Thursday, 31 December 2009

Re-use your bottles

'Empty vessels make most noise' is a phrase I remember from childhood, along with 'Use your initiative.' I seem to remember that if I did use my initiative the words 'You thought? You THOUGHT?!' came my way soon after.

But today's post is not about my happy reminiscences but about sound - the science of sound. By the end of the seasonal festivities, if indeed you haven't already, you should find yourself with easy access to numerous empty bottles of varying sizes. You may already be able to play a bottle by blowing across the top, aiming a jet of air at the opposite section of the rim. If not, perhaps you can persuade someone to teach you.

Now if you sound a plastic bottle in this way, and then a glass bottle of the same capacity, will the pitch be the same?

Are bottles of greater volume pitched higher or lower than those of smaller volume?

Do all glass bottles of the same capacity have the same pitch? Will shape or thickness of glass make a difference?

Never again be a wallflower at a party! The cool folk may steer a wide berth but you're never alone with a bottle.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Twang on a can

Here, as unwisely promised yesterday, is a clip of me twanging the ring-pull of an aluminium fizzy drink can whilst simultaneously filling it with water. What do you think happens to the pitch of the note?

My own, subjective and non-scientific, opinion is that the pitch stays the same. The note seems to get higher because the upper harmonic partials are increasingly favoured as the can fills. If I were to blow the can like a flute then I would hear the air inside vibrating. Less volume of air, as the water replaces it, means a gradual rise in pitch. When I twang the can it is the can I hear resonating. The water dampens (no pun intended - 'deadens' might be a better word) the sound of the lower partials.

Today I went for a long walk by the sea so no sonic experiments. But tomorrow I shall continue to explore the seasonal debris and make some more rubbish instruments. If you would like to join in then hang on to all sizes of bottles, both glass and plastic, tin cans of various types, wrapping paper and anything else you think might produce a noise.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

These instruments are rubbish

Before you consign the debris from your seasonal festivities to landfill and the recycling banks why not have some fun with it first? That is certainly my own intention and I'm starting with some fizzy drinks cans. I had a grand plan which I'll reveal tomorrow but on the way I noticed a thing or two. You may know that all plastic bottles of the same size play the same note if blown like a flute. Well aluminium cans are the same although it is not nearly as easy to produce a sound in this way. However, when you twang the ring-pull (which remains attached to the modern can after opening) the pitch varies betrween cans. Of the five cans I tried the pitch varied between G and Bb. These cans were all the same brand from the same multipack. Although the cans all contain the same volume of air there must be other variations in their construction.

The next thing I did was to twang the ring-pull as I gradually filled a can with water. It requires a steady hand. (Using a funnel has a deadening effect.) Why not try this now? I'll post a movie of my own experiment tomorrow. Before you begin, though, what do think will happen to the sound as you pour in the water? Does experience tally with your prediction?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Busking in Norwich part two

Here's the second show, again just under 15 minutes long. The emphasis is on the less professional, and occasionally crazier, kind of busker.

The guys in the picture aren't featured. I saw them this afternoon kicking up a storm with a kind of East European gypsy take on some well known tunes. They were certainly jolly and had tremendous stamina but their case was far from overflowing with cash when I looked. A pity - they deserved better.
&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_0">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_1">href</span>="">Busking in Norwich part two by The Miracle Men&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_2">lt</span>;/a>

Monday, 21 December 2009

Carol Singing

I do enjoy carol singing and last night was perfect for it - thick snow on the ground that was still white after two days lying on city streets. On the street I moved from earlier in the year there is a tradition of singing a few verses at each door and collecting for charity. Everyone who opens their door is treated to a verse of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' at the end. It takes perhaps an hour to visit all the houses and then we retire to one of them for mince pies and mulled wine to warm the extremities. One thing I love about singing carols is the sense of a shared culture. The older folk knew the words to at least the first verse of most of them and the value of all those turgid school assemblies and enforced church attendance becomes clear.

The other evening as I was about to leave the house I heard a knock at the door. I opened it to a boy of about ten or twelve. He sang:
"We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year"
and then stopped. It was all he knew.

It felt more like trick-or-treat than caroling but I didn't want to discourage him from singing and appreciated his courage.
'I'm going away for Christmas,' he said.
'Good for you,' I replied.
I gave him 50 pence (I didn't want to give him too much incentive to return!) and then noticed his friend overlapping him as they worked their way down the street. Very time-efficient; these boys will go far!

I thought of putting a notice on the door along the lines of "No Carol Singers UNLESS you know the first verse of at least TWO carols by heart". But of course I didn't. And tonight the folk on my new street are going caroling. The snow looks like sticking around so bring it on.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Busking in Norwich part one

<a href="">Busking in Norwich part one by The Miracle Men</a>

Shortly before Christmas 2005 my friend Eamonn Burgess went out with a hand-held audio recorder interviewing buskers on the streets of Norwich. From the material he gathered we made two short (just under 15 minutes) radio programmes that were broadcast on Future Radio the following spring.

