January 6, 2016

The 14 Hour Conducting Final

Everyone has a class final disaster story. Mine is from Intro to Conducting. It took over 14 hours to complete a 10 minute assignment, several different pieces of video equipment were broken and it showed me how Aikido relates to conducting. Please note; the names in this story have been changed to protect the embarrassed.

Music majors all had to take Intro to Conducting. This had two basic points. One was to perhaps inspire one or two of us to take up the career or at least let us know the basics if we ever had to be substitute teachers in a high school band class (I've got a story about that too). The other was to help us follow conductors better; you can follow most conductors pretty easily but it does help to know what they THINK they are doing.
Our grade was based on both practical conducting exercises and paper assignments and tests. For our last assignment, we had to record ourselves conducting several different short pieces and turn in the video tape at the in-class final which was at 8 am on the last day of finals. Incomplete assignments would be tossed out and because of how this assignment was weighted, not turning it in meant failing the class.
We worked in groups of at least three, each taking turns conducting the other two. My group was made up of Mike (tuba), Nicole (marimba) and myself (flute), an odd set of instruments but not a problem since only the conducting was being graded. There was a room in the library set up for the class to use (this was before everyone had video recorders on their cell phones) but Mike owned a video camera so we figured we could get together outside of library hours which was good since our schedules kept not matching up. We finally got together in the afternoon the day before the video was due, thinking we had plenty of time since we each just needed to get about 10 minutes of conducting on video. Mike set up his camera and then discovered it wasn’t working. He tried to fix it for a while but eventually borrowed another one from a friend and spent an hour or so making that one work. We finally got the equipment working around 9:30 pm and got started. I count this as the actual start time and the earlier stuff as merely preliminary aggravation.

Nicole went first. She was very picky and redid all her pieces several times trying to get the best one. Understandable since this was for a final but it kept getting later and later. After an hour and a half, she finished. Then I took my turn. I was determined to finish as fast as possible since after all, I wasn't a conducting major and I was still hoping to study for the in-class final (a dream that never was realized). The first take of my first piece went ok (meaning I made no major mistakes and we all got to the end together) so I decided not to redo it. Before I started on the second piece, I put my hair up since it had been getting in the way. (Remember this! It matters a lot later in the story!) After one or two fumbles, I finished all my pieces and we moved on to Mike. He was also picky and took about an hour to finish. It was much later than we expected but we still needed to get our videos onto separate tapes to turn in to the teacher. (I forget why we couldn't simply record directly onto our own tapes but we couldn't.) So we trooped off to Mike’s room since he had the equipment to handle that. But the VCR machine wouldn’t work. He smacked it around for a bit but couldn’t get it to cooperate. We knew we could do this in the library but by this time it was after 2 am, the in-class test was at 8 am and the library wouldn’t open till 9 am. Since we were out of options, we decided to beg the teacher for some extra time to use the library’s equipment to transfer our finished videos onto our own tapes. We all crawled off to sleep for a couple of minutes.

Nicole and I got to the final about 10 minutes early (rather bleary) and threw ourselves on the teacher’s mercy. He said as long as we got the tapes turned in before he left campus at noon, he’d take them. We thanked him profusely, breathed a sigh of relief and waited for Mike to get to class. And waited. And waited. The teacher handed out the test and Mike still wasn’t there. We began plotting how to break into Mike’s room to get the video after the test or something. Just as we were finishing the test around 9, Mike came RUNNING into the room with his hair standing on end and looking like he was about to cry. He had slept through his alarm and had had a rather rude awakening. I think he hurt his knees hitting the floor to beg to take the test but luckily our teacher was a nice guy and technically, there were two hours blocked out for the test anyway. Mike got to take as much of the test as he could in the slightly less than one hour left. Nicole and I got the video tape from him (along with many apologies and variations on "I'm getting a new alarm clock this afternoon") and headed off to the library, thinking the worst was behind us.
We got into the video-audio room and set things up to transfer our recordings to our tapes. And the VCR machines stopped working. This was clearly Nicole's breaking point; she sort of slid out of her chair and collapsed under the desk, softly mumbling "we're all gonna fail" over and over. Now, I am one of those people who walks into a room and all the electronics stop working right. This means I was very familiar with all the ways the equipment in the audio-visual center broke. I could even fix quite a few of the most common break downs and knew who could fix the others. This particular issue could only be fixed by one person; the head of the audio-visual department. So I made sure Nicole wasn't going to hurl herself out of the window or anything and went hunting for him. He was in a meeting so I waved at him through the window till he came out and got him to fix the machines. Nicole emerged from the depths and started babbling happily in relief to anyone within 3 feet of her which was oddly even less helpful than hiding under the desk had been. But we got her video transferred without further incident.

