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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Psychology of Music Infographic: Why This Matters to You and Your Children, Your Family and The World

Okay, this particular infographic got a lot of facebook shares about a month ago, and I'm just getting around to breaking it down for you all.  I'm not sure if looking at it once (though they say that a picture's worth a thousand words) really communicates the concepts, for those of you who aren't visual learners, and because I think it's very important to grasp the information that this graphic presents, I'm going to talk about it a bit in this blog post, so that we can fully appreciate all the wonderful benefits of music, be thankful for them, and share them with others as often as possible! :) But first, if you haven't already- look at the infographic below (my commentary follows at the end).The Psychology of Music   

First of all, the most important message that is contained in this infographic isn't found at the top- it's found in the middle- where the two graphs show the importance of music in education.  These two graphs are relevant to you, even if you're not a musician, because it explains how much of a positive influence music has in life outside of music.  That's right, music is good just for the fact that you have it in your life (as evidenced by the high SAT scores of the kids who just simply took a music appreciation course- which normally consists of learning a bit of music history, but also a lot of listening to different kids of music- in fact, if it's a good course- a whole lot of music- with a whole lot of different influences), which means that you don't have to be directly making music yourself for it to have a huge positive impact in your life.  That, right there, is a fact that many lawmakers need to consider when they make choices like cutting out the music programs in schools (ahem, the state of KANSAS: enemy # 1!!), which they feel they are doing for the benefit of the students so they can do better in their other, more important subjects.  (Hello! That graph clearly shows that students who simply learn about music (not even play it!) do SO much better in their other subjects BECAUSE of their music knowledge---so, how the lawmakers can consider cutting music to be a good idea, I cannot understand.  Nonetheless, I digress. (Ha...that rhymes!)

Besides this being an ad (sort of backhandedly) for the University of Florida's music program (okay, you can't really blame them for lauding the positive aspects of the field in which they're involved!), who might have ever thought that being a Music Teacher could be characterized as 'making a difference in the world'?  I mean, okay, all of you musicians and music teachers and music lovers aside, who already know what I'm getting at, how many people do you know in your communities who would never dream of putting a Music Teacher into the same category as a UN Delegate, or a President, or a billionaire Philanthropist, or even on a smaller scale, a Doctor?  Those people are typically the sorts that come to mind when someone mentions 'making a difference in the WORLD'....., so it's pretty colossal that Music Teachers are now, because of this recent evidence presented in the graphic, able to be welcomed into that category.  In fact, I would wager to say that because of the information presented above (the fact that music positively affects a person's abstract reasoning, anger management, overall success, and ability to be compassionate and conquer difficult challenges-aka the medical student statistic), a Music Teacher has the ability, unlike the types of people I mentioned in the previous sentence, to change a person's life in not just one area, but in many important ones.

The portion about brain waves and their effect on the body and a person's psychological state isn't so well explained, so I'll try to take that apart a little now, so you can understand what they were going for there.  For instance, have you ever had the experience of listening to a guided meditation which had music in the background?  That music was specifically chosen because it helped to create more Theta waves in your brain, thereby deepening your meditation practice.  Or, how many times have we listened to Mozart's instrumental works when trying to focus?  That is because his music increases Gamma waves. Alpha waves can be produced by listening to music that relaxes you, for instance: Debussy or even something more modern like Terry Riley.  Beta waves may be created when listening to music that makes you anxious, perhaps something scary like Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, or highly atonal and discordant like Berio, or creepy like Carmina Burana (think of all the scary film music out there). You could also argue that Delta waves are produced by music since there are a number of people who listen to music to fall asleep by, and claim that it is some of their deepest sleep- so, regardless of the music (but perhaps it's something like 'smooth' jazz), it does have the ability to reach us even in sleep in a positive way.  And, these are all the subconscious effects that music has on a person's mind and mood- how wonderful that it this happens even when we might not consciously be realizing it- less mental work, and more reward, I say!  Then the graphic goes on to relate the brain wave activity to the fact that when we hear music, our brains are alerted and working in more areas than when we take part in any other activity.  It goes without saying then, that listening to music is a highly important pastime, especially if you plan on living a long life with healthy brain activity.

