Friday, January 28, 2011

Live Music for Parkinson's Patients

Here's a brief item about a regional orchestra looking to see if being in the presence of live music can benefit Parkinson's patients. They're taking a first step towards evaluating anecdotes such as this one:

"One of the Phil's chorus member's tremors stop when he goes to the concerts. They start at intermission and stop again in the second half,". . . 

This reminds me of both how singing can help some people overcome a stutter and how music can still get through to people with late stage Alzheimer's. 

It may also tie in to this quote from a post over on Horn Matters by a professional horn player talking about what he thinks was a bout of focal dystonia:

I realized that my attention, especially when warming up, had shrunk down to that tiny area of my face involved in making a buzz. I widened my focus, specifically to include my air column and posture and on maintaining what I call a “supported” setting AND a relaxed, non-stressed mental state.

The speaker is Mark Taylor, identified as a "jazz hornist". His phrase "widen my focus" is the most succinct statement I've seen of how involving more of the brain and body can help clear what seem to be localized problems. It's also a very good way of putting how I think Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure (BE) helped me with my embouchure. It's that change of focus I also like to bring to my therapist's approach to helping people make music.

Plus, I'm delighted to hear that there is such a thing as a "jazz hornist".

The other thing that struck me about the music organization playing to the Parkinson's patients was that there's a whole new way they could serve the community. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

V.S. Computer Playback

Here is a completely untweaked computer playback of A Louisiana Sashay, a.k.a. Vermont Song, as it now stands. There's some kind of glitch at one point where it briefly sounds as though there are two flutes, and the final chord for the harp isn't arpeggiated as it is in the score. Real people will probably play it a bit slower, with pauses and/or ritards here and there.

This playback, though, is good enough to get an idea of the piece, and it seems to work. I finished the writing of it Sunday morning and have listened to it a number of times since, and nothing calls attention to itself as needing fixing. I'm very pleased with a number of things that happen in the piece and look forward to seeing how it will come off in actual performance.

I've sent PDF scores and parts to my friends up in Vermont for whom it was written, asking if there are any awkward or unplayable bits, especially in the case of the harp. If it passes that test, I think it's nearly done.

The only problem in writing the piece (other than trying to keep straight what the harp can and can't do) was finding the time to spend with it and then having the patience to keep working at it to get something that sounded "right", measure by measure. That Thomas Edison quote about invention being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration is very apt in my case. There were any number of places where nothing seemed to work and it took an hour or more to find something that did work for just a measure or two. Somewhere along the line I thought of using a stopwatch to see just how many hours it took me to get less than five minutes worth of music, but decided not to, being afraid that seeing an actual number might make me slower in taking up the writing of the next piece. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Music & Tickling

I've often used the phrase, "music tickles the brain", as a way of talking about how music can affect us. It turns out there is something of a similarity between the two. Back in this post on the new work coming out of McGill up in Canada, there were these two quotes:

. . . it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.). . .

. . .  The uncertainty makes the feeling – it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next. . . .

In this article about why we can't tickle ourselves, there's this:

So why is it that we laugh when we’re tickled? Simply put, because of the unexpectedness of it. The cerebellum, the part of our brain that monitors our movements, can detect the difference between expected sensations (scratching an itch, for instance) and unexpected sensations (a bug landing on your ear). Because of this difference, we can’t predict where someone will tickle us or how we will feel when they do, so it makes us panic. That panic is manifested through uncontrollable laughter — sort of a more acceptable “nervous laugh,” if you will.

So the effects of both music and tickling rely on our being uncertain as to what's coming next. The results are different, though. In one case dopamine is released and in the other it sounds more like adrenalin is the active agent.

At any rate, it seems to me this is part of the puzzle of how musicians sometimes don't feel the music they're making the same way an audience might, especially a new and unfamiliar piece. The musicians know where the music is going, but the audience doesn't. And that thought reminded me of this quote Terry Teachout put up on his blog a couple of years ago.

"I very much disapprove of the adage that you have to feel the performance completely every night on the stage. This is technically an impossibility, and really is the negation of the art of acting. The art of acting, after all, is not actual feeling but simulation of feeling, and it is impossible to feel a strong emotional part eight performances a week, including two matinées."
Noël Coward, "The Art of Acting" (The Listener, Oct. 12, 1961)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gann on Angst

In a recent post Kyle Gann says:

There is nothing I work so hard on as ridding my life of angst. And I do it first in my music, in hopes that that will teach me how to do it in my life….

