Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Music Making & Meditation

Here's Terry Teachout's Almanac entry for today - on down the line, brain imaging will determine if what seems to me to be intuitively correct, really is.

"Serkin told me a story once about a monk. He was playing in Japan, I believe, and after a couple of hours of practicing somewhere in a monastery that happened to have a piano, he suddenly became aware that somebody was there. It was a monk, who told him that he had been observing for two hours and said, 'I think I recognize what you do; it seems to be very much like what we do.'"

Richard Goode (quoted in Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber, Rudolf Serkin: A Life)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Improvisation and Audience Engagement

This study suggests that a little improvisation in classical music might increase audience engagement.

An area of the brain known to be involved in sustained attention, working memory and the inhibition of responses, known as the Brodmann 9 area was much more active in both musicians and listeners during the improvised performances. This indicates that the audience were much more engaged when listening to classical music containing improvised elements.

This is really easy for me to believe, given my feeling professional musicians tend to make such a fetish out of sight reading they risk ending up sounding more mechanical than human. If you spend a lot of time sight reading, you're training your brain to play the surface of the music rather than feeling it. Of course, really fine players can play with feeling while sight reading, but not everyone is that good. 

The thing about improvisation, for better or worse, is that the player is creating the music in the moment, so is much more personally involved. My sense is that if more classical players improvised at least occasionally they would be reminded there's more to music making than simply playing what they see.

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Epigenetics continues to be just freaking nuts"

I stole the title of this post from the title of this post by Maggie Koerth-Baker over on Boing Boing, where she's sort of the science correspondent, and does a wonderful job of presenting new things from the hard sciences with proper caveats. Regular readers will know I've been posting on epigenetics for quite some time, as it upends what until now was accepted science all my life. Maggie's title and post do a great job of capturing how that feels.

We know that stressful experiences can have negative biological repercussions — not just for the people who experience the stress, but also for their children. Now, there's some evidence that this transfer of stress effects might not just be due to a simple case of PTSD changing the way you raise/treat your kids. In a study that's inspired both deep skepticism and jaw-dropping awe (both with good reason) scientists were able to train male mice to fear a specific smell — and then observe that same fear/stress response to the smell in the mice's children and grandchildren. This, despite the fact that the younger generations never had contact with their trained fathers. These results are crazy enough that you shouldn't take them as gospel. But they are hella interesting and will definitely lead to a lot more research as other scientists attempt to replicate them.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More on Epigenetics

Here's a recent article on new findings in the study of epigenetics. Our DNA as inherited can be tweaked by our behavior/environment.

"DNA may shape who we are, but we also shape our own DNA," said press conference moderator Schahram Akbarian, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, an expert in epigenetics. "These findings show how experiences like learning or drug exposure change the way genes are expressed, and could be incredibly important in developing treatments for addiction and for understanding processes like memory."

Things have come a long way since Mendel and his peas. For me this new info is important in that there's the suggestion that your musical ability is not strictly constrained by your genetics.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Music in Brain Waves

Here's a story confirming something I posted on a while back - it's possible to identify what someone is listening to by their brain waves.

To find out, Boynton and his colleague Jessica Thomas had four volunteers listen to various notes, while they used fMRI to record the resulting neural activity. "Then the game is to play a song and use the neural activity to guess what was played," he says.

They were able to identify melodies like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star from neural activity alone, Boynton told the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, this week.

The article goes on to talk about how brain function and rhythm appear inter-related. 

David Poeppel at New York University and his colleagues monitored brain activity in 12 volunteers while they listened to three piano sonatas. One sonata had a quick tempo, with around eight notes per second, one had five per second, and the slowest had one note every 2 seconds.

The volunteers' brainwaves – rhythmic oscillations in the activity of neurons – tuned in to the frequency of the notes in the quick and medium-tempo pieces. In other words, if the melody contained eight notes per second, neural activity oscillated eight times per second. But with the slowest piece, neural activity reached two oscillations per second and went no lower.

Poeppel has previously shown that this tuning effect happens when we listen to a conversation: our neural oscillations correspond to the tempo of some signals in speech, such as the number of syllables per second.

The fact that the oscillations did not fall to match the tempo of the slow music suggests there is a minimum pace that the brain can process effectively.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Terry Teachout's almanac entry for today reads as follows:

"We are talking about an artist; and for the enjoyment of the artist the mask must be to some extent moulded on the face. What he makes outside him must correspond to something inside him; he can only make his effects out of some of the materials of his soul."

G.K. Chesterton, "The Dagger With Wings"

I'd say a vital aspect of music therapy is that the music you make must correspond to something inside you, and that the more you feel that connection, the more therapeutic your music making.

The quote also reminded me of the etymology of "persona" that I posted on a while back.

