Monday, August 31, 2009

Sony PCM

I've run all the music audio captured by the PCM during the two church services onto the Tascam 2488, panned it all, and tried to normalize the volume across the 32 tracks. At Oak Chapel the PCM seemed to accentuate the treble, and when Kyle Gann mentioned in this post he was using one, I took the opportunity to ask him in the comments what he thought about that issue. His response made me think the issue was more in my head than the PCM, and judging by how it did at Macedonia, I think he's right.

Acoustics and audio seem deeply mysterious to me, surely in part because I'm a beginner with both. Paying attention to them and becoming more familiar with them is helping in a left brain sort of way, but appreciation and application seems to require a lot of right brain and/or solid intuitions as well. Getting a good recording and mastering the audio for a CD is a complex art that has tremendous effect on the music the audience/listener hears.

Stewart Weaver is the audio engineer who mastered Mantra Mountain for us, and early in that project I hired him to come by my home studio to give me a clue about how to make and mix a CD. One of the things he said was to listen to a mix on a number of different machines because they'll all color it differently, and that is astonishingly correct and obvious once you realize it.

Something else he said was to put on the mix in one room and go to another to listen to it. Right now that's what I'm doing with the freshly made CD for the players of the recent church performances. I'd thought the alto sax too high in the mix at Oak Chapel when playing the tenor line against the trombone playing the soprano line in the four part hymns, largely because it was up an octave to suit the range, putting it above the trombone. Steve the trombone player said he hadn't noticed that at the time when I asked him about it, and now, listening to it in the other room the mix sounds just fine. 

On the straight acoustics part of things, the sound from Macedonia is much warmer and well blended, mostly, I think, because it's a smaller space and there's a gallery up over the back pews that serves to nicely enhance the blend of timbres.

The thing that's critical about the PCM when using the on board mics is placement. Mentally conceptualizing how the sound is going to work in a space should be only the first step. I need to remember to have the players warm up while I move around, listening closely to how where I am in the space affects the mix and then use that info to place the PCM.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Over on On An Overgrown Path Pliable has another excellent post on a Tibetan subject, this time about a young tulku, a recognized reincarnation. I made a comment on the post, and it got me thinking about the tortuous times Tibetans and Tibetan culture are facing, which is something I avoid doing a lot of, as it is such an overwhelmingly depressing situation.

I speak only a few words of Tibetan, and have no idea the meaning of the lyrics of this song, but I'm pretty sure the background video is of a tulku walking on the land and among the people with whom he's meant to have been associated over a number of lifetimes. Within another generation this video may seem like those early photographs of American Indians.

Speaking of which, one bit of info I can add to the great wikiweb is a bit of bolstering of the notion that there's maybe some genetic connection between Tibetans and American Indians. There certainly seems to be a strong cultural connection.

Lama Tashi once told me of a very high lama, while in America, being taken on a tour of American Indian artifacts in a museum somewhere in the upper midwest. When leaving he turned to his interpreter and asked something along the lines of, "Why on earth are they showing me all the Bön stuff?!?!"

The Bön were the aboriginal inhabitants of Tibet who were, mostly but not all, converted to Buddhism. So this high Tibetan lama was confusing American Indian artifacts with the Tibetan Bön culture.

I was reminded of that by this video, which to me, seems suggestive of the American Indian culture, with that long outdoor procession and the incense/smudge smoke. 

update - a friend sends this link to a New York Times piece on Arunachal Pradesh, Lama Tashi's home region and where he's now heading up a new college at the request of Tsona Rinpoche, who is the 13th reincarnation of the high lama associated with the area. 


We played down at Macedonia today and it went well. Working on the audio for the CD. I'm extremely fortunate to have such fine players in the group. 

Having Crawford be the minister and play the tuba, along with the country family atmosphere, made everything very smooth and informal, and somehow more spiritual for me than highly organized ritual. 

The covered dish luncheon in the fellowship hall that followed was awfully good as well. Real Virginia cured ham and something I'd not encountered previously - chocolate chip pecan pie. 

More to come on where we are as the Kenwood Players. This post mostly to keep trying to figure out how best to do photos.

