December 17, 2016

Real Musicians

Recently, I had some interesting experiences involving the idea of a "real musician." First, some performers (who should have known better and likely didn't mean it this way) asked me to sing. When I said I wasn't a trained singer, they dismissed the idea and said I must be able to sing. After I broke down and sang a tune or two, they nodded and said "nice job, we knew you were a real musician." This sort of thing drives me a little crazy since it implies instrumentalists aren't musicians. I am a trained instrumentalist but an amateur singer. A fair amount of the training for the flute transfers to the voice with ease so I can sing well if not brilliantly. But my singing is not up to the standards I expect of myself, as a musicians, when performing for others and I chafe at the idea that "real" musicians always sing.
Now the reverse assumption also happens all the time. I know several vocalists who, when they say they are musicians, are consistently asked what instrument they play. When they answer "voice," the disappointment on the other person's face is almost shocking. It is as if they are saying "you tricked me." And other musicians do this to singers too by asking them what instrument they play in addition to singing.
Of course, it is not uncommon for instrumentalists to sing and singers to play instruments. Musicians get curious about different ways to make music and learn different skills all the time. But I think it is important to remember that this is a form of doubling, that is, learning more than one instrument. Doubling is a skill that not all musicians choose to tackle and this in no way makes them less of a musician.
Finally and just to make my point one more time, there is another group of musicians who get this treatment even more often than singers and instrumentalists; percussionists. They are often dismissed as "the ones with all the toys" or "the people who hang out with the orchestra." This is wildly unfair for a couple of reasons. One is that there is a tremendous amount music that depends on the percussion section. If the rhythm is wrong, no amount of musical skill from the other instruments will fix the piece. Another reason is that playing percussion is just as difficult as any other musical activity. Just listen to what happens when someone picks up a drum for the first time and compare it to a trained percussionist if you doubt me. Or watch a marimba player during a concerto solo (do this anyway; the flying mallets are amazing to see.) Or take a good look at the lone percussionist in a pit orchestra and the vast array of instruments they are expected to play, often all at once!
Many people, musicians included, have very firm and limited assumptions about what the term musician means and are thrown for a loop when they are reminded that their assumptions ARE limited. Learning to make music, any music, reshapes the brain. Voice, wind, brass or percussion. It is the study of music in any form that expands the language and fine motor control centers of the brain, not the choice of musical production.
There is no set way to define all musicians. Except that we make music. All the different terms for musicians (guitarist, harpist, vocalist, percussionist) really define the type of music we make. The sheer variety of those terms shows just how creative we humans are about our music. There will always be a new form of music, a new instrument, a new style of singing out there. And those who use them will still be musicians even if we have never heard or imagined that music can be made this way.

November 12, 2016

Interpretation and Improvisation

"The name of the game is flexibility. Every conductor has his own interpretation. Your job is to interpret not only your conception, but also that of the conductor." Julius Baker

Interpretation is the art of deciding how to play a piece of music. This includes how loud and quiet sections are, what tempo to take, when and how much to change tempos and all the little things that can't be written down in the notation or possibly even expressed in words. No one interprets a piece the exact same way and learning to adjust to another person's ideas can be more than a little challenging. Yet Classical musicians are expected to do exactly that. When they practice, they explore multiple interpretations. Then they adjust and match their interpretations to those of the other players in their section. Finally, they change how they interpret a piece each and every time a new conductor takes the podium.
I believe that in many ways, this is a form of improvisation. Granted, the improvising is subtle and doesn't involve changing the notes or rhythms. Yet the music changes every time it is played based on the performers choices at the moment. This is the heart of improvisation; no two performances, or even rehearsals, are exactly the same.

Now Classical music used to include a great deal of improvisation even in ensemble playing. It was only after the 1800s that instrumentalists were expected to "just play what's on the page" rather than filling in musical ideas on their own. Recently, there has been a push to reincorporate improvisation into Classical music. Solo pieces have been the main focus of this idea. Many Classical musicians find this unsettling at first and the idea of adding improvisation to ensemble playing is still largely not discussed at all. 
Perhaps considering interpretation as a form of improvisation could be used to ease Classical musicians into the world of music of the moment.

