Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hearing through the skin

I don't know if anyone else picked up on some research suggesting that the cries of newborn babies vary from nation to nation. Apparently French babies cry differently from German babies, perhaps because of the speech they heard while in the womb.

Well today I read of some Canadian research suggesting our skin plays a part in interpreting speech. I overdosed on skin watching 'Bruno' last weekend so I'll save you a picture. However, I'm contemplating attending opera in my birthday suit, the better understand the proceedings.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Return of Dumbek

Some time early last year the skin of my dumbek split close to the rim. I have been a fan of goblet drums since spending a month on an excavation in Carthage. We were digging down through a Roman harbour complex to a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Tanit. We had Saturdays off and I spent them getting lost in the souks of Tunis where there were various instruments displayed amongst all the other wonders. I left with two clay drums, one with a medium pitch the other much deeper. Somehow I got them home without breaking them but within a couple of years they were just so much mosaic. Breaks involving the flared section were easily repaired but once cracked at the rim the skin lost all tension and the drum was ruined.

Some years later I bought metal dumbek on which I learned to play Egyptian rhythms. To the amusement of other drummers I tuned it flat; I'd loved the sound of the deeper of the two clay drums and wished to recreate it. It also made it easier to bend notes, tabla style. It served me well until a fall onto a concrete floor broke the alloy tension ring. I was very fond of that drum and missed it greatly. So when a traveller to Istanbul returned with the drum in the picture I was over the moon. However, it was not long before the skin split near the rim. The drum had been made in Pakistan and imported into Turkey. I'm not sure whether the skin, which varied in thickness, was of 'export quality' (ie good-enough-to-sell-abroad-but-I-wouldn't-try-to-sell-it-locally quality), or whether it suffered from changes in temperature and humidity.

Last night, after a long wait, I collected my newly re-skinned drum. The new skin is darker than I have seen on this type of drum and certainly thicker than it was before. I'm itching to play it but the kids are in bed so I'll have to wait for the morning. I favour the under-the-left-arm position; the right hand plays the deep notes while the ring finger of the left hand flicks off the the thumb onto the drum just inside the rim. It's one of the quickest ways I know to get blisters but the sound is very satisfying.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Teaching - the hardest gig? Part Two

Last week, after a delay brought about by the half term break and a Government inspection, I presented the last of a series of woodwind demonstrations. Aimed at the 11yr old intake at a local high school the sessions were designed to educate the children about instruments they would only otherwise see on TV. There was also a hope that some children might take up the flute, clarinet or saxophone themselves.

The sessions open with a question to the audience: 'What is a woodwind instrument?" As someone who didn't know what a flute looked like until first presented with one at age 13 or 14, I should not have been surprised by some of the answers. Drums, guitar and 'cello were obviously way off the mark. Trumpet a little closer. One completely unexpected suggestion was didgeridoo. From that session onwards I brought in a 5ft (1.5m) cardboard tube to use as my first instrument and followed this up with a genuine Australian didge (pictured).

I keep the didge playing to a minimum. The embouchure doesn't sit easily with playing reed instruments so I don't practise it much. Then comes bamboo flute; children are always surprised that so much music can come from something so simple. This I contrast with the orchestral flute on which I play 'Greensleeves' accompanied by the class teacher on piano. Greensleeves is an English folk tune attributed, at least by some, to King Henry VIII although it is unlikely to have been written before he died in 1547. Perhaps as many as half the children recognised this but none could name it.

Questions about the flute, and for the other instruments, include "How much do they cost?" and "How many buttons has it got?" I can never remember how many keys so have to count them all each time. The sax has so many I don't bother.

The clarinet comes next and I play them a klezmer tune called Mazel Tov, (Yiddish for Good Luck!). I don't know many klezmer tunes in major keys but this is one and it's a hit. I mention the instruments uses in jazz and classical music before playing something from Carmen by Bizet, again with a piano accompaniment. I make a mental note to find out exactly what a character in SpongeBob plays on the instrument.

And then come the saxophones. I have brought in an alto and a tenor as this is what the school has available for study. The teacher and I play The Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini. instantly recognised by one and all. I then play a few bars of The Simpsons on the tenor. We contrast size and weight of the instruments and the teacher tells the children about forms to take home if they are interested in learning an instrument.

And now there is time for a final question or two. "Do you teach guitar?"

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

MIDI files for improvisation Part 2

Last week I posted some midi files for improvising in one key. It is possible to improvise against those chord sequences with the notes of one scale only. It's like cycling with stabilizers; completely safe, fun at first but quickly limiting.

This week I want to take it a bit further with the following sequence:

l:C / / / lC / / / lD / / / lD / / / l
l F / / / lF / / / lC / / / lC / / / :l 8 Bar in C midi file

This sequence is in the key of C major but visits the neighbouring key of G major. The D chord in bars 3 and 4 is acting as the dominant chord in G major and you should play an F# against it rather than an F natural. Note that it is not acting as the tonic of D major so don't play C#. If you don't know what I mean by tonic and dominant, don't worry at this stage; the exercise will still work.

