June 16, 2014

Blending and Shining in Performance

I was a shy musician as a youngster. When I first started playing flute, it was quite a challenge for me to "play out" in ensembles. Don't get me wrong, I was a reasonably good player but being heard by others made me edgy and uncertain. I spent a great deal of time trying to "shine" when I played with an audience. I learned to see the audience as my friend instead of a bunch of strangers. But that is not actually what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the ability I developed as a result of being a shy musician; blending and matching tone.
Blending into the section or ensemble is one tried and true method for shy musicians to disguise themselves. It makes it easier for players with stage-fright to keep playing when they feel that their personal sound won't be associated with them but instead will merge with the overall sound. Focusing on matching another player's timbre can create the illusion of being hidden within the overall sound. This means that I spent years unconsciously developing not only the ability to play with others but to transform my tone blend with almost any instrument.
Not that I realized this at first. In high school, when people commented on how well I matched sounds with the oboe in duets, I barely even understood what they meant. Of course I had blended my flute with the oboe; it was how I made myself feel confident enough to keep playing even when I missed a note. It seemed so natural to me that it didn't occur to me that others weren't doing it too.
By college, I began to understand that blending was a skill in its own right and well worth praising. However, I still didn't grasp the full extent of what I had been teaching myself to do with tone qualities until I took a Jazz improvisation class in Grad school.
The assignment that opened my ears to my own knack came along about halfway through the class. We were required to find a good improvised solo, learn it and then play it with the recording. Most people did well with this as far as learning the solo went. But when my turn came round, the overwhelming comment I got back was "how did you make yourself SOUND like that Jazz flute player?!" A couple of students said that at first they thought I wasn't playing at all because I matched the tone so well. Thinking it through, I realized most of the other students had indeed sounded distinctly different than their chosen soloist; the notes and rhythms were fine but the tone and attitude remained their own which usually made the solo sound slightly "off" no matter how accurately they played. Unfortunately, I was still matching sounds mostly automatically and had trouble offering any tips on how to transform yourself from a Classical player to a Jazz player with your tone alone. After struggling for a bit I came up with the explanation of "It was easier to hear the solo that way" which wasn't the most helpful answer for those trying to figure out how to do this trick.
For some time now, I've been trying to use this skill more consciously and deliberately. Instead of using it to hide within the ensemble, I try to use it to support the group. Rather than worrying that a wrong note will mark me out, I let the blending of tones smooth over the small mistakes and carry me along. Even in solos, when I am supposed to stand out, I find it helpful to remember the sound of the group and match (or contrast!) my "shining out" sound with what came before and what will be along after in a way that will help hold the whole piece together.
Matching tone is mostly about two things; learning as many different ways to change your sound as possible and listening to another musician's sound with the intent of making it PART of your own. You can't be focused on stealing the spotlight for this; your attention must be on the overall result. This also isn't about finding the "best" tone quality, but about exploring the different kinds of tone. Sometimes a rough gritty tone is breathtakingly beautiful and other times the traditional crystal clear flute sound is just right.

I still don't have a lot to offer to those trying to learn to do this. But perhaps with some more time spent being aware of this talent and how I use it, I will also learn how to explain and teach it. And in any case, approaching music from my strengths and focusing on what is working well adds to the joy I feel every time I hold my flute in my hands.

May 14, 2014

The Perfect Embouchure Myth

"I wanted to play flute but my band director told me I couldn't. There's a dip in my top lip that would get in the way so I gave up on music."
I wanted to cry when I heard this from a someone in my audience. Then track down that fool-in-band-director-clothing and make him promise never to try to teach music again. Because while yes, some people have a bit of extra flesh in the middle of the upper lip and yes, it can create a challenge for flute playing if it is large enough, it in no way makes it impossible to play. All that you have to do is play with the flute off-center. And many talented flute players have an embouchure that is off-center. AND not everyone who has a droplet in their upper lip will have any trouble at all. I know a flute player who has a large droplet that flattens out all on its own to a "picture perfect" embouchure when she plays. She didn't even realize she had a droplet for the first year she played. (For the curious, I have a very small droplet and play slightly off-center but you have to look close to tell.)
What's more, everyone has a slightly different embouchure. We have to. We aren't all built the same so a shape and placement that creates a clear tone for one player, will create a fuzzy sound for another. It is well worth trying out different ideas, shapes and placements for embouchures to find out what works for you but the real test is if you like your tone. It is quite common to try to develop a more relaxed embouchure because most folks play with too much tension at first. We feel like it takes strength and muscle to improve tone and that makes us tighten up. Of course, it does take muscles and strength but not tension. Learning how to balance that is tricky but well worth it if only so you don't get too tired while playing. The extra advantage of working with different embouchures is that you learn how to use different tones at will. Looking at the embouchure of someone whose tone you like is a good start but never forget that you may not sound the same as them. Listen to your sound, be aware of how your embouchure feels and then change something to see what happens.
This link has a series of pictures of flute embouchures and there is a wide range there! It is a great place to go if you like visual cues.
http://www.larrykrantz.com/embpic.htm

