Viking Armor for Violin

The warrior’s chest armor at the Viking exhibit attracted my attention. It is constructed from a mesh of interlinked wire circles: each circle about 8 millimeters in diameter, using wire about 1 millimeter in diameter. Before shaping the armor to fit the owner’s torso, before interlinking the loops into a mesh cloth, all of those loops had to be constructed, thousands of them, by hand. The loops are remarkably consistent in size and shape, which means an artisan a thousand years ago had a well practiced and steady hand. I wonder: This artisan, this long ago person unknown to me, what did it take for him to develop this consistent ability? A still environment, repetition, and time. I imagine him on long winter nights in a cold Norwegian cabin warmed and lighted with fire, with little company and few distractions. What else was there to do than to work at and perfect his craft?

A fragment of Viking chainmail armor at the Oslo Museum of Cultural History.

I ponder this as I consider my own violin playing and practice. Before I can play a tune with consistency and beauty, there are essentials that I, too, must master. A beautiful tone from an evenly drawn bow, accurate pitch with precisely placed fingers. While my teachers exhort me in this direction, the time and diligence it will take to master these elements have been difficult to fathom and create. Modern existence interferes: distractions of daily life undermine stretches of undisturbed time; chaotic thinking interferes with focused attention.

Detail of chainmail links. In the year 900, each of these links is forged by hand.

I hold the image of the Viking armor in my mind and remember the person who created it. Sustained focus is a normal human activity, and if he can do it than so can I. It is a matter of creating time and eliminating distractions. I relinquish other pursuits. I avoid media. I say no thank you to invitations. I ask family to leave me alone. I go into my practice room and close the door. I am looking for a still environment, repetition, and time. I begin to bow open strings. My ear inspects every element of the bow stroke. I listen for nuance. I am patient. Am I hearing what I want to hear, what my teacher wants to hear? How long this exercise? 10 minutes? 20 minutes? 30 minutes? How long did my Viking take to develop his expertise?

Eventually I am satisfied and I move on by adding single pitches, exploring their accuracy while maintaining a robust and even sound, seeking consistency. Fine distinctions in sound quality absorb my attention. My curiosity experiments with the physical molding of the sound. Where are my fingers? How is my arm? And so two hours can pass unnoticed until I feel prepared to begin the daily work on my piece.

Detail of 4th Air Varie by Charles Dancla. In the year 2019, each of these notes is forged by hand.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Fiddle Tunes!

Fiddle Tunes is part of an annual 1-week summer fiddle-festival in Port Townsend, Washington. With 500 or so registered participants, and another few hundred non-registered participants, Fiddle Tunes is many things to many people, and there and many ways to do Fiddle Tunes.

At the core of fiddle tunes are the daily workshops with master players and teachers: When possible, by artists connected directly (octo- and nono-generians) or indirectly (their musical children) from times when tunes passed down orally and locally. At the other end of the artist spectrum are players (typically much younger)  from the hot bands of the current folk scene.  With 30 or so presenting artists, the range of music seminaars offered is broad, and typically includes old-time, bluegrass, Cape Breton, Scandinavian, Celtic, southwestern, Appalachian, and Cajun, among others. 

New England and Cape Breton fiddler Donna Hebert teaching at Fiddle Tunes 2019.

At the morning workshops tunes are taught fast and furiously, early in the week. Participants, even the advanced ones, pick up what they can. By Friday, when everyone is tired, sessions tend toward stories, and artists relay tales about life and music during the depression, or about life and music on the road.

In the afternoon, the artists run band-workshops in their specific styles, teaching tunes to perform at the Friday night dance and at the Saturday morning participant concert. There is always a beginner band for those who have played less than a year. Any instrument is included. They always get the simplest tunes and the loudest applause. Additionally, there are afternoon tutorials for intermediate players. These are small group sessions focusing on particular elements of style and technique.

In the late afternoon there are pop-up workshops ranging more widely in content, and which frequently include singing or dancing or luthier skills or whatever hits a presenter,s fancy.

