Imagine a pile of stuff precariously placed on a table. It is still for a long while, and then suddenly, the pieces fall. The items find a different normal. Sometimes life happens like this. Things are stagnant for a while, and then suddenly, out of nowhere things jolt into a different place. Some explain this with the end of a retrograde of the planets, others explain it with the Towers card, some believe it is some kind of Devine intervention, and others would describe it with physics.
Whatever the cause, that has been my life this past month. A grandparent passes away, a car-totaling crash (and the logistics of the aftermath), discoveries, getting back to taking composition lessons, work drama, rapid healing, and an engagement!
Much of the stress and/or excitement due to these rapid progressions is caused by the unsurety of the future. Things were settled before, but now everything is shook up, rearranged, or new. But there are some things that you just know. My life and love have made me know that I wanted to say ‘yes’ to my fiancé. As some know that physics holds the explanation of potential force, I am a firm believer of chemistry. I know that the people in my life whom I have great chemistry with will remain friends, or in this case, my partner for my whole life. There are few things in life that are that innate.
Music is one of those things. Depending on the time in my life, music has been an intense passion, an emotional support, or something I can depend on always being there.
New Year’s is an inspiring time of year. We love reviewing the past year and even more so, dreaming of how to make our lives better for the coming year. Many people make New Year’s resolutions, and honestly, the vast majority of people do not keep them. One of the biggest reasons why resolutions are neglected is because they are too vague, such as lose weight, eat better or stress less. If you follow my blog or have read my book, you know about all the different ways music can inspire, heal, bond you with others, help you learn, highlight great character traits, or just create enjoyment. Don’t you want more of these things in your life? This week I’m giving some ideas for specific goals for how to become more musically literate in 2016.
Musical literacy is a term I use throughout my book and blog; it does not just describe knowing how to read and write music, but also how to understand and appreciate music. There are different levels of musical literacy, and just because you are not an experienced composer who knows the ins and outs of writing for all instrument types or a long-time performer who knows her instrument better than any other object, doesn’t mean you do not have musical literacy. But regardless of your level of music understanding, there is always more to learn. Knowing and understanding more will give you more pleasure listening to or playing music.
There are several ways to increase your musical literacy on your own or with the help of an instructor. There are simple things you can do, like expanding the kinds of music you listen to, or going to live performances. If you want to delve in a little deeper, read about music, or find music to meditate to. If you have more time on your hands, find an instrument you like and start taking lessons. These are great ways to make you a happier and more well rounded individual.
Although these examples sound great, they are not specific enough. Spend some time this New Years weekend or even a couple weeks planning out how you can follow through with these resolutions. Here are some ideas. Steal one or all of them!
Take these ideas to bring more music into your life and become more musically literate. By following through with these resolutions, music can make your 2016 more thrilling, relaxing or enthralling. Happy New Year!
This can be a hectic time of the year. Students are studying for and taking finals, while educators are giving and grading finals. Some people are working required overtime as members of the retail industry, while others are finishing up 2015 business. Several people are rehearsing and performing lots of holiday concerts. Some are spending their free time on decorating, baking, volunteering or buying gifts. Many people, whether religious or not, are probably doing many of these things with Christmas music in the background.
Much of this genre works well for background music. It is cheery, simple and worth singing along with: “Let it Snow,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and countless others. Others however, are more meditative, and it is important to remember to have meditative music, especially during the busy times.
In order to really listen to music, and appreciate it, we need to stop everything else we are doing and absorb it. This used to be the norm. Before we used digitalization to bring music with us everywhere to soundtrack our lives, people only heard music when they went out to find it. Whether that was in a concert hall, a university, a salon, or at home, it was sought out and relished. When we listen to music, rather than just hear it, we can appreciate it at a different level. Now, we have to make a point to be alone with music. By absorbing the music, we hear the harmonies (and dissonances), chord progressions (or stagnations), dynamics (and articulations), shaping (or bluntness), texture (or solidarity), and granted (or delayed) expectations. We don’t hear these aspects of music if we don’t really listen to it. Furthermore, we miss the entire message. “Reading a book entails not only looking at the words but also seeing them, converting the printed words into mental constructs in order to understand the narrative,” Daniel Barenboim, pianist and conductor, interprets, “Likewise, listening to music entails hearing it as well, in order to understand the musical narrative.” Listen to what music is saying.
We have amazing musical technologies that bring us nearly anything we would want to listen to anywhere and anytime, but oftentimes the music becomes just another window open on our desktop. In order to enjoy, benefit from, and meditate with music, we must bring it to the foreground and get rid of whatever else is in the background.
 Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time, (London: Verso Books, 2008), 31.
