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.