Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Diadem: Selected Poems, by Uruguayan Prose Poet Marosa di Giorgio

The poets that I like tend to write short – 50 to 200 word – pieces that really don't follow any rules (except for that abbreviated word count).  Russell Edson’s prose poems and Nate Denver’s word stories are good examples of this.  I might even put the entries in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands in this category.

My most recent find is Marosa di Giorgio, a Uruguayan poet who lived from 1932 to 2004.  Her first collection of poems was published in 1953; the first of 14 books that came out during her lifetime. Her poems always take place in the same fantastical universe, in seemingly the same place and time: the gardens and pathways surrounding her childhood family home in a rural area outside the city of Salto, Uruguay.

Writing from the perspective of herself as a little girl, this world is inhabited by friends, relatives, butterflies, flowers, mushrooms, ghosts, devils and angels.  In Marosa di Giorgio's poetry there's no distinction between fact and fiction, between memory and imagination.  

She wrote in Spanish, but in Diadem: Selected Poems, published by BOA Editions, a portion of her poems have been translated to English by Adam Giannelli.  Each of these poems fits easily on one page, so they have included the original Spanish language version on the left page and Giannelli's English translation on the right.  Having it be bilingual is great because once I finish reading through the poems I plan on slowly going back through them to compare the Spanish to the English.

Here's an excerpt from Diadem.
I remember my wedding, which took place far away, at the white dawn of time.
My mother and sisters were walking through the halls.  And the old bats - who witnessed my parents' vows - emerged, incredulous, from the spider webs to smoke their pipes.
All day smoke rose from the house; but no one came; it wasn't until dusk that little critters and incredible relatives started to arrive, from the furthest farms, many of whom we only knew by name, but who had heard the signal; some were covered head to foot with hair, they didn't need to wear clothes, and walked here and there on all fours. They brought baskets of colorful mushrooms: green, red, gold, silver, bright yellow, some raw; others, lightly roasted or sweetened.
The ceremony dictated that all the women put on veils - only their eyes were visible and they all looked alike - and that I walk before them naked, there beneath those strange glances.
Then, over our heads, our plates, they began to pass sizzling steaks and intoxicating wine. But, underground, the drum band, the blindmoles, kept beating faintly.
At midnight I went to the master bedroom.
Before climbing into the carriage, I put on the shawl that married women wear. The relatives muttered in their sleep. Since there wasn't a groom, I kissed myself, my own hands.
And headed south.

Spanish language version of the same poem above.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music MOOCs: Review of Four Online Cousera Music Classes

This year I had my first experience with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  I took four music classes being offered by Coursera.  These classes were all free, although participants do have the option of paying a fee of about $50 to receive a verified certificate for the course.

During the summer I took two simultaneous 5-week classes:  Fundamentals of Music Theory by the University of Edinburgh, and Developing Your Musicianship by Berklee College of Music.
The Fundamentals of Music Theory course had a whole team of talented instructors involved (in particular Zack Moir and Nikki Moran) and was really well planned out.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating this online class.  They covered a lot of ground over the five weeks, and I definitely learned some things that continue to help with my understanding of how music works.  The course did delve into more than what most musicians will need from a practical standpoint, but students who successfully complete it will have a solid foundation in music theory.  I would be most interested in taking additional courses offered by this team of instructors from the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music.
While the music theory class was going on, I was also enrolled in Developing Your Musicianship, Berklee College of Music.  This class took me out of my analytical comfort zone and required a more organic, aural approach to music.  The instructor, George W. Russell, Jr., is very enthusiastic in his videos.  His excitement for music and teaching is infectious.  A good part of the class is devoted to ear training; bringing out skills I didn’t even know I had!  The content of the class was fairly easy and fundamental, but taking this class has definitely helped me become a better musician and has started me on a path toward thinking about music more aurally and less visually.  It was great in combination with the Music Theory course, and vice versa.  Developing Your Musicianship included a fun assignment and peer review component at the end. 