After dinner, jam sessions kick into high-gear, and as the week goes on they last until earlier and earlier in the morning (thus the falling attendance at morning workshops later in the week). These include slo-jams and fast jams, huge jams led by artist faculty, intimate jams of groups of friends, jams of all musical styles, competitive jams and laid back jams, indoor jams and outdoor jams. The only place where jams don’t are in the dormitories which are designated quiet zones, thankfully! There are also campground jams, which can start around 9-am and end around 6-am. After all, campers need a little quiet and rest, too.

Jams aren’t the only thing going on after dinner. There is also a concert around 7 every evening. And around 10 pm two, yes, two!, dance halls open up: one for couple dancing and one for contras and squares. All concert and dance music is provided by the 60 or so musical staff who tend to mix and match themselves throughout the week, sharing artistry and experience among themselves. Add to all this multiple informal parties, everyone’s invited!, just to hang out and socialize, as if all the music making isn’t enough.

Is there something for everyone at Fiddle Tunes? You bet’cha! Is there too much to do at Fiddle Tunes? You bet’cha! How does one survive this Eden of Tunes? (1) Make a plan. Decide what you want to do, and decide what you don’t want to do, and stick to it. (2) Decide on a daily nap time, and stick to it.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Voice Works for Violin

Teachers tell me to sing the pitch, sing the interval, sing the motif, sing the phrase; and now play. And so I’ve learned the sound of my violin to be an extension of my voice; that my violin will only ever sing what my voice knows.

With this idea in mind, I sought a place, a community, where I could simply sing. Sing for song. Sing for joy. Sing to expand my musical sense and range. Enter Voice Works, a one week singing camp, some call it a lifestyle, at Fort Worden, a decommissioned-army-base-turned-arts-community, at the tip of the Olympic peninsula just west of Seattle. My choices were reggae, blues, jazz, gospel, Balkan, bluegrass, folk, rounds, harmony, technique, poetry, songwriting, accompanying. 150 people singing for a week. I chose to focus on harmony, Balkan, and gospel.

Jefferson Hamer
Jefferson Hamer leading a harmony workshop at Voice Works 2019

Jefferson (not airplane, not starship) Hamer taught harmony. With guitar in hand, he led a melody in the key of G, Shallow Brown, a sea shanty with spacious chorus. On the fly, responding to the chordal progression, he made up harmonies for alto, tenor and base and had us singing in 4-part in no time. The lesson being that harmony doesn’t have to be static; that we can make it up. Which he encouraged us to do. Without judgment, we listened to each other searching for notes. Figuring out what works best. Voices moving around the melody seeking to make shape with each other.

Eva Salina, our national treasure, taught Balkan songs. Although strophic and with short melodies, each song took an hour to learn. Slavic words can be difficult for English speakers. Melody was also unusual to us, as was the rhythm and the flexible tempo. Ornamentation proved tricky. But when we got the drone just right, the sound was electric, a buzz felt as much a heard.

Dawn Pemberton
Dawn Pemberton (left) with
super-fan Kate at Voice Works 2019.

Gospel with Dawn Pemberton. Oh what a night! A singer of grace and soul, Dawn is also a master teacher. If you had been there, within an hour she would have had you singing a solo part in 4-part, on stage, in a tune you’d only just learned. I witnessed her do this with an entire class. And she brought me to tears with her kindness and encouragement.

As an adult beginner on the violin, many times I’ve had to explain and defend my pursuit and my goals. Discouragement can feel relentless: “You do know that you’ll never be really good at it. You’ll never be a superstar,” is a common refrain, as if this is informative, or even relevant. In response to a question, Dawn did a 180 and went straight to “Of course you can do this. And this is how. And no, there is nothing in your make-up that will prevent you.  You’ll have your own path. You’ll have your own timing. But you can do this. You will do this.” 

This feeling, this attitude, is intrinsic to Voice Works. The approach that everyone has a voice, that everyone can sing, that everyone can shape a life in harmony and lift in joy. This is Voice Works.

Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

Learning Circles

This is a theory about learning to play a musical instrument. It is a framework for understanding the process; how that process might differ between children and adults; and the obstacles an adult beginner might face. Let’s begin.

There are 3 neuro-physiological systems of the human brain and body basic to playing an instrument: Auditory – the ability to hear and imagine sound; Kinesthetic – the ability to move one’s body to manipulate the instrument; and Visual – the ability to see notes on a page. 