I asked in the comments:

This makes me wonder if you like/appreciate angst in the music of others, and whether you have any thoughts on catharsis via music.

He responded with:

Interesting question. There is certainly music I like of which angst is a well-handled component, for instance Wozzeck. But I think in general, music that exudes a free-floating, unmotivated angst is music that I grow bored with easily. I can love sad, and angry, and especially depressive music, because there are always things at hand to be sad and angry and depressed about. But to express undifferentiated worry and apprehension is boring in people and I find it boring in music. Catharsis seems like a very different thing. I think about it mainly in terms of Mahler, especially his Sixth, one of my favorite works. Wouldn’t try it myself, though perhaps there’s a little of that in the finale to Custer.

My feeling is that since, "there are always things at hand to be sad and angry and depressed about", I don't need music to get me to those places. There was a time I "enjoyed" listening to music that mirrored various interior turbulences, but these days I want to play and listen to music that, on balance, evokes positive rather than negative emotions. Because of that, I find myself hesitant to give myself over to the negative emotions needed to precede and set up the catharsis mechanism.

I should add that one of the reasons I'm so taken with Gann's The Planets is that the music doesn't map to emotions in ways I'm used to. There are lots of places it just sounds new and different and very engaging, but where I'd be hard pressed to say what emotion it's expressing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

More on the McGill study

The first flurry of stories coming out on the recent study at McGill talked mostly about the direct connection between listening to music and the release of dopamine. A second wave of articles is now coming, giving more detail and expanding more on what the findings suggest. The best so far is this one from Wired. Besides talking more about the research, it ties it to the work of Leonard Meyer, whose book Emotion and Meaning in Music came out in 1956. Here are some snips from the Wired article:

. . . When listening to our favorite songs, our body betrays all the symptoms of emotional arousal. The pupils in our eyes dilate, our pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of our skin is lowered, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, becomes strangely active. Blood is even re-directed to the muscles in our legs. (Some speculate that this is why we begin tapping our feet.) In other words, sound stirs us at our biological roots. . . 

. . . The question, of course, is what all these dopamine neurons are up to. What aspects of music are they responding to? And why are they so active fifteen seconds before the acoustic climax?. . .

. . . it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills. . . 

. . . According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s feeling. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. . . 

. . . The uncertainty makes the feeling – it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next. And so our neurons search for the undulating order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches. We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed. Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.

Another article that makes the connection to Meyer is here. The quote in this article that jumped out at me was:

. . . Zatorre said he does not know what is happening in the brain of the composer who is writing the music. "My guess is that composing is such a complex act that you may not get that emotional touch until later when you are actually experiencing it for the first time." . . . 

Somewhere in the Vermont Song series of posts talking about writing a piece of music I mentioned the amazing feeling I get the first time I hear a piece of mine performed, even though I've listened to the computer play it back many, many times over the course of composition. I characterized it as feeling in a pseudo-dream state, though fully awake. One time it even happened when I played a piano piece (I'd practiced a lot) for someone else for the first time. 

Having all this new neuroscience coming out and confirming personal experience and giving such a solid basis of music therapy is really pretty amazing to me. I always thought it would come, but never thought we'd get this much so soon. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Timepiece : Index

I'm delighted to say some people have requested parts and scores for Timepiece and that they've been sent out. Down the road there may be more recorded versions to put up here on the blog, so I'm putting one of those Blogger Gadgets over on the right to enable clicking straight through to this list of the relevant posts, which will be updated as needed.

Here's the audio of the St Clements Wind Ensemble performing it.

Here are the performance notes.

Click here for all the posts mentioning the piece.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Against the Grain

Recently I've come across a couple of stated opinions that make my own off beat tastes in music seem pretty mild mannered, and want to bookmark them here on the blog.

Here's a review of a new music concert, apparently meant to be le denier cri in hipness. The concluding paragraph reads:

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.

