Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ride 2 Recovery

Back on the day after Memorial Day our group performed for an event called "Ride 2 Recovery" for veterans at American Legion Post 320 down in Spotsylvania County, very close the Wilderness battlefield. Bill B our sax player who arranged the performance is a member of the post and has sent along their most recent newsletter. These two pages from that newsletter give a great sense of the event. 

I was honored we got to play for this event and thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recording Yourself

Listening to recordings of yourself making music is probably the single most effective thing you can do to improve your playing. 

The key aspect of mindfulness is experiencing things as they are - not as we want them to be, as we're afraid they might be, as we feel/hope others might be experiencing them, or any of a myriad other distortions our untrained minds can inject into the experience. When we are actually in the process of playing music, there's so much going on in our minds, especially for amateurs, that's it's quite difficult to hear the music as it is.

Listening to a recording is a totally different experience. All the mental/emotional gymnastics have faded and we're left with just the sound of the music as we made it. There's no middle man/teacher trying to explain what it is we're doing, we can hear it ourselves. There's no need to reduce the experience to verbal language, as we can simply hear and react to the music non-verbally as an audience might.

I record all the performances of my group and give CDs to all the players. I and the amateurs of the group have all benefited wonderfully from this. I don't need to tell them what I hear they need to do to improve as they hear it themselves, and the same goes for me. 

As a single example, listening to recordings tipped me off to my sometimes more speaking than singing bits and pieces of lyrics instead of singing every syllable of the song. This probably goes back 40 years to my first trying to learn songs by speaking the words in rhythm while strumming the guitar as a preliminary to actually singing the song. Until I started doing all the recording here a few years ago, I was completely unaware of this and would have been dubious of anyone telling me it was the case. Hearing it in the recordings, though, cut right to the root of the problem and has given me much better traction improving as a singer.

Just as cultivating mindfulness of our behaviors in retrospect can lead to more clearly perceiving them in real time, listening to recordings of our playing can help us more accurately hear ourselves in real time and make improvements on the fly, just as high level players do. I used to be astounded by the real time listening skills of band directors, thinking I could never do that as for me it would be a sensory overload. While I'm nowhere near that level, I can now hear better in real time how my group is playing and make adjustments accordingly.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The 2.0 Series

I've started using the tag "2.0" for a series of posts that may end up as pages of a book on how to go about learning to make music. Over time I'll probably go back and try to tighten up the language and add more to them. They'll all be on topics that need to be covered one way or another, most of which I've been posting on and thinking about over the years. 

Currently I'm trying to lay out a general operational, philosophical framework a music therapist might use to best understand what a client wants to do and how to go about helping them succeed. 

While I'm blogging about blogging, my recent discovery that I can see what posts are getting hits each day has shown me that on any given day, by far the most hits are due to search engines sending people to a wide variety of older posts. Sometimes I can't even remember the point of the post by just seeing the title. I really like the idea that I'm filling a niche, no matter how tiny it is. I continue to find the internet an astonishing new thing, and can't really imagine how for younger people it's just the way things are.


Along with cultivating mindfulness and working to ameliorate afflictive emotions, a third tool of Buddhist mind training that can offer a helpful way of thinking about how to go about approaching music making is a consideration of your motivation. Why you're doing what you're doing greatly affects the outcome.

I live in central Virginia where horses are one of the major industries and lots of people have them for a variety of reasons. At one extreme there are folks who simply enjoy riding along trails and through woods and fields just for the simple pleasure of riding and being out in nature. At the other extreme there are the horse show people who spend hours and hours and hours teaching their horses how to negotiate a series of jumps and obstacles in a closed ring observed by judges and spectators.

As a music therapist I tend to work more with people wanting to simply make music for the enjoyment of doing so. Music educators tend to work with people who enjoy making music as well, but who also have the motivation to push their skill level higher and higher in a competitive environment.

Establishing early on why it is you want to make music, and then using that insight in how you go about doing it can prevent a lot of needless frustration.

Motivation is also very important in very detailed and specific ways as well. Music is more than just notes on a page. Having a clear idea of what it is you want to express with them will greatly facilitate learning how to play them. The same goes for improvisation - the better idea you have of what you want to express will help you find the music that you'll enjoy making.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Afflictive Emotions

One of the objects of Buddhist mind training is to identify and work to ameliorate afflictive emotions and their effects. For example, anger can be an intoxicant leading you to behavior you'll later regret. 

The first step is to recognize in retrospect that it was the negative emotion which had a hand in creating the behavior. Then in real time you can sort of see it happening but not really be able to immediately alter the behavior. Over time that very recognition reduces the power of the emotion and its effects in that and similar situations. The final stage is realizing in real time you've exchanged the negative emotion with a neutral or positive one, one side effect being you can now clearly see when someone else is falling into the same trap you've worked your way out of.

Music educators work with those for whom music comes easily and have usually passed some sort of audition. Music therapists tend to work with those for whom making music does not come particularly easily, usually due to some non-musical as well as purely musical issues.

Public speaking is a great example of what I'm trying to get at. We can all talk, it's what humans do. But the prospect of speaking in public can bring on such strong afflictive emotions, some people are unable to do so, or do so in ways they never would in a friendly one to one conversation.

There's the specific parallel, in that until the advent of recorded music, being part of music making was a natural human response. Now though, it's thought of more as something only trained people can do. 

There's also the larger and more general parallel of recognizing that helping people learn to make music can be a broader endeavor than simply addressing technique issues, and that this is more apt to be the case in those unable to navigate an entry into the educational system.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Musical Entrepreneurship

This article over on the indispensable Boing Boing talks about how a performer is pre-selling her shows so that she's assured of an audience when she performs. Surely a wave of the future.

