Saturday, October 29, 2011


Just caught this post over on Musical Assumptions and made the following comment:

Very, very helpful post - Thanks. Came across Maslow for the first time since the 60's when reading up on "flow" and saw where he renamed as "peak experience" what had previously been called "transcendence".

Synchronistically, just this morning had a conversation with a musical friend and we agreed that pure "flow" is in part social - you can't get there by yourself - there have to be other players and/or a live audience. But neither of us are pros, so your idea that it can be achieved in solitary practice could well be the case for high level players.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Terry, Gunther and Walt

Just want to bookmark this post by Terry Teachout on Gunther Schuller and Fantasia. Schuller's biography looks to be a fascinating read. Here's one thing Terry says:

Mr. Schuller, who turns 86 next month, is a much-admired classical composer and conductor and a distinguished jazz scholar. Before that, he was the principal horn player of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He is the only musician in the world who can claim to have played with Maria Callas, Miles Davis, Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. In "Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty," just out from the University of Rochester Press, he talks about all this and much, much, much more.

Horn Diary

I've had two very pleasant experiences with the horn within 24 hours of each other earlier this week.

The first was an evening practice session running through all the bits and pieces in my 2nd horn parts for community band. My tuner, which beeps when a correct pitch is played, had been left on and time after time it beeped right after the last note of a phrase was played. After nearly two dozen times I went and turned it off as a distraction, but the feeling of being so well into an intonation groove lasted the whole session.

Then the next afternoon we had a full rehearsal of the brass quintet we've been trying to pull together (two Eb tubas, trombone, horn, trumpet). I've put together an album of Mozart, Corelli, Facoli, Tomkins, Gibbons, Bach and Billings. Over and over again we hit the chords just right and that amazing sound of an in tune brass ensemble filled the room. In my fairly wide experience of music making on various instruments, there's simply nothing like it. The trio of flute, alto flute and cello can be just as good, but in an entirely different way.

The feeling I had was part of what I experienced as a "flow" discussed in this post. I hated it when the pieces came to an end, wanting that feeling and gorgeous sound to go on and on.

Also, I now know I can play the horn in tune with other brass and with voices, and my suspicion is that in band my difficulties are due in part to there not being a clear "slot" for me to fit into. My first band director five or six years ago one time said something like, "You have to be in good tone to be in good tune", and I think that's right. If the tone is not centered in all the instruments playing, the sound mix is contaminated with all sorts of out of tune harmonics. It's also my suspicion that trained educators can hear through that static and divine where the pitch should be, but I really have a difficult time doing so.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Off Topic: Natural Phenomena

There have been several unusual natural phenomena in my neck of the woods here lately. There was the earthquake, with the epicenter just 17 miles away, followed by numerous aftershocks. Then there was a tornado close enough that I could hear it. It sounded like thunder at a distance, but just kept on longer than any thunder I've ever heard, and only when I checked the weather discovered there'd been a tornado right when I heard the sound.

Then last night during my outside farm chore I looked up and saw the most amazing Northern Lights I've ever seen. Sort of stood there mesmerized for five minutes. There have been photos coming out today, and this is the closest to what I saw. My horizon line was about two thirds the way up from the bottom of this photo, and my view of the lights extended upwards and I could see the trailing off into nothingness of those green streaks. Right when the light show was over, the fog came up like some heavy handed Macbeth production.

It all makes the Buddhist teachings on impermanence come to mind.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Music and Reading

This article talks about recent research suggesting regular music making can benefit reading skills.

In a new study, found in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions, researchers provide a biological basis for how auditory working memory and musical aptitude are intrinsically related to reading ability. . .

 . . . Nina Kraus, Ph.D., and her team found that poor readers had reduced neural responses (auditory brainstem activity) to rhythmic rather than random sounds. Furthermore, researchers discovered the ability to hear acoustic sounds correlated with reading ability as well as musical aptitude.

The musical ability test, specifically the rhythm aspect, was also related to reading ability. Similarly a good score on the auditory working memory related to better reading and to the rhythm aspect of musical ability.

Kraus explained, “Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mitsuko Uchida Quote

I followed this link from Opera Chic tagging Mitsuko Uchida because, for me, she brings life to Mozart like no one else I've ever heard and I was curious to see what she might say. In the interview at the link she says:

“What truly matters,” she says, summing up, “is that your love of music is stronger than your love of yourself."

I've done some posts on how from a Buddhist perspective your motivation for doing something colors and affects the outcome of the activity, particularly something as expressive as making music. "Your love of yourself" is what the lamas call "the self-cherishing ego" and which they teach can lead you astray. If I'm reading this quote right, she seems to be saying something very similar.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Voice Diary

One project I've had on the back burner for a couple of years is making a recording for friends of the the Dylan songs I've been singing for over 30 years. There have been several sessions with Dave the former Army Band drummer and Dr. Andy on bass, separately and together, to get a feel for how to do them with a small ensemble as opposed to just me and the guitar.

Here lately I've been doing some test recordings to figure out how to best use the audio equipment to get the best sound on the voice and guitar. Running the sound through the speakers and/or headphones has been a revelation. It's like holding a magnifying glass to both tone and articulation. In a purely acoustic environment the sound of your voice is a blend of bone conduction and what the room sends back, which has the effect of buffering and delaying it for the tiniest bit of time.

Using a nice condenser mic no more that a foot away from the mouth and having that feeding headphones gives the voice a temporal immediacy and a clinical clarity. Small details I never noticed loom large. (Dr. Andy says it's the same for him using headphones with both the cello and the bass.)

