Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Old Hymns

Having never been a church goer, I never sang any hymns until becoming a hospice volunteer six or seven years ago. When I'm asked to sing hymns, it's nearly always the old hymns, many of which have been dropped from the newer hymnals (and never were in the Episcopal hymnal, with which I had a little experience as a young child).

Some of the hymns I'm talking about are "Sweet Hour of Prayer", "The Old Rugged Cross", "In The Garden", "What A Friend We Have In Jesus", "The Church In The Wildwood", "Trust and Obey", and "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior".

I've put these and others in flat keys for our group, and usually down a step or three to make them easier for people to sing. Every time we do them, a few people come up afterwards and fervently thank us for performing them and telling us they never hear them any more and that they mean a great deal to them.

As a therapist these hymns strike me somewhat as the service tunes and patriotic songs the community band plays on Memorial and Veterans Day. Through a lifetime of association, hearing them triggers an emotional reaction in some audience members that can never be matched by something they've not heard before. 

I can understand how church musicians and ministers want to always be exploring new material, but as a therapist these old hymns are a wonderful way to create therapeutic moments for people that grew up with them.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Made In Tibet

Thanks to Lama Tashi for linking this on Facebook. For the nearly 20 years I've been knowing Tibetans, the news from Tibet has just gotten more and more grim. This example of how they maintain their sprit in the face of all that reminds me of what an astonishing people they are.

Art. Emotion & Technique

Here's Terry Teachout's almanac entry for today:

"It is a grotesque misapprehension which sees in art no more than a craft comprehensible perfectly only to the craftsman; art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand. But I will allow that the critic who has not a practical knowledge of technique is seldom able to say anything on the subject of real value."

W. Somerset Maugham,
The Moon and Sixpence


I think that some art can only be fully apprehended and appreciated by the community of craftsmen. Musicians and composers with "theory mind" can delight in harmonic and rhythmic complexities (which may or may not be manifestations of emotions) unintelligible to regular people. I do agree with the overall point of the quote, though, and think it's a good way of thinking about teaching music - that the emotion is the point of it all, and that technique is how you get there.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Performance Diary


Thanksgiving is a great day to post on some recent performances by the Kenwood Players. We had four performances in eleven days, a frequency of public performance I'd never previously experienced. One performance was in yet another local country church with glorious acoustics, Waddell Presbyterian over in Rapidan (for those familiar with the area it's the wooden Gothic church right as you go down to the river from the Orange side). Here's a snapshot of the interior:

During the service we did "Sweet Hour of Prayer", "The Old Rugged Cross", and "In the Garden" as instrumentals three times through, me on guitar, Judy on drum, Steve beginning each on trombone and Dick taking the third time through on trumpet, with Bill B and Crawford switching out on the second iteration on sax or Eb tuba. Each and every solo was terrific. Crawford, a retired preacher who'll be 80 next Aprils Fool's Day did a tuba solo on "In the Garden", that to me at least, spoke of a well and fully lived spiritual life. 

We got a lot of very nice compliments, but my favorite was from the organist who said afterwards in an almost dazed way, "You all are really good!" It's not unusual for us to get nice comments from other musicians, but the music therapist in me who's never done a lot of straight up performing is always delighted to hear them.

We also did three performances with basically the same set list, for an open house at an assisted living facility, for a fund raising gala for the local art center, and for the entertainment following a harvest dinner at the Presbyterian church in town. Maggie and I did less than ten minutes of flute clarinet, then Dick and Steve did trombone trumpet duets, then Crawford and Bill C on tuba and me on horn joined them for some brass, then I switched to banjo and we did some good time Americana, and then some straight up Dixieland.

I am obviously biased, but my sense is that the good feelings we create as a group making music together are getting transmitted to the audience. People are enjoying the music, but they're also enjoying and sharing our having a good time making the music. 

Here's how I put it in a thank you note to the Players: Thanks to each and every one of you for these recent performances and all the past work that laid the groundwork. Both how we make music as a group and how the group makes music in the community is something I've never experienced so fully before. I saw a quote here lately that for a true musician the love of self doesn't get in the way of the love of the music, which is a great way to describe the cooperative spirit needed for our getting the feeling we're expressing in the music.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

String Tone

Here is a terrific post by Elaine Fine, with great illustrations, talking about how various harmonics can create different tone qualities. A snip from the first paragraph:

Violinist-composers tend to load up their music with sixths because the sixth is such a harmonically rich interval. It is simply loaded with overtones, some that can be heard, and some that can't really be heard distinctly. They can be felt though, by the person playing and the people who are listening. It is rare that a microphone can pick up the full array of overtones and difference tones. These are the things that give texture to the music and contribute to the personal quality of an individual player's sound.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Few Words about Jonathan

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the name Jonathan West, as I've linked to him from time to time and because he is by far the most frequent commenter. Besides his horn blog, he has another, which began as rationalist and skeptical philosophic musings, but a couple of years back began paying attention to sexual abuse of children in a school in his part of London. 

For the whole story you can go there and scroll through the posts. Basically he turned his wonderfully analytical mind to the problem and did what he could to shed light on a situation that, for whatever reason, society tends to turn a blind eye toward whenever it crops up. 

Equally importantly, he has maintained a civil tone throughout, even though those running the school cast aspersions on his motives.

Here in the past few weeks the story has been covered by the major papers and the BBC and Jonathan's work has been vindicated and praised, but it was lonely going at the start.

Having worked with children who were victims of abuse, sexual and otherwise, I know that the harm can only be ameliorated, not eliminated. The real way to go is to prevent it from happening in the first place, and that's what Jonathan's work on this issue will mean for any number of children in the future.

