Jim Oshinsky has been a steady presence at Music for People (MfP) since its inception in 1986. As a musician, an administrator and the author of the seminal book “Return to Child,” he has helped usher MfP into the 21st century, while introducing the organization to a new generation of students, teachers, performers and healing arts practitioners.
Here is the second of our two-part interview with Jim, who also is a clinical psychologist and an adjunct professor at Adelphi University, outside of New York City.
How has MfP changed your approach to music-making?
I was in my mid-30s when I joined MfP. By then, I had played in a lot of rock and folk bands and had written a few songs. “Jamming” usually meant playing tunes by the Grateful Dead or the Byrds and then soloing over a prescribed set of chord changes.
MfP opened me up to other styles and genres of music. Its mantras changed me—“listen more than you play”; “silence is your friend”; “be a master of what you can control”; “quality, not quantity”; “play what you sing”; and “listen for contrasts.” I learned to simplify. I also learned to lead with my own style.
Although MfP has many masterful teachers, most notably David Darling, it encourages everyone to emulate exemplary models without becoming anyone’s clone. We support you in making your own music and facilitating in your own authentic way.
How has this philosophy impacted your music teaching at Adelphi University?
When David led summertime “Art of Improvisation” workshops, the next to last evening always featured a “celebration” event. The all-improvised program was over an hour long and, under his guidance, featured various soloists and small ensembles, alternating in performance with the whole group. It was a masterful illustration of facilitation and flow.
I tried doing something similar at Adelphi at the end of each semester, until I realized that if I taught listening and facilitation well, my students could present their own improvised concert without my involvement. A drum circle could morph into a vocal call-and-response, followed by a blues number or a classical chamber piece—all completely improvised and sometimes involving the audience. The students treat the components of the concert like notes in an improvisation, always with an ear to space and contrast.
Lately, I’ve had nothing to do at these concerts but applaud at the end and recognize the students’ accomplishments. MfP has changed my idea of what music education can look like and sound like.
This fall, MfP is launching an online version of its Musicianship and Leadership Program [MLP]. What was your involvement with the original program?
Music for People was conceived as a grassroots music-making movement. In addition to David’s workshops, we put out a quarterly newsletter called “Connections,” along with a national directory of improvising musicians—very pre-Internet. In those days, we focused on home-based improvisation gatherings.
A training program arose out of a desire to codify David’s teaching and playing philosophies. He, his colleague Bonnie Insull and I came up with the initial MLP concept, in which advanced musicians mentored new ones. We workshopped it in the 1990s with a group of David’s devotees, including Music Together founder Ken Guilmartin; Canadian performance artist Lise Roy; and about 10 other “pioneers,” all of whom gave us feedback that led to a structured and sequenced program.
Bonnie and I co-wrote MfP’s first home-play notebooks, with assignments that aligned with our four quarterly workshops. The content included leading labs, where people led activities for peer feedback and shared specific teaching challenges from other sessions. There also was reading material that addressed, among other things, ethical leadership and working with people from varying musical backgrounds.
Did some of the early MLP graduates go on to work for MfP?
Yes. After Bonnie Insull left, Betsy Bevan, Mary Knysh and Emily Metcalf became the MfP staff, and later graduates — Julie Weber, Lynn Miller, Arianna Rose, Joëlle Danant, Jan Hittle and Peter Hawes — have also served as MfP staff members.
Emily and I met through MfP and married. One of our children, Breanna, served as an MLP event coordinator for a few years, fulfilling our original vision of MfP as a way to bring up children with music improvisation as a natural family happening.
I eventually served as MfP’s executive director, followed by Lynn’s husband, Eric. Julie moved into a staff coordinator position around 2003-04, when I wrote “Return to Child.”
What was the impetus for writing “Return to Child”?
Most of the teaching that David has done was before cell phones and social media. Very little of his MfP work has been captured on video. Even though MfP has years of archived audio workshops, they do little justice to the dynamic nature of his teaching. His expressions and body language remind me of the great comic and mime, Red Skelton.
In hopes preserving David’s teaching philosophy, I expanded some of MfP’s early pamphlets and home-play books into a textbook, giving equal time to what David taught—basic activities for small and large groups—and how he taught such activities—with an attitude of relentless encouragement. The absence of criticism and the practice of learning-by-doing have been central to his approach, and these qualities distinguish MfP from other methods in music education.
I’m proud to say that “Return to Child,” co-published by David, MfP and me, has sold thousands of copies worldwide. In fact, many people have found out about MfP through the book, rather than through live workshops. The book also is used in colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada.
What are some other MfP resources?
Julie Weber and Clint Goss put together a three-disc set called “The Darling Conversations,” in which Julie and David discuss MfP’s fundamental techniques. Clint interspersed the dialogue with dozens of audio examples from the MfP audio archive.
This set, along with other books and albums by MfP staff and alumni, is available on the MfP website. MfP also has a Facebook page specifically for music educators, where peer-to-peer resources may be shared. The materials from my Adelphi music improvisation course can be found there.
What has MfP taught you?
Besides learning to listen, I’ve learned to trust myself, to trust others and to trust the process of improvisation with an open mind and an open heart.
Author: Rob Enslin