Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Year of The Balanced Embouchure

It's been just over a year now that I got in touch with Jeff Smiley, the trumpet playing originator of The Balanced Embouchure, and he put me in touch with Valerie Wells, who handles the horn side of things. I bought the book and have blogged about it over time (with the tag BE). 

I continue to think Jeff's approach to helping people find their best embouchure is the best approach to music making I've ever come across. From time to time you'll see folks on the web talking about what they think it is, but you can tell they haven't read the book, so seize on a detail without appreciating the full range and scope of the method.

It's easy to understand why this is, because even though I've read the book from cover to cover twice now, whenever I flip through I'll come across a passage that I'd forgotten about or hadn't fully appreciated at the time of reading. Often this is because the passage is so common sensical I assume I already "know" it. Music making includes all kinds of large and small scale mental and physical activities, and knowing about them all isn't enough. You need to be aware of them in real time as you play as well, until they become second nature.

Jeff's book is a terrific aid for gaining those necessary awarenesses, but his method is to help you achieve them in the best way that works for you, not to instill "the right way". As a therapist, I see the way you walk the path towards greater abilities of making music to be more important than the abilities themselves. I think it's also the case that how you go about developing your music making abilities shapes those abilities for better or worse. 

Since I've been working with Jeff's method, my horn playing has been transformed in some deep sense. I've got better range and endurance, but the main thing is I now have a much better "feel" of what's going on with my embouchure. A big part of Balanced Embouchure is how the exercises give your musculature a chance to find its best way of working, a lot of which is happening below the conscious level, which is why it's hard to describe and is so often misunderstood.

For those of us who aren't natural players, Jeff's method helps us find our way towards how we would play if we were natural players. It's that approach of helping people find their own way towards natural music making I'd like to expand into more general aspects of making music.

Music Therapy Roundup

This article in the LA times is a nice roundup of where music therapy stands today. Nothing in it that hasn't been blogged here in greater detail. Just want to cite it as part of the seeming acceleration of music therapy's acceptance as a valid therapeutic modality. 

The one odd thing about the article is the use of the term "registered music therapists", a term which is being dropped in favor of an acronym indicating "board certified" by the national organization. I've stuck with the "registered music therapist" term because that's the credential I worked so hard to get back in 1980. That credential was sufficient to get the contract to work in the public schools in Texas back in the 80's and early 90's. Today it wouldn't be.

Also, my current project of trying to come up with materials for regular folks to use to increase and expand their music making is something of an outlier in the field. Most music therapists are working with clients with some sort of clinical diagnosis. My sense is that there's an unserved population somewhere between the clients of music therapists and the students in music education.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Closed Eye Practicing

Down in the comments of this post, Jeffrey Agrell mentions the benefits of practicing with one's eyes closed. I've often done this working on guitar and my voice (and to pull down all the verses of long Dylan songs), but had never really tried it with the flute or horn. One reason for that being not having lots of stuff memorized for either instrument.

Just now, though, I was working on a flute part for the Presbyterian Ensemble. It has several high E naturals above high C, and those high E's are about the hardest note to play well on a flute. When you use the regular fingering the pitch is very sharp, so I've been trying the trill fingering, which is to finger an A below high C and play the harmonic a fifth above. While easier to play in tune, it's harder to get the note to speak, and I've been struggling with it in this particular piece for several weeks.

The short passages where the high E's appear are easy to memorize and play with my eyes closed. Doing so made it much easier to coordinate the fingering of the keys and the adjustments of the embouchure. With the eyes closed it's much easier to be more fully aware of all the proprioceptive feedback. 

With just this single practice technique added to the mix, that high E is popping out clearly and in tune (mostly).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Music for Parkinson's Disease

This article discusses using music therapy to help people with Parkinson's disease, and then goes on to talk about the importance of music in early education.

. . .“The research points over and over again to that when we use our muscles in a rhythmic fashion, we get stronger muscle contractions. We get more organized and coordinated muscle contractions,” Johnson said. “So, therefore, they can move in smoother trajectory patterns in a more organized, coordinated fashion.”. . .

