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.

The Greatest Baroque Composer You’ve Never Heard Of

What do you think of the Missa Salisurgensis (Salzburg Mass)? I had never heard of this piece before coming across The Greatest Baroque Composer Never Known.

As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Read further through the article to learn more about this piece and how musicologists have tried to piece together who the composer of this piece of music really was.

Instrumental Technique – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Here is an interesting essay by Steven Thompson, writing for NPR. He was asked by a listener about bands and musicians that feature a virtuoso performer, noting that some musicians are known for exceptional technique, but uninteresting music. Thompson replies:

Advanced technique is often the foundation upon which players build unpredictable, exciting and/or moving creative expression. So I would almost never view incredible technical ability — in and of itself — as an obstacle to my enjoyment of a piece of music.

I think what you’re getting at is a sense that some musicians employ their technical gifts in the service of showing off; that they’re not focused on expressing themselves artistically so much as indulging in sterile, soulless peacocking. But that’s a fine line that shifts drastically from person to person, and plenty of musicians — from Rush to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen — have made zillions of people happy playing music that, for some, crosses over into self-indulgence. For fans of those artists, it isn’t necessary to form “a sound defense,” though you’re likely to hear “technical ability” paired with arguments about awe, appreciation of masters at work, and a desire to be challenged by something that isn’t simple.

Although the examples Thompson discusses are rock musicians, there are similar things that have been said of jazz and classical musicians as well. For example, many jazz fans dislike Maynard Ferguson’s music because they find his high note trumpet playing to be overwhelming. Talk with some orchestral fans and you will hear them compare one orchestra as being “technically superior, but musically lacking.”

It’s an interesting discussion. At what point does instrumental technique become musically unsatisfying? I think everyone would probably agree that up to a certain point, instrumental technique is necessary for a quality musical performance, however there is a certain point where it may become more like juggling (look at how well I can play my instrument) rather than an expressive performance. Perhaps there is a sort of a “bell curve” of instrumental facility where at some point showing off technique ceases to be musical. Or, more likely, the amazement we get from hearing a virtuoso musician perform diminishes quickly so that the player’s chops become less interesting to us, leaving us feeling unsatisfied if there isn’t expressive musicianship also.

Frankly, I think it’s not so much the instrumental technique that is the issue, but rather the lack of musicality in certain virtuoso players. When a musician’s technique is in service of the expression I personally forget about the virtuosic technique and find myself more focused on the spirit and mood of the music. When the playing is done more to show off (higher, faster, louder), then it just comes across as immature, to me. Thompson concludes similarly.

Though your methods may vary, I usually look at the degree to which impeccable musicianship is balanced by other ingredients: emotional weight, hooks, humor, beauty, boldness, inventiveness, novelty, willingness to explore. Ability to play well is a core ingredient, but it’s rarely a satisfying dish unto itself.

Playing On or Behind the Conductor’s Beat

When I conduct I ask the ensemble to play on my beat. Band conductors, for some reason, seem to be more likely to want their groups to play on the beat, rather than behind the beat. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, seem to more universally prefer their ensembles play behind their beat. It’s interesting to look at the different reasons (or excuses) for these practices. Here is one, by a cellist, Yvonne Caruthers.

In practice, nearly every conductor gives a beat before the orchestra plays. The conductor gives the beat, but there’s a tiny lag while it’s processed and executed. Most likely, the audience doesn’t even notice. There’s also the fact that one of the conductor’s roles is not to tell the orchestra where they are “now” but to indicate “what happens next”….so being slightly ahead works better.

This is true, the conductor’s responsibility is to “prep” the ensemble so that they are ready to play what’s about to come up. The most obvious version of this is the “prep beat” the conductor gives to indicate the starting tempo. The conductor can’t hold his or her baton up and then just drop it and have the musicians ready, there needs to be at least one beat patter so the musicians understand the tempo and style they are to enter with.

Then there’s the concerns with distance.