Another of TT's almanac entries from a while back gets at the professional (non-therapeutic) aspect of acting (and I would say music making as well).

"I very much disapprove of the adage that you have to feel the performance completely every night on the stage. This is technically an impossibility, and really is the negation of the art of acting. The art of acting, after all, is not actual feeling but simulation of feeling, and it is impossible to feel a strong emotional part eight performances a week, including two matinées."

Noël Coward, "The Art of Acting" (The Listener, Oct. 12, 1961)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gesture and Learning

In this post over on the musician's brain Lois Svard talks about what I would call the gestural component to learning. Basically, if you get you whole body to feel the rhythms and gestures in the music you're making, more parts of the brain are involved and the learning goes deeper and lasts longer. 

Down in my comment I mentioned mirror neurons and she knows what they are and agrees they're important ("convinced that understanding them is key to learning and performance") - so she's got my full attention. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Music in the Autistic Spectrum

This short first person article talks about how someone on the autistic spectrum uses music to self-medicate so as to diminish the need to make those repetitive movements called "stimming".

Sound in a certain orderly placement exerts the same curtailing force on my mind that movement used to, and my headphones are a leash that keeps me in check. I wear them constantly, and although I’m aware that their constant presence can be seen as strangely hostile in some environments, they are a safety net I can’t afford to forfeit. Music is my sensory diet and also my self-care kit.

If you click over, be sure to read the comments, which include some from others on the autistic spectrum.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


One of the things that keeps turning up in brain studies of people listening to music is that there seems to be a felt reward when expectations are fulfilled. This study focused on the auditory cortex to see how it might be involved in expectations being fulfilled or not when paying a game involving sound cues.

. . .Their findings show that the auditory cortex activity picked up both when participants were expecting a reward and received it, as well as when their expectation of receiving no reward was correct. . .

. . .when the volunteers were expecting and finally received a reward, then their auditory cortex was activated. Similarly, there was an increase in brain activity in this area when the subjects weren't expecting a reward and didn't get one. There was no additional activity when they were expecting a reward and didn't get one. . .

. . . These findings add to accumulating evidence that the auditory cortex performs a role beyond just processing sound. Rather, this area of the brain appears to be activated during other activities that require learning and thought, such as confirming expectations of receiving a reward. "Our findings thus support the view of a highly cognitive role of the auditory cortex," the study authors say. . .

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sleeping and Learning

This article in the LA Times covers some research done at Brown suggesting that learning can continue even as we sleep.

Data from brain activity measurements of the subjects whose performance had improved overnight suggested the epicenter of memory consolidation was in a small zone of the motor cortex known as the supplementary motor area -- not in the primary motor area, as earlier studies had suggested.

There's another discussion of learning continuing during sleep in a study out of SMU in this post over on the musician's brain.

The students in the first group, who had learned just the one melody, showed over 11% improvement in speed and accuracy the next morning. So while they were asleep dreaming about something else, the motor skills to play the melody they had just learned continued to improve. Pretty amazing! Surprisingly, the students in the second group, who had learned both melodies A and B, showed no improvement in either one. Learning two melodies seemed to cancel out the overnight gain for both. But for Allen, the most surprising, and perhaps most important result of the study concerned the third group. They had learned both melodies but then reviewed the first melody (A) at the end of the practice session, and they showed the same improvement in melody A after sleep as the first group – over 11%. The students in the fourth group, who learned A at night, B in the morning and then reviewed A, were similar to the second group in showing no improvement of anything.

I commented on this post, talking about how when I was working on the Brahms Requiem, during the day I focused on gnarly technical things that were giving me trouble, but at night I played through the things I'd mastered along with a CD. The idea that learning was continuing as I slept seems right to me, because there was the feeling that I'd never learned a piece of music as well, and that there was a sort of dream-like feeling to the depth of that knowing of the music.

A lot of things made the Brahms one of the most amazing musical experiences I've ever had. I've never felt so drawn to a piece of music or wanted to practice it so much. No way to prove it, but I'm convinced the sleep learning had something to do with my ability to play that music from the inside of the music in a way that involved my unconscious as well as my conscious mind.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rhythm and Language

This article from the BBC talks about research suggesting rhythmic motor ability correlates with language ability.

"It turns out that kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat. In both speech and music, rhythm provides a temporal map with signposts to the most likely locations of meaningful input," . . . 

. . . "This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical-rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in non-music areas, particularly language,"

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lama Tashi Photos

Here are some photos of Lama Tashi that just turned up on Facebook. My guess is they were taken at the university he's been building from the ground up these past four or five years. The rather austere looking lama in the third photo looks to be Tsona Rimpoche.

Performance Lessons

Our performance at Piedmont this summer was the most ambitious we've ever attempted in terms of repertoire, length and sound system. The response that night, and in the days following as I saw people around town who'd been there, was terrific. This post is to sum up why I think things went as well as they did.