October 12, 2016

Pan's Four Notes

F - G - C - Eb
The musical call to the God Pan is said to be made up of four notes; F G C and E-flat. These notes invoke Pan. Or soothe him to sleep. Or please him enough to send him dancing peacefully on his way.
Since the Greeks used very different musical scales and notation systems than we do, it is likely these are not the notes an ancient would have used to call Pan. But they have a special magic all their own. These notes can fit into a minor scale, the Dorian mode or the Mixolydian mode easily enough. They can be played alone or other notes can be tucked in around them. They can outline chords or become stepping stones in a melody or harmony line. They can move one to the next quickly or linger as drones. They can dance, skip, march, process, grieve or hum a lullaby. All this from just four notes.

Pan of course is the goat-legged God of the wilderness. He is shown playing a syrinx or panpipes so often it would make sense for him to be the God of music. But he wasn’t exactly. His music was the music of the wilds and the country folk that anyone could make and enjoy. Some say Pan was the God of theatrical criticism. Interestingly, he is often shown with Dionysus the God of theater and music from non-Greek lands.
The panpipes were considered a country or shepherds’ instrument because they weren’t difficult to make. Learning to play them well is another story. Most Gods didn’t bother with them. But Pan claimed them as his special skill. He invented the panpipes when a lovely nymph transformed herself into a patch of reeds while he was chasing her. The breezes made the reeds hum and sing so beautifully, Pan was inspired to create an instrument named for the nymph who had rejected him, Syrinx. Hermes sometimes is credited with inventing the panpipes but others say he simply learned to make and play them from the master music maker.
Pan was never civilized enough for the more formal gatherings of the Gods where Apollo and the Muses ruled the stage. Yet Apollo took lessons from Pan, both in music and prophecies. Pan and Apollo once had a musical contest. Midas was one of the listeners and preferred Pan’s pipe-music to Apollo’s lyre-playing. He also questioned how fair the contest had been to begin with, since the judges were followers of Apollo. Apollo gave Midas donkey’s ears in revenge for the criticism.
Hunters asked Pan to lure animals to them with his music. He coaxed Psyche out of her suicidal depression and helped her figure out how to get back her husband, Cupid, with music. He fell in love with Echo, the nymph who could only repeat what others had said, making an early call-and-response duo. Pan likes to sleep at noon and pipe his tunes at dawn and dusk. Waking Pan from his midday nap is an especially dangerous activity. His voice alone can panic the Titans into running away. He uses his music to lure young girls and boys into the woods and plays for the dancing nymphs under the stars. He can put a person to sleep or drive them mad with just a few notes.

Perhaps we will wander into the woods as the leaves fall and seeds scatter under the gloaming sky. And perhaps we will play four notes that ring and echo into the distance.
If we dare.

September 19, 2016

Young Whistlers

When I play, it is not unusual for kids to ask "can I try?" When possible, I give them a short lesson on getting sound out or at least advice on "playing" water bottles as practice. This year, I noticed that when I play my (new) wood penny-whistle, kids are even more likely to run up to their parents and say "I want to learn that!" So I thought I'd write up some advice about getting a penny-whistle for a beginner.

First, DON'T tell them it will be easy! Getting sound out of a whistle isn't difficult, true, but playing WELL takes quite a bit of work. It requires precise breath and finger control which takes time and patience to develop just like all wind instruments.
Whistles are generally high and loud. Add to that that most beginners tend to blow too hard and beginning whistlers can create some painfully high sounds. It is not uncommon for parents and roommates to get frustrated with beginners who haven't learned to play gently yet. Be patient and/or set up a space where they can practice without disturbing others. Outside on a nice day is great. The lack of walls really eases the intensity of the sound a lot and suddenly the whistle becomes fun to listen to. Putting one empty room between the beginner and others can help too and is a great solution for cold weather.
Be prepared, cats and dogs will likely have an opinion about the whistle. They may hate it and flee the room or they may insist on being right there to keep an eye on things. (I have had a cat who sat in my lap, a cat who hid under the sofa cushions, a dog who howled unless let out and a dog who scratched at the door to sit under the music stand when I played.)
And remember the more the beginner practices, the more control they will have and the easier it is to listen to them in a confined space so don't throw them out of the house forever! You will miss hearing the music they are making as they progress.

Second, if you are getting a whistle for a young kid, I'd suggest getting a C whistle. Most whistle experts recommend D whistles for beginners because they are used most often in Celtic ensembles. But the C whistle is just a little less high and shrill which makes it just a little easier to live with. If they keep playing for more than a month or so, you may want to get a D so they have a more standard key but starting with a C can make the difference in a feud over practice sessions being too high and loud.
For older kids (over 8 or so) and adults, the D whistle is likely a better place to start. There is more music available and as I said, it will fit in with ensembles more often.
Keep in mind that some brands or styles of whistles are actually quieter or gentler sounding than others so it is well worth exploring different whistles (see next tip).

