet around a combination of two Arts.

I was combing through internet one evening in the Spring of 2019 when I decided to listen to one of my favourite blues guitar players, Justin Johnston. He had just received a beautiful new guitar from Europe. Dashtick Guitars are musical instruments assembled from castaway hurling sticks. They are carved and painted and polished with care, and augmented with strings, tuning pegs and pick-ups - just wonderful, mystical pieces of magic.

Boom - it was a bolt of lightning moment - there was the idea: get my kids to build their own sculptural musical instruments, their own Diddley Bows, with a strong years long tie-in to the past.

I wrote my materials proposal in the early part of the first semester. That purchase request must have looked pretty strange - not surprising considering that the whole thing was vaguely developed and still cooking in my head. I made my verbal pitch and administration got behind it. Much to my pleasant surprise the Board of Directors got behind it as well. Considering I was asking for the purchase of two traditional instruments, a Đàn bầu and a Đàn nhị (that’s a two string, bowed instrument - for a future project), mixed in with a number of pickups, planks of wood and sixty E guitar strings I felt I was very fortunate.

A large number of expensive tools were purchased - all from my funds; by doing this I would have maximum flexibility in terms of access and usability.

I drew up my lesson plan, organized my rubrics, sourced some informative videos, and designed my kick off lecture slideshow. I allowed three weeks from start to finish and got the students down to work.

Three weeks later this is what they made. I could not be prouder of them - and every single one was tested and played - they actually work. The thread of history has been extended; I can hardly wait for the next semester to do it all again.

PS I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge the love and support of my family during this - their patience and participation is so very much appreciated. Thanks also to Mr. Mark for his support. And last but not least, thanks to Robert Johnson for meeting me at the crossroads and holding my hand.

Update: just a little fun video to further flesh out the amazing work they did...

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