Finally the part of the graphic that is presented first and third, and may be the most obvious and difficult to argue with- simply because so many people have experienced firsthand the positive physical results, is the one which describes how the ear processes music (and sound in general) and transports it to the brain, and then what sorts of positive effects that music has on the brain in the realms of skills, neurological disorders improved, and healing powers- both physically and emotionally.  Haven't we all, at some time or another, noticed that when we're running or exercising we like to listen to a certain kind of music that keeps us motivated and happy?  Or, when we hear a certain piece it brings back memories of the past?  Or, how about when we have a headache and put on something soothing and the headache pain is gone or has greatly decreased after listening?  You can probably name a few pieces that you listen to when you're feeling down which always cheer you up, or conversely, when you're looking to dwell in your sorrows, a piece that always bring out the melancholy, even on a sunny day? All of these firsthand experiences plainly show us that music has direct positive effects on us in many different ways.  However, most of you knew all of this already, and those of you who didn't- well, get out there and listen to more music- and you'll soon be able to experience all of these things for yourself (I'm even excited for you! So go!!).

And, congratulations to all of you who make it a priority to involve music in your lives and the lives of those you love, as well as champion its cause in your communities on a daily basis- you are the ones who are truly changing the world- and now you've got an arsenal of facts to prove it, should anyone think otherwise! :)


Friday, August 23, 2013

Bonn Trip: Beethoven's True Identity Unveiled!

This past Saturday, a combination of nice weather and guilt (we've not been there once yet as 'tourists') inspired my boyfriend and I to take the train to Bonn and look around with inquisitive attitudes and wide-open eyes.  Well, in case you were worried, fear not- we certainly liked what we saw!  Bonn is a beautiful city located on the banks of the Rhein river, about a half an hour's train ride from Cologne (also known as "Koeln" when speaking German).  The charm and beauty of Bonn lies in the architecture of its buildings and their color palette.  I'd wager that 98% of the buildings were painted in pastel hues (light yellows, pinks, blues, greens, oranges, and various shades of ivory) and looked as if NYC's Greenwich Village was relocated to Germany- I kid you not!  Nearly all of the buildings in the center of the old part of the city ("Altstadtkern" in German) had large multi-pane windows, which were sometimes also arched or in the shape of small circles that resembled portholes, and the facades of these buildings were decorated with all the love and care that romanticism could lend to classicism.  (You'll understand hopefully what I mean when you see the photos below.)

Bonn's most famous citizen :)

the Town Hall/"Rathaus" and myself

Painted on an underpass wall! :)
Me in front of the University- formerly the palace

Although the city of Bonn was a pleasant and welcome ocular surprise to both my boyfriend and myself (we don't live in such a pretty city), we had our most meaningful experience of the day when we visited the house in which Beethoven was born and lived as a child.  We were lucky to have gotten there just 10 minutes before the next guided tour (with a human being) began, and because it didn't cost anything extra, and saved us from having to hold those annoying audio guides up to our ears, we decided to do it.  Of course, we didn't realize it at the time, but it was a great choice to make- since our tour guide, a petite and sprightly older woman, possessed insider knowledge about the museum, as well as Beethoven himself.  She possessed said knowledge because she was one of the members of the organization (the "Beethoven-Haus Verein") that founded the museum and  monetarily provides for its ongoing operation. So, our tour was quite the glimpse into Beethoven as a person, as well as his musical ascent to greatness (the first half of which was quite a bit more interesting than the second half. Just wait- you'll soon agree!).

