September 25, 2017

Wandering in the MIM

I went to the Musical Instrument Museum in AZ earlier this summer. After 4 hours, I was dragged out by my hair. Mostly, I wandered about, happily drooling on the pretty instruments, listening to the musical clips and noticing odd little relations between different instruments/music/dance from wildly different areas (compare hula and flamenco dancing sometime!) But I also had fun taking a few pics. Sadly, the flutes usually don't have much information included in their display (a common symptom of string instruments getting more respect than winds) but there is still a wonderful range of flutes; end-blown, rim-blown, vessel, transverse, block and duct types and more. I did not even attempt to take pictures of all of them since that would have been too distracting from the thinking and dreaming I was doing. Nor did I take pics of only flutes.
Here are a few to share.
Drum Skirt Honoring Yemaja

A Few South American Flutes

Flute from the Andes

Extremely Tall Drums

African Flutes and Whistles-Worn as status symbols
Flutes and whistles from the Balkans

Animal Shaped Whistles

Spanish Chiflo (duct flute) and Salterio (string drum)

Welsh Crwth

July 30, 2017

The Gem Flutes of Gilgamesh and Tammuzi

I put off this post in a deluded attempt to find more information but have now admitted the truth; I likely have all the information I can find. Both of these instruments are only mentioned in fragments of myths, making our information spotty at best but I'll do what I can.
First, a note about the term flute in these myths. The instrument in Gilgamesh’s story is often called a flute in English translations (and other languages) however it most likely was a reed instrument. This seems to be an extremely common mistranslation when dealing with old texts; any old or archaic wind instrument that is basically a hollow pipe is translated as flute regardless of the type of mouthpiece or how it is held. Why I’m not quite sure aside from the translators not realizing that “pipe” is a generic instrumental term and was never exclusively used for flutes. In the case of Gilgamesh's story, there is some doubt as to what kind of instrument is really meant but it was almost certainly end-blown (held vertical to the body instead of horizontal) and most likely had a reed in the mouthpiece. I have yet to find anyone examining the term for Tammuzi’s wind instrument but given the prevalence of musical translation issues and the popularity of reed instruments in this time and area, I think it is safe to assume it wasn’t a flute either. At this point, the use of the word flute in translations of myths is so common, I think it is quite reasonable to include these stories as part of the flute’s mythology so long as it is made clear when the instrument in question was really a flute or reed instrument.
Second, I apologize for using so many different versions of Dumuzi/Tammuzi and Ishtar/Inanna. It is a result of the how many cultures have told these stories and the fact that I do not feel qualified to simply "merge" the names into one without damaging the stories. I have kept things as simple as I could.

The Carnelian Pipe
The story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu comes from Mesopotamia. This is a very old and very fragmented poem. The different fragments are pieced together in different ways creating several versions. In short, Gilgamesh is the King of Urek (possibly Sumeria or thereabouts). He has divine parentage (quite common for royalty in myths) and a bad temper (ditto). Enkidu is created by the Gods to be his friend and calm him down. They have a number of adventures and encounters with the Gods which are anything but calm (but at least they stop bothering ordinary people so much). Eventually, Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh holds a funeral for his friend. In the process, Gilgamesh offers a wind instrument made of carnelian to Dumuzi (the Sun God is witnessing this ceremony I believe, not keeping the offerings) so that Enkidu will be welcomed into the afterlife. It is worth noticing that he also offers a flask made of lapis lazuli to Ereshkigal for the same reason (both lapis lazuli and Ereshkigal will be mentioned later). 
He displayed to the Sun God a flask of lapis lazuli
   for Ereshkigal, the queen of the Netherworld:
"May Ereshkigal, the queen of the teeming Netherworld, accept this,
   may she welcome my friend and walk by his side!"
He displayed to the Sun God a flute of carnelian
   for Dumuzi, the shepherd beloved of Ishtar:
"May Dumuzi, the shepherd beloved of Ishtar, accept this,
   may he welcome my friend and walk by his side!"
---from Book VIII of the Epic, lines 144–149

The Lapis Lazuli Pipe
Now for Tammuzi’s other wind instrument we have to look at the story of the descent of Ishtar into the Underworld. Again, there are several different, fragmented versions of this story. Ishtar is often related to Inanna the Sumerian Goddess of love, fertility and war. Tammuzi/Dumuzi (and various other spellings) is Ishtar’s/Inanna’s lover. Ishtar/Inanna decides to go to the Underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal the Queen of the Dead. In the process, Ishtar/Inanna basically dies but being a Goddess, she can return to her home and divine role of keeping the world alive if some one will take her place in the Underworld. Now while she was gone Tammuzi/Dumuzi has been living it up in her palace, sitting on her throne and playing a wind instrument (often called a flute but likely something else) made of lapis lazuli. She sends him to take her place in the Underworld supposedly for not mourning her properly. Tammuzi/Dumuzi took his lapis lazuli instrument with him to play comforting music for the dead. In some versions Dumuzi’s sister takes his place for half the year so he will not always be dead. The seasons change when they trade places in the Underworld. 

