Crystal Adventures

64 Arts
Water Glasses

My practice set-up on the bar.

It’s been kinda fun having a bunch of my glasses pulled out where I can make them make sound at a moment’s notice. I haven’t broken out the tuner, yet, but the sounds aren’t horrible–though they are more akin to misty mood music and not any sort of recognizable tune.

A few things I’ve learned so far:

  • The thicker the wall of the bowl, the harder it is to get sound. The case of 12 wine glasses I thought would be great is just too thick to work for this, but my pinot noir glasses work great!
  • The heavier the stem and base of the glass, the better it stays put. My champagne glasses make a great, high-pitched sound but they are prone to topple over unless I hold or weight the base.
  • Much as I’d love them too, martini glasses have not worked–I think it has something to do with the shape of the glass (angle and not a bowl).
  • Even though my reading instructed me to use my entire finger tip for the best sound, I had better luck concentrating pressure on the base of my first knuckle. Todd, on the other hand, hand no problem just by using the tip of his finger, so experiment to see where the strongest, most even pressure can be applied.
  • Dipping your fingers into the playing glasses can be awkward mid-note–have a small bowl or ramekin off to side so you can re-moisten your fingertips as needed. Playing with 2 hands? One on each side wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Now some inspiration:

I love his set-up! Looks like there are small anchors at the base of each glass and some are elevated to keep them all at the same level.

His are tied down–very smart.

Now, this is another variation of the glass harp–instead of filling each glass a certain amount to achieve pitch, the edges of the glasses are ground down to a permanent pitch. Playing them with a violin bow is a pretty novel concept, though.


My plan was to do the final installment of this art this weekend but we’ve run into a bit of a scheduling issue–Todd’s uncle passed away and we’ll be travelling this weekend for the funeral. My attempts at playing a recognizable tune on the water glasses will have to wait until next week.

Music for your Health?

64 Arts

We already discussed how music can exacerbate a tense situation or cocoon us during rough times, but can it really help heal our bodies as well as our spirits?

Many think it can.

I had a roommate who was a classical guitar composition major at FSU. I remember when I first moved in he asked if it would bother me if he practiced in the living room. Uh, not unless me listening would be a problem for you! I mean, really, twist my arm, here. But one of the summers I lived in that cute little house in a bad neighborhood (it helped that the roommate and his brother were both former Marines–instant safety boost!), Sam went up to Atlanta to work with a family friend who dealt in alternative therapies for cancer patients.

While this article is what started this train of thought (see what I mean about synchronicity?), it’s high on snark (nothing wrong with that) but a little shy on references. So I decided to do a little digging to see what I could come up with.

Music Therapy appears to be a growing industry–you can get degrees in it at Berklee College of Music or through FSU’s College of Music (and, I’m sure, others–those were just the first couple to pop up). Some still consider it a very alternative method of wellness-care and healing while others consider it one of many treatments that can not only improve mood but, as mood is tied to overall improvement, also improve the effectiveness of traditional treatments, like my roommate’s friend.

Okay, that’s high-level, doctor’s-type music therapy, but what about at home, recreational music therapy?

I know I benefit from having music on, it helps me to focus–usually. See, music choice is key to effective therapy. Like when I have a mountain of data entry to get through at work (possibly the most boring part of my job) I can usually power through it if I’ve got some fun power rock going on in the background (80s/90s hair bands being my rock of choice). And let’s just say that my Bejeweled Blitz score tends to be much higher when I’m listening to up-tempo music  (as this 2006 memo from Stanford would seem to predict is true for many).

At the same time, going back to the idea of fragility, some days that same fun, rocking music has the opposite effect, practically stultifying any sense of productivity or focus. During those times it’s beneficial to listen to more soothing music, say some of that New Age piano or a meditative CD, to reduce the stress hormones coursing through our bodies. Those same, dulcet tunes have also been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, pain sensitivity and even the urge to scratch and itchy rash or skin disorder!

So, I guess the next time I have to go a week without Zyrtec for one of those annoying-but-necessary tests, I should keep my iPod close at hand!

Sight Reading Your Life

64 Arts

A lot of the music we play, we tend to hear it first. We know how it sounds. We know what we’re shooting for when we got to actually play the piece before us in black and white dots sprinkled along the page.

And then there are the other times.

In auditions. evaluations, competitions, etc., there’d usually be a section on sight-reading. This bear of a task involves basically sitting down cold to a piece of unfamiliar music and playing it straight off. No clue how it’s supposed to sound.

