Monday, March 26, 2012


I was delighted to see this post by Prof. Ericson over on Horn Matters. Over the years I've noticed time and time again on both the flute and horn that poor attacks can be the result of not getting all the fingers that need to go down (or up) in place at the same instant. I'd always assumed it was because I played piano all my childhood and often associate soft and legato with slower and less forced finger movements. On wind instruments, though, the movements need to be decisive and quick, even in slow and delicate passages.

One of Prof. Ericson's suggestions is:

. . .I have found it helpful to alternately watch my fingers directly, watch them in a mirror, and then close my eyes and feel the motion.

My solution has always been that last step - closing my eyes and focussing on connecting the proprioception of my fingers with what I'm hearing.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Limits of Brain Imaging

This long and thoughtful review of Jonah Lehrer's Imagine nicely explains how brain imaging isn't all it can seem to be.

So how does letting go, Lehrer asks, lead to creativity? “The story begins in the brain,” he claims, and turns to a neuroimaging experiment in which jazz pianists were asked to improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner. During improvisation, the scanner picked up a surge of activity in a brain area previously linked to self-expression. At the same time, the scientists also observed a sharp decrease in brain activity in an area previously linked to impulse control. Lehrer concludes, “This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style…The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs.” At first pass, this interpretation sounds pretty convincing: the self-control center of the brain shuts down to clear the path for unfettered self-expression.

Except that it’s impossible to draw that conclusion from the data at hand. This is an example of a common logical fallacy that plagues the interpretation of neuroimaging data. Say you notice a crowd of people at your neighbor’s house one night, and then find out she is throwing a party. You can correctly conclude that whenever your neighbor throws a party, there will be people at her house. On another night, you again notice a crowd of people at her house, and you conclude she is throwing a party — but this time you’re wrong. She is hosting a church group. While you can conclude that a party means there will be people, you cannot conclude that people means a party.

. . . There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Leonard Cohen

When I first learned the guitar, and then started singing, Leonard Cohen's songbook "Songs From A Room" was a constant companion. The guitar parts are beautiful finger picking notated in tablature and the vocal range is perfect for a beginner. The main thing, though, was that during that time I was working in locked psychiatric wards and his lyrics resonated with what I was learning about states of mind that can get you put in places like that, which is also probably part of the reason lots of people are turned off by his music.

The release of his latest album, "Old Ideas", has been a hook for lots of articles about him and I want to save a link to this one because of the reporting on an incident I'd never heard of, which took place at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. Because of a bunch of disruptive audience members, things seemed to have been teetering between Woodstock and a lesser Altamont, and Cohen took the stage and turned a performance into a therapeutic event.

Brain Waves Into Sound Waves

This Wired story is about a Japanese man who's come up with a way to turn his brain waves into sound waves. It looks to be more refined than what was talked about in this article from two years ago where a gaming device was hacked for a similar purpose. In both cases, though, the mechanism for the translation of brain waves into sound waves probably has as much to do with what's heard as the brain waves that trigger them.

The unusual musical instrument, which the musician had developed and built by a company called MKC, consists of the strange-looking headgear and a motherboard. Brain waves are picked up from the parietal and frontal lobes, then sent by radio waves to the motherboard, which converts the radio waves into a wave pulse that is output as sound.

The way he's using it sounds like bio-feedback.

Batoh said it takes practice to learn how to control one’s mind in a way that produces a pleasing sound.

It seems experiments like this point to a future with a whole new class of musical instruments.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Motivation for Performance

Just found this post on a blog new to me and left the following comment:

Really like this post because I’ve thought about these same issues as a music therapist from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. The lamas say our motivations deeply color our behavior and that being motivated by “self-cherishing ego”, as opposed to our “neutral” ego, can lead to unwelcome outcomes.

Another Buddhist mind tool is simply observing our behavior in a non-reactive way like your, “just being aware of our thought processes”. That pre-performance diary is a great real world application of that.

Here's the paragraph from the post talking about the pre-performance diary:

In another study with college music majors, two researchers asked their participants to complete “diary” before 15 performances during a school year (Sadler & Miller, 2010). For each entry, always done within an hour before performing, they described their thoughts and feelings heading into their performance. Over the course of the 15 performances, there was a significant decrease in performance anxiety reported by the music students. And note, these musicians were not directed to use any particular strategy to combat stage fright; they simply took note of what they were thinking and feeling. It would seem that even some basic self-awareness can have a therapeutic effect.

The blog is by Dr. Robert Woody, a professor of music education and music psychology and is called Being Musical. Being Human.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Parameters and Musicianship

The March 2012 Musician's Friend catalog carries an interview with Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and other groups. The interview doesn't seem to be online, so I'm going to type in a couple of things he says.