A performance is more than just making music - it's a kind of enchantment or spell casting - and the setting is important. In this case, our hostess worked very hard on all the details on the setup on a beautiful lawn with a stunning view of the Blue Ridge. Just walking from the parking area down to the tents was a wonderful experience, and I'm sure put people in a great frame of mind. So before we even started playing the enchantment had begun.

Given the responses we got, my sense is a lot of people have often felt assaulted by bands with overly loud sound systems playing music they don't particularly enjoy. Lots of people said to us things about knowing and loving all the songs we played, and that our sound was wonderful. There's a reason, "give the people what they want," is a cliché.

While I didn't use the word "curated", with all it's hipster vogue, our hostess had expressed a love of jazz in general, not just Dixieland, so the tunes we did all illustrated the various threads woven into jazz and as I announced each song I pointed out how they all fit into the overall notion of jazz. I think it also helped that the narration began as soon as the applause for the previous song ended, so that if there was time taken to shuffle music, the audience knew what we were doing next and not left hanging.

We also had a wonderful audience. A number of them are members of a group that arranges for regular house concerts of very high level musicians over the course of the year. I'm convinced we played better than usual because we could feel their appreciation of what we were doing. There was applause after every number, and during the second set when there were slightly fewer people in the audience, the applause got louder and more enthusiastic as that core of music loving people showed themselves. 

We also had more help than usual. Ed ran the sound system, leaving me more brain capacity for narrating, strumming, singing and general band leading. My cousin John helped with the logistics of the setup and by walking around the venue checking how we sounded and being a liaison with the hostess. 

On the purely musical front, I remain convinced part of our appeal as a group is that we have such fun making music and that joy gets communicated to the audience both through the music and our behavior. 

We are also blessed to have some really fine musicians in the group, especially Dick on trumpet and Steve on trombone. In the "Summertime" video I put up, I'd made a bare bones arrangement based on the original piano sheet music and Dick and Steve helped me tweak it into playable form - but everything they're playing was improvised in the moment.

We're also very lucky to have Dave on drums. He was in the Army band and played for the troops in Vietnam back in the day. We only have him on occasions when the venue is large enough to take a full drum kit. He's simply terrific and we play on a higher level when we have him. For the Dixieland tunes he's reading music, but on all of mine he's just playing as he feels.

One thing that was sort of scary to me about this performance was that most of my arrangements were new to the group, and were being tweaked right up to the final rehearsal. I can be a worst case scenario kind of person, and there was a great scope for failure. In the event, though, things went well, and the very newness and freshness of the arrangements ended up being a positive. We weren't "covering" the tunes so much as recreating them in this performance in a new way just for our instrumentation and personality. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Encumbrances Of Angels

My friend Janet, the wife of Dr. Andy, is a poet who publishes under the name J. M. R. Harrison. When I first read this poem of hers years ago I immediately thought it could be put to music.

Encumbrances Of Angels

With all eternity to ponder
the nature and cost of freedom,
even an angel might prefer
the rasp of sand between the toes
to the ethereal tug of cosmic tides,
choose the angularity of starfish
over the symmetry of stars,
desire---whatever the penalty---
the lash of wind-driven rain
on a back unburdened of wings.

The first step, sometime back in the '90s, was to work out a melody over some guitar chords, with the only notation being the words with the guitar chords written in overtop. That's where things stood until a couple of years ago when we decided to actually notate the melody, add flute at Janet's request, and add standup bass as Dr. Andy was just starting to work with one, and turn the guitar chords into a keyboard accompaniment and adding an introduction.

We then got Nancy Lynn Marmorella, who had helped out on the Mantra Mountain CD, to make the trip down from Harpers Ferry to sing, and asked Hayley Parrish to play the flute part. We got together one afternoon, ran through it a few times, and then made this recording down in the living room. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Audio Note

The audio system we set up for the Piedmont performance was the most ambitious ever. There were six inputs into the mixer. One mic for my vocals, one Dick's vocal, one for the tubas, one for Maggie's clarinet, one for the banjo, and then a line for the onboard pickup inside my acoustic guitar. In the photo below you can see my vocal mic and then one affixed lower on the stand for the banjo. 

In this photo you can see the mic for the tubas up high in the back and the one for Maggie's clarinet on her stand.
We got a lot of positive compliments about our "wonderful sound". I'm convinced part of it was due to the extreme humidity (there had been downpours off and on all day). Wet air transmits sound better, and I think people felt our sound as well as simply hearing it. 

Another acoustic phenomenon that just about drove me crazy was a weird disjunct between the sound space the band was in and the other one the audience was in. In the top photo you can see how we were each in our own tents with a bit of a gap between. Particularly when I was singing, it sounded as though there was some sort of out of phase interference in that space between us, and though people said they could hear my vocals just fine, it felt to me I wasn't connecting with the audience.

