Monday, December 28, 2009

Mirrored Feelings

Here's a quote from Roger Scruton's Understanding Music, which I found in this review of the book, which was linked by Arts and Letters Daily (a terrific website).

>>> Just as facial expressions do not communicate something that can be understood so much as enjoin us to imagine what it feels like when we ourselves make such an expression, so too, according to Scruton, does some elemental aspect of musical experience enjoin us to engage our imagining in similar fashion. In this way, and because the experience of music is not, at least not typically, heard as a single expression, the imagination is forced to grapple with the musical shapes and forms as they unfold over time, following its movement as it echoes in, or is anticipated by, the movements of our body and rational imagination. <<<

This seems a very good non-technical way of talking about mirror neurons and how they enable musical communication.

photo - animal tracks on the two feet of snow we had just over a week ago

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Notes on Caroling

* At Gordon House we started with me on guitar, then some four part carols with me on flute or horn, then finished with guitar, closing with a sing along. That set up a really nice pace to the performance. Rhythm guitar is really my strong suit, with years of experience engaging audiences with it, and it builds momentum and excitement. Then, once we have the audience with us we can count on their attention for the instrumental pieces. In the past at Gordon House I'd tried leaving the guitar until the end, but book-ending the performance with it worked much better.

* On the four part carols from the hymnal, starting with someone on all four voices on the first iteration, then a duet on the second, then all four on the third worked much better than starting with a duet. Starting an iteration with a solo and then other voices coming in on subsequent lines also works. Stringing two or three carols together in one simple arrangement would be a nice improvement as well. If they were in the same key you could just go right from one to the other, letting someone solo on the soprano line on the follow on tune(s) to set the new tempo and feel. If you just did two tunes in an ABA arrangement, there'd be no need for page turns if they were on facing pages.

* I get tired of the sound of my voice on the guitar numbers. It's fine for leading sing alongs and egging on instrumentalists without having to be amplified. The problem is that in working to project, nuance and sustain tend to get lost, and for whatever reason, I tend to slip into the country accent I grew up with around here. Five of the Players are in choirs and/or the community chorus. I've tried to get them to sing before and met with stiff resistance. Need to try to see if rather than singing solos, or duets with me, they can be cajoled into being a mini-chorus with me of six voices. Also need to see how it would work having someone play the lead line along with me when I sing, so I wouldn't have to fill up so much melodic space with my voice alone. I always sort of expect the help, but instrumentalists seem trained to never step on anyone else's solo.

* For the Art Center benefit, need to arrange the Players better for balance, and get the singers in closer. Would also be good to break the sing along up into two or three sessions rather than one long one. Could do one session with just guitar and the Players who can play by ear, which would allow for pitching the tunes especially for particular singers on any particular song. This year I sort of hid the recorder, which made for poor balance on the CD. I'd worried that seeing it might put some people off singing, but with the performing type folks that showed up for the event that wouldn't be a problem.

* The organization of the music books for the Players needs to be completely redone. This year it ended up being like layers in an archaeological dig with front, middle and back sections as I added new material without wanting to reprint things already done. All the versions of each carol need to be grouped together and clearly marked as four part and/or guitar version, and each of those should have the concert key clearly marked with an ossia staff showing the highest (and maybe lowest) note in the song in that particular key. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Visual Neglect

This BBC story talks about how someone who has "visual neglect" due to a stroke can have improved vision by simply listening to music they like.

>>> Neglect occurs when the right parietal lobe of the brain, which affects space and navigation, is affected. . .  those affected would behave as if the left side of sensory space were nonexistent.
In extreme cases, they might not eat the food on the left side of their plate, or if asked to draw a clock, their drawing might only show the numbers 12 and one to six, the other half being distorted or left blank. This changed when they listened to their favourite music.

"They became aware of things on their bad side that were often missed if they were not listening to it," he said.

"We also did some functional brain imaging - and what we showed was that activity, around where the stroke had been, increased." <<<


One of the reasons our performance at Gordon House was such a success had to do with familiarity in various manifestations.

* We've played there several times now, so I knew exactly what to take and how to set it up and arrange the players, the players knew how to get there and to come in the easiest way and the residents remembered us and had an idea of what to expect. There was none of the last minute adjusting and flurry of getting ready that can wear me out even before starting to play. 

* Having played in the room before, we were able to play well to its acoustics for the best blend of sounds at a volume level suited exactly to the environment. 

* All the studies showing how beneficial music is for the elderly and those with brain dysfunction talk about how familiar music can trigger all sorts of positive responses, and there's no music more familiar, and having more positive associations, than Christmas music.

* The current membership of the Kenwood Players has been in place since June, and we've met just about every Friday. The group has come together both socially and musically. We're used to playing with each other and have a good idea of what to expect and how to best contribute to the overall sound. The director of Gordon House is a church organist and choir director and he volunteered after we played that he was really impressed with the blend we achieved.

* By the time we'd rehearsed for the Art Center benefit, then did that, then rehearsed again after that, we were very familiar with the arrangements I'd done, so everybody had worked out little improvised riffs and accompanying patterns to all the tunes we did. There was a nice mix of the freshness of improvisation within the somewhat settled arrangements.

