December 27, 2015

Music, Memorization and Dyslexia

I was reading a book with an article by a dyslexic musician the other day. He said he had always been terrible at memorizing music on cello but good at sight-reading. When he took up guitar, he discovered he was good at memorizing but bad a sight-reader on that instrument. After some thought, he concluded that the constant need to look at his hands on the guitar might close a loop between reading music, playing music and remembering music. His theory is that when you look at your hands, you connect the notes you are reading with the actions of your fingers and both with the musical sounds, which may assist in memorizing the music. The trade off was that he couldn’t look ahead in the music as much as is required to sight-read well.
“Sight-reading and memory” by Michael Lea from Music and Dyslexia; A Positive Approach edited by Tim Miles, John Westcombe and Diana Ditchfield 

Reading music can be similar to typing by touch. When you look at the words, you understand them but you are not processing them in a way that is about remembering them. You are just letting your fingers type the letters as you see them. In music, you play the notes as you see them, the information flowing from your eyes to your fingers. You may remember a fair amount, possibly even all, of the music after practicing it for a few weeks but that isn’t the same as memorizing it well enough to perform by memory. Anyone who has prepared for a contest where memorization is required can tell you all about that! And I often feel nervous about my memory unless I have spent intensive time playing without music in front of me. The time spent playing with the music is simply not helpful on that score (sorry about the pun).

I have observed that instrumentalists who are expected to memorize most of their music tend to be ones who can see what their hands are doing easily, without contortions. In fact, piano, guitar and harp players are expected to watch their hands. Meanwhile, wind players are actively discouraged from trying to look at their hands or fingers while playing for the very good reason that it twists you up and it is nearly impossible to play while doing so. They are also allowed to read music in performance more often. Strings tend to be somewhere in-between these two groups both in the memorization expectation and in how easy it is to see their hands while playing.
Now, mirrors are often used by wind players to check embouchure and hand position. It occurred to me that we flute players should try setting up our music stand right in front of a mirror so that we can look from the music to our fingers in the mirror with minimal movement. I have, unintentionally and unconsciously, used this trick to memorize music in the past but only after learning the music fairly well. Next time, I’ll try it when just starting to learn the piece and see how my twisted brain reacts.

November 25, 2015

Artemis Who Loves Song and Dance

Rising Full Moon
The Wild Wood
We are familiar with Artemis as the huntress of wild things, the independent Goddess of the Moon who refused to marry and guards young children. But she is also a Goddess closely linked to singing and dancing. 
The Dancing Hunter
In myths and poems, Artemis is described as loving to sing and leading her nymphs in song as often as they hunted. Artemis led the Muses in circle dances and directed their choir singing (before Apollo became their manager). Young girls dressed in saffron tunics and danced a bear dance in honor of Artemis before they were allowed to marry. In myths, Helen, Ariadne and girl after girl were abducted while dancing or singing for Artemis. Aphrodite once disguised herself as a mortal and claimed the same thing had happened to her to make her story convincing. Many dances were considered sacred to Artemis: circle dances, winding chain dances, lively jigs with wild leaps into the air and dances where the dancers dressed as plants, deer (or other animals) and the opposite sex. Karyatis, Kordax and Korythalia are all titles or names linked to Artemis and the dances that were done in her honor.
Deer in Winter
The Moon and Deer are Symbols of Artemis
A few of Artemis's musical (or at least noisy) titles include; 
-Hegemone “leader of dance" or "choir leader.” 
-Hymnia “of the hymns” or "lover of songs." 
-Celadeinus/Celadeine “strong voiced" or "lady of clamors.”
And a final observation of my own; Erato the Muse of erotic and love poetry, wedding music and sometimes dance, is sometimes shown holding a bow and arrows, like Eros the God of love. And Artemis the leader of the songs and dances of nymphs, Muses and Graces, is most often pictured with bow and arrows today.

Eclipse Crescent Moon
When the Moon shines, Artemis dances with the plants and animals

Artemis is the untamed singer beside the forest stream who leads us into the harmonic wilderness. She is the conductor hiding within the ensemble, the dancer in costume, the disguised side of ourselves who sings duets with those she loves.