Listen to the sequence and you will hear the chords changing. Now play along in C major, changing to G major (the key with F# in) for the bars with the D chord, and back to C major for the F and C chords. When you have mastered this try the same exercise in the other keys (below) and try breaking the rules to see what happens. For instance, play a C# against the D chord and see if you like it. Music is in the ear of the beholder.

The same sequence in F:

l:F / / / lF / / / lG / / / lG / / / l
lBb / / / lBb / / / lF / / / lF / / / :l 8 Bar in F midi file

Play in F major except over the G chord where you play in C major (so no Bb for those two bars).

and the same sequence in G:

l:G / / / lG / / / lA / / / lA / / / l
l C / / / lC / / / lG / / / lG / / / :l 8 Bar in G midi file

Play in G major except over the A chord where you play in D major (so add C# to the F# you already play).

And finally, if none of these symbols mean anything to you and you play entirely by ear then good for you. Feel the changes and let your ears/fingers find the notes that go best.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Thank you, Sting

For those of you who don't live in the UK, or who have better things to do than watch TV, The X Factor is a cheap 'reality' TV programme in which members of the public perform their party pieces - covers of other people's songs - in front of a live studio audience and three arbiters of quality and taste. It is a show that has captured the public imagination. There is something mesmerising about watching people make fools of themselves before being torn apart by a panel of judges. Car crash television.

So why should I care? After all, I don't watch much TV and there are plenty of other viewing options if wanted them. But I do work in music education and it bothers me that children watch this and aspire to being involved in 'art' of this kind. And when I say involved I don't mean as a hard-working (but unseen) stage musician, make-up artist or camera operator. They want to be the stars and they want it now. And most are spared the humiliation.

What happens to the chosen few? Being young they know that getting older, being last year's, or last decade's, news is not going to happen to them. After their attention seeking has been fully exploited they have two choices. Either launch their kids into hot-air balloons for another media-fix or resign themselves to a life of opening village fetes and switching on Christmas lights. Pantomimes, of course, need actors so that's out.

Andy Warhol said "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes". Well it's the future now and the competition for cutting the ribbon at the new supermarket is immense; fifteen minutes is a very short shelf life. Everyone has 'talent' for something but only those who work at developing and honing that talent will endure.

For more on this, by someone far more eloquent than myself, read Sting's take on The X Factor.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Recording the blacksmith

Back in May, Cogitator posted a short clip of a blacksmith hammering away at an anvil. This made a strong impression on me and when I came across a blacksmith at a camp in August I knew to take advantage of the situation.

Dave Perks brought a portable forge with him to the camp and set it up in the shade of some trees. He was very happy to demonstrate the rhythmic nature of his hammering technique: so many beats on the iron being forged, interspersed with beats on the anvil in order to maintain momentum. He had brought along an unusual piece of scrap iron, a disc with fins, that he wanted to make mountable as a gong. I managed to capture most of the process in one way or another and have made the results into a short movie (3'52).

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Taking music exams - ten tips

A friend told me recently that her daughter was soon to take her Grade 5 flute exam. The problem was that she had played the three set pieces to death. Is there any way to revive a piece of music that has died on you?

Not all my students take exams. Exams suit some and not others. They can bring people on, or they can turn a student into an 'exam junkie'. Exam junkies just want to get through the grades as quickly as possible. They do very well until they reach a point where they just don't have the breadth of experience and technique to progress further. Being addicted to success, this where they would rather give up than put in the necessary work. Exams are a learning aid only and should be part of a balanced diet.

If are taking an exam you will find people are only too willing to give you advice. Here's mine. Just like everyone else's, take what is good for you and ignore the rest.

