Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Small Town Classical Response

A year and a half ago, the Rapidan Orchestra came together here in Orange, and this past weekend we just had our third pair of concerts, one in the neighboring county of Madison and one here in Orange. Since I grew up here, I know a lot of people coming to the concerts, and besides speaking with some there, also see people around town in the days after and have more conversations.

I have been amazed by the response we're getting. I came very late to classical music and can't sight read at all well, but after many years being a psychiatric attendant, group therapist, and music therapist, reading the facial expressions and body language of people is second nature to me. In nearly all the conversations I've had about the Rapidan performances, people's eyes are wider than usual, and their body language is more fluid and expressive of positive emotions than usual - to a degree I find surprising and exceptional.

Two things come to mind to explain this effect we're having. One is the music itself - Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Fauré, Haydn, Sibelius - with a few newer (tonal) works in the mix. For some aficionados, the pieces we're doing are passé warhorses, but for a lot of our audience, it may well be the first time they've heard these pieces live, which is a totally different experience from recordings, which in this day and age are the norm. And there's a reason these pieces have stood the test of time. In a Jungian sense they must somehow express archetypes floating around in the collective unconscious. My read is that we're not just entertaining people, but that the music is touching them deeply.

The other thing is the intimate settings - usually churches - one of which has superb acoustics and very comfortable pews. We rarely have more than 100 people at the concerts, so everything is up close and personal. A lot of us musicians go out and say hello to people we know during intermission and after the performances, giving things a personalized feeling. My sense is that these small venues help the audience really feel they are a vital part of the triangle Britten talked so much about - the composer - the performer(s) - the audience; that all three are vital parts of the musical experience.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Great Neuroscience Article

This article in Nautilus pulls together things in the neuroscience of music and takes us another conceptual step toward more fully understanding the ways music affects us. 

The main idea is that music can be, and usually is, a social activity, even when you're listening alone - which is a great way to think about mirror neurons and how important they are. This is the first time I've seen someone say just listening to music, without seeing it performed, can trigger mirror neurons. Given my idea that music is in part physical gesture made audible, it's great validation.

Something else that I think is helpful is the use of "pre-cognitive" in the explanation, which may be a better term than "non-conscious", a term I've used to say the same thing.

There's also a wonderful working definition of what music is. 

Here is a long snip from the article:

Music is as much a part of human evolution as language, tool-making, and cognitive development, Schulkin and Raglan tell us. It’s a bridge. “Music is typically something shared, something social; we may sing in the shower or on a solitary walk, but music is most of the time social, communicative, expressive, and oriented toward others,” Schulkin and Raglan write.

Molnar-Szakacs explains the brain’s mirror-neuron system provides the neural basis of music’s social powers. The properties of the human mirror-neuron system are based on research showing that the same regions in our brain are active when we perform, see, or hear an action. The “mirror” regions of our brains fire whether we’re playing the guitar or listening to Pete Townshend play it.

The mirror-neuron system, Molnar-Szakacs says, “allows someone to identify with another by providing an automatic, pre-cognitive mechanism by which to understand their actions by mapping them onto our own neural representations of those actions. In addition, it represents the intention behind those actions.”

The moment you hear a sequence of hierarchically organized abstract sounds we call music, a multitude of associations are activated in your brain. These can include memories, emotions, and even motor programs for playing music. Together they can imply a sense of human agency. That sensation is what sets music apart from other types of sounds. “The brain interprets the structure of the music as intentionality that is coming from a human agent,” Molnar-Szakacs says. “This, combined with all the associations evoked by the music, is what makes the experience social.”

There's more to the article, it's all interesting, and it's all worth reading. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Audio Note

The photo below is from a little Mardi Gras performance in a local French restaurant. Because of space considerations, we had just four players, along with a couple of guest vocalists. On the left you can see one of the speakers, and just a bit of the other can be seen near the bottom of the wine rack on the right. The mixer is right behind me, where I could easily turn around a tweak the settings, and the mics for the guest vocalists are on top of the speaker on the left. The mic for my occasional vocals is attached to my music stand and the foam cover is just barely visible above my music books.

