June 26, 2017

Artists of the Breath

Flute players sculpt sound into music using their breath as chisels and brushes.
Exhalations become brush strokes and molds. Vibrations become paint and clay.
Welding together timelessness and the ever changing moment.
Creating the ephemeral out of the intangible.
Wordless communication.
Singing without a voice.
Breathe and Listen.

May 31, 2017

6 Holes-Where Traversos and Whistles Meet

Pennywhistles and Baroque flutes.
Whistles are often used to introduce children to musical instruments based on the (mistaken) idea that all you have to do is blow. Traverso or Period flutes are often considered challenging for skilled musicians let alone beginners.
The current pennywhistle design was invented in the mid 1800s. Traverso players typically go back as far as the 1600s for their flute designs and avoid playing any style of flute after 1850 or so (when Boehm's redesign more or less created the modern concert flute).
In spite of these differences, these instruments are oddly entwined with each other. So much so, that I think learning one increases skill on the other and vice versa.

Let's start with an odd similarity in how these instruments are taught. They aren't. That's right, students rarely get any instruction on either instrument.
It is often assumed people can work out how to play a whistle by themselves because it has no keys and no special embouchure (mouth shape) is required. This means few people bother with much instruction. Now, it is true that if you ALREADY play a wind instrument, you may be able to work out the fingerings and get a decent start but kids being introduced to playing have a much tougher time. It strikes be as very odd and contradictory that previous musical experience is (somewhat unconsciously) assumed with an instrument that is often given to young children!
Meanwhile, traverso flutes have a reputation for being mysterious and difficult to learn partly because it has no keys (ironically enough) and doesn't play chromatic notes the same way the modern flute does. Finding a teacher is difficult not only because of how few concert flute players "dare" to pick up period instruments but also because there are so many different styles of flutes. If you do find a teacher, the odds are they aren't playing the exact same instrument as you and may not play flute at all (I ended up working with a Baroque bassoon player to get started). Books are still few and far between and generally assume the student is already a college-trained concert flutist, not a beginner. Generally, traverso players are left to muddle along on their own just like the whistlers.
The result is that both of these instruments are largely self taught because of the myth of their difficulty/easiness level and an assumption of previous musical experience.

Now the basic finger-hole pattern of these instruments.
Both are based on 6 finger holes, covered by the first three fingers of each hand with the left hand closer to the mouth. And both play a major scale using (basically) the same fingering pattern. The earliest traverso flutes from the Baroque era (1600s) have 6 finger holes plus one hole that is covered by a key that is almost always closed and therefore functions more or less like a 6 holed flute. Later traverso flutes had more keys added and with them more holes but the basic idea of 6 holes remained the framework design for most styles. (Fifes have the 6 finger pattern too in case anyone was wondering.)

Three Whistles-6 Finger Holes

Baroque Flute-6 Finger Holes Plus One Key
















This means the fingerings of the pennywhistle often work on the traverso and vice versa though some fingerings need tweaking. This is especially helpful with the chromatic notes. Whistles have a slew of alternate fingerings for chromatic notes (so many it can be overwhelming) many of  which work on a period instrument. This can be wonderfully helpful since the fingerings for older flutes are not as detailed or extensive as the modern flute by a long stretch.

Modes, scales and folk music.
Both play the same basic set of scales or modes with relative ease. This means whistles and traversos can both play major/ionian, dorian, mixolydian and natural minor/aeolian and harmonic or melodic minor without too many half-holes or cross-fingerings.
Celtic music, old time fiddle tunes and a lot of other folk music use these modes and scales all the time. These styles use whistles pretty regularly and therefore, lots of this music will "fit" on the traverso flutes without resorting to chromatic fingerings. This means you can learn the ins and outs of the traverso on tunes that don't require the more difficult half-holes and cross-fingerings nearly as often as the more formal (and modulating) Baroque and Classical composers. And learning to play a couple of Bach or Telemann tunes on the whistle can make learning the half-holes and cross-fingerings a bit less challenging. Not to mention a great deal of Classical music actually was inspired by folk music so you may find some interesting musical relationships hiding in the staffs.

An interesting cross-over from the Celtic folk music realm; Because the Irish flute is (more or less) a traverso, an instruction book for Irish flute can be used with some traverso flutes. These books tend to have more absolute beginner information and you get some modal Celtic tunes in some of them.

Finally, there is one other advantage to learning the whistle with the traverso. It gives you a way to change your arm position and lower your arms from time to time. This helps with the repetitive use injuries musicians are so very prone to. Just the act of switching instruments lets you rest and recover without having to stop playing.

The more instruments I learn, the more each one informs my understanding and skill on the others. They open up worlds of musical styles and ways of thinking. They expand the possibilities and styles of music I experience and, with a little luck, let me share something fun and lovely with others.

April 23, 2017

Forest Music

"Know the Structure...Compare the piece to a forest. I first try to see the entire forest...figure out where the forest begins and ends and which kinds of trees are located where...observe the other creatures and landmarks...It becomes difficult to get lost while playing."
---Jasmine Choi

Music as a forest.
Forests have shapes and patterns. Music has form, variation, repetition and contrast.
Forests rise and fall on the landscape they cover. Music's history shapes the groundwork of each new piece. How a piece was played changes as it travels from country to country and person to person.
Forests are made up of many different kinds of trees, vines, herbs and flowers. Meadows, clearings, deer trails, bird's nests and dense thickets may emerge or vanish as we wander. Chords, harmony, other instruments, ornaments, improvisations, modulations and imitation weave throughout music. We never play the music exactly the same twice.
Forests have canopies, various under-layers, brush and floor layers that are linked together in a shifting pattern. Music has countermelodies, themes, motives, counterpoint, ostinatos, bass lines, recurring lines and notes that link to each other in complex tapestries.
The seasons transform the forest year after year. Time reshapes the music with each performance, each rehearsal, each change in musical expression.  We learn new skills, polish old ones and old music becomes new.
Other creatures live within this realm though you may not see them. Audiences (large, small or solitary practice) change our choices in every performance. Our experiences and memories of other performers and teachers (even those we have forgotten) appear and disappear like magic.
The forest is ancient and immediate. Music is ephemeral and inescapable.








