Sunday, July 31, 2011

Your Tone Is You

It's my feeling that tone is the most primal of the elements of music making, just as one's tone of voice is the most primal element of speech. 

During my 20's I worked as an attendant and group therapist on locked psychiatric units. My primary responsibility was to insure the physical safety of the patients, which meant closely monitoring the emotional state of patients who might become violent with themselves or others. Over time I learned to pay close attention to tone of voice as an indicator of mood, more so than the verbal content of speech. Listening closely to tone of voice was also very important in understanding what was going on under the surface in group therapy sessions.

The flip side of all that attention paid to the voice tone of others was trying to always insure my own tone of voice was not accelerating a volatile situation, but rather helping to keep things relatively calm.

Those experiences led me to be more conscious of something I think we all do on a mostly unconscious level, i.e. make judgments about the personality and state of mind of others based in part on their tone of voice, and that we use our own tone of voice as an underpinning to expressing ourselves through speech.

It's my idea that when the neuroscience gets sophisticated enough, we'll see that the tone quality of your music springs from, and affects the listener in, deeper and more primal parts of the brain than the rhythm, melody and harmony. When you make music, your tone sets the stage for whatever else you do. 

(As a side bar to this discussion, there's the question of the tone of piano players. It would seem that, more than wind and string instruments, the tone of a piano resides more in the piano than the player. That's largely true, but the hammer action means that strings can be hit with different amounts of force and at different rates of acceleration (see correction below), exciting the strings in subtlely different ways. Along with that, high level players can control the dynamics and the temporal sequence of every single note to such a high degree that individual styles can be developed and appreciated.)

UPDATE - Jonathan West corrects me in the comments:

By the way, you're wrong about the piano. By the time the hammer hits the string, it is no longer attached to the key and so it is in free movement and has no acceleration due to the key. Being in free movement, the the sound made by the hammer's action on the string varies from one note to the next solely on the speed with which the hammer hits.

What pianists and others think of as tone on a piano is derived from timing and use of pedals, and also from different degrees of force (and hence loudness) applied to different notes of the same chord. To a great extent, the idea of varied tone on the piano is a cognitive illusion fostered by the player - one which the player himself may be unaware of and honestly believe in.

All of what Jonathan says is very well put, especially that last sentence. During my time as a keyboard major in the late 70's I convinced myself that there was something more than simply the speed of the hammer affecting the tone of the note, and had come up with my faulty explanation involving acceleration. There is the acceleration created by gravity as it works to pull the hammer back to its resting position, but that's a constant rate involving the number 32. So maybe what I'm feeling is how that interplay between gravity and the force of the keystroke allows for super fine tuning of the hammer speed. 

Jonathan is also absolutely right to mention pedaling, which I'd not included and which has immense effect on a player's tone. Oftentimes a hammer is hitting a string still vibrating anywhere from a little to a lot from a previous hammer stroke, and pedaling controls the amount of that vibration. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Performance Diary

This past Sunday I helped my great nieces perform in their little country church (celebrating its 120th year). One 12 yr old started trumpet last September and the other started flute. The 6 yr old and the 4 yr old sang. The Reverend Crawford H from my regular group joined us with his E flat tuba to supply bass line (and because I so enjoyed playing with a group with a 75 yr difference between the oldest and youngest player).

All went well, particularly on our instrumental version of The Church in the Wildwood. The first run through was me playing alto line on flute with the flute playing soprano and Crawford on bass. The second time through I switched to horn on alto line of the chorus while the trumpet played the lead. The third time through was trumpet and flute on lead, horn on alto and tuba on bass. 

Perhaps the best thing was that things having gone well, the girls are eager to perform again, so we'll probably take the show on the road to the nursing home before school starts up again.

Two weeks ago I made a CD with them of a complete run through of our performance for them to practice with. They used that CD and were completely comfortable with the sequence of singing and instrumental solos, and the little ones used it to get the words of the songs down. 

The practice CD was so successful it makes me think something like that would be really helpful in the materials for learning I'm developing. Unlike a music minus one CD, I talked through who was doing what while playing and singing so that there were plenty of cues to follow. The idea would be to create CDs to jam with more than to play one particular part. That also allows for more than one to play along at the same time.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Revising Compositions

I've always been hesitant to revise pieces once they've been completed. Part of it has to do with the realization that when writing the piece I was as fully conscious of all the bits of it and what the decisions were to create and join them together as I'll ever be. It's hard to go back and rethink one bit without rethinking it all.

