Monday, September 24, 2012

Voice Diary

Here in the past 6 or 8 months my sense is that my singing has gotten a lot better. When I've sung around other people there have been a few spontaneous positive comments that suggest that what to me seems a tremendous shift is at least big enough others can hear some difference. Here are a few things I think are contributing to the improvement:

  • I did not begin to sing until in my 20's when I began playing guitar, and my guitar playing was always stronger. What's dawned on me lately is that my guitar playing was leading my singing, rather than the other way around. Most conspicuously, I was laying into the down beat strum on the guitar to such an extent the syllable sung on those beats was getting covered up. Lately I've been just very lightly strumming on the downbeats and letting my voice learn how to lead. There's definitely some brain rewiring going on, because not paying attention means the old habit creeps back in.
  • Listening back to recordings has made me cringingly aware of how my affectations were suffocating the poetry and music. I was so caught up in trying to convey how wonderfully artistic my stylings were, there was a lot more ego than artistry on display. Now I'm trying to just sing the song - letting all the consonants and vowels come alive and the phrases more naturally spring from the words, chords and rhythms.
  • I've been giving songs I've sung for 40 years a rest and working up more new ones so as to stay out of the old ruts. Exploring new pieces makes it much easier to try new ways of singing.
  • Back when Dietrich Fischer-Diekau passed away I clicked on a video of him singing and noticed that he sometimes tilted his head down and that made me realize I'd always assumed looking straight forward or tilting one's head up a bit was the best way to sing. Tilting it down a bit changes the way the sound feels in my head. There's the sense it's resonating more fully up there - and it also changes the musculature around the throat. Both those effects give me the sense of having more tools to work with to create a good sound.
  • Brass players sometimes use the cliché, "let the air do the work", and that's sort of the feeling I have now when the singing is going well, that I'm not forcing or making it happen, but simply letting it happen. Rather concentrating on projecting sound, I'm more focused on singing expressively, syllable by syllable, phrase by phrase.
  • Playing the horn has given me a much deeper nonverbal appreciation of phrasing and its connection to breathing. Just to play a phrase on the horn, you have to keep the energy level up throughout. For me it's harder to simply "phone in" notes on the horn as I sometimes feel I do with the flutes, and that in turn made me aware of how from time to time I've been just sketching in phrases with my voice, rather than giving full support to every syllable and pitch.
  • For years and years my singing was either in day rooms in psych wards and nursing homes or leading music therapy groups in closed classrooms for emotionally disturbed children (and never with a mic). In both cases volume and projection were of paramount importance. Now I'm more often singing with pro level players and sometimes with a mic and it's a totally different environment and allows for a more nuanced approach.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Epigenetics and Schizophrenia

Arts & Letters Daily recently linked this long article on schizophrenia, which for me was a trip down memory lane, as it discusses the history of what the experts have said about its causes. This is what they thought back when I first started working on psych units in the 60's:

The science mostly blamed the mother. She was “schizophrenogenic.” She delivered conflicting messages of hope and rejection, and her ambivalence drove her child, unable to know what was real, into the paralyzed world of madness. It became standard practice in American psychiatry to regard the mother as the cause of the child’s psychosis, and standard practice to treat schizophrenia with psychoanalysis to counteract her grim influence. The standard practice often failed.

Then there came the idea drugs could fix it all:

Psychoanalysis and even psychotherapy were said to be on their way out. Psychiatry would focus on real disease, and psychiatric researchers would pinpoint the biochemical causes of illness and neatly design drugs to target them.

That hasn't worked either, and here's a summary of the current thinking:

Yet the outcome of two decades of serious psychiatric science is that schizophrenia now appears to be a complex outcome of many unrelated causes—the genes you inherit, but also whether your mother fell ill during her pregnancy, whether you got beaten up as a child or were stressed as an adolescent, even how much sun your skin has seen. It’s not just about the brain. It’s not just about genes. In fact, schizophrenia looks more and more like diabetes. A messy array of risk factors predisposes someone to develop diabetes: smoking, being overweight, collecting fat around the middle rather than on the hips, high blood pressure, and yes, family history. These risk factors are not intrinsically linked. Some of them have something to do with genes, but most do not. They hang together so loosely that physicians now speak of a metabolic “syndrome,” something far looser and vaguer than an “illness,” let alone a “disease.” Psychiatric researchers increasingly think about schizophrenia in similar terms.

I'm linking the article because in the penultimate paragraph there's this about epigenetics, a new field of study that looks to reframe how we think about genetics and the ways in which we end up being who we are.

In part, this backlash against the bio-bio-bio model reflects the sophisticated insight of an emerging understanding of the body—epigenetics—in which genes themselves respond to an individual’s social context. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012


A while back I linked to a review of Jonathan Lehrer's book Imagine because it nicely laid out some of the limits to what brain imaging can tell us. (Since then, it's come out that Lehrer's writing has more problems than simple exaggeration.)

This post over at Reason points to an even tougher critique of pop neuroscience.

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows......
My sense of it is that while brain imaging doesn't tell us nothing, it doesn't tell us as much (so far) as some people think. What's exciting to me is that music is often used as a tool to explore brain imaging. That in itself is a step up from 30 years ago when any discussion about how music affects us was mostly intuitive and anecdotal, rather than empirical. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Music(al) Stretches

Sound and time are the two primal ingredients of music, and a word we use for each is rooted in the act of physically stretching something. 

