Friday, April 4, 2014

Music Via Gesture

Here's a glimpse of one of the futures of music making. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Categorizing Emotions

Manfred Clynes - who invented the CAT scan and who spent quality time with both Yehudi Menuhin and Pablo Casals - categorized the range emotions as:

no-emotion, anger, hate, grief, love, sexual desire, joy, and reverence.

In his book Sentics he describes the button-like device he had people manipulate to emulate these emotions. Being Australian, he was able to do this with Aboriginal people as well as descendants of the European settlers, and found these emotions manifested with very similar physical parameters for both groups.

In these two recent articles talking about the same research looking at emotions conveyed by facial expressions, the categories they use are:

happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised and disgusted

There's some, but not complete, overlap between the two. In both cases, though, the connection between emotions and physical gestures is made. My idea is that emotions are encoded in music via the physical gestures making the music, along with the analog of physical gestures in the phrasing and articulation.

I think that music "touches" us, in part, due to the gestural qualities embedded in it. Evolution has given us a very finely tuned ability to read gestures of those around us, and music taps into that. 

To my mind, that's the simplest explanation as to why live performance is so much more effective than a recording - our visual input amplifies what we're hearing.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Lydian Scale/Mode

A friend on Facebook posted a link to this explanation of the Lydian scale, and it's very well done. With the simple graphics and musical examples it does a great job of getting across the feel of a scale that's neither major or minor, the two scales we sort of mostly settled into around the time equal temperament came in during the 18th century.

Since at least Plato, there's been the feeling that different modes elicit different mental/emotional states in people. Before equal temperament came in (which makes it much easier to modulate from key to key) the different modes had a stronger flavor due to the more pure tunings used (e.g. C# and Db weren't the same pitch as they are today). The examples here, though, show that they still have a feeling different from either major or minor.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dance Gestures

This article is brief, but the animations are worth a thousand words. The title of the article is, What women want on the dance floor, according to science. Some dance gestures are more attractive than others. My sense is that this is also the case for gestures made while making music, some of which are embedded aurally in the music. And when watching a music performance we don't generally spend all our time trying to logically deduce the meanings of gestures - we simply react to them as we do watching these animations.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Horn Diary

 *  I retired from the community band in December after the Christmas concert after what I think was 7 and a half years participation. It was a great run. I'll miss playing for the veterans on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and it was the crucible in which I learned the horn well enough to play the Brahms Requiem, which was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my musical life. 

Between realizing I'll never fully appreciate the concert band repertoire (maybe because I never knew it until my fifties and it always seemed a dialect I could never really speak) and the occasional drill sergeant approach by the music educator directors - when I realized I was over extended, moving on from the band seemed the best thing to do.

 * Over Christmas I played in a cantata, which at one point had the entire congregation singing along with the choir and instruments, and once again found playing the horn with voices an extraordinarily moving experience.

 * On my old horn, the F side didn't sound as good as the B flat side - and most of the stuff I was playing in band was very high (I think concert band arrangers think of the horn as an alto trumpet) - so I never used the F side. My new horn has a wonderful sounding F side, and it was a revelation to me that Brahms used a much lower pitch range in the Requiem than I was used to in band. So I've been working on the F side - and due to this horn having a good sound there, have come to realize what people mean when they say the F side is really the more authentic sound of the horn. However, relearning fingerings is an old dog, new tricks thing for me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Importance of Tone

I often compare tone of voice to the quality of tone made by music makers with their instrument. The most frequent example of this is to say to a student, "Have you ever had the experience of talking with someone, or listening to a teacher in the classroom, and realizing they have wonderful things to say, but that their tone of voice makes it hard to pay attention to them?" I've never had this point not understood. I then go on to say that if the tone they're creating with their instrument isn't appealing - no amount of work on articulation or dynamics is going to make a real difference in how their music is perceived. 

This article points out that the decision we make about how we feel about someone's voice tone happens in milliseconds, and there is great agreement among people on what the tone of voice can signal about the person.

. . . Although it's not clear how accurate such snap judgements are, what is apparent is that we all make them, and very quickly. "We were surprised by just how similar people's ratings were," says McAleer. Using a scale in which 0 represents no agreement on a perceived trait and 1 reflects complete agreement, all 10 traits scored on average 0.92 – meaning most people agreed very closely to what extent each voice represented each trait. . . 

 . . . The impression that our voices convey – even from an audio clip lasting just 390 milliseconds – appears to be down to several factors, for example, the pitch of a person's voice influenced how trustworthy they seemed. "A guy who raises his pitch becomes more trustworthy," says McAleer. "Whereas a girl who glides from a high to a low pitch is seen as more trustworthy than a girl whose voice goes up at the end of the word." . . .

What the researchers in this article are calling "tone" and what musicians call "tone" is not exactly the same, since the researchers are including pitch in their definition - but for me this is a very validating bit of research.