If ever you've busked, considered busking or even casually wondered what it's like for the person behind the guitar (saxophone, tambourine or whatever) then this is for you. It really is most illuminating and very entertaining, although not always for the reasons intended by the featured performers.

Unlike some towns and cities Norwich has a very relaxed attitude towards buskers. There is no police harassment and the council doesn't exercise any 'quality control' making for varied fare. However, the arrival of privately owned 'public' spaces such as Millennium Plain and that bit outside the new mall has altered the lay of the land somewhat.

Part two to follow.

Monday, 14 December 2009

How very sweet

As a woodwind teacher I have found myself occupying a unique position in the lives of some of my younger students. I am that rare thing: an adult they come to know well who is neither a family member nor a school teacher. ( Although I teach in schools it quickly becomes clear to them that I am not gunning enthusiastically for the establishment.) Perhaps if I taught something else - guitar or literacy perhaps - the same relationship would arise. But reed instruments require an embouchure and an embouchure requires practice. Kids who don't practise can't play solidly for a full lesson so I have learned to break up the playing in various ways. I have also learned that children come to their lessons for reasons other than music. Some really need to talk to a neutral adult without incurring the stigma, and parental worry, that asking for counselling would entail.

So I can talk knowledgably about nail varnish, ties and trainers along with the barriers they present to learning. And other things. It may not be necessary to build a friendly relationship with a student in order to impart knowledge but that's my style.

Today a boy came in wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Normally he would be wearing a uniform. I asked him if it was a non-uniform day.
"Yes. I just had to bring in a bag of sugar."
"A bag of sugar?" I repeated.
"Yeah. It's for the homeless in London or something."

I quipped that next year he'd have to bring in a tube of toothpaste but it did make me wonder. It also reminded me of eating white bread, margarine and white sugar sandwiches at school because it was all I could get my hands on. I can still remember the satisfying crunch that made me feel I was eating something substantial and sustaining. My teeth have been full of metal ever since. So what is the sugar for? Will it really be fed to the homeless or is it to be exchanged for something else, like the milk-bottle tops we used to collect for the blind? How can I possibly teach while I'm worrying about this? Would I have made more money in dentistry? Well, obviously.

Next time I might just keep my keep my curiosity in check. After all, my students talk about all sorts of things but never my attire. So why should I mention theirs?

Friday, 11 December 2009

Playing for funerals

I have played for a wide range of ceremonies in my time. My own beliefs concerning the supernatural, spiritual and so on have yet to crystallise and I can’t share the convictions of those who ask me to perform. But this allows me to entertain pretty well any view and ‘try it for size’ for the duration of the event.

Ceremonies are very important to the people who stage them and, one assumes, to most of those who attend. Birthdays, weddings and hand fastings, christenings and other baby-naming ceremonies all come with high expectations and, although often very enjoyable, are never especially easy. But the hardest, by a country mile, are funerals. I’m not talking about the wake, the party afterwards. I mean the burial or cremation, the ceremony itself.

The most difficult have been those where I have known the deceased and so know the bereaved. Not only is the pressure immense but I am also grieving and feeling empathy with the other mourners. Even when I have known neither the departed nor any others present I find it impossible to remain detached, especially when the circumstances surrounding the funeral are especially harrowing.

For one such event I was asked to play some ‘Buddhist’ flute. What was required was some bamboo flute with an Indian, Chinese or Japanese flavour, something I can do well enough. I was to lead the mourners from the chapel to the grave and play while the coffin was lowered in. Again, I was happy to oblige and well within my comfort zone. But then came a question for me: “How much do you charge?”

So how much should one charge for a funeral? For family and friends obviously I couldn’t accept a fee but this was a professional engagement. It took place within walking distance of my house and would take two hours at most, including travel. I can’t remember what my hourly rate was at the time but if it was £20 that would make the fee £40. Easy. But on the other hand I didn’t want to exploit anyone, especially after they had just lost someone close. Just because I don’t have any religious beliefs doesn’t mean I lack compassion. Feeling like one the folk preparing Scrooge for his funeral (they take everything he has that might fetch a few pennies, even his bed linen) I asked for twenty quid. Of course this probably made the person who had engaged me to play for her best friend feel like a cheapskate and suspect my competence.

Next question: what to wear? Normally I would wear black suit, white shirt, black tie – the default attire in the UK. More often these days people are choosing to celebrate the life led rather than mourn its passing, making for a less sombre dress code. This funeral was to be one of those. “Wear something bright and colourful,” I was told. So I did.

