Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cold Time

The Dixie group is playing tomorrow evening as part of the Music on Main Street in Orange, and we rehearsed this afternoon. I'm getting over this nasty viral cold that's been going around, and while playing this afternoon I flashed on another reason having a cold might help one's playing. 

Earlier I mentioned it might make one more physically sensitive and less likely to over-think. Another part of it is my time sense is subtly altered. We played things with faster tempi, but I felt I had all the time in world to vary banjo strums, both to make some more arpeggio like and to make more subtle syncopations.

I have the feeling if I could cultivate this expanded sense of time, my playing would be remarkably better. It may just be that feeling so miserable, I'm not as hyper about being "right" in my playing.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Guitar Action Trick

My black Alvarez guitar, which was my work guitar in San Antonio, had been in its case for over ten years until I got it out recently. When I restrung it, the A string buzzed a little bit on the first fret, but no others. I've always avoided sanding down frets, because there's no going back. So what I did was snip a short section of the unwound end of the A string and put it in the groove in the nut, under the A string, raising it just enough that it doesn't buzz on the first fret anymore. If there's a difference in the sound, I can't hear it.


The precipitating factor for the recent posts on music as massage was the presence of a harp at the Christmas concert of the community band and choir. Ms. Maestro is Anne Michaud, an accomplished harpist who also played with the Pittsburgh Symphony. She was the accompaniment for one of the choral numbers, and I got to sit directly behind her on the next tier up, with my music stand sitting down on her tier, so I couldn't have really been any closer.

As she played, I both heard the sound and felt the vibrations in my torso. I can't remember a more pleasing musical sensation.

Another thing that struck me was that Ms. Michaud has the compact build and physical manner of a gymnast. She brings a lot of physical energy to bear on the instrument, and has great enthusiasm in doing so. One of the ideas informing the learning materials is that music is, a least in part, simply physical gesture made audible. Ms. Michaud playing the harp wonderfully demonstrates the interplay of physical gesture and musical forms.

Flute, Alto Flute & Horn

To give the Friday group more treble voices, I started playing the (soprano) flute, which I had never really worked with before, other than as a solo instrument to take a break from piano back in conservatory days. I've had real trouble with intonation halfway up the second octave and on up. Running through things with Andy on cello fooled me into thinking I was OK, but I now realize he must have been compensating for my sharpness high up.

So I got out the alto flute, which I played for a number of years, and discovered there were intonation problems there as well. I adjusted the cork in the head joint on both and that helped a lot. But the real culprit has been the horn. With both flutes and the horn, moving the lower jaw has a lot to do with playing in tune. The problem is that the jaw movements needed for each instrument on each note are different, sometimes subtly and sometimes more obviously. 

Once all that became apparent, things have improved. Playing multiple instruments is a real joy, because each has it's very own way of making music. But there's a price to pay if you don't completely "change channels" when going from one to the other.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Close Up Music

The more I think about the response the Kenwood Players got at the Gordon House, the more I think it has to do with the audience being so physically close to the instruments. If you click on "medicine" in the tag index, there are a couple of posts linking to news stories from Britain talking about how people in hospital who hear live music regularly leave the hospital sooner and require fewer meds than those who don't have the music.

Part of the effect probably has to do with the performer being able to tweak the music to suit the individual patient, increasing the connection between player and listener. After the Gordon House session, my intuition suggests hearing live music up close also exposes you to deeper and more subtle timbres than you'd get sitting out in a concert hall. So on a physical level it's sort of like a massage. And on an feeling/emotional level, that increased connection between player and listener is probably an intensifier of the experience.

We're set to do some hymns over at Oak Chapel 1/4/09, and I'll try to pay attention to this. The problem is that leading sing alongs, I've got everything memorized and can focus on the clients. Playing the alto flute with the players requires full concentration on the music and the music making, so it's harder to observe the response.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I've never been a big fan of modulations. Rather than seeming to grow from the music itself, they more often feel like cheap tricks by the composer to maintain the listener's attention. This is especially true (to my ear) of the repertoire for concert band. I'd rather the music stay in the same key and use rhythmic and melodic variation, along with same key harmonic variation. I usually like music to create and nurture a mood, or an alpha wave type trance, and modulation tends to alter the mood.