The main thing I want to point out is how the speakers are set up so they work at least as much as monitors for us as they do to put sound out to the audience. Since I started performing publicly about ten years ago, I've discovered a lot of people have been traumatized by overly loud sound systems, which sometimes are so loud one can't carry on a conversation, and sometimes actually hurt one's ears they're so loud.

The way they're set up here, if they're too loud, we the players will be the first to know. The sweet spot for the sound was right in front of us and a bit to the right. People siting at tables in that area said the mix was very good. I recorded the gig with the recorder up near the tin ceiling in the corner of the room back above the left shoulder of the person taking this picture. From there the vocals, the only thing amplified, are not as present in the mix. The catch is, had I turned up the sound enough for the mix to be good there, people would have had to yell to converse. So there's never a perfect solution. 

Monday, February 8, 2016


Thanks to Kyle Gann friending me on FaceBook, a lot of new music has come my way. I particularly like this one for two reasons. 

First, there's the marvelous slowness of it. I've always thought there was room for a lot more very slow music, and I even made a CD trying to fill that gap, but this piece is way slower than anything I can remember encountering, while not becoming boring. It has the effect on me of recalibrating my sense of time, getting me to realize I'm not as calm and relaxed as I'd like to be. While it's almost ambient, there's always the sense of meant structure (at least to me).

The other thing is that this piece recalibrates my ears. By the end of it, I feel my ears are hearing much more delicately than usual - that there's greater depth to the soft sounds than when the piece starts. It's as if my ears are relaxing along with my time sense.

Terry Jennings's 1960 piece for solo piano 'For Christine Jennings', played by John Tilbury. From the CD 'Lost Daylight', which features music for piano and electronics by Terry Jennings and John Cage.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shamanic American Music

Since I think that music can have beneficial effects, I also have to accept it can have negative ones, and that there are probably cases where whether the effect is positive or negative depends upon one's perspective.

It's also the case that music has had its shamanic uses down through the millennia, and my feeling is it probably depends on the shaman as to its effects.

This video popped up a few days ago, and to me, it's an obvious shamanic use of music. I'd known about this event, but had no idea Jean Luc Goddard had filmed it.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bernstein's Young People' Concerts

Terry Teachout's newest post talks about Leonard Bernstein's television shows back in the late 50's through the early 70's that were called "Young People's Concerts". I only saw a few of them, but had the LP of the one he did on the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which I listened to over and over. He went through the sketch books and found earlier versions of what we now hear, orchestrated them and had the orchestra play them, one after the other, and then the final version.

Ever after that, I heard classical music differently, having had a window into the creative process - and never forgot his saying that what Beethoven finally came up with sounds "inevitable", especially after you've heard the ways he tried of doing things that didn't sound "inevitable". In my own occasional compositions I still use that way of listening - does every measure sound as though it were the inevitable outcome of the previous measure.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Modern Architecture / Modern Music

I've been reading Witold Rybczynski's writing on architecture for well over 20 years. He's had a blog starting a while back, and this most recent post makes me realize part of my interest in what he has to say is that he thinks about architecture sort of like I think about music. Here's a big snip from this newest post:

The report is titled “Explanation of Drawings,” and a large part is devoted to a discussion of architectural style, specifically of Classical and Gothic. The authors argue for the latter (the firm more or less invented Collegiate Gothic), on the basis of cost, adaptability, scale, and appropriateness to an educational institution. They also point out the sentimental connection that exists between Gothic and institutions of higher learning, which evolved side by side in the Middle Ages. “If we ignore true sentiment in architecture we shall have little left,” they add. I realized when I read this that this is precisely what disturbs me about the current fashion in architectural design. Buildings have eliminated all sentiment. They may be ingenious and complex, but they are so in a way that is hermetic and self-contained. Instead of “looking like” buildings, that is, establishing a sentimental tie with the long arc of history, they merely look forward into an unknown future. Perhaps that’s why they remind me of giant appliances.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Eckhart Ensemble

H. H. the Dalai Lama

Some years back I attended a teaching given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and this photo was taken. Putting it here on the blog as backup to the hard copy.

Lama Tashi News

Back in November Lama Tashi was in Palermo, Sicily performing the music from Kundun with an orchestra. 