One thing that's become particularly apparent is my not articulating clearly throughout a song. Just because I know the words as well as I do from memory doesn't mean someone listening will.

Something else is that the tone of my voice doesn't always sound like I'd imagined it does on some of the songs, and isn't conveying the sense and mood of the song as I intend.

All of which is to say recording yourself is a wonderful aid to learning to make music, and that using headphones while making the music amps up the experience.

One small audio procedure that seems to work well setting volume levels at that sweet spot that's at a high level comfortably short of feedback shriek is paying attention to the EQ settings. With my Mackie mixer there are knobs for high, mid and low EQ and I've been turning up the volume enough to hear a little room noise through the speakers, then dialing back any EQ that creates any sort of hum or white noise, and then turning up the gain. It's dawned on me that feedback shrieks are as much a creature of poor EQ settings as they are of too much volume.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Audio Note

Our group, the Kenwood Players, had an outdoor performance of Dixieland jazz last weekend at the Gordonsville Street Festival, and I took the full set of audio equipment. Over the past several years, learning how to set it up and get a good sound has been something of a challenge, but I'm making progress.

Last year at this event I pointed to two large keyboard amps (fed by the mixer) straight out from the porch we play on, and there was this weird edge to the sound on the recording, especially the trombone. I decided it was the result of something like an infinite regression like old time barber shop mirrors, with the sound bouncing back and forth across the street. This year I placed the amps so they were at a 45 degree angle to the porch, one pointing up the street and one down, and the sound was much better.

As usual, each tuba had a dynamic mic clipped into its bell, there was a condenser placed near the clarinet and one for me to sing into, a dynamic for Dick to announce songs. A new wrinkle has been clipping a small condenser to the banjo, because its sound is so directional. Having it go through the sound system means I can face any direction I want and everyone can hear it.

The other part of the system was a set of small powered speakers used as monitors, and that worked well. My sense is that besides helping us hear each other better, monitors help round out the sound. I'm used to thinking feedback is always a bad thing because of the howls it can create, but a little feedback, i.e. the sound from the monitors blending into the overall sound, can be a good thing.

But I always forget something. This time I had a knowledgeable music friend there evaluate the balance of the various instruments out front, but I didn't ask the players themselves if they could hear everyone else well, and it turned out the trombone player was too far from the monitors for them to help.

When we first began the wind came up, blowing one music stand over, and creating a low rumble in the mics, even though they all had foam covers. I dialed back the bass EQ on them all and the rumble went away.

The balance on the recording is about as good as we're going to get in a live situation, with the exception of the tenor sax not being strong enough because I forgot to put the vocal mic over next to him when I wasn't singing. I forget that even though the balance of the mix can sound good to me in the middle of everything, the recorder is in a different place in front of us and what it's picking up is a different mix altogether.

One thing I did in preparation for the event was to mark the inputs on the mixer with what was going to go where (there are four inputs with phantom power and trim controls and four 1/4 inch inputs). That meant I could set the EQ for each input ahead of time to best suit each mic, so that at the event only minor fine tuning was needed. All the pans were set right down the middle.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Warming Up

Until I took up the horn I never gave much thought to warming up. On the piano, guitar, flute and cello I just play a few easy things, more to get my mind focused on the task at hand than to limber muscles. With voice there is always doing things in the middle range before trying to hit high notes, but again, just doing a few easy pieces fits the bill. If the goal is to be a high level player, then things get more complicated, but just playing for enjoyment doesn't need to entail extensive warming up, as long as you pay attention during the beginning of each session.

The horn, though, is a different beast altogether, and not warming up properly can have huge downsides in simply not being able to play well or for very long. This post by James Boldin is a good one on some of the issues of horn warm-up. 

Reading and thinking about James's post lead me to remember that the "warm up" for Buddhist spiritual practice, whether attending a dharma talk or a solo meditation, is reviewing and "setting" the motivation. In most of what's been written about musical warm ups, the focus is on the physical aspects. Taking a little time at the beginning of each practice session to think about what you're trying to accomplish, and why you're trying to accomplish it, can be valuable as well.

Physical technique is very important, but there's a lot else involved in making music, and calling some of that to mind at the beginning of each practice session can bring more balance of all the elements to the endeavor.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Composing Music

One of the projects I set for myself this summer was to write a piece for horn and cello. Didn't happen. I came up with what both Dr. Andy and I thought was a great kernel / introduction in one of those odd time signatures I like so much, but nothing doing. Either those dozen or so bars really don't want to go anywhere, or I wasn't able to figure out how it can happen. So I put it aside and spent a lot of time arranging music for the brass group. But there was this feeling of failure, of a journey not completed, not to mention wondering if the muse had fled.

Then one of my students asked for a piece for her and her sister, flute and trumpet, and I came up with a little duet for them. And when arranging things for the weekly meeting of the brass group I've been doing these little harmonic studies to hear how the various instruments blend from various points in their registers. The point being that setting small goals makes coming up with something much easier.

Another thing that's been going on in the composition realm has been going back to pieces written in the 90's for various combinations of flute, alto flute, keyboard and cello - and trying to get the computer to play them again. There have been any number of upgrades to Finale since then, and it's taken a number of tries to get playback to work, but it finally does.

At any rate, I've had a few listens to those old pieces and it's been great fun, certainly in the psychological sense of being reminded of my state of being back then, along with being reminded that whatever it is I want to do as a composer comes out as a kind of style or sound, something first noted by our Vermont readership / flute player for whom the music was written. Kyle Gann revels in every piece being a totally new departure, and they certainly sound that way. For me, that there's a commonality to my sound over the years is sort of reassuring.