Unless you are sitting in the front few rows, there is a delay in the sound.  Speed of light being faster than that of sound, you see the motion, the orchestra plays to the beat, but you hear the sound slightly later than you see the motion.  This is especially noticeable in long halls or concerts played outdoors where crowd is sitting on a long area of grass and they are a long way from the source of the sound.

If you’ve ever performed antiphonal music you’ve experienced this phenomenon. The skill of following the ictus of the conductor’s pattern, rather than listening and reacting to the sound is essential when the distance between performers/conductors is great. Marching band is another situation where this is particularly true. That said, it’s not really clear why the delay that entire orchestras fall into in playing behind the beat is necessary or desirable due to distance. The brass and percussion, typically furthest away from the conductor, usually don’t dictate the delay, it’s the strings, who are closest to the conductor.

The low and loud sections of the orchestra – cellos, basses, and brass – seem especially susceptible to dragging. A commonly hear explanation is that these instruments ‘speak a little late’. However, this absurdly implies that players are unable to take this effect into account.

I agree with the above author’s assessment. If a band can play on the conductor’s beat (or, for that matter, if a trumpet and trombone section in a jazz band can play squarely on the beat without a conductor), there’s really no excuse why an orchestral brass section can’t also adjust their instrumental technique so they don’t “speak a little late.” Not to mention that I don’t buy that these instruments do this. Maybe a pipe organ, but not a brass instrument.

James Bennette II, writing for wqrx.org, notes another excuse,

“I don’t think it would work as well, because the phenomenon has its roots in the string section,” Falletta explained. Because string players tend to be in sync when they bow their instruments, playing behind the beat comes naturally to them. “They have time to say ‘OK, here we go’, and then get into the beat.” And that sound should have no point or edge; the music should just flow. Rigidly sticking to the downbeat makes the music a bit sharper, even when that isn’t the intention of the conductor (or composer, who knows?).

So some folks feel it’s because low and loud sections speak late, but others state that it’s related to the string section.

Another explanation for lag is that the sound produced by instruments at the back of an orchestra takes longer to reach the front. This theory also collapses with a little observation. For example, I once heard the opening bass pizzicatos of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra sound exactly with the conductor’s beat. Sitting in the back of the violin section, at the opposite side of the stage, I expected the different speeds of sound and light to make even precisely played notes seem late to the visual cue. But my impression was of exact synchronsiation. In contrast, the slow sections of the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, on the same programme, oozed far behind the beat. The laws of physics are irrelevant. Musicians can play with a conductor when it is really necessary, as in a particularly exposed and brittle passage. But when there is more margin for error, they easily abandon the beat.

Exactly. Ensembles are perfectly able to play with the conductor, but choose not to.

Here’s the simple response: When an orchestra plays behind the conductor, it has the room to produce a more expressive sound. “It works so well because the musicians can take in a great deal more information before they play,” said Falletta. Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. “It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that.” The result? More beautiful music. However, orchestras don’t do this for the duration of a piece; the sound behind the beat is most pronounced in slower movements, and as the music gets faster and rhythms more complex, orchestras may tend to attack the downbeat along with the conductor.

Again, I don’t buy that this is the case. As I noted above, it’s not the ictus of the beat that dictates the tempo and style the conductor communicates, it’s the preparation of that beat.

In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it’s a common thing, but I’ve never played with a conductor like that so I’m a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly… And then it’s hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don’t really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.

This question, asked on violinist.com, is curious. It’s possible that the conductor simply isn’t being clear with the beat, but I don’t know how a conductor can conduct ahead or behind the beat. The conductor’s beat patter IS the beat. It’s the ensemble that collectively chooses to play ahead, behind, or right on the conductor’s ictus. It’s the conductor’s responsibility to tell the ensemble where to play.

Adam Neely’s points in the above video are quite good. I think that the most likely explanation is stylistic convention combined with the collective decision of the ensemble and conductor. Be sure to watch Neely’s followup video.