April 21, 2014

Dark Sky Music

Moon Rise
Rising Moon
Dark Sky Week is April 20-26
Playing flute around the middle of the night is a habit for me. One reason is I’m a night owl and this is a convenient time to get some practicing done. But the music that wells up at this time is often different than during the daylight. Pieces have life in them even when I am still learning their twists and turns. Improvisations speak more deeply and enchant me for longer. Even the technique exercises become freer and more fluid at this time of night. This is when I can imagine that only the owls and the trees can hear me. This is when self-consciousness fades away into nothing and anything is possible. On especially nice nights, I sometimes go outside and play on the patio where only starlight reflects off the flute.
Of course, I can be heard just as clearly at this time as during the sunny hours. Many, if not all, of my neighbors have commented on the “mysterious” flute player in the woods out here. Some have even told me that they love sitting out on their porches and waiting to hear the flute music roll down the hill. If anything, the darkness creates a more noticeable spotlight for the music than the brightest stage-light. But only for the sound. Most of my neighbors never guess who the musician is. Even those who know I play flute usually don’t realize it’s me until someone tells them. Why, I’m not quite sure. Unless that element of nighttime mystery crept into the music and hid my identity. This may be why I like playing in the dark. My own sense of self is less noticeable and the music can simply be another nightly creature in the woods. Raccoons and possums have wandered by as the notes tumbled round the patio. The crickets and tree-frogs keep time with the exploring rhythms. The trees dance with both the wind and the motivic melodies. Stage-lights create the illusion of being surrounded by darkness but this is the real thing. There is nothing to hide from and no reason to try.
Turn off the lights, even the spotlight, and see where the music goes.

Moon in Clouds

April 5, 2014

April Improvisations, May Compositions?

April is here at long last but the trees are still barely budded. I've been waiting and waiting for the spring storms to roll their way across the roof and inspire new notes with each thunderclap. But instead I find myself hearing gentle rains pattering lightly on the ground. Light little taps of a watery baton. The new tunes aren't flashing into my mind this season but they are slowly building up. Each note slithers its way onto the staff like seeds sliding into the ground.
My garden doesn't grow in rows since I'm much too impatient to make the plants behave. Instead the sprouts scatter over wide areas and pop up in places I'm sure I didn't plant them. But the patterns they make are all the more lovely for that. I've taken to writing several versions of a new melody idea for similar reasons. There isn't just one pattern for the notes to follow when I play and for the life of me, I can't decide on one to commit to the still paper version. But when three different versions twist round each other on the page, I am happy and content. I don't have to set these songs in stone; they can leap about into new and unexpected designs. The improvisation and the composition can exist side by side after all.
I was late ordering seeds this spring which has worked out well for once. The cold kept returning, making me grateful there wasn't much in the garden to get nipped by the frost. I feel the same about how long I took before learning to compose. I didn't study the subject in school. The rules and restrictions in those classes would have driven me mad. I understand the point of using structure to develop a creative skill (and use the idea in many ways) but the rules about which intervals could be used and the patterns of melodies that were allowed were not the structure I needed. I needed to follow the notes down into the dark depths of the musical forest, where even the deer trails disappear and learn to find my way about by listening to the notes alone. I needed to have the freedom explore the different ways the harmonies worked from year to year, within their wild home. It took a great deal of time and in many ways I am still lost in the woods but I feel at home there and I have found new and unexpected skills within my musical creations. Little sprigs of ideas appear like mushroom caps and early wild flowers after a rain. And when I let them grow at their own pace, without hurrying them, they often surprise me with their beauty.
I grow salad greens inside the house as well and this year was no exception. The broccoli raab I planted back in January has been a great and unending delight all this long winter. The window box of green florets sits beside my music stand in my practice room where I can look out the window as I work on scales and memorizing. My breath makes the leaves toss and turn at times and I can imagine the plants are dancing to the music. I've watched the winter season through that window with each practice session and gloried in the tiny changes I was seeing. And hearing.
It may have taken a long time but there is no doubt. It is the budding season, the time of new growth and new ideas. The bird-calls fill the days and the coyote-howls fill the nights. Soon, I will take myself outside to practice, to give the note-seeds room to grow and to delight in the spring.