I've always been baffled by music educators talking so little about tone. In my years in the community band, except for one director saying "You can't be in tune without good tone", the only other mention of tone was that lame joke about someone having good tone on a note played at the wrong time - which was told over and over and over by multiple directors - and to me, after the umpteenth repetition, had the effect of mocking the concept of good tone. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Performance Diary

Four of us - trumpet, clarinet, tuba and me on banjo/guitar and a few vocals did a Mardi Gras performance in a local French restaurant - and then last Saturday we did some hymns as a five piece brass choir (trumpet, flugelhorn, horn, trombone, Eb tuba) for the prelude and postlude to a funeral in the Presbyterian church, and then followed up with Dixieland jazz with the full group at the reception in the fellowship hall following the service.

Following the Mardi Gras performance someone who had been there - who probably attends more live music than just about anyone I know - sent a note containing the following: "Whenever you play beyond the music is a sense of communitas." It's the most gratifying comment I've ever gotten about my public music making. 

I've posted from time to time about the Buddhist notion that it's one's motivation that makes any action/karma positive, neutral, or negative. I've also said from time to time I'm convinced one reason people enjoy our playing is that it's obvious how much fun we're having and that the fun is contagious. That an audience member divined the music therapy behind the performance feels like a terrific accomplishment.

One thing that I think conveyed that feeling was my memorizing a number of tunes and then walking out amongst the tables with the banjo and singing. A highlight of that was a little girl - say four or five - who started clapping along, and then some adults did as well. 

Another thing that helped was that I always play the banjo/guitar while standing up and sort of dance with the rhythms. Back in the days of running music therapy groups with emotionally disturbed children, that's essentially how I conducted. All the extra physical gestures seem to heighten the effect of the music.

Having a smaller combo for the Mardi Gras performance helped us play better as well. We were all more exposed than we are with the full group and had to work to get a good sound.

Another factor was working with the hostess to play tunes she liked. A lot of bands have a set list and when you ask them to play - that's what you get. What we do is talk to the host to get an idea of what they want and then tailor our performance for that specific event. It's sort of like working up a music therapy treatment plan, and when done well contributes greatly to the overall success of the performance.

For the brass choir at the funeral (of a man who has been a lawyer in town all my life and with whose children I grew up) I just took the hymns they requested and put them in four parts with minimal tweaking. To my ear, simple four part harmony played by brass is one of the most glorious things in all music making.

The Dixieland jazz at the reception just made people happy. I don't know of any other genre that has that effect for so many people.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Gestures and Sound Shapes

When I saw this article with photos and info on visual shapes created by human gestures, e.g.:

I was reminded of the shapes created by sound waves, e.g.:

It could be just coincidence, due in part to three dimensional movement reduced to two dimensions. At the least, though, it's a reminder that music and music making have an affinity with sculpture.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Conversation with Renée Fleming

This is long, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Fleming talks very directly about being a singer, the work involved, the repertoire, technique vs. expression, other singers, and a few practical tips on how to use the body in singing.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Current State of Music

Here are a two snips from a long comment on a post of Kyle Gann's. Kyle's post is a riff on this statement, “Humor in art is an audience divider; you are automatically paring your viewership to a core that shares your sense of humor and sensibility.”

The commenter goes by the handle "maclaren".

   Sorry, but the claim ““Humor in art is an audience divider; you are automatically paring your viewership to a core that shares your sense of humor and sensibility” epitomizes the vacuity of AmeriKKKan musiKKKal academia. The plain fact of the matter remains that any quality in art (or music) acts as a potent audience divider; no matter what quality you choose to emphasize in your art or music, you are always automatically paring your viewership to “a core that shares your…sensibility.”

   Music after modernism did not narrow down to a single “universal style” which represented the end of musical history (as falsely predicted by the modernists). Instead, music after modernism has exploded into an ever-expanding universe of mutually coexistent yet radically different styles and sensibilities. Like galaxies flying apart after the Big Bang, current music now occupies many different incompatible island universes. And most of ‘em can’t even communicate with one another because they use entirely different critical languages and incommensurable value systems. Values like “authenticity” or “new modes of listening” considered essential and plenipotent in one musical island universe have zero or negative value in other musical island universes. . . .

It's often said that the splintering of the audience is due to technology allowing people to hear just what they want and not be restricted to the main channels, e.g. the networks. That's certainly true - but the detonation of common culture in the 20th century - with WWI, Einstein and Heisenberg, Le Sacre du Printemps - set up what mclaren describes so well.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Comments On Other Blogs

I've recently been doing more commenting on other blogs than posting here. Doing this post just to have a convenient bookmark for them all.

Talking about Taruskin at Elaine Fine's.

Talking about embouchure at Dave Wilkin's.

Talking about music as healing at Kyle Gann's and at New Music Box and at Pliable's.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Eckhart Ensemble

Yesterday I had the great good fortune of attending a concert by the Eckhart Ensemble in St. Thomas Episcopal Church here in Orange, VA., a gift to the community from the Orange Music Society. In trying to remember a classical concert of comparable power, I have to go back nearly 40 years to hearing Sviatoslav Richter in Constitution Hall as a schoolboy. The fact that the conductor last night, Victor Yampolsky, is also a Russian may or may not be coincidental. 

In any event, the effect of the music making was as transcendent (for me) as it can be as a listener, in that it felt like the few "flow" experiences I've had making music. I'm going to list a number of things that caught my attention - but it was the gestalt - the whole being greater than the sum of the parts - that made for such a memorable evening. 