We began our tour by finding out that Beethoven himself was born in the house where the museum is housed, for lack of a better word (ha!), and that his early years of his childhood were spent there, as well as some of his later adolescent years (as it seemed that his family moved around within the city center of Bonn, as was the fashion in those days, and they came back to this house for a period of a few years when he was older).  He was brought up in a musical family, as his Grandfather was a Tenor who sang at the home of the royal family there in Bonn, and his father was a violinist who played in the royal court orchestra.  His father, like many other musicians then and nowadays, could not make a living solely on his salary from the orchestra, so he took on private violin students.  His own little Ludwig was one of his students, and he was pleased to be able to have him perform in a public concert with another of his private students when Beethoven was 8 years old (but, much to my chagrin- his father was ever the promoter for his son- and on the flyers that announced the concert debut of the 'little musical genius' he was proclaimed to be 6 years old).  So, it is obvious that even back then it was common to do a little 'fudging of the truth' in order to make people believe that your child was a wunderkind.

Nevertheless, although he was of course pressured by his father to continue his violin playing, he still was able to remain a child by the benefit of his Grandfather's acquaintance with a more well-to-do family, the 'von Breuning's' who lived nearby. They had a daughter, Eleonore, who was close to Beethoven's age with whom he became very good friends. (She is most likely the very same Leonore he composed so many pieces for later on!) While spending time at their house, he was able to learn about the world beyond music, and he devoured their conversations on politics, language, philosophy and religion. He also learned table manners. (Ha! I'd like to know what it must have been like for him to eat dinner at home beforehand if this was judged to be necessary.) All the knowledge he learned during the time he spent with the von Breunings prepared Beethoven well for the independent and trail-blazing life he would lead later on. However, again, it was very interesting to me that Beethoven, similar to many musicians nowadays, was not able to learn all the things he needed from his family life, and learned quite a lot of what proved useful to him simply through the generosity and good will of friends.

They apparently were never quite able to squelch the jovial and childlike nature of Beethoven, however, and that proved useful to him throughout the rest of his life, as his was not one without great hardships. Our tour guide explained that his father enjoyed drinking a bit too much for his own good, and when Beethoven was still only 10 years old was made to support his family, taking over his father's seat in the court orchestra. Then, as if that weren't enough, (wearing a powdered wig and playing in fancy dress suits for hours at a time is trying for even adults, let alone a child), his greatest aspiration of being able to study composition with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna was dashed because he couldn't get the money quickly together to make the trip, and then Mozart died!

It was only from sheer luck that Beethoven met Josef Haydn on the streets of Bonn while Haydn was in town on tour, and after fervent begging, he agreed to take him on as his composition student (so, at least if he didn't get to study with Mozart, he got to study with Mozart's primary teacher). Beethoven's compositional skill and piano playing was so excellent that Haydn arranged for him to travel to Vienna to perform some of his pieces there in a series of concerts, sponsored financially by some of Haydn's friends. Of course, while Beethoven was in Vienna, his mother became very sick and died, and at the age of 20 Beethoven returned home to Bonn to bury her, take care of his younger siblings and continue his composing while looking for financial means to return to Vienna.

He eventually found new sponsors, and returned to Vienna whereupon he decided that he did not want to ever work as a court musician, like his Grandfather, or Father, or even like Mozart himself, and that he wanted to be a freelancer, and earn his own money outright based solely on the merit of his musicianship. So, he didn't take the easy road, did he? I mean, we all know nowadays how difficult freelancing still is- so he certainly deserves respect for such a bold decision. Though, through his pluck, determination, and the sheer prolific nature of his composing, he managed to attract a large group of enthusiasts for his music, and moreover, for him as a person.

He moved around a lot in Vienna like many people at the time, depending on how much money he was earning, and the season, etc., and therefore, since he didn't have servants unlike other Viennese, he was able to personally interact with his fellow citizens much more often. This, in turn, gained him respect from the bourgeois, and he became a beloved son of Vienna by all who came across his path. It was only later on, through the slow deterioration of his hearing, that he was seen with a bit of pity and callousness. Though, another interesting fact about Beethoven, because he lost his hearing over a period of many years (10 or more said the tour guide), he wrote a LOT of letters. He was, after all, only trying to protect his livelihood- as our tour guide so smartly reminded us that as an independent musician, even Beethoven would have been hired only infrequently if he were to admit that he was going deaf. So, he wrote a lot instead of talking to people.

