Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lama Tashi/Solstice Performance

My friend Lama Tashi performed at the Handshake Concert in Delhi on the solstice. This was the third annual event put on by the delightfully named Rattle and Hum Society, which works to broaden awareness in India of the far Northeast of the country. He's the one on the right in the photo above.

Here's a quote from one of the reviews of the concert (gompa is Tibetan for monastery):

They closed with a worship duet, alternating Angami and English verses, and setting the stage for Grammy nominee Lama Tashi and his ‘singing monks’ to take us to the edge of heaven, syncing chants with languorous drum rolls, soft cymbal clinks and reverbs from Tibetan longhorns. 

An overwhelming peace descended over the audience, as if we were deep within a gompa, in a meditative trance. From the rage of rock to the stillness of spiritual music, quite a transition.

Walls and Sound

Back a while ago I posted on how much better the community band sounded when set up right in front of a wall in the town park as opposed to being out in the middle of it. We could hear ourselves better and the audience could as well.

Last week the Kenwood Players performed what Erik Satie might have called "furniture music" for a Health Fair put on by U.Va. hospital and a number of local non-profits.
Free mammograms and sports physicals for school children, along with lots of information booths and free screenings, were on offer for non and under-insured folks.

The locale was the gym in the new field house at the high school in town. The way we set up, Dick on trumpet had his back directly to a wall and Bill B on soprano sax had his back to the corner of the huge room furthest from us. In the recording, Dick is perfectly clear and Bill B sounds as if he's in the next county, and they were equidistant from the mics. 

At the time we were playing this disparity wasn't obvious because of the booming acoustics of the gym and because I was usually standing closer to Bill B than to Dick. There was also a thick pad on the wall right behind Dick and I assumed it would soak up a lot of his sound, but anything reflects better than nothing. Also, the recorder was out in front of us a bit, and other than setting a level, I didn't really pay attention to the sound and the balance.

The basic lesson in all of this is not to make assumptions, but to walk around and pay attention to how the acoustics are working.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lightfoot and Handel and Dylan

Just came across this in an article on Gordon Lightfoot.

"The music just seemed to roll out of me," Lightfoot said. "I'd sing at festivals, weddings, everything when I was young. Luckily, I had a teacher that showed me how to sing with emotion. He taught me to do so by having me sing songs from Handel's Messiah. He had me singing a lot of really serious religious music at one point just to see what I could do with it. I think that's what you're hearing there in a lot of my music."

His songs "Early Morning Rain" and "Four Strong Winds" were among the first I learned on the guitar and he performed at Duke when I was there, so I've always been familiar with his music, and somehow this really makes sense.

The other thing about his voice is that someone once asked Bob Dylan why he sang the way he did and his response was he was just trying to use what he had the best he could, but that if he could have someone's else's voice it would be Gordon Lightfoot's. 

update - later realized "Four Strong Winds" an Ian Tyson (Ian & Sylvia) composition. Joni Mitchell was another Canadian I listened to a lot back in the 60' and 70's. I remember an English professor talking about how much better recorded the folk music was than the classical records he listened to. Probably geezer nostalgia, but there seemed a much more human presence of the musicians, with the large album cover, analog vinyl sound, and the timbre of the voices and instruments than stuff you hear today, especially in the mp3 format. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Recorded Music

I keep coming back to the idea that the ability to listen to recorded music is the biggest change to the culture of music making, ever, with all sorts of recognized and unrecognized consequences. 

In this post, Kyle Gann talks about how much he likes recorded music, particularly his own. As usual over there, the comments are great.

In this post, Terry Teachout wonders whether second tier orchestras are needed in the age of the iPod.

In this post, ACD takes issue with Terry in his usual bracing style.

Mirror neurons, and the notion that live music is healthier than recorded, go unmentioned. Part of me thinks most music specialists, whatever the species, tend to go for the abstract elements of music and lose sense of the common touch elements of music making.

Music and Alzheimer's

Two new articles just popped up on music and Alzheimer's. This one covers familiar ground on music helping retrieve memories from earlier periods of patients' lives.

It has long been known that even after patients no longer recognize names and faces, they can sing along to a favorite tune. “Auditory processing seems to be the last skill to go,” said Tomaino, who has worked in the field for 32 years.

This article talks about using music as a mnemonic tool for remembering things like what pills to take when.

“One thing we do know about the way the brain processes music is that it’s more of a global process,” he says. “While the parts of the brain where we make memories — the medial temporal lobes like the hippocampus — are the first parts to be ravaged as Alzheimer’s develops, music pulls from the cortical and subcortical areas, which aren’t as damaged by the disease.” As a result, neuroscientists believe that music may allow patients to code information using much more of the brain. Or it may be that music stimulates people and helps them pay more attention, he says, adding that even with healthy older adults, lack of focus plays a role in memory impairment. Whatever the mechanism, the therapeutic value of music is accepted by the medical establishment, and some forms of music therapy are covered by health insurance.

