Music and Accessability.

In musical circles, we occasionally discuss music and accessibility.  Under this umbrella topic, we have at least three different definitions that can apply:

1. Accessibility to hearing music.  This includes many things, like music on the radio, on the internet, as well as in public performances in traditional and non-traditional venues.

2.  Accessibility to understanding music. Some pieces of music are considered easier to comprehend on its first hearing.

3. Accessibility to making music. This includes a wide range, from learning how to sing or play an instrument for oneself to performing professionally in concert venues, playing alone, or collaborating with others.

I had so many thoughts about this topic because of a recent blog post written by composer Aaron Gervais. His post is worthwhile reading, addressing the second kind of accessibility, accessibility to understanding music. There are many points with which I agree in his essay.  However, many spinoff discussions seem to meander into the territories of the other kinds of accessibility, such as simplification of programming or performance.
In Milwaukee, we have been performing in traditional and non-traditional venues, from coffee shops to underpass parks in order to get listeners outside of our regular supporters. We are working on more non-traditional venues to continue that work. Both formal and informal education happens at performances as well as outreach events. Additionally, we work to continue educating ourselves by pushing ourselves in our practice, studying with others, and listening to critical feedback offered in our circle. By actively pursuing more information, better performing, and aiming at a wider audience, we hope to make our music as accessible as possible without watering it down.

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Music and Positive Aging.

Music can affect people of all ages, and it can often be used as our rebalancing and recalibrating agent as we navigate the changes of life.

My fellow Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship classmate, Brenda Starr Woods, introduced me to the term “positive aging,” as she focuses on encouraging positive aging through teaching people of all ages tap dance.  Particularly seeing her work with seniors has been nothing less than inspiring.  For most of my life, I have respected and honored my elders, and the concept of positive aging takes a further step to enliven their lives by encouraging participation in activities that invigorate them.

As usual, such encouragement in music comes in different shapes or forms.
1. Therapeutic: Music therapy as a discipline is something that some don’t take seriously, but take a look at this clip that shows the fantastic effect music has on those who have been affected by dementia.

2.  Participatory/community: There are groups, ensembles, and clubs that invite older musicians to play or sing together to make them feel part of something and to create a feeling of community. In many places, there are community choirs through senior centers and music clubs.

3. Performance: There are some ensembles made up of seniors that perform on a regular basis for fun, for profit, or like this group called “The Merry Musicians” – to bring awareness to a particular issue.

from  Marianne Breneman, Clarinetist

from Marianne Breneman, Clarinetist

4. Professional Development: Many life-long musicians continue their practice on their instruments or voices simply because they understand the concept of life-long learning. The response Pablo Casals offered when asked why he continues to practice at age 90 (“Because I think I’m making progress”)  fits this well.

I think that we can develop many more opportunities for seniors in the future. I have in mind some collaborative studies with grandparents and grandchildren to work together in learning an instrument or appreciating music.  Creating chamber music gatherings for people of all ability levels can encourage musical involvement for as long as possible.  Those are just a few ideas for music’s current and upcoming role in positive aging.

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What can we do together?

Though we tend to do much of our work independently, we can accomplish great things when we work together.  This holds true in music as well as in other disciplines. In music, we have examples of this in orchestras, choirs, and other ensembles.  In more recent years, musicians have been reaching out to audiences in different ways other than the traditional concert program format.  Flash mobs have been increasing in popularity, for example.  Take a look at this one that is, essentially, good PR for a Spanish bank.  It is effective at engaging the crowd.  Of course, much had gone into the planning of that particular flash mob, but on the flip side, check out this impromptu performance given by musicians of the Philadelphia  Orchestra on an airplane that was delayed.

It is important that we encourage younger folks to become engaged in music, whether in attendance of the example events given above, or to play or sing on their own. Learning how to play an instrument establishes focus and critical thinking skills, as well as appreciation for music, and it creates more fine musicians. Such fantastic possibilities abound when one combines the work of a leader or facilitator with the willingness to learn and work of students.  See, for example the excellent job that the Sinnam Elementary School Recorder Ensemble has done with the Variations on “La Folia” for Recorder Orchestra. Can you imagine what those musicians will be like in ten years? They already captured the energy of that piece so well now!