Third, get advice on which whistle to get instead of just getting the cheapest available. One of the nice things about whistles is that they tend to be less expensive than other instruments but all the same, you want an instrument that is well tuned and the player likes to play. Not all whistles fit the bill. There are "tweaked" versions of cheap whistles which can be a good starting point and stores specializing in whistles often have good advice on brands to start out.
Personally, if I was going to get a metal whistle (to go with my wood one), I'd pick a Tilbury Whistle which currently runs about $75. It has a tone I like, is well tuned and while it is considered high end in the whistle world, the price isn't outrageous (compared to some of my other flutes that is). If that is more than you can stand, don't give up the idea. There are $20 or $30 whistles that sound just fine and some excellent players choose to play the cheaper whistles for their entire career.
The Wandering Whistler  has reviewed a number of whistles and sometimes includes a sound clip. The recording quality is variable but it can help a lot to hear the whistle played by a good player. Click the drop-down menu to see what whistles he has written about.
Getting a whistle that the player enjoys increases the odds that they will keep practicing and have a good time.

Fourth, get a book of simple tunes for the whistle and/or get some recordings of whistle music. Celtic is the easiest to find but there are other styles of music that the whistle fits into nicely. You want tunes that fit the range of the whistle (about two octaves) and don't include too many chromatics especially at first. The whistle can play chromatics but the cross-fingering and half-holing is more advanced skill-wise so stick with fewer chromatics to avoid frustration. There are actually quite a few books out there so look around and see what looks good.

Finally, if the whistler starts to lose interest in playing after a few months, take a look at some OTHER whistles. It may well be that they are just developing a dislike of the tone of their whistle!
Finding a whistle they like better may re-ignite interest. And they will have a better idea of what they like in whistle after playing for a bit.

And whatever you do, have fun!

July 2, 2016

Sight Singing and Dyslexia

I recently saw a joke on the internet. There was a picture of some music with a caption asking "what's wrong with this picture?" and I found myself stumped. The time signature and the note values added up right, the key signature was written correctly, bar lines and other symbols were placed right and I could not figure out what was wrong to save my life. Then I read some other people's comments and realized the music was supposed to be the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. Without any further information, I immediately saw that the last note was wrong and the rhythm was wrong (glaringly so). And then I realized something. I hadn't been able to "see" what was wrong because I hadn't turned the visual notation into sound in my head (a skill taught in sight singing classes) until I knew it was supposed to be a specific piece. And what is more, this happened in spite of the fact I learned to sight sing years ago and even taught sight singing. All of which caused me to recognized what was happening at last; this was a dyslexia glitch I hadn't been aware of before.
One of the issues with dyslexia is that turning symbols into what they represent is tricky. Written letters and words are the most typical examples but it can happen with numbers or music notation too. Most dyslexics only have trouble with some symbols and not others. This is why some dyslexics can't spell but can handle written math and read music or have trouble with written math but no trouble with music or reading. My main dyslexic trouble is spelling not music notation. But suddenly I realized that turning written music into sound in my head is just a bit more problematic for me than anyone would expect because of my dyslexia.

Now sight singing or turning notation into sound in our heads is not something people do automatically. Most people have to learn the process and they tend to find it challenging at first. A few folks have a knack for it but generally it is something that must be taught, practiced and sweated over. Once learned, some people can't turn it off (every notation "sings" to them) but most have to make a conscious effort to sight sing music. I was in the second group. If I just look at notation, I don't just hear it right away. I must make a conscious effort to "hear" the notes and rhythms written out in front of me. This isn't really that unusual nor is it considered an issue so I hadn't ever noticed that the effort I make is just a bit more, a little longer, a smidge more complex than is typical. The fact that learning to sight sing is not easy for anyone hid the fact that I don't turn written music into sound in my head easily. It wasn't until I had trouble getting an obvious (to musicians) joke that it came out into the open.
This isn't a big problem for me (clearly since I was trusted to teach freshmen the basics of sight singing). I've worked around it for decades without even realizing it was there. What's more, once I have played a piece, it is outrageously easy for me to "hear" the music when I look at it.  That extra bit of information, the physical memory of creating the sound on my flute, kicks my sight singing skill into high gear and I can even catch tiny changes in the notation with ease. This makes a great deal of sense given my history of using finger spelling to manage to learn to spell at least a bit better. Attaching physical sensation to the visual symbols helps me process the symbols. And I can, in fact, sight sing a piece without ever having played it just fine; I just need a few extra moments to work it out. Since I'm an instrumentalist not a vocalist, this is simply not a problem. But now that I know about it, I can work with it and find the alternate ways I process the written music into sound. Like "fingering" the notes on a pencil as if it was a flute, something I used learning to sight sing.

