Making 21st Century Connections to Brass Music

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a video demonstration by physicist Richard Smith where he shows how air doesn’t need to travel through a brass instrument in order for the normal acoustics of the instrument to work. While I find the science behind it and the creative thinking he used to create the demonstration interesting, what I’m most curious about is the discussion is sparked on the pedagogy forum where I first came across this video. If you didn’t see this video, here it is again.

I mentioned in my previous post that I found some of the comments disappointing and surprising. I made a couple of responses in the pedagogy forum that I wanted to share here for other folks who are concerned about “practical applications” of taking the time to learn this information.


The only legitimate criticism I’ve seen in this thread is that the title of the video is somewhat misleading, although I think it’s still technically true. All we really need to get a brass instrument to resonate is an oscillator, it doesn’t need to be lips excited by air being blown past them.

But for those of you who are being snarky, dismissive, or downright degrading Dr. Smith’s video demonstration because you don’t see an immediate application to trombone pedagogy, here are a few things I’d like to offer as food for thought.

In North Carolina, where I live, the public school’s guidelines for music standards are broken into three parts: Musical Literacy, Musical Response, and Contextual Relevancy. These are then further broken down into more detailed standards, one of which states, “Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music.” Other states likely have similar education standards. In my opinion, this is a good goal to have. Music is not created and learned in a vacuum. It’s important to learn how music relates to history, sociology, and yes, science.

I think we all agree that modeling to our students is an important and effective way to communicate musical instructions. Most of us probably play for our students and recommend listening to quality performances. You might also consider that you’re not just modeling music, but also attitude. Even if you only teach private lessons, when you openly dismiss a science demonstration that describes the way a brass instrument actually works you’re effectively undermining that student’s band director’s attempts to make an interdisciplinary connection with music. You’re modeling that science isn’t relevant to music and discouraging science literacy. And you might consider that many of the members of this Facebook group are students and future music educators. What attitude should the experienced teachers here be modeling to them?

Unless you’re teaching at a conservatory, and even if you do, your students are likely going to have to make a connection with science and music at some point in their life. The video demonstration (and the technical paper) may not seem directly relevant to the lessons you’re teaching now, but when that student asks for your advice about, for example, a presentation she has to give for another class and how she might incorporate her love for trombone into that discipline, you now have a resource you can recommend.

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to get all your students excited about trombone. Many students might really connect with this video and that could potentially help you in your lessons. And if you’re thinking that this is only good for students with an analytical learning style you need to consider that “learning styles” are mostly just “learning preferences” and teaching to a student’s preferences don’t usually lead to better outcomes. If a student is resistant to analytical thinking, it’s probable that it’s exposing a weakness that should be improved, not avoided.

While I’m not a scientist, I am a science fan. Learning more about the way the world actually works is cool. Like music, I find science intrinsically rewarding on its own without requiring any direct relevance to something else. But when the science happens to relate to music, even superficially, that makes it even more interesting to me. I’m sure I’m not alone with this, and you might have some students who feel similarly.


f you’re concerned about the content of this video not being “practical,” it’s arguably more practical in the 21st century to teach scientific literacy than to teach how to make fart sounds through a metal tube. Hyperbole aside, one immediate practical benefit can be found right here. It’s prompted an interesting discussion about why we tend to teach through analogy and visualization. This has spun off somewhat to a discussion of how such instructions can be taken to the extreme and how and why to pull things back. This is a good conversation for teachers to have.

Do you need to stop everything in your weekly lessons to show your students this video? Of course not, but the information contained are worth filing away for the future. Here’s another practical application. Your hypothetical student arrives to his or her lesson with a large pimple on the lip right where the mouthpiece rim is placed. You have 30-60 minutes to fill. I’m sure you could think about lots of ways to fill this time with “practical” information, but some students will get really jazzed about stuff like this. Even students who might not be immediately receptive to science might take this idea and run with it later. It’s hard to predict the downstream effects of improving our understanding of the way the world works. Maybe that student takes the membrane mouthpiece device shown in this video, combines it with a piece of technology yet to be developed, and then writes a graduate thesis that has a direct effect on brass pedagogy.