Rural Music

I live on a farm, and this video has been making the rounds of the community. Music for the rest of us ;-)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Medieval Improv

In this post over on On An Overgrown Path, Pliable discusses a CD of music recreating improvisational music from medieval Spain. He quotes the sleeve notes as follows:

>>Joglaresa perform most of the songs here with only one pitched instrument (vielle or oud) and add only voices or percussion. With this instrumentation, we not only get as close as possible to the descriptions of professional slave-girl performers, but also achieve the improvisational spontaneity so crucial to music of this period. Music performed with large ensembles of pitched instruments requires an 'arrangement' that Joglaresa feels contradicts all that we know about the improvisational spirit of medieval and traditional music.<<

This info goes well with the recent posts on improvisation. The timing of it also reminds me to go forward with a post on synchronicity. Seems like the blogosphere is a fertile ground for things "being in the air" at various places at the same time.

update - Jeffrey Agrell has commented on Pliable's post, talking more about improvisation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Brain Playing Horn

Here's a YouTube video of Dennis Brain that Terry Teachout put up yesterday in his regular Wednesday series. It starts with a nice little demonstration of the natural horn. I enjoyed seeing the curved fingers, as with my long fingers I have to do that. Also interesting even he can't make that low note sound like much more than a "blat".

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Classical Improvisation

Currently on his blog, Alex Ross has links to his summer writings. One long piece in the New Yorker is on work being done to bring back the improvised candenzas once common. Here's a paragraph that really caught my attention:

>>For a recent paper in NeuroImage, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied what happens cognitively when someone improvises; they observed increased activity in two zones of the brain, one connected to decision-making and the other to language. Even if a soloist extemporizes for only a minute, the remainder of the performance may gain something intangible. Levin, the Harvard-based musician who for decades has been the chief guru of classical improvisation, believes that performances need to cultivate risk and surprise. Otherwise, he says, music becomes “gymnastics with the affectation of emotional content”—a phrase that sums up uncomfortably large tracts of modern music-making.<<

The point about the improv affecting the rest of the piece is something like I'm trying to get at with the turbulence & equilibrium idea. A bit later there's this sentence that reminded me of Jeffrey Agrell's "immaculate recitation" formulation:

>>The musicologist Karol Berger has described the cadenza as an inherently theatrical moment where the performer steps out of a written role and speaks in his or her own voice.<<

Popular Horndog Post

Bruce Hembd's post today lists his top ten posts of 2009. I made a long comment on one of them that still reads OK. I'm linking it in this post with the tags "educator" and "Buddhism" so it can be easily accessed. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Distinguishing Tones

Scroll down this grab bag article to the second headline for a report on brain research done with people who have trouble distinguishing tones. Basically it's all brain wiring, and the basic fact of all the new brain research is that we can rewire things through behavior. Here are a few snips:

. . .  "The better you can tell the difference between two tones, the larger that particular brain pathway was," Loui said. The findings do not mean there is no hope for tone deaf people, however. "I think there's a lot of music training in general that could help enlarge these pathways," Loui said. . . .

. . . In fact, a treatment for tone deafness might also help people with speech disorders such as dyslexia, she said. There has been evidence that people with dyslexia have same auditory processing problems as people with tone deafness, she said. Her lab showed last year that children with musical training performed better on dyslexia tests. . . .

. . . .In theory, in Deutsch's view (talking about perfect pitch), it should be as easy to call a pitch "F" as it is to say that an object is red or blue. "If you assume that there's something missing in our environment in terms of early exposure to the right types of sounds, and that it is bundled in with speech, then the whole thing makes sense," she said.


A few nights ago the weather here was affected by a hurricane far out in the Atlantic. There were eerie calms mixed with cells of turbulence that seemed to come and go like armies in the night. That line supposedly said by Henry II about Thomas à Becket came to mind, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

There are lots of ways to talk about the details of music making, but fewer about its general nature. The notion of "gesture" can be helpful, but only goes so far. I keep coming back to "equilibrium", but that sounds so clam and flat. Until I can find a single word that includes the meanings of both "equilibrium" and "turbulence", talking about different pieces of music having different mixes of the two might work.

