Friday, September 30, 2011

Flute Diary

This summer I spent a lot of time on the alto flute after something like seven years of hardly touching it and it was great to play it again. I recruited Hayley from the Orange community band to join me and Dr. Andy to work up music I'd arranged back in the 90's for flute, alto flute, and cello, along with some things I'd written for keyboard with those instruments.

Jumping around from instrument over the years has its drawbacks, but there are wonderful advantages as well. All the work with the horn and the regular flute meant I was able to get much better tone and volume on the alto flute than I did in the past. There's also sometimes a complete absence of the hissing, tire leaking air sound that used to be a regular feature.

I think the work with BE, Jeff Smiley's embouchure method for trumpet and horn, helped me better understand the way all the breathing and muscles work together to produce the embouchure, and that the better you "get" that, the easier it is to have a comfortably open throat and jaw, which in turn allows for creating centered, full tone. 

With both flute and horn my tendency was to obsess over what the lips were doing. I've never particularly liked buzz words, but that 60's hip term gestalt really fits the bill for explaining the true nature of embouchure. Embouchure is how everything else you're doing manifests in the lips. I realize this is one of those commonplaces of teaching wind instruments, but it's also one of those things where you have to experience what the words are talking about. Just because the words make sense to you doesn't mean you have a full understanding of their import. 

The other thing that has struck me (all over again) is what a perfect trio the flute, alto flute and cello make. There's the wonderful balance of treble, midrange and bass sounds, and the flutes have that difference tone ghost of an extra instrument from time to time, and all three are agile instruments.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Horn Diary

This summer has been the best I've ever had on the horn. During the hiatus of the community band I successfully got back the Farkas  Very Deep Cup mouthpiece I started with years ago, but moved away from when I had the embouchure crisis and the callus a while back, when I switched to a Medium Cup and then the Deep Cup for a while. I love the tone of the VDC mouthpiece and that its thin rim allows for so much embouchure movement inside the rim. While it might be marginally better for me to stick with a smaller mouthpiece for band music, and to match the first horn player's tone, I'm going with what I like more in the music I'm doing away from band.

One set of pieces I've been working on are the 12 Duos Mozart wrote for horn. I got the music years ago, but the gauntlet of preparing band music drew me away from it, and it's been wonderful music to come back to. Like some of the Handel pieces, they combine simplicity with musicality, with every note perfectly placed. One thing I've really enjoyed has been the detailed articulation, which seems to be the original intent of Mozart. They're making for great exercises as well as pleasing pieces for both me and the brass group. I'm putting them in keys that allow the trumpet and horn play 1st and 2nd voice up and then horn/trombone and Eb tuba down an octave.

Now that I seem to have some basic horn technique to work with I keep noticing an issue of brain rewiring. Having spent my early years on keyboard, there's the tendency to think of a series of notes as mere switches to be flipped in sequence, but on the horn, more than any other instrument I've ever played, every phrase is more sculptural as it moves from one note to the next, with every note's tone and intensity affecting the next and so on down the line. And I keep being caught off guard by how an interval, of say a fourth, feels different up and down the range of the horn, whereas on the piano it feels the same everywhere.

Something else I've had since I got the horn and got back to this summer are books of the hunting horn calls. I can finally play all the high F's and occasional G's called for. The blend of signaling and music is both fun and interesting. One thing I'm trying to arrange for the brass group is the old hunting song "Do you ken John Peel at the break of day" with some of the hunting calls between the verses.

As for community band, having a 1st horn player has made it a much more pleasant experience in that I'm not in the position of having to play music that's really too hard for me. Not playing the higher note in harmonies is a challenge after years of doing so, as is trying to be in tune with the 1st horn more than the band as a whole. But all of that seems to be coming along, and simply hearing how a good player plays band music is a continuing revelation. It's sort of like a dialect I've never gotten the hang of because I'd never heard it spoken.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mindfulness and Good Luck

Here's a brief article on a simple study suggesting that people who consider themselves lucky display more mindfulness than those considering themselves unlucky. It gives a wonderful illustration of how mindfulness can ease problem solving.

Here's the final paragraph:

People who we often consider lucky are more relaxed and open to what's going on around them. They're not focused on a single task, blocking out everything else so much that they miss something important and unexpected. What this experiment demonstrates is that luck may not so much be luck, but whether or not our mindset leaves us open to opportunities we would otherwise miss because we're so absolutely sure of what we want.

That last sentence also gets at why giving some thought to your motivation can be helpful.

Thoughts from Yo-Yo Ma

This brief article based on an interview with Yo-Yo Ma has some great quotes in it. 

Here he's talking about the Kalahari bushmen:

“They do these trance dances that are for spiritual and religious purposes, it’s for medicine, it’s their art form, it’s everything. That matches all I’ve learnt about what music should be or could do.”

In modern life we tend to think of music as something separate unto itself, as opposed to its being a deep experience of our humanity. I'll never forget going to a performance by various African groups and the program talking about how the performers had a hard time just making music to fit an hour or two time slot - they were used to going on for hours and hours.

The following paragraph from the article starts off talking about the work of Demasio and ends up getting close to the Tibetan Buddhist notion of the importance of motivation in any endeavor.