* For the final three numbers we did full sing along and I was able to slip into singing leader role, which is much more familiar to me than straight performing. People often mention how effective it is when I move around from person to person to encourage them to sing. If you're used to "performing", that can seem unusual, but for me it's straight performing that's more of a challenge, especially on flute and horn.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Gordon House

Yesterday the group played over at the Gordon House, a small assisted living facility just over in Gordonsville. All eight of us played for no more than two dozen residents in a room 40'x30' with a carpet. We used the same music books prepared for the Arts Center benefit and played for an hour. We started with Frosty, Rudolph and White Christmas with me on guitar and alternating vocals with instrumental solos, with others improvising harmonies and counter melodies. Then we did five carols from the hymn book arranged for instrumentals with me on flute for four and horn for one. Closed with some hymnal carols arranged for guitar like the first set and then Jingle Bells and We Wish You as a coda. Did a sing along version of Silent Night as encore.

It was our best performance to date. Very good intonation, great blend, wonderful freshness due to the improvised elements, and, most importantly, a terrific connection with the audience, whose median age was probably 80. They applauded enthusiastically after each number, and sang along amazingly well on Jingle Bells and Silent Night. 

The Gordon House performances are really a lab for me to test out how the materials work when performed with an audience I'm used to from private practice days in San Antonio. It's close, I can back up to the door of the room we use and off load stands and mats and instruments directly into the room, and the acoustics are good for recording.

Doing all the arrangements for horn, flute, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, alto sax and Eb tubas; getting my guitar skills and voice back to sing along level; and practicing the horn and flute - it's been a busy six weeks or so, but the Arts Center benefit and this event made it all worthwhile. I've learned a tremendous amount, and want to detail some of that in subsequent posts. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Keys for Singing

Leading a sing along with just guitar is relatively easy if you have a capo. As you get a feel for the range of the group you can adjust the key by simply using the capo on different frets. A G chord with the capo on the first fret is Ab, and is a Bb with the capo on the third fret. 

Adding in orchestral or band instruments complicates things because as a rule, most players can't transpose in their heads, and capos don't work on clarinets. So you have to print out the music ahead of time in whatever key you think will work. For the Christmas caroling I'd assumed that there would be mostly untrained voices, so took most songs down around a third, and used flat keys to make things easier for the Bb and Eb instruments.

Then a week before the event I found out a lot of choir and chorus members were being invited, so went back and put things in their standard keys, plus or minus a step or two to keep the key signatures in flats. (With very, very few exceptions, hymns and carols will be in the same key in every hymnal you find.) So for every carol we had a choice of at least two keys, and that worked out well as some folks were more comfortable with lower keys and others with higher ones.

The format for most of the arrangements was to have the melody line, the bass line and guitar chords. To play the guitar in Eb or F I usually used the key of D capoed on the 1st or 3rd fret. For Ab and Bb I used G capoed on the 1st or 3rd fret. The exceptions were when the ii, iii, and/or vi chords required too many bar chords, which I can play but would rather pay attention to leading the singing than complicated fretting.

One of the problems with sheet music is that if the key doesn't suit your vocal range you're out of luck. For my music materials to really be helpful I think all the songs should be presented in at least three or four keys using the melody/bass line/guitar chord format in smaller print for the extra versions. That would also be a spur to improvisation.

Caroling 2.0 - Overview

Last week the Kenwood Players performed as a benefit for the local art center. The venue was a large private home and the program included us playing instrumental Christmas music first, and then having the guests sing along with the Players. I've done caroling for years with just the guitar, but this was the first time trying to incorporate other instruments. 

Overall, it was a great success based on the responses of the guests, both that night and as I've met them around town since. There were lots of things I'd do differently profiting from this experience, but the enthusiasm of the guests having the opportunity to sing along with 2 Eb tubas, percussion, trombone, alto sax, clarinet, trumpet and guitar carried the day. 

One of my notions is that exposing folks to band and orchestral instruments in an informal setting like this is a positive experience. Before recorded music, gatherings like this were the norm for generations and generations. These days most people encounter such instruments only in formal concert situations, which is fine, but it's not the only way they can be utilized and enjoyed. A basic aim of the materials I'm working on is to facilitate evenings like this.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


As a conservatory student working for my RMT credential, my major was piano and my minor was voice. The single thing I most remember from the voice lessons is how wonderful an aid yawning can be to opening and relaxing the throat. The teacher would often bring me back to basics by having me yawn, and over the years helping others with their voice I've done the same. Just feeling how open and relaxed the throat can be is a terrific antidote to the extra tension we can bring to singing.

Turns out yawning is helpful in other ways as well. Here are two quotes:

>>> brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the areas of the brain that are directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy. One of those areas is the precuneus, a tiny structure hidden within the folds of the parietal lobe. According to researchers at the Institute of Neurology in London, the precuneus appears to play a central role in consciousness, self-reflection, and memory retrieval. The precuneus is also stimulated by yogic breathing, which helps explain why different forms of meditation contribute to an increased sense of self-awareness. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by age-related diseases and attention deficit problems, so it’s possible that deliberate yawning may actually strengthen this important part of the brain. . . .