The Oxford Companion to Music has a graphic of Mozart playing with billiard balls, as he is said to have done while thinking about music. When you set a ball in motion you're introducing turbulence into a system than then seeks equilibrium. That language helps me more than the usual tension/release chestnut, which seems so one dimensional.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Oak Chapel

Yesterday we played at Oak Chapel, a country church over in the Montford neighborhood, an area that has mostly escaped the physical changes coming to the county due to our being less than two hours from Washington D.C. (and 30 minutes from Charlottesville). Montford has been a stable little community for generations, tucked there between Montpelier and the Rapidan river (which was often the boundary line between the Confederates and the Federals).

The weather was on our side. Some time back I noted the sudden hot weather a day we played at the Gordon House sort of dragged down both the players and the audience. Last Friday there were weird ructions in the night due to hurricane Bill's passage off in the Atlantic, and Saturday there were tropical downpours from time to time. Sunday morning was bright and clear and there was that feeling of the community coming out safely after a storm.

The Players were Bill C. on Eb Tuba, Steve on trombone, Bill B. on alto sax, Judy on percussion and me on F horn or guitar and singing. For fifteen minutes before the service, while folks were gathering and greeting, we played old time hymns I've arranged, simply taking them down a few steps, putting them in flat keys, and tweaking the parts so that every one has all four parts in a range that suits their instrument. We then mix and match parts, depending on what's workable with the instruments present. We played each hymn twice, tuba on bass, horn on alto, trombone and sax switching soprano and tenor. The blend and the intonation we got when the alto sax was on top was very good and sometimes we got that terrific sound when you can't tell where one timbre stops and another starts.

I sang "What A  Friend We Have in Jesus" at the beginning of the service, and led the 5-7 year old Sunday Schoolers in "Count Your Blessings" midway through the service, alternating vocals with trombone and sax solos. I arranged these two songs by writing out a bass line for the tubas, the melody line, and then adding the simplest possible two inner voices based on the I, IV and V guitar chords. This style arrangement allows the skilled improvisers to take off running and gives the novice improvisors some easy training wheels that really help fill out the sound. When it works, as it did on both these songs at Oak Chapel, there's a wonderful freshness to the sound that an elaborate arrangement can never have, no matter how faultless the recitation. 

A highlight for me was our playing the Doxology ("Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow"), while Judy conducted us and the congregation's singing. The blend of our four instruments, one to a voice, with the singing was a wonderful sound.

We closed with a few more hymns in four parts during the social moments after the service when everyone was getting up and speaking and leaving. Afterwards a number of people came up to say how they had enjoyed the music, and from the looks on their faces, they really had been touched. 

There are lots of aspects to music therapy, but helping people in their spiritual practice has to be one of the most rewarding.

Next week it's on to Macedonia, down in "the lower part of the county" in an area even older and more settled than Montford. Crawford, one of our Eb tubas will be alternating preaching and playing tuba with us. Just like Oak Chapel it's a small structure with lots of wood inside and wonderful acoustics.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guest Post - Warm Up

(Here's a post via e-mail from Valerie Wells. She runs the horn side of things for Jeff Smiley, adapting Balanced Embouchure for horn players. We were in touch back when I posted this on warming up, and I said if she had anything to add I'd be glad to post it. )

Earlier this year, Lyle asked if I'd like to contribute to his blog on the topic of warming up. I'm religious, actually fanatical, about doing my warm up "the right way" and it seems a simple task to write about it, so why have I struggled with this idea for so many months? I believe it's because I realize we are all unique and thus have unique warm up needs. The last thing I want is to promote the idea that I alone know the best one-size-fits-all warm up for all horn players.