On balance though, this system worked very well and I'll use something very much like it in the future for large events like this. If we can all hear each other we play well, and if the audience can hear us comfortably without our being too loud, that's a success.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summertime at Piedmont

Here are Dick Stageberg on trumpet and Steve Sanford on trombone improvising two times through Summertime. 

Summer Jazz Set Lists

Here is the sheet I did up for Ed to use running the mixer at our recent performance. Tunes without asterisks are standard Dixieland arrangements, those with one asterisk are ones I've done in the past and just tweaked a bit this time, and those with two asterisks are the ones I've done since this past March when I learned our hostess for this event was a lover of all kinds of jazz, not just Dixieland.

Summer Jazz At Piedmont

1st Set

*Hello Dolly - Guitar
   Three times through - vocal; instrumental; vocal & instrumental
*Eliza Jane - Banjo
   Everybody gets a solo
Little Brown Jug - Banjo
   Instrumental Dixieland tune (clarinet solo)
*Deep River Blues - Guitar
   Short a capella guitar intro - then a mix of vocals & solos
Hard Hearted Hannah - Banjo
   Dixieland tune with short vocal about half way through
Charleston - Banjo
   Instrumental Dixieland tune.
**I'll Be Seeing You - Guitar
   All instrumental arrangement two times through
*Georgia On My Mind - Guitar
   Clarinet intro, then vocal 1st time instrumental 2nd time
*Tuxedo Junction - Banjo
    All instrumental arrangement two times through
**Moonlight Serenade - Guitar
    All instrumental arrangement one time through
**It Ain't Necessarily So - Banjo
    Trumpet, Vocal & Trombone solos
Shortnin' Bread - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (clarinet solo)
Swaneeland - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (ends with tuba solo)
**Summertime - Guitar
   Twice through - 1st time trumpet, 2nd time trombone

2nd Set

Floatin' Down To Cotton Town - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (tuba solo)
**Blue Skies - Banjo
   Trombone/banjo intro; then 1st time vocal; 2nd time sax & clar.; 3rd time all
Tin Roof Blues - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (clarinet solo)
*Ain't She Sweet - Banjo
   1st time vocal; 2nd time instrumental
Do You Know What It Means - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
Sioux City Sue - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
St. James Infirmary Blues - Banjo
   Dixieland tune - Dick has the vocal
Midnight In Moscow - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
**Dream A Little Dream Of Me - Guitar
   Vocal & Trombone on verse; 1st chorus vocal; 2nd chorus trpt/clar/trpt
The Entertainer - Banjo
   Dixieland tune (tuba solo)
It Don't Mean A Thing - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
Silver Threads - Banjo
   Dixieland tune
       Fidgety Feet - Banjo
             Dixieland tune
         Panama - Banjo
             Dixieland tune
*Just A Closer Walk - Banjo
   I'll call out who does what when
*The Saints - Banjo
   I'll call out who does what when

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Performance Diary

Here are some pictures from our performance last night.

Here we are during the soundcheck, right after the rain stopped. You can see how everything had gotten scrunched together to keep the electrical stuff out of the rain. For the second set we moved the large amps out onto the lawn off to the side of the tent.

This shot shows Ed in the back running the mixer. The original plan was for him to be down in front, but the rain had us set up this way.

This shot shows how the audience was on a level a bit lower than we were. There were also tables spread out around the lawn.

Here we are late into the second set.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gene Expression & Happiness(es)

This study by researchers from UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina looks at how one's happiness can affect gene expression, and they found (in a group of 80 adults) that two different types of happiness generate different profiles of gene expression.

People who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic well-being -- the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life (think Mother Teresa) -- showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

However, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic well-being -- the type of happiness that comes from consummatory self-gratification (think most celebrities) -- actually showed just the opposite. They had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.

. . . . "Both seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive.

"What this study tells us is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion," he said. "Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dr. Andy

Dr. Andy, a.k.a Andrew Mosholder, and I have been musical companions for nearly 20 years.  He played bass and cello on "Mantra Mountain". On Saturdays, about once every six weeks, he makes the drive down from Harpers Ferry and we spend the afternoon playing Renaissance, Baroque, Dylan and things I've written, with him on cello or upright electric bass and me on mostly alto flute, keyboard, guitar and singing.

He also has other gigs, musical and non-musical. Here he is with Chatham Street opening for Dave Mason.

Photo credit: CUphotography

Moving Beyond Anecdotal

Anecdotally, a lot of people feel that making music has therapeutic benefits. This article talks about a new research project at UC San Francisco to see what empirical data there might be to support that idea. 

