Friday, December 31, 2010

Music/Spiritual Practice

This post by Pliable gets at something I've tried to talk about here from time to time, i.e. the parallels between engagement in music and engagement in a spiritual path. He's talking about Zen Buddhism, but I think other paths would qualify for this discussion.

Accepting parallels between engaging new listeners and transmission as practiced in Zen Buddhism takes us down an interesting path. Transmission is totally dependant on physical interaction between teacher and student.

His use of the word "transmission" implies something of more value than mere entertainment to pass the time. "Physical interaction" allows for the deeper communication possible with embodied cognition and mirror neurons. It also allows for the connection between the performer and audience Hilary Hahn has spoken of.

All the dogmas that have developed around reaching new audiences involve adding insulating layers between performer and listener; these range from performance conventions to digital concert halls and virtual orchestras. Yet, if the analogy between classical music and transmission is valid, the process should be reversed. We do not need more intermediate layers. Instead we need high voltages to flow between superconductors (pun not intended) in close promiximity to one another. Which means more live music, physical interaction between audience and performers, music education, music therapy, amateur, youth and scratch orchestras and similar initiatives. And less of an awful lot of things we are getting more of.

It amazes me that more people don't see things this way. It delights me that one of the few happens to have one of the most widely read blogs on the planet. 

Another way of putting this is that there's a lot of attention paid to the very top of the music making pyramid, but not nearly so much to the rest of it down below. In schools, lots of money and time is expended upon the small minority of students in the band and chorus, while the majority are shut out, sometimes very rudely. Many people seem to view music making as something to be left to the elite, but the new research coming in is telling us it can benefit us all, not just the technically advanced. 

One of the main causes of this focus on the top of the pyramid is the ubiquity of recorded music with all its technical perfections. People tend to conflate the value of technical skill with the value of simply making music and listening to it. To my mind the main issue is that there be a match between the music being made and the audience's ability to appreciate it. It's that connection which is important, and technical wizardry can either be a help or a hinderance. A priest or lama helping someone along the path doesn't spout the arcane points of theology until the student is ready. Getting someone on a good path and helping them stay on it is more important than trying to impress them with your knowledge.

This all reminds me of why I write music. For me, the point is to create music the players will enjoy playing and the audience will enjoy listening to. If that happens, the connection is made and the benefits of music will flow from that connection to all concerned. The most heartening thing about the reception Timepiece is getting is the sense it's largely successful in those terms. (More on this compositional motivation here)

(Pliable continues down this path here and is kind enough to mention this post in the footnote)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Timepiece : Audio

Here's the audio of the second performance of Timepiece by the St Clements Wind Ensemble at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this past August. I still have a hard time believing my great good fortune in having such fine players perform the piece.

If anyone is interested, I'm giving away PDFs of the score and parts, only asking in return for a recording of the piece and a photo of the players I can put up on the blog if it's actually worked up. My hope is that there can be multiple interpretations of the piece that work as well as this one. The address is MusicMakersMusic at AOL dot com. Let me know whether you use A4 or 8.5 x 11 size paper.

Thanks again to Jonathan West for making this all possible and for his terrific editing of the piece for performance.

The program note giving the history of the piece is here.

The performance notes which talk about what I was trying to do are here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Improvisational Brain

This article is simply the best thing I've ever seen on what improvisation is and the neuroscience involved. Many thanks to Martin I. Gaines for the tip.

. . .The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas. . .

. . . At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.” . . . 

. . .When Berkowitz and Ansari looked at the subjects’ brain maps, they found three regions that were activated during all tasks that involved improvisation, whether it was rhythmic or melodic
 . . . the anterior cingulate, is enlisted for most cognitive tasks, especially when the brain needs to decide between a surfeit of potentially conflicting responses
 . . . the dorsal premotor cortex, acts as a type of command center for crucial sensory input about where the body is and how it negotiates space. If the body has to move, what will be its goal and how fast should it go? Analyzing this input, the region issues a plan of action. When the musicians started to improvise, this region, already active during the playing of memorized melodies, ramped up significantly, possibly due to the musicians’ need to execute anything they could conceive of playing
. . . .the inferior frontal gyrus/ventral premotor cortex—has long been known as an area key to our ability to understand and produce language. While more recent studies have linked it to music processing, Berkowitz and Ansari are the first to show that it plays a role in generating music as well. This would seem to strengthen the theory that music functions similar to language in the brain 

. . . .Results showed a veritable symphony of activated and deactivated brain regions during improvisation, which included the regions noted by Berkowitz and Ansari. The strangest activity, Limb said, occurred in the prefrontal cortex, where the scientists observed a surge in medial prefrontal activity, the “self-expressive, autobiographical brain region,” and, simultaneously, a broad deactivation in the lateral prefrontal regions, the area that governs self-consciousness and inhibition. In other words, in the improviser’s brain, the area that imposes self-restraint powers down, allowing the region that drives self-expression, which ramps up, to proceed virtually unchecked. “This notion of trying to tell your own musical story, without the constraints of caring how well it’s going as you’re saying it, was really pretty intriguing,” Limb said.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Benefits of Caroling

Here's a BBC article on the benefits of singing Christmas carols. There's nothing new in it, but it's a nice round up of the various ways singing is good for your overall health. Back 30 years ago you'd have only seen stuff like this in music therapy texts or in books in the back of theosophist book stores. The commonplace acceptance of the benefits of music making these days is very gratifying, and a sign of how much things have changed. 

