Friday, December 31, 2010

Music/Spiritual Practice

This post by Pliable gets at something I've tried to talk about here from time to time, i.e. the parallels between engagement in music and engagement in a spiritual path. He's talking about Zen Buddhism, but I think other paths would qualify for this discussion.

Accepting parallels between engaging new listeners and transmission as practiced in Zen Buddhism takes us down an interesting path. Transmission is totally dependant on physical interaction between teacher and student.

His use of the word "transmission" implies something of more value than mere entertainment to pass the time. "Physical interaction" allows for the deeper communication possible with embodied cognition and mirror neurons. It also allows for the connection between the performer and audience Hilary Hahn has spoken of.

All the dogmas that have developed around reaching new audiences involve adding insulating layers between performer and listener; these range from performance conventions to digital concert halls and virtual orchestras. Yet, if the analogy between classical music and transmission is valid, the process should be reversed. We do not need more intermediate layers. Instead we need high voltages to flow between superconductors (pun not intended) in close promiximity to one another. Which means more live music, physical interaction between audience and performers, music education, music therapy, amateur, youth and scratch orchestras and similar initiatives. And less of an awful lot of things we are getting more of.

It amazes me that more people don't see things this way. It delights me that one of the few happens to have one of the most widely read blogs on the planet. 

Another way of putting this is that there's a lot of attention paid to the very top of the music making pyramid, but not nearly so much to the rest of it down below. In schools, lots of money and time is expended upon the small minority of students in the band and chorus, while the majority are shut out, sometimes very rudely. Many people seem to view music making as something to be left to the elite, but the new research coming in is telling us it can benefit us all, not just the technically advanced. 

One of the main causes of this focus on the top of the pyramid is the ubiquity of recorded music with all its technical perfections. People tend to conflate the value of technical skill with the value of simply making music and listening to it. To my mind the main issue is that there be a match between the music being made and the audience's ability to appreciate it. It's that connection which is important, and technical wizardry can either be a help or a hinderance. A priest or lama helping someone along the path doesn't spout the arcane points of theology until the student is ready. Getting someone on a good path and helping them stay on it is more important than trying to impress them with your knowledge.

This all reminds me of why I write music. For me, the point is to create music the players will enjoy playing and the audience will enjoy listening to. If that happens, the connection is made and the benefits of music will flow from that connection to all concerned. The most heartening thing about the reception Timepiece is getting is the sense it's largely successful in those terms. (More on this compositional motivation here)

(Pliable continues down this path here and is kind enough to mention this post in the footnote)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Timepiece : Audio

Here's the audio of the second performance of Timepiece by the St Clements Wind Ensemble at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this past August. I still have a hard time believing my great good fortune in having such fine players perform the piece.

If anyone is interested, I'm giving away PDFs of the score and parts, only asking in return for a recording of the piece and a photo of the players I can put up on the blog if it's actually worked up. My hope is that there can be multiple interpretations of the piece that work as well as this one. The address is MusicMakersMusic at AOL dot com. Let me know whether you use A4 or 8.5 x 11 size paper.

Thanks again to Jonathan West for making this all possible and for his terrific editing of the piece for performance.

The program note giving the history of the piece is here.

The performance notes which talk about what I was trying to do are here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Improvisational Brain

This article is simply the best thing I've ever seen on what improvisation is and the neuroscience involved. Many thanks to Martin I. Gaines for the tip.

. . .The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas. . .

. . . At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.” . . . 

. . .When Berkowitz and Ansari looked at the subjects’ brain maps, they found three regions that were activated during all tasks that involved improvisation, whether it was rhythmic or melodic
 . . . the anterior cingulate, is enlisted for most cognitive tasks, especially when the brain needs to decide between a surfeit of potentially conflicting responses
 . . . the dorsal premotor cortex, acts as a type of command center for crucial sensory input about where the body is and how it negotiates space. If the body has to move, what will be its goal and how fast should it go? Analyzing this input, the region issues a plan of action. When the musicians started to improvise, this region, already active during the playing of memorized melodies, ramped up significantly, possibly due to the musicians’ need to execute anything they could conceive of playing
. . . .the inferior frontal gyrus/ventral premotor cortex—has long been known as an area key to our ability to understand and produce language. While more recent studies have linked it to music processing, Berkowitz and Ansari are the first to show that it plays a role in generating music as well. This would seem to strengthen the theory that music functions similar to language in the brain 

. . . .Results showed a veritable symphony of activated and deactivated brain regions during improvisation, which included the regions noted by Berkowitz and Ansari. The strangest activity, Limb said, occurred in the prefrontal cortex, where the scientists observed a surge in medial prefrontal activity, the “self-expressive, autobiographical brain region,” and, simultaneously, a broad deactivation in the lateral prefrontal regions, the area that governs self-consciousness and inhibition. In other words, in the improviser’s brain, the area that imposes self-restraint powers down, allowing the region that drives self-expression, which ramps up, to proceed virtually unchecked. “This notion of trying to tell your own musical story, without the constraints of caring how well it’s going as you’re saying it, was really pretty intriguing,” Limb said.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Benefits of Caroling

Here's a BBC article on the benefits of singing Christmas carols. There's nothing new in it, but it's a nice round up of the various ways singing is good for your overall health. Back 30 years ago you'd have only seen stuff like this in music therapy texts or in books in the back of theosophist book stores. The commonplace acceptance of the benefits of music making these days is very gratifying, and a sign of how much things have changed. 