What do you think? When you perform (as a musician or conductor) do you prefer playing directly on the beat or slightly behind? Leave your comment below.

3D Tongue Motion Analysis of Wind Musicians

I’ve been meaning to post about these videos for a while. Matthias Bertsch, who has conducted a lot of research into how musicians perform on their instruments, has posted a couple of videos on YouTube that look at the tongue motion of different musicians. He attached sensors to the tongue and was able to model how the tongue moves when performing different things on trumpet and clarinet.

Just last week I posted about Doug Yeo’s experience playing trombone while inside an fMRI scanner. Bertsch’s trumpet video above showed some of the clips from much older research looking at the tongue motion of brass players using fluoroscopic techniques, which unfortunately exposes the test subjects to radiation and really isn’t an ethical use of that technology knowing what we do now about the dangers of such exposure. The motion sensor analysis and fMRI studies are significant improvements and hopefully as the technology gets better (and cheaper and easier to use) we will see more research conducted into how brass and woodwind players play their instruments. Taking the guess work out of what correct technique is and what a student is actually doing has the potential to significantly improve how we teach music in the future.

Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of interesting gigs this weekend for folks around western North Carolina. Tomorrow, Saturday September 2, 2017, I’m performing with the Blue Ridge Bones at the Hendersonville, NC Apple Festival. We’re playing at the courthouse stage from 3:30-4:30.

Sunday, September 3, 2017 I’m playing with Rick Dilling’s Time Check Big Band in a tribute to Buddy Rich concert at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall. We’ll be playing two sets starting at 7:30.

In the mean time, here are some interesting music related links for your weekend surfing.

In Bb is an interactive project using YouTube videos in the key of Bb. Try it out.

Here’s an fMRI video of someone singing “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Have you ever wondered what Ravel’s “Bolero” would sound like played by 4 musicians on a single cello?

The Orchestral Dream (has been) Dead

The Phantom Brass blog recently posted an article by Matthew Waters where he declares, quite accurately, The Orchestral Dream Is Dead.

If we’re looking at the numbers alone, the odds of winning a position is astronomical. According to data collected by Datausa.io, 8,133 Music Performance Degrees were awarded in the United States in 2015. As of May of 2017, there are 8 members of the Regional Orchestra Players Association that pay over $25,000 base salary a year, with an additional 49 under other collective bargaining agreements with the AFM. That means there are 57 orchestras that one could theoretically find full-time employment with. Fifty-seven. That doesn’t mean there are 57 positions open a year. That means there are 57 full-time jobs in that industry, that have maybe a few vacancies total per year. Needless to say, the odds aren’t good with 8000+ bachelor’s degrees in music being awarded every year, and that number continuing to grow.

If I understand correctly, I think that Waters means there are 57 full-time orchestral “employers,” not jobs, since many musicians are employed by each of those 57 orchestras. His point, however, is quite valid. If you’re looking for a full-time orchestral job your chances of finding one are quite small. Waters also comments on how the music scene in southern California, where he is based, is difficult for even very fine musicians to earn a living.

This solution is simple, but certainly not easy. It requires the individual and institutional realization that there is a huge amount of space in the music industry for more than just tenured orchestra performers. We have the opportunity to be live-streaming artists and YouTube clinicians. Private instructors and ensemble founders. Arts administrators, music directors, arrangers, composers, and copyists. The problem in most of the training grounds today is that players are funneled into preparing for a job that they have little to no chance of winning, while totally neglecting all of the other possible jobs that are likely be a part of a successful music career. In performance degrees especially, we’re trained to do only that- perform.

Personally, I find it odd that music students in performance degrees are trained only to perform in orchestral styles, but that’s perhaps biased by my own education, teaching experience, and personal interests. I went to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies, majored in jazz studies for my masters, and my doctorate is in trombone performance, but I maintained my interests in a wide variety of different musical styles and topics and my degree track emphasized pedagogy. So when Waters comments, “If we’re not going to summer festivals, winning mock auditions, and outplaying everyone else in our studios, we feel like failures,” I find it an unfamiliar feeling.