Tone comes from Middle English: from Old French ton, from Latin tonus, from Greek tonos 'tension, tone, from teinein 'to stretch" -  Oxford American Dictionary.

Pace comes from Middle English: from Old French pas, from Latin passus "stretch (of the leg)', from pandere "to stretch'. -  Oxford American Dictionary.

Stretching is something the human body does all the time, from waking in the morning to standing on tiptoes reaching for a top shelf, so we all have a built in somatic sense of some stretches being easy and others being extreme and everything in between. 

The most deep seated stretching we do is extending and relaxing the diaphragm with every breath. We do it one way when we're relaxed, and another when we're anxious. 

Since it's my contention that a lot of music's power to move us is due it its encoding physical gestures (and associated feelings), I feel the ways in which music can mimic physical stretches (and associated feelings) has a lot to do with the feelings a piece of music might evoke. It's so easy to get caught up in the surface issues of music making, we can sometimes forget there's this deeper gestural substrate that's communicating to an audience in a mostly non-conscious way.

A key component of physical stretches is that they always have an arc from not being stretched to being fully stretched and back again. You can't make yourself stop breathing and you can't hold a body stretch forever. So besides the degree of a stretch at it's fullest, from barely stretched to full or over extension, there's the way each stretch builds to a peak and then relaxes.

"Tension and release" is a phrase often used in talking about music, and for me, understanding that in the context just laid out gives it a richer meaning. 

"Balance" is another word often used in talking about music making, but I've never really liked it because I always get the extremely two dimensional image of scales tipping one way or another, whereas stretching is complex and our sense of it springs directly from our proprioception.

I often ask students if they've ever been around someone who has lots of interesting things to say, but whose voice is so off putting it's hard to pay full attention, -  that's the substrate I'm talking about. If their voice tone suggests either a string stretched to the breaking point or barely tuned up to pitch, and if the pacing is either to fast or too slow, the words they say will may not register as well as they might. 

On the other hand, if the gestural substrate of your music making matches up well with what you're trying to express, there's a much better chance of connecting with an audience.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gann on Satie

I recently had a back and forth with Kyle Gann about his new book and about Erik Satie down in the comments of this post and want to save it here:

LS - Very belatedly I’ve just read 4’33″. What a terrific piece of writing. Your gift for writing about music is truly remarkable, and that deft explanation of Buddhism flows naturally and clearly. You’ve mentioned having a populist strain in your music and that’s also very evident in 4’33″ as it seems as good a read for the non-specialist as the specialist.
You’ve often mentioned the importance of Satie, so the bit about him was very helpful in understanding how you situate his work. If you’re ever casting around for something more to write about, I’d snap up a book like this on him in an instant. I’m deeply affected by playing some of his pieces (Ogives & Crossed Up Dances), but can’t shake the feeling the reasons I enjoy his work are probably different from yours.
Another small point about 4’33″ – my compliments to the book designer. At first I thought the slightly larger font filling up the slightly smaller page was unusual, but quickly adjusted and found it made the reading very easy on the eye.
KG replies: Thanks all round. Writing about Satie would be a blast, and, for research purposes, I can actually bring back my three years of high-school French when I’m motivated. But I’m not sure what I could add to what’s out there aside from my own idiosyncratic enthusiasm.
  • LSIs there one Satie book/article out there you’d recommend? How about a blog post sometime briefly delineating your “idiosyncratic enthusiasm”? Are his harmonies merely misguided antiquarianism and whimsy or are they something new under the sun? Is there anyone else’s music which can induce similarly pleasant, mysterious, moody reveries with such seemingly simple structures? What do you think he was trying to do for audiences? Is the piece Vexations the single most important thing he did in terms of foreshadowing what happening now? Your microtuned version of that was a ear opener – do you think that’s where he was headed? Is he mostly dismissed or passed over because of the comparatively slight output or is it that it’s not complex enough for specialists to deconstruct, so unworthy of their attention? Sorry to go on – but his music gets to me like nobody else’s and your mentions of him over the years have always made me wish you’d said more.
    KG replies: Wow, that’s more than I can answer. What I like most in Satie harmonically is, I think, a kind of postmodern approach to tonality; no matter what series of chords you drift through, a sudden V7-I will satisfy the ear that you’re in some key or another. For me the Pieces Froids, Gnossiennes, and Three Love Poems point to late 20th-century music more clearly than Vexations does; and, of course, Socrate, which could have been written last week and remain just as amazing. And I think most composers dismiss Satie because education makes composers stupid, and infects them with horrible neuroses about being profound and macho, so that they remain forever too immature for the real profundity of Satie’s humor – since you asked. But don’t tell anyone I said that, they hate me enough already.
    Oh, and while there are several OK biographies, the book you’ve got to get is Robert Orledge’s Satie the Composer, which really analyzes his music.

Gann on Cage

Kyle Gann's No Such Thing As Silence - John Cage's 4'33'' is the most well written book I can remember reading. So often in books coming from academia I can sense the stack of note cards the author has spent years assembling and then dutifully plows through. 

In his piece The Planets there are narrative arcs, but he uses an astonishing array of musical ideas to get them across and it's the same with his prose style. Different chapters and sections use different ways of writing to convey deeply thought out ideas so freshly it's as though he just came up with them. The fact that there's probably nobody more conversant with the music of the 20th century means that even in talking about details he's illuminating.

I couldn't put the book down and on finishing it found myself greatly refreshed. Besides presenting the info really well, the way he gets you to think about it all limbers up the mind.