Finally, to anyone who has struggled to learn to sight sing music, you now have a small hint of what it feels like to be dyslexic. That process of transforming notation into music entirely inside your head is quite similar to fighting to handle moving letters while learning to read.
The initial stage of learning to sight sing (according to me and my non-dyslexic friends alike) is unsettling. It seems as if there is no point of reference for what you are learning, nothing to hang on to or use as a tool. This is because you are restructuring your brain to do a brand new thing. Dyslexics often take extra time to learn to read because they must work out new methods of processing the written letters for their brains. The same thing happens when learning to sight sing music.
And remember that there is more than one way to learn to sight sing (just like learning to read or do written math). Different teachers use different methods and each person develops their own tricks. Ask others for tips if you have serious trouble and explore other approaches. Remember that it may never be automatic and that's ok. Practicing the skill at whatever level you have it will teach you how to develop it. Don't expect your sight singing to match others but use your skill your way.

June 14, 2016

Incomplete Beauty

I've been reading about Medieval music theory. For fun. Again. (Yes, I know I'm insane.)
What caught me this time is how rhythmic notation developed. Of course, music had rhythm before rhythmic notations came into use. There just hadn't been a clear way to write it down before. And developing rhythmic notation was a messy process. There were stretches when notated rhythm was rather like a written version of Morse code only more complicated. Each little blob of ink in a tune had to be counted to figure out the rhythm of any of the notes and the meaning of the lines and dots changed depending on how many there were and what order they were in (and that's the simple version).
This lead me (or returned me) to this idea: Music notation is incomplete. It has to be. Each new notation idea was created after the fact; after musicians had been playing something "that way" for so long someone decided to attempt to represent it in writing (usually in a highly imprecise way). No written piece includes all the details of the music. Think about tempo rubato in Chopin's music. Or Jazz and the art of learning to Swing a rhythm. Our rhythm notation simply has no way of showing either of these musical ideas fully. We know they are there and even mark them in the score but we cannot show exactly how to play them. They must be demonstrated in all their glorious variety.
And this is good. Music shifts, changes and creates itself fresh with every performance, rehearsal, jam session or car sing-a-long. We add to the written music and suddenly new musical ideas start to surface. Nothing is every static even if the notation on the page remains the same.

Music notation is incomplete until the moment of performance. All the striving for perfection or the definitive version that happens in many arts simply doesn't apply to music. We help to complete the music, audience and performers alike, by allowing it to sound and that is perfection enough. And each performance, public or private, is unique since what we bring to the music changes moment to moment. We break rules, add ornaments, swing a rhythm, hum along, change the words, make mistakes or even play the music as written and suddenly a new sound exists.
It seems to me that notation (or the composer) sometimes struggles to define music, to make it permanent and lasting. It is a losing battle but if we remember that notation is not complete, the written music becomes a seed that sprouts and re-sprouts endlessly. The beauty of the incomplete is that it can bring about many moments of music over and over without ever being finished.
To paraphrase The Lady's Not for Burning by Christopher Fry: "I can pass to you generations of roses in this wrinkled berry...What is not, you have in your palm. Rest in the riddle."

May 20, 2016

Wood and Bone - A Very Short History of the Flute

The oldest instrument ever found is a flute (in a general sense) that is made from the bone of a vulture’s wing. It has been dated to around 30,000 to 40,000 years old. (There are older artifacts that some claim are parts of flutes but that is still being argued with great passion.) The top is an open tube with a v-notch on one side. The assumption is the player blew through the top of the tube down the v-notch while holding the flute vertically. This is a fairly well developed design that suggests this type of instrument dates from even earlier but finding anything older will likely prove tricky. There are a number of current folk flutes that use similar "rim-blown" vertical designs and the history of the vertical flutes (and more than a few reed instruments) have been well and truly tied to the flute's history. But today the instrument we most often think of as a flute is the horizontally held concert flute or transverse flute.

