November 15, 2014

What Do You Hear?

I teach a music history class for non-music majors. One of the first things I make my students do is talk about music. I play musical examples for them and say "tell me what you thought". And silence falls.
After about five minutes of gentle encouragement someone finally gets up the courage to say "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" and I breathe a sigh of relief. If I can get them to admit they have an opinion, there is a chance they will develop some ability to talk about the music. This works even better when one student says they like a piece and another says they don't like the same one. With a little careful assistance in finding the words to describe what they heard, the class often realizes that the exact same musical moments caused both opinions. That is when they realize this class is not about right and wrong answers but about experiencing new music and learning to express their own thoughts.
Quite a few students drop at this point. The idea that their grade is at least partly based on their own opinions and observations seems to be overwhelming for them. They can't just read the book and parrot it back to me or express the same thing another student does because I ask them "why didn't you like this, because of the choppy rhythm or the dissonance?" or "what made you like this piece, the instrument sound or the melody?" The fact that there is no wrong answer to these questions doesn't help them much at first. They may have spent years in school but they have almost never had to express their own opinions. The realization that opinions are exactly what I am after startles most of them and the lack of absolute right answers appears to be terrifying to many.
Once they get this far, they nervously ask for tips and ways to start talking about music "right". I tell them to start with the obvious, all the things that seem too blinding clear to bother describing; is the piece fast or slow, smooth or choppy, loud or quiet, consistent or changeable, name the instruments you hear and when they change to other instruments. Because when you are talking about music, you aren't actually listening to it anymore. All those musical sounds that are obvious in the sounding music aren't obvious at all once the music stops.
Words and music are two different languages and learning to translate from one to the other can be tricky. Music says some things with such ease and grace that the complexity of what they are saying vanishes into simple sound. Those same ideas can take an entire paragraph to describe properly in words and even then, we can find that we have only described the bare surface of the musical sound, not the depth of meaning (for lack of a better term) within the music.
The secret, I think, is that the meaning of the music is at least partly created by our own minds and therefore changes subtly (or less subtly at times) from moment to moment, hearing to hearing and even in retrospect. It is entirely possible to experience a piece one way while listening to it and while writing about it, experience it differently in our own memories. This can make writing about a piece seem like a fantasy or a made up answer. Which it is, of course, since we are talking about what we think about music. We are the ones creating those thoughts and therefore we are making it up as we go. And there is no wrong answer.

October 14, 2014

I Don't Know That Song

"I know that one but I can't do it". This quote from a book about improvisation got me thinking; What is the difference between knowing and being able to perform something? And how does that difference shift based on if the performer reads music or plays by ear?

I was trained to read music so for me, knowing a piece means I can play it reliably well when the music is in front of me. But take that music away and I am suddenly at sea even with simple tunes that can turn into ear-worms. I can often fake a harmony line or even stumble through the tune (after a few false tries) if it is a simple song but I won't really retain it based on that alone. The interesting thing is that I clearly "know" the tune because I recognize whenever I hit a wrong note, flub a rhythm or miss an entrance. For that matter, I also recognize when I get it right! 
I find that learning a piece by ear, even a short repetitive folk tune, can take a startlingly long time compared to reading the sheet music. Having to recognize when a note is right or wrong AND work out the technical details of playing it AND commit the song to memory all at the same time doubles or quadruples the time required to learn the piece. I often get wildly frustrated and say, "just find me some sheet music, it will be faster". But the tunes I have learned by ear I KNOW. They are in my head, my fingers and sometimes simply spring out of the flute without any conscious plan to play them. Even the music I have memorized after learning to play them from sheet music don't take up quite the same space in my mind.

So here are some of the conclusions I have come to; 
Those who habitually play by ear can recognize a tune without knowing it well enough to play by themselves. This doesn't mean they can't play along with a group since they often can come up with something reasonably close based on knowing similar tunes or simply having absorbed the style of music (much easier to do when you spend such intensive amounts of time on every single song). 
Those who usually read music can play a tune with the notation in front of them but may have trouble jumping in with a group that is playing from memory. On the other hand, they can play a wide range of tunes using the sheet music with relatively little prep time. They can even switch styles with reasonable accuracy based on having studied so many different styles (much easier to do if you aren't spending quite as much time learning every single song). 
Additionally, musicians in both groups may develop the ability to fake a tune or a harmony line based on what others are doing. Oddly, this skill is not generally taught in spite of how useful it is in almost all musical situations. Maybe because it feels like cheating to so many musicians, hence the term "fake". What we are actually doing is improvising, often at a very skilled level.