March 13, 2017

Whistle While You Work

As some of you may know, I've been adding to my flute collection the last couple of years. I've also been working on playing by memory and recording more often. The result is I have music tracks of pennywhistles to share.

The first track is a low F whistle from MK Whistles in Scotland and the tune is "The Farewell to Music" by O'Carolan.
The second track is a wood whistle in D made by Gene Milligan and the tune is "Banish Misfortune." Still a bit slow since I only memorized it a month or so ago.
The third track is a high F copper whistle from Elf Song Whistles made by Sandy Jasper and the tune is "The Little Beggar Man." I used this tune to teach myself double tonguing as a youngster.



What I've learned so far.
Of course each whistle has a distinct sound/personality (just like other flutes) but I was startled by how some folk tunes "fit" under the fingers better on the whistles than on the concert flute. There are times when playing by ear is considerable less tricky on the whistles too. I think this is partly due to being able to see my fingers without a mirror for the first time ever. But only partly. The tunes (well, some of them) are just easier to work out on the whistles.
Playing with brass bands on the tiny whistle also seems to work better than the concert flute or even the picc. It's challenging to be heard but the tone works better when it is audible. Whistles with flats (F major whistle is my pick but B-flat would do) are best for this.
I vastly prefer the quieter whistles, especially the high ones, to save my ears and ear plugs travel with the whistles everywhere. Loud whistles may cut through large groups better but I like my hearing and intend to keep it. And I prefer the tone of the quiet whistles when playing solo or just "dreaming" in the woods.

I've realized that when I first played pennywhistle (as a grade-schooler) there were two basic issues that caused me to think I didn't like the instrument. First, the cheap, easy-to-find whistles aren't always in tune and I didn't like their tone at all. Knowing enough to be able to find whistles that are in tune and that have tones I like makes a big difference (the wood whistle is my favorite on pure tone but the all have their charms). Second, I wasn't a good enough player to handle the whistle at the time. I already played flute but even so, I wasn't ready to tackle the whistle alone. Which is very intriguing since teachers often give whistles or recorders to kids to get started in music because "they're easy" and then never give them much, if any, instruction on the whistle. No wonder so many kids who start that way don't continue! The first time they can't figure something out without help (which happens soon!) they are likely to think that if they can't play this "easy" instrument, they will have an even more difficult time with other instruments. If they got some instruction, they would have a much better experience.
Two important tips: 1) Learn your modes and where they are on the whistle! Especially Dorian and Mixolydian; there are many folk/Celtic tunes in those two modes. (Modern Modes Intro) 2) Learn to transpose in some fashion. You can chose to re-write tunes into the key you read or learn to transpose by sight (several tricks for that-Transposition on Key-less flutes) whichever. Not all tunes are written in the whistle's range but that doesn't mean you can't play them. Just learn how to put them in your range!

Someone once described the whistle as the scariest instrument to play in front of others because it was all about the breath. There is no reed, no register key and no change-your-embouchure to help you out. Controlling the speed of the air is all there is between a good note and a missed one. This means the whistle requires precise and exacting control of your own lungs. Rewarding, delightful, good for everyday breathing issues and intensely personal but not easy.

Anyway, here I am falling madly in love, at last, with several new whistles.
Enjoy!

February 28, 2017

The Glories of Trying

I’ve never liked the quote “do or do not; there is no try”. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways this saying is very true in music but there are other ways that it is just wrong. When you hit a wrong note, there’s no two ways about it, it is wrong. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. This quote is, sadly, often used to imply that if you can't get something done right on your first try, don't bother. Which I simply can not accept. (A friend of mine points out that this is a misinterpretation of the original use of the quote, but it is a common one.)
When we first study music, we make mistakes. We try to do something new and rarely do we get it right the first time. The mistakes show us what not to do and if we don't make them, we can't learn. All skilled musicians got skilled by making mistakes. Lots of them. They are just like gardeners with green thumbs, who have killed more plants than most of us can imagine, learning exactly what it takes to keep the plants alive. They just tried again and with time made fewer and fewer mistakes until their mistakes were few, far between and mostly small. And the best musician to draw breath still makes mistakes every time they play even though the audience usually can’t hear it. They are human and humans are not perfect. But the magic of music, and all art, is that perfection is not required. Art is about beauty, fascination and thinking and feeling in different ways. It is meant to engage people in deep ways that are difficult to express or understand. The overall experience is rarely ruined by a mistake or three.
There are books that discuss the advantage of practicing new music veerrryyyy slowly so that you will not play wrong notes and therefore not “practice making mistakes”. Now it is quite true that this is a wonderful way to practice (and this is my favorite way to wake up in the morning) but it does not mean that if you make a mistake, the practice session is a waste of time. In fact, part of this method says that if you are focusing on one aspect of the music (correct rhythm, good tone, accurate pitches etc.), mistakes in other areas don’t really count. It is about not getting stuck in the mistakes, not panicking and taking the time to correct the mistakes as best you can. Or even learning how to work around them.
An Imperfect Picture
“Do or do not” is about looking at and critiquing the results after the effort has been made. “Trying” is about the effort itself. Without being willing to try, there are no results to criticize. To try is to make an honest attempt and to be willing to learn something new from that attempt, successful or not. Trying is how we grow and become able to achieve fantastic, imperfect wonders that surpass our deepest dreams and create accidental beauty we never could have imagined.