September 6, 2015

Flautist, Flutist, Fluter or Flute Player

Nearly everyone who plays flute will, at some point, be asked "What is the correct term for a flute player, Flutist or Flautist?" The answer is; either one. Yes really. Flutist is the older English word with the Oxford dictionary dating it to 1603. Flautist is a much more recent term in spite of the persistent rumor to the contrary. Nathanial Hawthorne seems to have been the first writer to use Flautist ("The flautist poured his breath in quick puffs of jollity" from The Marble Faun) in 1860. Hawthorne may have been trying to sound European (a popular fad in his day) by inventing a word based on the Italian flauto (from old Occitan flaut) to get the word Flautist. Older English writers (like Chaucer) use floute/Floutour, flowte/Flowtour and my favorite, floyte/floytynge (playing the flute) with no connection to the Italian term. Floute/Floutour, flowte/Flowtour and floyte all developed into flute/Flutist in English. Dictionaries currently list both Flutist and Flautist as correct terms for flute players.

Many people think Flutist is more common in the USA but in my experience, both get used about equally. Common musicians' gossip says that Flautist is more common in England (or Europe) but again, that doesn't seem to be true in practice; in fact, in my (highly limited) experience, Flautist is used more often in the USA than in England. Some people feel Flautist is stuffy or even somewhat insulting; they claim its too similar to "flaunting" or "flouting" in spite of not being based on, or related to, either word. On the other side of the debate, some people feel Flutist is an Americanization or less technically correct; both ideas are also completely untrue. It strikes me that the objections to both words are more based on emotional reactions to (and personal associations with) the words themselves rather than on dictionary meanings of the words or their true history.

The reality is words change over time and usage shifts back and forth for mysterious reasons (take a linguistics class if you want to really hurt your head with this phenomenon.) The great Flutist vs. Flautist debate has been going on almost since the word Flautist was tossed into English and it hasn't changed much in all that time. I prefer to skip the whole issue and say "I am a Flute Player" or "I play the Flute". But I answer to Flutist, Flautist and even Fluter without complaint or regret.
Just make sure you know me before you call me a Flutter brain.

August 19, 2015

Athena and Hermes Musical Invention

Athena and Hermes. Aulos and lyre. Pipes and strings. And the much neglected trumpet and shepherd's pipe. These are Gods of innovation, new uses and thoughts. These are also the Gods who gave away their creations without hesitation. To pay for a theft or because of a glance in the mirror, they tossed their instruments aside for others to play. They could always make more.

Hermes’s story is always good for a laugh so let’s begin there. Three days after he was born, Hermes had already gotten bored with behaving himself. So off he went to his brother’s pastures and stole Apollo’s cows. He cooked them up and settled down to some inventing. He caught and killed a tortoise and used it’s shell and the guts of the sun God’s cows to build the first lyre in the world (well, so he said.) When Apollo finally found the little thief, the chords that poured out of the lyre stopped him in his tracks. Singing with the Muses and playing reed pipes suddenly seemed like ancient history compared to the thought of playing this new instrument. And Hermes, clever little trickster that he is, offered not only to give Apollo the lyre but to teach him how to play it. In exchange for the cows that he had already stolen.
After Apollo left to write up he’s newly created rules of harmony, Hermes skipped off and gathered reeds to build a syrinx (though some say he stole that instrument from Pan and who’s to say which one of these two is more trustworthy) and continued to fill his after dinner hours with new music.
Once, Zeus asked Hermes for help getting past Argos, the hundred eyed monster who never slept. Hermes took his syrinx and played lullabies to Argos until all of his eyes finally closed. Some say that Apollo traded his golden staff and lessons in prophecy for Hermes’ shepherd's pipe.

Athena’s music by contrast seems to be tied to sorrow and pain. She had given Perseus the tools he needed to kill Medusa of course but when Medusa died, her sisters wept. And keened. And sang. Athena, the war Goddess, promptly dropped her spear and began shaping a pair of reeds into a double-reed instrument, the aulos (aulos is often mistakenly translated as flute). Athena could use this hollow tube to transform all the sorrow and grief of the world into laments and dirges that broke and healed the hearts that heard them
And then, as suddenly as she started, Athena stopped playing. Some say she didn’t like how she looked in the mirror, others that Hermes made fun of how her cheeks puffed out. But maybe she knew others would need some way to release their deepest, musical voice and that is why she dropped her reed pipes to the ground. But even after she stopped playing, the Goddess’s breath still lived in the aulos. They hummed in the forest until a satyr named Marsyas found them and brought their melodies back to the world.
She guarded and supported the musicians of Olympus, the Muses. She caught and tamed Pegasus, the winged horse child of Medusa, and gave him to the Muses for their pleasure and delight.
She was called Athena Salpinx (war trumpet) in Argos and she is credited with inventing all forms of art that require time and study.