Stuff like this has got to be part of the reason audiences are staying away from art music in droves. A couple of evenings like this could really put you off going to concerts, as there's the feeling the composers are out to baffle you more than engage you as a way of demonstrating their superior artiness, or whatever; and that the performers care more about showing off their technique than connecting with people in the audience.

And here's composer Arnold Rosner (discovered via Kyle Gann) talking about a big chunk of the canon:

Do I dislike them all - Boccherini, Gluck, Haydn, early Beethoven? Yes, I do, but Mozart deserves a special place. It is not true that he is the worst of all composers; his prodigious technical skills developed by age six. Sometimes it is not so great to be a prodigy, - I often feel his emotional and dramatic palette is set at the same age. Rather he is the most overrated composer of them all. The difference between the (mediocre) quality of his music and the (celestial) reverance he is accorded is a gulf simply beyond belief.

There's always been something about Mozart's music I can't put my finger on. It has amazing Apollonian clarity and tunefulness, but a lot of it, the way it's usually played, sort of bores me (Mitsuko Uchida being the major exception). That Mozart's emotional palette may have been set early in life is an interesting way to think about it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


As a music therapist, I often hear the word "talent" in a phrase such as "I don't have any musical talent". That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my position is that it needn't be. For one thing, my view is that there is no unitary "musical talent". Some people have a great feel for rhythm, others for intonation, others for harmony and feeling chord changes, others for performing for audiences, and on and on. Truly gifted people have an abundance of a lot of those talents, but regular folks often have some measure of some of them as well.

Also, a crucial component of success at music making is the motivation to work at it enough to fully engage in the process and to experience the positive benefits it can bring, creating a virtuous circle of progress. I have from time to time encountered people with wonderful technique, but who have given up music because it no longer interests them because they feel no reward in pursuing music. They have various musical talents, but not the talent of connecting music making to their personal enjoyment and sense of fulfillment.

This article from the BBC seems to lend some support to this view. It's a discussion of how the new research into genetics indicates nurture has a lot to do with nature, i.e. just because you have a particular genes doesn't automatically mean you have that trait.

. . . genes interact with their surroundings, getting turned on and off all the time. In effect, the same genes have different effects depending on who they are talking to. . . 

. . .[A trait] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment." This means that everything about us - our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities - are actually determined by the lives we lead. The very notion of "innate" no longer holds together. . . 

. . ."Like a jukebox, the individual has the potential to play a number of different developmental tunes. The particular developmental tune it does play is selected by [the environment] in which the individual is growing up.". . . 

. . ."High academic achievers are not necessarily born 'smarter' than others," they write in their book Talented Teenagers, "but work harder and develop more self-discipline.". . . 

. . .Most profoundly, Carol Dweck from Stanford University in the US, has demonstrated that students who understand intelligence is malleable rather than fixed are much more intellectually ambitious and successful. . . 

. . . Bit by bit, they're gathering a better and better understanding of how different attitudes, teaching styles and precise types of practice and exercise push people along very different pathways. . . .

All of this has great bearing on the discussion of "natural" in this post and those posts on other blogs that are linked. It also bears on the feelings discussed in this post on educators' often brusque elimination from their programs of people wishing to make music. 

I've seen in other discussions of the new genetics, though, that environment (nurture) can only affect genetic predisposition (nature) at the margins. It will take a while for all this to get sorted out, but in the meantime I hope to give regular folks some good tools for developing their music making abilities so as to enjoy all the benefits that can flow from successfully making music.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Performance Review

Back on the first Friday of December I performed at a benefit for the James Madison Museum here in Orange and wrote about it here. This week's Orange Review has a write up of the event. here's the bit about me:

The Jeanes family couldn't resist more fun and jumped right in, singing and playing along with Lyle Sanford. Sanford's superb musicianship on guitar made everyone hope the evening would never end. He played and sang a nostalgic remix of blues, folk songs and Bob Dylan. Angus Macdonald felt right at home adding his blues harp.

Here I thought I'd been essaying "cosmic American music" when I was just a geezer being nostalgic!  ;-)

In all seriousness, though, this was exactly the kind of event I wish would pop up more often in the community. There are a lot of musicians around here who can enhance small events with live music, and as a music therapist I think everyone can benefit when that happens.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is Music A Quasi-Spiritual Practice?