. . .  the precuneus has recently been associated with the mirror-neuron system in the brain (which allows us to resonate to the feelings and behaviors of others), yawning may even help us to enhance social awareness, compassion, and effective communication with others. . . . 

Emotional Substrate

This brief article talking about the effect of music on emotions has a quote suggesting something I'd not seen before, that it seems part of what might be happening is that music has a physical effect that the body translates into an emotional effect.

>>> “Music induces a continuous, dynamic—and to some extent predictable—change in the cardiovascular system,” said Luciano Bernardi, M.D., lead researcher of the study and professor of Internal Medicine at Pavia University in Pavia, Italy. “It is not only the emotion that creates the cardiovascular changes, but this study suggests that also the opposite might be possible, that cardiovascular changes may be the substrate for emotions, likely in a bi-directional way.” <<<

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Feel Good Music

Cousin Steve just put this video up on Facebook. For now just wanting to save it. 

later - Now that I've watched this and some other of his videos, here are a few comments:

* Back in the 60's there was a vogue for flamenco guitar and I saw Carlos Montoya perform. This player reminded me of that because of the improvisatory nature of his playing, the incessant rhythm being the framework, and that trick of playing with only the fretting fingers.

* Never realized the balalaika had only three strings. This player is amazing, but having just the three strings facilitates his fluency. Chording is very easy and the length of the strums is very short.

* I can't help wondering if he's not some sort of savant. Would love to see a bit of video of him not playing.

* The facial mugging and playing to the audience puts me in mind of a court jester, and some of the melancholy between the fast bits makes me think of bits of Stravinky's Petrushka.

* I don't think I've ever seen a better blend of physical and musical gesture, each informing the other. With the miming he's setting the instrument up as his voice and that really adds to the performance. Hearing this without seeing it wouldn't have the same impact.

* He's creating a spell, especially with those rhythms, that he enters into and is there for the audience to join in as well. There are shots of a couple of men with their eyes closed, fully engaged in the music. They are sharing in the "flow" of the music making.

* I titled this post "feel good music" because that's really the main take away. I felt mentally fresher and my mood was lifted by listening to it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops, is now out and getting rave reviews. Here's a quote of Armstrong's cited in the NYT review I really like:

“When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me an image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no name you seen once in a place you don’t remember.” This belief in music as a deeply felt and personal expression is one reason Armstrong avoided using musical terminology when speaking about his work and it’s one reason he said that he disliked bop (like other cooler, more modern forms of jazz), complaining that it “doesn’t come from the heart,” that it’s “all just flash.”

Besides writing books, helping create operas, having a regular column or two and keeping up a terrific blog, TT has been good enough to respond to e-mails I've sent him over the years. I really like the way he writes, but am amazed by his productivity.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Group Music

Every so often Jeffrey Agrell writes a post that clearly states something in my mind that I've never so clearly verbalized myself, and he's done it again in this post. Following my "regular reads" has been one of the most fruitful exercises ever when it comes to trying to develop the learning materials.

In the post linked, Jeffrey makes the point that working with others can be much more beneficial than solitary practice. A basic premise of the materials I'm trying to create is that they enable players of various instruments and with different skill levels to work together. I'd much rather facilitate small ensembles working and learning together than giving lessons to individual players. Working in a group can vastly accelerate one's musical progress, and it can be a lot more fun than plugging away on your own. Being able to focus on just one element of the music rather than trying to do it all by yourself allows for a much more relaxed approach.

When I had my practice in San Antonio, one of the places I worked was in the closed classrooms for emotionally disturbed children in a public school district. Many of the students had very poor social skills. Working together mostly non-verbally playing music together was a great way for them to learn how to get along successfully with others, and over time the verbal social skills would usually follow.

In my current Friday group that performs as the Kenwood Players, one of the things I most enjoy is watching how working together musically is creating a wonderful social dynamic amongst the players.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Pliable has done another great post delving into the nature of music, in this case the art of listening to music. He's covering a lot of ground here, so it's one of those posts I'll be coming back to after trying to think through the issues he's raised. 

His mention of an anechoic chamber reminded me of going into one after hours in the psych building when I was in college. Very, very strange feeling and mostly unpleasant. It made me realize just how important sound is in our establishing our relationship to world.

Pliable says, "Music appreciation is all about retuning the human ear." I largely agree, but find myself wondering if there isn't a better word than "retuning". And while he doesn't say so, he seems to be implying a limitless degree to the readjustment of what we can accept as meaningful. While we can certainly expand our musical sensibilities over time, some of the brain's wiring appears to set a kind of limit.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Music Therapy in the WSJ

This article in the Wall Street Journal is the best summary of the current state of music therapy I can remember coming across. Here are a few quotes:

>>>   Dr. Tomaino says she frequently sees dementia patients make gains in cognitive function after music therapy. In one unpublished study she led a few years ago, with funding from the New York State Department of Health, 45 patients with mid- to late-stage dementia had one hour of personalized music therapy, three times a week, for 10 months, and improved their scores on a cognitive-function test by 50% on average. One patient in the study recognized his wife for the first time in months. . . 

