Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Little Dixieland Jazz

Posted by Tom Bibb on Saturday, March 28, 2015

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".

If the video doesn't play - try clicking the FaceBook "F" in the lower right corner.

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.

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.