Over the next four years, a dozen choirs will be created at senior centers around San Francisco. . . . . The project will assess the impact on participants’ cognition, mobility and overall wellbeing during their choral year. The researchers also will examine whether singing in a community choir is a cost-effective way to promote health among culturally diverse older adults.

My interest in music therapy has always centered on the benefits of actually making it yourself as opposed to listening to it. All the neuroscience on how listening to it affects us is tremendously helpful, but in the long run, studies like this one, assuming good data is found, will be much more helpful when advocating for music making and music therapy.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Performance Diary

Last Friday we played at an assisted living facility in Gordonsville and then on Saturday outdoors at Gordonsville's Bicentennial Homecoming picnic. For the indoor performance there was no need for any audio, as it's a small room and we and the audience can all hear everything easily. We played very well, and received what to me was a wonderful compliment from the activity director - that it was the first time she could remember a group holding all the residents' attention for a full hour, that usually people want to start drifting away after about 30 minutes. There was a lot of foot tapping and sort of dancing while seated.

For the outdoor performance there needed to be audio so we could be heard over a fairly large area. This photo taken before we started playing shows the amp on a stand I had halfway facing us so we could all hear one another. The tubas, clarinet, banjo, guitar and vocals all had mics.
The two monitors flat on the group were for the group after us, but just under their speaker on a pole, right behind the blue chair, you can see the other of my amps, which was facing over towards where a lot of the crowd was. After we played I heard that we could be heard over the whole area nicely, without being too loud anywhere. I was also pleased that I didn't produce a single feedback squawk. 

Right in front of me with the guitar you can see a wooden box with the mixer on it, which lets me tweak the audio between, and sometimes during, numbers.

As I've said several times, learning audio is as difficult as learning the horn. Lots of unseen variables, and if you make a mistake it's really noticeable, but if you get it right it's a wonderful thing. We've got one more big outdoor performance this summer and my hope is to set up a situation where it sounds to us and to the audience a lot like being in a small room where everything is clear and distinct, while not being too loud.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nostalgia and Music

Coming across this article on nostalgia and reading the following bit I immediately envisioned a music therapy angle, as inducing nostalgic moods is something music often does.

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Then on the second page of the piece Tierney talks about how the researchers are using music to explore what they see as the mostly positive effects of nostalgia.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Audio Note

The Kenwood Players have already had one outdoor performance this summer, and are looking to have three more. Unless we're on a porch and the crowd is small, I always use some amplification for these events. If nothing else, at least a set of very small speakers used as monitors for my guitar, so everyone in the group can hear me even though I'm in front and facing the audience.

One thing that I find remarkable is that whenever I mention using a little amplification, it's not unusual for the person arranging for the music to get what I can only call righteously angry about past events where a band used so much amplification people were unable to talk to one another. When I talk to friends about this, almost everyone has a horror story of an event being ruined by a too loud band - and years ago I walked out of a Judy Collins concert because the sound was so loud it hurt.

During a period when live music is on the wane, sonically assaulting the audience seems a weird thing to do, but it seems to happen with great frequency. I think one problem (besides the members of loud bands having lost hearing over time and not realizing what they're doing) is the way the main speakers are pointed at the audience, with monitor speakers facing the band. With things set up this way, it's easy for the band to not realize just how loud they are to the audience.

Over time the way I set up has evolved into not distinguishing between speakers for the audience and monitors for the band. I put the speakers a bit behind and to the side of the band and turned at something like a 45 degree angle inward so they work as both monitors for us while also sending some sound out front. That creates the danger of feedback, but I've found that turning the treble down on everything lowers the threshold for that by a lot. And, of course, the precursor to feedback is that nice reverb feeling where you can feel the sound as well as hear it. As long as I keep the sound levels in that range, things work really well.

As to who/what gets a microphone - I have one for vocals and the clarinet gets one so she can play with good tone low in her range and be heard. My acoustic guitar with the onboard pickup gets plugged in, and if it's a large event I put a mic up for the tubas so we can have a nice solid bass line without them having to work for volume. 

Also, I've started using a small dynamic mic on my music stand to pick up the banjo at large events. It's hard to believe, but the one comment I get on the sound system over and over is people coming up afterwards and saying that couldn't hear the banjo. I think the issue is that it's so very directional in its sound - if the drum head is facing you, you hear it, but if it's angled away, you don't.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Yo Yo Ma as Music Therapist

Here's a great story for the 4th of July. Besides everything else he does, Yo Yo Ma spends time helping wounded veterans make music. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Neuroscience Summary

This article is a nice summary of how listening to music engages different parts of the brain simultaneously. While there's nothing new, the illustrations are helpful. It's also helpful to be reminded that both ancient and newer parts of the brain are involved. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Kenwood Players Video

As we have for a number of years now, the Kenwood Players provided music yesterday for the annual butterfly release fund raiser for the Hospice of the Rapidan. This year it was held at the Prince Michel Vineyard over in Madison county and a member of the audience took a video of one number, "The Charleston", and uploaded it to YouTube. 
Thank you Alex! 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Yoga and Calisthenics

Practicing yoga and performing calisthenics are two different ways of approaching physical exercise, and thinking about their differences can offer some insights into the therapeutic and educational ways of teaching music.