But what is one to do if your dream is an orchestral job? Give up before you even try? Get a fall back degree? Go for it and risk failure?

I’ve never been particular interested in a full-time job in an orchestra, but I have been able to get paid to perform with regional orchestras regularly in the past (for disclosure, I don’t do a lot of orchestral playing these days, but that’s largely due to being busy doing other performing and not making an effort to do more than the occasional subbing). I don’t see orchestral playing as being any different than being a successful freelance musician in the first place. We all have our wheelhouse, and if yours is orchestral playing than you can focus on that side of your playing and make that your primary performing goals. Don’t neglect your skills in other types of playing too, however, and be ready to do a lot of different types of performing if your goal is to be a successful music professional.

And as Waters suggests, be ready to do some things that are peripherally related to your musical performing and get some background and education in those things. Teaching is the obvious one, but I generally don’t recommend you go into music education full-time unless that is your goal. Too many music students get a music education degree as a “fall back” and then end up miserable because they don’t enjoy it enough to justify all the non-musical stuff that goes along with it.

Keep in mind that overall, Americans change jobs between the ages of 18 and 48 an average of 11.7 times. That can be in the same career, but in non-musical fields people change careers all the time and still are happy and successful. The bottom line is that you, as an individual and as a musician, cannot be defined by your job, but by who you are and your attitude towards what you do.

This is the new reality for anyone pursuing a music career, and it’s time that we faced that. The skills that are needed to win an orchestra position are developed at the cost of excluding almost of all these other skills. It is a single-minded pursuit, and it is destructive for the vast majority of music students. We need to broaden our training and bring musical education into the 21st century.

Why You Shouldn’t Memorize Music (or at least revisit the score when you do)

For both jazz and classical soloists it’s extremely common to perform with your music memorized. There are usually a few reasons given for memorizing, including that it frees you up from the distraction of the page, it allows you to focus more completely on the sound, and it simply looks better without a music stand in front of you. Here’s an interesting take on memorization from a classical guitarist, called An Argument Against Memorization.

To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.

No doubt about it.

However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.

The author, Simon Powis, offers some good points on ways where memorization actually inhibits our ability to perform music. For one, he notes that what frequently happens is the musician is memorizing music through a kinesthetic process (“muscle memory”) and that it becomes difficult, if not impossible for the musician to pick up in places other than at the beginning of that phrase, or even the entire piece.

But worse than that, memorizing a piece of music leads to practicing that music only without sheet music, and this can be inhibiting.

If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.

So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.

What a shame, and what a loss!

Powis points out that this can cause the musician to resort to the easiest fingering, rather than exploring other options. Something that works for you now might not sound the best down the road. Certain instruments have different sounds with different fingers or positions and only playing a piece from memory might lock you into something that won’t sound as good.

Less of a concern to jazz musicians, where the music is improvisational and meant to be changed every time, is loosing focus on what the composer originally intended.

A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?

Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.

This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.

You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.

And the final point that Powis makes is that our memories are fallible, and we can memorize a piece wrong. Or it can drift away from what is correct over time.

Those of us who play jazz or other improvisational styles of music might be less concerned with Powis’s points than classical soloists, but I think there is some food for thought even for jazz musicians. While I usually feel freed up as an improviser once I’ve got a tune committed to memory, I do think there is some value to revisiting the sheet music and looking at the composition again visually. I have a tendency to look ahead when reading music, whereas when playing a tune by memory or by ear I am more in the moment. There’s something to be said for starting your improvised phrase already thinking about where you’re going.

I don’t think that Powis is really arguing to never memorize your music, but when doing so we should be thinking about the drawbacks. Being aware of the potential problems helps us avoid them, while still holding on to the benefits from playing without written music.

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.