Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More Jung/Gesture

In response to the groundswell of interest from our Vermont readership in the Jung post here's another. Two other things that Jung talked about that are part of my mental toolbox are archetypes and the collective unconscious. The basic notion seems to be that though we are all fully individual, there's a universal mental space we all share as members of the human race.

The Oxford dictionary on my iBook says an archetype is," a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious."

The same source gives the first meaning of "gesture" to be, "a movement of part of the body, esp. a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning". The second definition given is, "an action performed to convey one's feelings or intentions".

I think that gestures have meaning because they are archetypal and we all immediately grasp their emotional content. I think one of the ways music can exert such influence over our emotions is that it can simulate physical gestures in sound. And if you're at a live performance, you can see the gestures that create their sonic avatars. 

Maestro often talked about conveying more emotion, and more variety of feeling, by emphasizing the importance of "style". You can think of style as, at least in part, a gestural archetype.

This is all very much right brain stuff, so a way of engaging your right brain when learning a piece is to spend a bit of time thinking about the gestural/feeling component of the music, and how you want to convey that to your audience. As maestro often said, don't just play the notes.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Last Friday evening A Touch of Dixie played an unamplified outdoor set over at the Orange County Fair, just over Chicken Mountain on the grounds of James Madison's Montpelier. If you've ever been there, the fair was in the open space back behind the old Montpelier Store, across Rt 20 from the Montpelier Station Post Office.

Just like every other time we've played, I'm always struck by how live Dixieland jazz can just make folks feel happy. We had some children come up and dance with the music, and afterwards a number of people came up with sparkling eyes and broad smiles to say how much they'd enjoyed it. Sometimes I think I might have had more effect as a music therapist by simply playing banjo in Dixieland bands all this time.


I went to Google and found that Phil Ford post on Dylan and authenticity mentioned below. Back when it first went up I was struggling with how to go about making a CD of traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayer songs and mantras, using mostly Western musicians and instruments, i.e. myself, Susan(flute) and Andy(cello & bass). One approach would have been for us to try to be as much like traditional Tibetans as possible to try to create an "authentic" recording. But since the music was already Westernized by my fitting it to Western scales in transcribing it, and then adding Western harmonies, that seemed a non-starter.

Here are some snips from Phil's post:

>>But performance isn't always, or even often, a matter of sincerity. . . In my classes I often like to point out that the artistry of singers like Bob Dylan is largely directed at fashioning a rhetoric of authenticity. . .  It's a remarkable acheivement: between 1963 (Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) and 1967 (John Wesley Harding) he invented half a dozen ways of being authentic.<<

So out of all that I figured we could be authentic without trying to mimic what we knew of Tibetan performance practice. We could be Westerners making an authentic attempt to present Tibetan music to the West.

Just thinking about all this here in the last day or so, realized that's really what I'm about as a music therapist - helping people make music that's authentic to them, that's an authentic expression of who they are. Music educators are trying to get people to make music that's authentically a part of the canon. There's a big overlap, but there's a difference as well. 

Just as in Tibetan Buddhism, motivation is everything. Understanding why you're doing something is vital to understanding what you're doing and how best to go about it.

Jonathan West

Jonathan West mentioned just below left a very informative comment on the previous post and I'm cutting and pasting it here to make it more easily accessible. I don't quite get what he's saying about the third on the Bb horn and want to be able to reread it, and being on dial-up, and the fewer clicks the better.

>>Hi Lyle,

I wouldn't assume that all horn players know much about mouthpieces beyond what they have tried and found works for them. A surprising number will assume that what they have found works for themselves will also work for everybody else. Of course, over on the Yahoo and Memphis horn mailing lists, you get lots of people who seem to spend a lot of time comparing mouthpieces, custom leadpipes, different makes and models of horn. And just like football fans, they can get quite vociferous about their favourites! Of course, it is far easier to talk about hardware than about musicality...

But what they seem to forget is that in the final analysis, which horn you blow into matters far less then how you blow into it.