Here are some pics:

And here is a photo he gave me years ago from, I think, the premiere of the music in New York, with him standing next to Philip Glass:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Performance Diary

Courtesy of my cousin-in-law Eduardo who volunteers at the Art Center in Orange, here are some pics of our Christmas sing along yesterday.

Here's the whole group:

Here's our interpretive dancer taking a break:

Here are Stephen on cello and Crawford on Eb tuba:

Don on recorders:

Karla and Maryvonne, the international contingent:

Here, to the right of Maryvonne, are Judy, Joanna and Sydney:

Performance Diary

Courtesy of Jeff Poole at the Orange Review, here are some pics of the Rapidan Orchestra's performance at the Orange Presbyterian Church 11/20/15.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Performance Diary

Here's a snapshot from last Friday night's Art Center Gala. Some of us Kenwood Players did some Dixieland and big band tunes during the silent auction.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Audio Note

Here's a post by Bob Shingleton on the value of the bass sound in the enjoyment of music, and I've added a comment on my experience.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A New Venture

This flyer is for the inaugural performances of a small community orchestra recently formed here in Orange, Madison, and Greene counties (though which the Rapidan river runs) to give locals a chance to play and perform pieces from the standard repertoire for their friends and neighbors. 

For me this is a twofer. I'm getting to play this kind of music on horn for the first time in my life and find it exhilarating. And as a music therapist, bringing this music to small community venues so as to make it accessible to people who may never have experienced it live is a great opportunity. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Little Dixieland Jazz

Last night I got to sit in with some fine players doing some Dixieland over in Charlottesville. A member of the audience took this video and posted it to FaceBook. The tune is called "Fidgety Feet".

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ingolf Wunder

This past Sunday afternoon I had the great good fortune to hear Ingolf Wunder perform over at Montpelier. The concert was arranged by Chopin in Barboursville.

Here is the program:

   Sonata in B-flat Major - KV 333

   Nocturne Op. 55/2
   Nocturne Op. 9/3
   Ballade No. 1
   Nocturne Op. 62/1
   Allegro de concert Op. 46


It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of listening to music I've ever had. Mr. Wunder has the uncanny ability of bringing music to life in such a way that at every moment you feel the totality of the piece, while at the same time each detail is lovingly created. 

Over and over I had the sense he was feeling every note of the music within himself. Not once did I have the sensation, that I often get from classical musicians, that he was just getting through some notes played a thousand times to get to the bits he liked. Every note and every phrase was played in such a way as to convey to the audience his deep sense of what the music expresses.

It was a gestalt experience, and pulling out details does something of a disservice, but I have to mention his astonishing dynamic palette. He used everything from ppp to fff and all manner of shades between them. Most amazing to me was how his crescendi and decrescendi sometimes seemed to go on for measures at a time to wonderful effect. 

Another part of how his playing brings such life to music is his always letting the music breathe, so even when fast it never once sounded rushed. 

Listening to music rarely brings me to tears, but at this performance it happened several times. It was always during the gorgeous pianissimos with the amazingly subtle dynamic shifts followed by just the slightest of breaths. The palpable tenderness catalyzed emotional releases that were analogous to a skilled masseur finding and working on knots of muscle tension and the release feeling so good tears come.

Really good music making is magic, as it casts a spell and takes you for a while to a different plane. After each piece there was a bit of silence as the audience needed to come out of the reveries induced by the music before being able to applaud.  

Thanks to the Chopin in Barbourville group, Montpelier, and especially Ingolf Wunder for this transcendent experience.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Eckhart Ensemble 2015

The Eckhart Ensemble returned to Orange this year and gave a wonderful performance, as they did last year. Many thanks to the Orange Music Society for making this gift to the community. Here is the capsule review I put on their Facebook page the morning after:

The concert in Orange tonight was splendid - there were all the technical things you could hope for - intonation, phrasing, dynamics, ensemble unity - but it's the enthusiasm and love of music making coming through at every moment that make this group really special. And the Italian Renaissance music bowled over both experienced listeners and people previously unfamiliar with it. Bravo!