An area that I believe needs more work is that with older musicians.  There are programs out there that involve making music for senior citizens, with the occasional attempt to involve them directly IN the music-making. See, for instance, a program in the UK called “The Smiling Sessions” in which the bands play for the people and get some of the musically-inclined residents involved in playing along with them.

In the upcoming months, I’m moving Harmony Hall to Milwaukee, with the hope to get people of all generations to get a chance to play music with others. In addition to that, I’m collaborating with Brett Lipshutz on a baroque music performance, education, and professional development collective.  Playing together, engaging others in the music we love in different kinds of spaces to change up the typical concertizing format are some of our aims.  Working with other disciplines to create new opportunities is also a possibility.  I look forward to seeing what we can develop together in my home state.

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Finding harmony in conflict.

Prevention is the best medicine.  At least, for most of my life, that was my take on any kind of conflict or confrontation, both in music and life in general. In addition to attempting the role as peacemaker, I also wished for a way to make all conflicts cease, confrontations few, and paradoxes eliminated.

Of course, this is impossible. Trying to bypass inner and outer conflict creates its own kind of stress that is, in itself, unnecessary. Recently, Joss Whedon gave a commencement address that explains that our inner contradictions create our individual identities. Parker Palmer speaks of living a divided life, coming together into one’s authentic self in several of his writings, including The Courage to Teach. Palmer takes part of a Rilke poem in an online article to work with those contradictions to come to your own understanding:

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out

until they span the chasm between two

contradictions. . . For the god wants to know

himself in you.

This naturally extends into the practices of music- and art-making, as well.  Having a discussion with fellow musicians about tempo or execution of phrasing and style can sometimes resolve into a satisfying result. Differences that arise between teacher and student often create a learning experience for both. And conflict in the composition, performance, and reception of music has the potential to be stirring and thought-provoking.  The May 29, 1913 premiere of “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky  comes to mind; the dissonant and angular music combined with Nijinsky’s shocking choreography brought the audience to a cacophony of hisses and loud comments. What was such a hotly contested piece is still a popular and often-discussed piece within orchestral repertoire.

By accepting and working with such conflicts, as well as working with imperfections in ourselves, we have the capability of creating something splendid for the world to receive.  Beethoven is often cited as an example of a composer making the best of his circumstances.  Perhaps one of my favorite  poems that demonstrates taking one’s adversities and running with it is a poem by Lisel Mueller, called “Monet refuses the operation.”

Doctor, you say there are no halos
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Though Monet ultimately consented to cataract surgery in 1923, Mueller’s imagined monologue shows us how the artist’s talents, skills, obsessions, and challenges came together to make something beautiful.

Take a moment to consider what you could create with your collection of conflicts and contradictions.

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Of possibilities.

At times, people say to me that they wish they had as much musical talent as I have in my little finger. I know the correct answer to that is “Thank you,” but I tend to jump to explaining a few things to them.

1. Talent is usually defined as a natural ability of superior quality.  If anything, I know that I have skills that I needed to acquire, as many things in playing music did not come naturally to me.

2. If I could progress as far as I have in music, the possibilities for you, too, are endless.

Often, this is met with an eye-roll.  I believe this happens because so many do not realize what goes into the daily practice and the learning (and MAINTAINING) of technique in music performance.  If one has a teacher that understands some things are much easier than others for some musicians versus others, it is a little easier; however, many musicians I know have had at least one teacher who was naturally gifted, and s/he could not understand why the student couldn’t just mimic the proper way to play.  For those of us who had to figure that out ourselves, there is an extended period of time of tearing down the problematic parts of our playing, followed by the tedious trial and error to find what works in rebuilding our sound or technique.

In the end, though, it’s worth it.  Practicing allows us to learn and hone a new skill that we can use thereafter.  Musically speaking, it is easier to express oneself when one has the technical foundation to have the flexibility in tone color, finger dexterity, and dynamic expression.