It seems to me that there is a wide range of "knowing" music, ranging from simply recognizing a familiar melody to having each turn and twist committed to soul deep memory. And somewhere in-between, each musician comes up with a sweet spot that let's them know, perform, teach or ornament a tune to the audience's (and their own) satisfaction.

Playing a piece I have halfway memorized and the odd faces I make in the process.

September 18, 2014

Greensleeves - History and Theory

“Greensleeves” is one of the most famous English folk songs. It dates from the Renaissance and has picked up a lot of stories and speculation. It is one of several songs that are so popular, some musicians only play them by request. It has a good melody and some rather interesting harmonies that keep people listening to it over and over. It has been used as the basis for many Classical and Jazz pieces and has even been given Christmas lyrics.

It is generally accepted that the first printed version of “Greensleeves” dates from 1580 as a broadside ballad but that almost certainly means it existed for at least a little bit before this. (The publication history of this tune is pretty crowded; lots of versions, lots of different lyrics and lots of titles. I'm not even going to try to trace that since it can be found elsewhere.) But it is still not likely old enough to have been written by King Henry VIII in spite of the persistent rumor and unfortunate attributions on sheet music. He did write music and lyrics for existing music but he didn’t write this tune or any of its lyrics. Anonymous should get all the credit for this little song. 

The color green had a number of associations in the Renaissance. Sleeves in this era could be detached and switched out for a colorful splash if you had the money for that sort of thing. Green skirts, on the other hand, was a slang reference to grass stains acquired from "rolling around" on the ground and generally misbehaving. But green was also used to represent fidelity and is still very much a color associated with the fairy-folk. All of this has been used to claim the green sleeves in the folksong lyrics refer to an upper-class lady, a virtuous woman wrongly suspected of being a prostitute, an actual prostitute, a fairy or just a someone who liked the color green. Most likely, we won't ever know.

There are several versions of this melody in natural minor, melodic minor, Dorian mode and major. I’ve even run into someone claiming this tune was Eastern European in origin. This could explain why there are so many competing versions since when tunes travel that far, they are often shoehorned into different musical systems. But there was no musical analysis offered to support this idea so that particular theory must be left in the entirely unproven category. Most people I know play this tune in A minor-ish but G minor-ish is fairly common and of course it can be transposed to any starting note you like. One more thing to remember is this song can be written in different meters. Some form of triple meter (6/8 or 3/4 usually) is more common in my experience but plenty of people have shifted it into duple or even odder time signatures.

Here is what I have noticed about this tune.
Musically, what sounds “right” to a society changes over time. During the European Renaissance, the musical sound was shifting away from modes (scales that sound odd to modern ears) and towards the major-minor system (what Western listeners are most used to today). “Greensleeves” uses both systems and therefore shows that transition as it was happening.

The earliest version was printed in minor and since major just sounds wrong to me, I won’t examine that version.
The minor version starts out in the older Aeolian mode but uses the more recent melodic minor scale for the cadences at the end of phrases.

minor scales in Greensleeves

The following sound bite demonstrates the Aeolian mode, the ascending melodic minor scale and a simple version of the melody.



Aeolian (same as natural minor) uses lowered 6th and 7th scale steps. This scale is used throughout the tune when there isn’t a cadence approaching. The chorus actually starts on the lowered 7th scale step, a distinctly modal sound.
The ascending melodic minor scale raises both the 6th and 7th scale steps. This scale is used exclusively at the end of phrases.

Now, the Dorian version follows the same basic pattern - the tune starts in the older Dorian mode and switches to the more recent melodic minor for the ends of phrases.

alternating scale systems in Greensleeves

This sound clip demonstrates the Dorian mode, melodic minor and a short run through of a Dorian version of this song. (You may notice that this version starts and continues one whole note lower than the Aeolian version. This can create the impression that this version is darker or sadder when played right after the other one. It is an illusion created purely by the contrasting starting notes.)



Dorian is almost the same as Aeolian (natural minor) but has a raised 6th.
Melodic minor is actually closer to Dorian than Aeolian in some ways.
(For a more complete explanation of the different modes see my earlier post Modern Modes.)

Perhaps one reason this 400 year old melody remains so popular is that it gives us a small sweet taste of the different variations in music when the collective musical ear was shifting between different scale patterns, creating variegated melodies and harmonies that shimmer and shift with each hearing.

August 12, 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.

July 8, 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.