Bravo! 

Hearing the World Differently?

Here's a long article on how it is so much modern architecture can seem weird to the layman, the people actually using it. For me it seems a perfect analog to a lot of "modern" music. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right.

Environmental psychologists have long known about this widespread and puzzling phenomenon. Laboratory results show conclusively that architects literally see the world differently from non-architects. Not only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive, attention-getting qualities.

I've become convinced that most composers of concert band music are really writing for other composers of concert band music more than students and audiences, whether they realize it or not. That also seems true of most of the atonal effusions of academia we got in the 20th century.

From time to time I've used the phrase "theory mind" to describe the type of musician/composer who can tell you instantly that they're hearing an augmented chord with a flat ninth in second inversion. They simply hear and process music differently from regular people. The music they write and play can work for them and others like them, but not for average people.

Here's another paragraph further down in the article:

Our colleague Jaap Dawson recently reinforced this idea in telling us of his teaching experience:
“The unconscious rules us, however hard we try to become conscious of a little bit of our lives. What I’ve also discovered in working with students the last 27 years is that they pick up the design rules of Modernism very quickly—without consulting their own experience of buildings or spaces. And if you look at those rules, then you simply have to conclude something else: in order to follow them, you need to know the normal, vernacular, classical, archetypal language of building. If you know that language, then you simply do its opposite in order to get Modernism. My conclusion: awareness of the timeless language is present in people, but they learn to suppress it. But there’s something underneath groupthink, I think; and that’s a fear of trusting your own experience—in body and soul—of buildings and spaces. Any child trusts that experience.”

Memory and Music

Here are two articles talking about memory and music.

The first talks about a particular type of memory function that can vary from person to person. Some people can hold more information in their minds at one time than others.

In a series of studies, Hambrick and colleagues found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels – and even in individuals with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand. The studies analyzed complex tasks such as piano sight reading.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it’s not always sufficient,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology. “Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

I was particularly struck by this as music educators always talk about how if you sight read a lot you'll get better, which is certainly true. But it also seems true that it's harder for some than others due to innate brain function, which I've always intuitively felt, but educators never seem to consider. I never push sight reading on clients for whom it's difficult, preferring to focus on what what comes more easily and then building out from that. 

The second article (thanks Jonathan!) is about a musician who suffers from amnesia, but can remember music. Here's the line that really caught my attention:

"Musical memory seems to be stored independently, at least partially, of other types of memory," Finke said.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grimaud Interview

Alex Ross gave a link to this interview of Hélène Grimaud. It's a fascinating read. Here are a few snips from the article:

“A wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear,”

Her albums aren’t merely proficient tours through the repertoire; they are highly personal explorations that can stand out among dozens of rival performances. And in the concert hall Grimaud can offer surprises, something rarely provided by players who have been processed by the conservatory machine.

“By nine, I was already obsessed,” she remembers, in love with “the pure pleasure and evasion of being at that instrument.” But, rather than spending all her time at the keyboard, she did much of her “practicing” in her head. “Some wonderful pianists practice eight hours a day,” she says. “I was never really that person.” 

Chopin, a tempestuous pianist himself, was a musician with whom she felt a kinship. Grimaud, who is left-handed, thought that the Classical greats discriminated against players like her. In their music, the left hand was largely devoted to chords, while the right played the melody. “Chopin opened up the piano for the left hand.”

She also exercised her remarkable ability to prepare without actually playing. Mat Hennek, her current partner, remembers that one day, when he and Grimaud were first dating, they went shopping in Philadelphia and then to a Starbucks. At one point, he recalls, “I said to Hélène, ‘Hélène, you have a concert coming. Did you practice?’ And she said, ‘I played the piece two times in my head.’ ”

She presented her program with intense commitment, sustaining a mood from piece to piece, so that the audience felt pulled into a narrative. Levine, at the Gould Foundation, notes that she “seems so absorbed in the music, so attentive. She has that quality—getting back to Gould—of ekstasis.” Grimaud explains, “A concert must be an emotional event, or who needs it? You can just stay home and listen to your favorite recordings.”

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Maslow

Just caught this post over on Musical Assumptions and made the following comment:

Very, very helpful post - Thanks. Came across Maslow for the first time since the 60's when reading up on "flow" and saw where he renamed as "peak experience" what had previously been called "transcendence".

Synchronistically, just this morning had a conversation with a musical friend and we agreed that pure "flow" is in part social - you can't get there by yourself - there have to be other players and/or a live audience. But neither of us are pros, so your idea that it can be achieved in solitary practice could well be the case for high level players.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Terry, Gunther and Walt

Just want to bookmark this post by Terry Teachout on Gunther Schuller and Fantasia. Schuller's biography looks to be a fascinating read. Here's one thing Terry says:

Mr. Schuller, who turns 86 next month, is a much-admired classical composer and conductor and a distinguished jazz scholar. Before that, he was the principal horn player of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He is the only musician in the world who can claim to have played with Maria Callas, Miles Davis, Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. In "Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty," just out from the University of Rochester Press, he talks about all this and much, much, much more.

Horn Diary


I've had two very pleasant experiences with the horn within 24 hours of each other earlier this week.

The first was an evening practice session running through all the bits and pieces in my 2nd horn parts for community band. My tuner, which beeps when a correct pitch is played, had been left on and time after time it beeped right after the last note of a phrase was played. After nearly two dozen times I went and turned it off as a distraction, but the feeling of being so well into an intonation groove lasted the whole session.