One way of explaining the power of the music making is to say what it wasn't. There was nothing rote about it - these people were not reading through something the umpteenth time to get through a mandated "service". There was a feeling of spontaneity in every single measure they played, and they were obviously having a splendid time - they moved - they smiled - they showed all kinds of expressions on their faces and in their postures as they imbued the music with a rainbow of emotions. They were playing the music and were letting the music play them. 

The word "players" also gets across the idea they made the music sound like a play, or a story being told. This was especially the case on one number when the two soloists, an oboe and violin stood next to each other and let each other's gestures inform their playing, while the rest of the ensemble was something of a Greek chorus providing context and comment on their dialog. (J.S. Bach Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060)

Maestro Yampolsky was amazing, both as a conductor and animateur . Just like a Tibetan lama giving a dharma talk, he began by giving his lineage, in which David Oistrakh loomed large and Vladimir Horowitz was mentioned. Then for each piece he gave a brief but incisive bit of its history and context - and how strongly he felt about its power.

His conducting was a marvel. I was in the front pew, just a couple of feet from the closest violinist, and could look up and see what a wonderful conductor he is and why the players were having such a good time. When called for, his gestures included an ictus, that slight bounce and change from going down to up indicating where the beat is. When I was in conservatory conducting class that was drilled into me, but it's amazing how many conductors get so caught up in swoops they leave it out. 

Instead of giving players "the hand" when he wanted them softer, he covered his mouth with his hand as if muting his voice. Overall, the use of dynamics was part of what gave the music such freshness in that he was always shaping phrases with great dynamic and gestural color. Not only did he get the group to play louder and softer, but the gestures they used in playing the different dynamics gave the music an expressive intensity and color beyond being simply louder and softer.

For me, one of the most striking things about his conducting were the starts and finishes of each piece. Before beginning a piece he would almost imperceptibly gesture the beat, then slowly amplify and intensify it - and only then begin to conduct the opening notes. Every time it sounded like a mountain stream bursting forth - or almost like a firework. And then at the end of each piece, the cutoff was subtly different - and the silence that followed was that deep silence that can only come after great music.

Maestro Yampolsky's resume in the program includes a lot of teaching and master classes, and watching him conduct it was clear how much he cares for the players and so enjoys bringing them to a higher level of musicianship. Part of the excitement of the evening was feeling the joy of the players in working with him. 

And the players! Only later did it occur to me what technique they must have to play with such musicality that I never noticed their technique. Beautiful tone, astonishing intonation, gorgeous phrasing and wonderful balance. All I heard was the music - though I did keep noticing what a terrific job the double bass player did in always giving just the right amount of bottom to the sound - and that the 1st oboist on his solo was either doing circular breathing or had an oxygen tank hidden under his coat or has astonishing lung capacity.

In closing, a couple of caveats. First, St. Thomas was my childhood church. Thomas Jefferson had a hand in its design and Robert E. Lee often tied Traveler to a tree that was still there when I was a child. The stained glass windows have a Proustian effect on me. And this past Lent I did the music for a Lenten lunch there (alto flute and guitar/singing) and between the wonderful acoustics and childhood memories it's a very special place for me - and to hear this concert in that venue was an over-the-top experience.

Also, just last weekend, one of the members of the ensemble, Kelly Peral, who's just moving back to Orange after growing up here, came to play soprano and sopranino recorder with me (on alto flute for Handel and then banjo/guitar for jazz standards and movie tunes) and Dr. Andy on cello. Hearing and playing with her tone, intonation and phrasing was a revelation - and I think prepared me to better appreciate what I heard last evening.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Performance Diary

Here's another great photo by Jeff Poole of the Orange County Review. The event was the lighting of the memorial Christmas Tree - which always follows the downtown Orange Christmas Parade organized by the Rotary Club. It was really cold, in the 30's, and much darker than the photo makes it seem. 

That's Crawford Harmon on the Eb tuba, Bill Burnside on the soprano sax and Pastor Pat Nabers helping out with the carol singalong. A musical highlight for me of the Christmas season was the singalong of Silent Night that night. I pitched it in F, which meant everyone could easily hit the high notes at the end - and because it was in everyone's comfort zone - the singing was strong and beautiful. I think I'll always be happier being a music therapist helping others make music than being a performer.

(If you click on this Orange County Review link - the farm pictured in the banner photo behind the search window is where I grew up and now live.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Music Making & Meditation

Here's Terry Teachout's Almanac entry for today - on down the line, brain imaging will determine if what seems to me to be intuitively correct, really is.

"Serkin told me a story once about a monk. He was playing in Japan, I believe, and after a couple of hours of practicing somewhere in a monastery that happened to have a piano, he suddenly became aware that somebody was there. It was a monk, who told him that he had been observing for two hours and said, 'I think I recognize what you do; it seems to be very much like what we do.'"

Richard Goode (quoted in Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber, Rudolf Serkin: A Life)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Improvisation and Audience Engagement

This study suggests that a little improvisation in classical music might increase audience engagement.

