Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Practice Time

Since talking about practicing the flute with the metronome at slightly different speeds so as to help feel the rhythm of the phrase itself, had the realization that what I was trying to get at has to do with that recent link to the article saying that we keep time in different ways in different parts of the brain. Just as music, our sense of time is not localized in a single area or two, as are most of our activities.

This is also what I was trying to get at saying Kyle Gann's The Planets refreshes our ears to rhythm shapes outside of repetitive triple and duple meters.

For me it's a given that music and physical gesture are deeply connected, and unless we're doing something like dancing, we don't count off to create a rigid time line when we nod, wink, use our hands when talking or any of the other thousands of physical gestures we make every day.

In ensemble playing we have to keep time in the metronome part of our brain so that we are, in fact, an ensemble. But for the music to trigger emotional responses in the audience, our sense of time needs to register in the other parts of the brain that perceive time as well.

photo - over in Echo Valley last year. John's wall; Kate's flowers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Flute Diary

Did pretty well with the Presbyterian Ensemble yesterday. Somewhere between "a gentleman's C" and a B+. Got lots of phrases just right with full tone. Got the high F's and Eb's. Garbled enough notes here and there to keep things out of the "A" range, though.

Came to realize the fingering insecurity stemmed from the fact that on the alto flute, which I played a lot in the 90's between our Vermont readership on regular flute and Dr. Andy on cello, the mid-range Eb has better tone and intonation with the left index finger down, rather than up as on the soprano flute. Once I realized that bit of brain wiring was what was setting off cascades of fingering errors and bad intonation and poor tone, drilling all the little sections where that cropped up really helped.

The other thing was realizing I needed to stop playing horn for a couple of days to let my lips have the ability to finesse the aperture to fine tune the tone and intonation. 

One of the great things about the flute is that you can play as long as you want, as opposed to the horn where your practice time is limited by how long you can buzz your lips well enough for good tone. With the flute, the more you play the more flexible and enabling your embouchure becomes.

This was the most intense wood shedding I've done in a while, and it was very helpful drilling down into technique issues and figuring them out. One thing that revealed problems was to use the metronome on a variety of speeds right around the one indicated. Slightly expanding or contracting the length of the beat helped me learn the essential rhythms of the phrases. I may well have it wrong mathematically, but adjusting the rhythms to slightly varied beat lengths felt more logarithmical than arithmetic. Once I got the feel for the flow and patterns of the rhythm, could pull off the phrases at the various tempi.

One thing that really helped was that the Presbyterian Church is a wonderfully large open space with mostly exposed brick walls. Playing the flute into that space is a joy because the sound comes back at you so easily and clearly, it's almost like having another flute doubling the part. In a great acoustical space like that it's easier to refine your tone, because better tone gets a better acoustic response.

photo - early spring crocus 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reed Embouchure

We have a sax player in the Friday group, who has wonderful tone and intonation on the tenor sax. He also plays the alto sax in the Presbyterian Ensemble. It's the soprano sax, though, that he's really keen on, having only recently given it a lot of time. His sound reminds me strongly of my sound on the horn. The higher I go, the more tentative and unsure it gets, but with the soprano sax I think you have even less room for error with both tone and intonation. It may well be the least forgiving instrument in the band. To my ear, only the piccolo can come close in sounding as flat out wrong.

He's mentioned a couple of times how he realizes he needs to "loosen up" his embouchure as he goes higher. Makes me think of BE. Just wrote him this in an e-mail and hope to pursue it with him:

I've been using a book/method for horn called "The Balanced Embouchure", which was written by a trumpet player and there's a horn player who has adapted the exercises for horn. Turned me around.

Here's the basic idea as it affected my playing. We tend to think the embouchure is just the muscles right at where the mouth meets the instrument. I had ended up super stressing those muscles to the point of collapse one day in rehearsal (turns out this is not unknown among the horn players I'm in touch with via the net).

The method is for brass embouchure, but I'm thinking the deep principle might help other embouchures as well.