. . . decades of studies have demonstrated that music can help premature infants gain weight, autistic children communicate, stroke patients regain speech and mobility, dental, surgical and orthopedic patients control chronic pain and psychiatric patients manage anxiety and depression . . .

. . . There's no single center for music in the mind—the brain appears to be wired throughout for music, since it engages a wide variety of functions, including listening, language and movement. But Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis's Center for Mind and Brain, recently located an area of the brain—the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead—that seems to serve as a hub for music, memory and emotions. . . . <<<

I am increasingly confident that in just a decade or two or three, music therapy will be much better understood, much more widely used, and simply accepted as a valued resource for healing the mind and body, and for helping people to stay healthy in the first place. The effects of music have been talked about since at least the time of Plato, but we've finally got the research tools to go beyond the intuitive and to have concrete data. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Horn Diary

Our community band concert was earlier this evening, and to my ear we've never played better. The intonation seemed good, the balance was great, and there was very good rhythmic cohesion. As mentioned in a previous post, our director has had us work on bits and sections in the lead up, and we didn't play through whole pieces much until the final rehearsal and tonight. And tonight to warm up we went through the transitions that were still troublesome. That approach paid off wonderfully. There were no spell breaking misplayings. 

The other thing that made the concert such a success was having the C'ville horn section, four wonderful players, sitting in for the concert. For me it was amazingly easier and way more fun having all that horn sound around me rather than being on my lonesome. Rather than trying to establish my pitch in the band sound as a whole, I felt as though I were merely filling obvious tonal slots. And being able to rest my lips for a beat or two whenever I wanted seemed positively decadent. 

But beyond making my life much easier, having that horn section gave real solidity to our sound as a band as a whole. It gave the trumpets something to blend into and took a little of the edge off of their sound and did that amazing thing the horn sound can do of filling out the woodwind sound. And detached notes in rhythmic patterns with five of us playing really complemented the percussion section.

This was Mr. Torian's last concert with us. He, very understandably, got tired of driving all the way down here for rehearsals and finding so many empty chairs. That probably means the horns won't be coming again either, as it was as a favor to him that they came. Which is a real drag because I'm now officially spoiled.

One other thing that he did which was tremendously helpful to me was having prepared a script for brief comments on the pieces as we played them. The info relayed was top notch and very interesting, but the nice break between the pieces gave me a chance to get the last one out of my mind and start mentally preparing for the next. I don't remember having that much time before in previous concerts, but I do remember sometimes still having the previous piece whirling in my head when starting the next.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

This morning the members of the community band that were able to do so assembled and played for the town's Veterans Day ceremony, held indoors at the American Legion Hall due to a steady rain. We played two marches, the Coast Guard's song Semper Paratus, and the National Anthem. School children sang, speeches were made, the colors presented and benedictions made.

Having grown up here, I knew a lot of the folks present, and some came up and thanked us for playing for them. You could sense that for these veterans and their families, the music meant a great deal. These Veterans Day performances and the ones for Memorial Day mean far more to me than the concerts we give. It's music therapy on the community level. The regular concerts are entertaining, but only that. At today's event there was a deeper transaction.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Horn Diary

Yesterday was the one and only rehearsal with the extra horns before the band concert this Saturday. Three very good players from the Charlottesville Municipal Band with many decades of experience between them were good enough to drive down and join us. It's the first time in the five years I've been in the band I've had the experience of being part of a horn section. It was amazing. 

For one thing, practically everything was easier. I knew right away if I was making the right note. Whenever I was the least tired I could drop out for a few notes, so finished up the evening with lip to spare. We had great volume without my having to work as hard as I usually do being the only horn. Because the horn parts were being so well played, the structure the arrangers are going for in the pieces as a whole became much more apparent and more easily achieved.

I'd seen on the horn blogs various mentions of horn players being good people, and this was borne out. All sorts of questions and arrangements were carried out pleasantly and efficiently. Plus, they were kind enough to not even mention my unorthodox playing position. 

They were befuddled, though, by my having restrung the trigger so that doing nothing means I'm on the Bb side. To me that's mere common sense, as it's the Bb side where you're most likely to have issues with muscle tension trying for those high notes, so having a completely relaxed thumb helps me. 

One player also noticed that my individual valve slides were not pulled out. I've gone back and forth on this, but now that my embouchure seems to be settling down, I think I should go back and try adjusting them again. This summer when I was working exclusively on the F horn I'd pushed them all back in and used the embouchure to fine tune pitches.

One of the players also mentioned in passing, as I have a Yamaha horn, that she's been told by a horn repair person that "Yamahas all play sharp". I'm still puzzling on that as it doesn't make any sense to me as yet.

The only downside to it all was my old nemesis of over-stimulation. When I first started playing in the band it was a huge challenge to not let everything else going on lessen my concentration on playing the horn. Last night I made several rhythm errors I'd never made before, probably because in my mind I was often going, "Wow! Shazam! What an amazing sound! etc." and lost track of the beat without realizing it.

One other thing to mention about the rehearsal is that our new conductor works "from the front" as Bruce Hembd explains it in this post. Though I think here that approach is being taken because our new director is an old hand and knows ahead of time where the problems are going to be and has pulled those out to work on in rehearsals. Last night was the first time we played all the way through some of the pieces and hearing them complete made them seem different.

