Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Music and Emotion through Time

Thanks to Opera Chic, I came across this video, which is a wonderful distillation of what music in the classical tradition is all about. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Horn Diary

I've been playing the horn for coming on to seven years now and it still pulls me in like no other instrument I've ever played. There are things I can do on other instruments (piano, guitar, banjo, alto flute/flute, and cello) that I can't do on the horn, but none of them as consistently have me exploring how to make music.

Part of it is probably the fact that when I started the horn in my mid 50's, I already knew a lot about the generality of music making, which allows me to bring all that to bear in learning the horn.

Increasingly, though, I think it's the very tactile nature of playing the horn that has taken me so much deeper into the experience of music making. My hands, arms, and torso all vibrate in resonance with the tones I primarily feel in my embouchure. I love the feel of the resonance of the guitar/banjo, cello and flutes, but with the horn there's just more of it.

There's also more of a one to one relationship between breathing and phrasing than on the flute that I think has to do with all of the air going into the horn as opposed to being split by the embouchure plate and only some going into the flute. 

For me the tone of the horn is simply larger and more malleable than that of other instruments, and somehow I feel more inside the tone experiencing it than being outside the tone and manipulating it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Analog vs. Digital

Back when CDs first came out, a lot of "golden ear" types lamented the passing of analog reproduction, saying the digital just wasn't the same. I couldn't hear the difference, and decided that even if I could, the absence of all the little pops and hisses of vinyl more than made up for it.

Here lately I've dug out my old reel to reel tape deck so as to transfer some compilation tapes I did back around 1970 to CDs. The first thing that happened was my wondering where all the static was coming from and checking all the connections, only to realize it was simply the popping and hissing of vinyl that I'd forgotten about.

The next thing I realized was that I could hear the difference between analog and digital and now understand what was lost. The best way to explain it might be to compare it to the resolution of pixels on TV or computer screens. Sometimes when it's very low resolution you can sort of see what's being represented, but it's fuzzy and your brain has to supply the detail. 

The first thing on the tape is a cut from the Baptism album of Joan Baez where she's singing the e. e. cummings poem "all in green went my love riding" put to music. The arc and continuity  of her phrasing took my breath away. That movement from moment to moment in the music is in no way pixelated and the effect is much more engaging than the digital sound of the CD. My brain needed to filter out the pops and hiss, but the beauty of line of the music through time was fully there.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Moving Performance

Greg Sandow has been for years talking up the idea of fresh presentations of classical music and in this post he gives a link to the following video of someone trying just that. Given my notion of the importance of gesture, I find this performance delightful. And it could be just me, but that they've memorized the piece makes the playing, both solo and ensemble, both free and unified. I find myself not connecting to great swathes of classical music -  appreciating, but not connecting. This performance really makes the connection.

Performance High?

This very short WSJ article talks about research showing that talking about ourselves can give us a dopamine high. I can't help wondering if this isn't related to, at least in a partial way, that sense of elation that musicians can get performing for others.

Generally, acts of self disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction from food, money or sex.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Horn Therapy

As a hospice volunteer I've been working with an elderly male in end stage Alzheimer's. He's both non-verbal and non-ambulatory and his wife, with the help of a caregiver, is caring for him at his home. Until recently I've been using very rhythmic guitar playing and singing to catch his attention and get feet tapping and an occasional smile or wink. 

Last month, however, that no longer worked and he didn't rouse up and open his eyes when I played for him. It seemed to me (more intuitively than emprically) that it was some combination of him not being able to hear as well and/or able to process music. So for the last two sessions I've taken the French horn and played hymns, thinking that it's both louder and less complicated musically than guitar and singing - and it has worked.

Both times while warming up he has opened his eyes and looked around to see what's going on, and then looked directly at me while I was playing and given me some full face smiles, which is the best response we can get at this point. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Virtuous Circles and Brain Plasticity

According to Wikipedia, the concept of virtuous circles comes from the field of economics:

A virtuous circle and a vicious circle (also referred to as virtuous cycle and vicious cycle) are economic terms. They refer to a complex of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop.[1] A virtuous circle has favorable results, while a vicious circle has detrimental results. A virtuous circle can transform into a vicious circle if eventual negative feedback is ignored.

One way to talk about how music making can improve over time is to look at how an increase in brain function in one area can help lead to an increase in brain function in another area. In my experience, an example of this is how increases in the depth of proprioception in making a note is tied into hearing deeper subtleties in the note. 

In learning the horn, for example, it seems to me that as I increase my ability to create more subtle shades of tone, the more I can hear what those tonal shades are. The proprioceptive part of my brain and the listening part of the brain are making connections and working together. The more I can hear what it is I want, the more I can feel what it's like to create that sound, and visa versa.

I think a big part of helping someone on their path of music making is to help them be mindful of as many of these connections as possible. It's impossible to be fully conscious of all them at the same time, but having an idea that they're there can be very helpful. The challenge of teaching music is having a good awareness of how each individual student is progressing in all the areas of music making and nurturing the various areas in tandem.