Nicolas Duchamp on flute, the guest soloist, was terrific. In particular, I've never heard such strength of tone in the low and mid register. Everyone else was excellent as well, but I want to mention Fred Dole on bass. He was also a standout last year. His sound fills the room and gives a solid foundation to the music I can feel as well as hear.

Someone else to mention, who wasn't with them last year, is Giustino Riccio the percussionist for the Renaissance tunes. Besides wearing a feathered cap straight from a Renaissance painting, his percussion on various instruments was superb. I've never seen one performer watch other performers with such intensity so as to better support them with his playing.

With all the hubbub about the death of classical music and what can be done to get audiences more interested, these people have some answers:

1) Except for the cellos and harpsichordist - they all stood while playing and moved with their music making. As regular readers of the blog know, I think l lot of the power of music is that it is, in part, physical gesture made audible. Seeing players moving their entire body while making music emphasizes that aspect - and I think it helps communicate more of the music to the audience than sitting and moving as little as possible, giving the impression of robots.

2) They dressed individually and comfortably, which besides letting them look like people instead of penguins, gave a hint of the personalities behind the instruments, giving more context to the music making.

3) They were obviously having fun! As I've said about my group, when you're having fun making music, that transmits to the audience as well as the music. There's something contagious about people having fun that adds a whole dimension to music making.

3) They're mostly (from my perspective, anyway) young people and have the enthusiasm of the young and that also comes through in the music.

4) The programming of the Renaissance tunes was a master stroke. The immediacy of the music spoke both to experienced and novice listeners of classical music. One of the most experienced listeners was visibly swept away by "Belicha". And a family member I'd encouraged to go, who is not a regular listener to classical music, was one of the initiators of the standing ovation.

5) One minor point that may be more important than it seems at first - lots of alto range instruments in the Renaissance music - English horns (including a trio of them at one point!), violas and alto flute. I have a number of friends, all women as it happens, that simply do not like high treble sounds. My guess is that these same tunes played up a fifth or an octave would not have been as appealing to a number of folks.

To close, a phrase from perhaps the most experienced listener of classical music at the concert:

They played with heart from the heart.

ADDED LATER: After writing this post have thought of at least a dozen things I didn't mention. I could have gone around the entire group of players and talked about instances of their great individual and ensemble music making - every single one of them. 

And to amend my comment on some people not liking high treble sounds. During one of the Renaissance dances there was a piccolo duet. I've never heard one piccolo played so well in tune, much less two together. It was an astonishing moment. If all treble sounds were played that well, I don't think they'd be so associated with shrillness. Anecdotal proof of that being one of the people I know to dislike high treble sounds later commented on how amazing that duet was.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Performance Diary

Yesterday the Art Center in Orange had an open house and I did some Christmas music from 10:00 a.m. until noon. In this photo a couple of friends are singing along. 

Since it was just me without any other instruments, was able to use the old nylon acoustic guitar and go back and forth between fingerpicking and strumming with my thumb instead of a flat pick to get a nice warm sound.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Full Brain Workout

This TED talk gets at something that's seemed implicit in a lot of the new brain studies, which is that making music involves more areas of the brain simultaneously than any other human activity. Towards the end of the talk there's mention that there's been some research into this question, and so far, music making does seem to be the winner when it comes to a full brain workout.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Performance Diary

Here we are Saturday a week ago playing the Gordonsville Street Festival. We've done this event for a number of years now. It's put on by all volunteers to support the volunteer fire department of the town. I always feel we're giving a tip of the hat to Benjamin Franklin by helping continue an institution he thought up.

One of the most fun things about this event is the number of small children who come by and are absolutely fascinated by seeing real musicians playing real instruments. The look of wonder in their faces is terrific.

Over the years I've used this event to test out various ways of doing sound reinforcement. This year we had the best sound ever due to some new equipment and better ideas on how to use it.

The new equipment is the Mackie mixer on the little table in front of me - and the Rockit speakers just barely in the frame on the far right. The mixer has plenty of inputs with phantom power for condenser microphones which I use for the tuba, clarinet, my vocals and Dick's announcements between songs and his vocals. For my banjo, which has a very directional sound, there's a small dynamic mic on my music stand right at banjo height.