Blog Roll Update

No more dial tone at Dial M for Musicology. Phil dropped out a while ago and Jonathan has recently signed off. It was a great run while it lasted. They both struck me as being fully up to date with modern academia, but sort of throwbacks to when academics did more real (to me, at least) research adding to the sum of our knowledge, as opposed to simply spinning jargon for the benefit of fellow jargon spinners. 

Adding James Bolden's Horn World because in just the few posts he's started with there are two very helpful nuts and bolts type posts. One on rotor stringing and one on performance acoustics. As a music therapist, one thing I always try to do is make sure all the issues not directly related to the actual playing of the instrument are addressed, so the the player can focus entirely on the playing. Anything making your instrument more responsive is the way to go. Equally, paying attention to the acoustics of your performance space will give you the biggest payback on all the work you've done to prepare for the performance.

Recently I've done a number of posts on some of the deeper aspects of making music, but if you don't take care of the details first, all the rest will be much harder to achieve.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gann on Composition (and blogging)

Kyle Gann has just put up this terrific post on composition. He draws parallels with blogging and says:

The impetus is transformed by the process. In a sense I had something to say and I will have said it, but more accurately, I will have found out by the end of this essay what I think. Which is the value, for me personally, of writing a blog - and would continue to be even were no one reading it.

This little snip resonates with my previous post.

The notes seem to be smarter than me. Thank goodness the purpose of the piece is not to demonstrate to the world how smart its composer is (which strikes me as being the case with some pieces I hear).

Here's the concluding paragraph:

The composer has something to learn from his or her own music just as everyone else does. And while we talk loosely about the composer "writing down the music he hears," I think we do more justice to the complexity and reciprocal value of artistic experience by admitting that the composer is just as subject to his or her materials as anyone else. All praise to the composition - but the composer should be humble.

UPDATE: The first comment under the linked post, by "mclaren" is a good summary of how the left and right brain work when listening to music.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mind Training ~ Musical Training

A lot of non-Buddhist spiritual practitioners, perhaps Thomas Merton most famously, have felt that the tools of mind training can be used effectively in their own endeavors. Based on the very general framework laid out in the previous post, I think they can be helpful in the practice of music making as well.

One of the basic tools of mind training is simply practicing being more aware of your thoughts and actions in real time. As we go through life, a lot of our ways of thinking about things and behaving is habitual and reflexive. By learning to watch our thoughts and behavior we can get a better sense of what's working and what isn't, which is the first step towards making improvements.

What's really interesting about this, and what correlates so well with music making, is that we're bringing into the conscious realm things that usually reside at a deeper level that we're normally much less aware of. It's like shining a flashlight of attention around a dark factory and seeing the individual components and finding the ones that need work. Then, once we've fixed something up, moving on to another, while that one slips back out of the immediate consciousness.

What the neuroscience is telling us is that in this procedure we're slowly but surely rewiring our brains in various places. If we go about this in the right way, we'll end up with more of our music making flowing in a natural and nearly automatic way.

Another mind training tool that goes hand in hand with this is being clear about your motivation. The lamas often make the point that doing things to simply satisfy the "self-cherishing ego" can lead to suffering. Working towards being more of a benefit to others can lead to more happiness and contentment.

I think the analog to this in music making might be that if your motivation is simply to build technique as an end in itself, you're setting yourself up to be a creature of your "self-cherishing ego". That is, a lot of, "Hey, look at me and how great a player I am", can creep into your mind. If this is the case, one result is going to be being pretty upset when you make mistakes, and that kind of disequilibrium can cascade into some unhappy states of mind.

More importantly, though, if your motivation somehow includes being of benefit to your audience, that's going to color all of the instances of your brain rewiring work. Besides thinking about how to more efficiently make music, you're also going to be thinking about how your music is going to affect an audience. To my mind, that broader awareness of what you're up to has a lot to do with what frequent commenter Jonathan West calls "musicality".

photo - day lily 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mind Training

Jeffey Agrell left a comment down in the persona post that bookmark these two posts of his, and my response says that every time I reread them all sorts of new ways of looking at things pop up in my mind. This post is a try at framing one of the very deep issues of music making they raise.

As evidenced by the work put in to create the CD over on the right, I think Tibetan Buddhists are on to something. For one thing, in teachings where lamas present their ideas, they much prefer the term "mind training" to "religion". Bound up in that notion is the idea that one's progress depends on one's practice, which involves analyzing what you're doing and then trying to make a better job of it, as is the case in music making.

A lot of the new brain research talks about how spending ten thousand hours doing something effectively rewires your brain. In music practice, a lot of that rewiring involves getting the physical body to become more responsive to your musical intentions. What Jeffrey's posts make clear is that effective music making in front of an audience requires more. He also makes clear that this other (non-technique specific) part of music making, without which the exercise can lose most or all of its value, is not much talked about by music educators.

The primal point of Buddhism is motivation. Why you're doing something is more important than what you do. Every teaching I've ever attended has begun with a discussion of the importance of your motivation.

One of the great insights of Buddhism is that neither wisdom nor compassion alone does the trick. If either outruns the other, obstacles will arise.

In music making, technique is analogous to wisdom. And for now I'm going to say that the motivation to positively connect with and to be of benefit to an audience is the analog to compassion.