Valerie Wells

Valerie Wells helps Jeff Smiley with the horn aspect of his Balanced Embouchure method. When I got in touch with him just a little less than a year ago, he gave me her contact info so I could buy his book from her and so that she would be there to answer questions about how BE works with the horn. 

Just like Jeff, she responds quickly to emails and is happy to answer questions. Periodically she has sent out group emails to the BE horn group with tips and updated exercises made appropriate for horn (Jeff plays trumpet).

Here in the past few weeks she's been getting a blog going as a way to stay in touch with BE horn players and to be a place where those interested in BE can get an idea of what it's about. She has a couple of good posts up now, one about her experience with BE and another about how it has helped others.

As I said in the post last week about Jeff's updated site, I find his approach to helping people learn music making to be very impressive. He understands we all come to music making with different bodies and minds, so there's information in the book covering a very wide range of issues. Very few folks are going to need every bit of the info, but whatever you do need for your particular situation is probably there.

A lot of music educators seem to operate on the principle that the student is an empty vessel needing only to be told the "correct" way of doing things. Jeff's approach begins with respect for the student as an individual, and an expectation that the student will be an active participant in figuring out what works best for him or her. 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Music and Learning

This article, summarizing research presented at a gathering of "acoustics experts", talks about how making music regularly as a child can improve elements of brain function.

>>  "Even a year or two of music training leads to enhanced levels of memory and attention when measured by the same type of tests that monitor electrical and magnetic impulses in the brain. . .

. . .“We therefore hypothesize that musical training (but not necessarily passive listening to music) affects attention and memory, which provides a mechanism whereby musical training might lead to better learning across a number of domains," . . .

. . . found a correlation between early-childhood training in music and enhanced motor and auditory skills as well as improvements in verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. . .

. . . Shahin's main findings are that the changes triggered by listening to musical sound increases with age and the greatest increase occur between age 10 and 13. This most likely indicates this as being a sensitive period for music and speech acquisition.  <<

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tibetan Music

Here's a blog that covers efforts being made to document music of the Tibetan people before the Chinese Communists obliterate the culture with torture and execution. The people going out into the field and doing this are courageous, which is more than you can say for our political class when it comes to this issue. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jeff Smiley

Jeff Smiley is the man who came up with the "Balanced Embouchure" approach I've mentioned various times in posts with the "BE" label. Basically I was ready to give up the horn about a year ago due to a recurrent lip callus. I came across his website, ordered the book, and with the info in that book, turned around my horn playing, got rid of the callus, have extended my range and endurance a bit, and feel much more confident about my playing.

I find his approach a wonderful model for presenting information on how to go about learning music and hope to emulate it as much as possible in my own materials. Learning music is a complicated endeavor calling for attention to a wide range of issues and Jeff does a great job of getting you to think them through and to figure out what works best for you as an individual.

He has revamped his web site, especially the section for horn players. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Music and the Brain

Here's a brief story on Swiss research into music making being beneficial for the brain. Here are a two snips:

>>  there is growing evidence that musicians' brains look and work differently from those of others. The parts of the brain that control motor skills, hearing and memory become larger and more active when a person learns how to play an instrument. Alertness, planning and the ability to read emotions also improve. . . 

. . . Lutz Jancke, of the University of Zurich, said: "We found that even in people over the age of 65, after four or five months of playing for an hour a week, there were strong changes in the brain. The parts of the brain that control hearing, memory and the part that controls the hands, among others, all become more active. . . <<

Mirror Neurons

Recently when talking about things I'd been blogging about with a friend who is very knowledgeable about current brain research, she told me about mirror neurons, which set off a cascade of things falling into place for me. Here are some snips from Wikipedia on the subject:

>>  mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. . .

A large number of experiments . . .  have shown that certain brain regions . . .  are active when a person experiences an emotion (disgust, happiness, pain, etc.) and when he or she sees another person experiencing an emotion. . . 

More recently, Christian Keysers at the Social Brain Lab and colleagues have shown that people that are more empathic according to self-report questionnaires have stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and the mirror system for emotions, providing more direct support to the idea that the mirror system is linked to empathy. . . 

This has led to suggestions that human language evolved from a gesture performance/understanding system implemented in mirror neurons. Mirror neurons have been said to have the potential to provide a mechanism for action understanding, imitation learning, and the simulation of other people's behaviour. . . 

In Philosophy of mind, mirror neurons have become the primary rallying call of simulation theorists concerning our 'theory of mind.' 'Theory of mind' refers to our ability to infer another person's mental state (i.e., beliefs and desires) from their experiences or their behavior. . . <<

Research on all of this is in the earliest of stages, so it may not pan out, but if it does, here are some of the things it would illuminate.

* My notion of getting "traction" with a client or audience.

* Jonathan West's point about mimicry being so important to musicality

* My long held intuition that gesture is a substrate of music making.

* How "flow" can be shared by music makers and their audience.

* Why simply demonstrating a point about music making can be so effective.

* A John Ericson post months ago about how imagining shooting free throws was as helpful as actually doing so.

* How music can communicate emotions.