During the fall I took simultaneous courses:  Introduction to Guitar and Jazz Improvisation.  Both were through Berklee College of Music.
The Introduction to Guitar course starts very basic, with the absolute beginner in mind.  Although my knowledge of music is beyond novice, I haven’t applied much of it to guitar so I wasn’t bothered by starting at such an entry level.  It’s nice to have a refresher, sometimes.  The teacher, Thaddeus Hogarth, has a very clear and precise way of explaining concepts.  If you ever plan on teaching music, he would be a good person to emulate.  The class does progress as rapidly as can be expected over the six weeks.  By the end, you’ll be picking melodies and strumming barre chords, which could prove to be quite challenging for beginners.  This class requires students to post recordings to Soundcloud each week and also review your peers’ weekly recordings.  For this reason, the class took up more of my time than the classes I took over the summer.
Gary Burton’s Jazz Improvisation class was the most difficult of the four.  It’s the only one where I felt that I was at risk of not passing.  I learned that I was completely ignorant to the thought-process of an improvising jazz musician.  It will take me a while to fully absorb and implement the concepts taught in this class, should I choose to do so.  This course does provide a new way of looking at music that could be applied (to varying degrees of success) to all styles of music, not just jazz.  To really understand this class, you have to grasp each new step along the way, and then work on it for years and years.  The videos for this class were shorter and less detailed than the other classes, leaving it up to the student to fill in the blanks him or herself.  This course was also the most time consuming – at least 5 or 6 hours a week were spent studying, practicing, doing assignments, analyzing lead sheets, making recordings, posting recordings, taking quizzes, reviewing peers.  It was a lot to keep up with for a class that I was taking on a whim, for no credit or certification.  Unlike the Intro to Guitar class, where I felt like I was more advanced than the students I reviewed, in the jazz class it felt like everyone was way more experienced than me, which they probably were.  My musical submissions paled in comparison to most of the students I graded, although this form of jazz improvisation doesn’t always equate to good music, especially if it just sounds like aimless soloing over chord changes.

In summary, I was very pleased with my MOOC experiences.  Musically, I feel like I’ve learned more and grown more over the last 5 months as a result of these courses than at any other five month period since I took up playing music.  Most importantly, this experience was the instigator for liberating me from sheet music dependency and opening up the joys of playing music from the heart.

I would most definitely take additional free online music courses from Berklee or the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music (especially those on the subjects of ear training, composition, non-jazz improvisation and world music), as well MOOCs on French, Spanish, Creative Writing, Prose Poetry or Flash Fiction if those were being offered.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Phish Music Theory Discussion

Phish in the practice room, Las Vegas, NV, 10/31/14
On Halloween day, I took a look at the forum on, a Phish fan site, to see if there were any leaks about what Phish’s Halloween set would be later that night.  As usual, the secret was well-kept, but I did find this interesting thread about Phish’s use of music theory, started by a user named DownWithDaBreeze.

Here are some of the responses.  LOTS of good information here!:

It's fairly easy to pick up a shift from a major key to minor or vice versa. A good example is almost every Ghost in 3.0. The song itself is in A minor and the jam starts off there but then goes into a major key. My favorite example is 12/31/10, check out the video below - the change from major to minor happens just around 6:45. If you can't pick it up as it happens, listen to part of the jam in the beginning and then skip towards the end, it’s night and day.  The way this usually works is knowing about relative minor keys, which are keys that have the same key signature (or set of notes) as a corresponding major key so that Ghost jam's minor key is A and relative major key is C.

Now picking up between keys (like from A major to E major) is a bit more difficult for me to do because the feel of the sound doesn't change like from a major to minor shift, just the tones change, however it’s not too hard to pick up. I can usually pick up a key change because it just sounds different. A great example is Tweezer (in A) vs. Tweezer Reprise (in D).  There’s some difference other than the key like tempo, but basically Reprise is more energizing because it’s in a higher key. But this is hard to figure out usually I don't know what key(s) they switch to unless I'm very familiar with the song or I have my guitar in front of me.