I've had the same rig since prior to Rage Against the Machine, with my band Lock Up. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. One of the things that has helped me creatively and helped my imagination is to have some things just carved in stone. . . There's a sense of comfort in not worrying about gear anymore, I'm going to worry about trying to get sounds and music out of the gear I already have.

This is very similar to something I said in a post about composing, i.e. set some parameters and then see what you can do within them. If everything you're doing is boundless, it's sort of like that thing that can happen to hikers lost in a wilderness when they can't see the sun due to cloud cover or tree canopy - they often just wonder in circles.

There's also the "if only I had a better instrument" syndrome. It's true that better instruments are more responsive, but it's also true that a fine musician can make an average instrument sound great. 

Later in the interview he says:

. . . Up until that point, I had wanted to sound like my favorite guitar players - that's what "good" guitar playing sounded like to me. Then came this revelation that good guitar playing is when you sound like yourself, and I really began to discover who I was as an artist, as a guitarist and a musician.

To me this is the true path of the music maker. You start because you hear things you like and try to do the same, but over time, working towards discovering what it means to "sound like you" is what keeps the practice of music making meaningful, rewarding and ever refreshing. 

It can take a while. I've been singing some Dylan songs for 40 years, and just in the past couple of years have begun to sing them in a voice that sounds more like mine. I think two of the things that helped me were: 1) recording myself much more and repeatedly noticing I didn't sound like I thought I did or how I wanted to, and 2) playing the horn has taught me a world of things I hadn't fully realized about breathing and phrasing and the importance of never letting the musical line just be there filling space as opposed to moving forward with purpose.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Caveman Principle

This interview with a physicist talking about the future makes for a fascinating read for a geezer like me. The following paragraph really jumped out:

Take the paperless office. Futurists predicted that the computer would make paper obsolete. Now, however, we use more paper than ever. Techies overlooked what Mr. Kaku calls "the Caveman Principle": the fact that "our personalities haven't changed for 100,000 years, since modern humans emerged from Africa." The scientist likes high tech, "but the caveman likes high touch," he explains. "People don't feel comfortable with all the electrons on their PC screen." With the flip of a switch, those electrons disappear, worrying our inner caveman. "We want a hard copy."

Lately I've been thinking, for a number of reasons, that live music in various non-standard formats is a niche waiting to be filled by musicians. This quote suggests one I hadn't thought about, that on an evolutionary level we're not that different from our distant ancestors and that maybe live music supplies us something that will always be absent from recorded music. Maybe something about the way we like live music is sort of like our appreciation of the hard copy Mr. Kaku uses to explain our connection to our pre-historic selves.

Performance Diary

There were two events last month which I really enjoyed as they were somewhere between performing and just making music for fun. The more performance oriented event was the great nieces, Rev. Harmon and me doing all the music for a service over at nearby Oak Chapel Baptist Church, a place with which I have a lot of connections through family and friends. The two 12 year old girls played trumpet and flute, the 7 year old sang and played the drum and the 4 year old sang.

For the "Special Music" we did a Taizé meditation/hymn, "This Little Light of Mine" and "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho". For the opening prelude we did a flute, tuba, horn, trumpet version of the Mozart round "Alleluia" which I'd doctored up a bit so that everyone plays right to the end. We also played for the congregation's singing of "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior", "What A Friend We have in Jesus" and "Sweet Hour of Prayer". The postlude was an instrumental version of "Church in the Wildwood" with me on alto flute the first time with the flute and horn the second time with the trumpet. All the pieces were arranged to fit the playing and singing ranges of the girls.

There were a few minor glitches along the way, but there were also a lot of times where they played and sang beautifully. It was a lot of playing over the course of the service and they just got better as we went along. The audience of family and friends was impressed by how much music we made and just how good it was. But the best thing for me was the girls not letting little glitches snowball, and then going on to do wonderfully well, and most importantly - really enjoying performing and wanting to do it again. At the lesson on the following day they were eager to get new music, asked for challenging things, and have been working very hard since. I didn't perform in public until well in my 20's and it's taken me a while to get used to it. I can't help feeling that for the girls having such a positive experience as this at such an early age is a wonderful thing.

Here's a snap shot of us warming up before the performance with everyone but the 4 year old.

The other event was my having two dozen guests here to the house for a Tibetan supper prepared by my two friends Jamyang and Rinzin. During the social hour leading up to the supper my flute friend Hayley, cello friend Dr. Andy and I made music off and on. The main thing we did was a suite I put together years ago for flute, alto flute and cello made up mostly of pieces from Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. We also ran through a piece I wrote back in the 90's for flute and keyboard, with Hayley and Andy doubling the melody. At the very end Andy played his electric standup bass and we did three Dylan tunes.

What I really liked was that there was nearly always background conversation and the music was just part of the event. As Greg Sandow has pointed out from time to time, the whole notion of an audience sitting docilely and silently in the dark listening to classical music performed on the lighted stage is a relatively recent invention. Listening to the recording there are some minor errors, but the main thing I hear is a kind of zest and efferevsence in the music I think would never have happened in a regular concert situation or recording session. It was also just terrific fun to do.