I've used the same mouthpiece since I was about 14 years old - a bored-out Alexander 5. It's a fairly small diameter, medium rim, medium cup mouthpiece. It seems to work for me. I have no reason to want to change it and therefore no need to know what all the modern mouthpiece options are. So I avoid those conversations, because I have nothing to add to them.

As for when to use the F side and when to use the Bb side, well, that has been known to spark some, ahem, vigorous debate! Maybe I should do another post on that sometime soon.

But briefly, the 5th harmonic - E on the F side, A on the Bb side, is somewhat flat relative to equal temperament. If you are playing a classical piece, the E (or Eb, D or C# played using the same harmonic but with additional valves down) is going to be in the appropriate key, and so the flatness will not be much noticed because it is a correct natural harmonic of the piece's key. The A on the Bb side is rarely in the same place relative to the key of the piece, and as it can be played 1-2 on both F and Bb sides, and with that fingering is not flat, that tends to be the preferred fingering on the Bb side.<<

UPDATE: Jonathan has put up a great post on using the two sides of the horn.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Horn Guild

I've often thought that there's a strain of the Renaissance guild mentality still present in modern musicians. There's the sharing and nurturing of special talents and skills. And sometimes there's a hint of being superior to non-members (the audience). The first part of this seems especially true for horn players. The horn is by far the most complicated instrument I've ever tried. (But never tried a double reed once an oboist friend at conservatory explained about the necessity of making your own reeds and the tools, labor and time involved).

For one thing, the usual double horn is really two different instruments sharing a mouthpiece. I've lately become convinced part of my difficulties stem from a lack of appreciation of the differences between the two, that I've never seen much talked about in the info I've found. You can get the same note on either side of the horn, but the lips feel a little different. Because of being the only horn in the community band and having to play high parts, I've never really developed a full feel for the F (the lower pitched horn). Currently I'm spending a lot more time with it, and feeling I'm broadening and strengthening my foundation as a player.

(As an aside - I'm also starting to think there's some subtle difference between the two horns besides simple length. You use the naturally occurring third of the F horn, but on the Bb side it's a second or third option. John Ericson (Horn Notes) just put up a post about curiosity, and I've been curious about this for a while, but can't find an answer to the question).

But back to the guild notion. Something else about the horn is the amazing choices of mouthpieces you can use, but as far as I can tell, there's no place you can go to find why the designs are different, other than the occasional mention of the different sound they might have. Have not once seen anything about how different shaped lips might interact with different designs. 

Back when I had the lip callus,  I switched away from the Farkas VDC to the one that came with the Yamaha horn that's more rounded and thicker where it's against the lips. Here lately went through all the mouthpieces again and realized the Farkas medium cup is the one for me to go with for now. Much better tone and thinner where it meets the lips than the Yamaha, but not as thin as the VDC. Long term I hope to get to where cousin Steve is on his trombone. He once said different mouthpieces were like different pairs of shoes and he switched around a lot.

My guess in that this is the sort of information that high level horn players know, but as with guilds, not made easily available to the public (most of whom wouldn't be interested anyway). It all reminds me of the passing comment Christopher Hogwood made in his book on the Handel Water Music & Music for the Royal Fireworks. Somewhere he says that there are no articulations or info on trills and such in the scores because Handel left such details to the horn players guild.

Right Brain & Audience

Jonathan West over at Horn Insights has been good enough to make a post that uses a comment of mine as a point of departure.

Keeping this blog is fun and helpful, but getting responses from other bloggers is even more helpful. I'd never gotten around to expressly thinking about the client's/audience's right brain before this exchange. Way back when, a post by Phil Ford (Dial M) on "authenticity" helped me figure out a way forward in making the Mantra Mountain CD. And Pliable (Overgrown Path) helped me see that CD in a new way. And on and on. Following these high level blogs has always seemed a cross between auditing graduate level courses and drifting through the faculty lounge. I can't imagine trying to develop the learning materials without this kind of milieu to trigger and test ideas.

