Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Horn Diary

Yesterday the community band performed at the Memorial Day service in the little park on Main Street in Orange named for Zachary Taylor. The names of those from the county who gave their lives from World War One onward were read out and wreaths laid. The band played well and the event was a success, and a reminder of the interconnectedness of small rural towns. 

There was a heat advisory and some of us in the band were sitting directly in the noonday sun. My shirt was soaking wet in just a few moments and I kept telling myself to watch for signs of heat stroke. By the end of the service some clouds came over and a slight breeze stirred. 

I was the only horn, so had spent the past couple of weeks re-inhabiting first horn territory and played my parts acceptably well, but the hot sun on my face made my lips and cheeks feel as though I were in the midst of a hot bath. Muscles I never think about went slack and trying to maintain embouchure became a moment to moment chore. I'd never experienced that before, and will be perfectly content not to experience it again. There were no horribly bad notes, just ones that never really quite formed and sounded, and came out as sort of an barely audible mush.

People who've played in bands often mention the issues with playing in cold weather, but it had never occurred to me that extreme heat could have such an effect on my embouchure.

On a different note entirely, have been meaning to mention that besides disagreement in the horn community about any number of issues, they can't even get together on how to oil the instrument. Over the years I've seen various authorities say different things. Way back when I started I read Barry Tuckwell's book and he suggested just buying kerosene at the hardware store and using that, which is what I've done. I pour it through a coffee filter lined funnel from the gallon jug into a small needle nose applicator bottle.

It's thin and in the summer needs to be applied every day. But it works well, and very rarely do I have to pull tuning slides and put it down them. Most of the time under the rotor caps and on the shafts on the other side keeps things nicely lubricated and the action quick and responsive.

Friday, May 27, 2011

This Be a Rockin' Music Blog

Even though I've been blogging for over two years now, I've just recently discovered the "stats" feature that let's me peek at how people get here to read what posts. Just now was following one of those referrer links and discovered the blog made a list of "50 of the best music blogs out there", which was created by a site called Guide to Art Schools. The title of the page is 50 Rockin' Music Blogs By Real Musicians.

Here's their description of the blog:

Music Therapy: Music has many purposes, one of which lies in its therapeutic nature. On Music Therapy you can explore the workings and benefits of music and music making by referencing an organized archive of links having to do with music therapy. The blog's author is a part-time musician, part-time registered music therapist who has had first hand encounters with music's physical and emotional healing powers.

I'm delighted by being found and recognized, and that someone looked at the blog enough to write such an accurate description of it. Knowing there are some good readers checking in from time to time makes writing posts a fun challenge.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blogger Issues (again)

Looks like Jonathan West's problems trying to comment on the post below were the first signs of more Blogger problems. Currently my log ins fail far more often than they work. This a.m. the Blogger people say it's a "known issue" and they're working on it. Looks like a good day to get outside more ;-)

Update - Turns out it was a "corrupt cookie" thing and all you have to do is remove them and let new ones be accepted. I guess it's my age, but the phrase "corrupt cookie" somehow associates in my mind more with comics and cartoons than with computers.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Music and Evolution

Mark Changizi is an "evolutionary neurobiologist" and has a brand new book out called Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. Because what he seems to be saying overlaps so nicely with my idea that physical gesture is a primal constituent of music, the book jumps to the top of my to read list.

Here are some excerpts from an interview published in today's WSJ:

. . . My research suggests that when we listen to music without any visual component, our auditory system—or at least the lower-level auditory areas—"thinks" it is the sounds of a human moving in our midst, doing some sort of behavior, perhaps an emotionally expressive behavior.

The auditory system "thinks" this because music has been "designed" by cultural evolution to sound like people moving about. That is, over time, humans figured out how to better and better make sounds that mimicked (and often exaggerated) the fundamental kinds of sounds humans make when we move. . . 

 . . . Just to give one example of a fit between music and movement, consider that when people move faster (i.e., have greater tempo), their Doppler shifts are amplified, and so the difference between the highest (going toward you) pitch and the lowest (going away from you) pitch is greater. If music sounds like moving people, then we expect that faster tempo music should have melodies with a greater pitch range. And, indeed, that's what we found in our data. . . .

