July 30, 2014

Acoustic Revolution

I don't like amplified music. At least not as much as acoustic music. Generally speaking, instruments sound fuller and richer and meld with other instruments better when they are not amplified. Voices likewise sound more human and individual when there is no mic in-between the singer and the audience.
Now there are times when amplification is an absolute necessity; the audience can be so large there is no other way to make the show work or an instrument just may not be able to play loud enough to fill the space being used for the concert. Outdoor concerts can be especially problematic for guitars and singers. And since most of our favorite music today is centered around guitars and singers, it is no wonder we assume that music must be amplified. But this is not always the case.
I have played shows in small art galleries that a single singer could easily have filled that still used massive sound systems. The result tends to be a tinny sound, lots of feed back and volume so high that the audience leaves after two songs just to give their ears a rest. Many instruments actually carry an extremely long way when played well. Flutes are famous for this and have been used historically for long distance communication. Brass instruments are so loud that when I see them amplified, I often flee the location before they can even begin to play and damage my hearing.
It startles me how often people assume I will need amps and mics when I am playing an indoor show. Walls in my experience are more than enough amplification on their own. Even (or sometimes especially) in big rooms. This is why cathedrals were used for music so often. Everyone could hear the music no matter how quiet the instruments or how far from the musicians you were. And the reverb in large halls is an entirely different sound than the sound engineered reverb done in audio labs. It holds onto the tiny nuances of sound while echoing out into silence. Some of my favorite places to play with no mics are simple rooms with high ceilings where the flute can take off and fly from corner to corner without any fetters.
Then of course there is playing outdoors without electrical support. This frightens many musicians because their sound seems to be swallowed up or vanish into the horizon. All the little "flaws" in their playing become more noticeable, especially any tone issues, when there are no walls to throw the echos around. One of my teachers actually encouraged me to play outside for exactly this reason; to hear precisely what I sounded like with no interference or distortion. It is something of a humbling experience at first if you have only played in rooms with generous acoustics. But the more you play in settings that allow you to hear your true sound, the easier it is to both improve your sound and to MATCH your sound to your environment.
Music in the Green
I suspect one reason people overuse amplification is they don't take the time to hear and work with the sounds of the space they are playing in. If you sit and listen to the sounds in the place for 5 or 10 minutes and THEN play, you actually will sound different than if you just start playing the moment you have your instrument put together. The changes are subtle but highly informative. Can this be done with amps and mics? Of course! But if you depend on amplification all the time, it is much harder to learn this listening skill. And if you use the amps primarily to be "loud enough," you likely will have a terrible time hearing the natural sounds. And worse, so will your audience. So if you are going to use amps, I'd suggest setting them as low as you can at first and listening to how the amped sound interacts with the world's sounds. Only once you have a feel for that mixing and cooperation of sounds should you increase the volume. And be careful about how loud you go! Loud doesn't equal good and in fact can make something that once was good, very unpleasant and painful.
The trick is maintaining that level of listening to the sounds of the world around you while you are playing your show. It does take practice to stay aware of the many layers of auditory reality at once. It's a little like listening to three different conversations at a long lunch table at once; you won't always catch everything but with patience, you can stay in touch with each one with relative ease.
Taking the time to understand how your sound will interact with other sounds is what creates a performance that works in the space. This, rather than volume, is what makes a show worth attending for me; a musical sound that doesn't destroy other sounds but instead works with what is available and adapts to changes. This creates a live show that will be different and personal for every audience which is, to my mind, the magic of live music.

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.

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.