What I do know is that I can start my own system. I can use the tools of communication, networking, and technology to help my fan base be part of my art. I pre-sold my album to fund the recording and now I'm pre-selling shows before I even book them so that I can come and play for my fans wherever they want me to play.

An Insight Into Performing

Here's Terry Teachout's almanac quote from yesterday. It's specifically about poetry, but I think it works as well for making music written by others.

"Poetry does not reason about serious things, it depicts them. When we read and remember it we mold ourselves; when we recite it we share what we have become."

Richard Brookhiser, "Rusher and Poetry" (National Review, May 16, 2011)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mindfulness in Music Making

This article from Wired talks about how your mental attitude affects your behavior. 

. . .“Our results indicate that beliefs about free will can change brain processes related to a very basic motor level,”. . .

. . . To lose confidence in free will seemingly introduced a lag between conscious choice and action. . . 

My sense is that studies such as these are so very preliminary that drawing hard conclusions on the specifics can lead you astray, especially on topics as controversial as free will. But I do think that they empirically reinforce the common sense idea that your attitude and general mental state as you go about something like making music is going to affect the outcome.

The neuroscience is telling us that it's the simultaneous coordination of many areas of the brain in music making that makes it such a unique behavior. Maintaining continuous awareness of all that can be tough sledding, and I think the concept of mindfulness as put forward by Tibetan Buddhism can be one very useful way of talking about how to go about it. 

A big part of mindfulness is simply observing your thoughts, emotions and behaviors without feeling you're having to make immediate conscious decisions and judgments about everything all the time. In making music this involves being as good a listener as you can be to what you're doing, as well as to those around you if you're in an ensemble. Taking the time to have a better sense of the music as a whole can help you understand what adjustments you want to make on the smaller scale.

One thing about practicing mindfulness is that like anything you practice you can get better over time. One thing which sets high level players apart is their being able to hear and respond to the music they're making both as a whole and in its many parts in real time. For those of us not at that level, understanding that how we're thinking and feeling about making music has a lot to do with how successful we are. It's another way of framing the musicality vs. technique duality.

One thing that can happen as you work with being more mindful is that you become aware that there's more going on in your behavior than you're usually aware of, and that some of it is merely reactive and routinized. A classic example in music making is rushing when playing passages perceived as difficult. Usually it's anxiety kicking in and highjacking the tempo. Coming to realize it's an anxiety issue as much as a technique one is half the battle.

Another point to make about mindfulness in the Tibetan sense is that it has to do with feelings and emotions as well the more rational connotation it has in the West. A Tibetan saying someone has a good mind is like a Westerner saying someone has a good heart. So in music making this means being open to the feeling/emotion content in real time, as well as the technical issues. 

My Friday group has both professional level and amateur level players, and all the amateurs have approached me at various times to say they've had more fun and gotten deeper into making music in this group than any other they've ever been in. I think a lot of that has to do with arranging the music to suit their abilities, which allows them to be more mindful the musicality side of things. That means they can lay down a solid framework for the pros to use to take improvisational flight.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Metheny on Improv

This article in the NYT covers some work of neuroscientists I've already posted on, so I wasn't going to link it until I read this quote from Pat Metheny:

The best musicians are not the best players, they're the best listeners.

To me, there's a world of truth in that. It's so very easy to get so caught up in various technique and performance issues, that it can become sort of a vicious downward spiral leading away from good music making; and mindful listening is what can break that spiral and get the technique back into serving the music rather than itself.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Performance Diary

Here in the past month or so our group, with varying personnel, has performed for:

A volunteer appreciation luncheon at a local nursing home - 

An outdoor butterfly release benefit for Hospice of the Rapidan -

An outdoor rehearsal dinner -

An outdoor fundraiser for UVa Children's Hospital - 

A fundraiser for a community 4th of July event - 

A dinner given to Wounded Warriors on a stop between their biking from DC to Richmond.

For all these events we were background entertainment during various social and dining activities. One of the things I've learned is that if we get the volume just right, some people can talk and visit while those right next to them can pay attention to us and clap and sing along if they like. It's really more like a music therapist running a group activity than a straight up performance.

The key element to success at all these events was reading the mood of the crowd and choosing tunes and ways of playing them which added to the convivial atmospheres. I did OK with that, but always afterwards thought of ways we could have done better. I'm still a bit unused to performing with a group of talented musicians and tend to get caught up in performing and not paying full attention to the crowd and thinking through what would be the most effective music to play. When it's just me and the guitar I can watch the audience the whole time, with other performers I need to stay connected with them as well, and it's hard for me to do both.

At the Wounded Warriors event yesterday, even though I knew ahead of time it was well over 100 veterans, many with prostheses, who had biked from Washington DC to Fredericksburg on a hot day and were headed to Richmond today, their energy level from being so physically active caught me off guard. We started out with some upbeat songs, and I should have stuck with that. My usual tack of slowing things down a bit after some fast ones didn't work particularly well. Those guys were pumped up, full of camaraderie, and enjoying a meal provided by the American Legion and the slow tune just didn't connect.

If I could somehow maintain better mindfulness, as the Buddhist call it, the performances could be better tweaked moment to moment to be more fully responsive to the audience. 

The other thing I noticed was that the high energy of the Wounded Warriors got me to singing with more intensity than I can ever recall in a performance. Part of it was the moving Memorial Day performance by the community band the day before building the mood. But I think most of it was their ruddy complexions, boisterous talk and laughter and the full attention some were paying me as a singer. Haven't listened to the recording yet, so don't know how it sounded, but it felt as though I was making some sort of breakthrough in projecting my emotions via my singing voice. It felt as though my voice was complete with nothing hindering its flow.