Working with the trumpet on the Christmas carols made me aware of a good reason for modulation. The trumpet has a very limited useable range, restricting the available keys for various tunes, depending on where the notes fall on the scale. If you were to arrange a piece for various instruments, when you come to a trumpet solo you might want to modulate to a key suitable for that melody in that key.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Kenwood Players I

On Friday we had the inaugural performance of the Kenwood Players over at the Gordon House, an assisted living facility. Bill and Crawford on Eb tubas, Maggie and Dick on clarinet and trumpet, Steve on trombone, and me alternating horn and flute. We played Christmas carols in four voice arrangements based on the old Episcopal Hymnal.

The room was small and there were, at most, twenty residents in the audience. One of the things I kept noticing was how the audience seemed deeply affected by the music. It was nothing like leading a sing along, and, of course, Christmas music is especially appealing. But I was reminded of the studies that live music benefits health. With all the timbres we created in that small room, so close to the audience, you could make a case it was as much subtle body work as it was music.

I hadn't worked with a population like that for years, and never with such a fine group of musicians helping me. It made me realize how I've always presented music therapy performances differently than straight up musical performances. I naturally did as much as I could to break down the barrier between performers and audience, and at the end of the session, a nice little social mingle naturally bubbled up.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dream Trio

Flute, alto flute and 'cello make a wonderful trio. Some years back I covered the alto flute while Susan and Andy played wonderfully on flute and 'cello. Susan moved away, so we no longer get together, so it's only in retrospect I realize just what a great match-up we had going. 

Working with the band instruments has meant learning that where instruments are in their ranges has a lot to do with how the mix comes out. The thing about the flute, alto flute and 'cello is that they each have at least a full two octave and a half range. More importantly, there's not the large variance in timbre and projection over the course of their ranges. That meant that as long as we listened to one another, a nice blend could be achieved. With the band instruments, some combinations of instruments and voices just don't work.

Cold Sensitivity

Back in conservatory I was a piano major and Mr. Henry Black was my teacher. One day, and one day only(!), he marveled at my playing, asking all kinds of questions, trying to find out why my playing was so much better than usual. I had a very bad cold.

Yesterday doing body work, while having a cold, I had the same sort of feeling of greater sensitivity. It may be that having a cold affects the brain's processing of things. Playing an instrument and doing body work are sort of similar activities, and the cold may attenuate the "thinking" component of the thinking, feeling, intuiting, sensing Jungian mix. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trombone in D minor

The Dixieland group I play in will be doing two sets in the Baptist church for the Music on Main Street event New Year's Eve. They've been letting me do a sing along version of Just A Closer Walk With Thee and now we're going to try to add a sing along version of Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho. The very simple arrangement I worked up just gives the melodic and harmonic outlines as a basis for improvisation, and is based on the version I did for the Ten Traditional Songs section of the music learning materials. 

In the learning materials Joshua is in C minor, but for this I brought it up a step to D minor because it suits my voice better, and I lead the singing without a microphone. Steve, who plays professional level trombone in the group, mentioned that the melody "lays" well on the trombone in that key, just as it does in the other D minor number we sometimes do, The St. James Infirmary. I took him to mean that D minor is, in general, a good key for the trombone.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mind Practice

This post over on Horn Notes quotes from a book called The Mind Gym by Gary Mack. It ties in neatly with some of the things Daniel Levitin covers in his first book, This Is Your Brain On Music.
One interesting study involved college basketball players. For three months, one group shot free throws for one hour each day. Another group spent an hour each day thinking about shooting free throws. The third group shot baskets thirty minutes a day and spent thirty minutes visualizing the ball going through the hoop from the foul line. Which group, at the end of the study, do you think improved its free-throw shooting the most? The third group did. The imagery had as much impact on accuracy as shooting baskets.
Blogger and horn teacher Ericson follows this by talking about visualizing the situation of the performance as well as how to play the music. 

