Friday, January 29, 2010

Music Educators

Joining my local community band at age 55 has been my very first exposure to the concert band experience and to what music educators are up to in directing them. My participation has helped me have a fuller appreciation of the differences between music education and music therapy. As I mull possible posts delineating the two, I find myself slipping into framing the issue as if music therapy were better than music education. I know that's not the case, so before saying anything else, want to talk about music education on its own.

For one thing, I simply cannot imagine on a daily basis walking into a room full of dozens of adolescents with noise makers in their hands. Granted, my background includes dealing with emotionally disturbed adolescents both as an attendant/group leader and as a music therapist, and one assumes "normal" adolescents don't present as many behavior problems. But still, my hat is off to anyone undertaking such a daunting task.

Music educators also have to be familiar with all the instruments and how to play them and their myriad idiosyncrasies, along with being able to transpose all kinds of stuff in their head and in general having what I call "theory mind". It's all way beyond me. I was amazed to discover that horn players are expected to be able to transpose in all sorts of ways when sight reading. If I were to devote myself to that and no other musical tasks I might become barely proficient, but it's not playing to my strengths, to say the least.

Music educators also have to be concerned with preparing their best students to be ready for the next level of achievement. If this were not the case, the feeder system would break down and we wouldn't have good numbers of people ready to play at the high level needed for professional organizations. 

On a more general level, educators are tasked with preserving the canon and the playing styles needed to present it as it's meant to be played. Without that, entropy would set in and all kinds of beauty and technique would be lost. There's more to making music than the printed page and music educators have the mission of preserving that which is beyond notation, yet so very crucial to successful presentation of the canon (whether Beethoven or Sousa).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Time Movement

There is a post on this article over on Boing Boing. It's not directly about music, but it's intriguing. Turns out that if you're thinking about the future you tend to lean forward, and that if you're thinking of the past you tend to lean backward.

These findings reported online in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that chronesthesia may be grounded in processes that link spatial and temporal metaphors (e.g., future= forward, past= backward) to our systems of perception and action.

"The embodiment of time and space yields an overt behavioral marker of an otherwise invisible mental operation," explains Miles and colleagues.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Adventures in Music

Here's a link to a series of posts over on Boing Boing, all of which have videos of various kinds of musical performances. The videos were selected and posted by "Guestblogger"  Stephen Worth, the Director of the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, a museum, library and digital archive devoted to the use of professional artists and students. 

In the concluding post of the series, Worth says, "I'm constantly amazed at the "pop culture amnesia" that seems to be an epidemic today. People have forgotten some of the greatest achievements of mankind... and what have they replaced it with? Infomercials, current events clowns, celebrity gossip and patently phony reality shows."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Return to Macedonia

Yesterday the Kenwood Players went back to Macedonia to provide music for a service conducted by one of our tuba players who is a retired minister. We'd done this previously last August, when we performed some tunes on our own and the church organist played for the congregation when they sang. At that service Crawford mentioned in his sermon an occasion back in Danbury when he heard a Salvation Army group play with a church organ, and how that inspired him to take up the Eb tuba again after decades of not playing.

So this time we played with the organist for the hymns. I printed out for her music in the keys we use, usually a step or two lower than the standard key. The only chance we had to rehearse together was in the half hour before the service.

Musically, there was lots of room for improvement. The biggest issue was that she's used to a slight pause between verses, whereas we keep a strict rhythm. (I used to do it her way, but the players were much more comfortable with the straight turn around, so I've trained myself to do that.) Turns out she's free on Friday afternoons, so the next time we do this we can rehearse together to tighten things up.

What was wonderful was the response of the congregation to our combined instrumental forces. They really sang out, and the blend of their voices and our instruments was a splendid sound. Just like at the caroling event, regular folks really enjoyed the opportunity to sing with some orchestral instruments. For me it was a sort of proof of the concept there is a huge opportunity for introducing more music into the community. All that's lacking is useable music. 

Per usual, I think the players enjoyed the event at least as much as the congregation, if not more. As we're a small ensemble, everyone gets to be heard and make a significant contribution. The alto sax, trombone and trumpet took turns playing the soprano line along with the congregation's singing. The interplay between the instruments and the voices is about the best thing on the CD. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sandow Seminar

Greg Sandow is one of my "regular reads" and this post is a great example of why that is. His main concern is revitalizing the connection between society and "classical" music. As a music therapist I'm wishing him all success because I feel that on balance, the more people experience live music, the better off they are. 

The reason this post is a good example of what he's up to is that it's mostly written by commenters on his blog. He openly invites and encourages folks to share in the discussion. He's also very good at ignoring bad manners and focussing on the content of what people have to say rather than responding in kind. (This was more of an issue some time ago.) Few blogs have such a great community of commenters with such a wealth of ideas. 

I wanted save a link to this particular post for a couple of reasons. One of the comments is by Jeffrey Agrell, another of my "regular reads". He has a great list of ideas of how to enliven the presentation of music and enhance the connection between the performers and the audience. This aside of his really jumps out, though:

>>>The only ones who don't make it to the concerts are the other music faculty - almost none of them have ever attended one of our concerts (although they all have opinions about it...).<<<

So much of the problem is that many in the classical music establishment feel no need to explore new avenues. I guess the assumption is that what they're doing has worked for generations so there's no need for them to even think about changing. It's a truism in the psych world that you can't fix a problem if you're busy denying it exists.