Here are a few snips from the article:

"As it's an aerobic activity singing improves heart health with related benefits to overall health and is linked to longevity, stress reduction, and general health maintenance. Singing also brings a great amount of happiness. It is impossible to sing well with a long face because it affects your pitch. Keeping the positive momentum up is essential. If we smile as we sing then people soon feel the benefit in more ways than one. There is also the adrenalin kick brought on by a performance - a sensation familiar to both professional opera singers and even anyone brave enough to step up to the microphone to sing in front of their friends in the pub. . . .

 . . . the body is an integrated system, sometimes called the human body-mind, linking the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. The physical, mental and emotional - these three things are interwoven. Because music is multi-sited in the brain and we're also involving ourselves in strong aerobic activity and singing is a form of exercise, it means there's a release of what's called the pleasure hormone. But when we sing we also see a measurable decrease in stress hormones like cortisol - a direct correlation in the physical endocrine system." . . .

 . . . "It lifts us up on a spiritual level, it helps our self-esteem, and it's great for all ages from toddlers to grannies - you can have a good sing and let your hair down." . . .

Monday, December 20, 2010

Red Moon

One of the lines for "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" I picked up somewhere along the line over the years is, "Oh, when the moon shines red with blood". I didn't really know what it meant until I saw the phenomenon some years back during a lunar eclipse, when the moon took on a reddish hue. 

There's a lunar eclipse tonight, so depending on conditions this may be one of those times the "moon shines red with blood".

Once Upon A Night

Once Upon A Night is a Christmas cantata by Pepper Choplin. Al Packard, our local impresario (who created our community chorus and community band out of nothing, and who is the music director for the Presbyterian Church), put together a performance of this yesterday morning for the Sunday service, pulling together an impressive number of local performers.

This piece of music is hands down the music I've most enjoyed playing in an ensemble since taking up the horn five or six years ago. Most of the music we play in the community band (except the Sousa) and the Presbyterian Ensemble seems to my ear to be written by pedagogues for pedagogues. There's always the feeling each piece is really an etude meant to drill the students and impress theory minded people - with modulations and meter changes and tempo shifts and articulation workouts every few measures, few of which seem called for to my ear, which enjoys the sustained building of feeling states and finds all the sudden shifting off-putting. 

The piece was written for narrator, chorus and soloists, and piano, and then optional orchestration was added. We had a flute, oboe/English horn and horn, all of which stay pretty busy, along with percussion, a clarinet, the bassoon part played by trombone, a trombone, two trumpets, a tuba and a string bass. 

There were meter changes here and there throughout, but always following the rhythm of the text in a completely natural and reinforcing way. The few modulations were also tightly bound to the text.

The flute and oboe/English horn had a lot of interludes between and under the narrations and choruses/solos/duets. The horn had some of that, along with a lot of being under the vocals with harmonies and counter melodies (it was reminiscent at times of supporting singers with a guitar). 

One of the things I most liked about the piece is the way multiple melodies and counter melodies are woven together. The flute and oboe or English horn often had intertwining lines, but that weaving of melodies happens throughout the piece for everyone.

I was not the only one struck by the beauty of the piece. A number of players and singers mentioned how much they liked it. The great thing, though, was talking to the congregation afterwards (many of whom I've known all my sixty some years) and hearing in their voices and seeing in their eyes just how moved they were.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flute Diary

This past Sunday I played flute in three pieces at the Presbyterian Church in Orange. Two were at the beginning of the service with the ensemble and one was an obbligato part with the choir and organ (the music of which I got just two weeks previously).

I did fairly well, and got some nice compliments from some musical folks. About half the time I played as well as I can right now (with a tone quality I'm very excited about), and the rest of the time the slight cracks and the unintended vibrato here and there didn't seem to be disruptive enough to break the spell. 

For the piece with the choir I was up in the gallery with them, and the acoustics of the church are even more reverberant up there. It almost feels like playing a duet with another flute due to the sound reinforcement. The downside, which I discovered going up there and practicing by myself once, is that if you don't end a phrase beautifully and cleanly, that wounded sound will hang out there on its own for a while.

In practicing for this performance I again came up against something I've mentioned before. Having spent my childhood and adolescence plugging away at the piano, my brain is wired to think moving just one finger is all that's needed to move a step up or down. Notes like A flats and F sharps on the flute really hang me up if they're part of a run of sixteenth notes. Trying to concentrate enough to get them (because they're nowhere near automatic for me) can make me tense up, and that makes them even harder, whereas keeping my shoulders relaxed and letting that relaxed alertness spread all the way down to the fingertips makes everything easier.

It all reminds me of that Marvin Minsky(?) book Society of Mind and of the idea gaining currency with the neuroscientists that our brain works as a distributed network. One part of my mind knows I should keep the shoulders relaxed, but something I'm doing elsewhere in the network is having the side effect of making me tense them up if my attention to that issue lapses in the least.

Another factor in all this was my playing the horn off and on for three hours the previous day at a rehearsal for a cantata there at the same church for next Sunday. It may be that if I can build up my flute embouchure enough I can play it concurrently with the horn. Right now, though, playing the horn 24 to 48 hours before a flute performance leaves me feeling I have less motor control over the fine adjustments of the aperture needed to get good tone on each of the pitches played.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


The first time I can remember associating the word "natural" with making music was back in the 80's when I heard a radio interview with Tony La Russa and he used the word responding to the question of why he thought he was such a successful baseball team manager. He said that he'd never been a natural player, so in order to improve enough to make it in the big leagues, he had to analyze all the facets of the game so that he could figure out how to do things like hit and run bases. That meant he was in a good position to help others play to the best of their ability. 

I immediately had the realization that I was in the same position making music. With the possible exception of rhythm guitar/banjo, I am in no way a "natural" musician. And all the work I've done to improve my skills helps me help others.