An area of the brain known to be involved in sustained attention, working memory and the inhibition of responses, known as the Brodmann 9 area was much more active in both musicians and listeners during the improvised performances. This indicates that the audience were much more engaged when listening to classical music containing improvised elements.

This is really easy for me to believe, given my feeling professional musicians tend to make such a fetish out of sight reading they risk ending up sounding more mechanical than human. If you spend a lot of time sight reading, you're training your brain to play the surface of the music rather than feeling it. Of course, really fine players can play with feeling while sight reading, but not everyone is that good. 

The thing about improvisation, for better or worse, is that the player is creating the music in the moment, so is much more personally involved. My sense is that if more classical players improvised at least occasionally they would be reminded there's more to music making than simply playing what they see.

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Epigenetics continues to be just freaking nuts"

I stole the title of this post from the title of this post by Maggie Koerth-Baker over on Boing Boing, where she's sort of the science correspondent, and does a wonderful job of presenting new things from the hard sciences with proper caveats. Regular readers will know I've been posting on epigenetics for quite some time, as it upends what until now was accepted science all my life. Maggie's title and post do a great job of capturing how that feels.

We know that stressful experiences can have negative biological repercussions — not just for the people who experience the stress, but also for their children. Now, there's some evidence that this transfer of stress effects might not just be due to a simple case of PTSD changing the way you raise/treat your kids. In a study that's inspired both deep skepticism and jaw-dropping awe (both with good reason) scientists were able to train male mice to fear a specific smell — and then observe that same fear/stress response to the smell in the mice's children and grandchildren. This, despite the fact that the younger generations never had contact with their trained fathers. These results are crazy enough that you shouldn't take them as gospel. But they are hella interesting and will definitely lead to a lot more research as other scientists attempt to replicate them.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More on Epigenetics

Here's a recent article on new findings in the study of epigenetics. Our DNA as inherited can be tweaked by our behavior/environment.

"DNA may shape who we are, but we also shape our own DNA," said press conference moderator Schahram Akbarian, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, an expert in epigenetics. "These findings show how experiences like learning or drug exposure change the way genes are expressed, and could be incredibly important in developing treatments for addiction and for understanding processes like memory."

Things have come a long way since Mendel and his peas. For me this new info is important in that there's the suggestion that your musical ability is not strictly constrained by your genetics.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Music in Brain Waves

Here's a story confirming something I posted on a while back - it's possible to identify what someone is listening to by their brain waves.

To find out, Boynton and his colleague Jessica Thomas had four volunteers listen to various notes, while they used fMRI to record the resulting neural activity. "Then the game is to play a song and use the neural activity to guess what was played," he says.

They were able to identify melodies like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star from neural activity alone, Boynton told the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, this week.

The article goes on to talk about how brain function and rhythm appear inter-related. 

David Poeppel at New York University and his colleagues monitored brain activity in 12 volunteers while they listened to three piano sonatas. One sonata had a quick tempo, with around eight notes per second, one had five per second, and the slowest had one note every 2 seconds.

The volunteers' brainwaves – rhythmic oscillations in the activity of neurons – tuned in to the frequency of the notes in the quick and medium-tempo pieces. In other words, if the melody contained eight notes per second, neural activity oscillated eight times per second. But with the slowest piece, neural activity reached two oscillations per second and went no lower.

Poeppel has previously shown that this tuning effect happens when we listen to a conversation: our neural oscillations correspond to the tempo of some signals in speech, such as the number of syllables per second.

The fact that the oscillations did not fall to match the tempo of the slow music suggests there is a minimum pace that the brain can process effectively.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Terry Teachout's almanac entry for today reads as follows:

"We are talking about an artist; and for the enjoyment of the artist the mask must be to some extent moulded on the face. What he makes outside him must correspond to something inside him; he can only make his effects out of some of the materials of his soul."

G.K. Chesterton, "The Dagger With Wings"

I'd say a vital aspect of music therapy is that the music you make must correspond to something inside you, and that the more you feel that connection, the more therapeutic your music making.

The quote also reminded me of the etymology of "persona" that I posted on a while back.

Another of TT's almanac entries from a while back gets at the professional (non-therapeutic) aspect of acting (and I would say music making as well).

"I very much disapprove of the adage that you have to feel the performance completely every night on the stage. This is technically an impossibility, and really is the negation of the art of acting. The art of acting, after all, is not actual feeling but simulation of feeling, and it is impossible to feel a strong emotional part eight performances a week, including two matinées."

Noël Coward, "The Art of Acting" (The Listener, Oct. 12, 1961)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gesture and Learning

In this post over on the musician's brain Lois Svard talks about what I would call the gestural component to learning. Basically, if you get you whole body to feel the rhythms and gestures in the music you're making, more parts of the brain are involved and the learning goes deeper and lasts longer. 

Down in my comment I mentioned mirror neurons and she knows what they are and agrees they're important ("convinced that understanding them is key to learning and performance") - so she's got my full attention. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Music in the Autistic Spectrum

This short first person article talks about how someone on the autistic spectrum uses music to self-medicate so as to diminish the need to make those repetitive movements called "stimming".