Then we set up for mine. Now remember what I said about putting my hair up AFTER finishing the first piece while we were recording this? First I appeared on camera with my hair down. Then there was a blip in the film and I was standing there with my hair up. Mike had recorded over the first piece by mistake. (I should mention that normally, Mike was a pretty responsible person-this final just did him in.) After some initial panic, I realized the teacher had given us some time and we were in the library thus making it possible to re-record that piece. The trick was that these pieces had to be in the specified order meaning I couldn’t transfer the other pieces and tack the missing one on at the end. I had to re-record first. And just to complicate things, we realized Nicole’s marimba couldn’t be transported to the library, so she couldn’t play the music for me. My one hope was to find another student from our conducting class who had their instrument with them and would help me out. After going up and down all four floors (while courting a fine case of denial), I ran into Louisa, another flute player. I told her a highly abbreviated version of what was happening and she dropped everything and came to my rescue. With Louisa in tow, I planned on grabbing Mike when he finished taking his in-class test and quickly cranking out a fast, sloppy, version of the missing piece.
By now, it was almost time for me to go to work so getting that time restraint out of the way was the next issue. My work-study job was one building over, so I went to talk to them. They asked how my conducting final had gone (they were really nice people) and why I looked so stressed. I told them I'd been working on it for almost 12 hours (at that point) and wasn't done yet and could I have the time off to finish? They commiserated and made me promise to tell them the whole story later. I crossed my fingers and hoped nothing else would go wrong.

Back to the library I went. Mike had gotten there and was getting his video transferred. But then he revealed that he couldn’t stay to re-record my missing piece. He had to go to work. I think I stared at him for about 5 minutes in shock. Nicole and Louisa suggested I go through the whole library floor by floor (for a third time) looking for yet ANOTHER student from our class. On the last day of finals when most students had finished all their classes. At 11 am when most people LEFT the library for lunch. This is when I sat down on the floor and began to cry, thinking “this will be a funny story if I pass. Maybe even if I don't.” Fortunately, Nicole came out of her I’m-so-happy-to-have-finished trance at this point and realized I needed some help. Somehow, she found another student from our class, Guy, at HIS work-study job in the library stacks and dragged him into the video room at baton point. Then she ran to the rehearsal hall next door to get his trumpet so he wouldn’t technically be leaving work. I pulled myself back together, thanked everyone and took over the recording room.
I yanked out my (very battered) music and tried to lead them through the missing piece. And it fell apart. We were all so tired no one could follow me. Or find the beat. Or remember which way was up. We could not get through the piece without stopping and we weren’t allowed to have any “breaks” in the pieces themselves. Out of desperation (and after five or six tries), I decided to use an Aikido technique; extending ki and one-point. The idea is that you send your energy and intent throughout your whole body and out into the space around you. This makes your body move in precise and controlled ways, which works great for throwing people in a martial arts class. I was hoping that I could somehow take control of Guy’s and Louisa’s instruments with my mind and little baton and at least get through the wretched piece once without having them stop. And it worked! To my absolute amazement, we made it through the whole piece in one go. They played with better tone and technique than all the earlier attempts and Louisa even commented that my conducting was suddenly better than anything I’d done in the class up to that point. She then suggested I re-record the other pieces doing "whatever that was" again. I said I didn't think there was time (since who knew how long it would take to drag them through the other pieces) and I just wanted to turn in a complete assignment, never mind what grade I got. So she and Guy wished me luck and left.