Basically, we’re challenged to fake it. Not only fake it, but fake it well.

There are several reasons for this exercise, at least as far as I can tell and being somewhat removed from the situation these many years:

  1. Sight reading weeds out those who play primarily by ear, those who just follow along, and those whose sheet music skills are a bit lacking. There is, after all, faking it until you make it and out-and-out fraud.
  2. Sight reading shows observational skills: did you see that crescendo in the 12th measure? What about the key change or the coda? Missed that repeat in the second section? When we don’t pay attention to the signs on the road we could find ourselves out of sync or, worse, in an accident. [Talk about dissonance!]
  3. Sight reading shows how we react under pressure. It’s stressful facing the unknown head-on, especially if we’re being graded on it in some way! Calmer minds usually prevail and are less likely to miss those very important musical cues.

The different between a sight-read performance and a practiced one is as obvious as the actor whose still learning his lines, his character, and stumbles over large words and mannerisms that should be second nature if his portrayal is to be believed. There’s a huge quality difference, just like playing notes robotically is miles away from playing them with confidence, inflection and a feel for the piece as a whole instead of one breath after the other.

Of course, both musicians and actors are given at least a moment to go over their pages before diving in. This was especially useful in band competitions when it wasn’t a single piece of music but a composition of many instruments, melodies, harmonies, counterpoints and rhythms that had to be puzzled out in 5 minutes or less. We’d practice even this, on new pieces in the band room, learning techniques to be used later.

  1. Start at the beginning. What’s the key signature? How fast, slow, loud or soft do we start? Does everyone play on the first note or is there one clear leader that we all can then follow when it’s our turn.
  2. Look down the road a bit for changes to the way things began. Notes can change mid-song and usually have a good reason for doing so, to add depth or clarity to a piece or just make things interesting. But missing that change can leave you feeling lost.
  3. Scan the pages for large sections of notes. The more black ink on the page, the harder you’re going to have to work to keep those individual notes straight when you play them. Spend what time you have preparing for the tough stuff, knowing that the basics you’ve already got down.

Sure, in life we’re sometimes handed a situation with nary a moment to think before we must act. But those, I think, are pretty few and far between. It may not always feel like it, but we all have the capability to say to those in front of us “wait, let me look at this a minute” before we act or react. Knowing where the question or problem started is helpful in gauging the original intention or tone. If things changed: when and why? And being able to examine our options and think them forward a bit to try and anticipate any snarls to come prepares us for the moments that true split-second decisions are required.

And they keep trying to take music out of schools…

That’s Where the Music Comes From!

64 Arts

I love, love, lurve this short cartoon that Disney made back in 1953: Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the building blocks of all musical instruments (and, yes, it’s the mate to Adventures in Music: Melody that I shared during the singing discussion).

(the only DVD I was able to find with these and tons of other awesome bits of animated nostalgia was the Walt Disney Treasures – Disney Rarities – Celebrated Shorts, 1920s – 1960s DVD)

I’ve talked about my “toot” instrument experience and the early-childhood “plunk” failures. Several years back, for a variety of reasons (though a large one was my involvement with the local SCA–Society for Creative Anachronism–group), I purchased a harp and have endeavored to teach myself how to play it. Off and on. Okay, more off than on.

Before I get too far into the harp, well before it’s purchase I was hanging out with this guy (it never really developed into dating, despite my temporary desire to the contrary) who loved to play the piano. One night, in the wee hours of the morning, I found myself sharing a practice room at the local University listening to him play. At one point he turned to me and said: “do you want to give it a try?”

“Oh, no, I can’t play the piano.”

“You can’t press a button?”

Gee, is it really that simple? Yes and no. On the one hand, the piano is a simple instrument in which each of it’s 88 keys represents a particular note on the scale. This is probably why folks who play ‘by ear’ (instead of using sheet music, they are able to pick out and match the notes they need by traveling up and down the keys) gravitate towards a piano or keyboard as opposed to instruments with many keys and valves (not that it doesn’t happen, just not as often).

On the other hand, it’s one thing to press a button or two in a particular sequence to play a tune and another level of skill, entirely, to understand chords and what notes sound right together (consonance) and which do not (dissonance). Some truly amazing things can be done with folks just noodling about on the keys but, me? I prefer a road map, which is what sheet music provides.

Guitar is another instrument many pick up and just seem to play. Of course, with only a handful of strings, it’s more important that the musician know which strings to press and on which section of the neck to change the chord they’re strumming or note their picking. As much as I would love to learn to play guitar I admit my vanity gets in the way: I like to keep my nails long, when they cooperate, and at least one hand would need to be kept short. Ick! Of course, Dolly Parton manages with those long nails of her’s so may there’s hope for me, yet.

