December 17, 2014

Music and Meditation

Today, I'm going to share one of the methods I have developed for working music into my meditation practice. Music isn’t required for meditation of course and I don't always use it (how repetitive that would be!) but I tend to incorporate music into most things I do at least in some small way.
Meditation is about calming the mind. Some people do this by “emptying” their minds of all thoughts, sometimes by counting breaths. Others do it by focusing on a single simple thought or image. For the record, I prefer using simple pretty images but feeling them rather than seeing them. I tend to get bored when thinking of “nothing,” and counting breaths is too much like work (all that counting explains why musicians get kind of focused and spacey at the same time while playing) for me to really settle into it.

Music can be added to either the mind-emptying or the focusing approach to meditation. The idea is to allow the music to fill your mind and let the flow of notes become your thoughts. I’m not talking about imagining a story to fit the music (although that is a useful trick too) but experiencing the music on its own terms. Now there are several books out there that try to pin down exactly what impact different types of music have on people. They often go so far as to say you should listen to music in certain keys for certain issues (completely ignoring the fact that most Classical pieces modulate quite a bit and some are almost never in the key that is listed in their name). The trouble with this approach is that no two people respond exactly alike to the same music. A piece I think is happy may sound aggressive to someone else. A piece can be thoughtful and calming or sad and depressing depending on who listens to it. What this means is you will have to test out these pieces for yourself. Keep in mind that different instruments and performers can change a piece wildly. I typically prefer music with overlapping lines and repeating arpeggios that aren’t too fast but some single line or fast pieces work wonderfully. The key is that the music is enthralling in some fashion.

I haven’t yet figured out how to fully describe the music I like using for meditation so I’m going to periodically share short lists of pieces and recordings that I find to work well. I've been using a lot of Classical music but other genres work just as well. I find it easier to use instrumental pieces than vocal but some vocal pieces are wonderful (I'll share some of those in later posts). My friends/guinea pigs who tried these pieces out were generally surprised when the music ended, even the longer Classical songs, saying they didn't think that much time had gone by. This is one reason I think these pieces are effective as meditation support.

-Dunmore Lassies from “The Long Black Veil” performed by the Chieftains and Ry Cooder. This is one of my favorite pieces of music in general. It starts with a beautiful guitar and flute duo then builds and grows in absolutely amazing ways. It is about 5 minutes long.
-J. S. Bach’s Sonata in G Major for Two Flutes and Continuo BWV 1039. The flutes and continuo parts weave around each other in wonderful ways. The third movement is especially hypnotic but the entire piece works. This piece is about 12 minutes long.
-Telemann’s Concerto for Flute, Oboe d'amore, Viola d'amore, Strings and Continuo in E Major. The second movement may be a bit lively for some but I find its energy fits just fine after the first movement. This piece is about 15 minutes long.

Have fun with this idea. Don't get stuck on my recommended pieces though. If they don't work for you, try something else.
When looking up Classical pieces, be aware many on-line sites don't bother listing composers. In pop music, the performer is the more important information for finding the music so they got into the habit of skipping the composer. But in Classical music, if you don't know the composer, you won't find the piece (the names are just too similar). They are getting better on this issue but you may need to hunt a bit. Some sites DO include the composer's name as part of the name of the song or album so that can help you find what you are looking for.


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 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 often 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.

Publication and Attribution
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.

Meaning of Lyrics
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.

Melody and Meter
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 last theory could possibly 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.

A Bit of Musical Theory
Here is what I have observed 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. This is true of all the minor versions of the melody; they constantly switch back and forth from one system to the other at regular intervals, rather like a kid on a swing.
(The earliest version was printed in minor and since major just sounds wrong to me, I won’t examine that version.)

Aeolian / Natural Minor
This 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 at the start of and in the middle of phrases. 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.

Dorian Mode
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 auditory 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
Multi-colored staff
dyslexic staff paper
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 had to spend a great deal of time learning to see the audience as my friends instead of a bunch of strangers and even more time learning to "shine" when others could hear me. 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 also the ability to transform my tone and 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 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 unconsciously 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 if I matched 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.

June 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.

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 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.



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.

 
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. I 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.