Sound in a certain orderly placement exerts the same curtailing force on my mind that movement used to, and my headphones are a leash that keeps me in check. I wear them constantly, and although I’m aware that their constant presence can be seen as strangely hostile in some environments, they are a safety net I can’t afford to forfeit. Music is my sensory diet and also my self-care kit.

If you click over, be sure to read the comments, which include some from others on the autistic spectrum.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


One of the things that keeps turning up in brain studies of people listening to music is that there seems to be a felt reward when expectations are fulfilled. This study focused on the auditory cortex to see how it might be involved in expectations being fulfilled or not when paying a game involving sound cues.

. . .Their findings show that the auditory cortex activity picked up both when participants were expecting a reward and received it, as well as when their expectation of receiving no reward was correct. . .

. . .when the volunteers were expecting and finally received a reward, then their auditory cortex was activated. Similarly, there was an increase in brain activity in this area when the subjects weren't expecting a reward and didn't get one. There was no additional activity when they were expecting a reward and didn't get one. . .

. . . These findings add to accumulating evidence that the auditory cortex performs a role beyond just processing sound. Rather, this area of the brain appears to be activated during other activities that require learning and thought, such as confirming expectations of receiving a reward. "Our findings thus support the view of a highly cognitive role of the auditory cortex," the study authors say. . .

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sleeping and Learning

This article in the LA Times covers some research done at Brown suggesting that learning can continue even as we sleep.

Data from brain activity measurements of the subjects whose performance had improved overnight suggested the epicenter of memory consolidation was in a small zone of the motor cortex known as the supplementary motor area -- not in the primary motor area, as earlier studies had suggested.

There's another discussion of learning continuing during sleep in a study out of SMU in this post over on the musician's brain.

The students in the first group, who had learned just the one melody, showed over 11% improvement in speed and accuracy the next morning. So while they were asleep dreaming about something else, the motor skills to play the melody they had just learned continued to improve. Pretty amazing! Surprisingly, the students in the second group, who had learned both melodies A and B, showed no improvement in either one. Learning two melodies seemed to cancel out the overnight gain for both. But for Allen, the most surprising, and perhaps most important result of the study concerned the third group. They had learned both melodies but then reviewed the first melody (A) at the end of the practice session, and they showed the same improvement in melody A after sleep as the first group – over 11%. The students in the fourth group, who learned A at night, B in the morning and then reviewed A, were similar to the second group in showing no improvement of anything.

I commented on this post, talking about how when I was working on the Brahms Requiem, during the day I focused on gnarly technical things that were giving me trouble, but at night I played through the things I'd mastered along with a CD. The idea that learning was continuing as I slept seems right to me, because there was the feeling that I'd never learned a piece of music as well, and that there was a sort of dream-like feeling to the depth of that knowing of the music.

A lot of things made the Brahms one of the most amazing musical experiences I've ever had. I've never felt so drawn to a piece of music or wanted to practice it so much. No way to prove it, but I'm convinced the sleep learning had something to do with my ability to play that music from the inside of the music in a way that involved my unconscious as well as my conscious mind.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rhythm and Language

This article from the BBC talks about research suggesting rhythmic motor ability correlates with language ability.

"It turns out that kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat. In both speech and music, rhythm provides a temporal map with signposts to the most likely locations of meaningful input," . . . 

. . . "This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical-rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in non-music areas, particularly language,"

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lama Tashi Photos

Here are some photos of Lama Tashi that just turned up on Facebook. My guess is they were taken at the university he's been building from the ground up these past four or five years. The rather austere looking lama in the third photo looks to be Tsona Rimpoche.

Performance Lessons

Our performance at Piedmont this summer was the most ambitious we've ever attempted in terms of repertoire, length and sound system. The response that night, and in the days following as I saw people around town who'd been there, was terrific. This post is to sum up why I think things went as well as they did.

A performance is more than just making music - it's a kind of enchantment or spell casting - and the setting is important. In this case, our hostess worked very hard on all the details on the setup on a beautiful lawn with a stunning view of the Blue Ridge. Just walking from the parking area down to the tents was a wonderful experience, and I'm sure put people in a great frame of mind. So before we even started playing the enchantment had begun.

Given the responses we got, my sense is a lot of people have often felt assaulted by bands with overly loud sound systems playing music they don't particularly enjoy. Lots of people said to us things about knowing and loving all the songs we played, and that our sound was wonderful. There's a reason, "give the people what they want," is a cliché.

While I didn't use the word "curated", with all it's hipster vogue, our hostess had expressed a love of jazz in general, not just Dixieland, so the tunes we did all illustrated the various threads woven into jazz and as I announced each song I pointed out how they all fit into the overall notion of jazz. I think it also helped that the narration began as soon as the applause for the previous song ended, so that if there was time taken to shuffle music, the audience knew what we were doing next and not left hanging.

We also had a wonderful audience. A number of them are members of a group that arranges for regular house concerts of very high level musicians over the course of the year. I'm convinced we played better than usual because we could feel their appreciation of what we were doing. There was applause after every number, and during the second set when there were slightly fewer people in the audience, the applause got louder and more enthusiastic as that core of music loving people showed themselves. 

We also had more help than usual. Ed ran the sound system, leaving me more brain capacity for narrating, strumming, singing and general band leading. My cousin John helped with the logistics of the setup and by walking around the venue checking how we sounded and being a liaison with the hostess. 