Here are a few snips from the article:

"As it's an aerobic activity singing improves heart health with related benefits to overall health and is linked to longevity, stress reduction, and general health maintenance. Singing also brings a great amount of happiness. It is impossible to sing well with a long face because it affects your pitch. Keeping the positive momentum up is essential. If we smile as we sing then people soon feel the benefit in more ways than one. There is also the adrenalin kick brought on by a performance - a sensation familiar to both professional opera singers and even anyone brave enough to step up to the microphone to sing in front of their friends in the pub. . . .

 . . . the body is an integrated system, sometimes called the human body-mind, linking the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. The physical, mental and emotional - these three things are interwoven. Because music is multi-sited in the brain and we're also involving ourselves in strong aerobic activity and singing is a form of exercise, it means there's a release of what's called the pleasure hormone. But when we sing we also see a measurable decrease in stress hormones like cortisol - a direct correlation in the physical endocrine system." . . .

 . . . "It lifts us up on a spiritual level, it helps our self-esteem, and it's great for all ages from toddlers to grannies - you can have a good sing and let your hair down." . . .

Monday, December 20, 2010

Red Moon

One of the lines for "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" I picked up somewhere along the line over the years is, "Oh, when the moon shines red with blood". I didn't really know what it meant until I saw the phenomenon some years back during a lunar eclipse, when the moon took on a reddish hue. 

There's a lunar eclipse tonight, so depending on conditions this may be one of those times the "moon shines red with blood".

Once Upon A Night

Once Upon A Night is a Christmas cantata by Pepper Choplin. Al Packard, our local impresario (who created our community chorus and community band out of nothing, and who is the music director for the Presbyterian Church), put together a performance of this yesterday morning for the Sunday service, pulling together an impressive number of local performers.

This piece of music is hands down the music I've most enjoyed playing in an ensemble since taking up the horn five or six years ago. Most of the music we play in the community band (except the Sousa) and the Presbyterian Ensemble seems to my ear to be written by pedagogues for pedagogues. There's always the feeling each piece is really an etude meant to drill the students and impress theory minded people - with modulations and meter changes and tempo shifts and articulation workouts every few measures, few of which seem called for to my ear, which enjoys the sustained building of feeling states and finds all the sudden shifting off-putting. 

The piece was written for narrator, chorus and soloists, and piano, and then optional orchestration was added. We had a flute, oboe/English horn and horn, all of which stay pretty busy, along with percussion, a clarinet, the bassoon part played by trombone, a trombone, two trumpets, a tuba and a string bass. 

There were meter changes here and there throughout, but always following the rhythm of the text in a completely natural and reinforcing way. The few modulations were also tightly bound to the text.

The flute and oboe/English horn had a lot of interludes between and under the narrations and choruses/solos/duets. The horn had some of that, along with a lot of being under the vocals with harmonies and counter melodies (it was reminiscent at times of supporting singers with a guitar). 

One of the things I most liked about the piece is the way multiple melodies and counter melodies are woven together. The flute and oboe or English horn often had intertwining lines, but that weaving of melodies happens throughout the piece for everyone.

I was not the only one struck by the beauty of the piece. A number of players and singers mentioned how much they liked it. The great thing, though, was talking to the congregation afterwards (many of whom I've known all my sixty some years) and hearing in their voices and seeing in their eyes just how moved they were.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flute Diary

This past Sunday I played flute in three pieces at the Presbyterian Church in Orange. Two were at the beginning of the service with the ensemble and one was an obbligato part with the choir and organ (the music of which I got just two weeks previously).

I did fairly well, and got some nice compliments from some musical folks. About half the time I played as well as I can right now (with a tone quality I'm very excited about), and the rest of the time the slight cracks and the unintended vibrato here and there didn't seem to be disruptive enough to break the spell. 

For the piece with the choir I was up in the gallery with them, and the acoustics of the church are even more reverberant up there. It almost feels like playing a duet with another flute due to the sound reinforcement. The downside, which I discovered going up there and practicing by myself once, is that if you don't end a phrase beautifully and cleanly, that wounded sound will hang out there on its own for a while.