  1. Remember why you chose to play the instrument. Is it because you love the sound it makes? Have you become so bogged down in the mechanics of the pieces that you have forgotten about the sound?
  2. Remember why you're taking the exam: to get one person's objective and informed opinion of how well you play on a particular day, under pressure. And this in the hope that they can tell you something useful.
  3. Forget any other reasons you may have for taking the exam. These may include pleasing your teacher, impressing friends or family members and gaining entry to some band or orchestra. While these may seem important in the short term they are ephemeral. Don’t let them come between you and your enjoyment of the instrument.
  4. Your teacher may well be piling on the pressure. This should be constructive: about you and improving your performance. But beware, and challenge if you feel able, any negative pressure to do well. Your teacher may feel nervous on your behalf or may feel it reflects badly on them if you achieve a poor result. That’s their ‘stuff’ and it’s unfair for them to make you responsible for that.
  5. If you have been ‘bribed’ to do well by the promise of some material reward try, to put it from your mind. This is negative pressure by the back door. If you can bring yourself to do this, politely decline the reward in advance and free yourself of the distraction. You never know, perhaps you’ll be rewarded anyway.
  6. It doesn't matter how well or badly you do. It's not a GCSE or your driving test. If you do well, tell the world. If you do badly, keep it to yourself. As soon as you take another grade, or have any other musical success, this result becomes redundant
  7. If your pieces are ‘dying’ on you because you have played them too often, give them a rest. Play something else. Play an easy piece but make it sound great. You may have already mastered Greensleeves or Bach’s famous Minuet but remind yourself why they were so popular. Improvise with friends or to a backing track.
  8. Consider a stage actor who must perform the same part night after night. It is not enough to learn the lines and repeat them. For each performance they must breathe life into their character. They must become that person. Learning the ‘To be or not to be’ speech will not, by itself, make you Hamlet. Find the character in each of your pieces.
  9. Look for your blind spots. If possible record yourself playing your set pieces and listen back. Where do your fingers stumble, where does the intonation suffer? What other technical errors are you making? Now, rather than play entier pieces, concentrate on those passages and gradually expand them by playing the bars either side.
  10. Dare to contemplate failure. The fear of failure makes failure more likely. What are you really afraid of? Is it your teacher, your family, your friends? (Please don’t say the examiner! You will probably never meet them again and whether they smile or frown during your performance is rarely reflected in the mark they give.) Any storm you have to weather afterwards will quickly pass. You are doing this for yourself. It’s a hobby, maybe even a passion. Enjoy the event.

And a final note on failure. Call me a woolly liberal if you like but I hate the word. People give up instruments because they don't pass. This is the downside of exams. People fail for all sorts of reasons while less able musicians scrape through. It doesn't mean they have no affinity for the instrument they played the day before the result came through.

Everyone finds their level. I dropped out of A-level geography but I still enjoy travel and reading about other parts of the world. Stopping formal study is no barrier to continued enjoyment. I'll never be as good a flautist as James Galway or Hariprasad Chaurasia. That hasn't made me give up the flute and failing your exam is not a good enough reason for you to quit your instrument.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Midi files for improvisation

I have written in Playing With Sound, and blogged recently, about improvisation. I thought it might be useful, in addition to the chord charts, to upload some midi files so you can improvise along in the keys of C, F and G. There's no mystery. Provided you can play the major scale of the appropriate key you can't go wrong. So C major goes with '12 Bar in C' and so on.

The files will play in Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and QuickTime. All you need to do is click on the link. If you want to save them to your computer, click on File (top left of your screen) and then 'Save Page As'. Decide where you want to put them and click OK. I went to the trouble of creating them in three different styles, each cheesier than the one before.

12 Bar in C
12 Bar in F
12 Bar in G

I'll take this further in a future post.

Friday, 6 November 2009

My new shaker

For a man whose book of music games claims to be equipment-free I have been enjoying props lately. First the non-standard dice and now this shaker. It was the end of my weekend away and we stopped in a little market town called Ashbourne. Having endured a café where the service was so bad it was actually funny, we took advantage of the extra hour created by the switch from British Summer Time back to GMT. What to do? Window-shopping! My partner, with an eye for clothes, spotted an ethnic shop with a tiny street frontage, the size of a door. The interior was far larger, taking up two floors of an old Georgian house. And while she perused the garments I surveyed the various knickknacks: bangles, beads and mantelpiece clutter, all at pocket money prices.

I’m always on the look out for a musical instrument I’ve never seen before but this shop was rather disappointing: Indian bells on strings that were de rigueur for self-respecting hippies back in the seventies, and some gourd shakers. The shakers looked like the worst kind of tourist tat: over-decorated and unwieldy; an ornament not an instrument. To confirm my suspicions I picked it up and shook it. And was pleasantly surprised.

It’s actually more like a rain stick than a shaker, despite being just under a foot (30cm) long. In itself that wasn’t enough to interest me as the ‘shower’ lasts barely more than a second: all over before you’ve even opened your brolly. But the quality of the sound is intriguing. It has musical notes that suggest metal or ceramic elements inside, although there is no sign of the gourd having been opened. Some aspects of the sound recall bamboo gamelan instruments while others remind me of a self-righting plastic baby toy (circa 1987) that had a bell inside. Play the clip and judge for yourself.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Free game for November

If you can tap your foot you should try November's free music game. Inspired in part by Luke Rhinehart's 'The Dice Man' it involves rolling dice to decide what beats to play on.

You really don't need any 'proper' musical instruments for this game. A tin can, comb, hole punch or plastic bag will work just as well. Obviously, if you happen to have a Stradivarius violin to hand don't hide it away: that will sound just fine too.

Anyone can play. And you really don't need a fancy die like the one in the picture. A standard-issue six-sider will work just as well. Or you can make yourself a spinner with a matchstick and a piece of cardboard.

I post a new game every month, in addition to the ten on the website. If you sign up to the newsletter you need never miss one. The dice game is great fun. Cause a stir by playing it between courses at your local restaurant - there are plenty of things to make sounds with on a dining table.