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on yoga reads:

Yoga is a commonly known generic term for the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace.

The Wikipedia entry for calisthenics begins with:

Calisthenics are a form of exercise consisting of a variety of simple, often rhythmical, movements, generally without using equipment or apparatus. They are intended to increase body strength and flexibility with movements such as bending, jumping, swinging, twisting or kicking, using only one's body weight for resistance. . . . Calisthenics when performed vigorously and with variety can benefit both muscular and cardiovascular fitness, in addition to improving psychomotor skills such as balance, agility and coordination.

Groups such as sports teams and military units often perform leader-directed group calisthenics as a form of synchronized physical training (often including a customized "call and response" routine) to increase group cohesion and discipline.

While yoga is seen and taught as a combination of the physical, the mental and the spiritual, calisthenics is mostly physical, with the addition of group cohesion as a goal. 

In the yoga classes I took back in the 70's, the idea was that the teacher was training us to be more aware of our bodies and to move through the poses in ways that suited us individually, and to always be mindful, centered and grounded.

In calisthenics, moving just like others with the same timing and motions is much more important.

In teaching music as a music therapist, what works and doesn't work for any particular client is always of paramount importance. In yoga different people doing different poses can look very different, especially for beginners, and that's OK. In music therapy what's important is that the clients feel the joys of music making, become engaged in the activity, and over time are better able to express themselves musically.

It seems to me music educators take more of the calisthenics approach to teaching, for some very good reasons. For one, only students with a skill set that might allow them to succeed are allowed into band, and because of those skills, will probably find on their own what does and doesn't work for them as individuals. For another, group cohesion is of paramount importance in bands (and symphonies), so the subordination of the individual to the group, as personified by the conductor, is the only way to go.

I think this is at least part of the explanation as to why, for the most part, none if the community band conductors we've had over the years has ever talked about tone, other than that tired old joke when someone plays when they shouldn't that, "At least it had good tone quality!"

For me as a music therapist, from the get go with any client I'm always including the importance of tone in the conversation. I'll often ask if they've ever come across someone who has wonderfully interesting things to say, but that the sound of their voice is so off-putting it's hard to pay attention, which usually triggers a look of recognition.

Understanding your musical sound as your voice is fundamental to successful musical self-expression. 

I think that music educators don't talk much about it because the skill set their students present with mean they'll probably develop their tone and appreciation of it's importance on their own.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Horn Diary

This is the cover of the program for the two performances of the Brahms Requiem put on by two local vocal groups with instrumentalists from the community band (with one exception). Both performances went well with standing ovations at the conclusion.

My horn playing was as good as I could have hoped for. I got all of those amazing long held pianissimo descant type harmonies which had been the hardest things for me to learn. In the second performance I got the high G in the first movement way better than I ever had when practicing. Also hit better than ever that repeated high E in the first movement that's a bit of a solo.

I was the only horn (along with two oboes of professional quality, two flutes, two clarinets, a trumpet, bassoon, tuba and timpani - along with the piano and organ) and had cut and pasted bits from all the horn parts together so as to cover all the exposed horn playing. That meant I played pretty much the entire hour and was traversing through parts written in F, E, Eb, D, C, and low Bb.

The toughest thing ended up being the long held low notes like the middle C at the beginning. With no strings it was completely exposed and my autonomic nervous system kicked in due to anxiety and there was a slight quaver in the tone (which I'd never experienced practicing). No amount of conscious control could completely eliminate it, though it was slight enough that apparently few people noticed.

Got some very nice comments from fellow musicians and the community band director - but the best was from a lady in the audience I'd never met before who came up and said she'd watched me the entire time and had marveled at the horn playing. I explained that Brahms's father had been a horn player, that the horn writing was extraordinary, and that if I merely sketched it out it has profound effects.

She could see me easily because all the instruments were in front and because I'd taken a piano bench which had me sitting a bit higher than other players (because I wanted every possible molecule of lung capacity and I'm tall and sitting on a folding chair gives me an acute rather than right angle between thighs and torso). 

I would have much preferred being hidden back behind the chorus and standing, and putting body english on every single note. As it was I tried to not sway too much with the rhythms and to keep my facial expressions somewhat in line - but I will never be able to sit rigidly like an emotionless robot and play the horn well, just as I can't not dance a little bit when playing the guitar/banjo and singing in front of a crowd. 