The next time I consciously thought about "natural" music makers was reading Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure. I can't remember if he expressly says so, but I came away with the feeling that his method for trumpet/horn players is a rigorous set of exercises embedded in a well thought out philosophy that helps students find their way to playing as if they were a "natural" player.

All of this has come to mind because of this post by Bruce Hembd, where he makes the point that there's nothing "natural" about playing the horn:

Until animals start buzzing their lips in the jungle, I don’t buy the ‘natural’ approach that some teachers tout as a selling point – along with its abstract, pop-psychology terminology. . . 

. . . Playing a brass instrument requires technical knowledge, and mental and physical skill. For some that requires breaking things down and analyzing it to see how it works and all fits together. 

This slightly different usage of "natural" tripped me up the first few times I read the post. I agree with the point being made, but also feel trying to figure out how to get the body to work in the most natural manner possible is the way to go. (Valerie Wells, the horn rep for Jeff's BE method comments approvingly to Bruce's post.)

All of these ideas about "natural" players and how to learn from them raises the issue of our consciousness when playing. Stan Musial didn't go to the plate turning over in his mind all the details needed to hit well, he just hit the ball. Once the rest of us learn from observing naturals, we need to work with what we've learned enough so that we don't need to think about it either - that's what practice is all about. What starts out as conscious thought should over time slip down into more automatic behavior. If we do all that well, an observer should have a difficult time picking out who was originally a "natural" and who wasn't.

Update: I was remiss in not mentioning this post by James Boldin, which I'd read and commented on before making my own post here. Dave Wilken also posted on the subject 
(and included links to some great posts of his touching on the subject), and Julia Rose has a very interesting post responding to Bruce here.

This discussion is one of the reasons I find blogging so beneficial - all these people who really know their subject spending time sharing their knowledge and insights.

Update 2: Want to paste in Julia Rose's response to a comment I left on her post:

I don’t think I’ve changed approaches, but rather I’ve gone back to an approach I used before. Every single success I’ve had in my career (making finals in auditions, competitions, etc.) I attribute to my thinking musically instead of technically when I played. However, when I started running into problems a couple years ago (as everyone eventually does, I think) I began to focus on what I thought was physically going wrong. But there is just too much going on physically for one to think about, at least while playing. I know now that when one runs into problems, one must continue to think musically in order to solve the problem.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I just left a comment on this post by Jeffrey Agrell where he talks about so many students wanting to participate in competitions by playing pieces beyond their current capability. It's a great post with lots of food for thought. One thing it helped me realize is just how important a tool competition is in the educational system as a motivator and a winnower. In music therapy, competition just isn't in the picture. 

Here's the comment:

Hi, Jeffrey – Just a terrific post I’ve read several times now and keep seeing new things. The “patience for the process” phrase seems perfect for music education, and you’ve set me wondering how I’d rephrase it for music therapy.

“The difference between practice mind and performance mind” is something I hope you will expand on sometime.

Your general idea list reads like part of a music therapist’s care plan.

To me, this obsession with competitions is just the music education system’s ethos turned up an extra notch. I’m an outsider looking in, but competition seems a basic tool used by educators to get musical results, and part of the ongoing winnowing process.

The always striving for greater technique seems to trump letting students play things they’ve fully mastered technically so that they might mine them and themselves for a deeper understanding of musicality.

Like everything in music, a balance of some kind is needed, and you’ve done a great job of outlining the thinking needed to find it.

Performance Diary

Yesterday in the early afternoon, all eight Kenwood Players did a set of half Dixieland, half Christmas music over at Gordon House, a retirement home close by where we play two or three times a year. Then in the early evening I took a guitar and a banjo to a small fund raiser for the James Madison Museum in a little store front on Main Street in Orange. Various local musicians, including a clarinet quartet and a father and daughter singing songs they'd written with two guitar accompaniment. Everyone had an hour slot and I was the last.

In both performances I felt a great connection with the audience. At Gordon House everyone was moving, singing with us at times, and applauding enthusiastically. At the fund raiser I had people paying attention to the lyrics of Dylan songs and reacting to punch lines and quirky phrases, and the applause there was enthusiastic as well.

One thing that struck me was compliments from both other players at Gordon House as well as both audiences that specified having done a good show. I think I'm beginning to find that sweet spot between being a "performer" and a "therapist". Again it has to do with that combining the expected and the unexpected our brains like so much. The professionally experienced players enjoy the loose approach, like running through road maps of who's going to do what right before a number and including the audience in the conversation. And the folks at the benefit seemed to enjoy my slipping into a bit of a performer's persona to communicate some of what Dylan is up to.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Back Issues

For the past several weeks I've been spending more time on a daily basis practicing music, working to extend my technique enough to perform some new pieces on horn and flute, than I have since conservatory days (late 70's). Back then I was a piano major, not having touched a keyboard for something like ten years before wanting to get credentialed as a music therapist. I lived with an amazingly tense and sore back, right between the shoulder blades.

Since then I've gotten and done a lot of bodywork. Pretty much everyone has back and shoulder issues, usually from a mostly unconscious hunching of the shoulders. For me, when I'm working to deepen my technique, whether its keyboard, guitar, banjo, flute or horn, there's a tendency to let the intensity of my mental effort create needless physical tension, especially in the shoulders and their muscle attachments to the torso. It's sort of a negative example of embodied cognition. The relaxed and alert physical state best for making music seems a little antithetical to our mental image of someone working hard and thinking hard.

