When I first started playing professionally in an orchestra many years ago, some interesting things happened. Life was a little different than I had imagined before that. Everyone’s experience is different; what happened in mine back then was, first of all, the job was a different experience than I expected. I had imagined musical excitement every day – what a dream to get to play music for a living! Well, sometimes. A good bit of it was, after a while anyway, pretty routine. A small part of it was sheer terror. But that part is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the other thing that started happening back then…
Time for some summer beachcombing through some interesting music-related links:
Does music help you work better? Check out “The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle“. “Melodious sounds help encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, as would eating a delicacy, looking at something appealing or smelling a pleasant aroma.” “People’s minds tend to wander… [and] a wandering mind is unhappy.” Music helps improve your mood, which helps you make good decisions. “The older people are, the less time they spend listening to music at work.”
When Practicing Along Isn’t Enough, WSJ article by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim about performance psychologist Noa Kageyama whose ProMind Coaching teaches all kinds of clients the principles of sports psychology. But Mr. Kageyama specializes in applying it to music; he has a blog called The Bulletproof Musician; he just joined the faculty of Juilliard. In days of old, everybody talked scales and arpeggios; nobody talked about performance anxiety. Music is finally catching up to the rest of the world in using the tools and exercises of sports psychology to deal with performance anxiety. U of Oklahoma performance psychologist Bill Moore has published a book called “Playing Your Best When It Counts”; Moore notes how athletes (who have used these techniques for years) differ from musicians. “Moore coaxes teachers and musicians to incorporate performancelike play time into each practice session and lesson. For teachers… the hardest part is learning to bite their tongues when their instinct is to correct.” Moore focuses on building up “mental skills needed in a performance, like courage, trust and … artistry and expression for musicians, strategy for athletes.”
I read a lot of journals, and not just horn journals. Sometimes you find really interesting stuff in, say Scientific American, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, Guitar Player, Popular Science, and so on.
I just came upon an amazing new finding in the American Journal of Acoustic Research that just might revolutionize brass playing. Recent findings from the Acoustic Research Lab at the University of Duluth led by Dr. Franklin Spassvogel indicates that significant gains in powerful and accurate playing were possible when the player was playing inverted vis-a-vis normal playing position. The lab constructed a specially built harness to examine the effect of the angle of playing (not just the instrument, but the head, neck, and breathing apparatus – i.e the whole body). The startling results were that the normal, completely upright position of playing was the least effective position for powerful accurate playing.
News, views, rhythm n blues gleaned from a quick blog tour…
Pip Eastop (creative London superhornist) hates the harmonic minor scale. He finds it pointless and recommends that it be stricken from exams. He favors the jazz minor scale, which is the ascending melodic minor scale that does not lower steps 6 and 7 when descending. This scale is very handy for improvising since it doesn’t change anything descending; also, there is only one note different from the major scale (1 2 b3 4 5 6 7 vs 1 2 3 4 5 6 7). I mostly agree. The notes of the harmonic minor scale (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7) are useful in improvising, but not as an octave scale. In either composing or improvising, you use the b6 to turn around at 5. The b6 leads down, not up – it makes not a lot of sense to use it to ascend in the usual harmonic minor scale. The 7 does the same thing at 1. Your ear wants a 7 instead of a b7 to turn around at 1 (1 7 1). Now: if you’re descending from 1 down to 5, say, the b7 and b6 make sense. They sound just fine. If you’re using the jazz minor scale (6 and 7 both directions) consistently, the ear gets used to hearing the unflatted descending 6 and 7. Also: there are some scales that use the augmented 2nd interval, most b2 to 3 (e.g. Spanish Phrygian or Klezmer: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7; Middle Eastern: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7) where that wide interval is used melodically to evoke that exotic flavor, but for normal Western/tonal improvisation – jazz or contemporary classical – I agree with Pip that the harmonic minor is an artificial construct without much use that simply shows you are familiar with that collection of pitches. In combat conditions (improvising or composing) you should be able to inflect the 6 and 7 any way you want to match what you hear your melodic line doing.
