Monday, December 28, 2009

Mirrored Feelings

Here's a quote from Roger Scruton's Understanding Music, which I found in this review of the book, which was linked by Arts and Letters Daily (a terrific website).

>>> Just as facial expressions do not communicate something that can be understood so much as enjoin us to imagine what it feels like when we ourselves make such an expression, so too, according to Scruton, does some elemental aspect of musical experience enjoin us to engage our imagining in similar fashion. In this way, and because the experience of music is not, at least not typically, heard as a single expression, the imagination is forced to grapple with the musical shapes and forms as they unfold over time, following its movement as it echoes in, or is anticipated by, the movements of our body and rational imagination. <<<

This seems a very good non-technical way of talking about mirror neurons and how they enable musical communication.

photo - animal tracks on the two feet of snow we had just over a week ago

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Notes on Caroling

* At Gordon House we started with me on guitar, then some four part carols with me on flute or horn, then finished with guitar, closing with a sing along. That set up a really nice pace to the performance. Rhythm guitar is really my strong suit, with years of experience engaging audiences with it, and it builds momentum and excitement. Then, once we have the audience with us we can count on their attention for the instrumental pieces. In the past at Gordon House I'd tried leaving the guitar until the end, but book-ending the performance with it worked much better.

* On the four part carols from the hymnal, starting with someone on all four voices on the first iteration, then a duet on the second, then all four on the third worked much better than starting with a duet. Starting an iteration with a solo and then other voices coming in on subsequent lines also works. Stringing two or three carols together in one simple arrangement would be a nice improvement as well. If they were in the same key you could just go right from one to the other, letting someone solo on the soprano line on the follow on tune(s) to set the new tempo and feel. If you just did two tunes in an ABA arrangement, there'd be no need for page turns if they were on facing pages.

* I get tired of the sound of my voice on the guitar numbers. It's fine for leading sing alongs and egging on instrumentalists without having to be amplified. The problem is that in working to project, nuance and sustain tend to get lost, and for whatever reason, I tend to slip into the country accent I grew up with around here. Five of the Players are in choirs and/or the community chorus. I've tried to get them to sing before and met with stiff resistance. Need to try to see if rather than singing solos, or duets with me, they can be cajoled into being a mini-chorus with me of six voices. Also need to see how it would work having someone play the lead line along with me when I sing, so I wouldn't have to fill up so much melodic space with my voice alone. I always sort of expect the help, but instrumentalists seem trained to never step on anyone else's solo.

* For the Art Center benefit, need to arrange the Players better for balance, and get the singers in closer. Would also be good to break the sing along up into two or three sessions rather than one long one. Could do one session with just guitar and the Players who can play by ear, which would allow for pitching the tunes especially for particular singers on any particular song. This year I sort of hid the recorder, which made for poor balance on the CD. I'd worried that seeing it might put some people off singing, but with the performing type folks that showed up for the event that wouldn't be a problem.

* The organization of the music books for the Players needs to be completely redone. This year it ended up being like layers in an archaeological dig with front, middle and back sections as I added new material without wanting to reprint things already done. All the versions of each carol need to be grouped together and clearly marked as four part and/or guitar version, and each of those should have the concert key clearly marked with an ossia staff showing the highest (and maybe lowest) note in the song in that particular key. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Visual Neglect

This BBC story talks about how someone who has "visual neglect" due to a stroke can have improved vision by simply listening to music they like.

>>> Neglect occurs when the right parietal lobe of the brain, which affects space and navigation, is affected. . .  those affected would behave as if the left side of sensory space were nonexistent.
In extreme cases, they might not eat the food on the left side of their plate, or if asked to draw a clock, their drawing might only show the numbers 12 and one to six, the other half being distorted or left blank. This changed when they listened to their favourite music.

"They became aware of things on their bad side that were often missed if they were not listening to it," he said.

"We also did some functional brain imaging - and what we showed was that activity, around where the stroke had been, increased." <<<


One of the reasons our performance at Gordon House was such a success had to do with familiarity in various manifestations.

* We've played there several times now, so I knew exactly what to take and how to set it up and arrange the players, the players knew how to get there and to come in the easiest way and the residents remembered us and had an idea of what to expect. There was none of the last minute adjusting and flurry of getting ready that can wear me out even before starting to play. 

* Having played in the room before, we were able to play well to its acoustics for the best blend of sounds at a volume level suited exactly to the environment. 

* All the studies showing how beneficial music is for the elderly and those with brain dysfunction talk about how familiar music can trigger all sorts of positive responses, and there's no music more familiar, and having more positive associations, than Christmas music.

* The current membership of the Kenwood Players has been in place since June, and we've met just about every Friday. The group has come together both socially and musically. We're used to playing with each other and have a good idea of what to expect and how to best contribute to the overall sound. The director of Gordon House is a church organist and choir director and he volunteered after we played that he was really impressed with the blend we achieved.

* By the time we'd rehearsed for the Art Center benefit, then did that, then rehearsed again after that, we were very familiar with the arrangements I'd done, so everybody had worked out little improvised riffs and accompanying patterns to all the tunes we did. There was a nice mix of the freshness of improvisation within the somewhat settled arrangements.