Many of his letters are still within the vaults of the museum in Bonn, and it seems he was able to hide his hearing deficiency pretty completely up until he was nearly fully deaf. Again though, as might be a sign of his indeterminable spirit, or his desire to succeed in such a great undertaking as supporting his younger siblings on a musician's income, he never lost his sense of humor. Apparently, there are even letters within the collection of his writings where he wrote things like “Mein lieber Graf, du bist ein Schaf” (My dear Duke, you are a sheep—sadly it only rhymes in German), which of course would not have been tolerated by a Duke from anyone BUT Beethoven, I am sure. However, this also underscores the fact that he didn't take life so seriously, and he always gained the respect of those with whom he associated based on his abilities and who he was as a person, therefore he didn't have to hide his true nature, even from members of the Nobility.

The most impressive thing to me, though, was that our tour guide reminded us of how Mozart died- a genius, surely, but he was buried in a pauper's grave because of his debts.  No one came to his funeral because his extravagant way of life was non-relatable to normal people of the time, and his self-assured manner estranged Noble people from him. On the other hand, Beethoven's funeral was announced by his siblings to a small circle of friends, and instead of only 20 people showing up, news spread so quickly throughout Vienna and the surrounding area, that on the day of his funeral 20,000 people showed up! And, to put that in perspective, Vienna did not even have that many inhabitants at the time, so it can be assumed that many of his funeral guests had to travel for hours in horse-drawn carriages, simply to pay their respects.

All in all, knowing now what I know about Beethoven from this visit, I feel infinitely more in awe of him as a person, and infinitely more able to aspire to his greatness as a musician, and less intimidated by him, as it is clear now that he achieved what he did through unending devotion to his music and not solely through genius.

Monday, May 27, 2013

How Chicken Catching is a Metaphor for Singing

On Saturday of this past weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to visit a local organic produce stand, which happens to have a small farm on the premises where you can see all of the animals in their stalls.  After we had finished purchasing our produce, we took a stroll around the grounds, visiting and petting the goats, pigs, ponies, horses and cows, and it was while we were looking at the cows that we witnessed a true crisis situation unfolding right in front of our eyes.  Someone had accidentally left the door to the chicken house wide open and nearly all 500 chickens were now emerging onto the grounds outside of their house, as if they did this every afternoon.  The only thing that made us realize it was an emergency was because the workers were running around screaming and waving their hands in frustration as chicken after chicken flew, hopped or ran away from them. 

It was quickly unfolding into a full-blown catastrophe when we realized that they were calling for other people from the farm to come help them, but when we looked around we couldn't see anyone within earshot.  It was then that my boyfriend said to me, "Jul, we should go help them!" and I said feebly "But, how? I don't know the first thing about chicken catching!"  Then, after an admonishing look from him, I decided it was time to put aside my fears, and walked over to ask how I could help.  Funny enough, I was better at the whole thing than I thought, though I had no previous experience with chickens in the least, and of course, like every other challenge, it proved to be a valuable learning experience. 

The woman from the farm who was in charge of the chicken corralling mission explained to me that chickens feel most comfortable in groups and that we should use large wooden boards to herd them into smaller packs and then lead them back into the building where their coops were.  It was harder than I had imagined at first, because we had to remain totally calm and move at a very steady, slow pace during the herding, otherwise they could sense that we were rushing, or anxious, and they'd immediately scatter in all directions, thus making it necessary to start all over again with the herding.  So, we tried our best.  And it was funny!  During the process there were, of course, those couple chickens that simply decided something wasn't right about this herding situation, who turned tail and flew above the boards and out of our grasp, but sure enough, we eventually got them into one of the small groups and safely into the building.  The chickens' excited and nervous state made it imperative that we remained calm and exercise patience while herding, because they reacted immediately to each change in our collective energy.  Over the course of the process, we got better and better at herding and corralling bigger and bigger groups of chickens, and also losing fewer.  It was a hard-earned victory, but after two and a half hours, we had captured them all.  When the last chicken was back in her coop, we went to the bathroom to wash the mud and dirt off of our hands and jackets, satisfied with the help that we provided.  Later on, we found out that there were no other workers on the farm that day other than the ones who were already helping, because it was a Saturday.  So, my boyfriend was definitely right when he said we should help, and I know the farm workers were glad we did too!