I mention Damasio’s insistence, in Descartes’ Error (1994), that the self cannot be meaningfully imagined without being embedded in a body. This must be resonant for a musician? He concurs and suggests that the role of tactility in our mental wellbeing is under-appreciated: “That’s our largest organ.” Ma sees this separation of intellect and mechanism, of the self and the body, as pernicious. “We’ve based our educational system on it. At the music conservatory there’s a focus on the plumbing, not [on the] psychology. It’s about the engineering of sound, how to play accurately. But then, going to university, the music professor would say ‘you can play very well, but why do you want to do it?’ Music is powered by ideas. If you don’t have clarity of ideas, you’re just communicating sheer sound.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Memory, Music & Alzheimer's

Following links in a story about brain research and Alzheimer's, I found this preview of an article behind a pay wall:

Music is known to aid memory, especially recalling autobiographical information. 

For example, people with Alzheimer's disease are better at remembering events from their own past when music is playing in the background. It was less clear whether tunes could also help them learn.

Brandon Ally at Boston University and his team were inspired by the report of a man with Alzheimer's who could recall current events if his daughter sang the news to him to the tune of familiar pop songs. They decided to try it out for themselves.

Since the title of the article is Dementia: Sing me the news, and I'll remember it, the researchers apparently met with some success. This fits with how the neuroscience is telling us music uses various parts of the brain, as opposed to a single one that can get damaged by disease, and that for Alzheimer's patients that can mean using music to enhance memories by pulling together undamaged parts of the brain. I just had never seen anything previous to this about music being used to help lay down new memories for such people, but it makes sense.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Here's an article in the NYT discussing the latest in simulating the acoustics of a great concert hall in your living room, as well as making hearing aids that do more than simply amplify sound. The word "psychoacoustics" is used to cover not just what the ear hears, but also how the brain interprets that information.

Anyone who has ever tried to mix and master audio for a CD will immediately appreciate this quote:

. . . One factor that slows the pace of innovation, Dr. Hartmann suggested, is that the human auditory system is “highly nonlinear.” It is difficult to isolate or change a single variable — like loudness — without affecting several others in unanticipated ways. “Things don’t follow an intuitive pattern,” he said. . . 

. . .“Often our changes were worse than doing nothing at all,” Dr. Kyriakakis recalled. “The mic liked the sound, but the human ear wasn’t liking it at all. We needed to find out what we had to do. We had to learn about psychoacoustics.”

Like music therapy and music pedagogy, this is another field where the new neuroscience looks to bring a much deeper understanding to what works and what doesn't. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Performance Diary

This past Thursday my great nieces and Crawford and Judy and I played down at the Orange nursing home to a mostly wheel chair bound audience. We did the same program we did at Oak Chapel, adding Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, Sweet Hour of Prayer and Down By the Riverside.

I have never received more effusive, heartfelt and sincere thanks from an audience after a performance - ever. While I was packing up and schlepping equipment back to the car they kept rolling up to have a private moment to say just how much the performance had meant to them.

A small part of it has to do with my being down there once a week for years, so there's a nodding acquaintance with most of the residents. What just melted me was that two residents who've suffered strokes and have speech problems, and who normally don't really try to say too much because it's so difficult and frustrating, rolled up and really worked to say thank you.

The main reason for this was that the girls totally peg the cuteness meter. Once the audience realized we were really going to pull this off and successfully play the old hymns that mean so much to them, they slipped into a relaxed state of pleasure. The room just got sweeter and sweeter the more the girls played and sang, and when I got the audience to sing along with us (and most of them knew ALL the verses without hymnals).

Having done music in institutions a lot over the years, I couldn't help notice we pulled a lot of staff into the doorway of the room. The staff at places like that have heard it all, and they're very busy people, but when something special is happening, they notice. When I was leaving, several came out from back offices to say just how much they appreciated our playing.

My main contribution to the event was figuring out what the girls are capable of doing at this point and arranging music to suit. Skylar on trumpet is just starting her second year in band, and just got braces, so her range is Bb below middle C to the Bb an octave above, so mostly everything was either in Bb or Eb to accommodate that, and when it wasn't, she played the drum.

We just worked our way through the books I'd done up for them and did as many iterations of the hymns as we could get away with, with me calling out who took the next time through each time. That gives everything an improvisatory feel as opposed to plodding through a preset program, and it keeps the audience on their toes, so to speak.

Towards the end we had Crawford sing "Good Night, Irene", as the hurricane had just recently passed, and that went down very well as well. 

Judy P is the proud owner of a new ukulele with an onboard pickup I can plug straight into an amp. The amplitude of a uke strum is about half that of a guitar, so she can go much faster and throw in delightfully quick syncopations. Makes me realize one reason I so love Judy's drumming is that her background as a strummer so informs it, so it's great to play guitar and banjo with.

Back in this post I talk about what one blogger calls "transmission". And in this post there's talk of transcendence. What keeps coming back to me is that it's the sort of thing that can happen in all sorts of places outside concert halls, but in the era of recorded music and with fewer people playing in small catch as catch can ensembles (which was the norm for human society until the past couple of generations), people seem to have lost touch with that. If I can create some materials that will help facilitate more of this kind of small scale playing, I'll count that as a success.