I associate with fine horn players who have vastly different warm up strategies. I know one 60+ year old semi professional horn player who pulls his horn out of the case cold & plays Siegfried's Horn Call then proceeds to play anything else with equal ease and facility. Sheesh! I know another who spends 5 minutes on mid range scales, does two or three minutes of selected Balanced Embouchure exercises, then gets right to work on technical drills, practicing her band & orchestra literature, etc. I know a professional horn player who plays through a 12 minute set of tough chops building exercises (BE) two or three times in a row for his warm up. And then there's me . . . my personal warm up is about 25 minutes long, but before I tell you what I do, I think it would be helpful to tell you my horn playing history.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I dropped out of university music school because I was frustrated with my dysfunctional embouchure. 33 years later, I decided to come back to horn, hired a qualified private instructor and began practicing diligently. After 7 months, I'd regained all my previous playing abilities, and unfortunately, the same disabilities, severely limited range and endurance. Since the conventional approaches to embouchure development had failed me, I decided on my own to risk trying something radically different, The Balanced Embouchure (BE). BE is a unique development system for trumpet players "master minded" by the successful trumpet teacher, Jeff Smiley. Within a few weeks of starting BE, I was playing with noticeably improved range and endurance. My playing took off like a shot. My private instructor was so impressed she bought the BE book for herself.

But . . . almost a year later, in spite of the success I was having from the Balanced Embouchure, I still had a problem. I could play with good flexibility and facility for the first 45 minutes I played each day. When I came back to my horn later in the day, I would always find my lips had stiffened making playing difficult and the tone rough & "scratchy." I was doing my best to follow the practice schedule my private instructor recommended, so I was puzzled.

It was then that I found Wendell Rider's book, "Real World Horn Playing." Wendell claims that the most important thing we play each day is the warm up. He explains that when the warm up is not appropriate for the hornist's needs, the lips will stiffen, especially for older players. That made sense, so I dumped my old warm up and began the Wendell Rider warm up. The improvements began the very first day. As long as I warmed up the Wendell Rider way, I was finally able to play with good tone and flexibility anytime of the day.

It was just over three years ago I started The Balanced Embouchure and still find Jeff Smiley's BE exercises essential for maintaining my range and endurance. It was 2+ years ago I found Wendell Rider's warm up and I've found his warm up essential for maintaining my flexibility, tone & facility throughout the day. The few times I've departed from these excellent teachers' instructions, my playing has suffered. Just yesterday, I decided I didn't want to take the time for Wendell's warm up & did something else for a warm up. And just as before 2+ years ago, I played well for the first 45 minutes, but after a rest period, I came back to my horn and found my lips had stiffened so I couldn't play anything well. So last evening is when I knew exactly what I wanted share warming up on Lyle's blog today!

The Wendell Rider warm up starts in mid range and very gently, slowly expands upward and downward with lots of built in rests and pauses. During the first 10 minutes the ratio between the time the mouthpiece is on the lips and off is about 50/50. The complete Rider warm up efficiently covers just about every element of horn playing including tone development, listening, intonation, scales, transposition, phrasing, tonguing, dynamics, etc. But Rider's warm up is lacking the crucial & universal embouchure building elements found in "The Balanced Embouchure." To cover everything I need in one sitting, I put Jeff Smiley's BE exercises smack in the middle of Wendell Rider's warm up. I've found this routine not only keeps my playing at its best, but provides for my advancement as well.

I'm very pleased with the progress I've made since coming back to horn and know that I wouldn't be enjoying my horn today if it weren't for Jeff Smiley's and Wendell Rider's excellent contributions.

I have since written my adapted version of The Balanced Embouchure (BE) exercises to share with other horn players. I sell the BE book and give away my adapted exercises free of charge to all horn players who are working the BE development system. If any of you believe you could improve your chops with a fresh approach and would like to try BE, shoot me an email.

Valerie Wells
"The Balanced Embouchure" for French Horn

Lyle adds - If you're interested in the Rider book, here's a link for it via Bruce Hembd's blog store.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Music Educators

I spend a lot of time thinking about how what I'm up to as a music therapist is different from what music educators do. There's a lot of overlap, but crucial differences. Jeffrey Agrell over on Horn Insights, in today's post offers this formulation for what educators are up to:

>> Musical training is about immaculate recitation.<<

Brain & Hearing

We don't all hear the same thing the same way. Part of it has to be genetic. Part of it is also how our brains are programed by previous experience and social conditioning. Here's a neat example of that over on John Ericson's Horn Notes.

He's reviewing a model of horn no longer made that has a certain reputation among horn players. In this quote he's describing the results of a blind listening test.