Then the next afternoon we had a full rehearsal of the brass quintet we've been trying to pull together (two Eb tubas, trombone, horn, trumpet). I've put together an album of Mozart, Corelli, Facoli, Tomkins, Gibbons, Bach and Billings. Over and over again we hit the chords just right and that amazing sound of an in tune brass ensemble filled the room. In my fairly wide experience of music making on various instruments, there's simply nothing like it. The trio of flute, alto flute and cello can be just as good, but in an entirely different way.

The feeling I had was part of what I experienced as a "flow" discussed in this post. I hated it when the pieces came to an end, wanting that feeling and gorgeous sound to go on and on.

Also, I now know I can play the horn in tune with other brass and with voices, and my suspicion is that in band my difficulties are due in part to there not being a clear "slot" for me to fit into. My first band director five or six years ago one time said something like, "You have to be in good tone to be in good tune", and I think that's right. If the tone is not centered in all the instruments playing, the sound mix is contaminated with all sorts of out of tune harmonics. It's also my suspicion that trained educators can hear through that static and divine where the pitch should be, but I really have a difficult time doing so.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Off Topic: Natural Phenomena


There have been several unusual natural phenomena in my neck of the woods here lately. There was the earthquake, with the epicenter just 17 miles away, followed by numerous aftershocks. Then there was a tornado close enough that I could hear it. It sounded like thunder at a distance, but just kept on longer than any thunder I've ever heard, and only when I checked the weather discovered there'd been a tornado right when I heard the sound.

Then last night during my outside farm chore I looked up and saw the most amazing Northern Lights I've ever seen. Sort of stood there mesmerized for five minutes. There have been photos coming out today, and this is the closest to what I saw. My horizon line was about two thirds the way up from the bottom of this photo, and my view of the lights extended upwards and I could see the trailing off into nothingness of those green streaks. Right when the light show was over, the fog came up like some heavy handed Macbeth production.

It all makes the Buddhist teachings on impermanence come to mind.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Music and Reading

This article talks about recent research suggesting regular music making can benefit reading skills.

In a new study, found in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions, researchers provide a biological basis for how auditory working memory and musical aptitude are intrinsically related to reading ability. . .

 . . . Nina Kraus, Ph.D., and her team found that poor readers had reduced neural responses (auditory brainstem activity) to rhythmic rather than random sounds. Furthermore, researchers discovered the ability to hear acoustic sounds correlated with reading ability as well as musical aptitude.

The musical ability test, specifically the rhythm aspect, was also related to reading ability. Similarly a good score on the auditory working memory related to better reading and to the rhythm aspect of musical ability.

Kraus explained, “Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mitsuko Uchida Quote

I followed this link from Opera Chic tagging Mitsuko Uchida because, for me, she brings life to Mozart like no one else I've ever heard and I was curious to see what she might say. In the interview at the link she says:

“What truly matters,” she says, summing up, “is that your love of music is stronger than your love of yourself."

I've done some posts on how from a Buddhist perspective your motivation for doing something colors and affects the outcome of the activity, particularly something as expressive as making music. "Your love of yourself" is what the lamas call "the self-cherishing ego" and which they teach can lead you astray. If I'm reading this quote right, she seems to be saying something very similar.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Voice Diary


One project I've had on the back burner for a couple of years is making a recording for friends of the the Dylan songs I've been singing for over 30 years. There have been several sessions with Dave the former Army Band drummer and Dr. Andy on bass, separately and together, to get a feel for how to do them with a small ensemble as opposed to just me and the guitar.

Here lately I've been doing some test recordings to figure out how to best use the audio equipment to get the best sound on the voice and guitar. Running the sound through the speakers and/or headphones has been a revelation. It's like holding a magnifying glass to both tone and articulation. In a purely acoustic environment the sound of your voice is a blend of bone conduction and what the room sends back, which has the effect of buffering and delaying it for the tiniest bit of time.

Using a nice condenser mic no more that a foot away from the mouth and having that feeding headphones gives the voice a temporal immediacy and a clinical clarity. Small details I never noticed loom large. (Dr. Andy says it's the same for him using headphones with both the cello and the bass.)

One thing that's become particularly apparent is my not articulating clearly throughout a song. Just because I know the words as well as I do from memory doesn't mean someone listening will.

Something else is that the tone of my voice doesn't always sound like I'd imagined it does on some of the songs, and isn't conveying the sense and mood of the song as I intend.

All of which is to say recording yourself is a wonderful aid to learning to make music, and that using headphones while making the music amps up the experience.

One small audio procedure that seems to work well setting volume levels at that sweet spot that's at a high level comfortably short of feedback shriek is paying attention to the EQ settings. With my Mackie mixer there are knobs for high, mid and low EQ and I've been turning up the volume enough to hear a little room noise through the speakers, then dialing back any EQ that creates any sort of hum or white noise, and then turning up the gain. It's dawned on me that feedback shrieks are as much a creature of poor EQ settings as they are of too much volume.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Audio Note

Our group, the Kenwood Players, had an outdoor performance of Dixieland jazz last weekend at the Gordonsville Street Festival, and I took the full set of audio equipment. Over the past several years, learning how to set it up and get a good sound has been something of a challenge, but I'm making progress.

Last year at this event I pointed to two large keyboard amps (fed by the mixer) straight out from the porch we play on, and there was this weird edge to the sound on the recording, especially the trombone. I decided it was the result of something like an infinite regression like old time barber shop mirrors, with the sound bouncing back and forth across the street. This year I placed the amps so they were at a 45 degree angle to the porch, one pointing up the street and one down, and the sound was much better.