The service itself was truly awful. The husband, left with two very young children, was inconsolable. I had no difficulty in engaging with the emotional tenor of the occasion. Tears were streaming down my face as I prepared to lead everyone, pied-piper fashion to the graveside. But then the priest informed the congregation that the grave was in the new part of the cemetery, across the dual carriageway. “If you would all like to get into your cars and follow the hearse back to the main road. Turn right and then right again at the first roundabout.”

Like any good musician I improvised. As I was seated near the back I hastened outside, my multicoloured stripy jumper totally at odds both with the occasion and the mood I wished to express, and began playing as everyone emerged. If I couldn’t play them to the grave I could at least play them to their cars. Except that, once out of the building, no one moved. They stood like statues, with no idea how they were supposed to behave, listening reverently. The situation was as new to them as it was to me and I realised they weren’t going to get into their cars and drive off until I released them. So I stopped and they left me with my patron who, having come to town on the train for the day, was also without a car. She forced some money on me (more than we’d agree) and headed for the ladies’ loo. For an instant I wondered if I should wait and help her find the rest of the mourners but then thanked her and legged it through the cemetery (why hadn’t I brought my bike?) to the dual carriageway. Dodging the traffic I made it across to the area containing the grave. I quickly spotted the assembly and hurried over to find the undertaker looking anxiously at his watch and the priest asking what had kept me.

After the ritual words and prayers I played in the appointed manner as the coffin was lowered into the ground and earth and flowers were thrown on top. And so the final question: When should I stop? (or How much is enough?) There was no one to give me the nod that says ‘thanks, you can shut up now’. Although I wanted to give value for money I am a firm believer that one person’s music is another’s noise pollution and that silence is greatly underrated. (There – I do have firm beliefs after all.) After a while I walked slowly backwards, playing long notes all the time, until I felt I had drifted out of earshot. Finally I turned and walked home feeling both privileged and deeply moved but utterly drained and unable to work for the rest of the day.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hot Mikado

Tonight Hot Mikado, by one Rob Bowman, opens at a local high school where I teach woodwind. It's a musical of the kind the school stages on a yearly basis. Based on Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, it was written in the 1980s in the style of the 1940s. This makes for an interesting libretto with its satire on the British political and imperial system of the Victorian era mixed with cultural references from the swing era - Roosevelt's New Deal for example - along with a 1980s slant: 'We don't need your disco sound' chirrups the chorus.

Having been late for the first band call (other work commitments), missed most of the second (another gig) and unable to make the dress rehearsal (a heavy cold, real humdinger) I find myself approaching the first night feeling somewhat unprepared. Practice has been all but impossible but, in the best showbiz traditions, the show must go on. And so it shall. The part I was given calls for flute, clarinet and alto sax. Fortunately someone else has taken on the flute elements. Some of the changes are very quick and the shortest allows a minim rest (no more than a second in that particular piece) to switch from flute to alto.

The original operetta has a personal resonance as it is both the only G&S work I've seen live and the first live show of any kind that I attended. I was ten and the headmaster organised a music club for the six or seven fourth formers in the junior boarding house. One day he announced he was taking us to see a light opera and, when the day came, we duly went. What an eye-opener. The only live music I had experienced previously was the school piano as it bashed out hymns in morning assembly. The only stage show was the school nativity play. I was blown away and the experience was only eclipsed by seeing Hawkwind a few years later.

So I confess to being a little suspicious of Hot Mikado when it was announced. Not really being a fan of musicals I'd never heard of it and anticipated a dumbed down version of the real thing. A bit like a Hollywood history - the first casualty is the truth. But, although the libretto has the odd cringe worthy moment (as I'm sure would the original if I listened again), the music is good. In fact the best numbers are the ones Sullivan wrote and Rob Bowman messed with. Hot, certainly. Fun, fast and furious. I just hope, for my sake and everyone else's, I can reproduce it satisfactorily tonight.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Music without instruments

I have been reading the travel writings of Victorian explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. Some of it is hard work, not because his style is heavy but rather because it is so light and matter of fact. Somehow this makes his descriptions of shooting orangutans in the jungles of Borneo all the more horrifying. But parts are absolutely fascinating. At one point he is staying overnight in a village in the meeting house, a building where business is conducted, guests accommodated and where the young unmarried men of the village sleep. The chief has left and the boys have been amusing themselves with trials of strength and skill, somewhere between arm wrestling and Sumo but unlike either. Wallace writes:

"When these games had been played all around with varying success, we had a novel kind of concert. Some placed a leg across the knee, and struck the fingers sharply on the ankle, others beat their arm against their sides like a cock when he is going to crow, this making a variety of clapping sounds, while another with his hand under his armpit produced a deep trumpet note; and, as they all kept time very well, the effect was by no means unpleasing. This seemed quite a favourite amusement with them, and they kept it up with much spirit."