On the purely musical front, I remain convinced part of our appeal as a group is that we have such fun making music and that joy gets communicated to the audience both through the music and our behavior. 

We are also blessed to have some really fine musicians in the group, especially Dick on trumpet and Steve on trombone. In the "Summertime" video I put up, I'd made a bare bones arrangement based on the original piano sheet music and Dick and Steve helped me tweak it into playable form - but everything they're playing was improvised in the moment.

We're also very lucky to have Dave on drums. He was in the Army band and played for the troops in Vietnam back in the day. We only have him on occasions when the venue is large enough to take a full drum kit. He's simply terrific and we play on a higher level when we have him. For the Dixieland tunes he's reading music, but on all of mine he's just playing as he feels.

One thing that was sort of scary to me about this performance was that most of my arrangements were new to the group, and were being tweaked right up to the final rehearsal. I can be a worst case scenario kind of person, and there was a great scope for failure. In the event, though, things went well, and the very newness and freshness of the arrangements ended up being a positive. We weren't "covering" the tunes so much as recreating them in this performance in a new way just for our instrumentation and personality. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Encumbrances Of Angels

My friend Janet, the wife of Dr. Andy, is a poet who publishes under the name J. M. R. Harrison. When I first read this poem of hers years ago I immediately thought it could be put to music.

Encumbrances Of Angels

With all eternity to ponder
the nature and cost of freedom,
even an angel might prefer
the rasp of sand between the toes
to the ethereal tug of cosmic tides,
choose the angularity of starfish
over the symmetry of stars,
desire---whatever the penalty---
the lash of wind-driven rain
on a back unburdened of wings.

The first step, sometime back in the '90s, was to work out a melody over some guitar chords, with the only notation being the words with the guitar chords written in overtop. That's where things stood until a couple of years ago when we decided to actually notate the melody, add flute at Janet's request, and add standup bass as Dr. Andy was just starting to work with one, and turn the guitar chords into a keyboard accompaniment and adding an introduction.

We then got Nancy Lynn Marmorella, who had helped out on the Mantra Mountain CD, to make the trip down from Harpers Ferry to sing, and asked Hayley Parrish to play the flute part. We got together one afternoon, ran through it a few times, and then made this recording down in the living room. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Audio Note

The audio system we set up for the Piedmont performance was the most ambitious ever. There were six inputs into the mixer. One mic for my vocals, one Dick's vocal, one for the tubas, one for Maggie's clarinet, one for the banjo, and then a line for the onboard pickup inside my acoustic guitar. In the photo below you can see my vocal mic and then one affixed lower on the stand for the banjo. 

In this photo you can see the mic for the tubas up high in the back and the one for Maggie's clarinet on her stand.
We got a lot of positive compliments about our "wonderful sound". I'm convinced part of it was due to the extreme humidity (there had been downpours off and on all day). Wet air transmits sound better, and I think people felt our sound as well as simply hearing it. 

Another acoustic phenomenon that just about drove me crazy was a weird disjunct between the sound space the band was in and the other one the audience was in. In the top photo you can see how we were each in our own tents with a bit of a gap between. Particularly when I was singing, it sounded as though there was some sort of out of phase interference in that space between us, and though people said they could hear my vocals just fine, it felt to me I wasn't connecting with the audience.

On balance though, this system worked very well and I'll use something very much like it in the future for large events like this. If we can all hear each other we play well, and if the audience can hear us comfortably without our being too loud, that's a success.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summertime at Piedmont

Here are Dick Stageberg on trumpet and Steve Sanford on trombone improvising two times through Summertime. 

Summer Jazz Set Lists

Here is the sheet I did up for Ed to use running the mixer at our recent performance. Tunes without asterisks are standard Dixieland arrangements, those with one asterisk are ones I've done in the past and just tweaked a bit this time, and those with two asterisks are the ones I've done since this past March when I learned our hostess for this event was a lover of all kinds of jazz, not just Dixieland.

Summer Jazz At Piedmont

1st Set

*Hello Dolly - Guitar
   Three times through - vocal; instrumental; vocal & instrumental
*Eliza Jane - Banjo
   Everybody gets a solo
Little Brown Jug - Banjo
   Instrumental Dixieland tune (clarinet solo)
*Deep River Blues - Guitar
   Short a capella guitar intro - then a mix of vocals & solos
Hard Hearted Hannah - Banjo
   Dixieland tune with short vocal about half way through
Charleston - Banjo
   Instrumental Dixieland tune.
**I'll Be Seeing You - Guitar
   All instrumental arrangement two times through
*Georgia On My Mind - Guitar
   Clarinet intro, then vocal 1st time instrumental 2nd time
*Tuxedo Junction - Banjo
    All instrumental arrangement two times through
**Moonlight Serenade - Guitar
    All instrumental arrangement one time through
**It Ain't Necessarily So - Banjo
    Trumpet, Vocal & Trombone solos
Shortnin' Bread - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (clarinet solo)
Swaneeland - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (ends with tuba solo)
**Summertime - Guitar
   Twice through - 1st time trumpet, 2nd time trombone