. . . Those in the field of biomedical research in music contend that much like math and language, music should be a core curriculum due to its benefits for the human brain. . . “Not everybody who has to take math in high school or junior high school ends up becoming a mathematician, but we would still probably all agree that it is good for the brain to learn, to train, to think in numbers and quantities. It’s the same thing with music,” he said.

Researchers' Quotes

This article is covering the same information released recently that was covered in this post, but there are some quotes in it not in the other article. (Emphasis mine)

. . . "Musical experience improves abilities important in daily life," she said. "Playing an instrument may help youngsters better process speech in noisy classrooms and more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice," Kraus said. . . 

. . . "People's hearing systems are fine-tuned by the experiences they've had with sound throughout their lives. Music training is not only beneficial for processing music stimuli. We've found that years of music training may also improve how sounds are processed for language and emotion," Kraus said in prepared remarks. . . . 

 . . .  Kraus said "the very responses that are enhanced in musicians are deficient in clinical populations such as children with developmental dyslexia and autism.". . . 

. . . "Nouns and verbs are very different from tones and chords and harmony, but the parts of the brain that process them overlap," he said.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brain Waves & Sound Waves

Here's another review of The Music Instinct which has a bit of info I'd not seen before. 

Recent studies by Professor Nina Kraus, a neuroscientists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have shown that the electrical activity inside the brain while listening to music closely matches the physical properties of sound waves.

Using brain scanning equipment Professor Kraus, who presented her findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego on Saturday, said the brainwaves recorded from volunteers listening to music could be converted back to sound.

In one example where volunteers listened to Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, when the brainwaves were played back the song was clearly recognizable.

She said: "When we play the brainwaves back as sound, although they don't sound exactly like the song, it is pretty similar. It shows that the brain matches the physical properties of sound very closely."

UPDATE - Here's a post on some people turning brain waves into sound waves

Singing "Rewires" Damaged Brain

Here's an article from the BBC on the use of singing to help stroke victims regain speech. Nothing particularly new, just the growing awareness of the benefits of music therapy.

By singing, patients use a different area of the brain from the area involved in speech. If a person's "speech centre" is damaged by a stroke, they can learn to use their "singing centre" instead. Most of the connections between brain areas that control movement and those that control hearing are on the left side of the brain. "But there's a sort of corresponding hole on the right side," said Professor Schlaug. "For some reason, it's not as endowed with these connections, so the left side is used much more in speech. "If you damage the left side, the right side has trouble [fulfilling that role]." But as patients learn to put their words to melodies, the crucial connections form on the right side of their brains. 

Dr Aniruddh Patel from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, said the study was an example of the "explosion in research into music and the brain" over the last decade.

Future Research

This article is an overview of what the folks at McGill University, a (the?) hotbed of music and brain research are up to and where they're headed. I love the last quote:

"Usually in our respective fields, we design a specific experiment to answer a specific question. But our philosophy in creating BRAMS was 'if we build it, they will come.' There are probably questions that the lab will help to answer that we haven't even thought of yet."

Embodied Cognition

Here's a post over on Boing Boing talking about how people who've botoxed their frowns away process emotions differently. This quote from the end of the post is a nice encapsulation of the idea of embodied cognition, which my intuition tells me has to be in some way connected to gesture in music making.

In theoretical terms, the finding supports a psychological hypothesis called "embodied cognition," says Glenberg, now a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. "The idea of embodied cognition is that all our cognitive processes, even those that have been thought of as very abstract, are actually rooted in basic bodily processes of perception, action and emotion."

Temple Grandin

This post is a bit off topic as it's not about music, but if you're a music therapist working with the emotionally disturbed, chances are you're going to run into folks on the autistic spectrum. Here is a very good interview with Temple Grandin. She's done more than anyone else to help us see the world as those with autism see it. Oliver Sacks was the first to write about her and used her phrase, "an anthropologist on Mars" as a title. She went on to write numerous books herself. I read one of the first when it came out many years ago and was astonished by how well she describes autism from the inside. 

One thing she talks about is how she thinks in pictures. Here are the closing paragraphs of the interview:

"When I was younger I was looking for this magic meaning of life. It's very simple now," she says. Making the lives of others better, doing "something of lasting value, that's the meaning of life, it's that simple."

