October 12, 2018

Making It Up As I Go

When I was 13, I went out into the woods and began to teach myself to improvise and compose. I did not know it at the time though. I began by memorizing a short folk tune and adding small ornaments (a trill here, a grace note there) to it. I had seen several versions of this tune in sheet music form with ornaments so I made a point of adding ones that had not been in those versions. Some sounded good, others not so much.
The next week, I did this again. And then again. The ornaments got a bit longer and more complex (turns!) and after a few more weeks, something odd happened. An interval in the melody caught my attention. I don't know why but it suddenly sounded different than it ever had before in this tune or in any other. It sparkled and glittered. I spun it around and tossed it into other places in the song. I explored what notes played before and after the notes of that interval would emphasize the extra something I was hearing and feeling in my fingers.
In time, other intervals in this same tune caught my attention. And I worked with them in similar ways. Then I put together the intervals I especially liked (for no apparent reason) and explored how to weave them together in a way that showed off the magic I had found in them. With mixed results. But eventually, I realized I wasn't playing that folk tune anymore. I was creating a new melody.
This unsettled me. I knew composing was a deep pool of new learning and I was a bit reluctant to dive in just yet. So instead, I just told myself I was noodling. Then improvising. I took a small tape recorder out with me (I always did this somewhere I felt I wasn't being listened to at that time) and recorded a few of these little ephemeral notes and lines. I liked just knowing I could go back and hear what I had done again. Once or twice I even actually listened to those tapes (not often) and noticed things I liked and things I thought weren't really that interesting and tried to remember both.

Years later, my teacher had me add ornaments to a Telemann piece. Using our best information of how ornaments were added at the time. I loved it but it frustrated me wildly. I loved it because it was exactly what I wanted to do a great deal of the time. But so many of the ornaments I came up with did not fit the rules. And I could not seem to actually change any of the notes in the melody which I knew would have happened at the time. Still, it was a whole new way to play with those feisty little notes.
Then, again years later, I took a Jazz improv class. This had mixed results too but by then, I expected that. I knew I was trying to learn to do something different than Jazz so I accepted that not everything I learned here would work for whatever I was doing. And those little noodling tunes and exploratory ornaments I was playing in private kept going. And growing. And fewer and fewer recordings had dull sounding moments in them.
Then I went to play at the Renaissance Festival. Suddenly, I was playing music all day long. I got bored just playing written tunes and played some of my own improvisations. And some of what I now admit were compositions began emerging into the light of audiences. The next year, almost half of what I was playing was my own improvising or compositions. The next year, I had to remind myself to play music other than my own.
And that is the story of how I learned to "dream in music". To allow music to pour through me and, hopefully, into the dreams of others. To create a world of sound that constantly shifts and changes. Like rainbows through rain-clouds or starlight on snow.

September 4, 2018

Hum, Buzz and Shiver

My mother planted Yucca flowers next to my mail box this summer. (Plant exchanges and free seed fairs result in a lot of gardening whims and botanic surprises in my family.) I didn't notice right away. But then they bloomed. During an extreme drought that made the Periwinkle and Virginia Creeper show signs of wilt. These tall, elegant clusters of blooms brought out a smile every time I passed them, when other plants surrendered to lack of water and went dormant till next year.
Meanwhile, the Sunflowers bloomed. And bloomed. And bloomed. Each year I'm stunned anew at how many shades of yellow there can be in one small patch of flowers. And at how long these glories last. I am not at all surprised these flowers were/are considered grave flowers by the Kaw Nation (the people whose stolen ancestral land I live on) and as a connection to those who are gone.

And I remembered the stories of Native American flutes being made from hollowed out stalks of Yucca flowers and Sunflowers. Sometimes, flies or bees burrow into the stalks and partly hollow them out before they are picked for flute making. Making the flute a joint creation of the plant, the insects and people.

When a flute is played, vibrations can be felt under your fingers. Life pulsing through the instrument for as long as your breath lasts. Dissipating into the air after the final cadence. Scattering like seeds back into the earth. Waiting for the next rain to bloom all over again.

April 30, 2018

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 that I learned to sight sing years ago and even taught sight singing. All of which caused me to recognize 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 for nearly everyone.
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.

March 16, 2018

Lady of the Pipes

Ianuaria, a Celtic/Gaulish Goddess. The information about her is extremely limited but intriguing. At a healing shrine in Beire-le-Chatal, France, she was pictured as a young girl with curly hair, wearing a pleated coat and playing the panpipes. The site also had images of Apollo, bulls and doves. No one knows if she was associated with music, healing or birds and bulls outside of this site or not. Her name is related to Janus the Roman God of beginnings, doorways, gates, the new year and January. Jana (or Iana) Luna, a moon Goddess, is Janus’s consort and the only other female version of the name Janus (as far as I know).