As usual, each tuba had a dynamic mic clipped into its bell, there was a condenser placed near the clarinet and one for me to sing into, a dynamic for Dick to announce songs. A new wrinkle has been clipping a small condenser to the banjo, because its sound is so directional. Having it go through the sound system means I can face any direction I want and everyone can hear it.

The other part of the system was a set of small powered speakers used as monitors, and that worked well. My sense is that besides helping us hear each other better, monitors help round out the sound. I'm used to thinking feedback is always a bad thing because of the howls it can create, but a little feedback, i.e. the sound from the monitors blending into the overall sound, can be a good thing.

But I always forget something. This time I had a knowledgeable music friend there evaluate the balance of the various instruments out front, but I didn't ask the players themselves if they could hear everyone else well, and it turned out the trombone player was too far from the monitors for them to help.

When we first began the wind came up, blowing one music stand over, and creating a low rumble in the mics, even though they all had foam covers. I dialed back the bass EQ on them all and the rumble went away.

The balance on the recording is about as good as we're going to get in a live situation, with the exception of the tenor sax not being strong enough because I forgot to put the vocal mic over next to him when I wasn't singing. I forget that even though the balance of the mix can sound good to me in the middle of everything, the recorder is in a different place in front of us and what it's picking up is a different mix altogether.

One thing I did in preparation for the event was to mark the inputs on the mixer with what was going to go where (there are four inputs with phantom power and trim controls and four 1/4 inch inputs). That meant I could set the EQ for each input ahead of time to best suit each mic, so that at the event only minor fine tuning was needed. All the pans were set right down the middle.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Warming Up

Until I took up the horn I never gave much thought to warming up. On the piano, guitar, flute and cello I just play a few easy things, more to get my mind focused on the task at hand than to limber muscles. With voice there is always doing things in the middle range before trying to hit high notes, but again, just doing a few easy pieces fits the bill. If the goal is to be a high level player, then things get more complicated, but just playing for enjoyment doesn't need to entail extensive warming up, as long as you pay attention during the beginning of each session.

The horn, though, is a different beast altogether, and not warming up properly can have huge downsides in simply not being able to play well or for very long. This post by James Boldin is a good one on some of the issues of horn warm-up. 

Reading and thinking about James's post lead me to remember that the "warm up" for Buddhist spiritual practice, whether attending a dharma talk or a solo meditation, is reviewing and "setting" the motivation. In most of what's been written about musical warm ups, the focus is on the physical aspects. Taking a little time at the beginning of each practice session to think about what you're trying to accomplish, and why you're trying to accomplish it, can be valuable as well.

Physical technique is very important, but there's a lot else involved in making music, and calling some of that to mind at the beginning of each practice session can bring more balance of all the elements to the endeavor.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Composing Music


One of the projects I set for myself this summer was to write a piece for horn and cello. Didn't happen. I came up with what both Dr. Andy and I thought was a great kernel / introduction in one of those odd time signatures I like so much, but nothing doing. Either those dozen or so bars really don't want to go anywhere, or I wasn't able to figure out how it can happen. So I put it aside and spent a lot of time arranging music for the brass group. But there was this feeling of failure, of a journey not completed, not to mention wondering if the muse had fled.

Then one of my students asked for a piece for her and her sister, flute and trumpet, and I came up with a little duet for them. And when arranging things for the weekly meeting of the brass group I've been doing these little harmonic studies to hear how the various instruments blend from various points in their registers. The point being that setting small goals makes coming up with something much easier.

Another thing that's been going on in the composition realm has been going back to pieces written in the 90's for various combinations of flute, alto flute, keyboard and cello - and trying to get the computer to play them again. There have been any number of upgrades to Finale since then, and it's taken a number of tries to get playback to work, but it finally does.

At any rate, I've had a few listens to those old pieces and it's been great fun, certainly in the psychological sense of being reminded of my state of being back then, along with being reminded that whatever it is I want to do as a composer comes out as a kind of style or sound, something first noted by our Vermont readership / flute player for whom the music was written. Kyle Gann revels in every piece being a totally new departure, and they certainly sound that way. For me, that there's a commonality to my sound over the years is sort of reassuring.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Flute Diary


This summer I spent a lot of time on the alto flute after something like seven years of hardly touching it and it was great to play it again. I recruited Hayley from the Orange community band to join me and Dr. Andy to work up music I'd arranged back in the 90's for flute, alto flute, and cello, along with some things I'd written for keyboard with those instruments.

Jumping around from instrument over the years has its drawbacks, but there are wonderful advantages as well. All the work with the horn and the regular flute meant I was able to get much better tone and volume on the alto flute than I did in the past. There's also sometimes a complete absence of the hissing, tire leaking air sound that used to be a regular feature.

I think the work with BE, Jeff Smiley's embouchure method for trumpet and horn, helped me better understand the way all the breathing and muscles work together to produce the embouchure, and that the better you "get" that, the easier it is to have a comfortably open throat and jaw, which in turn allows for creating centered, full tone. 

With both flute and horn my tendency was to obsess over what the lips were doing. I've never particularly liked buzz words, but that 60's hip term gestalt really fits the bill for explaining the true nature of embouchure. Embouchure is how everything else you're doing manifests in the lips. I realize this is one of those commonplaces of teaching wind instruments, but it's also one of those things where you have to experience what the words are talking about. Just because the words make sense to you doesn't mean you have a full understanding of their import. 

