April 23, 2017

Forest Music

"Know the Structure...Compare the piece to a forest. I first try to see the entire forest...figure out where the forest begins and ends and which kinds of trees are located where...observe the other creatures and landmarks...It becomes difficult to get lost while playing."
---Jasmine Choi

Music as a forest.
Forests have shapes and patterns. Music has form, variation, repetition and contrast.
Forests rise and fall on the landscape they cover. Music's history shapes the groundwork of each new piece. How a piece was played changes as it travels from country to country and person to person.
Forests are made up of many different kinds of trees, vines, herbs and flowers. Meadows, clearings, deer trails, bird's nests and dense thickets may emerge or vanish as we wander. Chords, harmony, other instruments, ornaments, improvisations, modulations and imitation weave throughout music. We never play the music exactly the same twice.
Forests have canopies, various under-layers, brush and floor layers that are linked together in a shifting pattern. Music has countermelodies, themes, motives, counterpoint, ostinatos, bass lines, recurring lines and notes that link to each other in complex tapestries.
The seasons transform the forest year after year. Time reshapes the music with each performance, each rehearsal, each change in musical expression.  We learn new skills, polish old ones and old music becomes new.
Other creatures live within this realm though you may not see them. Audiences (large, small or solitary practice) change our choices in every performance. Our experiences and memories of other performers and teachers (even those we have forgotten) appear and disappear like magic.
The forest is ancient and immediate. Music is ephemeral and inescapable.

March 13, 2017

Whistle While You Work

As some of you may know, I've been adding to my flute collection the last couple of years. I've also been working on playing by memory and recording more often. The result is I have music tracks of pennywhistles to share.

The first track is a low F whistle from MK Whistles in Scotland and the tune is "The Farewell to Music" by O'Carolan.
The second track is a wood whistle in D made by Gene Milligan and the tune is "Banish Misfortune." Still a bit slow since I only memorized it a month or so ago.
The third track is a high F copper whistle from Elf Song Whistles made by Sandy Jasper and the tune is "The Little Beggar Man." I used this tune to teach myself double tonguing as a youngster.

What I've learned so far.
Of course each whistle has a distinct sound/personality (just like other flutes) but I was startled by how some folk tunes "fit" under the fingers better on the whistles than on the concert flute. There are times when playing by ear is considerable less tricky on the whistles too. I think this is partly due to being able to see my fingers without a mirror for the first time ever. But only partly. The tunes (well, some of them) are just easier to work out on the whistles.
Playing with brass bands on the tiny whistle also seems to work better than the concert flute or even the picc. It's challenging to be heard but the tone works better when it is audible. Whistles with flats (F major whistle is my pick but B-flat would do) are best for this.
I vastly prefer the quieter whistles, especially the high ones, to save my ears and ear plugs travel with the whistles everywhere. Loud whistles may cut through large groups better but I like my hearing and intend to keep it. And I prefer the tone of the quiet whistles when playing solo or just "dreaming" in the woods.

I've realized that when I first played pennywhistle (as a grade-schooler) there were two basic issues that caused me to think I didn't like the instrument. First, the cheap, easy-to-find whistles aren't always in tune and I didn't like their tone at all. Knowing enough to be able to find whistles that are in tune and that have tones I like makes a big difference (the wood whistle is my favorite on pure tone but the all have their charms). Second, I wasn't a good enough player to handle the whistle at the time. I already played flute but even so, I wasn't ready to tackle the whistle alone. Which is very intriguing since teachers often give whistles or recorders to kids to get started in music because "they're easy" and then never give them much, if any, instruction on the whistle. No wonder so many kids who start that way don't continue! The first time they can't figure something out without help (which happens soon!) they are likely to think that if they can't play this "easy" instrument, they will have an even more difficult time with other instruments. If they got some instruction, they would have a much better experience.
Two important tips: 1) Learn your modes and where they are on the whistle! Especially Dorian and Mixolydian; there are many folk/Celtic tunes in those two modes. (Modern Modes Intro) 2) Learn to transpose in some fashion. You can chose to re-write tunes into the key you read or learn to transpose by sight (several tricks for that-Transposition on Key-less flutes) whichever. Not all tunes are written in the whistle's range but that doesn't mean you can't play them. Just learn how to put them in your range!

Someone once described the whistle as the scariest instrument to play in front of others because it was all about the breath. There is no reed, no register key and no change-your-embouchure to help you out. Controlling the speed of the air is all there is between a good note and a missed one. This means the whistle requires precise and exacting control of your own lungs. Rewarding, delightful, good for everyday breathing issues and intensely personal but not easy.