Mike takes advantage of the relationship between A minor and C major by playing the C note while Trey and Page are still in A minor, and this creates tension in the jamming, which is resolved by Trey and Page following Mike to C major.  It sounds different because of the notes they are choosing to emphasize in the scale (creating that tension), and also because changing the emphasis of the notes will affect other aspects of the music, like volume, timbre, or rhythm (Fishman isn't playing notes, but he listens to the others so well that he will change what he plays to follow the key changes). Since '97, whenever the band changes keys mid-jam, it's almost always Mike's bass note "substitutions" making it happen. 

Some popular examples:
- Wolfman's Brother from Slip Stich & Pass - song starts in Bb (B flat) major, modulates to G minor
- the 7/29/98 Riverport Gin - main song and Trey's solo are in C major, Mike's solo is in A minor, which morphs into A dominant (A7)

Another of Mike's modulation "tricks" is to start playing a perfect 4th above or below the starting note. 
- the 6/3/11 Clarkston DWD starts in A dominant, but the "A Love Supreme" jam happens once the band modulates up to D dominant.
- Golden Age from 7/18/14 Northerly Island is in C dominant, but the band quickly modulates to G dominant and stays there for about 10 minutes of goodness.

To really explain it we have to get into the modes.  Trey is basically a master of the modes and switching between them which I believe he is doing in this Ghost, and most Phish songs really.  I’m still a novice when it comes to these, but I understand them to some extent.  So for that Ghost they are in the key of C major which has 7 modes each with a root note based in the C major scale, each mode has the same notes as the C major scale, only the root note is different, as are the intervals between notes that are used to build the scale. THIS is what really gives them their unique sound. So in the Ghost, Trey (and I assume the rest of the band) starts off the jam using the A Aeolian mode, which is the same as the natural minor scale.  A is the 6th note in the C major scale and Aeolian is the 6th mode, this is also why A is the natural minor to C major, the 6th note in any major scale is the natural minor/aeolian mode. Then as @kipmat pointed out which I hadn't noticed Mike starts focusing on the C note - signaling a shift to the C Ionian mode which is the same as the major scale. 

This stuff is definitely confusing and I still struggle with incorporating it into my playing. But shifting from one mode to another is a great and impressive skill to have. It can allow for changes that are smooth and not so obvious, Like in this Ghost, while there is a definite switch between sounds as they go from A Aeolian to C Ionian the transition is very smooth and somewhat subtle if you aren't looking for the change. 

To put it more simply C Major (or C Ionian as it is called modally), D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian all contain the same notes. No matter what you do with these modes they will also always contain the same notes. Now the difference between them is the "tonal center" which is the first note of the mode (ex. D dorian the tonal center is D) and this note is what gives them their unique sound. Some of these modes give a more minor sound (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian), some will have a major sound (Ionian, Lydian) and some a dominant sound (Mixolydian). Phish sometimes utilizes multiple modes which they vamp on (Reba) and sometime will only play over one for a prolonged period of time (Ghost). The way that Phish modulates is by shifting their tonal center as has been stated before, but also they will change modes using the same tonal center but a different modal structure (ex. in Ghost they often modulate from C major to C mixolydian, which is accomplished by flattening the 7th scale degree of C major in the case B becomes Bb). Playing modally is one of the easier methods of improvisation, but to be good at it you have to listen to the other members of the group and rely on insinuating chord changes rather than actually changing chords (Page does this most often by changing the inversion of the chord he is playing, thus emphasizing a different note in the chord).

One thing I wanted to bring up - traditional western musical theory is not the only way to master complex musical forms (as found in the Phish). Don't take it for granted that this is the only approach to music even though it works for a ton of people, it's also important to do some experimenting around how your mind best retains and processes information. Perhaps you work better with visual patterns on the fretboard, or 'hear' scales/chords/modes instead of assigning them a theoretical equivalent.

The one piece of the puzzle that never lets up is that it's a ton of work to build up the mad skillz you need to write/improvise/groove on a high level. Find your system and stick with it for years, push yourself to do a ton of ear training and improvising with other musicians. Phish plays the way they do because of their work ethic and commitment to creative music, not because they have mastered theory (OK maybe there is a teeny bit of natural talent in the mix as well...).

