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.
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.
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.

March 1, 2014

Ionian and Locrian Modes

This post is the last of a series about the modes.

Ionian is the same as the major scale or the same as playing all the white keys from C to C. All major scales are Ionian scales, just starting on different notes than C.
Locrian is the same as a minor scale with a lowered 2nd step and a lowered 5th step or the white keys from B to B. To start on a different note, play the minor scale and lower the 2nd and 5th steps. For example, B minor has two sharps, F and C. Since C is the 2nd step and F is the 5th, both are lowered to natural.

piano keyboard diagram

I'm breaking my pattern and discussing two modes at once (gasp!) in this post. The reason is simple; I don't have a lot to say about either of them.
Ionian is major. Major is Ionian. There just isn't much else to say on the subject. It is possible to argue that since in modes, you don't modulate much (except from mode to mode) that the lack of shifting key signatures is what makes a piece modal Ionian rather than major. But this is a weak argument since there are plenty of major pieces that don't change keys much. It is also possible to argue that how Ionian is used with the OTHER modes makes it Ionian but this doesn't really change how melodies and harmonies in Ionian itself work.

Now on to Locrian. Locrian is the one mode I don't get. At all. Not even a little. It starts and stops on the 7th step of the major scale which is one of the most unresolved sounds possible. In addition, moving both the 2nd and the 5th takes away any sense of center this mode might have had. To me, it always sounds wrong, unfinished, like the composer is messing with the audience or possibly trying (and failing) to impress a theory teacher. Speaking of which, I did have a theory teacher who claimed Locrian was her favorite mode and played it at the end of class regularly. It almost always caused us to run to the nearest piano and play the note after the last note of the Locrian mode just to get some sense of resolution. We may have been too steeped in the Western scales to adapt, I don't know. I have considered adjusting this scale to see if that made it more palatable to me (and I may very well do this) but the simple truth is that it won't be Locrian any more. It would become a scale outside of the modal system. Of course, there are many scales that don't fit into the modal system and they are well worth exploring. Generally, just like the modes, they all work differently and different people like different ones.
So if you enjoy that empty, tension filled feeling of a musical line hanging in mid-air, run with it! It could possibly fit in with some Jazz styles which end on non-tonic chords. But you will have to figure out how to work this mode without help from me!

February 14, 2014

A Love Story

Some people devote themselves to one specific instrument and remain faithful to it their whole lives. Some people fall for multiple instruments and learn to juggle their various passions. I fall somewhere in between these two forms of musical devotion by playing several different types of flutes. Each flute requires slightly different adjustments in how they are played but I love the changes of tones the different materials and designs have on the basic flute sound.

The concert flute is my first love and the flute with the most flexibility in scales, accidentals and the widest range. It is the flute most people think of first and are used to seeing in orchestras. It is generally the top sound and gets some of the most ornamented parts. It can be flashy and used to imitate birds but it also is used for slow, sad tunes. It is often used in music meant to evoke natural settings. As popular as it is in Classical music, it is generally ignored by other genres such as Jazz (sax players often double on flute but solo players are rare) and folk (guitar and/or traditional instruments are much more common) so it actually adds some unusual sounds to these areas.

The alto flute has a wonderful lush sound in its lower register. I was captivated by it the first time I played one (not uncommon for those who like this instrument) but it is the heaviest flute I play. This is the flute I lift weights for. Much as I love it, playing an entire show on this instrument alone is not practical if I want to keep my arms in good working order. So this flute gets short, attention grabbing appearances mixed in with the other flutes. It is associated with darker music than the concert flute and gets used for more mysterious pieces. It is lush, velvety and surprisingly powerful.

I play 2 different sizes of glass flutes. The one in C is similar to a piccolo or a fife. The one in G is halfway between a regular flute and a picc. Their sound is bright and cheerful and a kick to play in the rain. These are both from Hall Crystal Flutes. I'm not generally a fan of piccolo sounds (I like low better) but the glass material darkens the sound wonderfully. And I admit, it is very nice to have light instruments that are easy to clean up after a long dusty day. Smaller flutes and piccs have light and bright sounds but they are also very effective at creating haunting music. The key is getting the contrast right between their brilliant sound and a darker musical line.

