Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Music and Exercise

This story in the NYT talks about the effects of listening to music while exercising. 

Some snips:

. . . The up-tempo music didn’t mask the discomfort of the exercise. But it seemed to motivate them to push themselves. As the researchers wrote, when “the music was played faster, the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort.” . . . 

. . . In fact, it’s music’s dual ability to distract attention (a psychological effect) while simultaneously goosing the heart and the muscles (physiological impacts) that makes it so effective during everyday exercise. Multiple experiments have found that music increases a person’s subjective sense of motivation during a workout, and also concretely affects his or her performance. The resulting interactions between body, brain and music are complex and intertwined. . .

. . . “Our bodies,” Dr. Kraus concluded, “are made to be moved by music and move to it.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Composing Music

Over the years I've often had people tell me they can't imagine how it is someone can go about composing music. It happened again here a few days ago when I was on a quick visit to my flute playing friend Susan up in Vermont and I got to socialize with some artists. In a wonderful conversation with a very accomplished and well established engraver, he said something along the lines of he could see how visual artists got going on a piece and worked it to completion, but where a composer even started was a mystery to him. His being an amateur player in a community symphony orchestra made the comment more striking.

I think part of what creates this wonderment is that very few people know the basic ingredients of music. In English classes you learn spelling and grammar and then build on that knowledge to understand literature. If English classes were like music classes, you'd be taught all the fine points of recitation of great literature without ever getting that grounding in the basics of how it's put together. 

The other thing that seems to daunt people about composing is seeing it all as one fell swoop, when it's actually a series of steps where various decisions about how to go forward are made. So I've got this idea of blogging the composition of a piece of music to see if that will help illuminate the process, at least as far as how I go about it. May well jinx the piece, but seems worth trying. It's working title will be Vermont Song and posts talking about it will begin with the abbreviation V.S.

This may help as well trying to figure out how to present some aspects of theory in a non-threatening way. I'm more and more convinced some familiarity with theory needs to be part of the learning materials from the get go. Having that knowledge baked in from the beginning seems to be a better route than trying to add it on after drilling technique and nothing else for years on end.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Timepiece Commentary

Over on his blog, Jonathan West has a post on his summer concerts and talks about playing Timepiece at the Fringe Festival. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Timepiece Performances

This past Thursday and Friday the St Clements Wind Ensemble performed at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here's the set list:


Sonata in D K 381                   W A Mozart
                                                  arr Michael Round

Nonet Op. 31                            Louis Spohr

               - Interval 15 minutes -

Timepiece, for wind quintet     Lyle Sanford

Wind Quintet (1964)                 Ketil Hvoslef

Serenade No 2 in A,
Op 16                                       Johannes Brahms

Just looking at that induces euphoria and cognitive dissonance in me in about equal measure. 

Jonathan West shepherded the piece to performance and reports it got a good response both evenings. He also says the five players want to polish it up a bit and perform it again sometime, and that other players expressed interest in getting the score and parts to play themselves, both of which are about the best reviews possible for me.

Icing on the cake was hearing that they performed the piece standing, which is something Jeffrey Agrell and I went back and forth on a while back, agreeing that playing standing increases the chances of connecting with an audience. 

In the next month or so it will be two years that I've been keeping this blog. The ways blogging has connected me to the great, wide world keep surprising me. These performances of a piece I wrote 15 years ago would never have happened without the connection to Jonathan via this blog and his. That this is the new normal for youngsters now growing up astounds me.

It looks like there'll be a recording of the performance available on down the line. Maybe when I hear that I'll really believe this has happened. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Silence and Applause

When we played at Macedonia last Sunday, in his sermon Crawford talked about the power of the silence following stirring music. In this post Opera Chic tells a story, in her own inimitable style, that makes the same point:

There are nights when the music you just listened to simply overwhelms you, when you just don't feel like doing what you've been trained to -- to clap your hands, stand up, cheer, whatever. The music is still with you, within you, even when the sound stops. The music still echoes, in a way, and breaking the silence simply seems wrong. Because what you just experienced is so deep and, in a way, fragile, that you want to hold on to it just a bit longer, and you know the applause will somehow break the spell.

