Sunday, March 27, 2011

Levitin on Timing and Expression

In the first of these videos, Daniel Levitin gives an overview of work done in his labs showing that variance from metronomic timing correlates with perceived expression in music. In the second he talks more about the implications of this type of research, name checking Stevie Wonder in the process.

This bit of research may well end up being seen as much of a breakthrough as the recent dopamine study, also out of McGill. They both really get at what's going on with music and emotion, and they each seem to be the first solid, repeatable study that nails down a specific mechanism in the way music works on us. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Music & Parkinson's Disease

A while back I mentioned a proposed study on whether listening to a classical music concert would have an effect on the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Preliminary results are in and are looking positive. The thinking seems to be that the effect is due to music causing a release of dopamine, low levels of which cause the Parkinson's symptoms.

The study involved three concerts, one by a string quartet, one by a wind quintet and one by a brass quintet. I wish more symphonic organizations would put more effort into chamber music and looking for new ways to serve their communities as the Fort Wayne Philharmonic has done in this case. This post by Jeffrey Agrell touches on classical organizations needing to be more versatile.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Horn Diary

I've mostly settled into the Farkas Deep Cup mouthpiece. The diameter may be a bit too big for me, but since switching back at the beginning of the year there's been steady improvement in control and endurance from that moment of switching. The improvement has slowed, but I don't think the point of diminishing returns has been reached. I so much prefer the tone of the larger mouthpiece I really want to work as hard as I can to make it work. I'm also getting those unsolicited positive comments on my tone that I used to get when I used the Very Deep Cup mouthpiece those first years, but that dried up when I was on the Medium Cup. 

Being a total long term novice at the horn, I'm not sure how best to talk about the tone I'm going for and that various band directors and musical friends, whose advice I value, have complimented. The one thing that has given me more of what I want (outside of mouthpieces) has been playing off the leg. That lets the horn vibrate throughout and fully develop its timbre. 

In his book on the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, Christopher Hogwood makes the point that Handel was the first to bring the horn in from the out of doors to play with the instruments of the court. What I love about the horn is that it can have an amazing out of doors sound without having to be brassy. 

Two other things that happened back at the beginning of the year were my getting my first lesson ever and a fine player from the Charlottesville Municipal band joining us here in Orange so as to have the opportunity to play first horn.

The lesson went very well in that no horrible technique issues were discovered and that the embouchure I've worked out using BE looks good and sounds good to a regular teacher. Alternate fingerings were demonstrated and more of them made sense to me than when trying them previously over the years. Since I no longer am responsible for first horn parts, I get to spend a lot more time down on the F horn and get to mostly stay away from all the high stuff on the Bb horn.

Playing second horn is an absolute treat. When I was the only one playing off beats I'd always have to drop out a measure every so often to keep from sliding back on the beat. Just having to follow/be with someone else is astonishingly easier. After playing the first horn parts for so long, playing that secondary harmony under the first parts is a much different proposition, but as I get used to it is a lot of fun. Though it's all written out, it's not dissimilar to throwing on a vocal harmony line to someone else's vocal solo.

My biggest problem right now is getting used to the alternate fingerings. Playing the G above middle C on the F horn is much easier than on the Bb side, but it "tastes" very different. Sometimes it feels so different than what I'm used to I think I'm playing the wrong note. On the other hand, using the third finger instead of one and two for the A below middle C has been a revelation - it speaks more easily, and has better tone and intonation. Besides knowing more now than I used to, I think playing off the leg and having a mouthpiece that allows flexibility have really refreshed my playing. There are times it feels as though I have a new instrument.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Feel Success

Besides the "Regular Read" blogs having to do with music listed over on the right, there are some others I follow, one of which is that of Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. As far as I can tell, he's off the scale intelligent, and somehow driven to see things differently than the rest of us. Some posts have ideas over on the weird side of things, others are common sensical, and others are wonderfully "out of the box" thinking and very thought provoking.

In this post, "Happiness Engineering", he lists some of the things he does to make himself happy. One, in particular, caught my attention.

Feel Success - Make it a habit to often do things you do well. It doesn't matter if your best skill is golf or cooking or business or being a parent. Doing one thing well gives your ego some armor to handle all of the little things that don't go quite so well during the week.