The one-keyed Baroque flute sounds soft and quiet up close but always surprises me with how far its sound carries. Mine was made by Daniel Dietz. Wood flutes generally have a rich dark sound which is part of what gives period and traditional flutes their distinct timbres. I am especially enchanted with how wood flutes can imitate the alto flute sound in a smaller, lighter instrument. This flute is wonderful with Troubadour tunes and other Medieval and Renaissance music of course but it really takes flight on the lively pieces.
Many Flutes
Alto (with curved headjoint), Glass flutes in G and C, Baroque flute and Concert flute.

I have a set of panpipes but I haven't mastered the trick of them. Truth to tell, I dislike how it feels to move the instrument on my lip so I leave performing on this instrument to others. They are quite delightful to have for party tricks though.
I have several different ocarinas (they just sort of accumulate) that are lots of fun to have on hand when the flute is just too large to be practical. They are basically extremely fancy whistles with a full octave range.
Then there are the recorders. I do play them since they are quite easy for flute players to handle but their sound doesn't really suit me. They are very delicate sounding and it is actually surprisingly tricky to play them WELL. They take a precise touch that is rarely mastered by people who think of them as a children's instrument. It makes perfect sense to me that they were used in the same age as lutes and other subtle sounding instruments when amplification only existed in cathedrals and caves.
Panpipes, Ocarinas, Recorder
Panpipes, Ocarinas and Recorders, oh my!

I have studied a few other instruments (guitar, piano, harp, violin) over the years but never "hit it off" with them the way I did with the flute. Studying the basics on a couple of other instruments helps performing musicians be more flexible and gain more control of their instrument whether they become a doubler or not. In my case, the flute keeps tempting me back.
And so the love affair continues...

February 10, 2014

(Not So) Simple Lydian

This post is part of a series about the modes.

Lydian is the same as a major scale with a raised 4th step or the white keys from F to F. To play this scale on a different starting note, play a major scale and raise the 4th step. For example, F major has one flat (B flat.) Since B is the 4th step of the scale, we raise it to B natural.

piano keyboard diagram
Lydian is challenging. Something about that raised fourth makes it very difficult to use this scale. In fact, I started this series on the modes partly in hopes that it would encourage me to figure out Lydian a bit better. It hasn't notably, at least not yet. But I do find it interesting that even though modern music theory spends a lot of time worrying about 5ths, changing the 4th can cause even more trouble. The 4th used to be considered one of the most important intervals and even today, it is described as one of the "perfect" intervals. But it doesn't get as much attention as the 5th or even the 3rd in music theory. It is treated like a stable, reliable and immovable landmark that we can count on forever. So it is no wonder that when we change this step of the scale, it throws us for a loop. The only mode that is more trouble is Locrian (up next, may the Muses help me) which changes TWO scale steps instead of just one.
The one thing I have managed to do with Lydian is use it delicately. If you ease into it and treat the scale as a fragile mental construction, you can sneak up on that fourth without it throwing the whole piece into another key. It can be a serious challenge to avoid that fourth until the melody is strong enough to handle it but I do like the pop a successful Lydian fourth gives. It lifts the whole piece up into a different emotion.
"Robin m'aime" by Adam de la Halle (also known as Adam le Bossu or Adam d'Arras) uses a Lydian scale. This is a wonderful tune from the 1200s. It is simple and sweet with the Lydian fourth opening the melody up in gentle and unexpected ways. (By the way, "Robin m'aime" seems to have started out as an old chanson that Adam borrowed for Le jeu de Robin et Marion which is the oldest surviving secular play set to music.)
The C-sharp makes this piece Lydian. Several versions of the lyrics are easy to find on-line. Basically, Marion is saying Robin loves her and buys her nice things so she likes him too. Some versions are more risque than others.