Perhaps you've seen this television commercial for 5-Hour-Energy. It demands an answer to the question, "What is focus?" then goes on to define it for the viewer. "It's getting in the zone and getting things done and with 5-Hour Energy you're sure to have focus all day long." I certainly am not promoting 5-Hour-Energy drinks. I've never consumed one, and honestly, those energy concoctions scare me a little bit! But the advertisement made me think about FOCUS, how important it is in all areas of life and how it relates specifically to our success as musicians. Intuitively I know that being "in the moment" is a good thing. I also know that the present moment can be an elusive place, and once found, a difficult place in which to stay. In our current fast-paced culture of excess stimulation and multi-tasking mania I wonder if many people actually experience being "in the zone" on a regular basis … or ever. I am most likely to be in the flow while immersed in some creative process … putting together a quilt or a photo book or a tune arrangement. What surprises me, though, is how easy it is to fall out of the flow when I'm in the act of playing a tune. The voices in my head keep up a steady stream of commentary that is very distracting. The thoughts run quite the gamut!
Useful tidbits such as where I am in the music and what's coming next.
Useless opinions - positive and negative - about how everything is going.
Random junk such as the grocery list or the weird noise outside the window.
I could make a LONG list of distracting thoughts. How about you?
I recently came across a blog written by Tara Gaertner. She writes about training the musical brain, and she should know. She's a PhD neuroscientist … and a piano teacher. What a combo! The blog is not as active as it was a few years ago, but I enjoyed reading some of her earlier posts, particularly the series of writings that address how important focused attention is for music practice and performance. If you like to know the science behind how the brain works and how all that plays into what we're trying to do as musicians you'll enjoy her easy-to-read essays. Here are a few blurbs taken directly from the "Training the Musical Brain" blog to whet your appetite. Follow the links to read more.
"When we perform music, we need to use both implicit memory and explicit memory.Many pianists have had the experience of playing the piano using implicit memory only; it seems like the hands can play the piece without any input from the brain!That’s actually not true: unconscious parts of the brain like the cerebellum and basal ganglia are telling the motor cortex what commands to send to the muscles, but it feels like the brain is not involved because these are unconscious processes.The downside of this automatic type of playing is that often pianists find that if they start thinking about what they’re playing, they make a mistake and are unable to continue playing the song.What’s happening here is that the conscious parts of our brain are sending commands to the motor cortex that interfere with the commands coming from the cerebellum, and so we get mixed up.The solution to this problem is that we should not let the performance of a piece get too automatic.How can we accomplish this?The best way is to form explicit memories of the piece alongside the implicit memories.For instance, you could analyze the chord structure of the piece and memorize that, so you would know what chord you should be playing at each moment.Or you could form an explicit memory of what notes you should be playing at the beginning of every fourth bar (or each phrase).Or whatever works for you.The key thing is to at least have some explicit memory of the song, even if it is just every few bars, that way if you lose your automatic train of thought, you have an explicit landmark to go back to, so you can get back into the song and continue playing." http://trainingthemusicalbrain.blogspot.com/2011/10/explicit-and-implicit-memory-in.html "… focused attention is a critical component of music practice ... in general, we should focus on improving the sounds we produce." http://trainingthemusicalbrain.blogspot.com/2011/10/attention-in-music-practice.html "You might think (and we often do think this) that simple repetition is enough to make us learn.If you play a tune enough times, you’ll eventually know it well, whether or not you were paying full attention while you were playing it, right?Well, yes and no.You can learn something up to a certain level of proficiency without giving your full attention, but it takes a lot longer, and you won’t master it to the same level you could if you were really focusing on learning." http://trainingthemusicalbrain.blogspot.com/2011/10/deliberate-practice-and-role-of.html Bio from the blog: Tara Gaertner leads a double life. As "Dr. Tara", she is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, teaching Neuroanatomy in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. She holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Texas in Houston. As "Ms. Tara", she is a piano teacher to young children, offering Music for Young Children classes for beginners, and private lessons for older students. She has two school-aged children of her own.
"Remember always: when a song stops it leaves a certain quality to the atmosphere - of the absence. It is no more the same. The atmosphere has changed completely because the song existed and then the song disappears... now the absence of the song. Watch it - the whole existence is filled by the absence of the song. And it is more beautiful than any song because it is the song of the silence." ~ Osho
Attention: Trapezoids of the Triangle
Looking for a local hammered dulcimer workshop? A little inspiration as we await the coming of spring? New tunes? New ideas? New music buddies?
Check This Out … Sue Wilson will be teaching a workshop for novice / early intermediate players, "Tunes People Know - and Maybe You Should, Too!" on Sunday afternoon, March 9, 1:30 - 4:00pm at the Community of Christ Church, 912 West Chatham Street, Cary. The workshop will be taught in place of the monthly HD Slow Jam. All are welcome to join the fun! This will be the 4th annual "winter" workshop hosted by the Slow Jam group and taught by Sue. This year, look forward to using a couple of popularly well-known tunes to practice arranging ideas, with some emphasis on syncopation. Sheet music for the basic melody of the tunes will be provided prior to the workshop to those who preregister. Fee: $30 For more information, or to preregister, contact Viola Suddaby or Sue Wilson.