The other thing that has struck me (all over again) is what a perfect trio the flute, alto flute and cello make. There's the wonderful balance of treble, midrange and bass sounds, and the flutes have that difference tone ghost of an extra instrument from time to time, and all three are agile instruments.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Horn Diary


This summer has been the best I've ever had on the horn. During the hiatus of the community band I successfully got back the Farkas  Very Deep Cup mouthpiece I started with years ago, but moved away from when I had the embouchure crisis and the callus a while back, when I switched to a Medium Cup and then the Deep Cup for a while. I love the tone of the VDC mouthpiece and that its thin rim allows for so much embouchure movement inside the rim. While it might be marginally better for me to stick with a smaller mouthpiece for band music, and to match the first horn player's tone, I'm going with what I like more in the music I'm doing away from band.

One set of pieces I've been working on are the 12 Duos Mozart wrote for horn. I got the music years ago, but the gauntlet of preparing band music drew me away from it, and it's been wonderful music to come back to. Like some of the Handel pieces, they combine simplicity with musicality, with every note perfectly placed. One thing I've really enjoyed has been the detailed articulation, which seems to be the original intent of Mozart. They're making for great exercises as well as pleasing pieces for both me and the brass group. I'm putting them in keys that allow the trumpet and horn play 1st and 2nd voice up and then horn/trombone and Eb tuba down an octave.

Now that I seem to have some basic horn technique to work with I keep noticing an issue of brain rewiring. Having spent my early years on keyboard, there's the tendency to think of a series of notes as mere switches to be flipped in sequence, but on the horn, more than any other instrument I've ever played, every phrase is more sculptural as it moves from one note to the next, with every note's tone and intensity affecting the next and so on down the line. And I keep being caught off guard by how an interval, of say a fourth, feels different up and down the range of the horn, whereas on the piano it feels the same everywhere.

Something else I've had since I got the horn and got back to this summer are books of the hunting horn calls. I can finally play all the high F's and occasional G's called for. The blend of signaling and music is both fun and interesting. One thing I'm trying to arrange for the brass group is the old hunting song "Do you ken John Peel at the break of day" with some of the hunting calls between the verses.

As for community band, having a 1st horn player has made it a much more pleasant experience in that I'm not in the position of having to play music that's really too hard for me. Not playing the higher note in harmonies is a challenge after years of doing so, as is trying to be in tune with the 1st horn more than the band as a whole. But all of that seems to be coming along, and simply hearing how a good player plays band music is a continuing revelation. It's sort of like a dialect I've never gotten the hang of because I'd never heard it spoken.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mindfulness and Good Luck

Here's a brief article on a simple study suggesting that people who consider themselves lucky display more mindfulness than those considering themselves unlucky. It gives a wonderful illustration of how mindfulness can ease problem solving.

Here's the final paragraph:

People who we often consider lucky are more relaxed and open to what's going on around them. They're not focused on a single task, blocking out everything else so much that they miss something important and unexpected. What this experiment demonstrates is that luck may not so much be luck, but whether or not our mindset leaves us open to opportunities we would otherwise miss because we're so absolutely sure of what we want.

That last sentence also gets at why giving some thought to your motivation can be helpful.

Thoughts from Yo-Yo Ma

This brief article based on an interview with Yo-Yo Ma has some great quotes in it. 

Here he's talking about the Kalahari bushmen:

“They do these trance dances that are for spiritual and religious purposes, it’s for medicine, it’s their art form, it’s everything. That matches all I’ve learnt about what music should be or could do.”

In modern life we tend to think of music as something separate unto itself, as opposed to its being a deep experience of our humanity. I'll never forget going to a performance by various African groups and the program talking about how the performers had a hard time just making music to fit an hour or two time slot - they were used to going on for hours and hours.

The following paragraph from the article starts off talking about the work of Demasio and ends up getting close to the Tibetan Buddhist notion of the importance of motivation in any endeavor.

I mention Damasio’s insistence, in Descartes’ Error (1994), that the self cannot be meaningfully imagined without being embedded in a body. This must be resonant for a musician? He concurs and suggests that the role of tactility in our mental wellbeing is under-appreciated: “That’s our largest organ.” Ma sees this separation of intellect and mechanism, of the self and the body, as pernicious. “We’ve based our educational system on it. At the music conservatory there’s a focus on the plumbing, not [on the] psychology. It’s about the engineering of sound, how to play accurately. But then, going to university, the music professor would say ‘you can play very well, but why do you want to do it?’ Music is powered by ideas. If you don’t have clarity of ideas, you’re just communicating sheer sound.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Memory, Music & Alzheimer's

Following links in a story about brain research and Alzheimer's, I found this preview of an article behind a pay wall:

Music is known to aid memory, especially recalling autobiographical information. 

For example, people with Alzheimer's disease are better at remembering events from their own past when music is playing in the background. It was less clear whether tunes could also help them learn.

Brandon Ally at Boston University and his team were inspired by the report of a man with Alzheimer's who could recall current events if his daughter sang the news to him to the tune of familiar pop songs. They decided to try it out for themselves.

Since the title of the article is Dementia: Sing me the news, and I'll remember it, the researchers apparently met with some success. This fits with how the neuroscience is telling us music uses various parts of the brain, as opposed to a single one that can get damaged by disease, and that for Alzheimer's patients that can mean using music to enhance memories by pulling together undamaged parts of the brain. I just had never seen anything previous to this about music being used to help lay down new memories for such people, but it makes sense.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Psychoacoustics

Here's an article in the NYT discussing the latest in simulating the acoustics of a great concert hall in your living room, as well as making hearing aids that do more than simply amplify sound. The word "psychoacoustics" is used to cover not just what the ear hears, but also how the brain interprets that information.

