On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Stylistic Playing – Traditional Jazz versus Modern Jazz

I recently read a great essay by trumpet player Gordon Au about playing traditional and modern jazz styles. I’ve played a couple of times with Gordon in swing dance bands at Lindy Focus. Gordon was such a fantastic swing player that I assumed that he specialized in playing in older jazz styles. As it turns out, he is equally skillful in modern jazz playing and has quite a bit to say about the different “camps” promoting different jazz styles.

As a musician who has extensively studied and performed both traditional and modern jazz (alternatively, read: early, Dixieland, 1920–30s; vs. contemporary, avant-garde, post-bop, etc.), it saddens me to see fans in either camp bashing the other. On the one hand, I don’t understand it because they’re so similar—part of the same tree!—blood relatives separated by hardly any time at all. (More practically: how far can you subdivide an already miniscule fan base, and why would you?) On the other hand, I totally understand it because while they’re both jazz, they’re quite different, separated sometimes by very contrasting goals and aesthetics. And that surface similarity concealing inner difference is a prime recipe for sibling rivalry.

I too find it interesting and somewhat disconcerting how otherwise accomplished jazz musicians don’t demonstrate stylistic playing outside of their particular area of interest. In particular, I’ve found that excellent modern jazz players will often not be able to play a convincing solo in a swing or early jazz style. Frequently musicians that I hire to play big band don’t know standard Swing Era phrasing and nuances that make a chart by Fletcher Henderson, for example, sound different from Maria Schneider. There are some musicians I frequently play with that specialize in earlier jazz styles and struggle if the music is more modern. At least, that’s not uncommon among the musicians I happen to work with most frequently. I should also say that there are some musicians in my area that are virtual chameleons, like Gordon, and you would swear they specialize in whatever they happen to be playing.

In my opinion, attentive and extensive listening is the key to performing whatever you’re playing in an appropriate stylistic manner. You must know what it’s supposed to sound like before you can interpret it. Serious jazz musicians should spend some time doing some transcribing in all styles in order to make they phrasing, note choice, rhythmic language, vibrato, articulations, and other nuances sound natural while playing in any jazz style.

Gordon has some great points to make regarding the different arguments between traditional and modern jazz enthusiasts and is a great read. Go over and check it out and if you have the chance to hear him play live, jump on it!


Rise of the Synthesizer

Did you know that the early synthesizers weren’t really intended for rock music, but classical? How did synthesizers become ubiquitous with rock music, then?

In the summer of 1970, after popping into a pub for a pint, rock keyboardist Keith Emerson sat down at his enormous Moog modular synthesizer in London’s legendary Advision recording studio and noodled a few improvised notes. His goal was to add some electronic punch to the end of a mostly acoustic-guitar number called “Lucky Man,” written by his singer-guitarist bandmate, Greg Lake. As his fingers ran up and down the synthesizer’s keyboard, Emerson played along to the bass, drums, vocals, and guitars already recorded by Lake and drummer Carl Palmer. . .

Emerson would later say he was just fooling around, and that he definitely did not expect his first take to be his last, but Lake and sound engineer Eddie Offord liked what they heard so much, they deemed Emerson’s work on “Lucky Man” done.

Learn more about the Rise of the Synthesizers over at Collectors Weekly.

Weekend Picks

Here are a handful of random music-related links for your browsing this weekend.

Can you shatter a wine glass with your voice?

A human voice can shatter a glass. Every object has a resonant frequency – the natural frequency at which something vibrates. Wine glasses, because of their hollow shape, are particularly resonant. If you run a damp finger along the rim of a glass, you might hear a faint, ghostly hum – the resonant frequency of the glass. Or you can simply tap the glass and hear the same frequency. To shatter the glass, a singer’s voice has to match that frequency, or pitch, and the glass must have microscopic defects.

Mirror DuetThe Mirror Duet is usually attributed to Mozart, although there is some question about that. If you’re not familiar, it’s a duet where the two players stand facing each other, reading the same page of sheet music. And it works.