"If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning."--Mahatma Gandhi

January 26, 2017

Flute and Aulos in Greek Mythology - The Importance of Translation

I have mentioned this before and I know I will again but this particular issue is very widespread and deserves a post all its own. At least if you enjoy researching music in myths.

When reading anything about ancient Greece that mentions "the flute", there are very high odds that it should say "the aulos". Aulos is so frequently mistranslated as flute that you almost have to assume that flute means aulos in any English text. The aulos is a double reed instrument played vertically, sometimes in pairs and sometimes not. The flute has no reeds and is played horizontally/transverse and almost no one is crazy enough to try to play two at once. The recorder is sometimes played in pairs but again, the recorder does not use reeds and so also isn't an aulos.
Pan Playing Double Aulos
Pan Playing Double Aulos Among the White Violets
The aulos does not exist as a modern instrument and we don't know all the details of how the aulos was made or played. We do have enough pictures from vases and sculptures, as well as writings about it, to know it was not like the flute at all. The aulos does seem to be somewhat like an oboe but that comparison is not precise either since oboes are not played in pairs and don't require a strap around the head. This means that whenever you run into something saying "Athena invented the flute", "Euterpe was the Muse of flute players" or "Apollo played flute with the Muses" it almost ALWAYS means aulos, not flute.

Now just to confuse things, there was a transverse flute in use in ancient Greece. It was considered a country instrument, not very sophisticated and linked to shepherds. There are almost no mythological stories that feature this instrument and the only reference to a God playing one (that shouldn't actually read aulos that is) that I have run across is Pan and I'm not sure about that one. It is possible that the original Greek text said panpipes or syrinx instead of flute, another common mistranslation. Although since Pan was a God of shepherds, it is not impossible that in this case, they actually meant the transverse flute.
Baby Pan Playing Transverse Flute
Pan Playing Transverse Flute Among the Wild Columbine
The transverse flute just didn't have enough respect to be used in the stories. It is one of the oldest instruments in the world but it took centuries for the flute to gain any standing among other instruments in Western culture. Yet people kept playing it, teaching it and writing music for it. And now, it is so hard for us to believe that this instrument didn't matter in the past that we change the name of other instruments to flute. Flutes can be sneaky little things.

For more on the myths of the aulos see  Athena and Hermes Musical Inventions, Apollo the One Man Band and A Night at the Theater

December 17, 2016

Real Musicians

Recently, I had some interesting experiences involving the idea of a "real musician." First, some performers (who should have known better and likely didn't mean it this way) asked me to sing. When I said I wasn't a trained singer, they dismissed the idea and said I must be able to sing. After I broke down and sang a tune or two, they nodded and said "nice job, we knew you were a real musician." This sort of thing drives me a little crazy since it implies instrumentalists aren't musicians. I am a trained instrumentalist but an amateur singer. A fair amount of the training for the flute transfers to the voice with ease so I can sing well if not brilliantly. But my singing is not up to the standards I expect of myself, as a musicians, when performing for others and I chafe at the idea that "real" musicians always sing.
Now the reverse assumption also happens all the time. I know several vocalists who, when they say they are musicians, are consistently asked what instrument they play. When they answer "voice," the disappointment on the other person's face is almost shocking. It is as if they are saying "you tricked me." And other musicians do this to singers too by asking them what instrument they play in addition to singing.
Of course, it is not uncommon for instrumentalists to sing and singers to play instruments. Musicians get curious about different ways to make music and learn different skills all the time. But I think it is important to remember that this is a form of doubling, that is, learning more than one instrument. Doubling is a skill that not all musicians choose to tackle and this in no way makes them less of a musician.
Finally and just to make my point one more time, there is another group of musicians who get this treatment even more often than singers and instrumentalists; percussionists. They are often dismissed as "the ones with all the toys" or "the people who hang out with the orchestra." This is wildly unfair for a couple of reasons. One is that there is a tremendous amount music that depends on the percussion section. If the rhythm is wrong, no amount of musical skill from the other instruments will fix the piece. Another reason is that playing percussion is just as difficult as any other musical activity. Just listen to what happens when someone picks up a drum for the first time and compare it to a trained percussionist if you doubt me. Or watch a marimba player during a concerto solo (do this anyway; the flying mallets are amazing to see.) Or take a good look at the lone percussionist in a pit orchestra and the vast array of instruments they are expected to play, often all at once!
Many people, musicians included, have very firm and limited assumptions about what the term musician means and are thrown for a loop when they are reminded that their assumptions ARE limited. Learning to make music, any music, reshapes the brain. Voice, wind, brass or percussion. It is the study of music in any form that expands the language and fine motor control centers of the brain, not the choice of musical production.
There is no set way to define all musicians. Except that we make music. All the different terms for musicians (guitarist, harpist, vocalist, percussionist) really define the type of music we make. The sheer variety of those terms shows just how creative we humans are about our music. There will always be a new form of music, a new instrument, a new style of singing out there. And those who use them will still be musicians even if we have never heard or imagined that music can be made this way.