How about meaning, I ask. What's the picture for that word? "Ok, now I'm seeing a mother saying your book helped my kid go to college—that's meaning. Or my kid got a job because of one of your lectures—that's meaning. Or a rancher comes up and says that piece of equipment works really well—that's meaning. Concrete, real stuff. On. The. Ground."

The Music Instinct

Here's a review of a new book out called The Music Instinct by Philip Ball. From what I can tell by the various reviews I've seen, it doesn't contain anything particularly new, but does a good job of presenting an overview of what all the new research is finding. Here are a few snips for the review:

. . . Listening to any kind of music, however, appears to be good for us in the neurological, if not the aesthetic, sense. Studies have found that music lights up not just particular parts of the brain, as in the case of language and other cultural activities, but all of the brain. . .

. . . “When you think about it, it isn’t surprising,” says Ball. “In fact, it’s probably why we listen to music. It engages the emotions, the intellect, language processing centres, and obviously some music engages the body as well. It’s a gymnasium for the mind.” . . .

. . .  “One of the interesting things is that musical training produces an enhancement in the corpus callosum – that’s the bit of the brain that communicates between hemispheres,” says Ball. “I get a bit tired of the popular idea we have of ‘left brain and right brain’ – and I like the fact that music subverts that, because it‘s using both integrated together. It seems that in musicians the two are, literally, more firmly welded together.” . . . 

. . . It has to do with the instantaneous nature of certain musical effects on our brains. . .  “If you look at what’s going on in the brain at that point,” says Ball, “the sensory inputs take a short cut to our emotional centres. And there are good evolutionary reasons that should be so. There have been times in the past where we’ve had to respond at a gut level – straight away, before we have time to really think about what it is that we’re hearing.” . . . 

. . . “But the main thing I wanted to stress is how important music is in the education of the brain, and in education generally. It’s so important for the development of the brain itself, and for the development of sociality, and because it gives us this rich neurological experience. What’s clear from these studies is that music has so many benefits that it needs to be a core part of the educational curriculum – and not an optional extra.” . . .

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Educators' Apotheosis

This post of Greg Sandow's reinforces my notion that there's something out of balance in the music educator's world view. I'm going to paste in some snips that give an idea of what he's saying, but this really is one worth reading all the way through. He's talking about two performances had expected to enjoy.

. . . And the results were dismaying. What struck me first was the often perfect execution -- the fine detail, the glowing intonation, the precise ensemble. And I realized, as I listened, that execution ranks very high, among young musicians, as a goal in performance. It has to. Because without it, musicians can't make careers. . . 

. . . I've played, for instance, a Jussi Bjorling recital from the 1950s, released on a CD called Bjorling Rediscovered . . . When I play this, I hear Bjorling's excitement, and his authenticity. My students hear that, by their standards, he's not together with his accompanist. I, too, can hear that this is true, but it doesn't bother me. It bothers the students so much that they don't care about much else. . . 

. . . But what I heard Sunday night from the East Coast Chamber Orchestra was execution coming first, taken so much for granted that nobody, I'm sure, even realized that it came first. And then, as I heard things, expression got added afterward, conceptually, at least (I'm not saying that things happened literally in that order). . . 

. . .  As a result, all the pieces sounded the same. The tone didn't very, the color didn't vary. It was as if the musicians didn't know what the music really was for -- why it had been written, what it felt like to the composer, what it felt like to the composer's original audience, or what it should mean to us now. It was, in some way, only abstractly beautiful, and the emotions applied to it were, similarly, abstract. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Music and Humor

As an undergraduate back in the 60's taking a course in abnormal psychology I needed a question to study as a project. Being curious as to what exactly laughter and humor were all about, I chose that, only to discover nobody really had much of a clue. The most recent writing on the subject was by Henri Bergson, who was something of a contemporary and an influence on Marcel Proust. There were no modern empirical data to be found.

Turns out the new brain imaging is finally coming up with answers, as outlined in this article which I found via Arts and Letters Daily.

It also turns out music and humor trigger some of the same areas of the brain.

