Monday, August 29, 2011

Nadia Boulanger and the Unconscious

This woman's name pops up all the time as having been a composition teacher for numerous modern composers, but until this brief article, I had never seen anything about how she taught.

Bearer is also a composer who studied with the French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. “She was very, very focused on the musician’s mind,” Bearer says. “To study with Boulanger meant that you learned to use those unconscious parts of your mind that respond to music, that dream of music, and you learn to bring them to the conscious state where you could take a pencil and write them down.”

Going through the training with Boulanger, Bearer says, “I can say through personal experience that music does not live in the same part of my brain as my science."

I came across this just after leaving a comment on this post on Julia's Horn Page. She's talking about Jeff Smiley's work (which I most recently posted on here) and says:

As your lips learn to do new things, the things that work better are gradually and unconsciously incorporated into your current embouchure.

Maybe it's my background in the psych field, but I find the astonishing vituperation Jeff's work can bring forth from music educators about as fascinating as the work itself. It's my intuition that it's this opening up to and working with the non-conscious aspects of the mind that's so upsetting. If you're dedicated to reducing the activity of music making to a set of rules and concepts, it seems to me you're setting yourself up to paying more attention to the conscious mind than all the rest of it.

Performance Diary

Yesterday we performed at the large Presbyterian Church in the town of Orange and last week we performed at the small Macedonia Christian Church down in what my father used to refer to as  "the lower part of the county" (it's more coastal plain than piedmont). I don't think we've ever sounded better than the audio at the link for Macedonia from two years ago as it was one of those times when everything sort of magically gelled. These two recent performances were very good, though, and I want to note what went well.

At Macedonia the minister, one of our tuba players, made our music the central feature of the service. We led the singing of the hymns as well as performed some tunes on our own. Crawford specializes in short sermons and services, and in a service of less than 60 minutes, we played for 35 minutes.

Crawford says it's the best he's ever heard that congregation sing, and that was my feeling as well. I've pitched most of the hymns a step or three lower than the hymnals, so they were more in the range of regular people. I led the singing with my voice and the guitar and the players did a marvelous job of supporting the singing, with a different instrument taking the lead for the singing of each verse. On hymns of three verses we added two instrumental iterations between the sung verses and built the mood.

I'd done up a keyboard album of the transposed hymns for the organist and having her play mostly the bass and harmony lines was a real treat, filling out the sound. From past experience I knew that when I faced the congregation, she and the other players can't hear the guitar, so I took an amp and put it back next to them with just enough volume for them to hear it but that I couldn't detect. That worked very well. 

We've slowly been working up an improvisatory Dixieland version of The Church in the Wildwood, which is sort of a theme song for that particular church, and that went down very well.

At the Presbyterian Church yesterday we just did music before and after the service with a couple of mostly instrumental hymns during the service. Crawford was still preaching down at Macedonia, so we were down to one tuba, and Bill B our sax player didn't make it due to a freak car/power line pole accident near his house preventing him for getting out.

Before everyone else got there I set up our equipment and sang that long song of Dylan's, Boots of Spanish Leather, from up in the choir loft where we were going to perform. It takes me high and low in my range and is a great workout, both for my voice and for testing acoustics. I figured out the best ways to aim my voice into the wonderful acoustic space, and how much to project it to get just the right amount of reverb.

Once everyone else got there we played right up until the service as people gathered below. At one point we got a nice round of applause (after Just a Closer Walk with Thee) and during the "joys and sorrows" portion of the service one of the members said how wonderful it was to walk into the church with everyone smiling and the music coming down from upstairs.

One thing I've never had happen before is that while I was singing the one verse of Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior I did between instrumental iterations, my ears popped twice in that pressure adjusting way they can. The hurricane had passed during the night, so I don't think it was a big pressure change in the environment. I think it was just that I was opening my jaw in that "yawning" way voice teachers talk about and it allowed things to equalize, which in the normal course of things wouldn't have needed to.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Quotes to Save

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

We listen to the "music" of the brain all the time in the lab. My favorite station is Jazz 88. I cannot help but listen to music the way I analyze large-scale brain activity, searching for the syntactical rules that allow separation of messages and long-term features to be predicted from short time scale interactions. The esthetic features of music emerge from its complexity — a halfway state between trivial predictability and random noise (i.e., pink noise) – just like the complex features of brain dynamics.

Glenn Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and one of his band members says:

"The style he's been playing does not sit in his memory, it sits in his muscles and his emotions which he will always remember. [It] is quite astonishing to see how deep music sits - it's not just your brain, it's emotions in your flesh and spirit,"

Alex Ross uses the word "gesture" talking about the music of Liszt:

Freire, who has long given life to the old cliché "poet of the piano," has a way of connecting Liszt's gestures so that they form a naturally flowing narrative; you never feel hectored.