Now you're probably wondering how this all ties in with some crazy metaphor about singing.  Well, I realized on Saturday that the whole process of catching, corralling and herding those chickens was very similar to learning to sing.  (Stay with me here....) At first, it seems like there's so much to do you don't even know where to start.  And, you're not sure if you should even begin, because beginning would mean that you'd open yourself up to the chance that you might fail.  Then, once you've overcome your fears about failing and have started, you realize that there are ways which make the doing of it much easier than others.  For example, when you stay calm and do things slowly and steadily more progress is made that you might have first believed.  However, once you realize which method works best for you, you keep on employing it, and eventually you gain competency and fluidity thereby increasing your pace, until you are doing things in a successful and time-efficient way every time. 

The difficulties about singing were also beautifully present in the chicken caper.  When we try to learn something too fast, or when we're not ready, normally the entire thing goes badly.  And, if you don't remain calm and concentrate solely on each task as you're completing it, you'll get lost in the details and worry about the one escaping chicken, when you should be glad that you've caught the other 7 chickens successfully.

So, when singing starts to feel like a bunch of escaping chickens, remember: they'll all get back into their coops eventually, and you can help them along by staying calm and focused!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Opera in Concert: How Much Staging Is Really Enough?

I'm writing this post today because I have seen more and more performances of Opera springing up on all sorts of stages and concert calendars, and often they are being performed 'in concert'.  I'm sure you've all seen concert performances of Opera throughout the years, and therefore I'm going to assume that you know what I'm talking about.  (If that assumption was wrong of me to make, ask me in the comments section of this post and I'll clarify.)  Anyway, I feel as a singer and budding stage director, it's important for me to examine with you the idea of performing Opera in a concert setting, so that we can find ways to make it a tad more interesting for the audience members. 

Although it could happen that most of the people in the audience are there because they just love this opera, we could also go out on a limb and suppose that there might be people in the audience who were dragged to this event by their spouse, or if they're children- by their parents, or perhaps people who just thought, "Hmm...I've got nothing to do this evening, let's see if this might be interesting."  Therefore, for those unwilling or potentially unwitting audience members, we as performers have to offer a little something more than just beautiful singing and stylistically appropriate interpretation.  Thus I give you: acting and stage direction!

Now you're probably thinking, "Wait a second! Concert opera is supposed to have no stage direction- that's why it's being performed in a concert setting! Duh!" To which I say, "Excuse me, but I beg to differ!"  Just because the singers may be performing on the edge of a symphonic stage, positioned on either side of the conductor and in front of the orchestra while sometimes holding scores, or propping them on music stands, that doesn't mean that we must divest ourselves from the dramatic action of the opera itself.  Who ever said it had to be that boring?!

It might be good for us to take this opportunity to address what's been done already in terms of 'Concert Opera' and isn't really working.  There's of course the obvious: no stage direction at all, where all the singers dutifully act as if glued to their music and stand up and sit down as if they were puppets in a marionette theater piece.  Despite what sorts of things you might find amusing as an audience member, even if the portly Tenor's chair makes a loud creaking sound each time he resumes his position in it, whereupon the Conductor gives him a death stare, over time this is surely not the most diverting form of musical enjoyment.

There's also the strange way that I've seen a lot of duets performed in concert opera settings where the Soprano and Baritone are sitting or standing next to one another in the lineup on stage and when they sing their duet together they just sort of gesture to the other person with their eyes or vaguely look as if they're going to move towards the other person but never quite manage to actually do it.  This is basically the ultimate cliffhanger for the audience because the entire time they're singing the duet you're thinking to yourself "Are they going to do something? Is he going to embrace her? Is she going to slap him? What's going to happen?!?" and after a while your brain is about to explode until, at the end, they finally do nothing at all.  How disappointing!