March 19, 2014

Colorful Music

Some, but by no means all, dyslexics have trouble reading music since dyslexia messes with how symbols are processed in the brain. I am one of the dyslexics who finds music notation easier to read than written English (the fact that the notes stay at the same height makes a huge difference for me) but I see no reason why dyslexics who have trouble with music shouldn't get the same amount of help learning notation as I got with spelling. In an earlier post, I talked about techniques to help dyslexics read music. (Inside Out, Back to Front and Upside Down) I have since encountered a couple of new ideas and wanted to share them too. As I have said before, and will again, each dyslexic is different so any technique may or may not work for each specific dyslexic musician. I will also point out any flaws or potential difficulties each strategy may have. This helps make it much easier to AVOID those problems and make the techniques as effective as possible.

Multi-Colored Staff
A youtube video introduced me to this first one. A young dyslexic musician created a musical staff with a different color for each line to keep the musical notes from jumping around on the page. This person still had to spend hours writing notes on the staff to commit the written musical language to memory but getting the notes to hold still is an important, possibly critical, first step. Others have mentioned highlighting a line or two of the staff but I have never run into the idea of using different colors for all the lines before.
multi-colored staff music for dyslexics
dyslexic staff paper
Examples of multi-colored staff. Different colors and wider or narrower lines can be used.
Flaws
The order and choice of colors would be very important. As would how thick the lines are. You would have to spend quite a bit of time working that out for yourself. And then you still wouldn't be able to buy staff paper like this. You simply must create and print it yourself. Not impossible with most computers but still an extra step that must be considered.
Second issue; published music is not printed on this kind of staff. Which means if you want all your music laid out this way, you will have to transfer the music to your own staff paper. This will likely be a long and tedious process.
Now if you just use this colored staff to LEARN to read music and then use other techniques to read published music, that may well work. Certainly worth trying if you have trouble processing written music at all.
A friend with very mild dyslexia says the colors actually make the lines move more for him so clearly this won't work for everyone. But that doesn't mean you can't give it a try.

Highlight the Staff
This idea is inspired by the previous one. Use different colored highlighters (on a copy of the music, not the original!) to "fill in" the spaces of the staff. Again, others have suggested highlighting the top or bottom spaces but I have not heard of using multiple colors to mark out each space before.
Flaws
NEVER use highlighters on music you don't own. It can cost a fortune to replace damaged orchestral parts and yes, most directors would consider highlighting a form of damage. Copy the music and THEN highlight away.
Copying all your music can get pricey which is another down side to this idea (though not as pricey as replacement fees.) Sometimes, you can get the director or ensemble librarian to copy music for you if you explain your situation and ask nicely. But many music groups are suffering from lack of cash too so don't be surprised if they say no.
Again, this idea seems like it might not work for some dyslexics. For me at least, it increases the tendency for the lines to bend and merge because the colors "shrink" the space between the lines. But that doesn't mean it won't work for someone else.

When I discuss these techniques, I typically look at them from a Classical musician's perspective because that is the field where I see the most possibilities of expensive issues. Many folk and Jazz groups either use public domain pieces or more replaceable copies and so making permanent marks on the music is less of a problem. But no matter what style of music you play, if you are given a copy of the music, always check if it is ok to mark it up beforehand. It will save a lot of trouble.

I love how creatively dyslexics deal with the odd things our brains do. Our biggest strength is that we don't think normally and so we can come up with new ideas, new approaches and new methods. And that lets us do and learn whatever we put our minds to.