Opera Chic experienced this phenomenon last year, at la Scala, with the Barenboim/Quasthoff "Winterreise". Apparently, very much the same thing happened the other night in Lucerne, for Claudio Abbado's performance on the podium, conducting his beloved Mahler's Ninth.

The always perceptive Carla Moreni, in Il Sole 24 Ore, a financial newspaper with an excellent arts coverage, was present. And her review in today's paper, unfortunately not available online -- the headline reads, beautifully, "Mahler's Ninth, The Perfect Silence" -- indicates that the audience was so stunned by the finale that, literally, nobody clapped their hands for three minutes after the final notes dissolved in the air.

And, eventually, an ovation lasting twenty full minutes rocked the auditorium.

But then, in a way, this is just Claudio being Claudio.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Networking Chamber Music

The folks at Sequnza21/ - The Contemporary Classical Music Community have just started up a site to facilitate and encourage the playing of chamber music. Here is the post announcing the site and explaining it a bit, and here's a link to the site itself

This is a terrific idea, and I've joined up to see how they go about it and what the response will be. These are all very high level folks involved in this, but it would seem that there's something like this that might be done to help amateur players better connect with each other to make music, and to hear others doing the same thing.

To my mind, this is a great approach to dealing with the issues Greg Sandow talks about.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Keyboard Diary

I've been working up some keyboard pieces here lately and decided to try the Glenn Gould approach to sitting at the keyboard again. I've tried this in the past and not "gotten" what he was up to, but this time I'm getting a glimmer.

He sat very low, 14" above the floor in a chair his father made for him. From Wikipedia:

This famous chair was designed so that Gould could sit very low at the keyboard, with the object of pulling down on the keys rather than striking them from above — a central technical idea of his teacher, Alberto Guerrero.

For me the difference is felt mostly as my fingers and hands being flexed slightly down from the wrist, as opposed to flexed up a bit at that joint to accommodate sitting at the normal height. My fingers have greater ease of motion over their full length, and there's the feeling of that motion being connected all the way back up to the shoulders. Previously the back flexed hands had the effect of breaking up that flow. I think playing the horn levers has somehow prepped me for feeling how my fingers prefer this posture.

The problem is that such a drastic change in playing posture is a lot like changing embouchure on the horn. I can feel that it's a better way of doing things, but sometimes the old brain wiring doesn't work with the new physical approach and retraining is needed. 

I'd love to know how many people have taken up this new approach and how many are doing it the way it's always been done.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Brain Wiring

This article is about how the brain is wired in general and doesn't even mention music, but it provides valuable context for where the neuroscience might be headed. A few snips:

. . . Neuroscientists are split between a traditional view that the brain is organized as a hierarchy, with most regions feeding into the "higher" centers of conscious thought, and a more recent model of the brain as a flat network similar to the Internet. . . .

. . . The Internet model would explain the brain's ability to overcome much local damage, Swanson said. "You can knock out almost any single part of the Internet and the rest of it works." Likewise, Swanson said, "There are usually alternate pathways through the nervous system. It's very hard to say that any one part is absolutely essential." . . . . 

. . . "The part of the brain you think with, the cortex, is very important, but it's certainly not the only part of the nervous system that determines our behavior." . . . 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


This past Sunday the Kenwood Players joined the service down at Macedonia Christian Church once again. We were five, two Eb tubas, soprano sax, trombone and me on horn and guitar. Crawford preached as well as playing the tuba. The Friday before we rehearsed with the church organist so she could get a feel for playing with us and for seeing the hymns in different keys and arrangements from what's in the hymnal.

Besides preludes and a postlude, we accompanied the organ and congregation in all the hymn singing, which went very, very well. There was no line between audience and performer, just a group of people making music together. The singing was particularly good on the hymns I'd dropped down a step or three, but was good on all them. I have to think the pleasure of singing with the Players blending in encouraged more involvement by the congregation.