Here's the deal - whatever you can vary in your embouchure - do it in extremes. Get used to the feeling of doing it really wrong in one direction, and then go do it just as wrong in the other direction. Doing this shows you how much deeper into your musculature your embouchure goes. If you get all of it going just right somewhere between the two extremes, not just the bit closest to and touching the instrument, your control will be much firmer, and your ability to fine tune tone and intonation much enhanced.

There is, of course, way more to the Balanced Embouchure than this, but this idea of exploring extremes to better understand and feel the middle is one of the underlying notions of BE that I want to try using in realms of music making beyond trumpet and horn embouchure.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sequential Fingering

Through high school I played the piano, then as an undergraduate took up guitar and banjo. On both the keyboard and the fret board, half steps are arranged sequentially from low to high and moving one finger moves you one half step up or down. 

On the flute, there are times, like Ab and Eb, where you have to move two or more fingers at the same time to move a half step and the movements seem weird to me because they don't conform to how I wired my brain before I started playing the flute. 

Every so often this issue crops up on the horn, but since there are two different ways to make every note, and since there are few sequential movements analogous to the keyboard, I usually haven't been lulled into that frame of mind, though it does happen.

What gets me about the flute is that a lot of the fingerings are sequential, with raising or lowering one finger moving you a half step, and that lulls me into a frame of mind that gets me into trouble.

I also set myself up for this by never venturing much beyond one sharp or flat once I took up the flute thirty years ago. I distinctly remember our Vermont readership patiently telling me a few times that if I practiced scales, it would all be easier. Now that I'm trying to play things with 4 flats part of me wishes I'd at least nailed down using the Ab key. Old dog; new tricks.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Here's an article on sighing that discusses how it's a way for the respiratory system to "reset" itself. Research into why "take a deep breath" can be so effective. In band, I try to always take a big relaxing breath during tacet measures and it really helps.

via Bruce Hembd at Horn Matters

Saturday, May 15, 2010


One of the things I really need to work on is how to relate to an audience as a performing musician. Whenever I work with a group as a music therapist, I usually stand in the middle of the group, or at least wander around among the members some. In trying to get people to make music you have to take some pretty heavy whacks at a mindset that gained the upper hand over the course of the 20th century as recorded music drastically altered how music making is viewed in technically advanced societies. There's the assumption that some people can make music and others can't, an idea that just doesn't compute in most "primitive" cultures where everyone just naturally participates in communal music making. 

When the Friday group goes out and performs as the Kenwood Players, the social dynamic is very different than my doing a music therapy session, and I need to stop being surprised by that and to figure out how to adjust and do what I want to do in the new environment. In any kind of performance situation there's a default set of expectations on the part of the "audience". I can work with those expectations, but I can't remove them in the short term.

The audience at the hospice event is unusual in two ways. Physically, it's sort of theater in the round. We're providing music for what is essentially an event in a park. Emotionally, just about everyone there is grieving for a loved one recently passed on. During the talks and the butterfly release that followed our playing, there were tears both from the lectern and in the audience. Knowing that tends to make me a bit tentative in relating to folks there while playing.

The main problem, though, is that being the organizer, music arranger, roadie and default leader of the band, I let myself get caught up in all the details of the performance and the ensemble dynamics and end up not giving the audience the attention it deserves, which is really pretty amazing, since they're why we're there. 

Using the guitar amp which lets me move around while the other players can all hear it is very helpful. As the arrangements settle into playability, there'll be less need to direct. The main thing, though, is to remember to make eye contact with audience members and do whatever I can non-verbally and musically while playing to connect with them. Between numbers I need to make sure they can hear me thank them for applause and to give them at least as much attention as I do to the players in prepping for the next song, just not at the same time.

Being extremely fortunate in having fine players in the group, I don't need to give them the attention I'm used to giving members of music therapy sessions, and instead give more of that attention to the audience.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ensemble Mix/Audio

One of the guiding principles for the part books I'm building is that they take into account that not everyone can be there all the time, either at rehearsals or performances. The idea is to create parts that suit the various instruments, but are generic enough that players can successfully jump around from playing lead to being accompaniment.