In practicing for this performance I again came up against something I've mentioned before. Having spent my childhood and adolescence plugging away at the piano, my brain is wired to think moving just one finger is all that's needed to move a step up or down. Notes like A flats and F sharps on the flute really hang me up if they're part of a run of sixteenth notes. Trying to concentrate enough to get them (because they're nowhere near automatic for me) can make me tense up, and that makes them even harder, whereas keeping my shoulders relaxed and letting that relaxed alertness spread all the way down to the fingertips makes everything easier.

It all reminds me of that Marvin Minsky(?) book Society of Mind and of the idea gaining currency with the neuroscientists that our brain works as a distributed network. One part of my mind knows I should keep the shoulders relaxed, but something I'm doing elsewhere in the network is having the side effect of making me tense them up if my attention to that issue lapses in the least.

Another factor in all this was my playing the horn off and on for three hours the previous day at a rehearsal for a cantata there at the same church for next Sunday. It may be that if I can build up my flute embouchure enough I can play it concurrently with the horn. Right now, though, playing the horn 24 to 48 hours before a flute performance leaves me feeling I have less motor control over the fine adjustments of the aperture needed to get good tone on each of the pitches played.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


The first time I can remember associating the word "natural" with making music was back in the 80's when I heard a radio interview with Tony La Russa and he used the word responding to the question of why he thought he was such a successful baseball team manager. He said that he'd never been a natural player, so in order to improve enough to make it in the big leagues, he had to analyze all the facets of the game so that he could figure out how to do things like hit and run bases. That meant he was in a good position to help others play to the best of their ability. 

I immediately had the realization that I was in the same position making music. With the possible exception of rhythm guitar/banjo, I am in no way a "natural" musician. And all the work I've done to improve my skills helps me help others.

The next time I consciously thought about "natural" music makers was reading Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure. I can't remember if he expressly says so, but I came away with the feeling that his method for trumpet/horn players is a rigorous set of exercises embedded in a well thought out philosophy that helps students find their way to playing as if they were a "natural" player.

All of this has come to mind because of this post by Bruce Hembd, where he makes the point that there's nothing "natural" about playing the horn:

Until animals start buzzing their lips in the jungle, I don’t buy the ‘natural’ approach that some teachers tout as a selling point – along with its abstract, pop-psychology terminology. . . 

. . . Playing a brass instrument requires technical knowledge, and mental and physical skill. For some that requires breaking things down and analyzing it to see how it works and all fits together. 

This slightly different usage of "natural" tripped me up the first few times I read the post. I agree with the point being made, but also feel trying to figure out how to get the body to work in the most natural manner possible is the way to go. (Valerie Wells, the horn rep for Jeff's BE method comments approvingly to Bruce's post.)

All of these ideas about "natural" players and how to learn from them raises the issue of our consciousness when playing. Stan Musial didn't go to the plate turning over in his mind all the details needed to hit well, he just hit the ball. Once the rest of us learn from observing naturals, we need to work with what we've learned enough so that we don't need to think about it either - that's what practice is all about. What starts out as conscious thought should over time slip down into more automatic behavior. If we do all that well, an observer should have a difficult time picking out who was originally a "natural" and who wasn't.

Update: I was remiss in not mentioning this post by James Boldin, which I'd read and commented on before making my own post here. Dave Wilken also posted on the subject 
(and included links to some great posts of his touching on the subject), and Julia Rose has a very interesting post responding to Bruce here.

This discussion is one of the reasons I find blogging so beneficial - all these people who really know their subject spending time sharing their knowledge and insights.

Update 2: Want to paste in Julia Rose's response to a comment I left on her post:

I don’t think I’ve changed approaches, but rather I’ve gone back to an approach I used before. Every single success I’ve had in my career (making finals in auditions, competitions, etc.) I attribute to my thinking musically instead of technically when I played. However, when I started running into problems a couple years ago (as everyone eventually does, I think) I began to focus on what I thought was physically going wrong. But there is just too much going on physically for one to think about, at least while playing. I know now that when one runs into problems, one must continue to think musically in order to solve the problem.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I just left a comment on this post by Jeffrey Agrell where he talks about so many students wanting to participate in competitions by playing pieces beyond their current capability. It's a great post with lots of food for thought. One thing it helped me realize is just how important a tool competition is in the educational system as a motivator and a winnower. In music therapy, competition just isn't in the picture. 

Here's the comment:

Hi, Jeffrey – Just a terrific post I’ve read several times now and keep seeing new things. The “patience for the process” phrase seems perfect for music education, and you’ve set me wondering how I’d rephrase it for music therapy.

“The difference between practice mind and performance mind” is something I hope you will expand on sometime.

Your general idea list reads like part of a music therapist’s care plan.

