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.

Arguing For Science Based Brass Pedagogy

Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.

This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.

Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do,  you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.

I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.

The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.

Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.

Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.

However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.

Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.

There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.

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.

Elasticity Routine For Lip Flexibility

A few months ago I caught up with Doug Elliott and took another lesson. For those who don’t know, Doug’s embouchure types and terminology are the ones I prefer to use here and my lessons and interview with him were important resources for my dissertation. Doug studied from Donald Reinhardt and took Reinhardt’s ideas and developed a presentation of them that makes them easier to understand.

At any rate, at my last lesson with Doug he reminded me of Reinhardt’s “Elasticity Routine,” or at least the technique and point behind it. I have some inconsistencies in how my chops function between my upper register and F3 and below. Glissing without using the slide between partials in this register are helping me make my embouchure function more consistently. They are also pretty good for developing lip flexibility and overall embouchure control.

There was a forum topic on the Trombone Forum that was discussing similar exercises, so I threw together a short video describing and demonstrating what I’ve been practicing. It’s not as good as Doug’s demonstration for me, but I think you can get the point of how the Elasticity Routine works. The exact glisses that you do are not as important as how you do them. Do not let up on the mouthpiece pressure and try to gliss between those partials as smoothly as possible.

I had a couple of pretty good glisses in there and some examples of me struggling to make them sound smooth. They all sound better now than they did a few months ago. The point is not that this should sound good (although that’s what I’m trying for when practicing this drill), but how they help your playing.