Whenever I perform I want to be there way ahead of time to get used to the space, hoping to minimize any surprises during the performance. Differing acoustics call for differing approaches to performing the music.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Andy came down yesterday and we ran through the Sampler Suite with flute on the top voice and cello on the bottom voice. Other combinations may work as well, but I don't think any are going to be better. Made me realize some combinations of instruments can use the Suite as is, but others will call for serious tweaking to get a good balance. It's also possible some combinations will need so much tweaking, using different music entirely might be an easier answer.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


When the Friday group started, we were an Eb tuba, baritone, trombone and horn, sort of a low brass consort. Then we added trumpet, clarinet and flute, making us a broken consort in Renaissance terms, and the Renaissance consort has been the closest thing to a model of what the Friday group might be. Adding the treble voices changed things as well.

With the first group, achieving a good blend was fairly easy. The one issue that cropped up most was the melody voice not standing out enough from the harmony voices. With the broken consort things get much more complicated. Where each instrument is in its range, especially the trumpet, has a lot to do with its presence in the mix. The trumpet playing lower voices only works if it's playing in its lowest range. The flute playing a lower part in the bottom fifth of it's range won't be heard unless there's only the clarinet above.

Friday, December 5, 2008


In setting the stage for understanding how music works, the current draft of the learning materials uses the idea that there's a continuum from speech through music to dance. The Horndog Blogger mentioned immediately below has various quotes that show up on his posts. The one that's currently on the compression post is:
"Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.
Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music."
-- Ezra Pound

Such a shame the man had to end up a fascist for Il Duce and then on to St. Elizabeth's. His early stuff has amazing flashes of insight.

Audio Compression

Here's a great little post over on Horndog Blog covering what's going on with compression, which is used so frequently in audio we hear these days. There's an embedded video with aural and visual examples. 

When Stewart Weaver did a demo mastering job on my "Slow Music" CD, he did the opposite of compression to the keyboard sound, making the softs softer and the louds louder. I knew he'd done something that really changed the sound of the CD for the better, but until he told me he'd used some decompression, or expansion, I couldn't tell how he'd done it. 

Muscle Memory

Synchronicity strikes. I've been formulating a post in my mind about muscle memory, the trigger being the repeated realization that sometimes I misfinger notes on the horn because somewhere in my body/mind I think I'm playing the flute. And on the flute, the non-sequential notes like Eb and F# are my most difficult after years of playing the piano where everything is simply one after the other on up or down the scale.

In the NYT today there's an obituary of a man at the center of a lot of memory research, and here's a snip:
Scientists saw that there were at least two systems in the brain for creating new memories. One, known as declarative memory, records names, faces and new experiences and stores them until they are consciously retrieved. This system depends on the function of medial temporal areas, particularly an organ called the hippocampus, now the object of intense study.

Another system, commonly known as motor learning, is subconscious and depends on other brain systems. This explains why people can jump on a bike after years away from one and take the thing for a ride, or why they can pick up a guitar that they have not played in years and still remember how to strum it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Standing Horn

Still practicing horn standing up and still sort of amazed at how much better I sound. For one thing, the intonation is much better, and I think it's because when sitting I have to remind myself to keep the jaw low and throat open, but when standing that's naturally the way things are. 

The other thing I keep noticing is that articulations are more "horn like". Over it's very long history, if you were sitting playing the horn, you were probably on a horse, otherwise you were standing. Somehow sitting in a chair cuts off the involvement of the lower half of your body when playing, and somehow that limits the physical expression you can bring to your instrument and the sound you're making.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Stand Up Practice

I'm working up some Christmas carols on the flute, and know from past experience that I simply play the flute better when standing up as opposed to sitting. Besides breathing better, there's something about standing that gets the whole body behind the sound and expression.

Last night I tried playing the horn standing up and was amazed how much better it sounded. Along with everything else, I had the feeling that my embouchure was forming better, creating a better and stronger tone. Quick short notes were particularly better as well. For the horn, though, the downside is that it's a much more cumbersome and heavier instrument to deal with standing up.