Why stop there?  The problem with the perception of the people wishing for talent is that they are looking at the wrong thing. It’s not about what you were born with.  It’s about what you are willing to work on, to learn, to think differently.  What are you willing to try?  What are you willing to change in your perception of yourself and the world?Speaking of yourself and the world…and harmony (which is forever a theme in the writings and work of

Speaking of yourself and the world…and harmony (which is forever a theme in the writings and work of Harmony Hall for All, musically-related or not), I would like to ask you to think about what you can do to help people, whether they have suffered terrible losses in the Oklahoma or Kansas tornadoes, or if they are people in your city or town who have a hard time getting by.  We are living in a time in which there is plenty of food and help and resources to go around for all.  We only need to relearn how to connect with others to find out the best then we can do to help them.  If you wish to give money, do your homework at the Charity Navigator to find the resource that is most helpful.

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Redefining a Life in Music.

The New York Times published an article in 2004 called “The Juilliard Effect – Ten Years Later”. It describes in detail the difficulties in becoming a professional musician, as is currently defined by our society.  The concept of “making it” as a musician usually means to have a permanent place in a professional ensemble, likely an orchestra, or to be able to acquire enough freelancing gigs to get by on music alone.

Because of that definition, many musicians are starting to panic when witnessing the number of orchestras shutting down.  And those musicians who thought teaching in academia would be their bread and butter are likely disappointed to see how hiring practices have changed.

The grim scenes in orchestral and academic circles as well as this definition of “making it” leads many musicians to feeling ashamed of failing to achieve their classically-defined positions.  Despite hard work to improve technique and polish musicality, and despite rigorous graduate studies, they lack the spot on an orchestral roster or on an academic faculty.

Of course, not everyone can end up winning the ideal job in such circumstances these days, but it is possible to redefine a life in music. Multiple articles have been written fairly recently on the possible ways to build sustainable music careers. Many conservatories like Juilliard as well as universities see this change and have developed entrepreneurship curricula in their programs. The importance of a creative economy is growing, and some states are encouraging artists to develop a place for themselves that will also improve the cultural and educational environment.

The best action one can take to create a life in music is to ask oneself what s/he can offer to the world?  What kind of interdisciplinary work can be done with music skills and something that could pair well with it? Above all, fail forward.  Learn what works and what does not, then try again.  Consider what one’s contribution in music can make in the lives of others. This makes a life in music for the musician and creates and opportunity to put music into others’ lives.

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Music, Language, and the Mind.

Rather than prescribing particular composers or genres of music to improve one’s thinking, perception, or motivation, I recommend learning about the place of making music in developing a more flexibly resilient mind.  Dr. Jon Lieff writes quite well about this in his “Music Training and Neuroplasticity”  blog entry.  I noticed, in particular, his descriptions of the development of music and language in the brain, in which both subjects overlap quite a bit in one’s formative years, but later become more localized or contained to specific parts of the brain.  This led me to think about my own issues in music, language, and the brain.

I have been dealing with language issues for several years now while the music part of me has been functioning quite well.  That means that playing or singing has not been a problem, but often telling someone where to put their music when done with it (on the table), or writing to describe something can be a challenge.  In some ways, I have always struggled with language, but not to the extent that I had after learning the German language when I was overseas.  Migraines, frequent heavy bloody nose issues, and stress accompanied these problems and made life more difficult.  While the first two issues have been mostly solved with amino acid supplementation, the stress and language problems remain, though they seem to improve little by little.

For quite some time, I have been looking for ways I can help myself improve.  Continuing with my musical work is important, and it is critical that I work on learning new things within music to practice thinking about or reframing music performance or teaching methodologies in different ways. I have determined weak aspects of my thinking approach through the application of the Herrmann Whole Brain Model at the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship, and I focus on improving them.  Synthesizing material in the way that neurologist Dr. Sandra Chapman recommends has improved my use of facts and details in creating a larger vision statement that is complete and thorough.  Rather than multi-tasking and speed-reading constantly, I needed to take a step back and learn how to process the information to create well-supported conclusions.  It is just the first of thousands of steps in a journey to get my mind back on track.  But I am grateful to have found a path that is helpful.