2nd Set

Floatin' Down To Cotton Town - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (tuba solo)
**Blue Skies - Banjo
   Trombone/banjo intro; then 1st time vocal; 2nd time sax & clar.; 3rd time all
Tin Roof Blues - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (clarinet solo)
*Ain't She Sweet - Banjo
   1st time vocal; 2nd time instrumental
Do You Know What It Means - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
Sioux City Sue - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
St. James Infirmary Blues - Banjo
   Dixieland tune - Dick has the vocal
Midnight In Moscow - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
**Dream A Little Dream Of Me - Guitar
   Vocal & Trombone on verse; 1st chorus vocal; 2nd chorus trpt/clar/trpt
The Entertainer - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (tuba solo)
It Don't Mean A Thing - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
Silver Threads - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
       Fidgety Feet - Banjo
             Dixieland tune
         Panama - Banjo
             Dixieland tune
*Just A Closer Walk - Banjo
   I'll call out who does what when
*The Saints - Banjo
   I'll call out who does what when

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Performance Diary

Here are some pictures from our performance last night.

Here we are during the soundcheck, right after the rain stopped. You can see how everything had gotten scrunched together to keep the electrical stuff out of the rain. For the second set we moved the large amps out onto the lawn off to the side of the tent.

This shot shows Ed in the back running the mixer. The original plan was for him to be down in front, but the rain had us set up this way.

This shot shows how the audience was on a level a bit lower than we were. There were also tables spread out around the lawn.

Here we are late into the second set.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gene Expression & Happiness(es)

This study by researchers from UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina looks at how one's happiness can affect gene expression, and they found (in a group of 80 adults) that two different types of happiness generate different profiles of gene expression.

People who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic well-being -- the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life (think Mother Teresa) -- showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

However, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic well-being -- the type of happiness that comes from consummatory self-gratification (think most celebrities) -- actually showed just the opposite. They had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.

. . . . "Both seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive.

"What this study tells us is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion," he said. "Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dr. Andy

Dr. Andy, a.k.a Andrew Mosholder, and I have been musical companions for nearly 20 years.  He played bass and cello on "Mantra Mountain". On Saturdays, about once every six weeks, he makes the drive down from Harpers Ferry and we spend the afternoon playing Renaissance, Baroque, Dylan and things I've written, with him on cello or upright electric bass and me on mostly alto flute, keyboard, guitar and singing.

He also has other gigs, musical and non-musical. Here he is with Chatham Street opening for Dave Mason.

Photo credit: CUphotography

Moving Beyond Anecdotal

Anecdotally, a lot of people feel that making music has therapeutic benefits. This article talks about a new research project at UC San Francisco to see what empirical data there might be to support that idea. 

Over the next four years, a dozen choirs will be created at senior centers around San Francisco. . . . . The project will assess the impact on participants’ cognition, mobility and overall wellbeing during their choral year. The researchers also will examine whether singing in a community choir is a cost-effective way to promote health among culturally diverse older adults.

My interest in music therapy has always centered on the benefits of actually making it yourself as opposed to listening to it. All the neuroscience on how listening to it affects us is tremendously helpful, but in the long run, studies like this one, assuming good data is found, will be much more helpful when advocating for music making and music therapy.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Performance Diary

Last Friday we played at an assisted living facility in Gordonsville and then on Saturday outdoors at Gordonsville's Bicentennial Homecoming picnic. For the indoor performance there was no need for any audio, as it's a small room and we and the audience can all hear everything easily. We played very well, and received what to me was a wonderful compliment from the activity director - that it was the first time she could remember a group holding all the residents' attention for a full hour, that usually people want to start drifting away after about 30 minutes. There was a lot of foot tapping and sort of dancing while seated.

For the outdoor performance there needed to be audio so we could be heard over a fairly large area. This photo taken before we started playing shows the amp on a stand I had halfway facing us so we could all hear one another. The tubas, clarinet, banjo, guitar and vocals all had mics.
The two monitors flat on the group were for the group after us, but just under their speaker on a pole, right behind the blue chair, you can see the other of my amps, which was facing over towards where a lot of the crowd was. After we played I heard that we could be heard over the whole area nicely, without being too loud anywhere. I was also pleased that I didn't produce a single feedback squawk. 

Right in front of me with the guitar you can see a wooden box with the mixer on it, which lets me tweak the audio between, and sometimes during, numbers.

As I've said several times, learning audio is as difficult as learning the horn. Lots of unseen variables, and if you make a mistake it's really noticeable, but if you get it right it's a wonderful thing. We've got one more big outdoor performance this summer and my hope is to set up a situation where it sounds to us and to the audience a lot like being in a small room where everything is clear and distinct, while not being too loud.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nostalgia and Music

Coming across this article on nostalgia and reading the following bit I immediately envisioned a music therapy angle, as inducing nostalgic moods is something music often does.

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Then on the second page of the piece Tierney talks about how the researchers are using music to explore what they see as the mostly positive effects of nostalgia.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Audio Note

The Kenwood Players have already had one outdoor performance this summer, and are looking to have three more. Unless we're on a porch and the crowd is small, I always use some amplification for these events. If nothing else, at least a set of very small speakers used as monitors for my guitar, so everyone in the group can hear me even though I'm in front and facing the audience.