Somehow my feeling of really working hard and concentrating and being completely focused on the task at hand suggests the body posture of hunching over the instrument and using exaggerated control gestures and scowling (!). I'll catch myself, relax, let my shoulders slip back to a more neutral position and let go of the facial contortions. Then the next time I see 16th notes in a key signature of more than a couple of sharps or flats, or have a new chord or chord progression to fret, I slip back into the needless extra tension. Over time I slip back less, and to usually a lighter degree of tension, but it always happens. My suspicion is that those two and a half years of intense piano work, with very little sense of what I was doing to my body, helped me create this situation.

Jeffrey Agrell and James Boldin over on the Regular Reads: Horn list both have talked about the need to be aware of basic body issues when learning to make music and I think they're really on to something. As a therapist I've always paid a lot of attention to how a client physically interacts with an instrument. I just wish I'd figured out my own issues before wiring my brain and body in some dysfunctional ways back in the day. 

Update - Pasting in below most of a comment left by Jonathan West, as it is so responsive to my post:

I'm with James & Jeffrey on being aware of your physical state when playing. It may be that you need to put regular relaxation exercises explicitly into your practice routine.

When you play horn in band, you aren't playing continuously, so it is reasonable for your practice at home to mimic to some extent the kinds of activities involved when you play in a group. And that consists of bursts of playing interspersed with rests. If you get into the habit of doing some kind of relaxation exercise during home practice, you may find that it comes increasingly naturally to you to do such execises during rests in band rehearsal as well, and you may find that this has a surprising effect on your endurance.

As for what exercises to do, I suspect that you're in a better position than I am to know the sorts of exercises that would be good for you.

Relaxation exercises to loosen your shoulders are great, but I think that it would be an even better idea to find some kind of relaxation technique that stops your shoulders getting bunched in the first place.

Try standing, and play an octave scale of long tones, each one with a long crescendo and diminuendo. You get rid of all technical issues, and you just concentrate on feeling relaxed and getting that smooth intense non-brassy tone you want, all the way from p to f and back again. Think of and feel your shoulders as you crescendo and concentrate on remaining relaxed.

If you find yourself getting tense during practice, stop what you are doing, do a relaxation exercise to un-knit your shoulder muscles, and then do a couple of long tones to remind yourself how you should be feeling when playing. Then go back to what you were doing before.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Overdoing Music

In this post about John Cage, Kyle Gann says:

If I no longer listen to the 1950 String Quartet, it's because I listened to it so frequently in my younger years that I kind of overdid it - most Mahler falls in the same category.

It's obvious, once you think about it, that your experience of a particular piece of music can change over time as you listen to it more or less often than other pieces. I'm always bugged by critics talking about a piece of music as if their personal experience with the piece were the only possible history one might have with it. Some time back, Pliable, over at On An Overgrown Path, used Buddhist mind tools to talk about how our experience of music is not a static thing, but constantly evolving and changing.

For sure, one thing involved in all this is what the neuroscientists are telling us about our being attracted to a mix of the expected and the unexpected. The more you listen to a piece, the more difficult it is for it to surprise you. 


This article is more interesting than particularly helpful.

When it comes to conducting complex tasks, it turns out that the brain needs rhythm, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Specifically, cortical rhythms, or oscillations, can effectively rally groups of neurons in widely dispersed regions of the brain to engage in coordinated activity, much like a conductor will summon up various sections of an orchestra in a symphony. . . 

 . . . "It is like the radio communication between emergency first responders at an earthquake," Canolty said. "You have many people spread out over a large area, and the police need to be able to talk to each other on the radio to coordinate their action without interfering with the firefighters, and the firefighters need to be able to communicate without disrupting the EMTs. So each group tunes into and uses a different radio frequency, providing each group with an independent channel of communication despite the fact that they are spatially spread out and overlapping."


I've linked Mark Changizi before, and this is a new interview with him previewing his book due to be published next year. He has some very interesting ideas and I look forward to seeing him lay them out in a more full and detailed manner.

What is new here is my view of how culture goes about making language and the arts good for our brain: Culture’s trick is to make language and the arts “mimic nature,” just the thing our brain *is* designed to absorb.

I refer to it as “Nature Harnessing.” . . .

 . . . Writing has culturally evolved so that written words tend to look like visual objects in natural scenes (in particular, natural scenes with opaque objects strewn about).

Speech has culturally evolved so that spoken words tend to sound like natural auditory events (in particular, events among solid objects).

And music has culturally evolved to sound like humans moving in our midst — music is a fictional auditory story of a person moving about in our vicinity.

The strategy in each case is to understand the structure found in the natural environment, and check whether this “natural signature” is found in the cultural artifact. . . .

 . . . So, in my view our visual and auditory systems (and all sensory systems) have an essential plasticity needed to learn to recognize the natural environments the animal inhabits. But these mechanisms will generally be comparably terrible at learning utterly unnatural kinds of stimuli.

To get language and music into us, I claim, the key plasticity that mattered was not some special human plasticity, but “cultural plasticity,” i.e., the ability for cultural evolution to “learn” how to harness us.

Embodied Music Cognition

It somewhat belatedly dawned on me that I should check Wikipedia to see what they had to say about embodied cognition and that led me to this article.

Cartesian dualism had a tremendous impact on cognitive science and in particular also on cognitive musicology. Influenced by Gestalt psychology, music cognition research of the last decades of the 20th Century was mainly focusing on the perception of structure, that is, the perception of pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony and tonality. It considered music perception as a faculty on its own, completely dissociated from musical action. Instead, in studies on embodied musical activity (such as listening and music performance), subjects are invited to actively engage in the signification process. This engagement is articulated by means of corporeal expression which can be measured, analyzed, modelled and related to the musical stimulus. Descartes' idea that mental activity is of a separate order from body movement is refuted and, in fact reversed.