That's a cornerstone of my approach to teaching music. My sense is that I spend far more time working with the client helping them "feel success" than music educators do. Rapid technical advancement is not the issue, whereas the client's enjoying making music is. For people not concerned with being first chair or competing with others, but who do want to learn enough to make music in a relaxing and enjoyable manner, that feeling of success sustains engagement and allows for building the motivation to take on more challenging technical issues as time goes on.

I realize educators are dealing with a different population with different natural skill levels and motivations, but one thing I've noticed in community band over the years is that we have never completely "owned" a piece as a group. We've brought pieces close to mastery, but never all the way. Once performed they go away and the sight reading and work on a new set of pieces begins. 

Part of the problem is that we have pro level players mixed in with beginners, and from what I can tell, the pro level folks get more attention when it comes to choosing repertoire. Another factor is that pieces arranged for school bands seem to always assume everyone is at the same skill level (which is logical). Then there's what seems to be "string envy" of the arrangers, so often giving the flutes and clarinets these busy string-like parts and very few gorgeous melodic lines in the middle range.

It seems there might be a niche for someone to arrange music for community bands that would balance things more towards a music therapy approach to music making, where "feeling success" would be more of a factor. The problem is you'd need to have a music educator's skill level at arranging, and they're all going to be much more interested in creating music for the educational environment. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Another Music Hormone?

This article is a brief overview of the work of David Huron.

David Huron has a theory. People who enjoy sorrowful music are experiencing the consoling effects of prolactin, a hormone that is usually associated with pregnancy and lactation but that the body also releases when we’re sad or weeping. People who can’t bear listening to sad music, Huron conjectures, don’t get that prolactin rush when they hear Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings or Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. They just feel blue. . .

. . .  This is why, he conjectures, the people who like listening to sad music are getting that shot of prolactin, and the people who hate listening to it aren’t. The study is still in progress. . . 

If this hypothesis proves out, it might explain Dave Barry's hilarious antipathy to the music of Barry Manilow, which his wife loves.

. . . Yes, love will make a man do many things. But sometimes a man’s love is sorely tested by a woman. Here I am using the term “a woman” in the sense of “my wife.” Recently, out of the blue, she asked me to do something that was truly repugnant to me, something that violates one of the two fundamental moral principles by which I have lived my life (the other one is, never drink light beer).

She asked me to go to a Barry Manilow concert. . . 

Levitin Memories

With his book This Is Your Brain On Music, Daniel Levitin moved the neuroscience of music out of the labs and into public consciousness. In this column in support of music in the public schools of California he tells the story of how he got started in music in the first place. 

We met 20 minutes a week for a year, just the two of us. Mr. Edie taught me how to put the clarinet together and take it apart, how to condition reeds with sandpaper so that they would play more easily, how to clean the instrument. He showed me how to replace worn pads and to adjust the intricate metal key bars. He taught me how to play it too, how to coax a pleasing tone by breathing from my stomach, how to read music and finger the instrument, how to make a heartbreaking vibrato and a playful staccato. And in so doing, he taught me to respect the instrument, to feel a deeper connection with it. . . 

. . . We now know through neuroscience research that playing a musical instrument confers a number of advantages to cognitive development, especially in training attentional networks. But it also makes for a lifetime of pleasure and companionship. A child with musical ability is never alone and can engage with many of the greatest minds of all time — Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz. We can make our fingers trace the same positions and patterns Chopin did and come to know a little of what it was like to hear the world as he did.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Live Music in Hospitals

One of the very first posts on this blog linked a BBC story on how live music was helpful to patients in hospital. Then for the longest time there were no other stories, but now two have popped up. In a Washington Post article discussing music and neuroscience there's mention of live music:

"We have musicians here who play for people who've just come out of surgery - a flautist goes up and plays for them and these patients, who are in tremendous pain, at the end of the playing, they are almost pain-free. Now we know that perhaps dopamine is playing a role."

This article from Pittsburgh talks about a program providing music in public spaces in a hospital. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Performance Diary

Last Friday the Kenwood Players performed at the old building of the Orange nursing home, where the residents are mostly wheelchair bound, and this afternoon we played at the new building which has more ambulatory residents. As we had our full compliment of players both times - trumpet, clarinet, trombone, tenor sax, two Eb tubas, drums and banjo - we were able to play Dixieland arrangements. Live music can play on the emotions of audiences, but Dixieland is more specific - it makes people happy. 