This article in the Guardian, in a fairly non-specific way, suggests that regular music making might be a substitute for spiritual practice. While I think that there are similarities between music practice and spiritual practice, I don't feel one can stand in for the other.

Both behaviors employ combinations of the Jungian categories of thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation as a way of entering and expressing non-quotidian mental states that are beyond the grasp of words. Music, though, is more a tool that can be used in various ways, depending on one's motivation. The first non-spiritual use of music that comes to mind are the drums, bagpipes, and bugles of war. There are also various trance states that can be induced by music making, which are not necessarily spiritual in the positive sense we usually associate with the word.

As a tool to help deepen and broaden spiritual experiences, I think making music can be at the top of the list. As a therapist, there's nothing I enjoy more than helping people use music in their spiritual practice. Music making can be tremendously rewarding on it's own as well. Suffusing one's brain in dopamine is a positive experience, with or without a framework of spiritual practice.

On down the line the neuroscientists are going to be able to compare and contrast what's going on in the brains of those making music and those pursuing spiritual paths and we'll know better then how to talk about the two. For now it's what works best for an individual that matters. My sense is, though, the benefits of making music are amplified when combined with other behaviors and interests of the music maker, especially those where the music is shared with people in some sort of social context.

Thanks to Jonathan West for finding this article and posting about it here. This post of mine is a first approximation of a response to the deep issues raised in connection to spirituality and music making. I hope in a later post to comment on the emotional aspects of music making Jonathan talks about in his post.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Music & Dopamine

Here is one of many articles coming out on a new study (emanating from McGill University where a lot of the work behind This Is Your Brain On Music was done) showing that listening to music releases dopamine.

Whether it's the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure, a new study says. The brain substance is involved both in anticipating a particularly thrilling musical moment and in feeling the rush from it, researchers found. . . 

. . .The tie to dopamine helps explain why music is so widely popular across cultures. . . .

. . .The study used only instrumental music, showing that voices aren't necessary to produce the dopamine response. . . 

. . . Dopamine surged in one part of the striatum during the 15 seconds leading up to a thrilling moment, and a different part when that musical highlight finally arrived. Zatorre said that makes sense: The area linked to anticipation connects with parts of the brain involved with making predictions and responding to the environment, while the area reacting to the peak moment itself is linked to the brain's limbic system, which is involved in emotion. . . 

. . .While experts had indirect indications that music taps into the dopamine system, he said, the new work "really nails it." . . . 

Update: for more on this McGill study see here and here and here.

Compressed Audio

Here are two articles talking about compressed sound, i.e. the sound of an mp3 being played by your computer or iPod.

The first is from one of those TED talks which are over the 'net, but which don't work on dial-up. For this one, though, there's a text synopsis. The title is Ten Things You Didn't Know About Sound. Here's #7 on his list:

Compressed music makes you tired. However clever the technology and the psychoacoustic algorithms applied, there are many issues with data compression of music, as discussed in this excellent article by Robert Harley back in 1991. My assertion that listening to highly compressed music makes people tired and irritable is based on personal and anecdotal experience - again it's one that I hope will be tested by researchers.

From personal experience, I agree that listening to compressed audio is tiring, and for me, annoying as well. One reason I gave up TV years ago is the very unpleasant sound they make. What I'm not sure of is how other people experience compressed sound. My hearing is very acute when it comes to the quality of audio (I could never listen to cassette tapes during their day), whereas I was totally at sea trying to hear the inner voices of four part harmony in ear training back in conservatory days. Your brain wiring may vary.

The second article deals with how new technology looks to make highly compressed sound a thing of the past. For one thing, there are newer digital to audio converters with which:

the conversion from a digital signal (0's and 1's) to analog sound waves (which your ears can hear) is handled by a device that's been manufactured to do only that, and to exacting standards. This alone should make a dramatic difference.

Another thing is that increasingly you'll be able to download mp3 files that are less compressed than the current standard.