Monday, October 26, 2009

John Williams - Jungian?

In today's post, Bruce Hembd has a quote from John Williams and a link to the article it's taken from:

>>  “When I’ve tried to analyze my lifelong love of the French horn, I’ve had to conclude that it’s mainly because of the horn’s capacity to stir memories of antiquity,” writes Williams, who has now composed several concertos, including for violin, cello, clarinet, flute, bassoon and tuba. “The very sound of the French horn conjures images stored in the collective psyche. It’s an instrument that invites us to ‘dream backward to the ancient time.’ “ <<

That sounds a lot like archetypes in the collective unconscious. 

Friday, October 23, 2009

An Ontological Point

Over on Dial M Phil Ford has another post in the series I've been following. Here's most of a comment he made down below the post, responding to someone suggesting material he might find interesting:

>>   The thing that I find really interesting is how short a trip it is from the avant-garde artworld to the self-help section of the bookstore. As you note, Maue's book is an amalgam of both tendencies. Text scores seem to mark the ground where composition, musical performance, poems, rituals, theatrical Happenings, visual art, games, therapeutic exercises, spiritual exercises (etc.) all meet. It seems impossible to say exactly what kind of phenomenon we're talking about; it seems to lie at an ontological point prior to specialization. <<

If nothing else, that insight explains how I can be such an avid follower of all my regular reads listed over on the right, none of which are concerned with music therapy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Harmony and the Brain

Here's a story on a new study on music and the brain.

>>  In a study on monkeys, she and her team identified a group of neurons that fire in response to harmony. . . The finding might also explain why perfectly blended harmonies can stir up deep feelings of melancholy or joy. The neurons are located in a region of the auditory cortex that is directly linked up with areas of the brain believed to be responsible for generating emotions.

. . . The latest study reveals that certain neurons also respond to notes that harmonise with their tuned frequency. These neurons fired when notes an octave, a fifth and a third higher than the ideal frequency were played, corresponding to the combination of notes in the most basic chord. 

. . . the evolutionary basis for the neurons may lie in animal communication calls, which often contain components of a fundamental frequency and higher harmonics. <<

This pretty much confirms my long held belief that 12 tone stuff is just for a very small demographic of highly trained "theory mind" types and that trying to get the public at large to go for it just wasn't going to work.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Horn Endurance

Jonathan West has in this post nicely summed up, amplified and put into larger context the extremely helpful and on point advice on horn endurance he's been giving me in the comments here. He's obviously spent a lot of time thoughtfully considering a wide range of issues relating to music making, especially in ensembles large and small.

More importantly, he's able to write clearly and concisely. My situation is somewhat unusual, and like they say, your mileage may vary, but I find his writing on music making some of the best I've come across, and a model for what I hope to do in my materials.

When I started blogging a year ago this month, I never guessed one of the benefits would be to get such wonderful help on learning the horn. Thanks, Jonathan!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Judy Collins / Amazing Grace

Here's that 1970 Judy Collins version of Amazing Grace mentioned in the previous post. Everyone's wired differently through nature and nurture and the paths they follow, and I know there are folks who don't like her voice. Works for me, though. Plus, hearing it triggers wonderful memories of the last millennium. 

added note - According to the end of the video, the choir is far from a "folk" one, and it does sound as if recorded in a cathedral. Somewhere back at the time I remember seeing a photo of her singing it with a large group of regular people in a church, and had assumed that was where the recording came from.

UPDATE - A commenter put me on the right track. The story of how the recording was done may be found here

The House of the Amazing Grace

The House of the Rising Sun was one of the first songs I ever learned to sing with guitar, and that was in New Orleans, working at a mental hospital next to Audubon Park, living in the Garden District and heading down to Preservation Hall as often as possible. These men's voices, especially that last wail, remind me of Sweet Emma the Bell Gal, who headlined the Preservation Hall band, and was well into her eighties or nineties. When she sang Just A Closer Walk With Thee it was such a powerful experience it bordered on shamanistic. It certainly got you over into what Jung called the collective unconscious. It wasn't just Sweet Emma you heard, but the "toils and snares" of generations before that brought that song to that point. Music was just the vehicle.

Amazing Grace is among the dozen or so musical touchstones of my musical life, particularly the Judy Collins version from the 70's with the massed folk choir singing all those harmonies. I've never understood why it was just a one off recording and they didn't go back and make a whole album like that. It's the one hymn nearly everyone knows. Just like House of the Rising Sun it seems to manifest some archetype that most people recognize on some level. Whenever I perform either song, there's usually someone coming up afterwards to thank me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's the music about?

Terry Teachout's WSJ 
Sightings column this week is on the meaning of music. Here's the conclusion:

>>   "We dare to go into the world where there are no names for anything," Balanchine once said to Jerome Robbins. Most of us, on the other hand, live in a prosy, commonsense world where everything has a name and most things have an explanation. That's why it is so refreshing to enter into the presence of great art, and why the greatest works of art always contain an element of ambiguity. A masterpiece doesn't push you around. It lets you make up your own mind about what it means—and change it as often as you like.  <<

Friday, October 16, 2009

Horn Diary

From time to time I've read about a horn player having a "meltdown" and always thought it meant just getting a few more notes wrong than usual. Having had one last Sunday at band rehearsal, I now know what they were talking about and that it's a whole different thing than regular playing. One part of me was mortified at the errors being made, but the clinical part of me was fascinated by observing what was going on and trying to figure out what was happening.