One thing that I find remarkable is that whenever I mention using a little amplification, it's not unusual for the person arranging for the music to get what I can only call righteously angry about past events where a band used so much amplification people were unable to talk to one another. When I talk to friends about this, almost everyone has a horror story of an event being ruined by a too loud band - and years ago I walked out of a Judy Collins concert because the sound was so loud it hurt.

During a period when live music is on the wane, sonically assaulting the audience seems a weird thing to do, but it seems to happen with great frequency. I think one problem (besides the members of loud bands having lost hearing over time and not realizing what they're doing) is the way the main speakers are pointed at the audience, with monitor speakers facing the band. With things set up this way, it's easy for the band to not realize just how loud they are to the audience.

Over time the way I set up has evolved into not distinguishing between speakers for the audience and monitors for the band. I put the speakers a bit behind and to the side of the band and turned at something like a 45 degree angle inward so they work as both monitors for us while also sending some sound out front. That creates the danger of feedback, but I've found that turning the treble down on everything lowers the threshold for that by a lot. And, of course, the precursor to feedback is that nice reverb feeling where you can feel the sound as well as hear it. As long as I keep the sound levels in that range, things work really well.

As to who/what gets a microphone - I have one for vocals and the clarinet gets one so she can play with good tone low in her range and be heard. My acoustic guitar with the onboard pickup gets plugged in, and if it's a large event I put a mic up for the tubas so we can have a nice solid bass line without them having to work for volume. 

Also, I've started using a small dynamic mic on my music stand to pick up the banjo at large events. It's hard to believe, but the one comment I get on the sound system over and over is people coming up afterwards and saying that couldn't hear the banjo. I think the issue is that it's so very directional in its sound - if the drum head is facing you, you hear it, but if it's angled away, you don't.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Yo Yo Ma as Music Therapist

Here's a great story for the 4th of July. Besides everything else he does, Yo Yo Ma spends time helping wounded veterans make music. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Neuroscience Summary

This article is a nice summary of how listening to music engages different parts of the brain simultaneously. While there's nothing new, the illustrations are helpful. It's also helpful to be reminded that both ancient and newer parts of the brain are involved. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Kenwood Players Video

As we have for a number of years now, the Kenwood Players provided music yesterday for the annual butterfly release fund raiser for the Hospice of the Rapidan. This year it was held at the Prince Michel Vineyard over in Madison county and a member of the audience took a video of one number, "The Charleston", and uploaded it to YouTube. 
Thank you Alex! 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Yoga and Calisthenics

Practicing yoga and performing calisthenics are two different ways of approaching physical exercise, and thinking about their differences can offer some insights into the therapeutic and educational ways of teaching music.

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on yoga reads:

Yoga is a commonly known generic term for the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace.

The Wikipedia entry for calisthenics begins with:

Calisthenics are a form of exercise consisting of a variety of simple, often rhythmical, movements, generally without using equipment or apparatus. They are intended to increase body strength and flexibility with movements such as bending, jumping, swinging, twisting or kicking, using only one's body weight for resistance. . . . Calisthenics when performed vigorously and with variety can benefit both muscular and cardiovascular fitness, in addition to improving psychomotor skills such as balance, agility and coordination.

Groups such as sports teams and military units often perform leader-directed group calisthenics as a form of synchronized physical training (often including a customized "call and response" routine) to increase group cohesion and discipline.

While yoga is seen and taught as a combination of the physical, the mental and the spiritual, calisthenics is mostly physical, with the addition of group cohesion as a goal. 

In the yoga classes I took back in the 70's, the idea was that the teacher was training us to be more aware of our bodies and to move through the poses in ways that suited us individually, and to always be mindful, centered and grounded.

In calisthenics, moving just like others with the same timing and motions is much more important.

In teaching music as a music therapist, what works and doesn't work for any particular client is always of paramount importance. In yoga different people doing different poses can look very different, especially for beginners, and that's OK. In music therapy what's important is that the clients feel the joys of music making, become engaged in the activity, and over time are better able to express themselves musically.

It seems to me music educators take more of the calisthenics approach to teaching, for some very good reasons. For one, only students with a skill set that might allow them to succeed are allowed into band, and because of those skills, will probably find on their own what does and doesn't work for them as individuals. For another, group cohesion is of paramount importance in bands (and symphonies), so the subordination of the individual to the group, as personified by the conductor, is the only way to go.

I think this is at least part of the explanation as to why, for the most part, none if the community band conductors we've had over the years has ever talked about tone, other than that tired old joke when someone plays when they shouldn't that, "At least it had good tone quality!"

For me as a music therapist, from the get go with any client I'm always including the importance of tone in the conversation. I'll often ask if they've ever come across someone who has wonderfully interesting things to say, but that the sound of their voice is so off-putting it's hard to pay attention, which usually triggers a look of recognition.

Understanding your musical sound as your voice is fundamental to successful musical self-expression. 

I think that music educators don't talk much about it because the skill set their students present with mean they'll probably develop their tone and appreciation of it's importance on their own.