This mixer has onboard compression and reverb for each channel - and just a touch of compression really helps the clarinet and vocals by making the softs louder and the louds softer. And a touch of reverb on everything makes for a warmer sound outdoors.

The real difference, though, was the speakers. They're meant for mastering audio in studios, not for outdoor work, but I was careful with them and their sound makes it very much worth it. Compared to the Peavey keyboard speakers I've used in the past, their sound is much warmer and more full. The visual analogy would be going to a much higher resolution computer screen and seeing so much more detail while it's even easier on the eye. 

I had the speakers on a little cart, angled so that they worked half as monitors for the players  and half as sound reinforcement for the audience. When I wanted to have them be a bit more monitors for us, all I had to do was change the angle by moving the cart a little bit.

One of the speakers is a subwoofer and it really helped the tuba have a fuller sound down in the low range.

Overall, there's lots of room for improvement in doing the audio, but this setup gets us well into the ballpark of good sound.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Music You Like

One of my longterm feelings about the nature of music therapy is that whatever music works for an individual is what's "best" for that individual. I cringe whenever someone flatly states one kind of music, or a particular performer, or a particular song, is better than another. 

This article supports that idea:

. . . When we hear our favorite music, our thoughts tend to shift inward, activating the default mode network (DMN) a network of brain regions that's active when a person is awake but at rest. . . .

. . . .In an experiment they likened to “real-world music listening,” the researchers scanned the brains of 21 volunteers listening to three pieces of music: one from a preferred genre, one from a disliked genre and their favorite song. By peeling back the brain patterns affected by rhythm and lyrics, the researchers discovered that the DMN was activated when the volunteers listened to their preferred tunes -- and disengaged while listening to music from a disliked genre. Favorite music ranged from classical to country, with lyrics and without . . .

 . . .“These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem,” the authors write. . . 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the ear of the listener.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Performance Diary

Yesterday afternoon some of us played at the 12th annual Hospice of the Rapidan's Butterfly Celebration at the Prince Michel vineyard over in Madison County. We've been providing music for this event for something like eight or nine years and it's always special. There are children's activities, a quilt raffle and a social time leading up to a program with a speaker talking about losing a loved one and what that means for those living with the loss. People have made donations for the names of those who have passed on to be read aloud, and then butterflies are released.

Because of the threat of rain, everything but the butterfly release itself was held indoors, and then the butterfly release was outside, and minutes later the rain started.

Since just about everyone at this event has recently lost a loved one or is a hospice volunteer, it's a very special audience. In the lead up to the program itself, we played some of the Dixieland we can do without the trombone and tenor sax, along with some big band tunes. During the program itself we played "Over the Rainbow" just before the reading of the names, and then I fingerpicked guitar during the reading of the names and then the butterflies were released.

It could have been my imagination, but with the opening bars of "Over the Rainbow" I felt an outpouring of emotion in the room from the crowd. Afterwards we had a number of people come up, some with tears in their eyes, to tell us how much the music meant. For the music therapist in me, this event is a wonderful blend of performance and therapy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Performance Diary

Back on Saturday morning 5/17 we played for a fundraiser put on by Doris W in the parking lot of the local nursing home. I've been doing this event for years, originally just by myself, and in the past few years some of the Kenwood Players have been joining me. That's Dick and Maggie on trumpet and clarinet. Crawford is the tuba player with his instrument at rest so he can smile for the camera, with Bill next to him taking up the slack on the bass line. 

The fellow in the background with the children's train shows up at most community events to give the kids a ride and they love it. One of the tunes we played was "Take The A Train". 

One thing to notice is how bundled up everyone but me is. After a long cold winter we've had a chilly spring and it was just in the upper 40's. My hands and fingers didn't go numb, but fretting even easy chords took a little extra mental effort. I've also decided to go with just banjo a lot of the time, as the guitar is just one more thing to lug around, and the banjo has a more focussed sound that projects better. What that meant was playing some familiar songs in unfamiliar (without the capo) keys.
In this shot above you can see Judy playing the drums. You can also make out my current sound system which gives enough support to be helpful, without overkill - or heavier stuff to lug around. My sense in that 20 feet away from us you'd be hearing half what we're doing ourselves and half the reinforced sound.