But you can also adjust the settings on your computer so that it downloads iTunes songs (and other music files) at higher bit and sampling rates. Again, if you want to listen to this music only on your computer or iPod, this won't matter much; but if you want to stream it to your home stereo, this step alone will make a big difference. (If you're thinking of downloading music at higher bit and sampling rates, you may need to buy an external storage device to hold the extra data. They're cheap these days: about $100 for something that holds a terabyte of data.) A few companies out there are selling music-downloads at bit and sampling rates that exceed even those of CDs.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Horn Diary

In this post Jonathan West talks about different kinds of horn tone. Back the weekend before Christmas I played horn in the community concert band's Christmas program on Saturday night and then in a cantata Sunday morning. It was a wonderful experience of the difference between the first tone Jonathan talks about (wind quintet and small ensembles), and the last (concert band).

In the community band I'm the only horn, with five trumpets, two trombones and three baritones. I generally play at least shade higher than the given dynamic when against the other brass, just to get some balance. Over the years I've discovered that a brassy tone can help being heard, and have been encouraged to play that way. The problem is I didn't take up horn to be able to make that sort of sound. I understand its place in the band arranger's palette, but feel trumpets can do brassy much better. 

The sound that appeals to me is more what Jonathan talks about first, that of the horn in a small ensemble. Since September I've been listening to a recording an ensemble Jonathan is in playing a wind quintet I wrote sometime back. Without consciously realizing it at first, hearing that tone of Jonathan's changed the sound I'm getting from the horn, and the cantata was a perfect piece of music to explore that tone.

Dave Wilken often says we make a mistake when we assign the reason for musical growth to a particular cause, because when we practice we're doing lots of things, not just the one thing we might be focused on at the time. I agree with that, but also feel that listening to my friend Susan's flute tone this summer and hearing Jonathan's horn tone on that recording both had a catalytic effect, as those aural experiences made me more aware of what I wanted on each of those instruments and, on a proprioceptive level, how to get there.

During this past semester I started playing "off the leg" and am enthused with the results.

When I started horn I used a Farkas very deep cup mouthpiece because I liked the tone. When I had my embouchure crisis and began working with Jeff Smiley's BE method I also switched to a Farkas medium cup mouthpiece. I didn't like the tone as well, but it was lots easier to play.

During the brief hiatus from band I've been switching to a Farkas medium deep cup. I instantly felt better able to lip pitches into tune, which I think is due to there being more lip inside the wider diameter, so there's more to work with. My hope is this mouthpiece will be something of a compromise between ease of playing and the tone I prefer.

I've been spending nearly all my playing time on the F horn, and have been enjoying not having to play 1st horn parts. In the past when band was in session, just trying to keep up with simply being able to play all the parts took most of my energy. These days my endurance and range are much better, and having become familiar with concert band writing, my hope is I can learn those parts much more quickly and then still have time and lip each day for chamber style music.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

V.S. Composing Motivation

I've gotten back to work on Louisiana Sashay and am thinking about not doing anymore measure by measure commentary, but waiting until it's finished and put up audio of the computer playing it and make a few comments then. This post is to expand on something that was more allusively present than clearly stated toward the end of this post.

Back in the 70's a college friend developed a real talent for black and white photography. One time I asked him what it was that gave his photos a particular feeling consistency. He thought what I might be referring to was his notion that when one looks at one of his photos, there should be no sense of the ego that took it. As evanescent as that idea is, I knew exactly what he was saying and it perfectly explained what I was seeing (or not seeing) in his work.

Back when I was younger, the music I wrote, mostly imitative of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, was full of ego. Dylan's line, "little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously," comes to mind. Now, though, what ego that's present (I hope!) is just a reflection of how I go about playing the musical game I've set myself with the initial parameters of a piece. I'm never consciously trying "to say" anything. I just want the music to flow from its own nature, be fun for the players to play, and fresh to the ears of the audience. 

Having come of age in the age of angst, with academic atonalists trying to broaden my bourgeois mind and poseurs being trivially transgressive, all I want from my music is that it's fun and engaging to play. Fulfilling that simple requirement, for me, provides a much more valuable experience than trying to carry all that ego luggage.

Here's the last paragraph of the performance notes I sent out with the score and parts of Timepiece:

The feeling tone of the piece is meant to be completely
positive. No angst, anger or depression. Playfulness and
joy, yearning and reverence, exhilaration and celebration
were more of what I had in mind. If you (and an audience)
feel uplifted after playing it, mission accomplished.