Then there's the possibility that we encounter the Tenor and Soprano in a semi-staged performance of a love duet.  I can hear the "Ooohs and Aaaahhs" in your brain already!  And yes, it will of course be gorgeously sung, although the one thing that it will be lacking is staging that works.  For example, there are two very beautiful and talented singers who perform together quite often in these sorts of operatic duets whom you may know and whom I won't directly mention (This link will though!).  They are obviously top-notch singers; it is clear from listening to their beautiful voices that their technique is flawless, plus they are both very beautiful people from a purely physical perspective.  At first you find yourself maybe thinking things like "Wow! He's gorgeous! And boy, she's beautiful! Sheesh! Seems like their voices are amazing come some people get all the talent?" (or something along those lines....) but, then doesn't your mind start to wonder things like "Why isn't she looking more sincere while she's singing? Why is he only convincingly acting when he's not singing? And why, when they're both singing together, do I find it hard to look at them and believe them? I want more and I want better!" (or, again, something along those lines...)  Maybe it's because they both look as if their heads are going to explode and could care less about the love they're supposedly proclaiming for one another, or maybe it's because we just want more as audience members when the singers are so vocally top-notch, but these sorts of performances somehow still leave us wanting.  Of course, some would argue that you simply can't smile while singing a high and long note, even if that's what the character in this circumstance would otherwise do, had the composer not written such complex music!  And, you would be partially right.  Though, there is more to it.  

Now, I know that to those of you who truly love classical singing, my comments might seem a tad harsh.  And truthfully enough, they are meant to be provocative in order to remind us all of the fact that we can do better as performers!  I certainly think that there are enough performers out there who are really very good, but I don't think that there are enough of them in concert settings who really go the extra mile.  I'm talking about making the experience a fabulous one for the audience members, and offering them something they wouldn't see or hear elsewhere.  After all, it's the job of an artist (even when they may have to take the reigns as stage director in these types of situations) to create art that reaches audiences in ever-changing and exciting new ways. 

I can hear already the commentary in your head saying something like "Well, I would be able to do that if I just had more time to prepare the material better!"  To which I say: "Brilliant!", but seemingly not cost-effective when we live in a world where you often have only minimal time to prepare, and are expected to provide maximum output when you perform.  This line of reasoning leads most singers to the conclusion: "So, then because I'm a singer, I better make sure the singing's the best I can do, and I can maybe not worry so much about the acting- it will come in the moment from the adrenaline."  WRONG!  So many singers have thought those very things and then when it came time to perform, their acting was sub-par or perhaps even non-existent.  I know that it's hard to perform consistently at your best because of the time crunch.  No matter who you are and what your financial situation is, as a singer you've probably been in the situation before where you've either had to work, which took up a lot of the time you'd be normally using to practice, or you simply had other life obligations (e.g. a new baby, having a family in general, moving, caring for elderly parents) and whatever the case may be, I know you simply don't have all the time in the world to practice. 

Therefore, I'd like to make the case that if you use your available practice time for incorporating world-class acting into your most-likely-already-excellent singing (let's face it, many people are simply perfectionists and obsess about silly things which no normal audience member would even notice as being 'wrong') you will have more overall success as a performer.  Think about it: if we've learned anything from the world we live in today, we're a culture where the visual aspect of things is extremely important.  So, no matter how much emphasis you personally place on your singing vs. acting (15% acting, 85% singing, for example), the average audience member will reverse that ratio in his or her mind, and if you aren't doing much of anything besides poorly improvising the acting in the moment, then what do you suppose your chances of being lauded as an excellent performer by the audience might be?  You get the picture.

Ultimately, you will have to make the decision for yourself whether or not to take a chance in testing out my theory and perhaps changing your way of preparing and performing, but I would like to wager that if you do, you won't be disappointed.  In fact, if there are any of you who are reading this and have contrary or similar thoughts or advice on this topic, I'd love to read about it in the comments section below, and I'm sure the other readers would too!