In today's post, Terry Teachout is talking about artistic perfection and has this quote with another take on the issue of revision:

The wisest artists are the ones who finish a new work, walk away and move on to the next project. Whenever a colleague pointed out a "mistake" in one of Dmitri Shostakovich's compositions, he invariably responded, "Oh, I'll fix that in my next piece."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Moving Making Music

In this post Greg Sandow is talking about the culture of music making in high level orchestras and he tells this anecdote:

After a Berlin Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall a few years ago, I ran into a musician from the New York Philharmonic whom I happened to know. Berlin, I think, is all but universally acknowledged to be the world's beset -- and most inspiring -- orchestra, an institution run by its musicians, who show great commitment and great autonomy while they play, not least in the way they move, putting their entire bodies into every note.

"Did you see that?" the Philharmonic musician asked me, almost levitating (as, I think, we all were, from how wonderfully the musicians played). "Did you see how they move? If I moved like that, I'd be reprimanded."

I play much better standing up, whether guitar and singing or flute or horn. Besides being able to breathe better and more naturally, standing up allows me to move as I play. Working with music therapy groups over the years, and now fronting the Kenwood Players, I don't conduct, but lead through gesture, along with verbal instructions half sung with the music. 

When I see players sitting stock still when making music it makes me think the music is too abstract and too far removed from the motions and gestures that make us human. Cerebral music, like say a Bach four part organ fugue, usually doesn't engage me (The Art of the Fugue being a major exception).

On the other hand, I think we've all seen people making music with far more physical gestures than needed, as if those gestures can make up for the lack of technique needed for the music being performed. Like everything else in music, a balance needs to be found.

Early Work History

During my junior and senior year at Duke I worked as an attendant on the locked psychiatric ward in Duke Hospital. Second semester senior year (1971) I worked there 32 hours a week and then full time that following summer. Duke Hospital was (and remains) the top level referral hospital for a large geographic area, so the docs and nurses were top flight and the patients tended to be difficult cases.

From '71 to '73 I worked as a group therapist at DePaul Hospital (now defunct) which was the old line Catholic mental hospital sitting right on the edge of Audubon park in the Garden District. The unit I worked on there was a locked long term one for adolescents and young adults who received no psycho-tropic medications. It was all talk therapy with their docs, combined with a group therapy session every morning and evening shift. (It was at DePaul I encountered my first "music therapist", albeit without formal credentials.)

From '74 to '76 I worked as an attendant on the locked admit unit of Santa Rosa Hospital (now defunct) at the Medical Center complex in San Antonio.

All that time my music making was mostly recreational folk guitar and singing, with a couple of gigs singing in bars and restaurants.  

The point of all this is to explain how where I'm coming from is usually very different than where most music therapists and educators are coming from. In my experience all music therapists and music educators went straight from high school to an undergraduate music degree, their options then being performance, education or therapy. Their background and skill set is heavily weighted towards musical issues and they have to work to acquire the skill set to teach or to be a therapist.

My strong suit is the experience of being a therapist and I've had to struggle to gain the musical skills needed to be an effective music therapist. Because of that I tend to see the elements of music and music making more in the overall realm of what's going on with the person involved, than the purely musical and pedagogical aspects.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Performance Diary

Back on Saturday 7/2 the Orange Community Band played in a band festival in the pavilion down at the end of the pedestrian mall (formerly Main Street) in Charlottesville, VA. The pavilion is the major outdoor big time venue in Charlottesville and it was a real treat to play in such a well designed, top of the line venue. Ample room on stage and very nice acoustics. The band played well and the audience very receptive.

Then on Sunday 7/3 there was the Picnic in the Park here in Orange out behind the airport. My group opened up with a Dixieland jazz set of about 40 minutes, then the community band played for about 45, then there was a short ceremony (which included my singing the national anthem with the banjo, a tenor sax and an Eb tuba), then a mother and daughters singing group, then my group started with some Americana until the storm came.

For the Dixieland I used a clip-on dynamic mic on the banjo because the sound is so directional. Putting it through the sound system meant everyone could hear it no matter where I was facing.

Also used mics on the tuba, harmonica and the clarinet, all run through the Mackie mixer and out to the two large Peavey keyboard amps, with the control room feed going to a small keyboard amp for our monitor. Then ran a line from the out of the most distant amp to a powered mixer and two speakers set up even further away. We had nice sound coverage throughout the area without it being too loud up front.