Rim-blown Flute

Bone was a common material for flutes and wind instruments for a long time. Some old flutes and reed instruments were named after the bones typically used to make them (the tibia is the name of a double reed instrument in Ancient Rome and there is a type of whistle called phalanges). Not too coincidentally, flutes and reed instruments were associated with sacrifices and religious ceremonies. Some cities kept wind players on an official payroll because they were required at religious ceremonies regularly. At the same time, they were often considered rural instruments that were played by country people and associated with nymphs and wild Gods who couldn’t quite be trusted. In many cultures, playing a wind instrument wasn’t as respectable as playing strings or singing. Girls and boys both could seriously damage their reputations by learning to play them.

Wood and other plant material were also popular material for flutes. Possibly they were more popular and we just have fewer surviving examples. Native Americans have stories of the first flute being made from yucca and sunflower stalks. There are many trees with the common name of “whistlewood” because they were/are used for flutes and whistles by instrument makers or children. Occasionally, even poisonous trees were used though eventually someone pointed out what a bad idea this was! In Europe's more recent history, boxwood was one of the favorites for most wind instruments for centuries but today grenadilla has become very common. So many other woods are used that the list tends to get excessively long. (I happen to have flutes made from grenadilla, maple, sycamore and sapele.)

In fact, flutes have been made out of nearly any kind of material that can be made into a hollow tube. Wax, glass, clay, potatoes and carrots (I’m not making this up) are just some of the examples. The metal flute is a quite recent development and some modern performers still prefer wood instruments. One common compromise is for the head joint to be made of wood and the body of the flute to be metal. This generally gives it more of a wood sound, but makes the key-work more reliable and reduces the likelihood of the wood cracking.
Metal, Glass and Wood Flutes

Nearly every culture has created several different styles of flute, including transverse types. But the transverse flute isn't recorded as being popular in Europe until the Baroque era. The most common theory is that some form of transverse flute from India or the Middle East made it's way to Europe during the Medieval crusades (not at all uncommon) and then slowly became more popular. There are several problems with this. One is that the examples of the flute that are used to show it "traveling" change design (and the direction the flute points) several times. This isn't a deal breaker since design changes happen all the time but it does make it less certain that that is how the transverse flute got to Europe. Another problem is that this theory ignores all the "folk" flutes in Europe, some of which were transverse. These folk flutes weren't written about or painted much because they were too unimportant and associated with the lower classes. Even during the Baroque and Classical era, many popular instruments were ignored because they were only being played by lower class "professional" musicians and not by the "amateur" upper-class musicians who didn't need to be paid (you have to remember that "professional" and "amateur" were social rankings not indications of how well you played and that being paid for a skill was automatically low class). My guess is that the folk flutes were influenced by the transverse flutes from the Middle East, India or even China as people moved back and forth in the Middle Ages. New music from other countries alone could have inspired new instrument designs and curious musicians usually do try new instruments whenever they can or think up ways of combining two different styles of instruments. All of this eventually led to a new type of transverse flute, the earliest version of the one we see in orchestras today.

The historical European transverse flutes that we have records of seem to have been made in one or two pieces at first (headjoint and body). Later, they were generally made in 2, 3 or 4 sections so key-work could be added with less effort, to tune them in different ways and so they could be taken apart and stored more easily. The first key was added to the flute in the 1620s. This is also around the time the flute became more popular in Classical music and began to take over the role the recorder had held for years. It also matches up with when the scales and modes were changing and new tuning systems were coming into use. As the music kept changing, people kept adding keys to all the instruments. However, there was nearly no agreement about what keys were best to use, how they should be attached or even if they should be used at all. Again, this goes with the wide range of musical styles that were in use. There are so many different designs that I'm not even going to try to explain them all (some were quite wild).

Theobold Boehm standardized the keys on the flute in the mid-1800s and adjusted the design to play Romantic music (as opposed to all the earlier stuff). Boehm's flute was then tweaked, adjusted, added to and generally changed several more times and metal flutes started turning up in the 1900s. All of these changes were bitterly argued over and there are still new keys, scale tunings and other changes being developed nearly every day. It is really an illusion that there is one standard type of concert flute in use. Some styles of music (trad. Irish and Historically Inspired Performance/HIP for example) use strictly older flute designs with few or no keys even today.
Baroque Flute Deconstructed

Every change to the design of the flute, no matter how small, changes the sound of the instrument so it is hardly surprising that nearly all the older styles can be heard today. What's more, each musician sounds different on each flute so one flute may sound brassy, bright, haunting or lush when played by different people. And this is why I so enjoy meeting the different flutes in the world and in history!