Examining one particular part of the limbic system - the ventral striatum - was especially revealing, as its level of activity corresponded with the perceived funniness of a joke. "It's the same region that is involved in many different types of reward, from drugs, to sex and our favourite music," says Mobbs, now at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. "Humour thus taps into basic rewards systems that are important to our survival."

Another interesting bit the research has uncovered is how we're all wired differently for humor, much as I suspect we are for our reactions to music.

No two brains are the same, however, and how these differences are reflected in our sense of humour is the subject of much research. Men and women, for example, seem to process jokes slightly differently. . . . Perhaps unsurprisingly, personality also appears to play a key role in humour. Mobbs has shown that people who are classed as extrovert and emotionally stable have increased activity in reward areas of the brain during exposure to funny stimuli. Neurotic people, in contrast, have less of a reward response compared with the average person.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Organ and electric keyboard players select what tone they want by pulling stops or pushing buttons and then by depressing keys that tone is turned on and off for various pitches. How they go about depressing the keys has no effect on the tone quality. For just about everybody else making music, how they physically go about playing has a lot to do with the quality of the tones they create.

To my mind, your tone is the most primal aspect of your music making. It's how whatever you have to say musically is made manifest in sound. If you play in perfect rhythm with perfect intonation and get all the articulations right, but with a tone that is off-putting, your music will be off-putting as well. In some ways it's similar to the way we tend to form opinions about people by the sounds of their voices.

Good instruments have better tone than not so good instruments, but a good player can usually make a poor instrument sound pretty good, and a poor player can be unable to get good tone out of a great instrument. 

Musical sounds are very complex, and one way of thinking about good tone is that it is a sound which is in tune with itself. A vibrating string or air column is vibrating in many different ways at the same time as the simple animation at this link begins to show. In the real world things are much more complicated as this slow motion video of a bowed string illustrates. It's not humanly possible to physically create a vibration as perfect as the one in the animation, but vibrations creating beautiful tone are closer to that end of the spectrum than the various squeaks, honks and hisses at the other end.

Different tone qualities are called for in different styles of music, and there can be various opinions as to what kind of tone is called for when. All I want to stake out in this post is the fundamental importance of tone in music making and to have this general definition to build on in future posts

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sense of Entitlement

When I worked with emotionally disturbed children and adolescents in the public schools in San Antonio, there was a basic agreement with each student. Their participation in music was completely voluntary on their part. If they chose to participate (which 100% did), my job was to find a way for them to successfully join the music making and their job was to behave with a modicum of good manners, i.e. respect for everyone else in the group. Additionally, though it wasn't a requirement, they helped me set up and break down equipment and get it to and from my car (I worked in various classrooms at various schools over the course of a day). 

In community band there are lots of folks who feel entitled to behave less well than those students in San Antonio. All the directors have asked we not talk during rehearsals, and usually someone is muttering to their neighbor in less than a minute. We use the high school band room and have been asked to leave it as we found it, but lots of people just get up and leave without putting their stand and chair back as it was. For concerts, all the equipment needs to be moved to and from the stage, but there are some members who consistently time their arrival to be after the heavy lifting and who leave before everything is back in place. There are even members who can stand around watching while the band director (always a volunteer) does heavy lifting.

I find this behavior, and the fact it seems to be accepted by all, astonishing. Apparently, by not having participated in high school band I missed some crucial acculturation. The other thing is that as a therapist I'm much more attuned to behaviors than most, but still. I mentioned the talking thing to a cousin who grew up here in the county with me and she was shocked people would act that way.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Control Issues vs. Musical Issues

I often feel like a stranger in a strange land in community concert band. My background as a therapist combined with my not having previously experienced band behaviors often sets me to wondering why things are being done the way both the directors and the members accept as perfectly normal.

What triggers this feeling the most is how directors can turn musical issues into control issues. Sometimes when an individual or section or the band as a whole is not playing something correctly, the director addresses the issue (in voice tone and content) as if the players are misbehaving and need a little of the drill sergeant approach. In some cases it's obvious to me the players don't understand what's wanted and a simple explanation would suffice. In other cases it seems obvious to me the material is too difficult for some of the players and being heavy handed isn't really going to help. Everybody else in the band seems to accept this as normal.