November 12, 2016

Interpretation and Improvisation

"The name of the game is flexibility. Every conductor has his own interpretation. Your job is to interpret not only your conception, but also that of the conductor." Julius Baker

Interpretation is the art of deciding how to play a piece of music. This includes how loud and quiet sections are, what tempo to take, when and how much to change tempos and all the little things that can't be written down in the notation or possibly even expressed in words. No one interprets a piece the exact same way and learning to adjust to another person's ideas can be more than a little challenging. Yet Classical musicians are expected to do exactly that. When they practice, they explore multiple interpretations. Then they adjust and match their interpretations to those of the other players in their section. Finally, they change how they interpret a piece each and every time a new conductor takes the podium.
I believe that in many ways, this is a form of improvisation. Granted, the improvising is subtle and doesn't involve changing the notes or rhythms. Yet the music changes every time it is played based on the performers choices at the moment. This is the heart of improvisation; no two performances, or even rehearsals, are exactly the same.

Now Classical music used to include a great deal of improvisation even in ensemble playing. It was only after the 1800s that instrumentalists were expected to "just play what's on the page" rather than filling in musical ideas on their own. Recently, there has been a push to reincorporate improvisation into Classical music. Solo pieces have been the main focus of this idea. Many Classical musicians find this unsettling at first and the idea of adding improvisation to ensemble playing is still largely not discussed at all. 
Perhaps considering interpretation as a form of improvisation could be used to ease Classical musicians into the world of music of the moment.

October 12, 2016

Pan's Four Notes

F - G - C - Eb
The musical call to the God Pan is said to be made up of four notes; F G C and E-flat. These notes invoke Pan. Or soothe him to sleep. Or please him enough to send him dancing peacefully on his way.
Since the Greeks used very different musical scales and notation systems than we do, it is likely these are not the notes an ancient would have used to call Pan. But they have a special magic all their own. These notes can fit into a minor scale, the Dorian mode or the Mixolydian mode easily enough. They can be played alone or other notes can be tucked in around them. They can outline chords or become stepping stones in a melody or harmony line. They can move one to the next quickly or linger as drones. They can dance, skip, march, process, grieve or hum a lullaby. All this from just four notes.

Pan of course is the goat-legged God of the wilderness. He is shown playing a syrinx or panpipes so often it would make sense for him to be the God of music. But he wasn’t exactly. His music was the music of the wilds and the country folk that anyone could make and enjoy. Some say Pan was the God of theatrical criticism. Interestingly, he is often shown with Dionysus the God of theater and music from non-Greek lands.
The panpipes were considered a country or shepherds’ instrument because they weren’t difficult to make. Learning to play them well is another story. Most Gods didn’t bother with them. But Pan claimed them as his special skill. He invented the panpipes when a lovely nymph transformed herself into a patch of reeds while he was chasing her. The breezes made the reeds hum and sing so beautifully, Pan was inspired to create an instrument named for the nymph who had rejected him, Syrinx. Hermes sometimes is credited with inventing the panpipes but others say he simply learned to make and play them from the master music maker.
Pan was never civilized enough for the more formal gatherings of the Gods where Apollo and the Muses ruled the stage. Yet Apollo took lessons from Pan, both in music and prophecies. Pan and Apollo once had a musical contest. Midas was one of the listeners and preferred Pan’s pipe-music to Apollo’s lyre-playing. He also questioned how fair the contest had been to begin with, since the judges were followers of Apollo. Apollo gave Midas donkey’s ears in revenge for the criticism.
Hunters asked Pan to lure animals to them with his music. He coaxed Psyche out of her suicidal depression and helped her figure out how to get back her husband, Cupid, with music. He fell in love with Echo, the nymph who could only repeat what others had said, making an early call-and-response duo. Pan likes to sleep at noon and pipe his tunes at dawn and dusk. Waking Pan from his midday nap is an especially dangerous activity. His voice alone can panic the Titans into running away. He uses his music to lure young girls and boys into the woods and plays for the dancing nymphs under the stars. He can put a person to sleep or drive them mad with just a few notes.

Perhaps we will wander into the woods as the leaves fall and seeds scatter under the gloaming sky. And perhaps we will play four notes that ring and echo into the distance.
If we dare.

September 19, 2016

Young Whistlers

When I play, it is not unusual for kids to ask "can I try?" When possible, I give them a short lesson on getting sound out or at least advice on "playing" water bottles as practice. This year, I noticed that when I play my (new) wood penny-whistle, kids are even more likely to run up to their parents and say "I want to learn that!" So I thought I'd write up some advice about getting a penny-whistle for a beginner.


First, DON'T tell them it will be easy! Getting sound out of a whistle isn't difficult, true, but playing WELL takes quite a bit of work. It requires precise breath and finger control which takes time and patience to develop just like all wind instruments.
Whistles are generally high and loud. Add to that that most beginners tend to blow too hard and beginning whistlers can create some painfully high sounds. It is not uncommon for parents and roommates to get frustrated with beginners who haven't learned to play gently yet. Be patient and/or set up a space where they can practice without disturbing others. Outside on a nice day is great. The lack of walls really eases the intensity of the sound a lot and suddenly the whistle becomes fun to listen to. Putting one empty room between the beginner and others can help too and is a great solution for cold weather.
Be prepared, cats and dogs will likely have an opinion about the whistle. They may hate it and flee the room or they may insist on being right there to keep an eye on things. (I have had a cat who sat in my lap, a cat who hid under the sofa cushions, a dog who howled unless let out and a dog who scratched at the door to sit under the music stand when I played.)
And remember the more the beginner practices, the more control they will have and the easier it is to listen to them in a confined space so don't throw them out of the house forever! You will miss hearing the music they are making as they progress.

