Thursday, November 24, 2011

Performance Diary

Thanksgiving is a great day to post on some recent performances by the Kenwood Players. We had four performances in eleven days, a frequency of public performance I'd never previously experienced. One performance was in yet another local country church with glorious acoustics, Waddell Presbyterian over in Rapidan (for those familiar with the area it's the wooden Gothic church right as you go down to the river from the Orange side). Here's a snapshot of the interior:

During the service we did "Sweet Hour of Prayer", "The Old Rugged Cross", and "In the Garden" as instrumentals three times through, me on guitar, Judy on drum, Steve beginning each on trombone and Dick taking the third time through on trumpet, with Bill B and Crawford switching out on the second iteration on sax or Eb tuba. Each and every solo was terrific. Crawford, a retired preacher who'll be 80 next Aprils Fool's Day did a tuba solo on "In the Garden", that to me at least, spoke of a well and fully lived spiritual life. 

We got a lot of very nice compliments, but my favorite was from the organist who said afterwards in an almost dazed way, "You all are really good!" It's not unusual for us to get nice comments from other musicians, but the music therapist in me who's never done a lot of straight up performing is always delighted to hear them.

We also did three performances with basically the same set list, for an open house at an assisted living facility, for a fund raising gala for the local art center, and for the entertainment following a harvest dinner at the Presbyterian church in town. Maggie and I did less than ten minutes of flute clarinet, then Dick and Steve did trombone trumpet duets, then Crawford and Bill C on tuba and me on horn joined them for some brass, then I switched to banjo and we did some good time Americana, and then some straight up Dixieland.

I am obviously biased, but my sense is that the good feelings we create as a group making music together are getting transmitted to the audience. People are enjoying the music, but they're also enjoying and sharing our having a good time making the music. 

Here's how I put it in a thank you note to the Players: Thanks to each and every one of you for these recent performances and all the past work that laid the groundwork. Both how we make music as a group and how the group makes music in the community is something I've never experienced so fully before. I saw a quote here lately that for a true musician the love of self doesn't get in the way of the love of the music, which is a great way to describe the cooperative spirit needed for our getting the feeling we're expressing in the music.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

String Tone

Here is a terrific post by Elaine Fine, with great illustrations, talking about how various harmonics can create different tone qualities. A snip from the first paragraph:

Violinist-composers tend to load up their music with sixths because the sixth is such a harmonically rich interval. It is simply loaded with overtones, some that can be heard, and some that can't really be heard distinctly. They can be felt though, by the person playing and the people who are listening. It is rare that a microphone can pick up the full array of overtones and difference tones. These are the things that give texture to the music and contribute to the personal quality of an individual player's sound.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Few Words about Jonathan

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the name Jonathan West, as I've linked to him from time to time and because he is by far the most frequent commenter. Besides his horn blog, he has another, which began as rationalist and skeptical philosophic musings, but a couple of years back began paying attention to sexual abuse of children in a school in his part of London. 

For the whole story you can go there and scroll through the posts. Basically he turned his wonderfully analytical mind to the problem and did what he could to shed light on a situation that, for whatever reason, society tends to turn a blind eye toward whenever it crops up. 

Equally importantly, he has maintained a civil tone throughout, even though those running the school cast aspersions on his motives.

Here in the past few weeks the story has been covered by the major papers and the BBC and Jonathan's work has been vindicated and praised, but it was lonely going at the start.

Having worked with children who were victims of abuse, sexual and otherwise, I know that the harm can only be ameliorated, not eliminated. The real way to go is to prevent it from happening in the first place, and that's what Jonathan's work on this issue will mean for any number of children in the future.


Hearing the World Differently?

Here's a long article on how it is so much modern architecture can seem weird to the layman, the people actually using it. For me it seems a perfect analog to a lot of "modern" music. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right.

Environmental psychologists have long known about this widespread and puzzling phenomenon. Laboratory results show conclusively that architects literally see the world differently from non-architects. Not only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive, attention-getting qualities.

I've become convinced that most composers of concert band music are really writing for other composers of concert band music more than students and audiences, whether they realize it or not. That also seems true of most of the atonal effusions of academia we got in the 20th century.

From time to time I've used the phrase "theory mind" to describe the type of musician/composer who can tell you instantly that they're hearing an augmented chord with a flat ninth in second inversion. They simply hear and process music differently from regular people. The music they write and play can work for them and others like them, but not for average people.

Here's another paragraph further down in the article:

Our colleague Jaap Dawson recently reinforced this idea in telling us of his teaching experience:
“The unconscious rules us, however hard we try to become conscious of a little bit of our lives. What I’ve also discovered in working with students the last 27 years is that they pick up the design rules of Modernism very quickly—without consulting their own experience of buildings or spaces. And if you look at those rules, then you simply have to conclude something else: in order to follow them, you need to know the normal, vernacular, classical, archetypal language of building. If you know that language, then you simply do its opposite in order to get Modernism. My conclusion: awareness of the timeless language is present in people, but they learn to suppress it. But there’s something underneath groupthink, I think; and that’s a fear of trusting your own experience—in body and soul—of buildings and spaces. Any child trusts that experience.”

Memory and Music

Here are two articles talking about memory and music.

The first talks about a particular type of memory function that can vary from person to person. Some people can hold more information in their minds at one time than others.

In a series of studies, Hambrick and colleagues found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels – and even in individuals with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand. The studies analyzed complex tasks such as piano sight reading.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it’s not always sufficient,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology. “Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

I was particularly struck by this as music educators always talk about how if you sight read a lot you'll get better, which is certainly true. But it also seems true that it's harder for some than others due to innate brain function, which I've always intuitively felt, but educators never seem to consider. I never push sight reading on clients for whom it's difficult, preferring to focus on what what comes more easily and then building out from that. 

The second article (thanks Jonathan!) is about a musician who suffers from amnesia, but can remember music. Here's the line that really caught my attention:

"Musical memory seems to be stored independently, at least partially, of other types of memory," Finke said.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grimaud Interview

Alex Ross gave a link to this interview of Hélène Grimaud. It's a fascinating read. Here are a few snips from the article:

“A wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear,”

Her albums aren’t merely proficient tours through the repertoire; they are highly personal explorations that can stand out among dozens of rival performances. And in the concert hall Grimaud can offer surprises, something rarely provided by players who have been processed by the conservatory machine.

“By nine, I was already obsessed,” she remembers, in love with “the pure pleasure and evasion of being at that instrument.” But, rather than spending all her time at the keyboard, she did much of her “practicing” in her head. “Some wonderful pianists practice eight hours a day,” she says. “I was never really that person.” 

Chopin, a tempestuous pianist himself, was a musician with whom she felt a kinship. Grimaud, who is left-handed, thought that the Classical greats discriminated against players like her. In their music, the left hand was largely devoted to chords, while the right played the melody. “Chopin opened up the piano for the left hand.”

She also exercised her remarkable ability to prepare without actually playing. Mat Hennek, her current partner, remembers that one day, when he and Grimaud were first dating, they went shopping in Philadelphia and then to a Starbucks. At one point, he recalls, “I said to Hélène, ‘Hélène, you have a concert coming. Did you practice?’ And she said, ‘I played the piece two times in my head.’ ”

She presented her program with intense commitment, sustaining a mood from piece to piece, so that the audience felt pulled into a narrative. Levine, at the Gould Foundation, notes that she “seems so absorbed in the music, so attentive. She has that quality—getting back to Gould—of ekstasis.” Grimaud explains, “A concert must be an emotional event, or who needs it? You can just stay home and listen to your favorite recordings.”