Here's my comment on Joanthan's post:

"Very happy to have been a spark for this post! Very helpful and lots to think about. One detail I'd pull out for now is:

>>Even somebody wholly uneducated in music will sense that there is "something missing" in such a performance even though they can't express what that something is.<< 

Can't agree with you more on this. Whatever it is that connects an audience member with a performance is not just technique, and it's very difficult to talk about. As a therapist my aim is always to get some sort of musical "traction" with a client, and better technique is rarely the answer. It's usually being somehow more gestural or having a more felt rhythm that suits the client's (audience's) mood. Or as you put it, "phrasing and musicality". The audience's right brain is just as important as the performer's.

 Thanks also for the link."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jeffrey Agrell

Jeffrey Agrell is the blogger talked about in the previous post. He clicked over to here from my comment on his post, and left a comment a number of posts down. I'm pasting it in here so it's easier to get to. My interests seem less tangential to his than to most of the other blogs I follow. He has what looks to be an interesting book on improv for classically trained folks, and a CD of improvs with a piano player. Plus he plays the banjo, so there you go.

Here's that comment he made on my "More Sandow" post:

>>I didn't know about your blog until your comment on mine today, and I'm enjoying reading your back posts very much. I think we may have a lot of common interests, including horn, Zen, banjo, and possibly improvisation. I played guitar for many years (folk, classical, and finally jazz), but haven't done much since I got tendinitis in the late 80's. I also played some 5 string banjo, mandolin, and e-bass. One thing that might interested you that is related to this post is my book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. I agree with Greg Sandow that what classical music needs is a lot more people who are acquainted with music beyond listening to their iPods. But if you are traditionally trained and don't have a band or orchestra after school, what do you do? My book is a compilation of 5 years of my course in the subject at the University of Iowa, and gives any classical player the ways and means to begin improvisation without having to be a jazz player. The book is especially useful for music therapists, who have to relate musically to many clients (it makes a good complement to Tony Wigram's book on improv for therapists). It's published by GIA Music (

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.<<

Sunday, July 19, 2009

More on practice

Another new to me horn blog is Horn Insights by Jeffrey Agrell and his latest post has to do with how our ego issues can affect our playing and practice. Making music is a great laboratory for watching how we as individuals approach living our lives. It's also a great place to make improvements in how we do things in the hope of taking those improvements into other areas of endeavor.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Practice Technique

One of the blogs over on the "Regular Reads" list is Bruce Hembd's Horndog Blog. He has helpful things to say about playing the horn, and he's very generous about introducing other horn blogs he's found. The most recent of these is Jonathan West's Horn Thoughts, and his most recent post is a nice explanation of practice technique.

I agree with everything he's saying, and especially like the phrase, "Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent."  

In the context of the previous post, he's taking a very left brain approach to the issue, i.e. taking apart any passage that has a mistake, find the error, then play it as slowly as needed to get it right and then slowly bring it up to tempo. 

Something I would add to this, though, is to be very careful when choosing the first note of the problem passage. I've often found that a mistake in one measure has its inception in the previous measure. Sometimes we can play a passage well enough, but there's something about our technique that's not solid, which is setting us up for a mistake in what follows. 

So you need the left brain to find mistakes and clean them up in a logical and analytical fashion, but the right brain can be helpful as well, helping you see the whole, and better understanding where the mistake is coming from. For example, sometimes what initially appears to be a fingering issue might really be a rhythm issue.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Right Brain/Left Brain

As a follow on to the previous post, the left brain/right brain way of talking about how we interact with the world around us is something else I picked up going to college in the 60s and being a psychiatric attendant and group therapist in the 70s. There's a lot of overlap with the Jungian notion of four categories, but it is a simpler, and often handier, notion using just two categories.

The basic idea is that the left brain works very analytically and logically and you are very conscious of each step you take along the way. Its the way you think through how something works by looking at each part of the whole and then seeing how they all work together.

The right brain is meant to work in a more more holistic, or all at once sort of way. Sometime we just "get" how something works without having to examine every detail. The right brain way of knowing is down below conscious thought and we're not fully aware of how it is we know or do something.