Music goes back to our beginnings as various finds of 40,000 year old flutes show. Music and healing are often paired and music was sometimes used as a form of healing. Many of the Gaulish deities mixed and matched roles, attributes and even names with other cultures. The ancient Celts traveled so far they couldn’t help but run into other Gods and see similarities to their own. Meanwhile, the Romans were quite prone to creating Roman names for local deities and pairing them up with a Roman God, just to make everything seem Roman to them. All this makes it quite likely that there was a local deity connected to healing or music or both who was simply renamed.

Ianuaria’s roots are long gone but close your eyes and listen for the sound of flute music drifting over the hills on a chilly day and you just might catch glimpse of where she went.

Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Dictionary of Roman Religion.
Theoi, Roman Myth Index: http://www.mythindex.com/roman-mythology/J/Janus.html

February 14, 2018

A Love Story

Some people devote themselves to one specific instrument and remain faithful to it their whole lives. Some people fall for multiple instruments and learn to juggle their various passions. I fall somewhere in between these two forms of musical devotion by playing several different types of flutes. Each flute requires slightly different adjustments in how they are played but I love the changes of tones the different materials and designs have on the basic flute sound.

The concert flute is my first love and the flute with the most flexibility in scales, accidentals and the widest range. It is the flute most people think of first and are used to seeing in orchestras. It is generally the top sound and gets some of the most ornamented parts. It can be flashy and used to imitate birds but it also is used for slow, sad tunes. It is often used in music meant to evoke natural settings. As popular as it is in Classical music, it is generally ignored by other genres such as Jazz (sax players often double on flute but solo players are rare) and folk (guitar and/or traditional instruments are much more common) so it actually adds some unusual sounds to these areas.

The alto flute has a wonderful lush sound in its lower register. I was captivated by it the first time I played one (not uncommon for those who like this instrument) but it is the heaviest flute I play. This is the flute I lift weights for. Much as I love it, playing an entire show on this instrument alone is not practical if I want to keep my arms in good working order. So this flute gets short, attention grabbing appearances mixed in with the other flutes. It is associated with darker music than the concert flute and gets used for more mysterious pieces. It is lush, velvety and surprisingly powerful.

I play 2 different sizes of glass flutes. The one in C is similar to a piccolo or a fife. The one in G is halfway between a regular flute and a picc. Their sound is bright and cheerful and a kick to play in the rain. These are both from Hall Crystal Flutes. I'm not generally a fan of piccolo sounds (I like low better) but the glass material darkens the sound wonderfully. And I admit, it is very nice to have light instruments that are easy to clean up after a long dusty day. Smaller flutes and piccs have light and bright sounds but they are also very effective at creating haunting music. The key is getting the contrast right between their brilliant sound and a darker musical line.

The one-keyed Baroque flute sounds soft and quiet up close but always surprises me with how far its sound carries. Mine was made by Daniel Dietz. Wood flutes generally have a rich dark sound which is part of what gives period and traditional flutes their distinct timbres. I am especially enchanted with how wood flutes can imitate the alto flute sound in a smaller, lighter instrument. This flute is wonderful with Troubadour tunes and other Medieval and Renaissance music of course but it really takes flight on the lively pieces.
Many Flutes
Alto (with curved headjoint), Glass flutes in G and C, Baroque flute and Concert flute.
Recently, I was swept off my feet by some Penny-Whistles (also called Irish Whistle, Tin Whistle or Celtic Whistle) and rim-blown flutes. They are full of surprises and each one is different (unsurprisingly). They dance, dream and delight.
For more see Whistle While You Work or  Mythical Jacquaflute

High F Elfsong Copper Whistle, Low F MK Whistle, D Milligan Whistle
Rim-Blown Diatonic Flute based on Ancestor Pueblo/Anasazi Flute design

I have several different ocarinas (they just sort of accumulate) that are lots of fun to have on hand when the flute is just too large to be practical. They are basically extremely fancy whistles with a full octave range. Though the 10-holed chromatic wooden one I recently got goes a bit beyond that! Learning to fit tunes on this little whistle has become my version of Sudoku puzzles but much more fun. It has a soft voice that invites listeners to come close and lose themselves in musical stories.
I have a set of panpipes but I haven't really caught the trick of them. Truth to tell, I dislike how it feels to move the instrument on my lip so I leave performing on this instrument to others. They are quite fun to have though and they have taught me a great deal.
Then there are the recorders. I do play and teach recorder but we've always had a complicated relationship. They are very delicate sounding and it is surprisingly tricky to play them WELL. They take a precise touch that is rarely mastered by people who think of them as a children's instrument. It makes perfect sense to me that they were used in the same age as lutes and other subtle sounding instruments when amplification only existed in cathedrals and caves.
Panpipes, Ocarinas, Recorder
Panpipes, Ocarinas and Recorders, oh my!

I have studied a few other instruments (guitar, piano, harp, violin) over the years but never "hit it off" with them the way I did with the flute. Studying the basics on a couple of other instruments helps performing musicians be more flexible and gain more control of their instrument whether they become a doubler or not. In my case, the flute keeps tempting me back.
And so the love affair continues...

January 17, 2018

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.