After reading Dr. Lieff’s essay, a study of music exposure and intelligence done by Frances Raucher, and others like it, I was ready to jump to the conclusion that we need to advocate learning foreign languages, as well as music at an early age, because it would encourage the development of new neural pathways and neuroplasticity. But another article about age and learning a second language altered that slightly, Rather than placing the blame of language learning difficulty on aging and decline in myelination, recognize the importance of motivation, learning environment, teaching methods, and encouragement.  And I believe there is much to come in the way of learning about improving or correcting physical and mental health issues with a newly-discovered protein reset that restores myelination.
So start where you are.  Whether a young, middle-aged, or elderly person, you can improve your thinking by beginning now with consistent work on music and/or language.  By focusing on weak points,  mono-tasking, taking the time to ask questions, synthesizing information by reframing one’s perception, and by being willing to make mistakes, we can do better.

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Music and Healing.

Often, when I mention the concept of music and healing, I get reactions that are informed by music therapy, alternative or energy healing approaches, or The Mozart Effect, written by Don Campbell, published in 1997. However, there is a much larger umbrella that I wish for these terms in coming together, particularly through the work of a community using music in some way to facilitate some kind of healing.

For instance, this evening, I will be part of a performance of Handel’s “Foundling Hospital Anthem” at Beloit College.  This piece was something he had composed and performed for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital, which opened in 1739 in London to care for babies and children left in the streets to die.  From handelhouse.org:

Stimulated by “motives of the purest benevolence and humanity” (Charles Burney), Handel’s involvement began in 1749 with a concert in aid of the hospital’s chapel building work. In 1750, he donated the chapel organ and from that year onwards Messiah was performed under his direction on an annual basis for the Hospital’s benefit. It is estimated that within a decade Handel had generated income of £10,000.

(To hear the piece, check out the Academy of Ancient Music’s performance.)

Today, in a completely different way, Favio Chavez in Paraguay heals the broken spirits in his community by turning landfill trash into musical instruments.  Those who use his instruments make up a Landfill Harmonic.  Take a look at his Kickstarter campaign here.

Perhaps one of the most common music and healing models out there is the benefit concert or fundraiser that goes toward the costs of one who is ailing.  Most recently, I learned that Ryan Anthony, a fellow Cleveland Institute of Music alumnus and current principal trumpet of the Dallas Symphony, has been struggling with myeloma. To help raise money for his costs not covered by insurance, an oboe studio at SMU decided to create a fundraising project. One can join in helping by donating either to the online effort at Crowdrise or at their benefit concert in May.

In what creative way can you help others, either individually or as a community, heal?

It might be as simple as sharing your music with neighbors or with local nursing home residents.  Some may see such sharing as a little pick-me-up in their day, and others may take it as something that makes a major difference.  In this light, read Leonard Bernstein’s words (thanks to Lisa’s Clarinet Shop for posting this quote):
“It’s the artists of the world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the ‘Not-Yet’ into reality. All right, how do you do it? Like this: find out what you can do well, uniquely well – that’s what studying is for, to find out what you can do particularly well. You. Unique. And then do it for all you’re worth. And I don’t mean ‘Do your own thing,’ in the hip sense. That’s passivity, that’s dropping out, that’s not doing anything. I’m talking about doing, which means (another old-fashioned phrase) serving your community, whether that community is a tiny town or six continents. And there’s no time to lose, which makes your position twice as difficult because you’re caught in a paradox. You see, you’ve got to work fast, but not be in a hurry. You’ve got to be patient, but not passive. You’ve got to recognize the hope that exists in you, but not let impatience turn it into despair. Does that sound like double-talk? Well, it is, because the paradox exists. We’ll help you as much as we can – that’s why we’re here – but it is you who must produce it, with your new atomic minds, your flaming, angry hope, and your secret weapon of art.”

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Music and Gardening.

Tomato plants

It’s that time of year in which the days are getting longer and warmer, and gardeners are beginning their work on gardens.  (At least, that is the timetable here in Illinois and Wisconsin.  I know some of you in warmer areas have been tending to your gardens for awhile.)

I started to dip my little toe into gardening in 2010 after my grandfather had passed.  He was my reading buddy, and we would often read about improving the environment and methods of growing food that were effective and natural.  We always couched the terms of beginning a garden in the terms of “some day,” which was usually contingent upon me figuring out how to have more time to do it.  After he died, I realized that I could some-day-away pretty much everything I wanted to do with my life.  So I began a very small, very chaotic vegetable garden with the help of my mother.