>>The results . . .  show that when people did not know it was a Reynolds they loved the tone and when they did know it was a Reynolds they hated it.<<

Thursday, August 20, 2009

F Horn

The community band and the Presbyterian ensemble are both on hiatus, so for the past month I've been exploring the F horn using the Balanced Embouchure approach, sticking with written notes mostly from the Bb below middle C to the C an octave up when it comes to repertoire. The Kenwood Players will be performing in two country churches, one this Sunday and another the next, so I've been working on the alto lines of the old time hymns taken down several steps and put in flat keys. Also working up the alto lines in the small pieces from Handel's Water Music  and Music for the Royal Fireworks that have been a part of the learning materials since the beginning.

The F horn is so much more forgiving in its core range than the Bb, at least for me. Even though you can make most of the notes on either horn, they feel slightly different on the lips. The closest thing to it is how you can make the same note on the low E or the A string on a guitar using different frets. The vibrations are the same frequency, but on the E string and F horn they feel fatter, thicker, broader. 

Somehow that extra heft of the vibration makes the note easier to work with on the F horn. It's an exaggeration, but the F horn feels like comfortable tennis shoes and the Bb horn feels like ever so slightly tight dress shoes. Working on these alto lines on the F feels great because good intonation and tone come much more easily, and my endurance is much better. And when my lips do give out, it's a slow loss of control, whereas on high notes on the Bb horn the loss of control can be sudden.

One reason I'm posting on this is because it changed my mind on an issue brought about by the unsettledness of the horn world. There's no agreement among educators on how to start students on the horn. Some say on the F, some say on the Bb, some say on a double and some say on a 3/4 size double. 

Given that concert band music wants the horn high in it's register, I'd thought the Bb horn would be the way to go, but now I'm not so sure. The comfort of playing in mid range on the F horn is allowing me to feel and work with my embouchure in a way not possible on the Bb.

The problem might not be the horn, but the music. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Music & Hearing

This article discusses research showing musicians are better able than non-musicians to hear and understand speech in a noisy environment.

>>The findings strongly support the potential therapeutic and rehabilitation use of musical training to address auditory processing and communication disorders throughout the life span. . . 

 . . . Such populations could benefit from the reordering of the nervous system that occurs with musical training, according to the study. Because the brain changes with experience, musicians have better-tuned circuitry—the pitch, timing and spectral elements of sound are represented more strongly and with greater precision in their nervous systems. . . 

 . . . The results imply that musical training enhances the ability to hear speech in challenging listening environments by strengthening auditory memory and the representation of important acoustic features.<<

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Here's a photo of what I call the soundboard. It's the spinet piano I had as a child with all the action removed. All the strings are tuned to pitches in the B flat scale with the intervals being more just than equally tempered. There are more strings tuned to single pitches than there are on a regular piano and the white cloth threaded through the bass strings is there to help me keep straight which strings are tuned together.

The original idea was to strike the strings with felt mallets to get a nice humming going and to record that sound as a wash to go behind tracks on the Mantra Mountain CD we did for Lama Tashi. 

Currently it's mostly there to help me play in tune on the horn and flute. When you play the note in tune and with good tone, it sings back the note and others in the harmonic series as well, especially when some nice condenser mics are placed close to it and run through the sound system. When the Friday group meets it's a handy way for us to tune together.

Tibetan Buddhist Music

Pliable over at On an Overgrown Path has put up a post on the residency/performance of a group of Tibetan lamas near where he lives in England. As is often the case, he includes some great photos. There's also a link to a CD of Buddhist temple music that looks very interesting.

I met Lama Tashi back in 1992 when he was with a group of Drepung Loseling lamas doing a similar residency in San Antonio and stayed at Wanda Ford's Willow Way, where I had the great good fortune to live during my time in San Antonio. I'd never been around Tibetan lamas before and was deeply affected by their deep voice chanting, their deep and spontaneous laughter, and how well and humanely they dealt with all the very unusual people they attracted. Decided then and there to find out more about whatever it was they were up to.

When Lama Tashi was here with me last week, he did a puja in the altar room and I was reminded of just how different Tibetan notions of music are. He rang a small hand bell when reciting texts, and the rhythms were much more speech like than dance like. Years ago he played a tape of hundreds of lamas at Drepung Loseling chanting evening prayers. Intonation was not something they were the least concerned with, nor starting and stopping together. Sounded like large ocean waves with all their power.