Another thing comes to mind on the subject of scale proficiency exams. What if… instead of testing the artificial – octave scales – we tested – for want of a better word – music? That is, the ability to use any version of minor in a musical situation. Testing one (or two or three) octave scales are of very limited use to either practice much or in exams. It doesn’t tell you much. It’s a very superficial way of knowing a scale. What about all the other ways you can arrange the scale? I don’t care if you can find your way up and back. I want to know what you can do with a scale. I don’t need to hear Flight of the Bumblebee. But I would like to hear that you can think in music and use the scale appropriately to some degree.
Here’s your new scale proficiency exam: Picture this: a woman in a red dress stares at a crescent moon at 3 a.m. A solitary tear slides down her cheek. She has just lost the love of her life. Now: draw a card at random: Ab minor. Now, using any form of minor scale that you wish, make up a 2 minute piece depicting that scene, built mainly around that scale. You pick the tempo (hint: slow is fine). The piece should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have unity and variety. It should have some recognizable (or better, memorable) melodic motifs that are developed in the course of the improvisation. Add a brief coda at the end.
Now that would tell me if you really know your scales. I wouldn’t care if you missed a note here or there if you created a strong, memorable line and did some interesting things. Something expressive, something that communicates thought and feeling. Right now all we seem to care about in exams is mindless rote perfection of things that seldom or never show up in actual music (ever seen a two octave scale in a piece for horn?).
Dr. Noa Kageyama has some great advice on audition prep and mental toughness for musicians.
Richard Kessler concludes a series of arts on Getting the Best High School Arts Education in Dewey21C.
The lead current article in Entrepreneur the Arts is “The Long Wait of ‘Artistic’ Careers” by Peter Spellman of Berklee College of Music.
James Boldin’s Hornworld blog always has something interesting. The latest post calls attention to a recent doctoral dissertation by Margaret Tung on Dale Clevenger.
Higher! Faster! Louder! Sooner! Now!
One of the selling points of music study is – or used to be – that it teaches disciplined hard work over a long period of time. But in this age of instant gratification (and everything else), patience for the process is becoming an endangered species of character traits.
High school instrumental competitions are a primary example and catalyst for this trend. Instead of working on developing solid fundamental skills, ever-younger players (and probably even more so, their parents) insist on working on contest materials nearly exclusively. All-State is All. Horn teachers are under pressure to work on solos that are several quantum levels beyond the current technical (and even more levels musically) ability. Players work on contest pieces that they wish they could play rather than what they actually can play. The thinking (?) appears to be “I’m working on a really difficult piece, so I must be really good.”
The results are frequently stress, development of bad habits (when in doubt, force it!), and demonstration in performance of what they can’t do.
There are no easy answers to ameliorate this endemic cultural condition, unless they do away with such competitions or develop a Patience Vaccine. I’ll list some ideas that have worked for me to some degree or other over the years, in the hope that it will inspire other teachers to contribute comments on what has worked for them for similar situations.
When you first start out on the horn, just about everything is a struggle. If you survive and continue a couple years, you acquire some skills and begin to find that there are some things that you can do better than others. This is when it starts. Later, if more years have gone by and you have perhaps had some lessons and have gotten better at more aspects of technique, a certain siren song becomes paradoxically stronger: the tendency to play what you can do rather than work on what you can’t do. This is especially obvious in things like warm-ups and technical review (which should be 20% review and 80% development). Listen in a hallway of practice rooms or go to a music camp: you hear players zip through impressive warm-ups – overtone arpeggios, scales, etc. If you repeat the experiment the next day or the day after that or the day after that, you find that you hear the same dazzling routines, word for word. They know what they know and it feels good to whiz through it, showing to the world and to oneself that boy am I good at some stuff here.
It is a good idea to start with what you know know well (we essentially have to relearn and recalibrate our horn playing every day), but problem is that if you don’t also push against your limits and force more myelin to form around neural pathways, you don’t get better. In other words, working on what you can’t do yet. Doing the same thing every day also leaves out many other possibilities and limits your flexibility and narrows your field of technical knowledge and know-how. And perhaps worst of all, it’s just plain boring to face the Ground Hog Day routine – be it ever so quick and slick – every day and every day, always the same. The mind numbs and goes to sleep. You endure the workout and think of laundry and holidays and lunch.
It’s the end of the semester, and the usual flurry of recitals and juries has come and gone. Players emerge from practice rooms to the harsh glare of the footlights and are to some degree – lesser or greater – astonished at how different performance can be under the glare of the stage lights as compared to the practice room. The plaint of some (“But I could play it in the practice room”) is oddly seldom followed by any introspection on why that is, what exactly is responsible for the change, and most important, what to do about it.