I could wish for less of the post modern lingo so beloved by modern academics, but the notion that embodied cognition deals a final blow to Cartesian dualism is a powerful one. It's also interesting to note that the motion capture technology coming onto the scene these days will be a valuable research tool on this front. The more we understand how gesture helps us know ourselves and others will surely help us make music in more effective ways.

Dancing and Personality

This article is about research looking at how one dances can reveal personality traits. They had a bunch of people go through personality tests and then put that info with results of their dancing being analyzed via "motion capture" technology. 

The researchers found strong correlations between certain dancing styles and each of the personalities. They also discovered that different personalities danced in different ways depending on the music.

This sort of research is in its early days, but it makes intuitive sense. In my experience, various personality types go about learning how to make music in different ways in the physical realm as well. 

This post is also a good place to paste in the final couplet of a W. B. Yeats poem (Among School Children) sent along by our Vermont readership in response to my talking about gesture.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Music Mapping Speech

The notion that the minor third often suggests sadness in music has been around for a long time. What's new in this article is the connection made to that interval being present in sad speech as well.

The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn't a facet of musical communication alone—it's how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language. . . 

 . . .Since the minor third is defined as a specific measurable distance between pitches (a ratio of frequencies), Curtis was able to identify when the actors' speech relied on the minor third. What she found is that the actors consistently used the minor third to express sadness. . . 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Learned Emotive Expression

This story is about a study seeking to determine which of our emotive vocal expressions are instinctual and which are learned.

It now seems that only expressions of laughter and relief are instinctive, whereas other emotional outbursts need to be learned from other people. To find out which sounds are instinctive, a team led by Disa Sauter of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, asked eight deaf and eight hearing individuals to vocalise nine different emotions, but without words. These included fear, relief, anger, hilarity, triumph, disgust and sadness. It turned out that the only two easily identifiable emotional sounds made by the deaf participants were laughter and sighs of relief. "They seem to be the strongest," says Sauter. . . 

. . . The panel found it easier to guess all the other emotions if the sounds came from the hearing individuals. Even screams of terror were much less obvious from those who were deaf.

"This means that for many kinds of emotional sounds, hearing the sounds of others is an important part of development for our sounds to be understandable to others,"

To me it's not too much of a stretch to think this goes for musical expression as well, that we learn the stereotypical ways our cultures go about expressing emotions through music and try to do the same with our own music so as to be comprehensible. And within single cultures there are subcultures that pursue different aspects of those stereotypes. Thinking that the genre we like the most is the best might just mean that's the one we've listened to the most, have learned the most about, so it speaks to us more completely.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Flute Diary

Yesterday I played flute with the Presbyterian Ensemble at the opening of the Sunday service. Besides flute there are - clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone and two Eb tubas. I played well enough, and got a very nice compliment from the organist, but felt I hadn't stayed away from the horn long enough to let my lips have that fine control the flute needs, especially on the higher notes. I wasn't able to get 100% of the full tone I can sometimes achieve when my lips aren't horn fatigued.

Besides the band concert on Thursday, on Friday I spent a lot of time on the horn running through the five parts of an arrangement of four Christmas carols I'm working on and the rehearsing it with the Friday group. Then Saturday played no horn, but lots of flute with Dr. Andy on the cello. I'm pretty sure that for me, no other combination of instruments is more appealing. Others might be as good, but cello and flute have a complementariness and completeness of sound that can't be bettered.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Horn Diary

Yesterday was a red letter day in my horn career. The band played for the veterans in the town park and I got a number of compliments on my playing from band members afterwards. I hit all the exposed little solos and flourishes well, and did a creditable job hitting all the off beats. We did three Sousa marches, a medley of God Bless America and America The Beautiful, a medley of all the service songs strung together, and The Star Spangled Banner. Except for dropping down to 2nd horn parts for the off beats in the service medley I played all 1st horn. 

Using a phrase of Jeff Smiley's, last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for me has been holding the horn up off the leg to play it instead of letting it rest on the leg. The middle of my back between the shoulder blades and up to the bottom of my neck is sore, but it's worth it for the way the horn vibrates so much better giving a better tone (and more volume as I'm still the only horn), combined with my having more delicate control of how much pressure I'm exerting on the mouthpiece because of the flexibility getting it up off the leg allows. I also get to move my torso more, which makes everything more fun and less rigid physically and mentally.

All that work this summer on the F horn has a lot to do with this, along with our new band director getting off the sight reading wagon earlier than others have and giving us a set list to be responsible for several weeks before the concert, which really helps remedial players such as myself have a chance to focus on a few pieces to clean up.

The other thing that made yesterday special was a number of veterans coming up to me afterwards, giving me a firm handshake, looking me in the eye, and saying very emotionally how much they appreciated the band's coming out to play. These events are emotive transactions more than performances and that kind of response still sort of amazes me.

In the two year's of blogging post I thanked all the regular reads, and here I want to thank the Regular Reads: Horn again. In the five years I've been playing horn I've not had a single formal lesson. I've picked the brain of brass players and band directors at every chance and used the Farkas book and the Smiley book. But it was the horn bloggers giving so freely of their expertise on those blogs that helped put all that in context and make choices amongst the various ways of approaching the various issues. And it was through blogging I found the Smiley book, which was the single thing that kept me from giving up about a year ago.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Psychological/Physiological Interface

This article discusses new research indicating meditation improves one's health down on the cellular level. Music is not mentioned, but there's this (emphasis added):

"The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and therefore a person's health and longevity," Saron said. "Rather, meditation may improve a person's psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person's sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two Years On

Just completed my second year of blogging and taking the opportunity to do the long overdue blog housework of changing Alex Ross back to The Rest Is Noise over on the Regular Reads and adding Dave Wilken's Wilktone to the Regular Reads: Horn. Also changed both blog rolls to most recent post order instead of alphabetical order.