For more information;
The Flute (Yale Musical Instrument series) by Ardall Powell
The Flute Book by Nancy Toff
The Development of Western Music by K. Stolba (dense!)
Method for the One-Keyed Flute by Janice Boland
The Early Flute (Oxford Early Music series)  by John Solum
The Early Flute: A Practical Guide by Rachel Brown
The Earliest Instrument: Ritual Power and Fertility Magic of the Flute in Upper Paleolithic Culture by 
Lana Neal

April 23, 2016

The Mythical Jacquaflute

I've been wishing for a vertically held rim-blown flute for some time. There are lots out there but none of them where quite what I wanted (a few examples are the Middle Eastern ney, the Japanese shakuhachi and the South American quena). Then I found someone who makes both Ancestor Pueblo/Anasazi style flutes and keyless transverse wood flutes. I asked him to mix them together in a size that fit my hands. Here is the result.

Cross between Pueblo / Anasazi style flute and keyless transverse flute

Sycamore rim-blown flute in G made by Jon Norris Music & Arts
end-blown flute
Blowing edge

The embouchure is quite different from a concert flute but not harder. Think of it as like blowing across a water bottle but trickier because there's a sweet spot. I spent a couple of days getting the flute to speak reliably and a week getting a feel for the range and different tones it can make. I love playing it outside, especially in the woods.

Like most flutes, getting a good recording takes a few trials and errors. I'm still working out the kinks and feedback issues that go with this flute but I think I managed to get a decent track here.

A short bit about Pueblo/Anasazi flutes.
First, the name. Ancestor Pueblo is more polite but Anasazi is more widely used. Archeologists are a bit weird about saying the Anasazi people are related to today's Pueblo tribes. There isn't really a good reason for this. In Europe, they don't hesitate to call ancient remains German or French based on where they were found and then explain that they may or may not be direct ancestors of the people living in those countries. But not here in the Americas. Makes them seem a bit silly to me.
Second, the age. The Pueblo flutes that have been found in the Desert Southwest are around 1500 years old (at least). This means they predate Columbus and even the Vikings in the Americas. It is unusual to find wood instruments this old anywhere simply because of how fast wood decays. Older flutes (and other instruments) have been found but they are generally made of bone, clay or stone.
Now the size. The Pueblo flutes that have been dug up are all fairly large and deep. The low range is considered part of the "voice" of this type of flute. However, this doesn't mean smaller versions didn't exist just that we haven't found any. The Hopi flute and the South America quena are both examples of more current rim-blown flutes that are smaller and higher than the Pueblo flute. It would make sense for these flutes to be related to the Pueblo flutes but again, we don't know for sure. Individual makers certainly made changes to the design that seemed good to them or to accommodate some lunatic musician's ideas. This is common for all musical instruments in all ages. Nothing in music stays static really. It is a constantly changing art form.
Finally the scale and finger placement. The Pueblo flutes don't use a diatonic, pentatonic or chromatic scale. It's pretty intriguing and seems to be set up to let the musician chose between a major or minor sound (or go back and forth) without having to go up into the higher register. I went for a scale I'm already familiar with for my first venture into rim-blown flutes but may well try out the other scale sometime. In a way, this made my flute similar to the South American quena. But without a thumb hole and with smaller, easier to cover finger holes. And a different blowing edge which gives me a wider variety of sounds and a different tone than the quena. More on the quena in a later post.

So there you go. The Mythical Jackalope flute has been sighted, lured into the open and determined to exist at long last.

March 20, 2016

Flute Gods of the Americas

Every culture in the world seems to have some version of the flute. The idea of blowing across a hole and splitting air to make music is not really that difficult to come up with so this isn't that surprising. But there are many different ways these instruments develop. In the Americas, many different flutes have existed for many, many years. And like all flutes, there are many stories about them.