Pliable includes in his post a photo of two Tibetan long horns and it reminded me that the first time I ever tried playing a brass instrument was giving one of those a try in 1993 when I was back here in Virginia and helping Gangkar Tulku and his group when they were on the Sacred Music & Sacred Dance tour that followed the one Lama Tashi had been on. After a performance the lamas were letting anyone interested try to make sounds on one. I had beginners luck, was very taken by the sound and the experience, and the notion of my getting a French horn was born.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cardiovascular Benefits of Music

Here's a study from the University of Maryland on a physical benefit of listening to music.

>>Music, selected by study participants because it made them feel good and brought them a sense of joy, caused tissue in the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate (or expand) in order to increase blood flow. This healthy response matches what the same researchers found in a 2005 study of laughter. On the other hand, when study volunteers listened to music they perceived as stressful, their blood vessels narrowed, producing a potentially unhealthy response that reduces blood flow. . .

. . . . “We don’t understand why somebody may be drawn to certain classical music, for example. There are no words in that, and yet the rhythm, the melody and harmony, may all play a role in the emotional and cardiovascular response.”

That physiological impact may also affect the activity of brain chemicals called endorphins. “The emotional component may be an endorphin-mediated effect,” says Dr. Miller. “The active listening to music evokes such raw positive emotions likely in part due to the release of endorphins, part of that mind-heart connection that we yearn to learn so much more about.<<

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Horndog Links

Bruce Hembd over at Horndog Blog recently did a series of three posts on horn mouthpieces. Here's the first and it will lead you to the rest. What amazes me is that nobody seems to have collected the various bits of information all in one place on the net before this. 

Handel brought the hunting horn indoors nearly 300 years ago, but there seems at this late date still no consensus as to what the best model is (various single, double and triple versions are available), or how to go about playing or teaching it. That unsettled nature of things also applies to the numerous types of mouthpieces available. With Bruce having done the work of putting all the information in one place, there's now a chance of making an informed decision.

In another recent post Bruce links to a video on the physics of the horn sound. Being on dial-up and having had bad luck with Real Player sometime back, haven't looked at the video, but a passing comment Bruce makes in this post had dramatic effect on my horn playing. Here's the passage:

>>Some students I encounter, in a vague attempt to have a clearer sound, make the mistake of not putting the hand in far enough into the bell.

Mr. Holmes gives a very logical explanation as to why the hand in the bell is required in order to make high notes easier and low notes louder. The hand, he explains, functions as an anti-node which compensates for the natural physics of the instrument.<<

This was a revelation to me because it made me realize I've been unconsciously thinking the horn was like the guitar or banjo, and that pressing even the back of my fingers against it would mute the sound. Since reading this I've put my right hand a bit further into the bell, but more importantly, doing so more firmly, not worrying about dampening the vibrations of the bell. My tone seems better and playing seems easier.

The larger lesson here is that unexamined assumptions create needless obstacles.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Closed eye listening (again)

Jeffrey Agrell over at Horn Insights saw my post on closed eye listening and used it as a jumping off point for a very interesting post of his own, (which drew some good comments from folks, including John Ericson of Horn Notes). 

He begins by talking about the benefits of playing from memory, and I agree with everything said. Given my interest in the gestural nature of music and music making, I would add that when I close my eyes when making music there's a deeper immersion in the shapes and textures of the sounds than when I'm reading a score and my overly visual mind constrains my listening into two dimensions. 

Also, closing my eyes helps me slip into a memory state that allows for going through verse after verse of Dylan songs like The Gates of Eden and Desolation Row. Always made sense to me that Homer was blind.

(Jeffrey's suggestion of using an iPod to listen to the works you're going to be performing during that weird time just before a performance seems to be one to try.)

Something else the article on closed eye listening reminded me of is the power of "guided imagery", a kind of music therapy pioneered by Helen Bonney. It involves having people listening to recorded music in ways to help them more fully experience feeling states. I've never studied it beyond reading about it back in the 80's, but have on a couple of occasions been at retreats where it was used. 

Everyone would get relaxed, close their eyes, and then music would be put on (once it was Scheherazade). Then a leader would do an open ended narration, "You're on a path . . . , you meet someone . . . ." These sessions never worked for me, but there were always some for whom it did and it wasn't unusual for several people to be in tears by the end. Part of it was that folks at a retreat are primed for that sort of thing, but this closing of the eyes heightening emotions was probably a contributor as well.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Music & Ego

This spring and summer the subject of ego and music has come up in various ways on some of the blogs I follow, so I asked Lama Tashi about it. I began the conversation describing the feeling most music makers have from time to time that their ego fades and the music just sort of flows through them, and asking if that didn't happen to him from time to time back when he was Chant Master at Drepung Loseling, and how would he describe what was happening.

He knew exactly what I was talking about and said it was very similar to the type of absorption one tries to achieve in meditation. One is aiming to be like an "innocent baby" totally absorbed in looking at a picture or an object, with no "secondary thoughts" and "no concept of self".

He also said that while this kind of "focus" is what you're working towards, there's also "introspection", which is observing the meditation with a "neutral ego" to make sure things are going as they should.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Kyle's Audience

This Kyle Gann post on how different people interact differently with different musics is terrific. It's the same general point I've made off and on for years - that through nature and nurture we're all wired differently for our responses to music. The thing about this post is that he begins with that idea and goes much deeper. 

Parenthetically, I always have a negative reaction to someone, a critic or otherwise, stating categorically that a piece of music or a particular performance is good or bad. Another bit of my mental furniture from the Sixties is "Different strokes for different folks". The presumptuousness of categorical appraisals tells me more about the appraiser than the appraised.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Talking with Lama Tashi about the issue of motivation in music making, he agreed with the statement, "One's motivation will affect the nature of the music one makes." 

He went on to tell of two famous lamas. One was known as one of the very best dharma scholars of his generation. Another was known for his great compassion, and his teachings always had more lamas in attendance than the great scholar had at his. So the great scholar went to a teaching given by the lama known for his compassion to see why he was so popular, even though it's very unusual for a high scholar to attend a lesser scholar's teachings. When asked what he thought of the popular lama's teaching, the scholar said he had learned nothing new, but that the teaching had given him a deeper understanding of the dharma.

Lama Tashi concluded by saying if you are making music to reach people and help them, your motivation will determine whether or not you make the connection and have a positive effect.

I asked him if, as my experience has indicated, every single teaching given by a Tibetan Buddhist lama begins with talking about setting the motivation. He agreed that is the case, and that karma (action) is simply karma. Motivation is what makes it good, neutral or negative.

Himalayan Retreat

My friend Lama Tashi is here in Virginia on a brief visit to the USA from his home region of Arunachal Pradesh, India - on the morning side of the Himalaya. The photo above is one he brought along of his just completed Siddhartha Center. I'm hoping to run by him some of the Buddhist themes that have been cropping up lately in some of the "Regular Reads" list of blogs to see what he might say. Put the photo up just so it would be somewhere I could send people who might want to see it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Closed eye listening

This brief article on recent brain research says when we close our eyes while listening it can enhance the experience. Three snips:

>> past studies revealed that closing one's eyes could alter one's brain waves. . . 

. . . the researchers found that closing one's eyes enhanced the responses the volunteers felt toward the more emotionally charged scary music. Brain scans revealed that activity ramped up in the amygdala, a primary center for emotion in the brain. In turn, the amygdala fired up brain regions linked with vigilance to the environment and regulation of emotion. . . 

Although the amygdala is known to be more sensitive to negative emotions than positive ones, Hender expected very similar results with positive music as well. <<

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chaotic Brain

Here's a fascinating glimpse of what all the new brain research is turning up. There's no mention of music, but there's an explanation of the old "fine line between genius and madness" chestnut. Seems brain function uses chaotic mechanisms in its normal workings. Just the right amount and you're a genius - somewhat less and your IQ is lower - somewhat more and it's a disability.

There's also mention of the brain using various frequencies of synaptic firings to do various things at the same time, sort of like how there are lots of radio frequencies simultaneously, but that each station can be heard clearly.