It may well not be a physiologically correct way of putting it, but it felt as if the muscles right there where the lips meet the mouthpiece went into tiny tremors or spasms and that that disrupted the feedback loop between my brain and embouchure, so that I was either over or under correcting. 

The precipitating factor has been trying to play higher and faster than I'm currently able. Once we got to the easier stuff, everything got better. And even though I'm the only horn, with the OK of the current band director, I've switched to the 2nd horn parts and practice sessions this week have been a delight. I can play everything and still have lip left over at the end. Without all the effort going into simply trying to get the notes it's much easier, and much more fun, working to develop the musicality side of things.

The general lesson learned is that good technique is a whole body phenomenon, not just the part of you that comes in contact with the instrument. To crack a whip, it's the motion of the whole whip that matters, not just the bit at the end. Trying to play beyond my current ability led me to overwork the muscles right at the mouthpiece without the support of all the surrounding muscles in the embouchure - up to the nose, down to the chin and the cheeks and jaw. It's like trying to strum a guitar using just the wrist and not the rest of the arm up though the elbow and to the shoulder. If you don't use your body wisely, the part you're overusing is going to suffer fatigue early and often.

The other thing this brings up is that my materials may not be the answer, but our little community band trying to play arrangements without players for all the parts is what helped create the situation for my little debacle. Seems like there's a huge niche between having nothing and having arrangements calling for dozens of instruments and players who can play them. 

I'm convinced it's possible to come up with arrangements that are fun and allow for mixed levels of ability (and improvisation) that let folks who aren't driven by the competitive goal of the first chair to simply have a good time making music and advancing at whatever rate suits them. 

I had a recent exchange with Greg Sandow and told him what he was up to reminded me of that vogue phrase of a decade or so ago in the psych world - "client centered". He's looking at the issue of increasing audiences for classical music by thinking about what the audience wants, not want the arts organizations need. Bruce Hembd just posted on something that gets horn students excited but that the education establishment seems uninterested in. I think that over time most bureaucracies and organizations tend to become more concerned about their own needs than those of the clients they're meant to serve.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Enhanced Awareness

Using the phrase "ESP" triggers a range of reactions, so provisionally I'm going to use the phrase "enhanced awareness" through the four Jungian categories (of thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation) as a way to talk about whatever it is that can happen when making music. Here's a use of the phrase in a comment to Bruce Hembd's post "What makes a great performance?"

>>Bruce – Not being a high level player such as yourself and those who frequent this site, these points come from way back in the peanut gallery.

I prefer “Musicality” (from Jonathan West) and “Technique” – each being necessary but neither being sufficient for great performances.

“Talent” is sort of a vexed word for those of us not on a high level. It suggests either/or and that if you don’t have it, don’t even try. Saying someone is more or less a “natural” player allows for the possibility of achievement for all.

As to title of your post, I think the notion of “flow” (thanks for the link in suggested reading) or being “in the zone” comes into play. In a really great performance, my notion is that individual players, the ensemble as a whole, and the performers and the audience all enter into a kind of shared flow state – that all (or most) are to some degree in a state of enhanced awareness where the experience is one that is shared amongst all and the greater the performance, the greater the communion.<<

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Beatle Tracks

This turned up on Dave Barry's blog today. Abbey Road came out during my junior year as an English major at Duke University. Pete Seeger, Ian & Sylvia, Doc Watson, Laura Nyro, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, and The Grateful Dead were some of the performers I heard on campus during those undergraduate years, but new albums from the Beatles seemed the real punctuation points. Speaking of music and memory, hearing how they came up with that sound of the times brings it all back. All the music that was coming out then wasn't so much a cultural indicator as it was the culture itself. I wonder if there will ever be a time again where a single stream of music is such an integral part of society at large.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Habits of Life

I've read this post by Phil Ford over at Dial M several times now, and still haven't taken it all on board. It's a further exploration of issues in the post I linked to and talked about here

Here's one quote:

>>...if you're not doing something about those little scripts you run in your brain—if you're not intervening at the level of the "operating system" rather than on the level of content—you will almost certainly end up taking a lot more time and energy getting the results you want, the end product won't satisfy you, and you won't be very happy about the experience. <<

I'm not sure it's an either/or duality, but understanding that working to improve your music making should include some "operating system" growth and adjustment will be very helpful. This is all at the core of what music therapy can be about, and there's a great deal of overlap with Buddhist "mind training". Will be returning to the subject, but for now just want to make the link.

