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: