Saturday, November 28, 2009

Feel Good Music

Cousin Steve just put this video up on Facebook. For now just wanting to save it. 

later - Now that I've watched this and some other of his videos, here are a few comments:

* Back in the 60's there was a vogue for flamenco guitar and I saw Carlos Montoya perform. This player reminded me of that because of the improvisatory nature of his playing, the incessant rhythm being the framework, and that trick of playing with only the fretting fingers.

* Never realized the balalaika had only three strings. This player is amazing, but having just the three strings facilitates his fluency. Chording is very easy and the length of the strums is very short.

* I can't help wondering if he's not some sort of savant. Would love to see a bit of video of him not playing.

* The facial mugging and playing to the audience puts me in mind of a court jester, and some of the melancholy between the fast bits makes me think of bits of Stravinky's Petrushka.

* I don't think I've ever seen a better blend of physical and musical gesture, each informing the other. With the miming he's setting the instrument up as his voice and that really adds to the performance. Hearing this without seeing it wouldn't have the same impact.

* He's creating a spell, especially with those rhythms, that he enters into and is there for the audience to join in as well. There are shots of a couple of men with their eyes closed, fully engaged in the music. They are sharing in the "flow" of the music making.

* I titled this post "feel good music" because that's really the main take away. I felt mentally fresher and my mood was lifted by listening to it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops, is now out and getting rave reviews. Here's a quote of Armstrong's cited in the NYT review I really like:

“When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me an image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no name you seen once in a place you don’t remember.” This belief in music as a deeply felt and personal expression is one reason Armstrong avoided using musical terminology when speaking about his work and it’s one reason he said that he disliked bop (like other cooler, more modern forms of jazz), complaining that it “doesn’t come from the heart,” that it’s “all just flash.”

Besides writing books, helping create operas, having a regular column or two and keeping up a terrific blog, TT has been good enough to respond to e-mails I've sent him over the years. I really like the way he writes, but am amazed by his productivity.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Group Music

Every so often Jeffrey Agrell writes a post that clearly states something in my mind that I've never so clearly verbalized myself, and he's done it again in this post. Following my "regular reads" has been one of the most fruitful exercises ever when it comes to trying to develop the learning materials.

In the post linked, Jeffrey makes the point that working with others can be much more beneficial than solitary practice. A basic premise of the materials I'm trying to create is that they enable players of various instruments and with different skill levels to work together. I'd much rather facilitate small ensembles working and learning together than giving lessons to individual players. Working in a group can vastly accelerate one's musical progress, and it can be a lot more fun than plugging away on your own. Being able to focus on just one element of the music rather than trying to do it all by yourself allows for a much more relaxed approach.

When I had my practice in San Antonio, one of the places I worked was in the closed classrooms for emotionally disturbed children in a public school district. Many of the students had very poor social skills. Working together mostly non-verbally playing music together was a great way for them to learn how to get along successfully with others, and over time the verbal social skills would usually follow.

In my current Friday group that performs as the Kenwood Players, one of the things I most enjoy is watching how working together musically is creating a wonderful social dynamic amongst the players.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Pliable has done another great post delving into the nature of music, in this case the art of listening to music. He's covering a lot of ground here, so it's one of those posts I'll be coming back to after trying to think through the issues he's raised. 

His mention of an anechoic chamber reminded me of going into one after hours in the psych building when I was in college. Very, very strange feeling and mostly unpleasant. It made me realize just how important sound is in our establishing our relationship to world.

Pliable says, "Music appreciation is all about retuning the human ear." I largely agree, but find myself wondering if there isn't a better word than "retuning". And while he doesn't say so, he seems to be implying a limitless degree to the readjustment of what we can accept as meaningful. While we can certainly expand our musical sensibilities over time, some of the brain's wiring appears to set a kind of limit.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Music Therapy in the WSJ

This article in the Wall Street Journal is the best summary of the current state of music therapy I can remember coming across. Here are a few quotes:

>>>   Dr. Tomaino says she frequently sees dementia patients make gains in cognitive function after music therapy. In one unpublished study she led a few years ago, with funding from the New York State Department of Health, 45 patients with mid- to late-stage dementia had one hour of personalized music therapy, three times a week, for 10 months, and improved their scores on a cognitive-function test by 50% on average. One patient in the study recognized his wife for the first time in months. . . 

. . . decades of studies have demonstrated that music can help premature infants gain weight, autistic children communicate, stroke patients regain speech and mobility, dental, surgical and orthopedic patients control chronic pain and psychiatric patients manage anxiety and depression . . .

. . . There's no single center for music in the mind—the brain appears to be wired throughout for music, since it engages a wide variety of functions, including listening, language and movement. But Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis's Center for Mind and Brain, recently located an area of the brain—the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead—that seems to serve as a hub for music, memory and emotions. . . . <<<

I am increasingly confident that in just a decade or two or three, music therapy will be much better understood, much more widely used, and simply accepted as a valued resource for healing the mind and body, and for helping people to stay healthy in the first place. The effects of music have been talked about since at least the time of Plato, but we've finally got the research tools to go beyond the intuitive and to have concrete data. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Horn Diary

Our community band concert was earlier this evening, and to my ear we've never played better. The intonation seemed good, the balance was great, and there was very good rhythmic cohesion. As mentioned in a previous post, our director has had us work on bits and sections in the lead up, and we didn't play through whole pieces much until the final rehearsal and tonight. And tonight to warm up we went through the transitions that were still troublesome. That approach paid off wonderfully. There were no spell breaking misplayings. 

The other thing that made the concert such a success was having the C'ville horn section, four wonderful players, sitting in for the concert. For me it was amazingly easier and way more fun having all that horn sound around me rather than being on my lonesome. Rather than trying to establish my pitch in the band sound as a whole, I felt as though I were merely filling obvious tonal slots. And being able to rest my lips for a beat or two whenever I wanted seemed positively decadent. 

But beyond making my life much easier, having that horn section gave real solidity to our sound as a band as a whole. It gave the trumpets something to blend into and took a little of the edge off of their sound and did that amazing thing the horn sound can do of filling out the woodwind sound. And detached notes in rhythmic patterns with five of us playing really complemented the percussion section.

This was Mr. Torian's last concert with us. He, very understandably, got tired of driving all the way down here for rehearsals and finding so many empty chairs. That probably means the horns won't be coming again either, as it was as a favor to him that they came. Which is a real drag because I'm now officially spoiled.

One other thing that he did which was tremendously helpful to me was having prepared a script for brief comments on the pieces as we played them. The info relayed was top notch and very interesting, but the nice break between the pieces gave me a chance to get the last one out of my mind and start mentally preparing for the next. I don't remember having that much time before in previous concerts, but I do remember sometimes still having the previous piece whirling in my head when starting the next.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

This morning the members of the community band that were able to do so assembled and played for the town's Veterans Day ceremony, held indoors at the American Legion Hall due to a steady rain. We played two marches, the Coast Guard's song Semper Paratus, and the National Anthem. School children sang, speeches were made, the colors presented and benedictions made.

Having grown up here, I knew a lot of the folks present, and some came up and thanked us for playing for them. You could sense that for these veterans and their families, the music meant a great deal. These Veterans Day performances and the ones for Memorial Day mean far more to me than the concerts we give. It's music therapy on the community level. The regular concerts are entertaining, but only that. At today's event there was a deeper transaction.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Horn Diary

Yesterday was the one and only rehearsal with the extra horns before the band concert this Saturday. Three very good players from the Charlottesville Municipal Band with many decades of experience between them were good enough to drive down and join us. It's the first time in the five years I've been in the band I've had the experience of being part of a horn section. It was amazing. 

For one thing, practically everything was easier. I knew right away if I was making the right note. Whenever I was the least tired I could drop out for a few notes, so finished up the evening with lip to spare. We had great volume without my having to work as hard as I usually do being the only horn. Because the horn parts were being so well played, the structure the arrangers are going for in the pieces as a whole became much more apparent and more easily achieved.

I'd seen on the horn blogs various mentions of horn players being good people, and this was borne out. All sorts of questions and arrangements were carried out pleasantly and efficiently. Plus, they were kind enough to not even mention my unorthodox playing position. 