The winter 2014 volume of Dulcimer Players News landed in my mail box this week. As usual, I sat down to quickly peruse the entire magazine to see what treasures might be in store, lingering here and there as my mood dictated. I saw my friend, Nat West, is looking to start a dulcimer playing children's group in Florida. John Keane offers insight into the difference between playing and practicing. Deb Porter is encouraging folks to find their singing voice. But my favorite article this time was written by Stephen Humphries, "Rhythm, Accents, and Syncopation: Putting the Emphasis on the Right Syllable."
I've had the chance to take several classes with Stephen in recent years. A great teacher and an impressive performer … he's a percussionist who really knows how to handle the hammers! And guess what? He's one of the featured instructor-performers at this year's Winston Salem Dulcimer Festival, May 2 - 3. If you haven't yet made plans to go, what are you waiting for?
But I digress. Let's get back to the article. Last year, I taught a class myself at Winston Salem Dulcimer Festival. The focus was syncopation. The students were challenged. I was not surprised. I have found that syncopation itself, and accenting specific notes in general are common areas of difficulty for all of my students. So I was interested to read what Stephen had to say. I really like the way he described how he thinks about hitting a note in order to accent it. I highlighted this paragraph and have been reading it verbatim to all of my students this week. Seriously! Different situations have come up in every lesson that have called for this insight:
"I prefer to think about accenting (or emphasizing) notes by hammer height rather than force. It allows my grip to stay more relaxed and the notes to flow more smoothly. In fact, sometimes it is even better to think about lowering the hammers on non-accented notes, or de-emphasizing these notes, to get the desired effect of an accent. An accent only needs to be one level louder than all the notes around it to stand out." ~ Stephen Humphries
Check the article yourself for all the details, plus a page full of exercises. And maybe I'll see you in one of Stephen's classes in Winston Salem!
Read more about Stephen Humphries on his website: "Stephen Humphries is a national hammered dulcimer champion, freelance percussionist, and music educator. While regularly performing and teaching at dulcimer and folk festivals around the country, Stephen also presents educational programs for hammered dulcimer and percussion in elementary, middle, and high schools. Additionally, Stephen composes music for the hammered dulcimer and other percussion instruments and shares this music through his performances and workshops. In 2011, he was awarded a Make Work Grant from CreateHere (a Chattanooga, Tennessee arts organization) for projects fusing hammered dulcimer and percussion through the use of technology. Stephen is also an artist/educator for Innovative Percussion, Inc. "
I'm a born and bred mid-westerner so I know what big snow is. I've done my share of laughing at the southern snow mentality. But after living in central NC for 30+ years I have developed an appreciation for the gift of a snow day or two … or three! Nobody's going anywhere, and as long as the power grid holds it's a great stay-cation! For us dulcimer players it's the perfect excuse to settle in to some nice long practice sessions.
Today the sun is out. At 10am the temperature has already climbed to 47 degrees! The big meltdown has begun. Back to business as usual. Check This Out … the view from my front door, once again. It's lovely to see the sun shining on snow with blue sky above!
No lessons today … or tomorrow … or anytime in the very near future. Snow + ice + more snow makes for treacherous roadways. Some folks got caught in traffic grid-lock as everyone streamed out of schools and work places at the same time to beat the weather home … NOT!
Here's the view from my front door, taken while the snow was still falling:
The good news? Unexpected time to play and practice the dulcimer! I do hope the power grid will hold. Y'all stay safe and warm.
Check This Out … I don't think I could keep a "straight" face long enough to pull this off. Very entertaining version of one of Paganini's violin concerts. Check it out: http://www.wimp.com/performedexpressions/
My students realize very quickly that it's difficult to look at music AND watch where you play at the same time. What is it about the hammered dulcimer that makes this so hard?
The hammered dulcimer is not a linear instrument. The player must determine cross-over points in order to stay in a particular key. Bridge and valley crossings are not obvious on the printed page of music. They must be worked out. On top of that, sometimes when notes are moving UP the music staff (up in pitch) the player's hands must move over and DOWN, and sometimes when notes are moving DOWN the staff (down in pitch) the player's hands must move over and UP. That will mess with your mind.
The hammered dulcimer has duplicated notes. Choreographing a tune to the instrument is always one of the first things to do while working out hammer patterns and making a plan for play. Again, where to play a particular note is not obvious on the printed page.
The hammered dulcimer is not regularly played with separate hands as in playing a keyboard. While "hand-separation" … i.e. one hand plays the treble clef and the other plays the bass clef ... is a technique used in playing the hammered dulcimer, it is not the standard method of play. Hands are typically integrated, working together to perform left hand/right hand combinations within the melody line and including any added harmony ideas.
Finally, the hammered dulcimer is a visual instrument. There is no tactile connection between the player and the instrument. The player never touches the instrument. (OK, well, maybe sometimes we will pluck or bend a string for effect.) Typically, our hands hold hammers which are suspended in the air above the instrument. We're just hoping against hope that the correct string will be struck when that hammer comes down! Players train their hands, ears, and brains to recognize patterns and intervals. We develop muscle memory. We STILL must have the visual connection.
Reading for the hammered dulcimer does get easier with time and practice. Written music is a fantastic resource and memory tool. Reading music (notes and rhythms) is very helpful in learning tunes and keeping track of tunes and arrangement ideas you want to remember. But the bottom line is: In order to play the hammered dulcimer with fluidity and musicality you're going to have to memorize what you play. The sooner you get away from the sheet of music, the better.