Kids love music. They will dance to it even if they’ve never heard it or sing along to songs even if they don’t know the words. Without any embarrassment, they will sing, dance and clap even without listening to music. They can get lost in music or imagine it.
It is amazing to see how long music can hold their attention while other things interest them for only half a minute, if that. It is important to maintain this interest as they grow by introducing them to different kinds of music, giving them individual lessons, and enrolling them in a school band or orchestra program. We have all heard the amazing benefits music offers growing children: helping with hand-eye coordination, improving other subjects such as math or reading, helping build character, and establishing goal-oriented thinking. So we know how beneficial it can be to keep kids interested in music, but for many of us, no matter our musical literacy or lack thereof, we can learn from kids’ innate connection with music.
It is never too late to learn more about music or pick up a new instrument to play. By giving in to that pull that we all had as kids towards getting lost in music, we can live a little freer. I encourage you to find that urge that drew you to music when you were a child and let it pull you in.
Are you busy? Our culture seems to encourage it. With the expectation for high productivity at work, long commutes, often both partners of a household working full-time or single-parents working more than one job, long lists of things we need to do, and ever-striving for perfection, we are living on over-whelmed mode. This non-stop lifestyle promotes stress, which threatens our health.
I have always been proud of my determination and working towards always doing better, but the endless activity and stressing about doing more has made me sick. I’ve now spent over a year trying to get away from things that have been degrading my health, and I avoid things that get me too worked up while working on the art of nonchalance. I still have a long way to go, but have shifted my view of always doing better by pleasing others, always doing my best work for every assignment, always having a clean house (the list goes on) to focusing on being better.
In Tony Crabbe’s Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much (which everyone should read!), he discusses how many people work on simple, little busywork rather than tackling the hard, creative, and rewarding projects. Working through emails makes us feel like we are accomplishing things, but it doesn’t provide us with enriching stimulation like bigger creative projects.[i] It is easy for us to work a little while on cleaning up the living room or doing some dishes, but we struggle to set aside time to sit down and work on our bigger projects despite the fact that we enjoy them more and afterwards we have something to show for it. Just like our unanswered emails, there will always be more housework to do, but with important projects and creative works they will be complete and ready for the world to see if only we put time into them rather than busywork. So instead of boasting about how busy you are or continuing to keep your head down and trudge through the things you need to do, take some uninterrupted time to meditate, create and be better.
By Anna Brake
[i] Tony Crabbe, Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much, (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015), 84.
Do you buy things online? Do you order pizza on an app? Have you ever taken an online class? Do you use Skype or FaceTime? Technology allows us to do things from the comfort of our own home with ease, and we can interact with people far away.
One of the many ways technologies have impacted music is teaching lessons through Skype. A recent article in the Kansas City Star describes how a new technology allows for long distance piano lessons. This newly developed system connects pianos using “fiber-optic sensing systems, high-performance solenoids and state-of-the-art computer technology.”[i] Essentially, when one person presses a key on her own piano, the technology moves the same key on the other person’s piano.
This is a major advancement from exclusively relying on a couple laptops’ cameras and mediocre sound quality. Instead of trying to point out a certain key on the piano through the screen, the student can see the key move on his own keyboard.
Reasons why people may take Skype lessons range from wanting to take a single lesson with a famous performer in New York or Los Angles to get some special insight and a known name to add to their resume to wanting to keep up with lessons while their regular teacher is out of town.
While this new technology is fun and exciting, it is important to be aware of its drawbacks. Despite the advancements, it is still best to have a lesson in person. Traditional lessons make it easier for instructors to see if the student is developing bad habits that may later cause difficulty in performing or even injury. Both student and instructor can focus more on the music rather than worrying about the angle of the camera or a delay in picture or sound. The bond that is built between teacher and student is not as strong if they never actually meet. Finally, location makes for less competition between teachers. With virtual lessons, we want to make sure the prices for lessons are still high enough for teachers to make a decent living and the market does not move out of balance. The teachers in small towns or even small cities shouldn’t get put out of business.
Even more importantly, there have been more and more teach-yourself instruction videos or games available online. These are by far the worst and shouldn’t be used at all. These do not give the student individualized feedback, and the student has no idea when it is time to move forward to the next lesson. They may not practice or reflect long enough on the music or information given. As Daniel Barenboim, pianist and conductor, writes, “Information is presented on television and on the Internet in a way that does not allow enough time for reflection and comprehension, thus turning powerful and potentially very positive inventions into the ideal tools for the manipulation of the general public.”[ii]
We can be happy that technologies are making their way to musicians, but let’s remember the importance of personal interactions to make the most of the music we live and learn.
By Anna Brake, author of Music Trends of the 21st Century: Technology Influencing Culture, available on Amazon.
[i] Mará Rose Williams, “Technology is key to piano lessons for select KCK students” The Kansas City Star, October 28, 2015, http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article41744646.html
[ii] Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time, (London: Verso Books, 2008), 41.