Furthermore, I think brass pedagogy could stand a little more of the scientific method and critical thinking. One thing we learn from this video is that our intuitions about the way our instruments really work aren’t always accurate. That’s definitely practical knowledge to have.

Ancient Stone Tools Are Actually Early Musical Instruments

Back when I taught at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado I used to go hiking around the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s an interesting area, right next to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the San Luis Valley. The sand dunes are formed by wind, rather than water. The area was also the home to Native Americans from at least 5,000 years ago. Stone tools discovered by archeologists decades ago were perplexing because while they were clearly made by humans, they didn’t have the correct wear marks on them to indicate that they were used as tools for grinding.

Enter archeologist, Marilyn Armagast Martorano. She spent years examining these rocks without coming up with a good explanation. Then someone sent her a video showing lithographs, musical stones. It dawned on Martorano that the stone tools might actually be musical instruments. As it happens, she was probably right.

If you’d like to get an idea what these stone musical instruments sounded like, watch here’s a YouTube video. Also, go to the Colorado Public Radio’s page where you can also get the chance to try them out (virtually) yourself.

Exciting Your Instrument Without Moving Air

Here’s an interesting video put together by Dr. Richard Smith, a scientist, musician, and instrument maker. In this video he demonstrates something that seems counterintuitive – you don’t have to blow air through the instrument in order for it to function normally.

A few years ago I had heard about this experiment and tried to recreate it. I drilled a hole through the cup of an old mouthpiece and tried setting up the membrane to block the air from going through. It didn’t work. Later I came across his technical paper on the topic and learned that I needed to set the membrane up before the shank of the mouthpiece. But it looks like what is really important was to set up a “shank” that directs the air out of the mouthpiece and instrument.

It was almost impossible to get the lips to vibrate under these conditions of using a small side hole. However, a solution was found by comparing this acoustical problem with the electrical analogy of a.c./d.c. decoupling – as used in most electronic circuits. This shows that a resistance is needed for the d.c. flow to occur. To provide this resistance acoustically, a narrow tube was placed in the side hole to give enough air resistance for the lips to vibrate against and to enable sustained vibration.

Maybe I will have to go back and find that old mouthpiece and see if I can set it up correctly and try it out. It would take more skill (and the proper tools) than I currently possess, but I have a couple of friends that would probably be interested enough in goofing around with it to give me a hand.

<rant>

I came across this video on an online forum devoted to brass pedagogy. Some of the ensuing comments bugged me. Here are some actual quotes from that forum.

He is right. Air does not have to travel through the tube. Unfortunately we have a tough time wiggling our lips back and forth 200 and more times per second. I just tried it. Nope. Wait. About 6 per second just now.

While this is perhaps a legitimate consideration for the purpose of teaching brass technique, it’s really a straw man complaint. In his video Smith in fact goes out of his way to explicitly state that air is needed to set the lips to vibrate, but the point of his demonstration is the fact that once the air passes the lips there’s no physical law that the air needs to actually move through the instrument in order for it to work normally.

Just because you and I can’t think of an immediate pedagogical application of Smith’s demonstration doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

What would be massively helpful is if he didn’t sound like trash doing it the way we all do it.

Again, the complaint here does have a bit of validity, but this too is irrelevant to the intention of Smith’s demonstration video. As best as I can tell, Smith’s background is mainly in acoustics and instrument design and construction. For all I know his main instrument may not be any of the instruments he is demonstrating in this video. He may be too busy building instruments and researching acoustics to do much practice these days. In no way does his ability to play a brass instrument negate the factual statements he makes.

Purely pointless IMHO.

Personally, I feel that being this dismissive is a shame coming from a teacher. Teachers are supposed to inspire curiosity and creative thinking. The point I made above about not passing judgement just because we don’t think of an immediate relevance to teaching brass applies here. But more importantly, discouraging students from exploring this video also dissuades students from learning about topics other than music. I’ve had and have students who have no intention of going into music as a career path, and some who have even been physics majors. I wonder how one of those students would feel to find me disparaging a factually correct demonstration of acoustics like this.