The one thing I wish I could do over would be taking the small amp for the guitar. I was furthest from the organist and facing away from her, so she didn't really hear the guitar. Between that and not having percussion, my strumming had no effect on the rhythms or tempos. Until I figured out what was going on, it was a very weird sensation. 

One great benefit of this has been the need for me to finally face trying to format keyboard music for what we're doing. As a music therapist, I've always used a guitar to lead groups because you can move around to connect closely with individual players. Playing a keyboard puts a physical barrier between you and the rest of the group. So I've never really worked out playing the keyboard as a chording instrument, much less figuring out how best to notate that way of playing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Some time ago Alex Ross seemed to abandon his The Rest Is Noise blog for a newer one and just today I discovered he'd gone back to it. Going through all the old posts this video turned up. I'm not sure there's any music I love more than Italian madrigals. Watching the singers let the music inhabit them as they inhabit the music is a treat. The main thing, though, is hearing all those wonderful untempered harmonies delivered by that most human of all the instruments, the voice.

YouTube has changed the embed code procedure and for whatever reason the right side of the video is not showing up when I publish the post (there are five singers). Follow this link to see it on YouTube

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Neuroscience Roundup

This article is the best introduction yet to the neuroscience of music. A few snips:

. . .“It’s like the brain is on fire when you’re listening to music,” says Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “In terms of brain imaging, studies have shown listening to music lights up, or activates, more of the brain than any other stimulus we know.” 

. . . Using music to study and stimulate the brain’s emotional circuits may lead to new therapies for treating a wide range of emotional disorders, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, scientists say. By understanding how music activates and coordinates the various emotional mechanisms in the brain, scientists may find ways to rewire a brain affected by illness or injury, or provide a work-around for damaged or underperforming brain regions. . . 

. . . Despite the long list of potential benefits for health and happiness, Koelsch contends that the deep, complex experience that music delivers is primarily a social, rather than an individual, phenomenon. . .    

. . . Together, the findings suggest that music has the capacity to both turn on and tone down neural activity in the brain. . . .

. . . Recently, Koelsch’s team showed that making music boosts mood, even if you’re not musically inclined. . . .Koelsch credits the change, at least in part, to music’s ability to engage various social functions. He plans to test this idea by comparing people who make music in a group with those who play solo. . . .

. . . Studies show that listening to music stimulates brain areas specialized for imitation and empathy that contain what researchers call mirror neurons. These brain circuits, first described in monkeys, act like mirrors in the mind, reflecting others’ actions and intentions as if they were one’s own. The neurons allow you to feel loved ones’ pain or simulate their actions, even if only in your mind. . . . 

. . . Music “is particularly effective in establishing a sense of unity, belongingness and trust among individuals,” says Koelsch. “I don’t say that music always does this — apparently it doesn’t. But it can be very powerful in doing so.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Theory Mind

Back in this post I talked about Martin Gardiner's idea of multiple intelligences and mentioned my idea that "theory mind" is one type of musical intelligence. It can manifest in a left brain way as a natural understanding of the inherent structure of music along with the ability to use the sometimes very complex language that has arisen over the centuries to describe that structure. The right brain manifestation is naturally feeling the chord changes and the way all the pitches fit together vertically and horizontally, along with the ability to "get" complex rhythms right away.

The problem is how to present this information to those players for whom talk of music theory comes across as somewhere on a spectrum from scary to obtuse. I think one problem has been that most explanations of theory are written by people with theory mind, and they see the whole of it all at once, and for those of us who don't, the result can be nearly impenetrable. 

The challenge in creating appropriate learning materials is to choose the best few things to get across first so as to form one or two beachheads of understanding and then build out from there, always connecting the information to music the player is playing. Every piece of music in the player's book should have the basic structure of the piece laid out in as close as possible to everyday language, either nearby or in an accompanying book.