Both audiences moved and tapped and swayed and smiled and were very appreciative with both applause and coming up afterwards and thanking us. I once again had the thought that having been a banjo player in a Dixieland group may well have been the better decision than going into music therapy if simply making people happy was the motivation.

The most striking vignette for me had to do with a wheelchair bound gentleman I've been seeing in the lobby for years on my hospice volunteering visits on Wednesdays. I've always nodded and said hello, and his single response every time has been "Alright, honey!", and that's all I've ever overheard him say to anyone. He appears partially paralyzed on one side, so I've assumed he's a stroke victim. To close things down, we do an "Amazing Grace" sing along before ending with the "The Saints". He sang every word clearly, and in tune, and with great tone and feeling. Amazing grace, indeed.

On the audio front, the rooms are similarly sized, but couldn't be more different acoustically. In the old building there are lots more drapes and thicker carpets. In the new building there's a lower ceiling, bare walls and a little stage right back against a bare wall. I clip a dynamic mic into the bell of each tuba so they can be easily heard without having to work so hard, put a condenser next to the clarinet for the same reason, and have a dynamic mic for Dick the trumpeter to announce the numbers, and another for me to use for vocals. All these mics go to two amps. With all the settings the same, today in the new room we were much too loud until I turned everything down by about half.

Part of the problem is that whenever I ask the group to play up for a sound check, they never get to the volume we get when we really get a groove going. We've talked about it, but somehow we're always louder once we get going, so I've learned to dial back the recording level a bit to adjust for that. It might be that the players somehow think "sound check" is the same thing as "tuning note". 

In my experience, most musicians don't really know much about audio. It's rare to find one who knows the difference between a condenser and a dynamic mic. I'm getting better at being a "sound man", but it's been trial and error all the way. At the least, it's been a long time since I set off a feedback shriek. 

The one thing that I'm learning that's been helpful is to set things up so that the amps work as monitors for the players as well as reinforcing the sound for the audience. The better players can hear themselves and each other, the better they play.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Even More on the McGill study

From what I can tell, there have been more articles on that McGill study (previously posted on here and here) than any music neuroscience study to date. Here are two more articles.

This article by Dario Dieguez, Jr, PhD is great for putting the study in context. Here's the first paragraph: 

Humans experience pleasure from a variety of stimuli, including food, money, and psychoactive drugs. Such pleasures are largely made possible by a brain chemical called dopamine, which activates what is known as the mesolimbic system — a network of interconnected brain regions that mediate reward. Most often, rewarding stimuli are biologically necessary for survival (such as food), can directly stimulate activity of the mesolimbic system (such as some psychoactive drugs), or are tangible items (such as money). However, humans can experience pleasure from more abstract stimuli, such as art or music, which do not fit into any of these categories. Such stimuli have persisted across countless generations and remain important in daily life today. Interestingly, the experience of pleasure from these abstract stimuli is highly specific to cultural and personal preferences.

And here's his final paragraph. I just wish he'd said more about the "ability of music to modulate emotional states".

This study provides the first direct evidence that pleasure experienced while listening to music is associated with dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system. This phenomenon may be made possible by the ability of music to modulate emotional states and may help to explain why it has remained so highly valued across generations. “These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain,” said Dr. Zatorre. “This study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons,” he said.

The other article, which is in the Washington Post, reads like a blog post. Here's a bit from the middle of the article.

Indeed, this study fits quite neatly into the growing body of research on music therapy, which has suggests that listening to your favorite aria or pop hit can help you sleep better, lessen the pain associated with surgery or conditions including arthritis and fibromyalgia, decrease stress and improve anxiety and depression, among other health benefits.

Salimpoor stresses that her team's results go a long way toward explaining why other recent studies have shown that music and dance therapy can be incredibly effective for patients with Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by low dopamine levels.

"This is the science behind what we see all the time in practice," agrees Nancy Morgan, director of arts and humanities at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University Hospital, which provides music therapy programs for patients. "We have musicians here who play for people who've just come out of surgery - a flautist goes up and plays for them and these patients, who are in tremendous pain, at the end of the playing, they are almost pain-free. รข€¦ (sic) Now we know that perhaps dopamine is playing a role."