They were befuddled, though, by my having restrung the trigger so that doing nothing means I'm on the Bb side. To me that's mere common sense, as it's the Bb side where you're most likely to have issues with muscle tension trying for those high notes, so having a completely relaxed thumb helps me. 

One player also noticed that my individual valve slides were not pulled out. I've gone back and forth on this, but now that my embouchure seems to be settling down, I think I should go back and try adjusting them again. This summer when I was working exclusively on the F horn I'd pushed them all back in and used the embouchure to fine tune pitches.

One of the players also mentioned in passing, as I have a Yamaha horn, that she's been told by a horn repair person that "Yamahas all play sharp". I'm still puzzling on that as it doesn't make any sense to me as yet.

The only downside to it all was my old nemesis of over-stimulation. When I first started playing in the band it was a huge challenge to not let everything else going on lessen my concentration on playing the horn. Last night I made several rhythm errors I'd never made before, probably because in my mind I was often going, "Wow! Shazam! What an amazing sound! etc." and lost track of the beat without realizing it.

One other thing to mention about the rehearsal is that our new conductor works "from the front" as Bruce Hembd explains it in this post. Though I think here that approach is being taken because our new director is an old hand and knows ahead of time where the problems are going to be and has pulled those out to work on in rehearsals. Last night was the first time we played all the way through some of the pieces and hearing them complete made them seem different.

Valerie Wells

Valerie Wells helps Jeff Smiley with the horn aspect of his Balanced Embouchure method. When I got in touch with him just a little less than a year ago, he gave me her contact info so I could buy his book from her and so that she would be there to answer questions about how BE works with the horn. 

Just like Jeff, she responds quickly to emails and is happy to answer questions. Periodically she has sent out group emails to the BE horn group with tips and updated exercises made appropriate for horn (Jeff plays trumpet).

Here in the past few weeks she's been getting a blog going as a way to stay in touch with BE horn players and to be a place where those interested in BE can get an idea of what it's about. She has a couple of good posts up now, one about her experience with BE and another about how it has helped others.

As I said in the post last week about Jeff's updated site, I find his approach to helping people learn music making to be very impressive. He understands we all come to music making with different bodies and minds, so there's information in the book covering a very wide range of issues. Very few folks are going to need every bit of the info, but whatever you do need for your particular situation is probably there.

A lot of music educators seem to operate on the principle that the student is an empty vessel needing only to be told the "correct" way of doing things. Jeff's approach begins with respect for the student as an individual, and an expectation that the student will be an active participant in figuring out what works best for him or her. 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Music and Learning

This article, summarizing research presented at a gathering of "acoustics experts", talks about how making music regularly as a child can improve elements of brain function.

>>  "Even a year or two of music training leads to enhanced levels of memory and attention when measured by the same type of tests that monitor electrical and magnetic impulses in the brain. . .

. . .“We therefore hypothesize that musical training (but not necessarily passive listening to music) affects attention and memory, which provides a mechanism whereby musical training might lead to better learning across a number of domains," . . .

. . . found a correlation between early-childhood training in music and enhanced motor and auditory skills as well as improvements in verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. . .

. . . Shahin's main findings are that the changes triggered by listening to musical sound increases with age and the greatest increase occur between age 10 and 13. This most likely indicates this as being a sensitive period for music and speech acquisition.  <<

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tibetan Music

Here's a blog that covers efforts being made to document music of the Tibetan people before the Chinese Communists obliterate the culture with torture and execution. The people going out into the field and doing this are courageous, which is more than you can say for our political class when it comes to this issue. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jeff Smiley

Jeff Smiley is the man who came up with the "Balanced Embouchure" approach I've mentioned various times in posts with the "BE" label. Basically I was ready to give up the horn about a year ago due to a recurrent lip callus. I came across his website, ordered the book, and with the info in that book, turned around my horn playing, got rid of the callus, have extended my range and endurance a bit, and feel much more confident about my playing.

I find his approach a wonderful model for presenting information on how to go about learning music and hope to emulate it as much as possible in my own materials. Learning music is a complicated endeavor calling for attention to a wide range of issues and Jeff does a great job of getting you to think them through and to figure out what works best for you as an individual.

He has revamped his web site, especially the section for horn players. Highly recommended.