As a therapist I'd prefer explanations of the musical issues and what technique is needed. And if something seems too difficult for the band, present it as a choice. If the group wants to work hard to make something work we can keep at it. If not, we could shift to something more appropriate to the skill levels. Treating adults volunteering to play in a community band as if they were willful children seems odd to me. But again, since everyone else was in a high school band, it's all seen as normal because that apparently the way it's always been.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Elizabethan Music & The Beatles

Here's the transcript of an interview with Tod Machover, one of the heavy hitters at MIT behind the new ways of making music via the electronic gaming portal. Renaissance music has always been a great favorite of mine, more so than a lot of the classical canon. 

But strangely, the thing I listen to 75% of the time, when I’m exercising with my headphones on is English Tudor/Elizabethan music, so music from about 1450 to the early 1600’s. And this is music that has attracted me for years, probably ever since I was in high school. I love Bach, I love Beethoven, I love Mozart, I love the Beatles, I love you know, Stockhausen, I love many things. But for some reason I come back to Elizabethan music because it’s a little bit like the Beatles. It has – I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s English, England has had a lot of really bad periods of music, but it’s had several amazing periods where they’ve found an incredible balance, not just between music that’s a rather complex and also pretty direct. Like the Beatles.

Everybody likes it because the tunes are memorable, I mean, any Beatles song is perfect. It gets to you right away. But if you look at the orchestration and the way the voices blend, and the way the instruments are used, and if you listen carefully to subsidiary voices which are not the main baseline to the main harmony, it’s very, very – I don’t know if complex is the word, but it’s very, very rich; much more than most pop music. So, it’s managed to combine complexity and simplicity in a very special way. And I think it took influences from all around the world. England’s a little isolated, so when it clicks – and Tudor and Elizabethan music like that. It’s extremely calming. I mean, it always takes me to another place, it’s also very, very stable and simple at the same time, you know, there are these melodic lines that do the craziest things. Much more interesting than what people were doing in other countries. And it’s also harmonic. The English learned, in my view, how to use harmony much earlier than the French or the Italians, or the Germans. So, you had these crazy lines colliding against each other whether it’s string music or vocal music. And at the same time, the beautiful chord progressions that are very modern in a lot of ways.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


The different populations educators and therapists work with have a lot to do with the contrasts between the two. Educators usually have a self selected group that includes people with at least good motivation, and probably some experience as well. It's often the case that educators further winnow that group down (sometimes fairly ruthlessly) to people they choose to work with. And at higher levels, of course, access is by audition only. This creates a closed group that can be taken further and faster than an open admission group.

A possible downside to the closed group is that in exchange for the privilege of admission, members can be subjected to what in other contexts would be viewed as verbal abuse. Just as in an abusive marriage, the person receiving the abuse can elect to stay in the relationship because the pluses outweigh the minuses. The music world abounds in anecdotes of tyrannical teachers and conductors who create tremendously effective ensembles, and whose members share war stories of the abuse and how it was all worth it for the magnificent performances.

A music therapist takes all comers and tries to nurture whatever abilities the client has, helping them experience the joys and benefits of making music. This doesn't mean there's no structure to the process and anything goes, it's just that the well being of the client trumps any particular musical goal. 

Ashley and Ritual

In this post over on Kyle Gann's blog, he pastes in a long passage written by Robert Ashley. Here's a section of that passage:

We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a "surfacing" of the continuing musicality of everyday life.

Actually, those rituals do not exist, except in television and probably in sports events. Everybody plays baseball or football or basketball or soccer or hockey (or wishes they did or thinks they do) so the game is only a "version" of what is part of your life. You are emotionally in it. That is what I mean by ritual. Everybody does not go around singing Mahler or Ives or Feldman or Palestrina. The music is foreign to you. Interesting, maybe, but foreign, like the gamelan. You are not in it.

The whole point of my project of creating musical materials "for the rest of us" is to enable folks to play music just like the sports Ashley mentions. Right now, most music available is for particular instruments, in particular keys, with particular technique requirements. If music making continues on its current path of more and more specialization, with more and more people having zero experience of making music for themselves, it seems to me a lot will be lost to society at large, and that professional music making might become an increasingly isolated endeavor.