Adding Dave's blog because in between hard core brass and embouchure posts, which will be of little interest to non-brass players, he's been doing some great posting on the basic issue of how it is we teach others to play music.  

Lately I've been doing more commenting on other blogs than posting here, hoping that over time some of those ideas will become clearer to me and I'll say something more definitive here.

I want to thank all the folks over on the regular read lists, as their blogging has given the context and inspiration for my writing here, at least in my mind. With the exceptions of Alex Ross and Opera Chic, I've been lucky enough to be in touch and have wonderful interactions with all of them, either through e-mail or comments and posts going back and forth, or both. Having for years seen people's eyes glaze over, especially when they were music specialists, when hearing I was a music therapist, these conversations have been immensely rewarding both professionally and personally.

Special thanks to Jonathan West for getting Timepiece performed. The connection was via blogging, a benefit I never dreamed of when starting out. I'm now back to composing a little and having a great time.  Were it not for Jonathan's interest and spending the time and energy to get that performance off the ground, I don't think writing new music, as opposed to learning how to arrange music for small ensemble, would have occurred to me. 

Jonathan has sent an mp3 of the (terrific) performance that, in the fullness of time, I want to put to an iMovie, then upload to YouTube, then embed in the blog. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Brain Wave Music(?)

The back story for this video is given in this Wired story. Basically they hacked a gaming device that reads brain waves by feeding it into a couple of synthesizers. It's hard to tell how much "brain wave" is actually involved. As crude as it is, though, it points the way to an interesting future.

In this post from a while back (which gets steady hits) there's a quote talking about how brain waves seem to mimic the sound waves of music we're listening to.

Friday, October 22, 2010

V.S. Louisiana Sashay

Here's how things look for now. I may well go back and fine tune some of this, but it feels like it's working, and it's gotten to the point where I think it'll be better to take what's been done as the basis for what comes next rather than to keep adding new elements. 

These images are taken from the working file, but I've left out the alto flute staff to reduce clutter (and because I decided to do the piece first without it so it can stand as a duet), doubled the size of the notation to make it legible here on the blog, and tinkered with the layout for the same reason. My preferred format for hard copy scores is legal landscape with notation around 75% of default. That allows me so see whole sections of music like sentences in a book, as opposed to a narrow newspaper column.

Things start out with a harp solo which is answered by a flute solo. It's much easier to have one player start and the other(s) then join in than it is for everyone to start playing in synch right out of the gate. I hadn't fully realized this until now, but I think all of my ensemble pieces have a single player setting the tempo for others to join. There's also the idea of letting each voice be heard on it's own to set the aural table for the audience. 

The harp has a series chords laying out the basic sashay rhythm. The computer playback tempo is 108 for a quarter note. The chords are missing either thirds or fifths to give them that open sounding harmony I like so much and which should sound great on the harp. Only the last chord is an arpeggio so as to emphasize the rhythm. 
The flute solo generally follows the contours of the harp solo, but not quite - that mixing of the expected and the unexpected. Then another, briefer harp solo, and while it's still ringing from the last arpeggio, the flute comes in on a high C on a pickup and then the harp and flute play together with the same rhythm for three measures. I love high soaring melodies.
Then the flute breaks away doing flutey things with the harp playing simple octaves for a bit. One of the things I'm trying to do is avoid letting the harp slip out of the audience's attention because of its doing something repetitive. And in general I try to vary the textures of the sound as much as all the other elements involved. 

The flute motive in measure 21, 22 and 23 is the closest to mimicking a sashay as I've gotten.

Now the flute plays around with the little motive in measure 19
In measure 29 there's a bit of the unison rhythm again, then in 30 the harp breaks out into arpeggios, and they sort of take off on their own for a while. For now measure 35 begins a reprise of the opening harp solo and I'm thinking of having the flute join in to intensify what has already been heard once. I don't do sonata form style development, but I do like to create familiarity with various elements by bringing them back in different ways. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Group Intelligence

This article talks about how the effective intelligence of a group depends more on how they get along with each other than the sum of individual IQ's.

. . . Group intelligence depends less on how smart individuals are and more on their social sensitivity, ability to take turns speaking, and the number of women in the group. . . 

. . . Woolley says she was surprised to find that neither the average intelligence of the group members nor the intelligence of the smartest member played much of a role in the overall group intelligence. Social sensitivity – measured using a test in which participants had to identify another person's feelings by looking at photographs of their eyes – was by far the most important factor. . .

. . . The team also found that groups in which members took turns speaking were more collectively intelligent, as were groups containing a majority of women. Woolley thinks this may be because the women had higher levels of social sensitivity than the men. . .

This reminded me of a post I thought was by Jeffrey Agrell, which I can't find, so maybe it wasn't by him. The point of it was that when an orchestra auditions someone, they ought to do it socially as well as musically, as both are important for good music making. Also, in this post of mine Jonathan West talks about collaborative music making. 

As a music therapist, how the people making the music are getting along is as important, if not more so, than the music. This article, though about intelligence and not music making, seems to suggest that the quality of the group's interaction might affect the music as well. It's the sort of thing most of us would assume is the case, but a little empirical data is welcome.