Granted, other human capabilities are also involved, such memory, intuition or emotion, but here we are only considering Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Visual.

In order to play a musical instrument using sheet-music (like chamber or orchestral music), these three neuro-pysiological systems must co-ordinate with each other and work together – they have to have some overlap. 

The process of learning to play a musical instrument from sheet-music could be considered a process of maximizing the overlap between these systems. After all, one has to be able to read, listen and move simultaneously in order to play in an orchestra. The more efficiently one can do so, the more complex music one might play.

So if we take a child who has some minimal amount of overlap and provide said child with all, or even some, of the advantages of musical training – a brilliant teacher, a pre-conservatory program, all-state orchestra, transportation & fees from mom & dad, & etc. & etc. & etc, and if that child has determination and motivation and self-discipline and lack of other obligations, than she may grow up to be an elite professional musician, with her Audio & Visual & Kinetic systems functioning in a highly coordinated manner. (Note again that these are by far not the only characteristics necessary to become a musician, they are just the only ones we are considering at the moment.)

Now suppose the child chooses not to pursue music, and instead over the years focuses attention on other activities, such as sports, academics, or video games. The Audio, Visual and Kinesthetic coordination necessary for making music would atrophy as these systems are deployed to support other endeavors. It could be expected that as an adult, this person would have far, far less overlap, or coordination, between these three neuro-physiological systems than a musician would.

Now, what if that adult, with no musical training, decides to take up a musical instrument to play in an orchestra (note reading required!)? What then? What pedagogy and learning opportunities are available to this beginning adult to facilitate the coordination of their Audio, Visual and Kinesthetic processes?

Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.


What is Reading?

You are reading now, yes?

Did you pause to consider the question, form an idea, and possibly even a response?

This is reading words.

What does it mean to read music? This is different, yes? Reading notes, you don’t pause to consider, or do you? Reading notes, you produce sounds, imaginary or auditory, and anything else? Let us consider.

“Reading” music can signify different meanings in different contexts to different people. Here, I will define three meanings: deciphering-reading; performing-reading; and sight-reading. I create this clarification as I have been in conversations with others about “reading” music, and it turned out that we each referring to entirely different processes.

The first kind of “reading music” is deciphering the symbols on the page and turning them into musical gestures. Similar to seeing the letters C, A and T, identifying them and their sounds and connecting them into the word CAT and the mental image produced, deciphering music is the process of identifying the note pitches and values, along with other symbols (dynamics, tempi, bowing, etc . . .), and realizing this as sound in the imagination (known as audition), or using the movement of the body to produce sound in time with an instrument. Pausing to consider the interpretation of the various symbols and their relations to each other is an essential part of this kind of “reading music,” as the musician figures everything out, including how to physically transfer this information to her instrument and into sound. This process typically occurs in the practice room, and may also be referred to as “learning” or “preparing” or “practicing” the piece. Beginners might do this slowly with simple music, elite musicians might do this quickly with very complex music. The basic process is the same: “reading” what is on the page and figuring out the tricky parts until the piece (or section thereof) can be performed (alone or for others) fluidly. Personally, I don’t call this reading. I call this deciphering, and I am relatively fluent at this task.

The second kind of “reading music” is performing the symbols on the page, using your body (or auditory imagination) to transform the printed symbols into fluid sound. Performing can be for others, or one’s self, in public, or in private, an entire piece, or only a portion thereof. The point is, you pick a starting point and use the printed music to cue you through to a chosen ending point. And rather than seeing notes as discrete units, music is made through the connection of notes to each other. To me, this type of reading music is what I am referring to when I refer to reading music, and I’m not particularly good at it. Unlike reading words or deciphering notes, any sort of pause is anathema during performing-reading, as pause destroys the intended music by breaking the continuity of sound. Some people can move from deciphering-reading to performing-reading with ease. Personally, I struggle mightily with this transition, and have heard that this is not uncommon for adult learners.

The third kind of “reading music” is sight-reading. Self-explanatory, this is looking at printed music that one has never seen before, and simply playing it through. Sight-reading is a learnable skill, and some musicians are super good at this. Personally, I’m stuck at the level of “Twinkle, twinkle,” or thereabouts. But I do practice sight-reading daily and am showing improvement.

