Thursday, April 25, 2013

Brain Stimulation and Golden Moments

During brain surgery, patients can experience vivid memories of older events when portions of their brains are electrically stimulated.

The electrode touches a spot and all of a sudden, you vividly remember riding your bike when you were 11 years trying to get home before that thunderstorm.

This has always amazed me.

My teaching year is coming to an end and, for extra credit, I'm asking my students to reflect on the year as whole and write down some "themes" for the year.  With any student, there have been those wonderful "breakthrough" moments when they make a little adjustment technically or musically and experience a leap forward in their playing.  I LOVE those moments.  I sometimes think of them as Golden Moments.

Now that the year is ending and juries approach, I would love for my students to be able to vividly recall those breakthrough moments.

Performance is the art of remembering

I suppose inserting electrodes into my students' brains might be frowned upon by my university so I'll have to refrain from that.

In an ideal world, however, there would be some way to grab onto those Golden Moments and bring them to the forefront of the brain so that, each time one goes to play, the memory is right there...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Canvas Work. Good or Bad?

Here's an analogy some may like.
Imagine you are a painter wishing to capture beauty with your brush strokes.  You might begin by placing a clean canvas onto your easel and preparing samples of the colors you wish to use.

What if that canvas is dirty?
What if you spill some blue into your white paint?

Your inspiration may be powerful but, if your basic materials are flawed, your final creation won't reflect your vision.

Think about this lick from the Mozart Requiem...
   Can we make an argument that, before we get into the nuances of this (or similar) passage we have to demonstrate the basic control over the instrument to simply be able to play it very clean and accurate, not favoring any particular note?  

   Turning the notes of an excerpt into a kind of exercise 
might be called "canvas work."  

   In other words, building the technical ability to play these notes very accurately and evenly is similar to preparing a canvas and your paints so that you can then begin to create.  It takes discipline to realize your inspiration.

Or maybe I'm wrong....

Maybe the nuance and subtlety have to be there from the very beginning.

Consider these two examples:

Example 1:
You start by making it very solid, technically and then add in musical expression.
Example 2:
You start by making it very expressive, musically and then clean up the technical details.

Or maybe even that isn't correct because it assumes a binary simplicity.  Anyway, this is a subject I've thought about before (in blog form).
Here's a 2010 post, along similar lines.
Here's a 2011 post, also similar.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Vibrato and Rubber Pencils

Vibrato (not the slide kind) is a funny thing.  First of all, there's the question of the name.  Is it Jaw Vibrato? Lip Vibrato? Mouth Vibrato?

I have seen some unsuccessful attempts at vibrato with a remarkable amount of jaw movement but with very little change in the sound itself.  

I have seen other players get a beautiful vibrato with little or no visible movement of the embouchure.  What's going on here?

For the unsuccessful attempts, it's almost as if the center of the embouchure is actively resisting all physical movements and firmly "locking on" to that steady sound.

For some reason, this reminds me of the "rubber pencil" magic trick.  Maybe some of of you have done this trick before.  If not, stop and try it now.  Here's a video that may help...

The key here is to...
Focus on the pencil, not your hand.  

When attempting vibrato, perhaps the key is to...

Focus on the vibrato, not your embouchure.

   Visualize the center of the embouchure as supple, pliable...not rigid or tense.  Focus your attention on the controlled wavering of the sound, not the mechanism that creates it.

   For mid-range notes some find it helpful to think of "woe-woe-woe-woe."  For higher notes (with the partials closer together), I prefer to think of "ya-ya-ya-ya."  But neither of these is literally what I'm doing.  I arrived at those vocal sounds after the fact, not as a means of figuring out the vibrato in the first place.

   If you have ever watered a garden with a hose, perhaps you spent some time making patterns in the stream of water by shaking the hose.  This also reminds of me of vibrato.  I'll bet when you were making those patterns, you weren't focused on the arm holding the hose but rather on the patterns in the water itself.

Same idea as the rubber pencil...