Anyone who has ever tried to mix and master audio for a CD will immediately appreciate this quote:

. . . One factor that slows the pace of innovation, Dr. Hartmann suggested, is that the human auditory system is “highly nonlinear.” It is difficult to isolate or change a single variable — like loudness — without affecting several others in unanticipated ways. “Things don’t follow an intuitive pattern,” he said. . . 

. . .“Often our changes were worse than doing nothing at all,” Dr. Kyriakakis recalled. “The mic liked the sound, but the human ear wasn’t liking it at all. We needed to find out what we had to do. We had to learn about psychoacoustics.”

Like music therapy and music pedagogy, this is another field where the new neuroscience looks to bring a much deeper understanding to what works and what doesn't. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Performance Diary


This past Thursday my great nieces and Crawford and Judy and I played down at the Orange nursing home to a mostly wheel chair bound audience. We did the same program we did at Oak Chapel, adding Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, Sweet Hour of Prayer and Down By the Riverside.

I have never received more effusive, heartfelt and sincere thanks from an audience after a performance - ever. While I was packing up and schlepping equipment back to the car they kept rolling up to have a private moment to say just how much the performance had meant to them.

A small part of it has to do with my being down there once a week for years, so there's a nodding acquaintance with most of the residents. What just melted me was that two residents who've suffered strokes and have speech problems, and who normally don't really try to say too much because it's so difficult and frustrating, rolled up and really worked to say thank you.

The main reason for this was that the girls totally peg the cuteness meter. Once the audience realized we were really going to pull this off and successfully play the old hymns that mean so much to them, they slipped into a relaxed state of pleasure. The room just got sweeter and sweeter the more the girls played and sang, and when I got the audience to sing along with us (and most of them knew ALL the verses without hymnals).

Having done music in institutions a lot over the years, I couldn't help notice we pulled a lot of staff into the doorway of the room. The staff at places like that have heard it all, and they're very busy people, but when something special is happening, they notice. When I was leaving, several came out from back offices to say just how much they appreciated our playing.

My main contribution to the event was figuring out what the girls are capable of doing at this point and arranging music to suit. Skylar on trumpet is just starting her second year in band, and just got braces, so her range is Bb below middle C to the Bb an octave above, so mostly everything was either in Bb or Eb to accommodate that, and when it wasn't, she played the drum.

We just worked our way through the books I'd done up for them and did as many iterations of the hymns as we could get away with, with me calling out who took the next time through each time. That gives everything an improvisatory feel as opposed to plodding through a preset program, and it keeps the audience on their toes, so to speak.

Towards the end we had Crawford sing "Good Night, Irene", as the hurricane had just recently passed, and that went down very well as well. 

Judy P is the proud owner of a new ukulele with an onboard pickup I can plug straight into an amp. The amplitude of a uke strum is about half that of a guitar, so she can go much faster and throw in delightfully quick syncopations. Makes me realize one reason I so love Judy's drumming is that her background as a strummer so informs it, so it's great to play guitar and banjo with.

Back in this post I talk about what one blogger calls "transmission". And in this post there's talk of transcendence. What keeps coming back to me is that it's the sort of thing that can happen in all sorts of places outside concert halls, but in the era of recorded music and with fewer people playing in small catch as catch can ensembles (which was the norm for human society until the past couple of generations), people seem to have lost touch with that. If I can create some materials that will help facilitate more of this kind of small scale playing, I'll count that as a success.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Nadia Boulanger and the Unconscious

This woman's name pops up all the time as having been a composition teacher for numerous modern composers, but until this brief article, I had never seen anything about how she taught.

Bearer is also a composer who studied with the French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. “She was very, very focused on the musician’s mind,” Bearer says. “To study with Boulanger meant that you learned to use those unconscious parts of your mind that respond to music, that dream of music, and you learn to bring them to the conscious state where you could take a pencil and write them down.”

Going through the training with Boulanger, Bearer says, “I can say through personal experience that music does not live in the same part of my brain as my science."

I came across this just after leaving a comment on this post on Julia's Horn Page. She's talking about Jeff Smiley's work (which I most recently posted on here) and says:

As your lips learn to do new things, the things that work better are gradually and unconsciously incorporated into your current embouchure.

Maybe it's my background in the psych field, but I find the astonishing vituperation Jeff's work can bring forth from music educators about as fascinating as the work itself. It's my intuition that it's this opening up to and working with the non-conscious aspects of the mind that's so upsetting. If you're dedicated to reducing the activity of music making to a set of rules and concepts, it seems to me you're setting yourself up to paying more attention to the conscious mind than all the rest of it.

Performance Diary


Yesterday we performed at the large Presbyterian Church in the town of Orange and last week we performed at the small Macedonia Christian Church down in what my father used to refer to as  "the lower part of the county" (it's more coastal plain than piedmont). I don't think we've ever sounded better than the audio at the link for Macedonia from two years ago as it was one of those times when everything sort of magically gelled. These two recent performances were very good, though, and I want to note what went well.

At Macedonia the minister, one of our tuba players, made our music the central feature of the service. We led the singing of the hymns as well as performed some tunes on our own. Crawford specializes in short sermons and services, and in a service of less than 60 minutes, we played for 35 minutes.