One of the ideas I'm working on for the 2.0 series is coming up with a workable definition of what music making is. Defining music itself is a rabbit hole I don't particularly want to fall into, but being able to say what I think music making is about has to be part of the ground plan for any approach to helping people do it.

That definition has to include the idea of approximation. Part of the deep attraction of music making is that you can always get closer and closer to being better able to express yourself musically. If that's not part of your practice of music, burnout becomes probable. 

What's so recharging about music making is that the more you do it, the more it helps you understand what it is you're trying to express. That other great American poet, T. S. Eliot, in his usual grim way, gets at this issue here:

. . . one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate . . .

It's like blogging. The more I try to say what I think I mean, the better I understand the thoughts beneath the language trying to find a way out. And the same goes for music making, with each approximation getting closer and closer to pure expression, but rarely, if ever, getting there.

Horn Diary

Community band has been on hiatus since July 4th and I've been having a wonderful time on horn looking at music more to my liking. In particular, I've been working on some arrangements of Corelli, Praetorious, Tomkins and Gibbons pieces, along with some new Bach and Handel, for an ensemble of trumpet, horn, trombone, and two Eb tubas. (To my ear, the two trumpets in the standard brass quintet is at least one too many.)

Since a first horn player showed up in band, I've been working more on the mid range than the high, and using the F horn more than the Bb. The Renaissance and early Baroque music suits me down to the ground and practicing is a joy. It makes perfect sense to me and the path to making it sound good on the horn is clear cut. I have a clear sense of the various ways I might want it to sound. (One of the top three or four comments I get on stuff I write is that is has a Renaissance flavor.)

Me and BE

 "BE" is the short hand label for Jeff Smiley's "The Balanced Embouchure" approach to helping people with trumpet and horn embouchure, of which I'm a big fan and have posted on a number of times over the past couple of years. 

James Boldin has just done a post on it and here is part of the comment I put down below it. It's the best brief summary of my response to BE I've come up with so far.

Appreciate the open minded approach to Jeff Smiley’s work. I’ve been watching the debate on this for years, ever since getting his book and using his approach to get through an embouchure crisis that had me thinking about giving up the horn.

My sense of it all is that it can be very helpful for people looking to take a new direction due to the standard approaches not helping whatever issues they might be wanting to work through and who are willing to rebuild from the ground up.

For those for whom the standard approaches are working, though, a major overhaul and starting all over is something of a threatening prospect.

What I most appreciate about Jeff’s approach is that it helped me get a much broader and deeper understanding and feeling for what the embouchure can do and needs to do, and that helped me figure out what I needed to do to get everything working. He gives you the tools, but the responsibility is yours, and that’s a nice fit for how I like to work with people.

The other thing about Jeff’s approach I really like is that it goes well with all the neuroscience coming out saying how making music uses so many different areas of the brain, not all of which are always under our conscious control. His exercises helped me get a better sense of that when it comes to playing the horn.

My guess is that a lot of music educators don’t “get” what he’s up to because it’s so very difficult to look at something differently after a lifetime of building up something has worked for them. Besides, most people in the field are probably “naturals” to one degree or another and can’t really conceive what it’s like for the rest of us who aren’t. I’ll never be a natural horn player, but Jeff’s book helped me understand what that must be like and what I have to do to approximate it.

James says he's going to get the book and try it out. I look forward to his response and maybe talking with him about it. I'm also reminded I printed out Dave Wilken's somewhat riled up take down, with the idea of comparing it to the book the next time I reread it. The thing is that I've been having such a great time on the horn, particularly since my flow experience with the Fauré Requiem, I haven't felt a need for a refresher.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Baroque Oboe

My oboe friend from conservatory days, Craig Matovitch, just uploaded this little gem.

Down in the comments on his post on Facebook about it he says, 

One thing these barogue pieces do is get me very honest with lots of things, tongues, tuning, aspects of expression. Its good therapy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Performance Pix

Here are some photos the activity director at Gordon House took of our performance there last Friday, which I posted on here.

In this one, from left to right, is my second cousin Steve, Dick & Maggie S, Crawford H, Bill C and Bill B. The Sony recorder is on the camera tripod in front of Bill C.

Here's a shot of me on banjo and Dave F on trap set on the right side of the flattened semi-circle. Dave is following the music closely because for a couple of numbers it was the first time he'd ever played them with us. Pro level reading skills really do come in handy.

Here's a nice close up of Crawford and the Bills:

That's all the current Kenwood Players except for Judy P who plays percussion for us in church and other settings where a full trap set would be too much. 

