Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Conducting in a Trance

In this post Joe Horowitz is talking about Leopold Stowkowski. 

A Philadelphia story told by Abram Chasins captures the Stokowski conundrum.
Before a performance, he would secrete himself in his dressing room and do deep-breathing exercises. "If someone said 'Good evening' or merely brushed past him when he was on his way to the stage, he would wheel around and return to his room to restore his former degree of concentration." This could delay a concert by as long as 15 minutes. The gesture was as practical as it was theatrical: Stokowski conducted in a trance.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Praise of Kyle Gann

Outside of a few favorite Bob Dylan albums and the two or three close listenings to recordings of the performances I give to each of the performances of the  Kenwood Players, I very rarely listen to CD's. My recently purchased Kyle Gann's The Planets is a major exception. In the past several weeks I've listened to it over and over again.

Kyle Gann is some kind of savant masquerading as a musicologist, composer, critic and blogger. I've been following his blog PostClassic for years. He has an astonishing gift for talking about music in such a way as to expand one's notions of what music is and can be. 

He's a big believer in not talking about specific music unless you can hear it, so always has a downloadable example of whatever he's talking about. I'm on rural dial-up, but always take the time to download his examples. 

He's recently come out with a CD release of something he's been working on for years, The Planets for the Rel├óche ensemble. Turns out he can write music as well as writing about it.

One reason I don't listen to CD's is that after several listenings, most loose their freshness. A frequent finding of the brain researchers is that we want music to go in unexpected directions at least some of the time, and after several listenings to any particular CD, we remember what is does and where it goes, so it becomes less interesting over time. 

The Planets has an accessible surface, but has deep complexity right below the surface, so that upon repeated listenings, there is (so far) always more to be heard, which is very refreshing.

Here is a link to the CD, with links to brief samples. There's lots to say about it, but so far, for me, it's that "new music" I kept seeking but not finding back in the 60's, 70's and 80's. There are all kinds of ways for music to be new and fresh without a lot of the ├ępater le bourgeoisie behaviour that contaminated so much of the music back then. 


Timbre and tone are closely related, but not usually thought of as the same thing. When using the word "tone", we're usually referring to a specific instrument and/or player. "Timbre" (which is italicized because it's taken from the French) usually refers to the characteristic sound of a family of instruments, and then further to individual members of a particular family. 

There are the strings, which can be bowed orchestral instruments or guitar, banjos, and mandolins and such which are plucked or strummed. There are the brass instruments, some of which have conical tubing and others with cylindrical tubing. There are the single reeds - the clarinets and the saxophones - and the double reeds - the oboe and bassoon. The percussion family has a wide range of individual members with unique sounds.

One way we identify an instrument's timbre is by what audio people call the envelope of the sound (how the sound starts, sustains and then ends). Strings, brass, reeds and percussion have characteristic ways of creating their sounds that our brains process quickly and easily.

Another way we identify an instrument's timbre is by the nature of the vibration creating the sound. In this animation I linked down in the post on tone, you can add or subtract individual parts of the vibration and thereby change the overall vibration.

We use this way of changing the components of a vibration to alter its sound all the time when we speak. If you sing a long held note on a particular pitch and go through all the vowel sounds while doing so, it's your making subtle changes to the various components of the overall vibration creating the sound that makes "a's" sound like "a's" and "u's" sound like "u's". 

The specifics of what's going on with the components of the overall vibration are explained by something called the harmonic series, which gets pretty mathematical pretty quickly. At some point in the materials, the harmonic series needs to be explained for those interested. My hope is, though, to help people understand the broad outlines of all this well enough to inform their music making, without inducing math phobia.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Music Makers & Brain Function

In just about all of the articles about music and the brain, one of the points being made is that music engages and coordinates activities in multiple areas of the brain. If there is a human activity that uses as many, or more, areas of the brain, it hasn't been mentioned in any of the articles.

One of the underlying principles of music therapy is working to find the best way for each individual to go about learning how to make music and then how to improve their music making. Individuals are going to have variations of strengths and weaknesses (and individual characteristics) in the various areas of the brain involved.
The more we learn about these different areas and their involvement in making music, I think it will help us better tailor learning strategies for individuals. The better, and more complete, the evaluation of the client, the more effective the therapist can be. We need to improve our working understanding of what the different parts of the brain are up to and how that plays out in individuals.

Horn Diary

In the past week four horns from the Charlottesville Municipal Band sat in with our community band for two rehearsals and two concerts. I continued to play 2nd horn and sat with 1 and 2 on my left and 3 and 4 on my right. It was even more fun than the last time this happened. 

For one thing, having an idea of what to expect left me in a better position for more critical listening. Before when this happened, experiencing for the first time what being in a horn section sounds like had such a powerful effect, details got lost. I also had more opportunities for conversation and all four of the players were gracious and very informative in their responses, and were very good about letting me look closely at their instruments and mouthpieces.

My main takeaway was just how good they are. I was extremely knowledgeable about the music, having struggled for two months trying to play my part close to adequately. On their first read through they didn't make any real errors, but some of the bits I'd had trouble with weren't as smooth as the rest. What amazed me was how quickly they improved. We went through the program four times, and every time their playing was significantly improved and more musical. For them, the technique is there, it's just a question of mentally inhabiting what the score and the conductor want. Made me realize just how rudimentary my technique is.