The lamas often say wisdom and compassion are like the wings of a bird, as both are needed to take flight. The point of mind training is to pay attention to and to cultivate each. 

photo - calla lily

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Music Neuroscience Overview

In this article talking about upcoming talks and workshops at this year's Aldeburg Festival, Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct,  gives the best overview of the present state of music neuroscience I've come across. Here are a couple of paragraphs.

It’s still not known if AP (absolute pitch) is inherited (that is, genetic) or acquired. But it probably has more to do with language than music, being much more common among people whose first language is tonal, such as Chinese. In one study, half of the new students at a top music school in Beijing were found to have AP, compared to just one in ten for a comparable American school. And musicians with AP have an enlarged region of the brain associated with speech processing.

Neuroimaging has shown that practising an instrument purely in one’s head really works: the motor cortex signals associated with each finger get stronger without the pianist actually moving them, and eventually the finger movements trigger audible tones inside the head. Vladimir Horowitz is said to have practised this way to avoid “contaminating” his finger movements with the different action of pianos other than his own Steinway, while bon-vivant virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein did it just to avoid having to sit for long hours at a piano.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


The word persona comes from the Greek for mask, specifically the ones actors wore in dramas. Somewhere along the line I remember seeing that besides hiding the face, they somehow altered the voice of the actor as well.

 ~~~ Update - Just checked Wikipedia and found:
This is an Italian word that derives from the Latin for a kind of mask made to resonate with the voice of the actor (per sonare meaning "to sound through").

The latin word derived from the Etruscan word "phersu", with the same meaning, and its meaning in the latter Roman period changed to indicate a "character" of a theatrical performance.~~~

In psychology, and I think Jung in particular, persona is the term to describe the face we present to others and how they perceive us. It seems as well a handy term to describe how musicians present themselves to their audience.

Jeffrey Agrell has two great posts up talking about the non-musical aspects of performance here and here that I've read several times and been meaning to post links to. 

Then today came across another of those botox inhibiting emotional intelligence stories here.

"Our facial expressions reveal social context by mirroring expressions of those around us, giving us insight into their emotions, states of mind and future actions," he says. The Botox study, he says, suggests that our facial expressions also guide how we interpret language.

The new findings fit with the increasingly accepted theory that aspects of higher thought, such as language, judgment and memory, are shaped by our bodily sensations and movements, says Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and a leading scholar on the role of the body in emotion. According to this "embodied" view of cognition, which has gained popularity over the last decade or so, the brain makes sense of the world at least partly by simulating action.

Connecting with an audience while making music means a lot more than simply getting the notes right, and Jeffrey's posts are a great survey of what's involved, and your persona as perceived by the audience is as important as the music itself. Part of what's going on has to do with mirror neurons.

One thing I've noticed recently in working with these ideas and trying to keep a more relaxed and personable face while performing (and practicing) is that my facial expression affects the tone and emotional content of my singing voice way more than I'd realized. It's obvious, really, but a lot about music making is obvious only when you give it some attention.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Trombones and Voice

This past Monday, the community band played in town for the Memorial Day event where the names were read out of all those from Orange county who gave their lives on foreign battlefields. We played a couple of Sousa marches, the national anthem, a medley of "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" and then another Sousa march. 

Afterwards I had the Kenwood Players, the band director and his wife and the two trombones from C'ville who come down to play with us all out here for lunch and music making. We had a great time and the music making session was terrific, as both trombone players are very good.

I had a musical epiphany singing unamplified with the two tubas, soprano sax, trumpet and the two trombones and my guitar. I was half facing the trombones, and when I had the intonation right at full voice I could feel the sound waves from the trombones and my voice blending in such a way it was almost as if the trombone sound connected with my diaphragm. There was almost the sense of body surfing on/in the sound waves. It's the most tactile I've ever felt music.

This all reminded me that the trombone was used nearly exclusively to double voices during its early history, and after this experience it's very clear why that was.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Music for Doris

Through my regular visits to the nursing home as a hospice volunteer doing music, I've gotten to know Doris W, seen in the photo above. Each year she raises thousands of dollars for the U.Va Children's Hospital by organizing various events, one of which is a garage/bedding plants sale in the parking lot every Spring. For a year or two I went on my own with a guitar and sang for an hour, but last year and this year, the Kenwood Players performed.

In this photo you can just see the mics in the tubas and the cord from my guitar, each running to one of the three inputs in the amp. I sang without a mic.

Here's a nice shot of the two tubas, Crawford and Bill C, where you can better see the microphones.

Here's Bill B on soprano sax.

Judy on percussion.

Dick and Maggie.

My guess is I'm singing "Don't Think Twice" here. Or maybe "King of the Road".

Our Vermont readership may recognize my godmother, Miss Mildred, in this photo. She came to my senior piano recital at Woodberry Forest in 1967.

We all really enjoyed this event, and the amping of the tubas and guitar worked very well. Have since gotten a mic for Maggie's clarinet that seems to work well. We have a small indoor event on 6/17 and then the larger event on July 5th, where some of us will also be performing in the Dixieland group, "A Touch of Dixie", and we'll all be performing in the concert band.