Saturday, January 24, 2009


Being a mathphobe, ratios have always been off-putting, but they're integral to music and music making, so they've got to be talked about somehow in the materials. The 2:3 ratio is both the hemiola in rhythm, the two against three, while in harmonic frequencies it's the Perfect Fifth, the same thing, just a lot faster. If one string is vibrating 200 times a second and another at 300, then we hear a fifth.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Harmonic Tuning

This afternoon it was Dick (trumpet), Gabby (baritone), Bill (Eb tuba), Judy on percussion and singing, and me on horn and flute. Trying to develop a free form tuning etude to help people hear intervals other than unisions and octaves, while gaining an appreciation of the harmonic series and how it establishes the range from pure consonance to very dissonant.

First had Bill play his middle Bb and Gabby the F a fifth above, shifting down to the Eb and back. Once that was established I played the Bb below middle C and Dick played the third and fifth and flat seventh. What really worked was Bill and Gabby playing those Perfect Fifths and Perfect Fourths, because they could really hear the coherence when they were right. My guess is they never really realized fourths and fifths are more consonant than thirds.

So the place to start with the etude is with the fifths and fourths, because I think they're easier to hear and recognize as being in tune than unisons and octaves. There's almost a sense of feeling the standing waves in the air, that octaves don't generate, at least to me. Another way of putting it is that the fourths and fifths suggest triangulation when focussed, whereas octaves are more like lining up points in a straight line.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Balanced Embouchure

Because of my lip callus and struggling to play high notes on the horn, I've been on the lookout for embouchure information. One of the horn blogs over on the regular reads list sent me to Julia's Horn page, and she was talking about and linked to Jeff Smiley's site. He's a trumpet teacher in Dallas with a method called "The Balanced Embouchure". 

I was impressed by the sample information on the site and got in touch to get the address of his horn representative, Valerie Wells, and through her bought the book with the extra horn materials. Looks to be the best $50 I've spent on music materials in a long time.

Working with the materials in the book I have a much better idea of what's going on with my embouchure than ever before. I think I've figured out how I managed to get the callus and why the high notes were so hard. After taking off playing for a month have been back at it for over a week with no callus and the hope I'll play even better than before, though I do now understand why horn players talk about embouchure changes being such a big deal.

Once I get further along I'll post more about "The Balanced Embouchure", but not the details of the method. What impresses me the most about the book Jeff's approach to teaching music. The man has taught for a long time, been paying attention to what works and what doesn't, and most importantly, treats his students and the learning process with great respect. He gives you the tools and the general parameters, but realizes that every individual has to find his or her own way. 

A lot of music educators seem so focussed on the music, they seem to forget the students are individuals. It's an extreme exaggeration, but I've often thought some educators would be just as happy with a bunch of trained seals, as long as they performed the music well. 

Jeff has created an outstanding set of materials because he's been paying real attention to all his students all those years, and that has led him to a number of realizations about the learning
process that I've never seen so wonderfully and completely presented. Besides helping me play the horn better, I think working with these materials will help me better go about doing a better job on the materials I'm trying to create.

Digital Recorder

I just got a Sony PCM D50 digital recorder and it looks to be a great tool. It has two condenser mics onboard and 4 MB memory. All it really does is record very well and allow you to edit out and delete the bits you don't want. I'd thought it would be useful to make trial recordings of the CD to go with the learning materials, but it may be good enough to make the real thing. 

Using the onboard mics means the mix is a result of where players are in relation to one another and the recorder. Any EQ adjustments and reverb additions will have to be made on the WAV files on the Tascam multitrack or Garage band before burning the CD.

What's great is that it's very easy to operate and has plenty of memory, so I can just set it to go and then just worry about making music without being a recording engineer at the same time

Monday, January 19, 2009

Where the music is

I've been starting back on the horn after taking a break to let my lower lip heal from the callus that developed due to poor technique, a worn mouthpiece, and using pressure to get high notes. Paying more attention to how the sound is created than to the music as such led to the realization that on some level I sometimes act as though the music is in the instrument and in the score.

While working on embouchure and trying not to force notes, there came the idea that the music is inside me, not inside the horn, and that awareness really helped create a more natural embouchure and sound. It's a simple notion, but could be useful motif in talking about a range of musical issues, e.g. rhythm, gesture and articulation. 