The tubas have one large condenser mic between and above them. Maggie has a small condenser on her stand for the clarinet. I have a small condenser on my stand for vocals, and a small dynamic mic at banjo hight, because the banjo is very directional and without amplification to spread the sound around, people I'm not facing will say they can't hear it.

The little mixer on the folding table is a Mackie that has four inputs for condenser mics. For amps I'm using one large and one small Peavy keyboard amp - sort of a woofer and a tweeter. We need at least one large amp for the tubas, but just one seems enough. The smaller one is to point is a slightly different direction to fill out the sound of the clarinet, vocals, and banjo.

Thanks to Jeff Poole of the Orange County Review for these great shots.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lois Svard

Back last August, Kyle Gann alerted his readers to a new blog by a friend of his, Lois Svard, which she calls the musician's brain. I've been an avid reader and re-reader ever since and added it to my "regular reads" over on the right.

What she's doing is reporting on all the new science that's coming out on music and the brain, based on a lot of background reading and study of the subject. My immediate reaction to the appearance of the blog was one of profound happiness in that it validated things I've been posting on here, which I think are going to transform what we think of music in general and of music therapy in particular. If you think of music as a technology of experience, Lois is laying out the nuts and bolts of how it works.

As I've been following the blog, I've come to appreciate just how much thought and preparation has gone into each post. Whereas my posts on these subjects are sort of like a magpie going out and finding shiny objects and bringing them here and saying, "Hey, look at this!!!", Lois, besides educating herself about the whole subject, has done a lot of thinking about what's going on with all this new research, how it all fits together, and what it means about making/performing music.

Just here lately I've come to think of her posts as similar to wonderfully realized performances of music (her background is as a concert pianist and teacher). Just as a musician works with a piece of music so that the music comes alive with both the composer's intention and her own personal conception of it, these posts very cogently lay out the science and what it means about music making.

So if you've come to my blog looking for info on the neuroscience of music - bookmark the musician's brain

Friday, May 23, 2014

Proprioception and Emotions

I've posted on proprioception in the sense of one's awareness of the physical aspects of music making. There can also be an emotional component, as sometimes the physical gesture used to create the sound can mimic a gesture that can communicate emotion non-musically, e.g. caressing the piano keys to suggest a physical caress.

This article about Jesse Prinz says this about one of his books:

His 2004 book, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Oxford University Press), follows William James in arguing that emotions are perceptions of bodily responses to cues in our environment, which they follow rather than precede.

If this is to any degree part of what's going on (and I've never heard of this being something James talked about), it means that we are both sending and receiving emotional cues at the proprioceptive level, both consciously and non-consciously. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Time Keeping

In a post of Kyle Gann's, one of his regular commenters, a composer, says:

There is also the problem with timing. I once formed an ensemble with classical, jazz and rock musicians: the classical musicians were slightly behind the beat, the jazz musicians slightly ahead, and the rock musicians dead centre, almost like a computer sequencer. This is changing now, I did a session with classical string players a few years ago who were as dead on the beat as any rock player.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

First Impressions

In talking about the importance of tone, I often use the example of how a person's voice sounds will often determine how engaged you will be in listening to them. This story out of NPR validates that.

. . . In less than a second, the time it takes to say "hello," we make a snap judgment about someone's personality, says Jody Kreiman, a UCLA researcher who studies how we perceive voice. On hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. Such rapid appraisals, she says, have a long evolutionary history. It's a brain process found in all mammals.

"Things that are important for behavior and for survival tend to happen pretty fast," Kreiman says. "You don't have a huge amount of time. It has to be a simple system of communication." . . . 

This one detail of the study, the rising or falling of pitch at the end of a sentence, overlaps music:

What makes females sound more trustworthy is whether their voices rise or fall at the end of the word, says McAleer. "Probably the trustworthy female, when she drops her voice at the end, is showing a degree of certainty and so can be trusted."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Performance Diary

Here are some photos taken by cousin-in-law Ed of the performances in Gordonsville talked about in this previous post. This first one was taken when I was introducing the brass players and their instruments. That's Dick on the trumpet. Pete behind the lectern with his flugelhorn, Gabby with her euphonium next to the organ, Crawford and Bill with their E flat tubas.
Here is Ben Armistead, the choir director of Christ Episcopal, who was both the host and the conductor. He did a wonderful job of welcoming the audience, saying a little about each piece we played and answering questions. In this photo he's leading the audience in the singing of a hymn - but for most of the time he stood in front of us, and once Dick set the tempo and started us off, Ben then conducted so that Tom on the organ and the brass players could hang together on the turnarounds and fermatas. 