This also probably has a lot to do with why I much prefer being a facilitator of group music making than a director or conductor. Besides not having nearly the skills needed to conduct, social/musical interactions are more interesting to me than abstract music.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Arts Training and the Brain

This article is the most in depth I've seen so far on the topic of how arts training benefits the brain.

We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art—if we practice frequently and are truly engaged—activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.

Some may construe this argument as a bold associative leap, but it’s grounded in solid science. The linchpin in this equation is the attention system. Attention plays a crucial role in learning and memory, and its importance in cognitive performance is undisputed. If you really want to learn something, pay attention! We all know this intuitively, and plenty of strong scientific data back it up. . . 

. . . From our perspective, the key to transfer is diligence: Practicing for long periods of time and in an absorbed way can cause changes in more than the specific brain network related to the skill. Sustained focus can also produce stronger and more efficient attention networks, and these key networks in turn affect cognitive skills more generally. . . 

. . . Neuroimaging studies have also proved that the following specialized neural networks underlie various aspects of attention:

alerting network, which enables the brain to achieve and maintain an alert state;
orienting network, which keeps the brain attuned to external events in our environment;
executive attention network, which helps us control our emotions and choose among conflicting thoughts in order to focus on goals over long periods of time. . . 

. . . exposure to the “right” art form can fully engage children’s attention and can be highly rewarding for them. They may get so involved in learning the art that they lose track of time or even “lose themselves” while practicing it. I believe that few other school subjects can produce such strong and sustained attention that is at once rewarding and motivating. That is why arts training is particularly appealing as a potential means for improving cognition. Other engaging subjects might be useful as well, but the arts may be unique in that so many children have a strong interest in them.

The article makes clear we're in early days yet in figuring all this out, but that it all looks very promising. 

On a language note, I particularly like their using "engagement" when talking about the children and music making. In working with clients, my prime directive has always been to do whatever I can to get them more fully engaged in music making. I think for a lot of educators, especially those overloaded with students and work, the engagement factor is up to the student and if they drop out for lack of it, it's better for those remaining in the program.

Of course, a lot of educators go out of their way to keep their students engaged. Martin I. Gaines, who sent me this article, somehow managed to direct our community band in it's first year with me blatting along on the horn from a standing start. I thought about quitting several times, but his enthusiasm and support kept me there. A great example of his attitude was right after our first concert and I apologized for all the wrong notes I'd played. Without missing a beat he said, with a huge grin, "But think of all the ones you got right!" 

Thanks, maestro!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Music/Mind Training

Many thanks to Pliable for sending along this link to a story on what the neuroscientists have discovered about the brains of some Tibetan Buddhist monks, each of whom had spent anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 hours in meditation before the testing.

. . . first, the monks exhibited a higher ratio of high frequency gamma brainwaves to slower alpha and beta waves during their resting baseline before the experiment began; and when the monks engaged in meditation, this ratio skyrocketed—up to 30 times stronger than that of the non-meditators. In fact, the gamma activity measured in some of the practitioners was the highest ever reported in a non-pathological context. Not only did this suggest that long-term mental training could alter brain activity, it also suggested that compassion might be something that could be cultivated. . . .

. . . In the brains of the meditators, they found larger volumes of gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus, areas thought to be implicated in emotion and response control. "It is likely that the observed larger hippocampal volumes may account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior," Luders writes.

These data points get at what I was trying to say in this post where I talked about some of the similarities between music training and mind training. If you're going to try to connect with and have an effect (that you want to have, not an unintended one) on audiences with your music making, you need to work on more than simple (no matter how advanced) technique. 

The complication for music makers is that you're not practicing feeling an emotion, but how to project it, which is not the same thing.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

V.S. Odds and Ends

I've gotten a minute's worth of music that, as of last night, seems to work. This post just to mention a few ancillary things.

Finale - I love it because it allows for my various non-standard ways of doing music notation, but that very complexity can be a problem when I can't remember how to do something, either because the latest update changes something, or because I simply forgot due to not doing that task for a year or so. Case in point is the time signature. When I was going back over Timepiece to make parts for a local quintet to read through (they liked it), noticed that I'd figured out how to have something like 3+3+2+2 all over a single 8 below back in 1996 and just had to look to see how I'd done it.

Resolution - Visually it's how many pixels per square inch. In audio it's something about how many bits per something. On tv when they pixel-ate something to obscure it, we notice the boundary of the high and low resolution. In writing music I try not to have any boundaries like that in the rhythm (no bursts of 32nd notes in a stately half note/ quarter note melody) or harmony (no sudden shifts out of key/mode. I think it also applies to other ways I judge the music I write that are tougher to write about, like gesture.

Writing for particular players/instruments - Listening to the local group read through Timepiece reminded me that I'm always thinking of what the individual players are doing, and whether or not it's interesting. Dr. Andy told me once that in the Bach B Minor Mass, in one section the cellos have the same repeated quarter note for measures on end. When I'm writing for ensembles, in my mind it's however many soloists coming together for the piece, and everyone gets some time high in the mix. In this piece it's trying to keep the harpist interested and to see just how many ways the harp (for which I've never written before) can make music.

Computer Playback - Besides not being able to write music without a keyboard, having the computer play back what I've done is essential. I don't have theory mind and simply cannot manifest the music in my head by reading a score. I've always thought the computer playback is sort of like an X-ray that clearly shows the interior structure of the piece, but that the true nature of the piece is revealed only by performance. That's part of the reason my hearing first performances of things I've written is such an amazing experience.