This past Sunday was the first time we've had just two treble instruments, trumpet and soprano sax, along with the two Eb tubas and percussion - and neither of our alto or tenor voices, the clarinet and trombone. 

I played horn on two numbers, which are four voice suites I've been working on. One strings together a Renaissance dance, a troubadour part song, and Lillibulero (Purcell/Beggar's Opera). The other strings together that famous Jeremiah Clarke Trumpet tune with one by Purcell. With the horn on the tenor line they worked well (when I played the right notes).

On everything else I played the new acoustic steel string guitar with the on board mic run through a small keyboard amp. It had much the same effect of the C'ville horns coming to play with the Orange concert band. It gave a middle to the sound that the tubas could plug into from below and the sax and trumpet from above. 

At our next little performance I'm thinking of putting mics in the bell of the tubas, so that like me on the guitar, they can work not so hard and yet get a better sound. At the last C'ville Municipal Band concert I was struck by how their three Bb tubas laid down this wonderful bass throughout all the numbers. They sort of created a primal river of sound that everyone else could float and swim along in.

I have an aversion to using amplification in our performances, because over the years, walking into events where there's amplification I've come to view amps as lethal weapons and to think that professional musicians using them are deaf (or that they're way more self involved than is healthy). Judicious use, though, can create a better ensemble mix than not using amplification (or sound reinforcement, which is a probably a better term).

The way I set the level for the guitar was to turn it up just enough so that what was coming out of the amp was about as loud as the guitar itself. I hardly noticed the amp was there, but for the other players it kept my sound steady whether I was facing them or facing out to the audience. This lets me move around as I always did doing music therapy sessions back in San Antonio. I can sing strongly enough to not need a mic in small scale performances like this one, and I much prefer it, as having the mic control where I am feels very constraining.

The deep lesson of what's been learned here has to do with balance. On all sorts of musical issues there's the forest/trees dynamic. Because of my focus on creating part books, that's what I was hearing. The way the guitar brought everything together made me realize I hadn't been hearing the forest. The part books are going to work best if there's a guitar, or rhythm keyboard, or an omnichord or autoharp to give that middle to the sound. You can get by without, but having one of them will make things much easier.

Another thing I was more reminded of than learned, was that rhythm guitar is my strong suit when it comes to music making. The new guitar is a joy to play, and the amplification makes it a whole new experience for me, and I had listened to a Michael Hedges CD here recently which led me to try some new textures. But mainly, I don't have to think about how I'm going to strum. There's a direct connection between the feeling I want and the strum just happening. Except for a few keyboard pieces I've been playing for decades, along with some Dylan songs I've been singing for 40 years, everything else I do musically requires a lot more "left brain" or conscious mental involvement. With rhythm guitar it's all intuition, feeling and sensation with very little thinking. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Butterfly Music 2010

Here are some photos of us playing at the Butterfly Release fund raiser for The Hospice of the Rapidan down at Germanna yesterday afternoon. There was stiff wind, so that's why the French horn case is being used to anchor the tripod with the Sony recorder. That's Dick on trumpet and Judy on percussion.
Here I am in full music therapy encouragement mode, urging on Bill B on soprano sax and Bill C on Eb tuba, with Crawford just barely in the frame
Here's Crawford on the other Eb tuba and me trying to keep my music stand from blowing over.
Here I'm facing where most people were seated over where, after we played, a harpist played while the names of people who've passed on were read out and then the butterflies released.
Except for Crawford, we can all be seen in this shot.

Wanted to put these shots over on Facebook, but it crashed every time I tried. Update - Finally got it to work. Here's the link.

My feeling is we did very well. There were some rough spots, but they were mostly due to my giving incomplete road map instructions or getting off the beam on guitar once and horn a couple of times. We've got another little outdoor performance in two weeks, then a small indoor one in June, then a bigger outdoor performance on the 5th of July. Learning a lot, and want to post on some of that here in the next week or so.