A Few Gems
We don’t always know exactly what stones the ancients meant by carnelian or lapis lazuli but they generally meant something reddish with carnelian and something bluish with lapis lazuli. We do know they meant something valuable as these gems were used in trade and by royalty. It would have been expensive to make instruments from them but not impossible and since both stones were associated with the Gods, anything made from them would have been appropriate as offerings. There have been a number of gem encrusted flutes (and other instruments) made in history, both for display and just to see how they would work, so there’s no reason to assume more ancient cultures wouldn’t have made instruments out of something flashy too. It is also quite common to say someone in a story or myth is playing an instrument made out of unusual or exotic materials to enhance the mythic or magical quality of the instrument.

So what shall we take from this? Well, we can't say anything for certain but I like the idea of Tammuzi’s/Dumuzi’s music changing colors as the seasons shift. Blue and red, cool and warm, living and dead, circling and harmonizing every year as the earth spins year after year.

June 26, 2017

Artists of the Breath

Flute players sculpt sound into music using their breath as chisels and brushes.
Exhalations become brush strokes and molds. Vibrations become paint and clay.
Welding together timelessness and the ever changing moment.
Creating the ephemeral out of the intangible.
Wordless communication.
Singing without a voice.
Breathe and Listen.

May 31, 2017

6 Holes-Where Traversos and Whistles Meet

Pennywhistles and Baroque flutes.
Whistles are often used to introduce children to musical instruments based on the (mistaken) idea that all you have to do is blow. Traverso or Period flutes are often considered challenging for skilled musicians let alone beginners.
The current pennywhistle design was invented in the mid 1800s. Traverso players typically go back as far as the 1600s for their flute designs and avoid playing any style of flute after 1850 or so (when Boehm's redesign more or less created the modern concert flute).
In spite of these differences, these instruments are oddly entwined with each other. So much so, that I think learning one increases skill on the other and vice versa.

Let's start with an odd similarity in how these instruments are taught. They aren't. That's right, students rarely get any instruction on either instrument.
It is often assumed people can work out how to play a whistle by themselves because it has no keys and no special embouchure (mouth shape) is required. This means few people bother with much instruction. Now, it is true that if you ALREADY play a wind instrument, you may be able to work out the fingerings and get a decent start but kids being introduced to playing have a much tougher time. It strikes be as very odd and contradictory that previous musical experience is (somewhat unconsciously) assumed with an instrument that is often given to young children!
Meanwhile, traverso flutes have a reputation for being mysterious and difficult to learn partly because it has no keys (ironically enough) and doesn't play chromatic notes the same way the modern flute does. Finding a teacher is difficult not only because of how few concert flute players "dare" to pick up period instruments but also because there are so many different styles of flutes. If you do find a teacher, the odds are they aren't playing the exact same instrument as you and may not play flute at all (I ended up working with a Baroque bassoon player to get started). Books are still few and far between and generally assume the student is already a college-trained concert flutist, not a beginner. Generally, traverso players are left to muddle along on their own just like the whistlers.
The result is that both of these instruments are largely self taught because of the myth of their difficulty/easiness level and an assumption of previous musical experience.

Now the basic finger-hole pattern of these instruments.
Both are based on 6 finger holes, covered by the first three fingers of each hand with the left hand closer to the mouth. And both play a major scale using (basically) the same fingering pattern. The earliest traverso flutes from the Baroque era (1600s) have 6 finger holes plus one hole that is covered by a key that is almost always closed and therefore functions more or less like a 6 holed flute. Later traverso flutes had more keys added and with them more holes but the basic idea of 6 holes remained the framework design for most styles. (Fifes have the 6 finger pattern too in case anyone was wondering.)

Three Whistles-6 Finger Holes

Baroque Flute-6 Finger Holes Plus One Key

This means the fingerings of the pennywhistle often work on the traverso and vice versa though some fingerings need tweaking. This is especially helpful with the chromatic notes. Whistles have a slew of alternate fingerings for chromatic notes (so many it can be overwhelming) many of  which work on a period instrument. This can be wonderfully helpful since the fingerings for older flutes are not as detailed or extensive as the modern flute by a long stretch.

Modes, scales and folk music.
Both play the same basic set of scales or modes with relative ease. This means whistles and traversos can both play major/ionian, dorian, mixolydian and natural minor/aeolian and harmonic or melodic minor without too many half-holes or cross-fingerings.
Celtic music, old time fiddle tunes and a lot of other folk music use these modes and scales all the time. These styles use whistles pretty regularly and therefore, lots of this music will "fit" on the traverso flutes without resorting to chromatic fingerings. This means you can learn the ins and outs of the traverso on tunes that don't require the more difficult half-holes and cross-fingerings nearly as often as the more formal (and modulating) Baroque and Classical composers. And learning to play a couple of Bach or Telemann tunes on the whistle can make learning the half-holes and cross-fingerings a bit less challenging. Not to mention a great deal of Classical music actually was inspired by folk music so you may find some interesting musical relationships hiding in the staffs.

An interesting cross-over from the Celtic folk music realm; Because the Irish flute is (more or less) a traverso, an instruction book for Irish flute can be used with some traverso flutes. These books tend to have more absolute beginner information and you get some modal Celtic tunes in some of them.

Finally, there is one other advantage to learning the whistle with the traverso. It gives you a way to change your arm position and lower your arms from time to time. This helps with the repetitive use injuries musicians are so very prone to. Just the act of switching instruments lets you rest and recover without having to stop playing.

The more instruments I learn, the more each one informs my understanding and skill on the others. They open up worlds of musical styles and ways of thinking. They expand the possibilities and styles of music I experience and, with a little luck, let me share something fun and lovely with others.

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