The difference between the two venues is stage presence. The difference is how comfortable you are on stage.
Part I – You
I just saw a brief (6 min.) video presentation by Gever Tulley about a “Tinkering School” for children. It’s not a regular school; it’s six-day “immersive experience” where the kids take a wide range of materials (wood, rope, wheels, etc.) and make whatever they want out of them. You have to see the video to believe what these kids create. A roller coaster made of wood built by seven-year-olds! A bridge made out of plastic grocery bags. A boat. A bicycle. There is no curriculum, no tests. Just lots of tools – real tools (hammers, nails, soldering irons, etc.) – plus time to explore, experience, and “figure things out by fooling around.” Tulley: the kids soon learn that “nothing ever goes as planned. Ever. All projects go awry.” Sometimes they start with sketches and doodles, sometimes they just start building.Success is in the doing. Failures are “celebrated and analyzed.” The children have a change to imagine, creative, fail and try again, and solve problems to create things that interest them. Tulley is the author of 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do). What he’s interested in is having kids acquire good sense and mastery of “dangerous” things in life rather than avoid them and remain ignorant and unskilled in them. Walking is ‘dangerous’ to the very young, but we work on it and then move on to running, climbing stairs, etc. Tulley says, why stop there? Go another step and learn to walk on a tightrope. We learn by “fooling around”, and his book sets up chances for kids to learn, experience, and discover. In current society children are often raised in overprotected, overscheduled environments and may well miss out on the wonderful enrichment that comes from “doing it yourself”, making “mistakes”, getting dirty, using whatever’s around to make up games and projects.
How does this apply to the horn? Continue reading
Sometimes as performers we forget that we are in the business of entertainment and illusion. Yes, yes, we’re artists, noble conduits of immortal masterpieces, etc etc., but this is about the receiving end of the music. What we do on the sending end may be a bit different from what the audience receives or perceives.
It doesn’t matter that David Copperfield doesn’t really go through the Great Wall of China, or make the Statue of Liberty or the Space Shuttle disappear. It only matters that it looks like that happens, which is where we derive our delight, wonder, and amazement. Mr. Copperfield, like all magicians, goes through a great deal of trouble and expense to make sure to preserve the illusion that impossible is happening (I saw him perform once and I still can’t even begin to explain some of the stuff that I saw – I can’t even come up with bad or preposterous explanations for some of the illusions).
How does magical illusion apply to us? There are a couple of useful answers to this.
I just finished Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. After enjoying his previous books Blink and The Tipping Point, I was eager to see what he came up with. The book is an excellent complement to Talent Is Overrated and The Talent Code (discussed in an earlier post) in that they are all inquiries into the achievement of excellence and success. What does it take? What makes one person highly successful and another not? Is it innate talent? Rich parents? Blind luck? Some or all of the above? You need to read the book to enjoy and profit from all the rich detail in the author’s account, but [spoiler alert!] the gist of what he has to say is that you 1) have to be highly motivated, 2) work very long and hard (he talks about the 10,000 hour rule as in the other two books on talent) and 3) be given a chance, a.k.a. be in the right place at the right time. Nothing about being born brilliant or having fabulously wealthy parents. He says that the young Bill Gates became an amazingly successful entrepreneur at a very young age – because he worked very hard for a long time and because he was also the only teenager in the world who had access to a time-sharing computer terminal in 1968. Gladwell: “If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accident of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey starts. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.”
We are part of a creative art that largely excludes creativity, if you define it as creating something new, as in composition and/or improvisation. Musical training is about immaculate recitation. Musical creation is separated unnaturally into those who perform (us), those who create music (composers, perhaps arrangers as well), and those who talk about it (musicologists). Art majors paint pictures or sculpt. English majors write essays, poems, and short stories. Theater majors learn how to write plays. Music majors are systematically kept away from creating except in rare circumstances (such as at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where Charles Young has every music major take his Musicianship course, which is 2/3s composition and 1/3 improvisation. So every single music student learns to create music. He occasionally sends me CDs full of wonderful music that his students have created). I sometimes wonder, as Gladwell did, what would the world be like if suddenly all those voices of musicians who never speak in their own voice, never know what it’s like to “think in music” were able to create pieces – how much richer the world would be…