It was also through this post of Greg's that I found the blog of Erica Sipes. She's a classically trained pianist and cellist. The subhead of her blog says:


Whereas I'm working more from the angle of helping amateur players (albeit some at a professional skill level) get together in various small ensembles and she's working mostly, though not exclusively, at a professional level, I was delighted to see someone else thinking that part of the answer to what Greg is working on has to be revitalizing live music on the grass roots level.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bring Em All In

Rob Halligan and Gareth Davies-Jones perform Mike Scott's song "Bring Em All In" which Daniel Levitin gives pride of place as the last song discussed in the final chapter ("Love") of his The World In Six Songs. He says it, "is to my ears among the most perfect love songs ever written".

Here is a YouTube with audio of Mike Scott performing the song himself. And here's another with him performing it live less than a year ago with an Irish fiddle wailing in the background.

It's almost like a mantra with the repetitive rhythms and lyrics, and the idea behind the words suggests the Buddhist prayers for "all sentient beings". Scott has connections to and performs at Findhorn, which I didn't realize was still a going concern.

Besides the song itself, I really like the performance in the embedded video up above. 

* The guitar player gets a groove going immediately and sustains it until the end. His sound with the acoustic guitar with internal mike fed to the monitor speakers in front of him has a great fullness. An electric guitar just wouldn't have that crispness, and without the monitors the sound would be thin. That full sound enhances the immersion in the rhythm.

* The way the guitarist moves, his gestures, gives the music a physical reality. I'll never forget seeing Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review two consecutive nights, in San Antonio and then Austin, back in the mid 70's. Sometimes the way he moved with the music made it seem the music was a force field and it was moving him rather than he creating it.

* The singing is a lot of the time almost conversational, and because it's almost masked by the guitar it "brings in" the listener so as to hear the words.

* The other singer with the egg shaker and box percussion adds a lot to the performance, and the two of them really connect with each other and the audience making that rhythm together. 

* I really like that the only staging is just the various instruments and the mixer, so all the focus is on the music itself. 

* Currently Mike Scott is in Dublin where he's going to present a number of  W. B. Yeats poems he's put to music. I read through the complete Yeats several times as an undergraduate years ago and was entranced. And Celtic music has always been a favorite of mine. So part of why I like this song so much probably has to do with its Celtic feel.

Many thanks to our Vermont readership for finding this video and insisting I take the time for a dial-up download of it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Guitar Trick

This post over on Horn Matters reminded me I've never posted a guitar trick that's wonderfully helpful when looking at instruments to buy. On lots and lots of guitars in lots of price ranges, the frets are incorrectly placed in relationship to the strings, so you can never really play them in tune. 

First, learn how to make the first harmonic on a string. That means very lightly touching the string at its mid-point and then with the other hand, plucking it halfway between that point and where the string comes over the bridge. Then immediately lift the finger touching the string at the mid-point. Once you get the hang of it it's not hard to do. This sets the string vibrating in halves, with one half going up while the other goes down, and remaining still where your finger was (a node).

A string vibrating in halves sounds the octave, which should match the pitch when the string is fretted on the twelfth fret. If you listen as you go back and forth between pitches of the 1st harmonic and of the twelfth fret and they aren't the same, or at least very, very close, the guitar will never play in tune.

Other factors such as the action (how far the strings are from the fret-board) and the gage of the strings play into this, but will never really correct the problem.

As a rule, the price of the instrument will not tell you how well the frets are placed. This simple test can save you a lot of aggravation, and perhaps money as well.

Friday, January 1, 2010


This essay in the WSJ begins with a great discussion of the right and left brain. I really like this paragraph:

>>> The neuropsychological evidence shows that the right hemisphere pays wide-open attention to the world, seeing the whole, whereas the left hemisphere is adept at focusing on a detail. New experience, whatever its kind, is better apprehended by the right hemisphere, whereas the predictable is better dealt with by the left. And because the right hemisphere sees things in context, as inseparably interconnected, it recognizes the vast extent of what remains implicit. By contrast, because of its narrow focus, the left hemisphere isolates what it sees, and is relatively blind to things that can be conveyed only indirectly. <<<

The essay is adapted from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist's book The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, recently published by Yale University Press. After the introductory explanation of the hemispheres, he goes on to put Western Civilization on the couch, talking about how different eras can be explained by how much of either hemisphere was operative in the culture at a given time. 

Such broad generalizations make me a little queazy. Since the 60's I've bought and leafed through innumerable books going on about the power of music and such, with zero empirical foundation, other than the occasional anecdote that fits the argument. Over time I've decided such books and arguments are not helpful to the cause of music therapy, because even though they might contains bits of helpful info and insight, they further the "crackpot" image of the field.

It also seems a little odd that even in an essay as short as this, there's no mention of Julian Jayne's, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Though in a different way, it also puts society as a whole on the couch and expounds on the nature of consciousness. It will be interesting to see if the McGilchrist book will make any impact.