These two Gods are the inventors of their pantheon. Each new object they create draws gasps of amazement and becomes sacred in an eye blink. But these two beings barely seem to notice how precious their inventions are. They hand their creations off to others without a second thought, knowing that the most valuable gift they are giving us is the ability to imagine new ways to use the objects they leave scattered around us.

April 30, 2015

Daily Musings

A while back, I decided to work on memorizing more music. I've always kind of slacked in that department (Classical flute training allows this) and I've also always wished I didn't. So I've started keeping a musical journal where I record things I'm trying to play by memory along with some of the daily improvisations I create. Not sure where this will take me but I intend to share bits and pieces as I go.

Improv based on O'Carolan's "Farewell to Music"

"Carolan's Dream"

I'm mixing up the "simpler" folk tunes (some of which aren't that simple!) with Telemann and Troubadour music. The idea is that there will be some songs I learn more easily (which will hopefully encourage me) while I'm struggling with the longer pieces. In time, I hope to share a wider variety of tunes.

February 12, 2015

Ephemeral Life

Music is ephemeral. It is never the same twice. Even listening to a recording is never quite the same because the listener brings a different awareness each time they listen. They can’t help it. This is what makes music so tricky to explain and so wonderful to experience.
Many Classical musicians focus on learning to play the notes they see with as much accuracy as possible. The goal becomes to play the piece exactly as written every time. This is a good skill to have, never think otherwise, but there is more to music than that. Music is not the written notation but the moment of playing or performing including all the mistakes or even deliberate changes to what we see on the page. Music is the act of creating sound and listening to it. Improvisation is part of this and always has been. Even when improvisation isn't taught, performers end up making little tiny changes every time they play (there is no way not to). Perhaps instead of striving for note-by-note repetition, we should spend time trying to understand WHY these changes felt good or bad, what in the moment caused the music to transform and how we can make these different "interpretations" work for performers and audiences. This is the beginning of improvisation and part of what makes music an experience that is treasured.

A Couple of Examples
The Medieval troubadours are well known for setting their poetry to music but their music was not “complete” as we would understand it; they rarely included any rhythms and even wrote multiple melodies for the same poem. In other words, they improvised and used written music as a chance to expand their possible musical ideas instead of writing out a perfect version of the music. They adapted the music to their instruments and voices, they changed tones to fit the mood of the moment and treated the music like the living creature it is. There are a large number of period performers who carefully use only musical ideas from the age of the troubadours, going so far as to exclude all modern instruments and most period wind instruments since they weren’t “commonly used” at the time. Their goal is to recreate the troubadour sound as exactly as they can. This is wonderful and shows us a whole different kind of music than we are used to but I can not help feeling that the spirit of this music is in some ways being ignored. This was music that was meant to change, to adapt. If a performer didn’t play the instrument a composer had in mind, they still played the music even if they had to change the melody to do so. If only certain keys or modes worked for a specific instrument or voice, the performer could even CHANGE the scale of the piece and play the piece with different harmonies. If the audience wanted a different mood than the original piece, the music could be changed. A lament could become a dance in next to no time.
Baroque music incorporated improvisation into opera and bass lines as a matter of course. But the melody instruments were expected to change their more completely written lines too. A straight performance was often considered dull and not worth the audience's time. Today, students often spend hours researching how musicians might have improvised a piece in that day and age. But why stop there? Why limit ourselves to imitating someone else’s improvisation? Don’t mistake me, imitating is a great way to learn but then we can add our own ideas. Radical, I know, because this may well result in older pieces being made modern. But why is that always seen as a bad thing? We are modern musicians and we bring that sound with us. As beautiful as I find the Baroque style, I see no reason to rigidly make everyone follow it in every performance.

I admit, creating new music can be frightening. Some changes don’t work and some improvisations fall flat. It takes time and practice to get reliably good at improvising. But why should that stop us? We spend hours, even years, learning to reliably recreate written music after all. There is no reason to assume improvising will just come naturally without any effort. But the seed of improvisation is there, in anyone who has played one note and then another without any direction from someone else.
Improvisation and written music are not exclusive to each other and I love playing written music just as much as improvising. I find it beautiful and inspiring to play and hear music others were trying to share. But I know that I will never create a carbon-copy performance of any piece and I wouldn't want to even if I could. New sounds, new ideas and new music leap out of performances of old music. Some are sweetly similar to the sounds that created them, some are radically different. The musical possibilities and knowledge that this music will never be exactly the same again is what makes the experience so rewarding.
We are, after all, as ephemeral as the music we love.