First piece done, I went to transfer the other pieces to my tape. And the VCR machine stopped working again. (Yeah, I know, I should have expected THAT!) I whimpered and headed off to drag the head of the audio-visual center out of his meeting again (it really was his job and there really wasn’t anyone else capable of dealing with this glitch), and he fixed it. Again. And FINALLY, completed tape in hand, I bolted off to the faculty mailroom, double checked that the teacher hadn’t left early (which I WAS expecting but my luck had finally changed) and turned it in with 15 minutes to spare.
Then I crawled back up to my room, where my roommate was just getting up. She had last seen me heading off to start the recording the previous afternoon and naturally asked how my final went. I said it would take too long to explain or even sum up and I would tell her about it after I slept. And that I just might, after the end of class, have figured out how to handle a baton effectively.

And yes, I passed. With an A.

December 27, 2015

Music, Memorization and Dyslexia

I was reading a book with an article by a dyslexic musician the other day. He said he had always been terrible at memorizing music on cello but good at sight-reading. When he took up guitar, he discovered he was good at memorizing but bad a sight-reader on that instrument. After some thought, he concluded that the constant need to look at his hands on the guitar might close a loop between reading music, playing music and remembering music. His theory is that when you look at your hands, you connect the notes you are reading with the actions of your fingers and both with the musical sounds, which may assist in memorizing the music. The trade off was that he couldn’t look ahead in the music as much as is required to sight-read well.
“Sight-reading and memory” by Michael Lea from Music and Dyslexia; A Positive Approach edited by Tim Miles, John Westcombe and Diana Ditchfield 

Reading music can be similar to typing by touch. When you look at the words, you understand them but you are not processing them in a way that is about remembering them. You are just letting your fingers type the letters as you see them. In music, you play the notes as you see them, the information flowing from your eyes to your fingers. You may remember a fair amount, possibly even all, of the music after practicing it for a few weeks but that isn’t the same as memorizing it well enough to perform by memory. Anyone who has prepared for a contest where memorization is required can tell you all about that! And I often feel nervous about my memory unless I have spent intensive time playing without music in front of me. The time spent playing with the music is simply not helpful on that score (sorry about the pun).

I have observed that instrumentalists who are expected to memorize most of their music tend to be ones who can see what their hands are doing easily, without contortions. In fact, piano, guitar and harp players are expected to watch their hands. Meanwhile, wind players are actively discouraged from trying to look at their hands or fingers while playing for the very good reason that it twists you up and it is nearly impossible to play while doing so. They are also allowed to read music in performance more often. Strings tend to be somewhere in-between these two groups both in the memorization expectation and in how easy it is to see their hands while playing.
Now, mirrors are often used by wind players to check embouchure and hand position. It occurred to me that we flute players should try setting up our music stand right in front of a mirror so that we can look from the music to our fingers in the mirror with minimal movement. I have, unintentionally and unconsciously, used this trick to memorize music in the past but only after learning the music fairly well. Next time, I’ll try it when just starting to learn the piece and see how my twisted brain reacts.