Attention - One of my complaints about the concert band repertoire is that most of it seems an early incarnation of the MTV gimmick of constantly shifting the image to hold the attention of an audience. I keep thinking the arrangers decide on what transitions of speed and tonality and articulation they what to teach the kids and then forage about for bits of music to put between them ;-) But I've come to realize I do the same thing, just without the shifts of speed/meter and tonality. Once I write something that seems to work for a few bars I'll often try to extend it for longer than it wants, not catching at first that it's becoming boring. Many of my deletions of the last several measures and starting over are due to this. The other deletions are, of course, trying where to go instead. It really is like some sort of glass bead game, and when it works there's a wonderful feeling being connected to something outside myself.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Performing New Music

Here are a couple of paragraphs from a recent Kyle Gann post I want to save because they speak to an aspect of the current state of "classical" music I hadn't really been aware of, but it makes a lot of sense once you have it called to your attention.

. . . This is difficult music to play, even though clear-lined, melodic, and devoid of the 11-against-9 grupetti and rhythmic fragmentation of an Elliott Carter or a Pierre Boulez. And why, since it scorns such complexities, is it so difficult? Because, like every new style, it demands of performers a certain sensibility that must be internalized. The unison lines and rhythms of totalist chamber music entail an ensemble unity of gesture quite different from the heavily-counted Babbitt serialist work or the flexible, diversely-functioned give-and-take of a Schumann piano quintet. The smooth uniformity of line, casual yet without swell or nuance, demands ears nurtured on the minimalism of Terry Riley and Phillip Glass, and hands and lips that can swing like John Coltrane. 

If I may ascend my soap box and preach just the briefest sermon, very few chamber ensembles have learned to negotiate music derived from minimalist influences because they don't perceive the difficulties involved. They glance at the score, see a line of unison 8th-notes, say to themselves, "Oh, this is nothing, I played the Carter Fourth String Quartet," and then they proceed to underrehearse and perform miserably. I've heard it all too often. I've heard members of the New York Philharmonic do a laughable job on a piece as simple as Terry Riley's In C. A handful of groups, like the California EAR Unit, Relache, Kronos Quartet, and Essential Music have superbly cultivated the technique needed for post-minimalist music. What are the rest waiting for, a message from God? As Schoenberg said - and it applies again in each new generation - "My music isn't modern, it's only badly played."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Just want to pull this quote from this post by Pliable:

A number of tastemaker classical blogs picked the story up and ran with it, including Alex Ross via Twitter, Patty at Oboe Insight, James Primosch, Antoine Leboyer and Lyle Sanford.

Getting tagged on to the end of that sentence made my day. The blogosphere is a very interesting neighborhood. 

Philip Ball Article

This article by Philip Ball hits on several topics:

. . . Focal dystonia is sometimes called 'musician's cramp', but it is not a primarily muscular problem: it begins in the brain. As neuroscientist Jessica Grahn of the University of Cambridge, UK, explains, it stems from the fact that intense musical practice can overinflate the mental representation of the relevant part of the body (usually the fingers, although it can affect lip control in brass players). Once the neural representations of the fingers overlap, they can no longer be controlled independently. . . . But it is precisely because the disorder is a neural rather than a muscular problem that dystonia is so hard to treat, and there is still no genuine cure. . . . 

. . . Although she acknowledges that musical expression is multi-faceted, she argues that current neurological studies suggest that the activation of mirror neurons — 'empathy circuits' that fire both when we watch another person perform an action and when we perform it ourselves — offer a clue about how music works. It may be, she says, that when we hear music, we can 'read' it as we would read indicators of emotional state in another person's vocal or physical gestures. . . . .

. . .  support may be emerging for the suggestion of philosopher Susanne Langer that music mimics the dynamics of emotion itself. Or, as psychologist Carroll Pratt put it in 1931, that 'music sounds the way emotions feel'.

Lama Tashi at Harvest Time

An American friend of Lama Tashi is with him over in Arunachal Pradesh, with a group that's working to provide a healthier water supply to Lama Tashi's home village. Wanted to put up this photo with harvested corn because all the melodies on the CD Mantra Mountain except one were learned by Lama Tashi as a child at the harvest festival in this village where he grew up. The one other melody is by one of the early Dalai Lamas and kept alive via monastic oral tradition.

I just changed the links on the two photos of the album over on the right so that the top one goes to a generous review by Pliable at On An Overgrown Path and the bottom one goes to a post where you can read the music for the mantra of compassion. 

Have seen a few mentions of Satie's Vexations lately. Mantras can go on for just as long or longer and allow for easy improvisation.

Jeff Smiley & Neuroscience

Here lately I've realized that the best way to explain my championing Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure is that his book and method take into account, more than any other I've encountered, what the neuroscience is telling us about music making. There are a lot of levels and systems in play, and learning how to make music means learning and getting a feel for a lot of different things and modes of behavior and getting it all to work together. 

Every time I've reread The Balanced Embouchure there have been head slapping epiphanies, and I think that's due to his covering so many bases, it's hard to hold it all in your head at the same time. Next time around I'm going to keep notes on the different aspects he covers. Then maybe I can figure out how to apply that to music making as a whole, not just embouchure formation.

A crucial part of getting all these systems working together is devising exercises that allow the brain to make it's own adjustments, as opposed to trying to tell each muscle what it should be doing. I was reminded of this by this post over on Hornmatters, where Professor Ericson puts up a letter written by one of the authors of methods he's been discussing, William C. Robinson. Here's a short quote that rang the bell for me:

. . . Think the pitch, quality and sound you want and the brain (which is the greatest computer ever invented) will tell the embouchure what to do to produce that tone. You don’t try to control the embouchure by trying to control the embouchure – instead, think the pitch, use the air and the brain will tell the embouchure what to do to produce that sound.