But if you need some practical applications, you don’t have to look very far. Simply pay close attention to what Smith says in his video. He mentions how without needing to blow air through the instrument you wouldn’t need a spit valve or need to clean the instrument out regularly. In the paper Smith recalls how research into the a.c./d.c. effect of brass acoustics has influenced the way in which instruments were tested for design and construction faults.

Pedagogical applications of this research are a little harder to think of, but not impossible. One could use the altered mouthpiece sort of like running with small weights strapped to your wrists and feet. Playing exercises or music would require more effort and could potentially be useful for advanced players to build playing endurance. Another thought I had was that if the mouthpiece could be tweaked enough so that it played similarly enough to playing the instrument normally one could design an almost perfectly silent practice mute. Practice mutes tend to be very stuffy and while that can be used in a manner similar to what I just mentioned, it makes relying on a practice mute for long term practice less ideal. Imagine a combination of a practice mute with this type of mouthpiece so that it would feel almost like playing with an open horn while being quiet enough to practice late at night in a hotel room.

Here’s an excerpt from a much longer response to Smith’s demonstration video.

Gotta love these quacks.

There are SO MANY OF THEM!!!

Whadda waste of time!!!

Whadda buncha MAROONS!!!

*sigh*

</rant>

Virtually Hang Out On Carnegie Hall Stage with Philadelphia Orchestra

This web site is pretty neat. The Google Cultural Institute set up a couple 360 degree cameras up on the stage of Carnegie Hall during a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. You can choose which camera you want to use and also drag around the angle to watch what you want to. Click on the image below to visit.

I ‘ve watched this several times now. I tend to focus mostly on watching the conductor, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I think that conducting is much like performing in that it’s necessary to watch and absorb how great conductors express themselves through their gestures and facial expressions. When you’re performing with an ensemble you have to watch the conductor closely, but my mind is always focused on performing rather than studying the conductor. With a video like this you can simply watch.

There are some other performances you can view too, including the Berlin Philharmonic in a rehearsal.

432 Hz Tuning – Fact vs Fiction

I posted about this topic a while back, but I recently came across a very nice article by Assaf Dar Sagol called 432 Hz Tuning – Separating Fact From Fiction.

432 Hz. The magic number everybody is talking about. It is said to be the natural frequency of the universe, to have cosmic healing powers and to attract masses of audience to our music. Just by tuning our music less than a semitone below our standard A=440Hz we are promised direct access to the universe’s hidden treasures.

There are many articles presenting so-called “scientific evidence” in favor of 432 Hz. But how much of what are being presented with is fact, and how much of it is fiction? Let’s find out!

Sagol goes through several myths and claims about 432 Hz being a special note somehow and offers an overview of the actual history and science behind those claims – including linking to his sources. Real history and science are always so much more interesting then pseudo-history and pseudo-science.

Editing Audio Mixing In Video

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created software that can take a look a a video of musicians and isolate the sounds of specific instruments to make them louder or softer.

Pretty neat. Right now it appears as if it’s limited to just two different instruments, but I’m looking forward to the time when they will be able to take an audio file and isolate specific players. I want to be able to take a Duke Ellington Orchestra recording, for example, and be able to accurately transcribe the exact voicing that Ellington wrote. One band I perform with regularly will recreate classic traditional jazz recordings and sometimes it’s very difficult to hear specific instruments because of the early recording technology used. Software like this could make it easier to boost the instrument sound that we’re having trouble hearing or turn down the instruments coving up what we’re trying to transcribe.

Classic Jazz At Half Speed

Here’s a neat site that has a number of classic jazz solo recordings played back at half speed. It’s called Half Speed Jazz.  The recordings aren’t really at half speed, they are retained at the original pitch. And then it’s played at the original speed.