November 25, 2015

Artemis Who Loves Song and Dance

Rising Full Moon
The Wild Wood
We are familiar with Artemis as the huntress of wild things, the independent Goddess of the Moon who refused to marry and guards young children. But she is also a Goddess closely linked to singing and dancing. 
The Dancing Hunter
In myths and poems, Artemis is described as loving to sing and leading her nymphs in song as often as they hunted. Artemis led the Muses in circle dances and directed their choir singing (before Apollo became their manager). Young girls dressed in saffron tunics and danced a bear dance in honor of Artemis before they were allowed to marry. In myths, Helen, Ariadne and girl after girl were abducted while dancing or singing for Artemis. Aphrodite once disguised herself as a mortal and claimed the same thing had happened to her to make her story convincing. Many dances were considered sacred to Artemis: circle dances, winding chain dances, lively jigs with wild leaps into the air and dances where the dancers dressed as plants, deer (or other animals) and the opposite sex. Karyatis, Kordax and Korythalia are all titles or names linked to Artemis and the dances that were done in her honor.
Deer in Winter
The Moon and Deer are Symbols of Artemis
A few of Artemis's musical (or at least noisy) titles include; 
-Hegemone “leader of dance" or "choir leader.” 
-Hymnia “of the hymns” or "lover of songs." 
-Celadeinus/Celadeine “strong voiced" or "lady of clamors.”
And a final observation of my own; Erato the Muse of erotic and love poetry, wedding music and sometimes dance, is sometimes shown holding a bow and arrows, like Eros the God of love. And Artemis the leader of the songs and dances of nymphs, Muses and Graces, is most often pictured with bow and arrows today.

Eclipse Crescent Moon
When the Moon shines, Artemis dances with the plants and animals

Artemis is the untamed singer beside the forest stream who leads us into the harmonic wilderness. She is the conductor hiding within the ensemble, the dancer in costume, the disguised side of ourselves who sings duets with those she loves.

October 23, 2015

Playing the Baroque Flute

I'm not an expert on the Baroque flute (also called Traverso.) I was trained on the concert flute and that is where a lot of my skill comes from. But I've been playing Baroque flute for a couple of decades now and I believe I have enough experience to share some tips.
In many ways, information about any transverse flute, modern or ancient, can be transferred to the others. But they do have their personal traits which is what makes them so interesting (and frustrating) to play. Fingerings, tone, volume, range, chromatic notes, basically everything shifts for each flute. This is also what gives them their unique sounds.  

There are several books on Baroque flutes, old and new, out there and I do suggest taking a look at one or more of them. "Method for the One-Keyed Flute" by Boland has some great advice for ANY wood flute, care instructions and some technique exercises. Treat the fingerings as a starting suggestion. Each flute works a bit differently and you may find a different fingering works better. Most of these books assume you already play the modern flute or have a teacher and do not include much basic how-to-get-a-sound-out stuff. If you are starting from scratch you may want to talk to, or take lessons from, a flute teacher to get those basics down.
When looking for advice and tips, keep in mind that there are several different Baroque flutes out there. The flute went through a radical redesign at the beginning of the Baroque era (1600-1750) and then continued to change without any one style becoming standard. Some of the changes included the shape of the bore (inside of the tube), adjusting the tuning and adding a key. Then they added a couple more keys. Then they added yet more keys.  Then they argued about which keys were useful and which were "decadent." The only key they all more or less agreed on was that first one. After that, it was anyone's guess which keys an instrument maker would use. Plus, some Baroque flutes can be taken apart into 3 pieces, some 4 pieces, some have multiple-sized interchangeable middle sections used to adjust tuning and the foot joint can sprout a telescoping extension.
In spite of all that, tips for one style of Baroque flute can generally be applied to the others. But it helps tremendously to know exactly what kind of Baroque flute a person is talking about.
photo by Kenton Samual
Baroque flute in action. Photo by STL Photovisions
I play a one-keyed, four-piece Baroque flute. It is one of the simpler (though not simplest) styles. It has some of the most limits on chromatics and scales unless you are comfortable with half-hole fingerings. Most players back in the day shifted to flutes with more keys pretty quickly. It is one of the last flutes that could be held to either side of the body though it was usually held to the right so the flute section wouldn't knock into each other too often.

Baroque flute, Maple wood
Baroque flute in pieces. Maple wood.

Now here are my main tips; Work with tuning and modes. Try to improvise on the flute you are learning. And play the flute regularly even if you don't sound the way you want yet.

