lessons

As an undergraduate (it feels like a previous life sometimes), I was a music major. I spent the first two years of my undergrad experience immersed in the life of a musician – lessons every week, playing in three (sometimes four) ensembles, practicing upwards of six hours a day, taking ten or eleven classes per quarter. It was a rough time, and yet I still somehow found time to socialize and make lifelong friends.

Since I am a linguist now, obviously this kind of existence was not for me. (It was the intense competition that broke me, and the fact that there is an unremarkably small market for symphonic trombonists in the world.) However, some lessons from my time as a music major, and a musician, have stayed with me. Here are just a few that I’ve been thinking about recently:

1. Sometimes you just have to adjust to the people around you. You simply cannot spend your entire existence as a musician doing your own thing, especially not if you play in an ensemble. You have to tune, you have to mimic the style of people around you, you have got to pay attention to your environment. This is why music sounds like music and not a cacophony of randomness. This is a life skill – a good team works well because everybody adjusts to each other instead of insisting that they are right and everybody else had better adjust. Learn to adjust to the rules of the environment – if you go to Rhode Island and you’re trying to drive around Providence and you realize that people just stop in the middle of busy streets, you’d better learn to adjust, or you’re going to have a bad day.*

1a. …except when it’s your time to shine. When you have that solo, you’d better stand out from the crowd, or people will be left wondering what they just heard. When you’re giving a presentation or defending your thesis or leading a discussion or whatever you have to do, it’s your time to shine, and that’s the best time to showcase your abilities.

2. Repetition makes better. There’s the old adage “practice makes perfect”, which all musicians know isn’t true. Most often, this gets modified to “practice makes better”; however, I learned that really isn’t the case. Many times I would practice until I got that lick right and then I would stop and hope it was good enough for my lesson later that day. It never was – I would always screw it up somehow. The key was that once I got it right, I had to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until I could get it right every time. This carries over a lot into my teaching. How do I explain these concepts? I can sit there and write lesson plans as much as I’d like, but actually getting in front of a class – and teaching the same class several times – has made me a better teacher. How do I learn to transcribe so quickly? By doing it a lot. 

3. Good equipment does not make you better… but it sure helps. A great trombonist will sound great on a $20,000 horn and a horn she picked up out of a dumpster. I once knew a guy who played on the oldest, rustiest, biggest piece of crap trombone I had ever seen, but he could outplay me on my Conn 88H with one hand tied behind his back.** However, sometimes your equipment can really hold you back, and if you refuse to at least try to get out of your comfort zone, you may be missing a great opportunity. If you try something and it doesn’t work for you, then at least you tried and you’re expanding your world of knowledge a little bit. Don’t conflate “best” with “most familiar”.

4. You have got to prioritize on all levels of your life. Spending six hours in a practice room eats into your schedule. Some days you have to decide which is more important, practicing or eating lunch. Other days, you may have to choose whether to sacrifice practice time or social interaction time. If it’s always one or the other, you may have to rethink your priorities on a larger scale.

5. Sometimes, you are the supporting actor in another person’s story.*** I have heard this in many incarnations, but most effectively just last year from the composer Sam Hazo. He was explaining to us that most of the band needed to play more quietly so that the melody line could be heard, and he said something to the effect of, “Sometimes you’re the star, and sometimes you’re the tree. Nobody wants the tree to steal the show; a good tree makes the star look better.” Sometimes, whether in music or at work or in a relationship, you have to be a good tree.


*based on a true story.
**not actually physically possible; I may be embellishing.
***often, if you’re a trombonist.

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concert time

Sometimes (okay, actually quite often) I play the trombone. Since I started graduate school, I’ve been playing in a quite excellent community band. The music isn’t terribly challenging — maybe a couple of licks per concert that I have to practice — but it allows me an outlet for creating music, getting social interaction, and doing something besides linguistics once in a while.

Anyway, if you’re in the Pittsburgh area, this Saturday at 2:30, the band is putting on a festival for local ensembles. Three local bands will play a few selections each, and then there will be one band made up of a mish-mash of volunteers. This “Festival Band”, as it’s called, is a pretty neat phenomenon in the adult music world — a band gets together, rehearses for a day, and puts on a concert that night. It’s an exercise in focused musicality and is a lot of fun to participate in!

So come on out — it’s free, and it’ll be good for you.

behind and below

In a recent trombone sectional for the band I play in, sectionmate P (who is a recent convert from the viola) expressed confusion at sectionleader J’s description of our need to “play behind the trumpets”.

P’s first thought, apparently, was “Of course we play behind the trumpets, we sit behind them!”

Upon further discussion, P revealed that he would prefer the preposition below there, because of the idea of a “lower volume level”.