Horn instructions always include the "hear the note before playing it". That works just as well for rhythm, gesture and articulation, no matter the instrument. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Directions for 2009

Over Christmas I was involved in five performances: the community band (horn), the Presbyterian small ensemble (horn & flute), the Kenwood Players at Gordon House (horn & flute), the Dixieland band (banjo & vocal), and the Kenwood Players at Oak Chapel (alto flute, guitar and vocal). The strongest response (from me and the audiences) was to the sing alongs (Dixie and Oak Chapel), with the Gordon House performance a strong second.

For this past Friday I prepared a five part improv platform for Down By The Riverside to build on the success of the sing alongs. It worked well by spreading the instruments (Eb tuba, baritone, trumpet, clarinet) over the frequency spectrum with all being heard well in the mix, and everyone having plenty of choices of what to play. We also worked on #'s 1, 3, 13 & 14 in the Sampler Suite, with Dick improvising a descant on repeats, and that went well, though he asked for guitar style chord notation to make the improvs easier.

(Dick & Maggie went to a concert this week where classically trained players riffed on classical themes and had a great time, so that reinforced the idea of improvising repeats in the Sampler Suite.)

So I spent all day yesterday assigning well tempered chords to Renaissance dances, refining the five part improv template, and checking to see what hymns are in the public domain so that sing alongs can be built around them. With the Sampler Suite and the hymns the idea will be to present the material as it exists in the public domain, and then a second version in the improv platform (which will have the extra advantage of making it easy to break out melody lines and guitar chords in whatever key might be needed). 

Along with the hymns and spirituals for sing alongs, traditional and W.C. Handy blues are things I'm looking to include in Music for Music Makers 2.0. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Henry Purcell

I just got a book of Purcell's keyboard music and am having a great time working through it. His music is closer to Renaissance dances than that of Handel by at least a generation, and it shows. There's a clarity of movement that's more suggestive of the physical dances than you find in Handel. After Handel the dances are pretty much abandoned.

This music also seems a touch more modal than well tempered, which makes it all the more appealing to me. And the lack of complexity means its a treasure trove of materials to break out into three and four voice pieces for small ensembles.

The book is the Schirmer Oesterle edition, and as I worked though some of the pieces, they sounded very familiar. Turns out I'd gotten the Dover edition years ago, looked through it a bit, filed it away and forgot I had it. The thing is, the Oesterle edition has ornaments I'm fairly sure are inauthentic, but they sound great, and I prefer them to the authentic ones listed at the beginning of the Dover edition. Made me wonder if the piano (or in my case, electric keyboard) wants different ornaments than those that work well on the harpsichord or virginal.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Proof of Concept

The Kenwood Players did five old time hymns over at Oak Chapel on Sunday, mostly as simple instrumentals, and it went well. Both members of the congregation and of the players had good things to say about the experience. For me it demonstrated that just having some real orchestral instruments playing very simply arranged music in a small setting can elicit a good response from people.

The idea for part books of hymns for various instruments is a good one, though there's probably not going to be a generic version that will work in all cases, unless the harmonies are reduced to mostly I, IV and V chords with very simple accompanying riffs behind the melody. 

Another issue is that so far as I can see, no matter how old the hymn, collectors always use the exact same version in the same key in all the different hymn books. On the plus side, that means people are going to remember and associate that key with the hymn. Levitin says when folks are asked to sing well known songs, they very often match the pitches of the original.

The down side of the fixed key is that it's bound to not work well for some people's vocal range. Seems the answer might be to have a sort of appendix with small print versions of the song in several different keys.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Exaltation of Channeling Music

Last night I got to lead three sing alongs, one in the first set and two in the second set of the Touch of Dixie performance for Music on Main Street. Every time I've had the opportunity to do this I've had the suspicion the amazing feeling I get is a one off thing that will wear off, but so far that's not happening. Leading a sing along with the banjo is old hat for me, but leading a sing along with the help of a Dixieland band is new and takes things up several levels.

Part of it is I don't have to work so hard just to create the music to be sung along with. And somehow, leading the band with the banjo has the effect of making leading the audience in singing much easier. Maybe it's the band modeling for the audience how the music should sound.

On a practical note, the simpler Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, which didn't require a song sheet, went much better that Just A Closer Walk, which does require a song sheet. I've been working up a simple arrangement of Down By The Riverside, which has a simple refrain and call and response verses, and I think it could work well for the Dixes.