Tuning on the Baroque flute is not the same as the concert flute. Not just because of the reduced chromatic notes either. The internal scale is tuned a bit differently than a modern flute and it takes time to adjust. Any tuning work on any flute will help so if tuning the Baroque flute gets too frustrating, do some tuning exercises on another flute for a bit. This improves your ear which WILL help your tuning on the Baroque flute eventually. Remember, as your ear improves, you hear the flaws in your playing more and it can feel like you are getting worse. You aren't. Your hearing and your playing are just improving at different rates.
In general, typical tuning issues on the concert flute are magnified on the Baroque flute. For example, the 3rd and 7th degrees of the major scale need attention. And any note in a chord that needs tweaking on the concert flute likely will need very careful adjusting on the Baroque flute.

Closely related to tuning is playing in modes. These are scales that use different patterns than major or minor. Playing in a mode is often easier than trying to play in many major or minor scales other than the scale the flute is tuned to. (That's what all those keys are for-chromatics and shifting keys.) This is why you will find quite a bit of older music and folk music that uses modes. It fit the instruments better. 
What's more, playing in a mode makes you listen to your tuning differently. You will notice that some modes are easier to play in tune than others. This is partly a result of how you are listening to and adjusting your tuning. Each scale rearranges your hearing and tuning sense whether you notice it or not. A note that sounds fine in one mode may sound badly out of tune in another. This teaches you a lot about the tuning of your instrument.
This takes time and work, no way around it. But here's the good thing; if you keep at it, you eventually will develop a more instinctive understanding of how to adjust on the Baroque flute. You will always need to pay attention but it will become more natural, at least on some scales.
This link is a short introduction to the modes if you want to know more about them.

Now, improvising is a WONDERFUL way of getting to know an instrument, in my humble opinion. Chasing down a melody in your head will really teach you what an instrument is capable of in your hands. Additionally, playing a wide range of music helps you find out what works on a specific instrument faster than almost anything. I suggest looking at older music that was written when these flutes were commonly played (though some of these may prove a bit challenging!) or folk music. This music is often written with some awareness of which chromatics are difficult to handle. Take these tunes as leaping off points, ornament them, add notes and let the tunes lead you into improvised melodies that explore the flute's sound. But don't stop there. Experiment with music you like that is outside the typical style for the Baroque flute. Some pieces will work, some will sound dreadful and others will sound oddly transformed. This is all useful when getting comfortable with a new instrument.
You also need time to develop the tone you want and improvising is a great tool for that too. The tone of a wooden Baroque flute will naturally be different than a metal concert flute (this is why many people like it.) But there is a wide range of possible sounds within that wood tone. Listen to your sound, the sound of other players and see if you can change your sound to match others. Experiment to find out just how many changes you can make to your tone. Not every change will create a "pleasant" tone and this is ok for our purposes. The more tone options you have, the easier it is to create a tone you like or that fits a specific performance. It is nearly impossible to describe in words just HOW a person changes their tone. We tend to resort to "relax your throat" or "let the air pour out" or "make it sound like melted chocolate" to cause students to change embouchure shapes. The control of those tiny muscles develops almost subconsciously the longer you play and listen to others. Which makes playing for fun (and I think improvising is wildly fun) one of the best tone exercises around.

Don't be discouraged if you don't sound like a virtuoso right away. Just keep at it. Playing/practicing in short, regular sessions is the key. Five minutes once a day will bring about improvement. Fifteen minute sessions each day or every other day are plenty long enough when starting out. You don't want to exhaust yourself and regular practice rather than long is what keeps you from forgetting what you've learned.
And if you miss a day (or three) don't beat yourself up. You won't forget everything THAT fast! Besides, breaks are good both for your playing and for your enthusiasm. I firmly believe that having one scheduled day a week that you do not practice (unless you just feel like it) keeps you from getting overwhelmed and frustrated. You need that down time to remember how much you enjoy playing, to find and listen to recordings you want to sound like and to get some rest.

Whatever you do, make sure you have fun! Perfection is not the goal of music; delight and joy is.

September 24, 2015

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