* For the final three numbers we did full sing along and I was able to slip into singing leader role, which is much more familiar to me than straight performing. People often mention how effective it is when I move around from person to person to encourage them to sing. If you're used to "performing", that can seem unusual, but for me it's straight performing that's more of a challenge, especially on flute and horn.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Gordon House

Yesterday the group played over at the Gordon House, a small assisted living facility just over in Gordonsville. All eight of us played for no more than two dozen residents in a room 40'x30' with a carpet. We used the same music books prepared for the Arts Center benefit and played for an hour. We started with Frosty, Rudolph and White Christmas with me on guitar and alternating vocals with instrumental solos, with others improvising harmonies and counter melodies. Then we did five carols from the hymn book arranged for instrumentals with me on flute for four and horn for one. Closed with some hymnal carols arranged for guitar like the first set and then Jingle Bells and We Wish You as a coda. Did a sing along version of Silent Night as encore.

It was our best performance to date. Very good intonation, great blend, wonderful freshness due to the improvised elements, and, most importantly, a terrific connection with the audience, whose median age was probably 80. They applauded enthusiastically after each number, and sang along amazingly well on Jingle Bells and Silent Night. 

The Gordon House performances are really a lab for me to test out how the materials work when performed with an audience I'm used to from private practice days in San Antonio. It's close, I can back up to the door of the room we use and off load stands and mats and instruments directly into the room, and the acoustics are good for recording.

Doing all the arrangements for horn, flute, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, alto sax and Eb tubas; getting my guitar skills and voice back to sing along level; and practicing the horn and flute - it's been a busy six weeks or so, but the Arts Center benefit and this event made it all worthwhile. I've learned a tremendous amount, and want to detail some of that in subsequent posts. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Keys for Singing

Leading a sing along with just guitar is relatively easy if you have a capo. As you get a feel for the range of the group you can adjust the key by simply using the capo on different frets. A G chord with the capo on the first fret is Ab, and is a Bb with the capo on the third fret. 

Adding in orchestral or band instruments complicates things because as a rule, most players can't transpose in their heads, and capos don't work on clarinets. So you have to print out the music ahead of time in whatever key you think will work. For the Christmas caroling I'd assumed that there would be mostly untrained voices, so took most songs down around a third, and used flat keys to make things easier for the Bb and Eb instruments.

Then a week before the event I found out a lot of choir and chorus members were being invited, so went back and put things in their standard keys, plus or minus a step or two to keep the key signatures in flats. (With very, very few exceptions, hymns and carols will be in the same key in every hymnal you find.) So for every carol we had a choice of at least two keys, and that worked out well as some folks were more comfortable with lower keys and others with higher ones.

The format for most of the arrangements was to have the melody line, the bass line and guitar chords. To play the guitar in Eb or F I usually used the key of D capoed on the 1st or 3rd fret. For Ab and Bb I used G capoed on the 1st or 3rd fret. The exceptions were when the ii, iii, and/or vi chords required too many bar chords, which I can play but would rather pay attention to leading the singing than complicated fretting.

One of the problems with sheet music is that if the key doesn't suit your vocal range you're out of luck. For my music materials to really be helpful I think all the songs should be presented in at least three or four keys using the melody/bass line/guitar chord format in smaller print for the extra versions. That would also be a spur to improvisation.

Caroling 2.0 - Overview

Last week the Kenwood Players performed as a benefit for the local art center. The venue was a large private home and the program included us playing instrumental Christmas music first, and then having the guests sing along with the Players. I've done caroling for years with just the guitar, but this was the first time trying to incorporate other instruments. 

Overall, it was a great success based on the responses of the guests, both that night and as I've met them around town since. There were lots of things I'd do differently profiting from this experience, but the enthusiasm of the guests having the opportunity to sing along with 2 Eb tubas, percussion, trombone, alto sax, clarinet, trumpet and guitar carried the day. 

One of my notions is that exposing folks to band and orchestral instruments in an informal setting like this is a positive experience. Before recorded music, gatherings like this were the norm for generations and generations. These days most people encounter such instruments only in formal concert situations, which is fine, but it's not the only way they can be utilized and enjoyed. A basic aim of the materials I'm working on is to facilitate evenings like this.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


As a conservatory student working for my RMT credential, my major was piano and my minor was voice. The single thing I most remember from the voice lessons is how wonderful an aid yawning can be to opening and relaxing the throat. The teacher would often bring me back to basics by having me yawn, and over the years helping others with their voice I've done the same. Just feeling how open and relaxed the throat can be is a terrific antidote to the extra tension we can bring to singing.

Turns out yawning is helpful in other ways as well. Here are two quotes:

>>> brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the areas of the brain that are directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy. One of those areas is the precuneus, a tiny structure hidden within the folds of the parietal lobe. According to researchers at the Institute of Neurology in London, the precuneus appears to play a central role in consciousness, self-reflection, and memory retrieval. The precuneus is also stimulated by yogic breathing, which helps explain why different forms of meditation contribute to an increased sense of self-awareness. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by age-related diseases and attention deficit problems, so it’s possible that deliberate yawning may actually strengthen this important part of the brain. . . .

. . .  the precuneus has recently been associated with the mirror-neuron system in the brain (which allows us to resonate to the feelings and behaviors of others), yawning may even help us to enhance social awareness, compassion, and effective communication with others. . . . 

Emotional Substrate

This brief article talking about the effect of music on emotions has a quote suggesting something I'd not seen before, that it seems part of what might be happening is that music has a physical effect that the body translates into an emotional effect.

>>> “Music induces a continuous, dynamic—and to some extent predictable—change in the cardiovascular system,” said Luciano Bernardi, M.D., lead researcher of the study and professor of Internal Medicine at Pavia University in Pavia, Italy. “It is not only the emotion that creates the cardiovascular changes, but this study suggests that also the opposite might be possible, that cardiovascular changes may be the substrate for emotions, likely in a bi-directional way.” <<<