Have you ever been to a concert where the performance gave you chills, made your hair stand on end, or even brought you to tears? There are many things that have to line up musically in order for this to happen.
Firstly, the composer has to write the piece well. Hopefully the piece is written well technically, but the musicality of the piece is key to the emotional reaction. Next, the performer has to be able to play the piece accurately. But again, the musicality of the musician will bring the piece from mediocrity to excellence. Lastly, the audience has to be open and receptive to the music.
Musicality is the emotional interpretation of the music, and shaping is an extremely important facet in bringing life to the music. Shaping is what makes the music feel like it is going somewhere. The composer can shape the music with orchestration, texture, range, melodic line, tempo changes, and by writing in dynamics and articulations. The performers must follow the directions in the score and artfully add their own interpretations to bring the piece to the next level.
Sometimes, especially in a long piece of music, it can be difficult to see the overall shape of the music. Young musicians especially have a hard time figuring out where the climax of the piece is or when to play timid and quiet or deliberate and bold. Composers also may have a hard time figuring out where their piece is going or whether there is a direction in their music.
One particularly good way to visualize the music is to make a music map. I learned this in my first real composition lesson when I was going to visit colleges to attend, and it still helps by composition process today. It is very helpful for composing, but it can also be a great tactic for teaching musicality.
It is quite simple; it works like a graph. Intensity is on the left and time runs along the bottom. Dots are placed at a certain level of intensity, which is determined by dynamic level, texture, and other possible musical aspects. For example, if a single instrument is playing pianissimo, the dot will be toward the bottom of the page, and if the entire orchestra is playing a fortissimo, the dot will be at the top of the page. When all the dots are placed along the duration of the piece, connect them with a line, and this will show the shape of the entire piece.
Here is an example using a short piece I wrote for solo unaccompanied violin. This is a highly emotional piece inspired by Romani music. In the music map, you can see the dramatic changes in emotion, the clear climax, and the overall shape of the piece. Follow along with the recording.
Find the other two Romani Caprices available to listen for free on sound cloud.
by Anna Brake, composer and author of Music Trends of the 21st Century, available now on amazon.
Kansas City is all about baseball lately. As of last night, the Royals are going to be in the World Series for the second year in a row. Last year everyone was predicting a win against the Giants by comparing all the similarities between the lead up to their last win in 1985 and the road to the World Series in 2014. The Royals ended up losing the Championship last year, but this year they have another chance.
Much of baseball is about being able to try over and over again. Unlike in other sports, the teams play each other multiple times in a row before moving on to the next team. Even if a game is lost, it doesn’t mean the series is a failure. The batter gets multiple chances to hit the ball, and the pitcher gets even more chances to throw a ball inside the zone. And when the pitcher isn’t performing that well, he’ll usually get some chances to make up for it before the next pitcher comes in to replace him.
Fans, especially, give athletes extra opportunities to play well. We give our team and our favorite players the benefit of the doubt. We like to give them chances to make up for a bad throw, a sloppy play, a lost game or even a disappointing year. We want to see them win and will keep cheering for them until they do.
With the fine arts, this is a different story. If a soloist is up on stage and blanks on memory, we conclude that he must be a bad musician. If a performer obviously hits the wrong note, we scoff at her abilities, and if an orchestra doesn’t manage to stay together, we conclude that they have no talent. There is immense pressure to be perfect as a musician, and professional artists get paid a miniscule amount compared to their imperfect, athletic counterpoints (but that is a topic for another blog post).
Not only do professional musicians get judged harshly, but any person playing music is held to a certain standard. Many people believe that they are not good enough to play at all because of this conventional thought. As David Levitin, neuroscientist and musician, writes, “why is it that millions of people who take music lessons as children, relatively few continue to play music as adults? [. . .] people tell me that they love music listening, but their music lessons ‘didn’t take.’ I think they’re being too hard on themselves. The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music. Even though most of us can’t play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal, or cook like Julia Child, we can still enjoy playing a friendly backyard game of hoops, or cooking a holiday meal for our friends and family.”[i] Why are we so hard on ourselves when it comes to music? Even with people who have never played an instrument before, anyone, no matter what their age, still has a chance to bring music into their life.
Furthermore, how much of a chance do we give to music outside the typical music we bring into our life through listening? Most people have a set genre or genres that they feel comfortable with; oftentimes, it is the music that they grew up with, the music they listened to as teenagers. In many cases people will maybe hear one or two songs of a certain genre and dismiss it. I have heard many people claim that they do not like rap music, and yes, maybe they do not prefer to listen to whatever rap artist they heard on the radio (who could blame them), but I’m certain that they haven’t listened to much beyond that. People tend to judge entire genres based on one artist, or even just a song or two. But, there are different styles within genres, there are good and bad artists within genres, and not all rap music is crude (or too repetitive or whatever reason someone may have for not giving it a chance). Especially in the case of new art music or contemporary composers, many people assume they don’t like it because they haven’t heard much, but there are so many people writing so many different styles that it would be hard not to find at least one piece or even one composer that you like (if you actually searched for it).
