Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Self & Ego

Here are two blog posts that I've been thinking about a lot here lately, and that I commented on when they first appeared.

Phil Ford has a post wondering about the self that performs.

Between the two I have the notion there's a deep insight here to be grasped, that goes to the heart of what I think music therapy can be. Trungpa Rinpoche said somewhere in one of his books that if you really want to see your ego, look within at the moment someone falsely accuses you of wrongdoing. A big part of that reaction, at least for me, is a verbal explosion, an explaining of why the accusation is wrong. It's also the exact opposite of what Phil Ford is talking about when the self fades and the flow takes over when performing, and the mental verbal chatter ceases for a while.


The 4/17 performance at the Gordon House (all eight players present) and then having Andy (cello & fretless bass), Bill (Eb tuba) and Dave (percussion) here for a session this past Saturday afternoon were both very helpful.

Some of what I'm thinking through:

When working in the closed classrooms in schools in San Antonio I never had a detailed lesson plan, but always more instruments than students and always more than enough material to work on for longer than an hour. That allowed for great flexibility in creating good sessions and increased the likelihood of my connecting with the students and helping them connect with each other. For Kenwood Players performances, having that sort of flexibility to adapt to how the audience is reacting is the way to go. Instead of a set program, we need to have an album of pieces we can play and then choose different pieces for different situations, and every performance is really a different situation. 

There's a need to get back to an early notion I'd gotten away from. Back as a therapist, I never wanted students having to just sit while others were playing, so usually everybody was doing something all the time. I'd unconsciously transferred this to the Players, so there was a wall of sound effect with everyone playing most of the time. At one point Saturday Andy played the melody to a Renaissance dance and Bill the bass line. With just the two playing, Bill never sounded better. In performances we should have solos, duets, trios, quartets and tuttis, both to allow different timbers to be heard and to let the audience experience some dynamic variety.

Up tempo stuff has a better chance of engaging an audience that slower pieces. Both are needed for variety, but in a performance, engaging the audience is more important that the players enjoying playing. 

Recording performances is terrifically helpful. The Sony PCM is nearly magical in ease of use, and the sound is getting better as I learn to use it. When running that audio to the Tascam to make CDs I have to listen closely, and hear entirely different things than I did while playing. Especially for anyone working mostly without a teacher, in this modern world of affordable technology, recording and listening back to music making is a wonderful learning mechanism.

All the physical labor of moving and setting up equipment should be done as much ahead of time as possible. At least for me, there's a need for a break between being a roadie and being a performer, both to physically relax a bit and to mentally change channels.

Dress rehearsals are important. Because Good Friday intervened, the Kenwood Players didn't have everyone together for a rehearsal in the two weeks before the Gordon House performance. It took longer to get the ESP connection going amongst us, and we never played anywhere near as well as we have on other occasions.  

Friday, April 17, 2009

New Horn Blog

Horndog blog linked to the Newhornist's Blog and I found this post about BE and made the following comment:

Hi. Just clicked over from Horndog. Just turning 60, picked up the horn 5 years ago having never played a brass instrument. No teachers, self taught using Farkas and Tuckwell books. Got the BE book back in January because I’d developed a lip callus, and the book really helped me better understand what embouchure is all about, callus now gone, and range and endurance better. Still waiting to see where tone will end up.

But I really understand your “meltdown”, because when I was between the old embouchure and the new, the bottom fell out of of my playing. I’d been asking some muscles to do too much, and others not enough. Reorganizing them using mostly the RO and TOL tools made things a little chaotic until a new equilibrium set in.

I’d decided if the callus didn’t go away I was giving up the horn. Took a month off completely and then very slowly started all over again, never forcing and always trying to be as aware as possible of just embouchure, not worrying about learning music that challenged it. As of now, feel I’ve come through the worst and looking forward to continuing the horn.

Horns (and mouthpieces) and horn players’ embouchures seem more idiosyncratic than most instruments and techniques. My thoroughly off the wall intuition is that if your initial embouchure is way different than the one BE will lead you to, some sort of meltdown during the change is inevitable. If your initial embouchure is something like the one BE will lead you to, then your sailing will be smoother.

Apologies for going on and on, but I’ve spent a LOT of time on this issue. Very happy to have found your blog.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Minnesota link

Via Pliable a link to the "music and psychology" tag on a Minnesota orchestral blog called Inside the Classics. They linked to Pliable's flux and flow post in a post of theirs, and I clicked on the "music and psychology" tag to get this link to that collection of their posts. Lots of really good stuff.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Playing Position

Bill, a friend who plays tenor sax in the community band got a guitar from his son for Christmas and has been trying to learn how to play it without much success. He came out one afternoon last week and I ran him through the basics I've picked up over the years teaching guitar.

His main problem was that he has short, thick fingers and was not sitting in the correct position, with the left foot on a footrest and the guitar on the left thigh and the left elbow low and forward, all of which puts the left hand in the best position for fretting chords. It was a treat to see him realize he really could play an instrument I think he'd about given up on. (The book he had didn't mention playing position. It gave C, F and G7 as the initial chords, which is often the case. (The chords in A, D and G are much easier.) 