Friday, March 9, 2012

More Archaeo-Acoustics

Here's another story that's popped up on the sound properties of ancient monuments. The focus of the article is a 6,000 year old megalithic temple on Malta.

Low voices within its walls create eerie, reverberating echoes, and a sound made or words spoken in certain places can be clearly heard throughout all of its three levels. Now, scientists are suggesting that certain sound vibration frequencies created when sound is emitted within its walls are actually altering human brain functions of those within earshot.

"Regional brain activity in a number of healthy volunteers was monitored by EEG through exposure to different sound vibration frequencies," reports Malta temple expert Linda Eneix of the Old Temples Study Foundation, "The findings indicated that at 110 Hz the patterns of activity over the prefrontal cortex abruptly shifted, resulting in a relative deactivation of the language center and a temporary shifting from left to right-sided dominance related to emotional processing and creativity. This shifting did not occur at 90 Hz or 130 Hz......

In addition to stimulating their more creative sides, it appears that an atmosphere of resonant sound in the frequency of 110 or 111 Hz would have been “switching on” an area of the brain that bio-behavioral scientists believe relates to mood, empathy and social behavior. Deliberately or not, the people who spent time in such an environment under conditions that may have included a low male voice -- in ritual chanting or even simple communication -- were exposing themselves to vibrations that may have actually impacted their thinking." [1]

But the Hypogeum is not alone in its peculiar sound effects. A study conducted in 1994 by a consortium from Princeton University found that acoustic behavior in ancient chambers at megalithic sites such as Newgrange in Ireland and Wayland's Smithy in England was characterized by a strong sustained resonance, or "standing wave" in a frequency range between 90 Hz and 120 Hz. "When this happens," says Eneix, "what we hear becomes distorted, eerie.

As I said in a previous post, I'm always a bit suspicious when people try to say exactly what and why people were doing things 6,000 years ago, but the evidence does seem to indicate the ancients were not unaware of how sound can be an effective part of rituals.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


In comparing the roles of the music educator and the music therapist, the differing views of competition offer a clear cut distinction. It's a key component of education and mostly avoided in therapy. My sense is that the difference has to do with the clientele. Educators work with talented and highly motivated students (the others don't pass the auditions or even try out) and are pursuing well established and standardized goals (standard practice in playing the canon). Therapists are concerned with finding the best path for each individual in learning how to enjoy and to become engaged in making music.

A recent study popping up all over the internet with headlines like "Meetings Make You Stupid" found the following:

Researchers found that most people performed worse when they were ranked against their peers, suggesting the social situation itself affected how well they completed the IQ tests. . .

. . . Lead author Kenneth Kishida, a research scientist at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute said: "Our study highlights the unexpected and dramatic consequences even subtle social signals in group settings may have on individual cognitive functioning.

"And, through neuroimaging, we were able to document the very strong neural responses that those social cues can elicit.

"We don't know how much these effects are present in real-world settings.

"But given the potentially harmful effects of social-status assignments and the correlation with specific neural signals, future research should be devoted to what, exactly, society is selecting for in competitive learning and workplace environments.

"By placing an emphasis on competition, for example, are we missing a large segment of the talent pool? Further brain imaging research may also offer avenues for developing strategies for people who are susceptible to these kinds of social pressures. . .

". . . Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other."

If these results prove out, there's lots to think about. That phrase "what society is selecting for" is a way of looking at the goals of music educators, the musicians they produce, and how well they're satisfying the new culture of performance Greg Sandow and Bob Shingleton think has to come about to reconnect people to live music.

On a more mundane level, I think it helps explain why going from player to player in a band setting and checking tuning can be a disaster for people like me back when I was learning horn. I've been singing fairly well in tune most of my adult life, but trying to play the horn in tune with the whole room listening back during my first few years was a real trial. There was so much anxiety in my mind, which seemed to double every second of being in the spotlight, clouding the whole procedure there weren't many neurons left to actually listen and tune the pitch.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Delayed Auditory Feedback

Here's one of several stories that have come out on this new speech jammer some Japanese have come up with. This paragraph frames the science using singers:

The idea is based on the fact that to speak properly, we humans need to hear what we’re saying so that we can constantly adjust how we go about it, scientists call it delayed auditory feedback. It’s partly why singers are able to sing better when they wear headphones that allow them to hear their own voice as they sing with music, or use feedback monitors when onstage. Trouble comes though when there is a slight delay between the time the words are spoken and the time they are heard. If that happens, people tend to get discombobulated and stop speaking, and that’s the whole idea behind the SpeechJammer. It’s basically just a gun that causes someone speaking to hear their own words delayed by 0.2 seconds.