CsárdásI have no idea who Helen Amvroseva and George Shakhnin are/were, and no way to embed this video of them performing Csárdás on trumpet, trombone, and piano. It’s both impressive and funny.


Weekend Picks

It’s Friday and it has been a while since I’ve posted some random music-related links for you to surf this weekend.

Coping With Change As Brass Players Age is an essay written by trombonist and composer Brad Howland. Frankly, everything he mentions in there is good for brass players of any age.

An odd side effect of a mood-stabilization drug might actually be able to help adults develop absolute pitch. Read more about it on Want Perfect Pitch? You Might Be Able To Pop a Pill For That.

While this Music Timeline is short on classical music (meaning none) it is a neat interactive way to explore popular and jazz music styles.

Believe it or not, my own composing has been influenced by cartoon music. Here’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon that I love, featuring music written by the great Shorty Rogers, The Three Little Bops.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday, so here are a few music related links for your perusal this weekend.

Drummer Peter Erskine on Jazz Flick ‘Whiplash’. I haven’t seen this film and based on what I’ve read about it  I’m not certain I’ll rush out to see it in theaters. The band director character sounds like the sort I try to avoid. Erskine wrote:

Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals — such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).

Joey Tartell teaches trumpet at Indiana University and he points out that You’re Not Always Entitled To Your Opinion.

There are people posting so often that their voices are heard more, and they are therefore treated as experts. But a lot of these people have no standing in the real world. Recently, I read as the Associate Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Third Trumpet of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra were, separately, berated online for offering their opinions on some trumpet related matters. I’d like to say that I was amazed, but considering what I’ve read in the past few years online, I was just sad.

You already know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but do you know how celebrated a musician his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart, was?

Leopold Mozart, a court musician, began teaching Maria Anna, his first-born child, to play harpsichord when she was 8 years old. She progressed quickly, with 3-year-old Wolfgang often at her side. After a few years, Wolfgang tried to play sections from Maria’s music book. “Over time, Nannerl’s playing became more and more brilliant, her technique perfect,” Rieger says. “Young Wolfgang was probably impressed by that and inspired to play.”

I mentioned in a recent blog post how Donald Reinhardt was known to occasionally tell his students to practice in a way that would intentionally exaggerate the ultimate goal. Rich Hanks posted a previously unpublished interview that describes one example.

Now these statements are exaggerated. They have to be. So that when you say, “Let’s forget Reinhardt,” you’ll play well, because I’ve exaggerated so much that enough rubs off in the subconscious to have that take over.

And lastly, it’s not just trumpet players who are competitive musicians.

A 440 Tuning – Here Are Several Bad Reasons To Convert To Another Tuning Standard

Yesterday morning I was doing one of my rare scans through my Facebook feed and found a link to the article, Here’s Why You Should Consider Converting Your Music To A=432 Hz. I found it to be a word salad of staggeringly bad logic and motivated reasoning. As an exercise, I wanted to go through some of the claims by author Elina St-Onge and show how her ideas lack merit and in many cases contain outright lies.

A440First, a little background about A440. This term refers to the tuning standard currently favored in the United States and the United Kingdom, where A4 is tuned to 440 Hz. The precise tuning of this A is arbitrary, historically pitch standards varied widely over Europe (and this discussion ignores pitch systems used by musical styles from other cultures in Africa and India, for example, that don’t separate the octave into the same pitches European-influenced music does). The use of the A to tune is an artifact of the strings instruments. Orchestral string instruments tune the strings to different pitches, but all include an open string tuned to A, which make it a convenient note for the entire orchestra to tune to. Some instruments, such as my primary instrument of the trombone, are arguably tuned easier to pitches other than A.

St-Onge begins her article quoting scientists out of context and demonstrates that she is scientifically illiterate.

Tesla said it. Einstein Agreed (sic). Science proved it. It is a known fact that everything—including our own bodies—is made up of energy vibrating at different frequencies.