So, the next time you are watching your favorite sports team, think about how you can be a better music fan. Give performers the benefit of the doubt, give yourself a chance at being a musician (no matter how amateur), and seek the adrenaline of finding a new genre or piece of music the way you yearn for that rush you get from cheering for a winning team. Oh, and also, go Royals!
By Anna Brake
Find out more ways to bring music into your life by reading Music Trend of the 21st Century: Technology Influencing Culture. Now available here on amazon in print and as an ebook.
[i] Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brian on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006), 189-90.
It’s October, which means this is the beginning of holiday season! We love excuses to celebrate! We take a break from work to dress up in costumes, hand out candy, say thanks, eat yummy food, light candles, say prayers, decorate, give gifts, receive gifts, kiss our loved one at midnight, and make goals for another year. Doing rituals together is something that makes us human.
We celebrate people too. Even though everyone has a birthday every year, we make time to celebrate it—why not? We spend lots of time and money to celebrate weddings and births despite the fact that these are still very common events—why not? Graduation is one of the few events that we celebrate based on a person’s merits, but ironically, we tend to make a bigger deal out of high school graduation than the attainment of a doctorate.
If we love celebrating so much, why do we contain our festivities to religious and established traditions? When was the last time you sent a card to someone for putting on an art show? Did you make a feast for your friend who choreographed an entire dance recital? Have you ever thrown a shower for someone who put out an album? Did you buy a gift for your friend who just put on a concert?
Art is an important part of life, and artists spend dozens to hundreds to thousands of hours creating whatever it is they make. They often spend their own money for projects and put more effort into them than anything else. After all of that time, money, and passion, they are the ones to bring refreshments to their recital or provide catering for their show. Then, they get some likes on Facebook and hear “cool” and “sounds nice,” yet they still have piles of CDs or prints piled up at home.
So to all my friends who have accomplished artistic pursuits, I am sorry if I didn’t celebrate you enough. I’m not going to say, “You should be proud of yourself,” because you already are. I’m saying, “We should all be proud of you.” Congratulations, you deserve to be celebrated!
And for all of us who have talented and motivated people in our lives, let’s give gifts, cards, candy, and throw parties for those who spend hours, dollars, and energy to bring more enjoyment, thoughtfulness, and art into our lives. They are worthy of celebration.
By Anna Brake
Why is music important to you? You may have several answers, or it may be difficult to be able to actually come up with a series of words that can accurately describe what it is that makes music significant. It may be as simple as the fact that it makes you happier, or it may only be explained as something that assuages a yearning.
I personally have a laundry list of reasons why music must be in my life, but one of the biggest reasons is that it gives me a place in society. Not only do I identify myself as a musician and composer, but also I feel like I am in on some sort of secret that only other musicians understand. I can play music with others, share my works with people, and even just attend a musical event and feel as if I belong to something bigger than myself. As Daniel Levitin writes in This is Your Brain on Music, “Collective music making may encourage social cohesions—humans are social animals, and music may have historically served to promote feelings of group togetherness and synchrony.”[i] Larry Parsons, a neuroscientist, did an experiment on how the brain reacts when musicians play together and discovered that the areas of the brain controlling phrasing, coordination, and cognitive and emotional interaction were more active when the musicians played together rather than alone. He concludes, “Music is intrinsically social.”[ii]
Unfortunately, there are many reasons why music no longer has a premier place in many people’s lives. Lack of music funding prevents many kids from being involved in music. The ability to download music for free gives many people the idea that they shouldn’t have to pay for music, which in turn leaves many musicians without much income; this puts many musicians in a position to decide whether to “get a real job” (something that pays well), rather than following their calling. As discussed in my first blog entry, “The Gap,” many technologies have caused a disconnect between composers and performers and musicians and audiences.
Music has the potential to bring people closer together. “Music’s original functions of underlining the significance of public events and promoting social solidarity continue to this day,” states Anthony Storr, “those who engage in [music] know that making music together is an irreplaceable way of achieving closeness.”[iii] Let’s share why music is important to us and strengthen the bond that music creates.
By Anna Brake
Get ideas on how to bring more music into your life in Music Trends of the 21st Century
[i] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006), 252.
[ii] Elena Mannes, The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song, (New York: Walker & Company, 2011), 38.
[iii] Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind, (New York: Free Press, 1992), 108.