Second, if you are getting a whistle for a young kid, I'd suggest getting a C whistle. Most whistle experts recommend D whistles for beginners because they are used most often in Celtic ensembles. But the C whistle is just a little less high and shrill which makes it just a little easier to live with. If they keep playing for more than a month or so, you may want to get a D so they have a more standard key but starting with a C can make the difference in a feud over practice sessions being too high and loud.
For older kids (over 8 or so) and adults, the D whistle is likely a better place to start. There is more music available and as I said, it will fit in with ensembles more often.
Keep in mind that some brands or styles of whistles are actually quieter or gentler sounding than others so it is well worth exploring different whistles (see next tip).

Third, get advice on which whistle to get instead of just getting the cheapest available. One of the nice things about whistles is that they tend to be less expensive than other instruments but all the same, you want an instrument that is well tuned and the player likes to play. Not all whistles fit the bill. There are "tweaked" versions of cheap whistles which can be a good starting point and stores specializing in whistles often have good advice on brands to start out.
Personally, if I was going to get a metal whistle (to go with my wood one), I'd pick a Tilbury Whistle which currently runs about $75. It has a tone I like, is well tuned and while it is considered high end in the whistle world, the price isn't outrageous (compared to some of my other flutes that is). If that is more than you can stand, don't give up the idea. There are $20 or $30 whistles that sound just fine and some excellent players choose to play the cheaper whistles for their entire career.
The Wandering Whistler  has reviewed a number of whistles and sometimes includes a sound clip. The recording quality is variable but it can help a lot to hear the whistle played by a good player. Click the drop-down menu to see what whistles he has written about.
Getting a whistle that the player enjoys increases the odds that they will keep practicing and have a good time.

Fourth, get a book of simple tunes for the whistle and/or get some recordings of whistle music. Celtic is the easiest to find but there are other styles of music that the whistle fits into nicely. You want tunes that fit the range of the whistle (about two octaves) and don't include too many chromatics especially at first. The whistle can play chromatics but the cross-fingering and half-holing is more advanced skill-wise so stick with fewer chromatics to avoid frustration. There are actually quite a few books out there so look around and see what looks good.

Finally, if the whistler starts to lose interest in playing after a few months, take a look at some OTHER whistles. It may well be that they are just developing a dislike of the tone of their whistle!
Finding a whistle they like better may re-ignite interest. And they will have a better idea of what they like in whistle after playing for a bit.

And whatever you do, have fun!

July 2, 2016

Sight Singing and Dyslexia

I recently saw a joke on the internet. There was a picture of some music with a caption asking "what's wrong with this picture?" and I found myself stumped. The time signature and the note values added up right, the key signature was written correctly, bar lines and other symbols were placed right and I could not figure out what was wrong to save my life. Then I read some other people's comments and realized the music was supposed to be the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. Without any further information, I immediately saw that the last note was wrong and the rhythm was wrong (glaringly so). And then I realized something. I hadn't been able to "see" what was wrong because I hadn't turned the visual notation into sound in my head (a skill taught in sight singing classes) until I knew it was supposed to be a specific piece. And what is more, this happened in spite of the fact I learned to sight sing years ago and even taught sight singing. All of which caused me to recognized what was happening at last; this was a dyslexia glitch I hadn't been aware of before.
One of the issues with dyslexia is that turning symbols into what they represent is tricky. Written letters and words are the most typical examples but it can happen with numbers or music notation too. Most dyslexics only have trouble with some symbols and not others. This is why some dyslexics can't spell but can handle written math and read music or have trouble with written math but no trouble with music or reading. My main dyslexic trouble is spelling not music notation. But suddenly I realized that turning written music into sound in my head is just a bit more problematic for me than anyone would expect because of my dyslexia.

Now sight singing or turning notation into sound in our heads is not something people do automatically. Most people have to learn the process and they tend to find it challenging at first. A few folks have a knack for it but generally it is something that must be taught, practiced and sweated over. Once learned, some people can't turn it off (every notation "sings" to them) but most have to make a conscious effort to sight sing music. I was in the second group. If I just look at notation, I don't just hear it right away. I must make a conscious effort to "hear" the notes and rhythms written out in front of me. This isn't really that unusual nor is it considered an issue so I hadn't ever noticed that the effort I make is just a bit more, a little longer, a smidge more complex than is typical. The fact that learning to sight sing is not easy for anyone hid the fact that I don't turn written music into sound in my head easily. It wasn't until I had trouble getting an obvious (to musicians) joke that it came out into the open.
This isn't a big problem for me (clearly since I was trusted to teach freshmen the basics of sight singing). I've worked around it for decades without even realizing it was there. What's more, once I have played a piece, it is outrageously easy for me to "hear" the music when I look at it.  That extra bit of information, the physical memory of creating the sound on my flute, kicks my sight singing skill into high gear and I can even catch tiny changes in the notation with ease. This makes a great deal of sense given my history of using finger spelling to manage to learn to spell at least a bit better. Attaching physical sensation to the visual symbols helps me process the symbols. And I can, in fact, sight sing a piece without ever having played it just fine; I just need a few extra moments to work it out. Since I'm an instrumentalist not a vocalist, this is simply not a problem. But now that I know about it, I can work with it and find the alternate ways I process the written music into sound. Like "fingering" the notes on a pencil as if it was a flute, something I used learning to sight sing.