Music and Memory

Here's a brief story on music being used to help patients with physical traumas of various types regain memories. The key is that music related memories are stored in more than one place in the brain. It's the same principle that allows people with dementia connect with music when they can connect with little else. Here's the concluding paragraph of the article:

>>Experts say that with modern brain imaging, they can actually see that music memories are stored all over the brain, not in just one area. There are studies showing that memories brought back with music can slow the progression, and even improve some types of memory loss.<<

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Embodied Persuasion

This article talks about how what we're doing with our bodies can affect what going on in our minds. A simple example is that if you're asked to nod your head up and down, you're more likely to agree with information presented to you while doing so. One bit that really caught my attention was this:

>>when induced to slump in their chairs, people feel diminished pride in their task performance<<

Good playing position not only makes the mechanics of playing an instrument easier, it can affect how well you think you can play.

photo - blue bell(?)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

What's the practice about?

Phil Ford's post that's linked in the post below is full of stuff to think about, but what really jumped out at me was the following:

>>At a certain point when I was getting really serious about piano playing I realized that I was getting stuck, not because I couldn't physically move my fingers in certain ways, but because I didn't know how to focus my mind the right way to train my hands to make those movements. I learned one of my great enduring truths of piano playing: learning to play means learning to practice. You have to figure out what you're paying attention to, how you pay attention to it, how your consciousness is organized when you're concentrating (are you self-conscious? what does that feel like? what does it feel like to let go of self-consciousness?), how long you can concentrate, what it feels like to lose focus, and so on. And this is something that is actually very good for one's general happiness and health. When you get good at this meta kind of self-monitoring in your chosen practice, you get better at it all around. You notice things. The world becomes a more beautiful and mysterious place. <<

The overall point of how spending time working with music making can benefit your life in general is the cornerstone of what music therapy should be all about. Whether or not, and to what degree, that can happen depends upon how you practice music.

The word "practice" goes back to the Greek word meaning "concerned with action". It's not just the action of running through scales and pieces, but being concerned with those actions. Phil's point that it's as much or more a matter of consciousness as physical movement goes to the very heart of music making. 

You could argue that there's a Buddhist subtext to Phil's post, (and I think in previous posts he may have mentioned familiarity with Zen Buddhism). For one thing, Tibetan lamas usually prefer to call what they're up to "mind training". If you're going to get full benefit from your music making, being aware of the parallels between having a "spiritual practice" and "practicing music" will probably help.

Another resonance with Buddhism is that "karma" simply means "action". It's your motivation that makes the karma positive, neutral or negative.

Another point to make ties in to the Jonathan West post on musicality I keep going back to. He concludes it by talking about how he encountered a particular piece as a student and only thirty years later did he begin to understand how to play it. If you approach music making with open ended awareness, it will change you. It's not just a question of increased skill, but a deeper and deeper appreciation of how meaningful music making can be. 

Towards the end of the last of the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blog Interaction

When I was at Wikipedia looking into "flow" for the previous post, I also checked out Daniel Goleman because Jonathan West mentioned him in a comment (wanting to confirm I'd first heard of him as an explicator of Tibetan Buddhism). I found a quote that resonated wonderfully with something Phil Ford over at Dial M had just posted, so I went to the comments there and pasted it in. Here is the result.


Jonathan West's comments to the "More Jung" post down below made me realize it's been years since I first became aware of the "flow" concept and that some haziness had crept in. Here are some excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

>>Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following nine factors as accompanying an experience of flow:

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.

2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.<<

And here's a great diagram from the entry:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Handel Dances

Using the order Christopher Hogwood comes up with in his Handel - Water Music & Music for the Royal Fireworks, these are the two minuets followed by the two country dances that come right before the concluding trumpet minuet of the Water Music (there's no autograph manuscript so the order is conjectural). There's a seamless join of the two minuets at the 48 second mark. The seamless join of the two country dances comes at 3:36.

I've been using these pieces for years, most recently as solo flute music preceding my nephew's outdoor wedding here on the farm a couple of Saturdays ago. People love them, even folks who don't normally listen to "classical" music. 

In terms of performance style, these players are sort of swinging the straight eighths as dotted notes, where I've always played them straight trying to make them soar. These players also really get the 6/4 feel that Hogwood says is the way to go on minuets. He also says the minuet was danced by all levels of the social order of the day, not just the Marie Antoinette types here.

Thanks to Elaine Fine of Musical Assumptions for finding this and putting it up.

Monday, September 28, 2009

New Maestro

After two years as band director, Bob Hamrick has moved on and our new director is Charles Torian. He's an oboe player from the Tidewater area of Virginia (with the musical drawl to prove it) now living in the Charlottesville area and has lots of experience directing and arranging music for bands. I'm going to continue to use the "maestro" tag for playing tips from the podium. Those preceding this post are from Bob Hamrick and this one and the ones that follow are from Charles Torian. These are not direct quotes, but my memory of what was said.

One thing he said yesterday was that on the final note of a piece, imagine projecting it to the back of the hall. When he had us do that there was a much better feel of finality to the final chord. He also said that mind games like this can be helpful, but that you can get too deep into them as well.

Something else he said was that if your triplets aren't even, try slightly emphasizing the second note, that paying it that attention will tend to slow it and even it out.

At a rehearsal a week or so ago we came to a passage where a lot of people stopped on the third beat and others had a pick-up on the fourth. He asked those stopping on the third beat to not tongue the note we stopped on to make for a more gentle release. That made a remarkable difference. Before, the music seemed to stop then start again, but when we did that it flowed right on through that measure.