Engaging the horn parts in this piece has changed my musical life. A door has opened into a world of musical expression I'd never quite realized was there. It also confirmed for me that it's playing the horn with voices that puts me in a musical world I can't get enough of. And for any horn player - working through all these parts is an absolute clinic on what the horn can do.

It's also made me realize that part of what makes the horn such an amazing instrument to play is just how emotionally vulnerable I have to allow myself to be to get that exquisite expression to manifest. I was basically in an altered state during the performances and for at least a quarter hour afterwards. Carrying on conversations with people right after the performances was an ordeal - I simply was not in a verbal state of mind and everything I said sounded trivial and trite and felt like it was pulling me back to the everyday world when I wanted to maintain that blissful state.

Off Topic

Via Facebook, this snapshot of a milk carton has a little blurb about the family farm, Kenwood, run by my brother and sister-in-law. Just wanted to put it on the blog for friends to see. The bit about the cows grazing daily is where I come in. My one farm chore is getting the cows up from the pasture and into the barn for milking.

If you ever see a Virginia license plate with a barn and silos on it, that's based on a photo of Kenwood.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Anechoic Chamber

Back in the 60's I had the opportunity to go into an anechoic chamber, a room especially constructed to absorb nearly all sound waves. There's a picture of one here. I found it an uncanny and unsettling experience. Something about getting zero auditory feedback from the environment made me weirdly anxious and I made a hasty exit.

I went looking for that picture not long after I went down to Durham last month to hear a performance of Timepiece, a wind quintet I wrote some time ago. The performance was at a very nice senior living community. The auditorium where the performance took place was especially engineered for amplified sound, and part of that included very sound absorbent walls, floor and ceiling. 

I've never needed a microphone to speak in a room that size, but I did in this one. Because there was zero reverberation, without the microphone my voice just sort of disappeared. With the microphone my voice was much louder than usual, but with all the sound absorption there was no boominess or feedback - and ideal setup for a population with more than average hearing loss.

The wind quintet was not amplified. The horn and oboe were OK with that, but the bassoon, flute and clarinet had to work to be heard. And since there was absolutely no reverberation there was no blending of the timbres of the instruments - I could hear each one individually at all times, but never heard all the blending of the timbres, which to me is the soul of the piece. What really got to me was that when the quintet was warming up in another room with much better acoustics, they got the blends wonderfully well.

Music As Medicine

Here's a short article based on a survey Daniel Levitin did of 400 scientific papers having to do with music as medicine. There's nothing really new, but it's a nice roundup of where we are.

. . . They found that music had documented effects on brain chemistry and associated mental and physical health benefits in four areas:

Management of mood.
Stress reduction.
Boosting immunity.
As an aid to social bonding. . . 

. . . One paper even compared patients at a hospital before surgery who were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take an anti-anxiety drug such as Valium. 
"People who received the music had lower anxiety levels than people who had the drugs and without side effects," Levitin said. . .

. . . Studies showed that slower music tends to be more relaxing than faster music, but familiar music is more relaxing, regardless of the type and tempo. That brings up an important point about the use of music in a medical setting, Levitin said. "Rather than the doctor saying, 'Oh, you've got depression — take two Joni Mitchells and call me in the morning,' I think what we need to have is recognition that people need to have control over what they are listening to.". . .

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Horn Diary

Two weeks to go before the performances of the Brahms Requiem. Working with the horn parts for it continues to be a revelation for me. I feel blessed to experience such an opening into a realm of music I wasn't really aware existed. Back in my college and conservatory days, thirty years and more ago, I listened to the Brahms symphonies but never really connected with them. I always preferred medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Chopin and Satie.

What has led me into the Requiem has been the horn writing. Over and over again I've had the sensation of more deeply appreciating what he's up to as I work with the music. What's been especially amazing has been how learning to play the various horn parts has been teaching me how to play the horn. Somehow the gestalt of individual phrases leads me to better understanding the sheer expressiveness of the horn. There are times when it feels more like I'm singing wordlessly than playing an instrument - and other times when the phrase could only be imagined as being played by the horn. 

A practical result of all of this is being drawn to practice the horn even more than usual. I've pretty much put down the flutes, keyboard and the guitar and singing for the duration. My endurance has increased as a result. The question will be whether it's increased enough. Since I'm the only horn, I'm playing the first horn part as well as bits and pieces from the other parts when they are prominent. (Which means transposing at sight horn in E, Eb, D, C & Bb tief - an achievement of which I'm inordinately proud ;-)

One thing I've started to do is use how I'm holding the instrument to help with dynamics. When the horn part is meant to be high in the mix, I hold it away from my body (always off the leg) and angle it out a bit so the sound can flow unencumbered. In all the pianissimo sections I'm holding the edge of the bell tight against my torso with a bit of a downward angle so as to damp the sound a bit. That also changes the sound some, making it much more appropriate when accompanying quiet voices.