Someone who isn’t a jazz improviser might wonder why recordings slowed down to half speed are helpful. Transcribing classic jazz solos is considered an essential part of learning to improvise well. Particularly when you’re a beginner at transcribing, it’s helpful to be able to slow down the recording to pick out individual notes.

While it’s much more convenient to simply get a hold of software that will do this for you, I found it interesting to take some time to listen to the slowed down recording and then the original speed. Different things about the solo stuck out to me, depending on which speed the playback was. It’s also striking how hard some of the solos swing at half speed.

How to Discuss Music Online

Having a comments section here in my blog is sometimes a double edged sword. I do feel that one of the most powerful tools the internet can be used for is the ability for us to question and discuss things with people that we would not otherwise get the opportunity to interact with. The flip side of that benefit is that online discussion often breaks down and has the opposite effect that we want. I see this all the time on brass fora. Too often folks offer advice to someone they have never seen or heard play before. Sometimes I question whether the confidence they seem to have about their responses are unjustified. Sometimes those folks don’t (or can’t) demonstrate even basic competence. Joey Tartell has noticed similarly and written about this phenomenon in his blog post, Nuance.

I do not argue with these people.  In fact, I choose not to engage with them at all. What I’d like to discuss today is what’s missing from so many online discussions.

One common pattern Tartell notes is the false dichotomy, when a disagreement is framed as either all or nothing, black or white, without acknowledging that there can be a continuum of possibilities and shades or gray in between. My posts a while back about the relative value of metronome practice is one example. The ensuing discussion between blogs and in the comments section kept getting reduced, in spite of my efforts, to “metronome practice is bad versus metronome practice is good.” There was little room to discuss the nuance between. Another similar pattern is the assumption that when someone says one thing is good, that means the author is calling something else bad. The metronome discussion is another good example. Just because I find a metronome a good practice and teaching tool doesn’t mean that using other approaches are bad.

Tartell lists several suggestions for how to make an online discussion more fruitful. Here is his basic list, but I suggest that you go over and read his elaborations on his original post.

  1. Decide what’s important to you.
  2. Will getting involved do any good?
  3. Stick to the subject at hand.
  4. Realize that other people could have something important to say.
  5. Not all opinions are equal.
  6. Know when to get out.

Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics

I’ve been fascinated by harmonic singing for a long time, ever since I first heard that it was possible for singers to produce more than one pitch at a time. There are different musical traditions that make use of harmonic singing, but to me the most interesting is the traditional music of Tuva. While I’m no expert, my curiosity led me to explore the techniques and taught myself the basics.

Mike Ruiz is a former colleague of mine. In addition to being a fine classical pianist, Mike is a physics professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where I used to teach in the music department. I’ve enjoyed picking his brain in the past about acoustics and recently Mike asked me to assist him with some physics education articles and videos he was producing. He was interested in trombone multiphonics, but in the course of our conversation I mentioned the harmonic singing. The resulting article is called Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics. The abstract can be read here. Here’s the video abstract.

At the same time that I demonstrated the Tuvan throat singing technique for Mike I also demonstrated trombone multiphonics as well, including some techniques that incorporated the throat constriction used for harmonic singing. When I put together trombone multiphonics with harmonic singing I have been able to come up with some interesting sounds that are similar to what you might hear on a didgeridoo. If and when that paper gets published, I will post about it here too.

In the mean time, here’s an older post on trombone multiphonics.

Singing in the MRI

Here’s a neat video I came across by Tyley Ross, a voice teacher and vocologist from New York City. He demonstrates four distinct vocal styles while in an fMRI to show how his vocal tract changes for each style.

I am always excited when musicians and pedagogues investigate the science of how we create musical art. It’s easier to do with voice than with brass instruments, since there’s not external instrument that needs to go into the MRI. Because the voice is also an area that medical science specifically studies also, we happen to know more about how sound is produced when singing.

I was somewhat surprised by how open the soft palate was open on the operatic style compared to the rock style. It’s pretty cool to be able to look inside the body and see what’s going on.