Which brings me back to my harp. Like the piano, each string corresponds to a particular note on the scale. My little lap harp has 22 strings, covering 3 full octaves and sounds lovely when I do get the itch to tune it and actually practice it a bit. The only thing I would do differently, were I to purchase another, is to get one with levers.

Unlike a concert harp (the big ones you see performing with orchestras and at fancy weddings) that use a pedal to modify a note sharp or flat, lap or folk harps have little levers that sit above the strings that can be flipped to change the pitch of a note at will. Without levers, the harp has to be returned for each song that falls in a different key. I failed to adequately understand what an absolute pain in the ass that is.

Still, levers can be added after the fact though it’s not something I’m keen to do on my own. Considering how little I do play it, though, it’s not high on my priority list. I think I’d better work on my treble clef skills and playing with both hands moving at once, first!

Quietly Making Noise

64 Arts

I sometimes wonder if our choice of musical instrument reflects back on who we are.

Remember, the baritone was not my first choice of instruments. Sometimes, my life is not exactly what I’d call my first choice, either.

The baritone is not a quiet instrument. This is probably obvious based on it’s size alone–you expect something big out of it. I mean, compared to the flute with it’s lithe construction and breathy sound the baritone with it’s extra metal and bends and turns and valves and brutish looks, you expect it to sound brutish, too.

Looks can be deceiving.

The odd thing about a lot of the music we payed in band was that baritone would often echo the melody being carried by the flutes and clarinets. Imagine the aural equivalent of a bull in the china shop–that’s how I would sometimes feel.

Many times, too, I would be the only baritone in the class. Which meant that if I made a mistake, EVERYONE heard it. Man, that really sucked. So I’d try to play softer, blend in more (despite the fact that I was meant to stand out) and my instrument sounded strangled, struggling, not quite right.

It’s not that I wasn’t confident in my abilities. My middle school band director (a dear, dear man who I’m still friends with) said that I had perfect pitch. I was one of his pet students. In high school there were 2 bands: Concert and Symphonic and I tried out over the summer (despite the fact that I’d just gotten braces and was relearning my embouchure all over again) for Symphonic band and got in. I’d also learned trombone in middle school and did a stint playing bass trombone in jazz band in high school and even tackled Tuba for an ensemble during festival season. I was good. I worked hard. I loved what I did.

But I was still shy.

Knowing this topic was coming up, I picked up my baritone the other day after at least 4 years of not playing. (I had lived in an apartment complex for those 4 years and didn’t feel comfortable practicing such a loud instrument with neighbors beside and above me.) First I was amazed that all of the keys and tuning slides still moved. In fact, it’s my fingers that are more sticky than the keys, the joints are so out of practice it feels like my hands have shrunk. The double-jointed-ness of my right ring finger became all that more apparent as it’s reaching for the 3rd key and bending in, instead of out. (Yeah, that’s a fun thing to happen just before halftime when it’s damp and cold outside and suddenly one of the 3 fingers you need decides to hinge the wrong way, lol.) Then I blew some air through the mouthpiece.

Nothing happened.

I wasn’t buzzing my lips (embouchure, again), wasn’t blowing enough air.

I was scared to make a sound.

Who was going to hear me? Our neighbors are somewhat close but not that close. Todd was in his office on the other side of the house and I knew for a fact that he couldn’t hear me (the fact that the interior wall of my office is actually the old, brick, exterior wall of the house, my office being the enclosed carport guarantees a certain amount of sound-proofing).

So I took some baby steps. I remembered how to buzz my lips inside to get a kazoo-like sound. I took the mouthpiece out of the horn and just buzzed through it for a bit, to remind myself how it felt, blowing a little harder this time. Then I tried it again, mouthpiece in the horn again, and tried for an open note. An F.

Then I played a B-flat scale. Because I could. Because I remembered the fingerings. Because I could. Because it was what the horn was meant to do.

So, the baritone wasn’t my first choice, but I remember the great sound it had and how, when called for, it could soar above the rest of the band in a solo or counterpoint. And girls playing lower brass instruments still isn’t incredibly common. My life is not what I’d thought it would be, wanted it to be, or even imagined. In many ways, though, it’s exactly as it should be and, in terms of daydreams versus reality? The reality is better.

Sure, I put the instrument back in it’s case and went back to the comic that I had been drawing. But my thoughts were on the box of sheet music in the library.