What I enjoyed most was hearing them interpret all the expression and articulation markings in the music. Having grown up playing piano I don't fully appreciate what those marks can mean, especially on the horn. I kept having the thought that they were sculpting shapes in the sound of the music. So much of music making is the mental space you have of what's possible, and anything you can do to increase that is beneficial. I may not be able to be as expressive as they are, but hearing what they did shows me the way.

Something else that I kept noticing was a quality to the tone that I'd missed previously. I could hear 1 and 2 a lot better, and 1 had a new instrument and that might be part of it. Words are going to fail me here, but what I heard from time to time was that point midway between brassy and mellow, an amazing urgency within glorious tone. I had an involuntary emotional response to the "call" of the horn. I can't ever remember having such a visceral response to a musical tone quality. 

They all had mouthpieces with nicely rounded rims - none approaching the thinness of the Farkas VDC. One player loaned me a Schilke 31, which is close to a 32, which I think I'm going to get one of. Big cup, large diameter opening, and comfortable rim. 

It still amazes me how unsettled the horn is as a physical instrument. They all had different wraps and ways of draining condensation.

I've seen occasional mentions of a sort of stereotype for horn players - very nice people with a bit of eccentricity thrown in. These four players certainly have the being nice people aspect down - they drove something like a total of 200 miles without remuneration to play with a group far less accomplished than their band. They could not have been more helpful to me with my questions. As to the eccentricity, if that is the case, for me that's not a bug but a feature, being a somewhat biased observer on that issue.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Horn Diary

The intonation issues I wrote about in the last entry had several causes.

One was the position of the right hand. I had decided it was too far out of the horn and ended up having it too far in. To my ear it seems that having the hand too far in affects intonation of the different valve positions differently.

That problem was exacerbated by not using my embouchure well for that final tweak on intonation. A year ago, when I began incorporating Balanced Embouchure principles in my horn practice, I also switched to a different mouthpiece with a thicker, more pillowy, rim. ( A Farkas/Holton MC instead of a VDC.) I was less happy with the tone, as it was brassier, but that's what the band directors seem to want, and it made playing easier.

What it also did was to increase the amount of lips being pressed against the mouthpiece and unable to have an effect on the intonation.

At the same time, I also pushed all the tuning slides all the way in, thinking to reset them over time, but didn't, because just pulling out the primary slides of each horn worked.

So now I'm back to the VDC mouthpiece, all tuning slides pulled out various lengths, and my right hand seems to be in closer to the right place.

For the first time, here in the past six months I can hit the high F with no problem. Before that I could occasionally, but never with both good tone and intonation. The F# and G above that are passable most of the time and the Ab and A are like the F used to be. 

I seem to be in the minority on preferring the less brassy tone of the VDC mouthpiece, but have decided to go with it most of the time as I so much prefer it.

Also have switched back to the normal sitting position for playing the horn. The other one was a bit easier on the back muscles and made it easier to play with the volume needed to make the one horn sound more like a section. Our new director is really working on the band playing with less volume overall, which I'm realizing is one way to improve the tone quality of the group.

Recently my cello and fret-less bass friend Andy was here for an afternoon of music and we recorded some things on the Sony. I was just as close to it as he was, but with the bell pointed away, and even though he was unamplified, the cello is louder in the mix that the horn. With the flute the balance was much better.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Beginner's Mind

Over on the Facebook group for "The Midlife Horn Player", one of the members recently talked about dialing back his practice time from over an hour a day, every day, for five years - to just once a week, and he says his tone has improved nicely. 

This reminded me of a phenomenon I've repeatedly experienced playing various instruments. Because I can't keep up with them all at all times, sometimes there'll be months of inactivity on one before picking it up again. It's often the case that that first playing after a break makes me wonder how I ever gave it up, as the music flows easily and with good tone, sort of a "first, fine careless rapture". Then subsequently all the technique issues creep on back.

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism that means "beginner's mind". In Wikipedia there's this quote from a master:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

Wikipedia also says this concept ties into authenticity:

The term can be used for any thing or person who is perfectly genuine.

Routine can be immensely helpful in your practice of music making, but falling into mindless ruts is the dark side of that.

More on Tone

Back down on this post on tone, Jonathan West made some excellent comments and then went on to post three times at his blog on tone here, here, and here

It's very validating that such a high level player agrees with the notion of the centrality of tone to your music making. A number of other things Jonathan says are grist for future posts. For now, though, a few points.

In lots of ways, making music is an extension and an elaboration of your voice. Just as the tone of your voice conveys the emotional content of your speech, tone is a primal element of your music making. 

One aspect of Jeff Smiley's BE method of helping people find their best embouchure is having them exaggerate various muscle movements so as to better be able to find that nicely working balanced spot between the extremes. Trying to create the infinite variety of your voice tones on your instrument, with lots of exaggeration thrown in, can help you expand the envelope of tonal possibilities and give you an idea of which sorts of tone you'd like to develop to better make the music you want to make.

A great frustration of mine in community band over the years has been that pretty much all the pieces we've worked on tend to sound at least as much like etudes as they do enjoyable music. They offer all sorts of opportunities to work on rhythm, intonation, dynamics and articulation, but tone quality gets left off the list. 

photo - first warm toned sunset we've had in a while. Taken with the new camera.