Anyway, here I am falling madly in love, at last, with several new whistles.

February 28, 2017

The Glories of Trying

I’ve never liked the quote “do or do not; there is no try”. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways this saying is very true in music but there are other ways that it is just wrong. When you hit a wrong note, there’s no two ways about it, it is wrong. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. This quote is, sadly, often used to imply that if you can't get something done right on your first try, don't bother. Which I simply can not accept. (A friend of mine points out that this is a misinterpretation of the original use of the quote, but it is a common one.)
When we first study music, we make mistakes. We try to do something new and rarely do we get it right the first time. The mistakes show us what not to do and if we don't make them, we can't learn. All skilled musicians got skilled by making mistakes. Lots of them. They are just like gardeners with green thumbs, who have killed more plants than most of us can imagine, learning exactly what it takes to keep the plants alive. They just tried again and with time made fewer and fewer mistakes until their mistakes were few, far between and mostly small. And the best musician to draw breath still makes mistakes every time they play even though the audience usually can’t hear it. They are human and humans are not perfect. But the magic of music, and all art, is that perfection is not required. Art is about beauty, fascination and thinking and feeling in different ways. It is meant to engage people in deep ways that are difficult to express or understand. The overall experience is rarely ruined by a mistake or three.
There are books that discuss the advantage of practicing new music veerrryyyy slowly so that you will not play wrong notes and therefore not “practice making mistakes”. Now it is quite true that this is a wonderful way to practice (and this is my favorite way to wake up in the morning) but it does not mean that if you make a mistake, the practice session is a waste of time. In fact, part of this method says that if you are focusing on one aspect of the music (correct rhythm, good tone, accurate pitches etc.), mistakes in other areas don’t really count. It is about not getting stuck in the mistakes, not panicking and taking the time to correct the mistakes as best you can. Or even learning how to work around them.
An Imperfect Picture
“Do or do not” is about looking at and critiquing the results after the effort has been made. “Trying” is about the effort itself. Without being willing to try, there are no results to criticize. To try is to make an honest attempt and to be willing to learn something new from that attempt, successful or not. Trying is how we grow and become able to achieve fantastic, imperfect wonders that surpass our deepest dreams and create accidental beauty we never could have imagined.

"If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning."--Mahatma Gandhi

January 26, 2017

Flute and Aulos in Greek Mythology - The Importance of Translation

I have mentioned this before and I know I will again but this particular issue is very widespread and deserves a post all its own. At least if you enjoy researching music in myths.

When reading anything about ancient Greece that mentions "the flute", there are very high odds that it should say "the aulos". Aulos is so frequently mistranslated as flute that you almost have to assume that flute means aulos in any English text. The aulos is a double reed instrument played vertically, sometimes in pairs and sometimes not. The flute has no reeds and is played horizontally/transverse and almost no one is crazy enough to try to play two at once. The recorder is sometimes played in pairs but again, the recorder does not use reeds and so also isn't an aulos.
Pan Playing Double Aulos
Pan Playing Double Aulos Among the White Violets
The aulos does not exist as a modern instrument and we don't know all the details of how the aulos was made or played. We do have enough pictures from vases and sculptures, as well as writings about it, to know it was not like the flute at all. The aulos does seem to be somewhat like an oboe but that comparison is not precise either since oboes are not played in pairs and don't require a strap around the head. This means that whenever you run into something saying "Athena invented the flute", "Euterpe was the Muse of flute players" or "Apollo played flute with the Muses" it almost ALWAYS means aulos, not flute.

Now just to confuse things, there was a transverse flute in use in ancient Greece. It was considered a country instrument, not very sophisticated and linked to shepherds. There are almost no mythological stories that feature this instrument and the only reference to a God playing one (that shouldn't actually read aulos that is) that I have run across is Pan and I'm not sure about that one. It is possible that the original Greek text said panpipes or syrinx instead of flute, another common mistranslation. Although since Pan was a God of shepherds, it is not impossible that in this case, they actually meant the transverse flute.
Baby Pan Playing Transverse Flute
Pan Playing Transverse Flute Among the Wild Columbine
The transverse flute just didn't have enough respect to be used in the stories. It is one of the oldest instruments in the world but it took centuries for the flute to gain any standing among other instruments in Western culture. Yet people kept playing it, teaching it and writing music for it. And now, it is so hard for us to believe that this instrument didn't matter in the past that we change the name of other instruments to flute. Flutes can be sneaky little things.

For more on the myths of the aulos see  Athena and Hermes Musical Inventions, Apollo the One Man Band and A Night at the Theater