The game reminded me of one from Adventures in Sound, a freebie on the website, called Bodycon. The less we have the more inventive we can become. Of course there are no audio recordings from Wallace's visit to Borneo, which took place in 1856, so we'll just have to use our imaginations. However, if you are into body percussion and haven't seen Sounds of Rain and Thunder yet (on YouTube) it really is worth a look .

Friday, 4 December 2009


Half-holing is a technique familiar to recorder players. In order to move some notes up or down by a semitone it is necessary to partially cover a hole, allowing some air to escape through it. In fact to play in the upper register at all it is necessary to jam the tip of the thumb into the hole in order to force the instrument to overblow by an octave.

This is not a problem faced by players of the orchestral flute which has a system of keywork that makes it fully chromatic. But the recorder is relatively sophisticated in comparison to the humble bamboo flute. The tone of a good bamboo flute is both stronger and richer than that of a recorder but playing one with other instruments can present a problem. A recorder is, at least in theory, fully chromatic. Not so the bamboo flute. My favourite is pitched in Ab - not a great key for spontaneous jams around the camp fire.

The other day I was playing a studio session for a maker of library music. We had used the orchestral flute almost exclusively but thought we try something more 'ethnic' for a change. I have one in C which is close enough to the key of F, the key of the piece in question. But it meant half-holing the top hole in order to make a Bb.

This was not a problem until I had to execute a fast descending run. To ensure accuracy of pitch I partially covered the hole with masking tape. As you can see in the picture, half-holing is a misnomer - nearly all the hole is covered.

If you a are a flute (or recorder) player reading this I should explain that although the flute in question is pitched in C it feels like I'm playing a D scale. This makes it a transposing instrument, a fact that became clear when we abandoned the bamboo and went back to orchestral flute. I then had the sensation of reading everything a tone down. Flutes and whistles in D are very popular because they make the notes any flute or recorder player would expect. D is also a key that most guitarists can manage without too much trouble.

It is possible to cover holes lower down the instrument to facilitate playing in other keys. I part covered the second hole as well (pictured) to give me C Dorian. Always cover the side of the hole nearest the wrist of the playing hand - this allows glissandi and other effects that make these instruments so wonderful.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Each month I post a free music game on the Play With Sound website. This is in addition to the other free music games on the site that have proved so useful in schools, drama workshops. December's Game of the Month is suitable for adults and children over nine.

Called Telephone it has a communication theme but is really about developing fluency with three simple rhythmic motifs. The fun bit is using these to contact other players. In order to do that one must develop the skill of of hearing and reproducing the motifs accurately.

Telephone will develop rhythmic, listening, communication and improvising skills. The rhythms can be clapped or played on instruments. Let me know how you get on.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Experimenting with sound

I occasionally buy a copy of New Scientist if I am on holiday or about to get on a train. It’s written in terms simple enough for a layman like myself to understand and there’s usually some article or other about sound. I took one to Cambridge the other day (where it felt like a comic) and was disappointed to find almost nothing about sound save for one brief item.

I assume you are familiar with Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs. He rang the bell, the dogs came and he fed them. He did this for a number of days and then rang the bell and, when they came, he didn’t feed them although they salivated expectantly. The dogs had been conditioned by the bell. Any caveman who ever befriended a dog could have predicted that result.

Pointless or not, Pavlov’s work should have made the following research, reported in New Scientist, November 21st, unnecessary. In the 1970s a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania played two different sounds to 1,800 three year olds on the island of Mauritius. One of the sounds was always followed by a loud, frightening noise. The noise had such an effect on the children that, on hearing the sound that preceded it, the children would sweat with apprehension. Somehow (and we’re asked to take this as a given) the researcher measured the amount each child sweated every time they heard the warning sound.

Fast forward thirty years or so and we find that perhaps there was a point to the experiment after all. It transpires that of the children involved in the experiment 137 went on to gain criminal records. All of these children sweated significantly less than others of similar race and gender. So we have a link between an early fearlessness in the face of loud noises and criminal behaviour. Of course the report begs so many questions. What did other fearlessly sweat-free three year olds go on to become? Astronauts? Heavy Metal musicians? And were there no three year olds back home in Philadelphia? Were their parents more expensive to buy off or was Mauritius simply a pleasant place to go for a working holiday?

Before you rush to try any of this at home, just remember that that was the 1970s. Try something similar today and it may be the last time you are allowed to work with children (or animals). Content yourself with watching today’s shop assistants, force fed the saccharin Christmas hits of yesteryear on a continuous loop, turn into tomorrow’s homicidal maniacs.