. . . Not all music induces dancing. What one wants to explain is why any music should induce this (and yet no other kind of thing induces movement time-locked to it).

If music has come to sound like someone moving in your midst, and probably moving evocatively in some way, then it is not very surprising. Lots of human behaviors are contagious. Dancing amounts to just another case of humans moving in reaction to, or following, the behavior of other humans. . . 

Two previous posts on Changizi are here and here. I really think he's on to something, but wonder if he's overstating his case. On down the line, when I've had a chance to actually read the book, will post again. 

Update - Jonathan West wanted to make the following comment, but Blogger, which has been more than a little buggy lately, keeps being stuck in "preview" rather than "post", so here is the comment as Jonathan emailed it:

I'm seriously skeptical.

First, the Doppler explanation just doesn't hold water at all. At the speeds unassisted humans move about, doppler effects on sound are all but undetectable to the human ear. That is why the Doppler effect wasn't discovered until the 19th century, when we started having machines (i.e. railroad engines) that could move fast enough for doppler effects to be heard.

Also, the conclusion that faster music has a wider pitch range I would want to examine very closely. What music was chosen in order to make the comparison? How was the sampling scheme set up? What kinds of music were included (or excluded) and why?

It sounds very much as if a superically plausible theory (doppler effect) was dreamt up, and then the data (different kinds of music) cherry-picked to match. Unless you take great care to prevent it, this sort of thing can happen without any intent to deceive anybody.

That there is a link between music and movement is beyond doubt. How much of it is culturally determined and how much is genetic is an interesting question - but I suspect that the answer, when it finally appears, will be to the effect that it is all intertwined to an extent that makes it hard to describe the contributions in terms of proportions.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Here's Terry Teachout's almanac quote for the day, which I really like:

"It seems to me that a prig is someone who judges people by his own, rather than by their, standards; criticism only becomes useful when it can show people where their own principles are in conflict."

Evelyn Waugh, Remote People

I'm always amazed by critics whose gigantic egos allow them to think their take on a piece of music is the only one worth having. This quote brought that to mind and takes it another step, that criticism is useful when it helps others deepen their perceptions and thoughts on art.

Whether it's an art or music critic, or a music educator or therapist - I'm immediately suspicious and somewhat put off by anyone saying theirs is the only correct approach. 

Update - Jonathan West puts it very, very well in his comment below.

". . . while there are a thousand wrong ways of doing anything in music, there are at least a hundred different right ways."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Empathy and Proprioception

This article in Forbes (there's an ad that you have to click through) is one of several in the past six months or so talking about research indicating the use of botox can weaken one's empathy for others. 

“When the facial muscles are dampened, you get worse in emotion perception, and when when facial muscles are amplified, you get better at emotion perception.” . . .

. . . Taken together, the two studies seem to indicate a direct relationship between ability to express emotion through facial expression, and the ability to experience emotion oneself, or identify it in others.

Seems to me there's probably a connection between this information and the new information on mirror neurons.

Large explained that when we see someone doing something, our mirror neuron system attempts to replicate the same condition in our own mind. This enables us to empathize with someone else on a very fundamental level.

The discovery that mirror neurons are involved in hearing music shows that when we listen to music, the same cells that are active in motor actions are part of the response to the music. . .

In making music, proprioception would seem to be involved as well, as that's the sense that besides telling us how physically accurate we are, it's part of how we can tell whether and how we are gesturally informing the music with emotion.

During the learning of any new skill, sport, or art, it is usually necessary to become familiar with some proprioceptive tasks specific to that activity. Without the appropriate integration of proprioceptive input, an artist would not be able to brush paint onto a canvas without looking at the hand as it moved the brush over the canvas; it would be impossible to drive an automobile because a motorist would not be able to steer or use the foot pedals while looking at the road ahead; a person could not touch type or perform ballet; and people would not even be able to walk without watching where they put their feet.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Flexible Stability vs. Contorted Rigidity

I had a great back and forth with David Wilken down in the comments on this post of his. The topic was embouchure, but it's my feeling the general concept plays in to music making on all levels. Here's something I said:

The other thing I keep wondering about is your point of the less movement of the embouchure the better. I understand how that really helps cleaner playing. The problem for me that led to an embouchure crisis that nearly had me give up the horn was that I think I got more over into “rigid” rather than “stable”, and that the appropriate supporting musculature and fascia weren’t in place, leading to over stressing some parts of the embouchure and not using others as much as needed (if that makes any sense).