So the guitar footrest was out and I saw this post over on the Horn Notes blog. There's a video there that mesmerized me for a while because it's a wonderful clinic on a lot of the articulations and dynamics of the horn. But the thing that kept grabbing my attention was the gizmo the guy has to support his horn. He's sitting with the horn held up mostly by a stand that rests on his right thigh. What I especially noticed was the way he could completely release the keys with a quick flick of the finger(s), which you can't do if that hand is also having to hold the horn up.

All of which reminded me I'd been using the guitar footrest to elevate the right leg and then rest the horn on that. I stopped when the callus showed up, thinking that might have been a contributing factor, but if it was it was trivial compared to bad embouchure technique. So I tried that setup again and it's a great way to play the horn. Between restringing the F/Bb trigger and having that playing position allowing my hands to focus on playing the horn rather than holding it up, everything is much easier. And my upper back is way less sore from all the horn holding.

This all brought to mind that so often beginning music makers don't fully realize how their basic playing position has a lot to do with overall success. There's an odd psych component at play here. I think somehow they feel sitting in the proper position makes them look like they're "putting on airs". As I told Bill, once you get going you can sit however you want, but while getting started, give yourself all the help you can.

Two Quotes

In this post by Pliable, in which he's really outdone himself, there are two great quotes on what music can do:

The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences. - Gita Sarabhai

The power of music ... is one of the greatest practical and theoretical importance ... What we see, fundamentally, is the power of music to organise - and to do this efficaceously (as well as joyfully!), when abstract or scematic forms of organisations fail. - Oliver Sachs

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Musical Assumptions

Here's a comment I made over on Musical Assumptions. And here's a link to the specific post:

Hi. Seems like this is a situation where your blog title comes into play. There's the music, and then there's each individual brain sensing and processing that music. I'd guess it's not just simple prejudice, but a more complex brew that might include that, but also everything else heard beforehand conditioning the response, as well as various differing ways individuals have of responding to music.

For a lay person not completely knowledgeable about the era and without all kinds of mental furniture to enable comparisons, notions of imitation and ranking of importance would probably not be as big an issue.

You begin the post talking about what "bothers" you is the assumption being made. What gets me is that so many academics and musicians seem to have a need to pin pieces down like butterflies in a case, where all is ordered and arranged - and dead.

Part of what you hear is what the brain is looking for, so if you're busy classifying and judging everything you might miss what the music is really about. Analysis is important, but not the only reason to listen to music.

I'm a music therapist, and often tell people it simply does not matter what someone else thinks of music you like. If it benefits you physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually, that's the bottom line.

(Just found you back when "Sounds & Fury" linked that Gould video you had, and very glad I did.)

Double Horn

Working with the BE method, I've been rethinking approaches to the horn. One change was restringing the trigger so the horn is in Bb unless the trigger is depressed, which will switch it over to the other horn, the F. Since pretty much all of the music for the community band is in, for me, the high register, I use the shorter Bb horn to make getting those high notes easier. Restringing the trigger means my thumb is not not involved most of the time, removing one area of tension from the mix.

Previously I'd warmed up on the F horn and then switched over to the Bb as needed for higher notes. Now I warm up on, and do most all my playing, on the Bb horn. So when I started preparing the alto part of a Handel bourrée for the Gordon House performance, discovered I'd developed an embouchure that works well for the Bb horn, but on the F horn it's loose and the tone isn't focussed. 

I've seen where horn players with the luxury of other players in a section will specialize in either high or low ranges, and now it's more clear to me why that is. A corollary to this is understanding another reason I was having trouble with high notes before using BE and the lights came on.

Cousin Steve, a natural trombone player, said one time, "Warm up high if you're going to play high, or low if you're going to play low." So that makes more sense to me now. But the main thing is that I'd never really fully appreciated that there are two distinct instruments involved in the double horn, with an embouchure for each. I think if I'd really understood everything involved in learning the horn I wouldn't have been quite so cavalier about picking it up.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pliable Post

Here's a comment I made over on a post On an Overgrown Path where Pliable talks about music using a Buddhist perspective:

This post has induced a number of memories and associations for me. Your using Buddhist thought to talk about music reminded me of my first encounter with Tibetan Buddhism, when I was struck by the frequent use of the phrase "spiritual practice". Up until then I'd largely associated the word "practice" with just musicians, athletic teams, doctors and lawyers. Ever since then the notions of practicing music and spiritual practice have been intertwined in my mind. With each you're using daily encounters with an essentially nonverbal experience, trying to better understand it and to use what it offers to better your life experience.

The point you make about music's being able to exist in the mind even when you're not actually listening to a live performance ties in with a lot of the new brain research. A lot of the same places in the brain light up in imaging studies both when you're hearing live music and when you're not, but just mentally listening to or performing a piece.

Since we all have brains that are wired differently because of both genetics and our individual past experiences, we all respond differently to various pieces of music, as well as to various performances of a single piece. So besides there being no permanence to a piece of music, there's no permanence in the minds making the comparisons, either from person to person, or the same person at different times in different moods.