Finally, to anyone who has struggled to learn to sight sing music, you now have a small hint of what it feels like to be dyslexic. That process of transforming notation into music entirely inside your head is quite similar to fighting to handle moving letters while learning to read.
The initial stage of learning to sight sing (according to me and my non-dyslexic friends alike) is unsettling. It seems as if there is no point of reference for what you are learning, nothing to hang on to or use as a tool. This is because you are restructuring your brain to do a brand new thing. Dyslexics often take extra time to learn to read because they must work out new methods of processing the written letters for their brains. The same thing happens when learning to sight sing music.
And remember that there is more than one way to learn to sight sing (just like learning to read or do written math). Different teachers use different methods and each person develops their own tricks. Ask others for tips if you have serious trouble and explore other approaches. Remember that it may never be automatic and that's ok. Practicing the skill at whatever level you have it will teach you how to develop it. Don't expect your sight singing to match others but use your skill your way.

June 14, 2016

Incomplete Beauty

I've been reading about Medieval music theory. For fun. Again. (Yes, I know I'm insane.)
What caught me this time is how rhythmic notation developed. Of course, music had rhythm before rhythmic notations came into use. There just hadn't been a clear way to write it down before. And developing rhythmic notation was a messy process. There were stretches when notated rhythm was rather like a written version of Morse code only more complicated. Each little blob of ink in a tune had to be counted to figure out the rhythm of any of the notes and the meaning of the lines and dots changed depending on how many there were and what order they were in (and that's the simple version).
This lead me (or returned me) to this idea: Music notation is incomplete. It has to be. Each new notation idea was created after the fact; after musicians had been playing something "that way" for so long someone decided to attempt to represent it in writing (usually in a highly imprecise way). No written piece includes all the details of the music. Think about tempo rubato in Chopin's music. Or Jazz and the art of learning to Swing a rhythm. Our rhythm notation simply has no way of showing either of these musical ideas fully. We know they are there and even mark them in the score but we cannot show exactly how to play them. They must be demonstrated in all their glorious variety.
And this is good. Music shifts, changes and creates itself fresh with every performance, rehearsal, jam session or car sing-a-long. We add to the written music and suddenly new musical ideas start to surface. Nothing is every static even if the notation on the page remains the same.

Music notation is incomplete until the moment of performance. All the striving for perfection or the definitive version that happens in many arts simply doesn't apply to music. We help to complete the music, audience and performers alike, by allowing it to sound and that is perfection enough. And each performance, public or private, is unique since what we bring to the music changes moment to moment. We break rules, add ornaments, swing a rhythm, hum along, change the words, make mistakes or even play the music as written and suddenly a new sound exists.
It seems to me that notation (or the composer) sometimes struggles to define music, to make it permanent and lasting. It is a losing battle but if we remember that notation is not complete, the written music becomes a seed that sprouts and re-sprouts endlessly. The beauty of the incomplete is that it can bring about many moments of music over and over without ever being finished.
To paraphrase The Lady's Not for Burning by Christopher Fry: "I can pass to you generations of roses in this wrinkled berry...What is not, you have in your palm. Rest in the riddle."

May 20, 2016

Wood and Bone - A Very Short History of the Flute

The oldest instrument ever found is a flute (in a general sense) that is made from the bone of a vulture’s wing. It has been dated to around 30,000 to 40,000 years old. (There are older artifacts that some claim are parts of flutes but that is still being argued with great passion.) The top is an open tube with a v-notch on one side. The assumption is the player blew through the top of the tube down the v-notch while holding the flute vertically. This is a fairly well developed design that suggests this type of instrument dates from even earlier but finding anything older will likely prove tricky. There are a number of current folk flutes that use similar "rim-blown" vertical designs and the history of the vertical flutes (and more than a few reed instruments) have been well and truly tied to the flute's history. But today the instrument we most often think of as a flute is the horizontally held concert flute or transverse flute.

Rim-blown Flute

Bone was a common material for flutes and wind instruments for a long time. Some old flutes and reed instruments were named after the bones typically used to make them (the tibia is the name of a double reed instrument in Ancient Rome and there is a type of whistle called phalanges). Not too coincidentally, flutes and reed instruments were associated with sacrifices and religious ceremonies. Some cities kept wind players on an official payroll because they were required at religious ceremonies regularly. At the same time, they were often considered rural instruments that were played by country people and associated with nymphs and wild Gods who couldn’t quite be trusted. In many cultures, playing a wind instrument wasn’t as respectable as playing strings or singing. Girls and boys both could seriously damage their reputations by learning to play them.

Wood and other plant material were also popular material for flutes. Possibly they were more popular and we just have fewer surviving examples. Native Americans have stories of the first flute being made from yucca and sunflower stalks. There are many trees with the common name of “whistlewood” because they were/are used for flutes and whistles by instrument makers or children. Occasionally, even poisonous trees were used though eventually someone pointed out what a bad idea this was! In Europe's more recent history, boxwood was one of the favorites for most wind instruments for centuries but today grenadilla has become very common. So many other woods are used that the list tends to get excessively long. (I happen to have flutes made from grenadilla, maple, sycamore and sapele.)