I won’t deconstruct her misuse of the idea that matter=energy, but instead refer you to an expert, particle physicist Matt Strassler. See his article for the layperson titled Matter and Energy: A False Dichotomy for the real story on this. For our purposes the following bits from Strassler’s summary are important.

Matter and Energy really aren’t in the same class and shouldn’t be paired in one’s mind.

Matter, in fact, is an ambiguous term; there are several different definitions used in both scientific literature and in public discourse. Each definition selects a certain subset of the particles of nature, for different reasons. Consumer beware! Matter is always some kind of stuff, but which stuff depends on context.

Energy is not ambiguous (not within physics, anyway). But energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.

A good working definition of energy is “work potential.” Any time you read the term “energy” in St-Onge’s article replace it with “work potential” and see if the sentence makes sense.

Continuing, St-Onge writes:

The way frequencies affect the physical world has been demonstrated through various experiments such as the science of Cymatics and water memory.

Cymatics is basically the study of how sound can be used to excite a physical medium, such as a metal plate, and create visual patterns of liquid, particles, or a paste on the medium. This is a legitimate scientific area, but the science in no way suggests that the specific tuning system used by musicians has any effect whatsoever on your sense of well being or enjoyment of the music. The idea that water has a memory is simply wrong. Brian Dunning has done a thorough deconstruction of the water “experiments” of Masaru Emoto if you want more information. Even if we charitably assume that this has some scientific merit, which it absolutely does not, it is quite a leap to presume it somehow supports the idea that tuning to A432 is somehow better.

Continuing with St-Onge:

We all hold a certain vibrational frequency…

She doesn’t cite a source for this factual statement. The only online sources I found are pseudoscientific and not trustworthy sources. There’s also a lot of discrepancy over what “vibrational frequency” human beings are supposed to have, and I didn’t see anything suggesting that A432 somehow relates.

With this concept in mind, let us bring our attention to the frequency of the music we listen to. Most music worldwide has been tuned to A=440 Hz since the International Standards Organization (ISO) promoted it in 1953. However, when looking at the vibratory nature of the universe, it’s possible that this pitch is disharmonious with the natural resonance of nature and may generate negative effects on human behaviour (sic) and consciousness.

Does the universe have a vibratory nature? All sorts of things vibrate at different frequencies. It’s how we have music made of different pitches. How can the vibration of things in the universe be disharmonious with the vibration of things in the universe? It’s like stating the color green isn’t in balance with the colors of the rainbow.

Some theories, although just theories, even suggest that the nazi (sic) regime has been in favor of adopting this pitch as standard after conducting scientific researches to determine which range of frequencies best induce fear and aggression.

I have three points to make here. First of all, Goodwin’s Law applies. Invoking Nazis to make your point about musical tuning automatically makes your point invalid. Secondly, St-Onge is misusing the term “theory” in the scientific context (gravity is a theory, it’s also a fact). Lastly, her statement here is a historical question that can be answered through actual evidence. In fact, the standardization of tuning to A440 was around well before the Nazi’s came to power. Even if it were true that 1930s Germany was somehow conspiratorially responsible for today’s tuning system, there is no credible evidence that it will “best induce fear and aggression.”

432 Hz is said to be mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe. It is said that 432 Hz vibrates with the universe’s golden mean PHI and unifies the properties of light, time, space, matter, gravity and magnetism with biology, the DNA code and consciousness. When our atoms and DNA start to resonate in harmony with the spiraling pattern of nature, our sense of connection to nature is said to be magnified. The number 432 is also reflected in ratios of the Sun, Earth, and the moon as well as the precession of the equinoxes, the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Sri Yantra among many other sacred sites.

Wow. I suggest that if your references cite astrology and alchemy as corroboration, then your hypothesis needs an awful lot of revision. There is no credible evidence that anything in the above paragraph is true and should be taken seriously.

Another interesting factor to consider is that the A=432 Hz tuning correlates with the color spectrum and chakra system while the A=440 Hz isn’t aligned.