It brings up an interesting viewpoint on how we understand musical texture as spatial positioning. I tend to use “behind” in the same way that J does — namely that when one section or melody is supposed to be prominent, I have the image that it is “stepping up” or “coming forward”, as a soloist walking out in front of an ensemble.

To say “below”, even as it implies a volume level, also (to me) means the pitch — and of course the trombones play below the trumpets, they are a lower pitched instrument! Of course, I can see how one instrument may be “above” another in importance, just as the way with “behind” indicates forward and back.

It makes me curious — are there groups of instrumentalists who regularly envision musical texture laterally (front and behind), and those who view it vertically (above and below)? Is it separated by instrument, instrument family, background in musical ensembles… or is it by region or teacher? This would be an interesting study to conduct with the right setup.

solfège and morphology

If you know anything about music, you probably know solfège. For a major scale, one can sing the notes using the syllables do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. This system was made popular by The Sound of Music. The syllables originate from a Latin hymn Ut queant laxis, from the words that fall on the associated pitches of the scale.

These syllables are used for major scales, but alternations are made when singing minor scales. The natural minor, for example, is sung do-re-me-fa-sol-lete-do. So on three notes, instead of [i] or [a], we are to sing [e] instead. As far as I can tell, these particular syllables aren’t associated with any hymns, and changing the words in Latin doesn’t seem to do anything interesting to the meanings.

One argument about why solfège changes this way is that this system emphasizes what notes are different in the minor scale, grouping them together by using the same vowel. Except that “re” also has [e], and that’s not a minor interval (even if it’s still present in a minor key).

A colleague suggested that solfège exhibits “arbitrary morphological alternation”, and a discussion ensued as to whether the lowering of the vowel is somehow “sadder” sounding than a high vowel. High vowels are associated with small things, as a sort of sound symbolism, and maybe an argument could be made regarding the “happy” sound of the major key and the associated high vowels. That doesn’t explain why “la” gets changed to “le”, though.

We might just have another interesting way that music is like language. It seems to make sense, generally, but exhibits irregularities which are hard to explain (but we try anyway!).

The extended grand piano

In addition to being an eLinguist, I’m also a musician, and so sometimes music stories catch my eye — or ear, as it may be. I heard this story on NPR this morning:

Most pianos have 88 keys. And most great piano music comes from the middle of the keyboard — only rarely do the player’s fingers venture onto the tinkly keys at the top of the keyboard, or the booming bass notes at the bottom. But a craftsman in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, thinks the instrument has room to grow; and he wants to nudge the piano out of complacent middle age. He has designed a grand with an unprecedented 102 keys.

The Stuart and Sons grand piano has 14 more keys than most, which means its lowest and highest notes live very much on the edge. Its designer, Wayne Stuart, says a few other grands can play as low as this 102-key model, but none can play as high.

“I’d hate to go back to the 88-key piano,” he says. “I couldn’t stand it. It’s too limited.”

Check out the actual article for more on why the piano has 102 keys, and the reaction to it by some composers and piano teachers. Some enjoy the new colors provided by the extremely low and extremely high notes; others think that the overall timbre of the piano is lacking that of your standard 88-key grand.

I, personally, think the piano sounds very cool, and I’d love to hear more compositions for it. I really love the sound of the very lowest notes; then again, I’ve always had a certain attraction to low pitches (hence my fascination with the bass trombone). I’m all for innovation, but I really can’t see this instrument breaking out of a very small niche. The ultimate success of this new style of piano is not in how cool the new notes sound, but in how useful they truly are. Many pianists are learning the great works by composers like Chopin and Beethoven, and people go to piano recitals to hear these famous and lovely pieces. None of these works have notes that go beyond the 88-key piano — most of them barely go beyond 70 keys.

Furthermore, on the piano, there really isn’t a lot of extra skill required to play such high or low notes. True, the player must stretch his or her arms farther, but the real trick is working the notes into the composition. For other instruments, winds in particular, playing very high or very low notes is a clear display of musical skill. This is why pieces written for winds with very high notes are usually deemed extra challenging, while most that are directed at a general musical audience are in the middle range. Performers on wind instruments can adapt the music to show their skill — take an entire piece up an octave, for example — but to do this on piano doesn’t really show the skill level of the player. Pianists have other ways of doing this. So the “playing of really high and really low notes” skill-display doesn’t translate to the piano, and requires a whole different set of behaviors in order to make use of these new extra keys.

In a linguistic connection, a friend mentioned that adding new keys to a piano is “like adding new words to English”. I beg to differ — adding new melodies in music is, perhaps, like adding new words, but adding new keys is like adding a new phonetic sound to English. Can you imagine someone deciding to insert [Φ] into English words? Would it catch on? A few people might think it’s cool, but English has gotten on quite well enough with our current phonetic inventory.

All in all, the 102-key piano is a neat idea, but one which is (unfortunately) doomed to a niche existence simply because of the nature of pre-existing music.