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.