Crawford says it's the best he's ever heard that congregation sing, and that was my feeling as well. I've pitched most of the hymns a step or three lower than the hymnals, so they were more in the range of regular people. I led the singing with my voice and the guitar and the players did a marvelous job of supporting the singing, with a different instrument taking the lead for the singing of each verse. On hymns of three verses we added two instrumental iterations between the sung verses and built the mood.

I'd done up a keyboard album of the transposed hymns for the organist and having her play mostly the bass and harmony lines was a real treat, filling out the sound. From past experience I knew that when I faced the congregation, she and the other players can't hear the guitar, so I took an amp and put it back next to them with just enough volume for them to hear it but that I couldn't detect. That worked very well. 

We've slowly been working up an improvisatory Dixieland version of The Church in the Wildwood, which is sort of a theme song for that particular church, and that went down very well.

At the Presbyterian Church yesterday we just did music before and after the service with a couple of mostly instrumental hymns during the service. Crawford was still preaching down at Macedonia, so we were down to one tuba, and Bill B our sax player didn't make it due to a freak car/power line pole accident near his house preventing him for getting out.

Before everyone else got there I set up our equipment and sang that long song of Dylan's, Boots of Spanish Leather, from up in the choir loft where we were going to perform. It takes me high and low in my range and is a great workout, both for my voice and for testing acoustics. I figured out the best ways to aim my voice into the wonderful acoustic space, and how much to project it to get just the right amount of reverb.

Once everyone else got there we played right up until the service as people gathered below. At one point we got a nice round of applause (after Just a Closer Walk with Thee) and during the "joys and sorrows" portion of the service one of the members said how wonderful it was to walk into the church with everyone smiling and the music coming down from upstairs.

One thing I've never had happen before is that while I was singing the one verse of Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior I did between instrumental iterations, my ears popped twice in that pressure adjusting way they can. The hurricane had passed during the night, so I don't think it was a big pressure change in the environment. I think it was just that I was opening my jaw in that "yawning" way voice teachers talk about and it allowed things to equalize, which in the normal course of things wouldn't have needed to.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Quotes to Save


What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

We listen to the "music" of the brain all the time in the lab. My favorite station is Jazz 88. I cannot help but listen to music the way I analyze large-scale brain activity, searching for the syntactical rules that allow separation of messages and long-term features to be predicted from short time scale interactions. The esthetic features of music emerge from its complexity — a halfway state between trivial predictability and random noise (i.e., pink noise) – just like the complex features of brain dynamics.

Glenn Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and one of his band members says:

"The style he's been playing does not sit in his memory, it sits in his muscles and his emotions which he will always remember. [It] is quite astonishing to see how deep music sits - it's not just your brain, it's emotions in your flesh and spirit,"

Alex Ross uses the word "gesture" talking about the music of Liszt:

Freire, who has long given life to the old cliché "poet of the piano," has a way of connecting Liszt's gestures so that they form a naturally flowing narrative; you never feel hectored.

Approximation

One of the ideas I'm working on for the 2.0 series is coming up with a workable definition of what music making is. Defining music itself is a rabbit hole I don't particularly want to fall into, but being able to say what I think music making is about has to be part of the ground plan for any approach to helping people do it.

That definition has to include the idea of approximation. Part of the deep attraction of music making is that you can always get closer and closer to being better able to express yourself musically. If that's not part of your practice of music, burnout becomes probable. 


What's so recharging about music making is that the more you do it, the more it helps you understand what it is you're trying to express. That other great American poet, T. S. Eliot, in his usual grim way, gets at this issue here:

. . . one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate . . .

It's like blogging. The more I try to say what I think I mean, the better I understand the thoughts beneath the language trying to find a way out. And the same goes for music making, with each approximation getting closer and closer to pure expression, but rarely, if ever, getting there.

Horn Diary


Community band has been on hiatus since July 4th and I've been having a wonderful time on horn looking at music more to my liking. In particular, I've been working on some arrangements of Corelli, Praetorious, Tomkins and Gibbons pieces, along with some new Bach and Handel, for an ensemble of trumpet, horn, trombone, and two Eb tubas. (To my ear, the two trumpets in the standard brass quintet is at least one too many.)

Since a first horn player showed up in band, I've been working more on the mid range than the high, and using the F horn more than the Bb. The Renaissance and early Baroque music suits me down to the ground and practicing is a joy. It makes perfect sense to me and the path to making it sound good on the horn is clear cut. I have a clear sense of the various ways I might want it to sound. (One of the top three or four comments I get on stuff I write is that is has a Renaissance flavor.)

Me and BE

 "BE" is the short hand label for Jeff Smiley's "The Balanced Embouchure" approach to helping people with trumpet and horn embouchure, of which I'm a big fan and have posted on a number of times over the past couple of years. 

James Boldin has just done a post on it and here is part of the comment I put down below it. It's the best brief summary of my response to BE I've come up with so far.

Appreciate the open minded approach to Jeff Smiley’s work. I’ve been watching the debate on this for years, ever since getting his book and using his approach to get through an embouchure crisis that had me thinking about giving up the horn.

My sense of it all is that it can be very helpful for people looking to take a new direction due to the standard approaches not helping whatever issues they might be wanting to work through and who are willing to rebuild from the ground up.

For those for whom the standard approaches are working, though, a major overhaul and starting all over is something of a threatening prospect.

What I most appreciate about Jeff’s approach is that it helped me get a much broader and deeper understanding and feeling for what the embouchure can do and needs to do, and that helped me figure out what I needed to do to get everything working. He gives you the tools, but the responsibility is yours, and that’s a nice fit for how I like to work with people.