Here's a good shot of Tom May at the pipe organ.

Bill on E flat tuba.

Dick on trumpet and Crawford on E  flat tuba.

Gabby on euphonium.

Here'a shot of me down on Main Street right before the Chamber Group got started.

Here's the Chamber Group. That's Hayley on flute, Kelly on recorders. Kelly's mom Judy on percussion, Kelly's daughter Sydney on percussion, Dr. Andy on cello and Maggie on clarinet. Our main audience is just off to the right, out of the photo, at one of the stops on the walking tour. Being in this spot kept us in the comfortable shade.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Performance Diary

This past Saturday saw the "soft launch" of two groups I'm hoping to establish. The occasion  was a walking tour of Gordonsville put on by the Dolley Madison Garden Club.

From 11:00 a.m. until noon the "Kenwood Players Brass Choir" played with Tom May on the pipe organ in Christ Episcopal Church. We had a trumpet, a flugelhorn, a French horn, a euphonium and two E flat tubas. We did a number of hymns, usually with the trumpet on soprano, flugelhorn on alto, horn and euphonium on tenor and tubas on the bass the first time through. Then second time through the trumpet went up to a descant, the flugelhorn went to soprano and the horn to alto. Third time through was organ only, then fourth time was brass and organ together again. On tunes without a descant, the second time the flugelhorn and the tubas together played the melody with the organ as accompaniment. 

The one long piece we did was the R. V. Williams setting of "Old One Hundreth" he did for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth back in the fifties. There are brass flourishes at the beginning, then a number of variations on the tune, a trumpet descant, then ending with more brass flourishes.

We'd been expecting people to come and go throughout the performance, but in the event a number of people came early for good seats and stayed the entire time, with a few people coming and going in the back of the church. We were very well received, with strong applause after each tune - and Ben Armistead, the choir director, who announced each tune, led the singing if people wanted to join in, and many did.

I find the sound of brass and pipe organ to be viscerally moving, and a lot of the audience seemed have that experience. A number of people in the front pews had expressions of reverie on their faces the entire time. I think part of that comes from the fact that hearing a live brass ensemble is a fairly rare event, especially out here in this rural area. 

My favorite comment came from a lady that came up afterwards with an expression of fatigued wonderment, who said she'd been ill with bad allergies all week and unable to even speak, but that she was able to sing with the brass and organ. Another comment that gets across the feeling was the trumpet player saying that with all that sound and support he felt his range and endurance was expanded for the duration of the performance.

I've put together brass groups before, but this instrumentation gave by far the best results and I hope to keep the group going, with secular as well as church performances. 

Then from 2:00 until 4:00 what I'm calling the "Kenwood Players Chamber Group" played on Main Street, which had been closed to traffic. For the Handel Water Music/Music for the Royal Fireworks we were recorder (soprano/sopranino), flute, alto flute, clarinet, cello, and percussion. For the pop and movie tunes from the 60's I switched from alto flute to guitar or banjo.

This group also went over very well. What most pleased me was seeing people being drawn in to the Handel. I'm convinced that music is very infectious and appealing - but that most people aren't at all familiar with it, or live chamber music of any sort. With the banjo/guitar music we had people dancing. 

I'm hoping to keep this group going as well, and maybe add a second clarinet. The limiting factor is that our cello is Dr. Andy, who has to come down from Harpers Ferry to play with us, which pretty much means weekends only.

I have the hope that when people are exposed to live music like this, that's not normally heard around here, they'll like it and want more of it. Maybe the novelty of loud DJ music will wane and people will enjoy returning to live music in more of the classical/acoustic tradition.

UPDATE - for photos and a little more info, go here.

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.