The Native American flute (sometimes called the Woodland flute or Plains flute though those two are not exactly the same) is held vertically and actually has more in common with the recorder than the concert flute. Both have a duct or a chamber that guides the air stream to the edge that creates sound. The Native American flute has an external duct and a different scale than the concert flute which is part of what creates it's individual sound. It is generally considered a North American instrument and yes, there are several different versions of this instrument in different tribes. In some stories, the Native flute was “invented” by a young man who heard music on the breeze coming from a hollow branch with holes made by a woodpecker. In others, the woodpecker is considered the musical inventor who gave the flute to people to express themselves better.

Woodpecker the Flute Maker
Woodpecker the Flute Maker

Native American flutes were often used as courting instruments and to lure girls outside and away from their parents. R. Carlos Nakai has said that unmarried girls from Native societies are still sometimes not allowed to attend his concerts and there are still far fewer women who play this instrument than men. Mary Youngblood is one of the more famous exceptions. Kokopelli (there are several different spellings) is possibly the most famous flute player from the Americas. The hunched figure playing a flute or pipe is found in ancient rock art all over the Southwest and Central America. There are often lines coming off of Kokopelli’s head that remind some people of antenna; a flute playing insect.


Kokopelli is also one of the katchina figures-a masked dancer who chases the women while his wife Kokopelli-mana chases the boys. Some stories say that the hunched back is a sack and Kokopelli is a traveling salesman who plays flute to attract customers. Some say the sack is full of seeds, music or babies. Kokopelli is generally considered a fertility god (like nearly all mythic flute players). He often brings rain with him when he travels and helps crops grow. Some scholars say that the Kokopelli myths can be used to track the spread of maize or corn throughout the Americas. Katherine Hoover’s “Kokopeli” is a very popular piece for the concert flute (an instrument more often played by women than men) meant to represent Kokopelli as a leader of the migrations of the Native Americans.
What flute he plays is open to debate. The Native flute is held vertically which would match the rock art nicely. But archaeologists have also found several vertically held rim blown flutes (no ducts) in the desert Southwest that would also fit the silhouette we see. These flutes are sometimes called Ancestor Pueblo or Anasazi flutes (Pueblo is more polite, Anasazi is more widely used so knowing both is important). Again, they have a different scale than either the concert flute or the Native American flute and so have a different sound and tone.
Rim blown flute
Diatonic Pueblo / Anasazi style Flute. Non-traditional scale and size but it gives you the idea.

In South America there are several different types of flutes. One is the quena that is held vertically. The quena is somewhat similar to the Pueblo flutes but smaller and with a scale closer to the concert flute. In the Andes today, travelers still sometimes play flutes to announce themselves and show they are peaceful as they travel from village to village. The panpipes and ocarinas also have been played in South America for ages. Europeans took the ocarina idea back over the ocean with them and now they can be found in a wide range of places. (I'll be doing more research on this instrument's history and myths later.)

Jabuti (various spellings) is sometimes the name of a character in folktales from the Amazon rain forest. He is a small tortoise who plays pranks on all the other creatures and usually outwits them, though (like most tricksters) he sometimes manages to outwit himself as well. In Gerald McDermott’s story, Jabuti plays a flute and makes the creatures in the jungle all dance and sing. When the birds go to sing for the King of Heaven, Jabuti wants to go and play his flute. Vulture (who is not happy with the sneaky turtle) offers to carry Jabuti to the sky but then drops him on his back, shattering Jabuti’s shell. The other birds help patch his shell back together (Humpty Dumpty could have learned a thing or two from this tortoise) and Jabuti lives to play music and tricks another day.
In other less Westernized stories, the flute playing tortoise is female and loves to dance. She often cons her way out of trouble or simply plays music to win others over to her side. The flute this character plays is not very well defined. Sometimes panpipes are pictured and other times a very general vertical flute is shown. I suspect her instrument choice changed depending on what flute was popular at the time.

Meanwhile, in the Brer Rabbit tales from North America, Brer Turtle uses Brer Vulture’s feathers to make “quill pipes” after tricking Brer Vulture out of some honey. Brer Fox hears the wonderful music and steals the pipes from Brer Turtle. Brer Turtle sneaks up on Brer Fox, bites and hangs onto his toe until Brer Fox gives the pipes back.
It is believed that both the Brer Rabbit and Jabuti/Tortoise tales have links to West African folktales, mixed with Native American stories that have taken on a life of their own.
The image of a turtle with a round shell playing a flute looks a great deal like the basic Kokopelli image to me though I know of no direct connection between the two.

Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales as told by Julius Lester
(a more recent version of the Brer Rabbit stories and my personal favorite)
Kokopelli: The Magic, Mirth and Mischief of an Ancient Symbol by Dennis Slifer

February 14, 2016

Black Chin - The Mark of the Flute Player

After a long rehearsal, you put your flute away and catch sight of your face in the mirror and see your chin has a black or grey patch. It washes off easily enough but when you ask about it on-line, you are told it may be an allergy to the metal of the flute. Eek! What to do? Well first relax. Black Chin is well known among flute players and nothing to worry about.

Flute Player with Black Chin
Look Close, Very slight grey mark on chin - Mark can be large and dark or small and unnoticeable.
People with metal allergies (those who actually ITCH or develop a rash) may want to put a lick-and-stick postage stamp (don't use the self adhesive ones) on the lip plate or use a "lip plate patch". Lots of music catalogs carry them.

Black Chin - This is when your chin turns black or grey after playing the flute. It can be a small minor mark (like the photo above) or a large smear that covers your chin. As long as the discoloration rubs or washes off and you don’t itch, it is NOT an allergy. It is a reaction between your skin’s PH balance and the metal of the flute. It is not dangerous, just annoying. It can happen with almost all metals, even sterling silver. Gold and wood head-joints are the main materials that don't cause this but both can be pricey (and a few people still get black chin with these). This is why some people will tell you to get your lip plate plated with gold (although I wouldn't spend the cash on something that may not prevent black chin especially since plating wears off over time).
Everyone’s personal PH is a little different so some people get black chin often and other people never seem to get it at all. Heat, humidity and sweat also impact how your skin and metal interact so some days the whole flute section has black or grey chins and other days only one player does. A common misconception is that only white women get black chin but that just isn't true. What is true is that the darker your skin is, the less visible the mark is and men with beards rarely even notice when their beards turn just a little darker.  Plus, most make-up and some lotions dramatically increase the amount and frequency of black chin. Which means people who wear make-up or lotion (mostly women in this day and age) are much more likely to have noticeable discoloration on their chins. And male and female teenagers alike should keep in mind that some acne treatments may aggravate black chin or even take the finish off your flute so washing your chin before playing is highly recommended!
Finally, if you polish your head-joint, you will almost always get black chin the next time you play (or several times). Since silver polish isn't actually good for flutes (or you; it can cause your skin to break out and getting it in your mouth isn't so great either), skip the polish and just clean the flute with a soft dry cloth.

Possible solutions are;
--spend $1000 or more on a wood or gold head-joint (not recommended for most student and starving musicians and doesn't work for a few people).
--don't wear make-up on the lower half of your face when playing to minimize the issue (lipstick, foundation, moisturizer, lip-balm, acne treatments - all should be washed off before playing).
--keep a rag handy to wipe your chin off (works best when you have frequent rests in the music and can become distracting to the audience if done too frequently).
--put a cheap lick-and-stick postage stamp (don't use the self adhesive ones) or "lip plate patch" on the lip plate.
--just don't worry about it.
The majority of the audience won't notice and those who do usually assume (correctly) that it is an ordinary flute thing. Tell the few who ask that it’s a badge of excellent flute playing. Raise your black chins high with pride!

P.S. I have recently run into the suggestion of painting the lip plate with clear nail polish to avoid black chin. Let me just say, please don't! Removing the polish without damaging the flute can be tricky especially if your flute is plated. I wouldn't want to risk nail polish remover reacting with the metal and obviously scraping it off is a terrible idea. And you will almost certainly want to remove the nail polish someday - when you get a new flute, when the nail polish starts to look bad, when your teacher has a hissy fit over the nail polish etc. A repair person may be able to remove it. Or they may have trouble if your head-joint is not made from a solid precious metal (silver or gold). It is a risk I wouldn't want to take.
And if you got here looking for ways to deal with acne on your chin caused by silver polish, I do feel for you. It can be very painful. The best advice I have is don't use silver polish on your flute. If that ship has sailed, don't despair. The polish will clean off eventually. Just wipe the head-joint and lip plate off with a soft dry cloth, GENTLY, before and after you play for the next week or so. And wash your face before AND after playing to reduce the issue as best you can.
And if you have an allergic reaction (itching or pain), go to a doctor for advice on how to recover! And look into using a lip plate patch.

January 21, 2016

The 14 Hour Conducting Final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, I passed. With an A.