One particular revelation has been his use of off-beats. In community band I'm used to off-beats being very mechanical and fast. From time to time Brahms uses them in slow passages to amazing effect. Even if the tempo doesn't slow, there's a wonderful sense of peaceful relaxation.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Timepiece Performance

This is the poster for a performance of Timepiece down in Durham, NC next week. That it's going to be just off Duke's West Campus where I went to school all those years ago is just some sort of cosmic coincidence. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Horn Diary

Here lately I've been able to fully sound out the fundamental pitch on both sides of the horn pretty much every time I try. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment, and it's a very good exercise for the embouchure. Working on the extreme low part of the register is a key part of Jeff Smiley's Balanced Embouchure method, and a number of other books I've looked at talk about the value of working with the low range as well. 

When sounding out those fundamentals it almost feels like a vibrating massage back into the muscles behind the part of the embouchure that actually touches the mouthpiece. I'm convinced that the embouchure crisis (and the lip callus that came along with it) I had a while back was due to my over using the muscles in the part of the embouchure touching the mouthpiece and under using the muscles in the part of the embouchure (of which I'm much less proprioceptively aware) back behind those front line muscles. I regret letting the band directors of the community band getting me to play first horn (because I was the only one) well before I was actually capable of doing so.

I'm still working with the Brahms Requiem and finding it a wonderful piece of music. Part of it is I think I'm very attracted to playing with voices instead of purely instrumental music. For me, tone is the foundation of music, and blending the horn tone with that of the human voice creates a sound I can't get enough of. Putting on the headphones and playing along with the CD alters my state of mind every single time.

The other thing about the Brahms is the horn writing. I knew his dad was a player of the pre-valve horn. What I hadn't realized was how every single horn phrase in the piece sounds so archetypically horn like. There are all those intervals of the hunting horn put to symphonic use, along with those amazing half steps he uses for emphasis. 

Working on the Brahms has also had the effect of crystalizing my thoughts on concert band music, which has always had the feel to me more of etudes than pure music. That the Brahms is way easier to play (just a few high F's and G's and none of those weirdly complex rhythms that are such a staple of band music) and that it's infinitely more beautiful bolsters that notion. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Play and Learning

This post over on Boing Boing makes a nice follow-up to my recent post on play. The Boing Boing post has a blurb and a brief excerpt from a book called  Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray.

Here's a bit of the book cover blurb:

Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests -- often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave. Even outside of school children today seldom play and explore without adult supervision, and are afforded few opportunities to control their own lives. The result: anxious, unfocused children who see schooling—and life—as a series of hoops to struggle through.

And here are a couple of snips from the book's introduction:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible. . . . . 

. . . . .Such work led me to understand how children's strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education, not only in hunter gatherer cultures but in our culture as well. It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children's abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means. It led me to see how, if we had the will, we could free children from coercive schooling and provide learning centers that would maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood.

There's a certain all or nothing feeling to this, but I do think he's got a point. Many years ago I saw where Agatha Christie said, I think in her autobiography, how she thought it was criminal locking children up in schools. While I was extremely fortunate in my schooling (and never felt imprisoned), it's always been obvious to me that one size (method) doesn't suit everyone and I could see what she was talking about.

It's another way of looking at music education vs. music therapy. Different approaches are going to work with different people - neither will be right for everyone all the time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Performance Diary

Here's a photo of the Kenwood Players in full Dixieland Jazz mode warming up the crowd earlier this month for the Bicentennial Celebration in the Town of Gordonsville, VA. This room, which is where I vote, is in the Gordonsville Fire House. 

One aspect of Gordonsville's history I've always remembered is that it was the little crossroads town Jefferson and Madison would pass through when they rode horseback back and forth between Monticello and Montpelier. 

Mayor Bob Coiner asked us to play for 45 minutes right as people were gathering and visiting and enjoying the food provided by local restaurants. We kept the volume down, so people could hear one another without shouting, and just played one tune after another without any talk between. The three players not in the photo are the tenor sax and the two Eb  tubas.

We had a great time and were very well received. The little boy in the photo was my favorite audience member. When he first walked up and saw up close how a trombone is played, he was absolutely mesmerized. 

One thing particularly nifty about this performance was that, since there was no audio equipment to bring and set up, all we needed was the stands and the mats for the brass players. We broke down and packed up and got out of the way in about five minutes. 

Thanks to Jeff Poole of the Orange County Review for taking this photo and letting me put it up on the blog. There's more info about the event at that link.

There was also a TV report on the event, in which you can hear about two seconds of our playing, here.