To me, this obsession with competitions is just the music education system’s ethos turned up an extra notch. I’m an outsider looking in, but competition seems a basic tool used by educators to get musical results, and part of the ongoing winnowing process.

The always striving for greater technique seems to trump letting students play things they’ve fully mastered technically so that they might mine them and themselves for a deeper understanding of musicality.

Like everything in music, a balance of some kind is needed, and you’ve done a great job of outlining the thinking needed to find it.

Performance Diary

Yesterday in the early afternoon, all eight Kenwood Players did a set of half Dixieland, half Christmas music over at Gordon House, a retirement home close by where we play two or three times a year. Then in the early evening I took a guitar and a banjo to a small fund raiser for the James Madison Museum in a little store front on Main Street in Orange. Various local musicians, including a clarinet quartet and a father and daughter singing songs they'd written with two guitar accompaniment. Everyone had an hour slot and I was the last.

In both performances I felt a great connection with the audience. At Gordon House everyone was moving, singing with us at times, and applauding enthusiastically. At the fund raiser I had people paying attention to the lyrics of Dylan songs and reacting to punch lines and quirky phrases, and the applause there was enthusiastic as well.

One thing that struck me was compliments from both other players at Gordon House as well as both audiences that specified having done a good show. I think I'm beginning to find that sweet spot between being a "performer" and a "therapist". Again it has to do with that combining the expected and the unexpected our brains like so much. The professionally experienced players enjoy the loose approach, like running through road maps of who's going to do what right before a number and including the audience in the conversation. And the folks at the benefit seemed to enjoy my slipping into a bit of a performer's persona to communicate some of what Dylan is up to.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Back Issues

For the past several weeks I've been spending more time on a daily basis practicing music, working to extend my technique enough to perform some new pieces on horn and flute, than I have since conservatory days (late 70's). Back then I was a piano major, not having touched a keyboard for something like ten years before wanting to get credentialed as a music therapist. I lived with an amazingly tense and sore back, right between the shoulder blades.

Since then I've gotten and done a lot of bodywork. Pretty much everyone has back and shoulder issues, usually from a mostly unconscious hunching of the shoulders. For me, when I'm working to deepen my technique, whether its keyboard, guitar, banjo, flute or horn, there's a tendency to let the intensity of my mental effort create needless physical tension, especially in the shoulders and their muscle attachments to the torso. It's sort of a negative example of embodied cognition. The relaxed and alert physical state best for making music seems a little antithetical to our mental image of someone working hard and thinking hard.

Somehow my feeling of really working hard and concentrating and being completely focused on the task at hand suggests the body posture of hunching over the instrument and using exaggerated control gestures and scowling (!). I'll catch myself, relax, let my shoulders slip back to a more neutral position and let go of the facial contortions. Then the next time I see 16th notes in a key signature of more than a couple of sharps or flats, or have a new chord or chord progression to fret, I slip back into the needless extra tension. Over time I slip back less, and to usually a lighter degree of tension, but it always happens. My suspicion is that those two and a half years of intense piano work, with very little sense of what I was doing to my body, helped me create this situation.

Jeffrey Agrell and James Boldin over on the Regular Reads: Horn list both have talked about the need to be aware of basic body issues when learning to make music and I think they're really on to something. As a therapist I've always paid a lot of attention to how a client physically interacts with an instrument. I just wish I'd figured out my own issues before wiring my brain and body in some dysfunctional ways back in the day. 

Update - Pasting in below most of a comment left by Jonathan West, as it is so responsive to my post:

I'm with James & Jeffrey on being aware of your physical state when playing. It may be that you need to put regular relaxation exercises explicitly into your practice routine.

When you play horn in band, you aren't playing continuously, so it is reasonable for your practice at home to mimic to some extent the kinds of activities involved when you play in a group. And that consists of bursts of playing interspersed with rests. If you get into the habit of doing some kind of relaxation exercise during home practice, you may find that it comes increasingly naturally to you to do such execises during rests in band rehearsal as well, and you may find that this has a surprising effect on your endurance.

As for what exercises to do, I suspect that you're in a better position than I am to know the sorts of exercises that would be good for you.

Relaxation exercises to loosen your shoulders are great, but I think that it would be an even better idea to find some kind of relaxation technique that stops your shoulders getting bunched in the first place.

Try standing, and play an octave scale of long tones, each one with a long crescendo and diminuendo. You get rid of all technical issues, and you just concentrate on feeling relaxed and getting that smooth intense non-brassy tone you want, all the way from p to f and back again. Think of and feel your shoulders as you crescendo and concentrate on remaining relaxed.

If you find yourself getting tense during practice, stop what you are doing, do a relaxation exercise to un-knit your shoulder muscles, and then do a couple of long tones to remind yourself how you should be feeling when playing. Then go back to what you were doing before.