Funny thing happens with things like vegetable gardens:  when one goes to a farmer’s market to buy the food, it seems like such a happy, easy-going environment, and it is easy to romanticize the process of gardening.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I fell prey to that, despite the fact that I grew up on a farm and witnessed the hard work that goes into keeping everything up and running there.

But there is a lot of hard work: preparing the soil, growing plants from seed (we started doing that in 2011),  getting the little seedlings used to being outside (and hoping there are no great windstorms, as we had one year, that killed off almost half our plants), watering, weeding, watching for pests and other plant problems, and then, if it all works out well enough, there is a harvest.

It is at this point when those of us who grow our own veggies know it’s worth it, because all of that hard work, including many failures, results in something colorful, tasty, and nutritious.  If done well, we have enough to enjoy right away and also have plenty to can or freeze.  And there’s something about it — perhaps, in addition to great food, also the time spent with loved ones outside, playing in the dirt — that brings happiness.

And so it is with music, as well.  It is so important to do the hard work of learning the rules of music and technique of an instrument.  At times, this can be a less than thrilling experience, but later, it all comes together into something well worth doing.  There is a sense of life-long learning by doing that comes with the territory of music-making as well as gardening, and every year, as we learn a little more and reap the benefits of growing vegetables or playing music, we get a sense of joy and satisfaction from our work and the resulting accomplishments.

Of course, there is some sense of skepticism.  When I began gardening, my grandmother had a flashback to her life as a child working her tail off in her mother’s large garden that fed their family of eight.  She thought I was crazy.  But after a few years, she helps us with planting the seeds to start growing the tomato plants indoors, and she is already making great plans for the tomatoes as well as cucumbers and asparagus.  Likewise, I have seen music students, especially those with attention or mental challenges, go from plodding through their elementary work to excitedly planning the music for their recital that they plan on playing in a few places because of their interest and the demand of family and friends in different locations.

Yes. There is hard work in creating music and growing plants, but with a little patience and practice, what we learn and receive along the way is worth it.

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Days of Discordance.

Many words have been spoken, written, and electronically shared about the bombing at the end of yesterday’s Boston Marathon.  Anger, sadness, and fear have accompanied gruesome photos taken at the scene.  In contrast, there have been some thoughtful sentiments offered in light of this tragedy. It is likely that you have seen at least some of them, but in the event that you haven’t, check them out.

From George Takei’s Facebook page, his status yesterday:

When tragedies strike, heroes rise to meet the challenge: the first responders seen sprinting toward the blast site, the runners who changed course to run to local hospitals to donate blood, and the fine citizens of Boston who at once opened their homes to marathoners in need of a place to stay. When we come together, we cannot be brought down.

Also, check out his blog.

Here is Patton Oswalt’s reaction on Facebook.

From both of them, we learn through a horrible event how many fantastic people are out there willing to run toward the chaos to help.  For those people, and for the EMTs or First Responders, we are grateful.

Parker Palmer encourages us to think about what we have that we appreciate, and what can we do with it to improve our circumstances?

Today, Boston Art Museums opened their doors with free admission, suggesting a museum could be a“place of respite” at this time.  For some people, music can offer a similar respite.

Yes, horrible things happen in the world. In addition to the three deaths resulting from the Boston Marathon bombing, many more perished in Iraq due to bombs there, and in Somalia, due to a bomb there. So many people, civilians and military personnel alike, die in conflicts.  I am not advocating any kind of sugar-coating reality. I merely suggest living life as fully as possible, despite the fear, while we still have the chance to do so. Help others, honor those who have done good deeds as well as memorialize those who have died because of the cruel actions of others. Recognize the warning signs early in those who might do harm to others, so we may help them change their course.

Contemplate Palmer’s reflection, and consider Rumi’s words:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

Let us do what we can to make music, dance, write, paint, draw, enjoy what we can, and help others to better their lives while enriching ours, and building trust. May we come together with others to do whatever we possibly can do to improve this world together. I hope that, someday, we will get closer to 8-year-old Martin Richard’s plea:  No more hurting people. Peace.

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