Cousin Steve (trombone), Dick (trumpet) and Dave (trap set) are pro level players and play in a number of different groups. Steve joined the Fredericksburg Big Band several decades ago and now runs it. They've raised millions of dollars for charity over the years. Dick is a retired army colonel and he and Maggie have lived all over, seemingly starting Dixieland groups wherever they've been. Dave was a drummer in the Army Band.

On a genetic note, Steve and I are second cousins because our grandfathers were brothers. He has several dozen Sanford cousins and I think at least half are very musical. I have just over two dozen Sanford cousins and am the only one doing music, other than one or two who took piano lessons as a child and dropped it.

Another thing to mention, which relates to tone quality is that from time to time in rehearsals and performances, Dick and/or Steve will play with such gorgeous tone it's all I can do not to stop playing and just listen. Hearing such great brass tone up close and personal has been a boon to my horn playing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Performance Diary

This past Friday the Kenwood Players performed for an hour over at Gordon House. It was 20 minutes Dixieland (me on banjo), 20 minutes Hank Williams and hymns (me on guitar) and then 20 minutes of Dixieland. Everything went very well.

We were in a flattened semi-circle and left to right it was trombone, trumpet, clarinet, the two Eb tubas, sax (soprano and tenor) trap set and me. Very nice mix on the recorder, except on my vocals. Had it set-up right in front of the tubas with one mic facing the trombone and one the trap set. If I were to crank it higher and stand right in front of it on vocals I think the results would be about the best it can get. The closer it is to the sound, the better it is.

One small note on gesture. A handful of the Dixieland arrangements call for the banjo to go tacet in the last measure or so, and we did one of those pieces. Without thinking I did a sort of flourish on my last strum trying to get it perfectly in the rhythm of the trap set, and seeing that flourish and sensing the end of the piece coming up, a number of people applauded prematurely. I'd mentioned before that I conduct music therapy sessions in part with gesture, just hadn't made the obvious connection to influencing an audience as well.

Something else to note was how well we and the audience connected. Gordon House is an assisted living retirement home, so the residents are the right demographic for old time music. What happened that was so nice is that they picked up on how we josh amongst ourselves between numbers and started making jokes along with us. After we finished a lot of them felt comfortable coming up and speaking to players and there was quite a little confab there for a while.

We're also getting better at being more efficient performers. We performed for 60 minutes and the music only CD runs right at 45 minutes, so for all the talk, we went right from one number to the next and got a lot in. Any more might have stressed embouchures, especially on the Dixieland which is pretty demanding.

Should also mention that Dave F, former Army Band drummer, was able to join us. Having a professional level drummer makes all the difference, especially on the Dixieland. For me it's a treat not to be the sole time keeper on banjo, so I can get a little creative accompanying the other players.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Core Constituency

Here are some photos of the rehearsal/warm up for the performance I wrote about in a previous post. These first two show the twelve year olds who started band last September, Skylar on trumpet and Amber on flute, along with the Reverend Crawford Harmon on E flat tuba, who's been playing his instrument a bit longer. 

Here's one with me on flute. . . 
. . . and on horn, with the six year old Carly in the first pew waiting her turn.
And here's the four year old Calli.

Providing the music for these people to play in this kind of situation is exactly what I'm trying to do when I talk about creating learning materials. What the girls are leaning in band and what's in the hymnals wouldn't work for this, but it's very easy to create arrangements that suit the players and the situation.

Working with the girls once a week this past year has been a wonderful opportunity to figure out what does and doesn't work with beginners, and working with Crawford and the other members of the Friday group, helping them get better use of the skills developed over a lifetime, is just as rewarding.

Many thanks to Crawford's wife Liz who took these pictures, and for using only available light, so there were no irritating flashes. I wasn't even aware she was taking the pictures.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Baroque Gesture

In this Pliable post about a now deleted CD, he writes:

As Benjamin Schweitzer explains in the CD booklet, "...there is something in the gestures and tonality of [Baroque music], which is closer to modern times than one would assume in the first place".

Given my interest in the gestural component of music I was delighted to see someone actually using the word, particularly in association with Baroque music, as pieces requiring just three or four voices from Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, A Musical Offering and Anna Magdalena's Notebook have been mainstays of my music making for decades. 

Most of my favorite classical music is that written before 1750. It's still connected to people actually dancing, which is where a lot of the gestural component originates. It's also from a time before equal temperament took over and before the various rules and regulations of music writing that brought an end to the simpler, but to my ear very rich, modal harmonies and less uniform metrical structures.

Here's another quote from the same source which I like, because as a music therapist I'm much more interested in how individuals can express themselves than in conforming to the standard practice styles laid down by academics.

'Sound experiments are part of daily life for a baroque orchestra. Because more so than their "modern" cousins, historical instruments offer numerous possibilities for sounds that are equally valid.'