Chakras, chi, innate energy (whatever you want to call it) cannot be measured, has never been shown to have any effect on the physical world, and is, to put it mildly, baloney. How can you correlate something that cannot be observed or measured to a measurable vibrational frequency?

Now there are some evidence-based studies that look at color and pitch relationships. Folks with absolute pitch, for example, frequently have an association of color with a particular pitch. However, even if we charitably assume that A432 somehow is more aligned with the visible spectrum of color, this doesn’t say anything about whether it makes the music more meaningful.

Let’s explore the experiential difference between A=440 Hz and A=432 Hz. The noticeable difference music lovers and musicians have noticed with music tuned in A=432 Hz is that it is not only more beautiful and harmonious to the ears, but it also induces a more inward experience that is felt inside the body at the spine and heart. Music tuned in A=440 Hz was felt as a more outward and mental experience, and was felt at the side of the head which projected outwards. Audiophiles have also stated that A=432hz music seems to be non-local and can fill an entire room, whereas A=440hz can be perceived as directional or linear in sound propagation.

While you can find musicians and audiophiles who prefer one tuning system over another, there is again no credible evidence that it makes a noticeable difference in how harmonious it sounds or the experience of most listeners. Acoustician Trevor Cox wrote of an informal web experiment he put together to test this.

People may think that music sounds better at 432 Hz and therefore applying a pitch shifter to their favourite tunes will improve quality, but for people who took part in my experiment this wasn’t true. 432 Hz and 440Hz were rated with equal preference. This doesn’t surprise me, because when we hear a melody it is mostly about relative pitch.

Back to St-Onge:

I cannot state with complete certainty that every idea suggested in this article is 100% accurate…

Of course no one can state with complete certainty, but she is either being disingenuous here or covering outright lies. If you’re going to use the veneer of science to prop up your arguments you should do your homework and cite your sources. Don’t be wishy-washy at the end and cover your butt at the inevitable deconstruction of poor thinking.

For this reason, I suggest that we each do our own research on the matter with an open yet discerning mind if we are looking for scientific validation. Perhaps more scientific validation could be done in the near future to explore this topic.

St-Onge again demonstrates scientific illiteracy here. Looking for “scientific validation” is what she did in her article. She searched for resources that supported her preconceived notions about what tuning standard she feels is better, and then ignored anything contrary. If you want to investigate this topic scientifically you should subject the ideas to a test that can actually disprove your hypothesis. If you can’t, then you may be on to something. But looking for validation is only going to reinforce your personal bias, not answer the real question.

I believe we all possess intuition and the ability to observe without judgment, which can be more useful than resorting to ridicule when exposed to information that has not yet been accepted by the scientific community.

It’s good to be nonjudgemental, but St-Onge needs to understand it’s not the information that is being ridiculed here, it’s her lack of critical thinking. At least she finally acknowledged that the evidence she used is unscientific.

Why gripe about this article? Because critical thinking is an important skill and is too neglected in music education. Motivated reasoning and illogic leads to incorrect conclusions and can even result in folks making poor choices when faced with a serious mental or physical illness. The bottom line is that if you enjoy music tuned down to A432 then that is reason enough to do it. There’s no magical reason why it’s better or worse than A440 and there’s more evidence that it makes no difference on your personal enjoyment of the music than that it does. And there is absolutely no credible evidence that it will have any effect on your mental or physical well being.

Very Early Example of Musical Notation Discovered

141022_pg4co_rci-m-manusc_p5James Grier is a Canadian musicologist who has spent a great deal of time researching in the notation room at the Bibliothèque nationale in France. While there a colleague asked him to look at a 900 year old manuscript.

What is unique is that Adémar’s had placed the notes in the space above the text, higher or lower in the space depending on their pitch, exactly as we do today.

Thus this is the earliest, and perhaps even the very first time this had been done.

Read more about this historic discovery and listen to a report about it here at the Royal Canada International web site.

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as …”jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist will try to seduce you—and the rest of the audience—by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.