The other thing about Jeff’s approach I really like is that it goes well with all the neuroscience coming out saying how making music uses so many different areas of the brain, not all of which are always under our conscious control. His exercises helped me get a better sense of that when it comes to playing the horn.

My guess is that a lot of music educators don’t “get” what he’s up to because it’s so very difficult to look at something differently after a lifetime of building up something has worked for them. Besides, most people in the field are probably “naturals” to one degree or another and can’t really conceive what it’s like for the rest of us who aren’t. I’ll never be a natural horn player, but Jeff’s book helped me understand what that must be like and what I have to do to approximate it.

James says he's going to get the book and try it out. I look forward to his response and maybe talking with him about it. I'm also reminded I printed out Dave Wilken's somewhat riled up take down, with the idea of comparing it to the book the next time I reread it. The thing is that I've been having such a great time on the horn, particularly since my flow experience with the Fauré Requiem, I haven't felt a need for a refresher.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Baroque Oboe

My oboe friend from conservatory days, Craig Matovitch, just uploaded this little gem.

Down in the comments on his post on Facebook about it he says, 

One thing these barogue pieces do is get me very honest with lots of things, tongues, tuning, aspects of expression. Its good therapy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Performance Pix

Here are some photos the activity director at Gordon House took of our performance there last Friday, which I posted on here.

In this one, from left to right, is my second cousin Steve, Dick & Maggie S, Crawford H, Bill C and Bill B. The Sony recorder is on the camera tripod in front of Bill C.


Here's a shot of me on banjo and Dave F on trap set on the right side of the flattened semi-circle. Dave is following the music closely because for a couple of numbers it was the first time he'd ever played them with us. Pro level reading skills really do come in handy.


Here's a nice close up of Crawford and the Bills:


That's all the current Kenwood Players except for Judy P who plays percussion for us in church and other settings where a full trap set would be too much. 

Cousin Steve (trombone), Dick (trumpet) and Dave (trap set) are pro level players and play in a number of different groups. Steve joined the Fredericksburg Big Band several decades ago and now runs it. They've raised millions of dollars for charity over the years. Dick is a retired army colonel and he and Maggie have lived all over, seemingly starting Dixieland groups wherever they've been. Dave was a drummer in the Army Band.

On a genetic note, Steve and I are second cousins because our grandfathers were brothers. He has several dozen Sanford cousins and I think at least half are very musical. I have just over two dozen Sanford cousins and am the only one doing music, other than one or two who took piano lessons as a child and dropped it.

Another thing to mention, which relates to tone quality is that from time to time in rehearsals and performances, Dick and/or Steve will play with such gorgeous tone it's all I can do not to stop playing and just listen. Hearing such great brass tone up close and personal has been a boon to my horn playing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Performance Diary


This past Friday the Kenwood Players performed for an hour over at Gordon House. It was 20 minutes Dixieland (me on banjo), 20 minutes Hank Williams and hymns (me on guitar) and then 20 minutes of Dixieland. Everything went very well.

We were in a flattened semi-circle and left to right it was trombone, trumpet, clarinet, the two Eb tubas, sax (soprano and tenor) trap set and me. Very nice mix on the recorder, except on my vocals. Had it set-up right in front of the tubas with one mic facing the trombone and one the trap set. If I were to crank it higher and stand right in front of it on vocals I think the results would be about the best it can get. The closer it is to the sound, the better it is.

One small note on gesture. A handful of the Dixieland arrangements call for the banjo to go tacet in the last measure or so, and we did one of those pieces. Without thinking I did a sort of flourish on my last strum trying to get it perfectly in the rhythm of the trap set, and seeing that flourish and sensing the end of the piece coming up, a number of people applauded prematurely. I'd mentioned before that I conduct music therapy sessions in part with gesture, just hadn't made the obvious connection to influencing an audience as well.

Something else to note was how well we and the audience connected. Gordon House is an assisted living retirement home, so the residents are the right demographic for old time music. What happened that was so nice is that they picked up on how we josh amongst ourselves between numbers and started making jokes along with us. After we finished a lot of them felt comfortable coming up and speaking to players and there was quite a little confab there for a while.

We're also getting better at being more efficient performers. We performed for 60 minutes and the music only CD runs right at 45 minutes, so for all the talk, we went right from one number to the next and got a lot in. Any more might have stressed embouchures, especially on the Dixieland which is pretty demanding.

Should also mention that Dave F, former Army Band drummer, was able to join us. Having a professional level drummer makes all the difference, especially on the Dixieland. For me it's a treat not to be the sole time keeper on banjo, so I can get a little creative accompanying the other players.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Core Constituency

Here are some photos of the rehearsal/warm up for the performance I wrote about in a previous post. These first two show the twelve year olds who started band last September, Skylar on trumpet and Amber on flute, along with the Reverend Crawford Harmon on E flat tuba, who's been playing his instrument a bit longer. 

Here's one with me on flute. . . 
. . . and on horn, with the six year old Carly in the first pew waiting her turn.
And here's the four year old Calli.

Providing the music for these people to play in this kind of situation is exactly what I'm trying to do when I talk about creating learning materials. What the girls are leaning in band and what's in the hymnals wouldn't work for this, but it's very easy to create arrangements that suit the players and the situation.

Working with the girls once a week this past year has been a wonderful opportunity to figure out what does and doesn't work with beginners, and working with Crawford and the other members of the Friday group, helping them get better use of the skills developed over a lifetime, is just as rewarding.

Many thanks to Crawford's wife Liz who took these pictures, and for using only available light, so there were no irritating flashes. I wasn't even aware she was taking the pictures.