In fact, flutes have been made out of nearly any kind of material that can be made into a hollow tube. Wax, glass, clay, potatoes and carrots (I’m not making this up) are just some of the examples. The metal flute is a quite recent development and some modern performers still prefer wood instruments. One common compromise is for the head joint to be made of wood and the body of the flute to be metal. This generally gives it more of a wood sound, but makes the key-work more reliable and reduces the likelihood of the wood cracking.
Metal, Glass and Wood Flutes

Nearly every culture has created several different styles of flute, including transverse types. But the transverse flute isn't recorded as being popular in Europe until the Baroque era. The most common theory is that some form of transverse flute from India or the Middle East made it's way to Europe during the Medieval crusades (not at all uncommon) and then slowly became more popular. There are several problems with this. One is that the examples of the flute that are used to show it "traveling" change design (and the direction the flute points) several times. This isn't a deal breaker since design changes happen all the time but it does make it less certain that that is how the transverse flute got to Europe. Another problem is that this theory ignores all the "folk" flutes in Europe, some of which were transverse. These folk flutes weren't written about or painted much because they were too unimportant and associated with the lower classes. Even during the Baroque and Classical era, many popular instruments were ignored because they were only being played by lower class "professional" musicians and not by the "amateur" upper-class musicians who didn't need to be paid (you have to remember that "professional" and "amateur" were social rankings not indications of how well you played and that being paid for a skill was automatically low class). My guess is that the folk flutes were influenced by the transverse flutes from the Middle East, India or even China as people moved back and forth in the Middle Ages. New music from other countries alone could have inspired new instrument designs and curious musicians usually do try new instruments whenever they can or think up ways of combining two different styles of instruments. All of this eventually led to a new type of transverse flute, the earliest version of the one we see in orchestras today.

The historical European transverse flutes that we have records of seem to have been made in one or two pieces at first (headjoint and body). Later, they were generally made in 2, 3 or 4 sections so key-work could be added with less effort, to tune them in different ways and so they could be taken apart and stored more easily. The first key was added to the flute in the 1620s. This is also around the time the flute became more popular in Classical music and began to take over the role the recorder had held for years. It also matches up with when the scales and modes were changing and new tuning systems were coming into use. As the music kept changing, people kept adding keys to all the instruments. However, there was nearly no agreement about what keys were best to use, how they should be attached or even if they should be used at all. Again, this goes with the wide range of musical styles that were in use. There are so many different designs that I'm not even going to try to explain them all (some were quite wild).

Theobold Boehm standardized the keys on the flute in the mid-1800s and adjusted the design to play Romantic music (as opposed to all the earlier stuff). Boehm's flute was then tweaked, adjusted, added to and generally changed several more times and metal flutes started turning up in the 1900s. All of these changes were bitterly argued over and there are still new keys, scale tunings and other changes being developed nearly every day. It is really an illusion that there is one standard type of concert flute in use. Some styles of music (trad. Irish and Historically Inspired Performance/HIP for example) use strictly older flute designs with few or no keys even today.
Baroque Flute Deconstructed

Every change to the design of the flute, no matter how small, changes the sound of the instrument so it is hardly surprising that nearly all the older styles can be heard today. What's more, each musician sounds different on each flute so one flute may sound brassy, bright, haunting or lush when played by different people. And this is why I so enjoy meeting the different flutes in the world and in history!

For more information;
The Flute (Yale Musical Instrument series) by Ardall Powell
The Flute Book by Nancy Toff
The Development of Western Music by K. Stolba (dense!)
Method for the One-Keyed Flute by Janice Boland
The Early Flute (Oxford Early Music series)  by John Solum
The Early Flute: A Practical Guide by Rachel Brown
The Earliest Instrument: Ritual Power and Fertility Magic of the Flute in Upper Paleolithic Culture by 
Lana Neal

April 23, 2016

The Mythical Jacquaflute

I've been wishing for a vertically held rim-blown flute for some time. There are lots out there but none of them where quite what I wanted (a few examples are the Middle Eastern ney, the Japanese shakuhachi and the South American quena). Then I found someone who makes both Ancestor Pueblo/Anasazi style flutes and keyless transverse wood flutes. I asked him to mix them together in a size that fit my hands. Here is the result.

Cross between Pueblo / Anasazi style flute and keyless transverse flute

Sycamore rim-blown flute in G made by Jon Norris Music & Arts
end-blown flute
Blowing edge

The embouchure is quite different from a concert flute but not harder. Think of it as like blowing across a water bottle but trickier because there's a sweet spot. I spent a couple of days getting the flute to speak reliably and a week getting a feel for the range and different tones it can make. I love playing it outside, especially in the woods.

Like most flutes, getting a good recording takes a few trials and errors. I'm still working out the kinks and feedback issues that go with this flute but I think I managed to get a decent track here.



A short bit about Pueblo/Anasazi flutes.
First, the name. Ancestor Pueblo is more polite but Anasazi is more widely used. Archeologists are a bit weird about saying the Anasazi people are related to today's Pueblo tribes. There isn't really a good reason for this. In Europe, they don't hesitate to call ancient remains German or French based on where they were found and then explain that they may or may not be direct ancestors of the people living in those countries. But not here in the Americas. Makes them seem a bit silly to me.
Second, the age. The Pueblo flutes that have been found in the Desert Southwest are around 1500 years old (at least). This means they predate Columbus and even the Vikings in the Americas. It is unusual to find wood instruments this old anywhere simply because of how fast wood decays. Older flutes (and other instruments) have been found but they are generally made of bone, clay or stone.
Now the size. The Pueblo flutes that have been dug up are all fairly large and deep. The low range is considered part of the "voice" of this type of flute. However, this doesn't mean smaller versions didn't exist just that we haven't found any. The Hopi flute and the South America quena are both examples of more current rim-blown flutes that are smaller and higher than the Pueblo flute. It would make sense for these flutes to be related to the Pueblo flutes but again, we don't know for sure. Individual makers certainly made changes to the design that seemed good to them or to accommodate some lunatic musician's ideas. This is common for all musical instruments in all ages. Nothing in music stays static really. It is a constantly changing art form.
Finally the scale and finger placement. The Pueblo flutes don't use a diatonic, pentatonic or chromatic scale. It's pretty intriguing and seems to be set up to let the musician chose between a major or minor sound (or go back and forth) without having to go up into the higher register. I went for a scale I'm already familiar with for my first venture into rim-blown flutes but may well try out the other scale sometime. In a way, this made my flute similar to the South American quena. But without a thumb hole and with smaller, easier to cover finger holes. And a different blowing edge which gives me a wider variety of sounds and a different tone than the quena. More on the quena in a later post.