The community band apparently played very well. The director and the music educators in the group all talked about how "musically" we played. Here's an excerpt from the director's note to us afterwards:

. . . but once the music 'gets in your blood' it more-or-less begins to take on a life of its own. At that point the conductor becomes far less important as the engine drives itself from within the ensemble. We have to remember, though, that this occurs only when the notes and rhythms are learned and we are no longer bound to the printed page. That's when real music begins...and that's exactly what happened on Sunday night, in particular.

My problem was, as it has been in the past at these events, trying to change mental gears from banjo to horn. With the banjo I just play without thinking, but with the horn it is only with full concentration that I can manage to not embarrass myself. So for the first several numbers my memory is more what I was up to more than how the group sounded.

The Kenwood Players last set started, and then the storm came. Torrential rain and lots of close lightning. We were all safe under the large shelter, but I had to kill the sound system because of blowing rain. Until it was announced that the fireworks were canceled, it was me on banjo, a trumpet, sax, clarinet and tuba in acoustic mode. 

My singing was semi-hollerin', but people liked it and we kept everyone occupied during the storm. (Nearer My God to Thee was mentioned several times ;-) Orange being the small town it is, have had several people come up to say they really appreciated our persevering in the face of the storm.

One thing about my singing voice I keep meaning to mention is that I live on a dairy farm and most days spend most of an hour getting cows up out of the field and into the barn. Yelling is involved, but over the years I've worked on being loud and projecting without straining my voice. We're in the piedmont, so there are hills and vales offering great acoustics for testing uses of the voice.

Beauty in the Brain

Here's one of several articles that have come out on an fMRI study from University College of London. It's very preliminary and may get revised in significant ways, but it makes a great deal of intuitive sense to me that our awareness of beauty can occur in different categories of experience. 

They watched where the blood went in the brain when people experienced beauty in both music and visual art. One particular part of the brain responded to both, the medial oribitofrontal cortex (mOFC).

Several studies have linked the mOFC to beauty, but this is a sizeable part of the brain with many roles. It’s also involved in our emotions, our feelings of reward and pleasure, and our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, Ishizu and Zeki found that one specific area, which they call “field A1” consistently lit up when people experienced beauty.

The images and music were accompanied by changes in other parts of the brain as well, but only the mOFC reacted to beauty in both forms. And the more beautiful the volunteers found their experiences, the more active their mOFCs were. That is not to say that the buzz of neurons in this area produces feelings of beauty; merely that the two go hand-in-hand.

This all made me think of the Golden Mean and proportions and relationships and balance. Beauty seems to reside in the ways various parts of things fit together and relate to one another. In the most beautiful, the various parts can disappear into the whole.

Monday, July 4, 2011


In some recent posts with the 2.0 tag I've been trying to establish a conceptual framework for the deep process of the practice of music making, making connections to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. 

In this morning's post Pliable makes the connection of lineage in both the practice of music and the practice of Buddhism. Over and above my never having seen that particular commonality, there's much to think about is the post. On a hectic Independence Day just want to bookmark the post to come back to, probably multiple times.

Among the questions to consider is how Pliable's use of the word "mystical" in the following quote will play with skeptics. 

. . . the establishment of a mystical link from the performer forward to his audience and back to the composer . . .

Friday, July 1, 2011


This post is mostly just to bookmark this post of Pliable's for the little back and forth we had down in the comments. It's helped me at least ask better questions about something that's very difficult to come to grips with, but is a core issue of what music therapy is or can be.

The issue is whether or not one person's transcendent experience listening to music can be compared to another's, particularly if the genres of music are very different. A. C. Douglas, one of my "Regular Reads", maintains that the transcendent experience offered by "high culture" is much superior to that offered by pop culture.

To really answer the question you have to both get inside other people's consciousness and make value judgments about their experiences. 

Another thing that comes to mind when talking about a U2 performance versus that of a symphony orchestra is that part of what Bono is up to is a kind of modern shamanism. Which leads to the question of whether someone like Leonard Bernstein was just another kind of shaman. It's easy to make the case that a kind of ritual is involved in both rock and symphonic performances. 

And then there's what Stanislav Grof found in his research into psychedelics and transcendent experiences back when that was legal, that the mindset of someone approaching the experience combined with the setting in which it occurs has a lot to do with the outcome. 

Back in the 70's when I was getting getting my Registered Music Therapist credential, music therapy was called an "adjunctive therapy". As far as transcendent experiences go, my feeling is that music can be involved in them, but is probably not the single cause when they occur when listening to or making music.