That Steve Hagen quote is wonderful, and led me to the notion that maybe the deep reason music can have such great effect on us is that the flux and flow of one can connect with the flux and flow of the other, that there's a sharing of the ways of working between streams of music and our streams of consciousness.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

More Sandow

Pasting in below a comment I made on Greg Sandow's blog on this post of his:

One way of putting the problem is that classical music is sometimes perceived as a top/down situation where the student/audience has only the supporting role of reverencing the canon, along with the performance practices of the moment. I'm a music therapist and for me it's the client that's the primary concern, so whatever type of music and performance style that works sets the direction.

If I read Greg correctly, he's trying to refresh the relationship between the audience and the music by reducing the top/down dynamic and introducing a more general equilibrium. I think music educators can do something similarly with their students ("at least loosen up a bit") by helping students broaden their relationship with music beyond the technical advancement that's usually the main focus.

Include a little improvisation in lessons. Find a key that suits the student's voice on a song or two and teach them the I, IV & V chords in that key. Get four hands going. In my experience there are lots of classically trained musicians for whom improvisation is terra incognita, and given the skill levels involved, that seems a shame.

Back in the old days before guitar tuners, one trick I'd show people tuning was to take the string way sharp or flat then work back to being in tune. Playing pieces in ways that are "wrong" can help you find what's "right". And if you're client centered, the "right" way for one person to play a piece will not be the "right" way for someone else.

Encourage a little composition. It's a great way to play with theory, and increases appreciation of well composed pieces.

Anything to augment all the solo playing. Find an instrumentalist who needs an accompanist for a couple of pieces. Maybe the local teachers organization could connect people for two (or more) piano pieces. Ensemble playing is a different way of learning how to play music that can round out a student's feel for music.

As a music therapist, one thing that never ceases to fascinate me is the myriad combinations of talents and abilities individuals bring to music making. The better we can understand just how it is a particular student is processing music and performing it, the better we can help him or her become a better musician, and to be less likely to burn out and give up music on down the road. And from Greg's perspective, I think they'll be more the kind of audience players and composers enjoy creating music for.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Muscled Music

 In yesterday's community band rehearsal, maestro had us read through some pieces and kept stopping us to remind us of the unforced, flowing, balanced sound we've sometimes achieved. He said even though we were just reading, there was no need to "muscle" through the music. He put his finger on something deeply significant about music making with that comment. 

 I knew immediately what he was talking about, but still had a hard time playing with musicality while struggling to get the right notes. As much as anything I'm guessing that so much brain function is being shifted to simple mechanics that there's nobody home in the part of the brain listening for higher order dimensions of the music. 

 Just about everything in music making requires balance, both in the sounds made and in the behaviors producing them.

Performance Acoustics

 Yesterday was the first community band rehearsal since the performances last weekend. Maestro just said we'd done well, specifically mentioned the final chord of the West Side Story piece, and then moved on to new material. The mistakes made in the second performance weren't mentioned. I understand not dwelling on the mistakes, but my curiosity as to how music making works, and doesn't work, would have liked a few comments on why the breakdowns. 

 The thing that always gets me playing in the high school is the distance from the audience and the unfriendly acoustics combined with the seating arrangement always being different from rehearsals, due to the different dimensions of the areas. This time that was worse than usual because the dress rehearsal was down at Lake of the Woods, so our performance at the high school was the first time we'd played there in a long time, and for me the pieces sounded totally different. Trying to play with the right amount of volume for good overall balance was strictly guesswork.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Slip Rhythms

As a hospice volunteer, since last fall I've been visiting a client in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease. I go by his home every Wednesday and do 30 minutes of music with him. Like every hospice client I've worked with, he's taught me a lot about music and taken me in directions I'd never gone in before.

But today was extra special. Ideas that have been sort of on the periphery of my consciousness popped onto center stage. My client's wife says he's always had a great sense of rhythm, and he sometimes plays the maraca I gave him in perfect time, but I've never quite figured out how the best way to "get traction" with him. Sometimes my guitar playing and singing will engage him, and sometimes it won't. 

I'd always thought that maybe tempo was the key, but today realized that the rhythm itself is far more important. After a lackluster start to the session I did "Eliza Jane", really working that I-IV chord change between the first and second beat of some four beat measures. Because of the afternoon with Dave last week, I've really been able to get a "groove" on that rhythm. Every so often when it's really going well I get flashes of being caught up in Mardi Gras parades (Crewe of Zulu, maybe?) back when I lived in New Orleans. There's something sinuous and trance inducing about that slip time groove. (And I learned "Eliza Jane" going to Preservation Hall back then.)

When I hit on trying "Eliza Jane" today, my client just flipped channels and was totally engaged for a while. Went on to do "She Belongs To Me", "All Along the Watchtower", and "One More Cup of Coffee for the Road" - all Dylan favorites of mine I've done for years and have some slip rhythm type strumming, and he connected with them as well.

Of course, every day is different in situations like that, but I intuitively feel I've hit on something that could have great value.