Just as with the Jungian categories, each of us has our own particular mix of left and right brain processing, and that mix will change depending on what it is we're trying to do or think about. When someone seems to be "a natural" at a way of thinking or of doing something, there's more right brain activity than left.

The single thing that most excites me about Jeff Smiley's Balanced Embouchure method for trumpet and horn, and that I want to emulate, is his way laying out instructional materials so that there's plenty for both the right and left brain to work with, each at its own pace. That far increases the chances that any particular music maker will find what they need to make real progress. Along with everything else, this approach helps people understand that just as many solutions to problems can come from within themselves as from an instructor.

As a music therapist I want people to as fully involve themselves in the learning behavior as possible. How you go about learning to make music can be just as therapeutic as making the music.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Jungian Categories & The Horn

Child of the Sixties that I am, Carl Jung's ideas effervesced through my college education and the following decade or so. They were "in the air" and some of them became part of the mental tool kit I've been using ever since. Besides the "introvert/extrovert" spectrum of human personality, he talked about thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation as being four useful categories to use in talking about how we as individuals connect with the world around us.

Currently over on Horn Notes, John Ericson is doing a terrific series of posts looking various horn methods. Here's today's. Reading and thinking about them has helped me clarify this notion I've had that people learning various instruments can bring to them various mixes of thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation. For most instruments, I think you can have pretty much any mix and it can work. For the horn, though, seems there's the need for more than a simple minimal amount of both intuition and sensation.

The intuition is needed to know where the note is before you play it. Of all the instruments I've tried, none requires so much of being "in the flow" to just simply hit the right notes. One reason all the horn methods don't say the same thing is that it's very difficult to put into words exactly what it is you do to play it well. My sense is that that nonverbal aspect is a tip off to intuition being involved.

The sensation required for horn playing is the exquisite proprioception needed. Getting all the physical apparatus in the right place, particularly the infinitely adjustable embouchure, to make the right note with the tone you want goes far beyond the proprioception needed to play any other instrument I've tried.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Picnic in the Park: July Fourth

Every performance of the Kenwood Players has been a learning experience. Since I'm being much more a facilitator than a leader of the group, the direction the music takes grows out of the group's musical interactions. With any particular group of players and instruments there is a potential sound that can develop organically over time, and since schedules mean different groupings of the basic set of Kenwood Players for individual performances, that development doesn't go in a straight line.

This time we didn't have percussion, so I stuck exclusively with the banjo and had worked with the tubas to be more rhythmic and precise in their playing. So the tubas were more present in the mix and it makes for a nice effect. Also noticed the tuba solos caught the attention of the audience more than usual.

Bill B. has joined the group to take Gabby's place when she heads off to college next month. He plays tenor, alto and soprano sax. For this performance he played just the soprano at my request, mainly because we were outdoors and needed all the volume we could get. He and Dick (on trumpet) alternated solos with my vocals, and having the extra treble voice was a great addition to the sound. Bill has a natural feel for "tailgating", or filling in between the end of a vocal phrase and the start of the next, which made my singing a lot more fun.

The most pleasing aspect of this performance was our connection with the audience. On every number there were people moving with the music and/or singing along. After various solos there was applause that indicated some of the audience was following the music closely and liking it. Also saw various members of the Community Band listening with big happy grins, indicating they could tell how much fun we were having.

One of the aspects of music therapy that's nearly magical is that as long as everyone has musical tasks that are within their skill level, various skill levels can blend into great music. One thing that struck me forcibly going from the banjo with the Players, to the horn with the Community Band, and then back to the banjo for the Players' second set was what a world of difference playing within my skill level makes. Being the only horn I had a part in America the Beautiful that is beyond my current ability. Anxiety over that colored my entire time on the stage. Never again. From now on will do up those high parts in Finale for other instruments of the director's choice. Going the normal music educator's route simply sets me up to fail.

The schedule for the Players' performance kept shifting right up to the end, due to fitting in with the skydivers, the chorus and band, the fireworks, and the canine unit being unable to perform. We had way more material prepared than needed and were able to jump around the songbook to make up the sets as we went along. That flexibility was really helpful.