And here's Dave's response:

I understand exactly what you mean here. It’s very common for players to concentrate their effort in areas that aren’t ideal, while letting the muscle groups that should be doing the work be lax. This happens with breathing as well as embouchure. If you look back a few posts I wrote up on a study that used infrared photography to note the areas on trumpet players’ faces that were doing the work while playing. One thing that was noted was that the professionals had a more uniform look compared to each other, whereas the amateurs had their muscular effort all over their face, with a lot more variety.

It's my feeling that this idea of the physical effort being evenly distributed throughout the embouchure applies equally to other areas of music making. One of the constants of my helping people make music on a whole panoply of instruments over the years has been helping them see and hear and feel how they're stressing where they don't need to and not giving full attention to other areas. 

So often people starting to play an instrument seem to be contorting themselves in ways they never would in everyday physical endeavors. I think this becomes less immediately apparent as we play our instruments better over time, but needless small rigidities can still lurk just below the surface and hinder us from being as fully expressive as we might be.

Part of my recent "flow" experience was not once experiencing any physical glitches and the horn simply making the sounds I wanted it to. I just thought about the sound I wanted, not about what I needed to do to make it. My sense is that having a flexible stability in physical technique makes that more likely to happen than when you've got some physical contorted rigidities getting between you and the music.

Just as music making and meditation seem to have some overlap in terms of brain function, music making and yoga seem to have some overlap on the physical level.

A Pauky Poem

Kyle Gann just posted this wonderful poem, which uses the word "pauky", which I'd never before encountered. It means shrewd or cunning, often in a humorous manner. The poem was written about this event. The poem and the brief introduction are in this post of Kyle's.

And speaking of poetry, a Boston poet friend of John Luther Adams, John Shreffler, wrote the following poem in response to JLA’s and my pilgrimage to Concord:

For John Luther Adams

The experience aspires to communion,
But the art is various, so many
Different ways to do it, sometimes you feel
It wrap its arm around you as its other
Hand reaches in and neatly lifts your wallet;
That would be Wagner, while Beethoven and Ives
Storm Heaven, locked in wars into which you’re drafted,
But sometimes, now and then, the artist nods,
Lost in his thought and fumbles with the keys
And turns the pauky lock and opens the door
And inside lie mansions, where the conversation
Is real and equal and, as well, ecstatic
And shimmers like the Northern Lights laid out
In a Heaven into which you’re invited.

Sometime back I posted another poem about poetry itself, wishing there were one as good for music and this poem by John Shreffler makes a good companion to it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Harmonious Feeling of Oneness

This BBC article is the first I've seen which talks about how there are apparently two mostly independent neural networks in our brains. The suggestion is that usually one or the other predominates our consciousness, but that, at least in the case of Tibetan Buddhist meditators, the activities of the two networks can be balanced. 

He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.

Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators during the study.
The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.

The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.

But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down. . . 

. . . Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation - that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.

And Dr Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.

If this hypothesis proves out, it seems to me it could be part of the explanation of the state a music maker can sometimes enter when the ego falls away and the music seems to flow on its own. I've been talking to music friends about this and here's a great note I got from Billy Brockman, a friend I knew as a child and who went on to make a living as an electric guitar player. Billy is now proprietor of Charlottesville Music.

Time would definitely slow down. It gave me the ability to transfer what was in my head (and heart) to my fingers more easily. The ability to "play what you hear." It's analogous to a batter being able to "see the seams rotating" on a fastball. The ball is coming to the plate at 90 mph, but to a hitter "in the zone" the ball appears to be traveling slower.