So there you go. The Mythical Jackalope flute has been sighted, lured into the open and determined to exist at long last.

March 20, 2016

Flute Gods of the Americas

Every culture in the world seems to have some version of the flute. The idea of blowing across a hole and splitting air to make music is not really that difficult to come up with so this isn't that surprising. But there are many different ways these instruments develop. In the Americas, many different flutes have existed for many, many years. And like all flutes, there are many stories about them.

The Native American flute (sometimes called the Woodland flute or Plains flute though those two are not exactly the same) is held vertically and actually has more in common with the recorder than the concert flute. Both have a duct or a chamber that guides the air stream to the edge that creates sound. The Native American flute has an external duct and a different scale than the concert flute which is part of what creates it's individual sound. It is generally considered a North American instrument and yes, there are several different versions of this instrument in different tribes. In some stories, the Native flute was “invented” by a young man who heard music on the breeze coming from a hollow branch with holes made by a woodpecker. In others, the woodpecker is considered the musical inventor who gave the flute to people to express themselves better.

Woodpecker the Flute Maker
Woodpecker the Flute Maker

Native American flutes were often used as courting instruments and to lure girls outside and away from their parents. R. Carlos Nakai has said that unmarried girls from Native societies are still sometimes not allowed to attend his concerts and there are still far fewer women who play this instrument than men. Mary Youngblood is one of the more famous exceptions. Kokopelli (there are several different spellings) is possibly the most famous flute player from the Americas. The hunched figure playing a flute or pipe is found in ancient rock art all over the Southwest and Central America. There are often lines coming off of Kokopelli’s head that remind some people of antenna; a flute playing insect.

Ocarina-Kokopelli

Kokopelli is also one of the katchina figures-a masked dancer who chases the women while his wife Kokopelli-mana chases the boys. Some stories say that the hunched back is a sack and Kokopelli is a traveling salesman who plays flute to attract customers. Some say the sack is full of seeds, music or babies. Kokopelli is generally considered a fertility god (like nearly all mythic flute players). He often brings rain with him when he travels and helps crops grow. Some scholars say that the Kokopelli myths can be used to track the spread of maize or corn throughout the Americas. Katherine Hoover’s “Kokopeli” is a very popular piece for the concert flute (an instrument more often played by women than men) meant to represent Kokopelli as a leader of the migrations of the Native Americans.
What flute he plays is open to debate. The Native flute is held vertically which would match the rock art nicely. But archaeologists have also found several vertically held rim blown flutes (no ducts) in the desert Southwest that would also fit the silhouette we see. These flutes are sometimes called Ancestor Pueblo or Anasazi flutes (Pueblo is more polite, Anasazi is more widely used so knowing both is important). Again, they have a different scale than either the concert flute or the Native American flute and so have a different sound and tone.
Rim blown flute
Diatonic Pueblo / Anasazi style Flute. Non-traditional scale and size but it gives you the idea.

In South America there are several different types of flutes. One is the quena that is held vertically. The quena is somewhat similar to the Pueblo flutes but smaller and with a scale closer to the concert flute. In the Andes today, travelers still sometimes play flutes to announce themselves and show they are peaceful as they travel from village to village. The panpipes and ocarinas also have been played in South America for ages. Europeans took the ocarina idea back over the ocean with them and now they can be found in a wide range of places. (I'll be doing more research on this instrument's history and myths later.)

Jabuti (various spellings) is sometimes the name of a character in folktales from the Amazon rain forest. He is a small tortoise who plays pranks on all the other creatures and usually outwits them, though (like most tricksters) he sometimes manages to outwit himself as well. In Gerald McDermott’s story, Jabuti plays a flute and makes the creatures in the jungle all dance and sing. When the birds go to sing for the King of Heaven, Jabuti wants to go and play his flute. Vulture (who is not happy with the sneaky turtle) offers to carry Jabuti to the sky but then drops him on his back, shattering Jabuti’s shell. The other birds help patch his shell back together (Humpty Dumpty could have learned a thing or two from this tortoise) and Jabuti lives to play music and tricks another day.
In other less Westernized stories, the flute playing tortoise is female and loves to dance. She often cons her way out of trouble or simply plays music to win others over to her side. The flute this character plays is not very well defined. Sometimes panpipes are pictured and other times a very general vertical flute is shown. I suspect her instrument choice changed depending on what flute was popular at the time.

Meanwhile, in the Brer Rabbit tales from North America, Brer Turtle uses Brer Vulture’s feathers to make “quill pipes” after tricking Brer Vulture out of some honey. Brer Fox hears the wonderful music and steals the pipes from Brer Turtle. Brer Turtle sneaks up on Brer Fox, bites and hangs onto his toe until Brer Fox gives the pipes back.
It is believed that both the Brer Rabbit and Jabuti/Tortoise tales have links to West African folktales, mixed with Native American stories that have taken on a life of their own.
The image of a turtle with a round shell playing a flute looks a great deal like the basic Kokopelli image to me though I know of no direct connection between the two.


Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales as told by Julius Lester
(a more recent version of the Brer Rabbit stories and my personal favorite)
  
Kokopelli: The Magic, Mirth and Mischief of an Ancient Symbol by Dennis Slifer