In summary, it seams to me that “reading” is the interpretation of symbols to some other end. One can read words and notes, both discussed above. One can also read braille, or body language, not mentioned above. Between reading words and notes, the two primary differences are, first, that pausing is integral to the reading of words, and continuous, even forward perception is integral to reading of notes; and, second, that reading words results in mental ideas, whereas reading notes results in physical action and sound.

I took the time to think all this through because I have been in a number of conversations about reading music in which it became apparent that I and my collocutor were referring to very different activities. It took me a while to figure out what those differences were. The process of defining various types of reading has also compelled me to identify and articulate my own music reading difficulties, so that my teachers and I can address them and improve my musicianship.

A final note which I’ll have to address in a separate essay: I assume that reading and processing words, which I am very good at, occurs very differently in the brain than does reading and processing notes, which I am not very good at. I’ll attribute these ability differences to the fact that my brain has decades of experience at reading words, and only a few years experience at attempting to read notes. It would follow that my word-reading processor is dominate, and that it interferes with my note-reading processor. In fact, this is what it feels like is happening internally, and it would explain why I struggle so to read and play music.

This begs the questions: Exactly how plastic is the human brain????? Especially later in life? Can I modify my neurological processors so that I can learn to read and play music fluently on my violin? And if it is possible, what is the process be to accomplish this change????? And how do I discover this process?????
Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.


Reading Problems

Reading linguistic words and reading musical notes are two fundamentally different activities with two entirely different outcomes. Reading words results in mental ideas (Dony has animals!), which lead to further ideas (Is this on a farm?).Reading notes results physical action (Right arm bow-stroke! Left hand fingering!), which leads to sound (Ringing “C”?). Pausing the eye at commas, periods, unknown vocabulary, is inherent to the process of reading words and forming ideas. Continuous forward eye-motion is inherent to reading notes, to render the on-going pulse of music. The neurological process of reading words can be fraught, think dyslexia, and so can the process of reading notes. Personally, while I have no issues reading words, I have come to notice a number of difficulties reading music. Here are some of them:

My eye does not physically scan continually forward across the staff at a continuous rate. It pauses at anything it doesn’t quickly recognize, as it might in reading a sentence. Encountering an uncomfortable notational figure, my eye may try to loop back over it seeking familiarity. In a familiar piece, my eye might lag behind the notes being played. If my eye has paused, and muscle memory has carried the phrase forward, my eye will frantically scramble looking to catch up. Any of these erratic actions interfere with the essential forward momentum of the music.

Aside from eye-motion, as if failing to distinguish between the letters “C” and “G” (is that COT or GOT?), sometimes I can’t identify a note in passing: they look too similar to me on the staff.  Associated with this issue is a visual illusion of the staff is shifting up or down behind the notes, so a D can change into an F, or vice-versa.

Reading problems interfere with making music, as they typically cause me to freeze mid-play, and the pulse stops, and the sound stops, and the music stops. Everyone who has ever worked with me has noticed the problem. “Just keep going. Don’t stop.” is the predominant instruction. This is like taking someone who has never seen snow to the top of a ski-hill and telling them “Just keep going. Don’t stop.” What they would end up doing would hardly be called skiing.

Reading problems also cause me intense anxiety. When I go to play a piece that I’ve studied well, I know reading mistakes will crop up randomly, interfering with the performance. I can’t seem to practice my way out of them. It is like cooking in my too-familiar kitchen and today I can’t remember where the salt and the bowls are, and tomorrow I can’t remember where where the butter and the knifes are. So each time I start to cook I know I’ll forget something, but I don’t know what that something will be.

If there is a dyslexia of reading music notation, I have it.

In the world of reading-words instruction, there is an abundance of research and pedagogy to mitigate reading difficulties cause by neurological mis-processing. Does any such research and pedagogy exist for reading-notes? My guess is no. Typically, people who fail to progress at making music learn to quit trying, or drop out. I find this sad, and I refuse to capitulate. If there are best practices for alleviating note-reading difficulties, I hope to find them. In the meantime, I continue to practice and explore and see what I can figure out on my own.
Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.