I'm at a cheapass hotel in Vegas right now, so I can't get the above video to stream, but I do know that a lot of Ghost jams end up in D mixolydian. The jam starts in A dorian, which has the exact same notes as D mixolydian (both are derived from the G major scale--G A B C D E F# G). As mentioned above, it's pretty much Mike's bass line that determines the actual mode--when he starts hanging more around the D than the A, the "color" of the jam changes. Trey & Page will pick up on it and respond by playing phrases around the D instead of the original A minor--although they're still basically using the same 7 notes.

The jam could most definitely wind up in C major too, which is indeed the relative major of Am (there's a world-class Tweezer from Auburn Hills ‘97 that comes to mind that does exactly this). The only difference, in this case, would be that the mode has an F in it instead of an F#. Obviously these guys have been doing this long enough and have good enough ears to pick up on a subtle change like that. And they don't have to pick up on it instantly--some ambiguity is totally fine while they all feel around for something to lock in on.

I don't normally come straight out and plug my website here, but the "modes workshop" and the lessons on the CAGED system on my website are pretty much exactly what you're looking for. Also there are a ton of Phish tabs & lessons. FYI you'll have to register to get to the lessons but registration is free & instant and I promise I won't spam you.

This sort of combines the stuff that @kipmat and @popsgordon123 said above.

In most Phish's jams, you can break it down to 2 basic ways that they tend to modulate between modes: relative modulation & parallel modulations. There are countless books written on this stuff, but I'll try to trim it down to just one post on .net.

Relative modulations are when the root note changes, but the pool of notes in the scale stays the same (I.E. A Dorian -> D Mixolydian).
Most people learn the modes the way it sounds like @ghostbuster is getting into it. Learn the major scale (let's use C major as an example). When you start that same scale on D instead of C, you end up playing a D Dorian scale... different root chord (D minor vs C major), same pool of notes for the scale. That's the basic idea of relative modulation. Using 3.0 Ghosts as an example, it's pretty common (especially this past summer) for the band to use a relative modulation to go from the type 1 funk vamp into type 2 bliss territory. They start the jam out in A Dorian (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) to kick off the type 1 portion. They move into the bliss section by jumping up to D Mixolydian (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C). They haven't changed the pool of notes, but by moving up to D, the root chord moves from A minor to D major, giving it that happy and uplifting feeling. As a side-note... relative modulation is also the basis for the chord scale theory of jazz improv, which a lot of improv methods fall back on. If you play guitar/bass, knowing the relative modes is essential to opening up the fretboard and getting out of those box scale shapes on the root.

Just to break down the relative modulations farther, here's how it would work across the 7 modes using the same pool of notes from the generic 2014 Ghost example above. The first note in each mode is the root, but the individual notes are all the same.

G Ionian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
A Dorian: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
B Phrygian: B, C, D, E, F#, G, A
C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
D Mixolydian: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
E Aeloian: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D
F Locrian: F#, G, A, B, C, D, E

Depending on the goal of the jam, Phish could modulate to any of those modes simply by changing the root chord (just build the triad from the notes to find the appropriate root chord... Mixolydian would be D, F#, A... D major). Each mode is going to have a different feel even though the notes are the same. It's the tonal center (root chord) that is making them sound different.

Parallel modulations happen when the root note of the scale stays the same, but the pool of notes in the scale changes (I.E. C Mixolydian -> C Dorian). Parallel modulations can be a little harder for a band to pull off without it sounding completely jarring. This is because of the fact that you're changing the pool of notes that you're working with. One of the more common ways Phish does this is when Trey leads the band from a major-sounding Mixolydian jam into a bluesy Dorian jam. There are plenty of DwD's that dive from D Mixolydian into D Dorian as soon as Trey lays down a big blues riff. There are countless other times where the band slips back and forth between parallel modes without being so up front about it, so the above was just one example. 

I think the idea of modulating between parallel modes is where people tend to feel like they're getting in over their heads with this stuff. It can be daunting to try to think about what notes you'd need to change to modulate between 2 parallel modes. Look at how we tend to learn them. We go in order of appearance in the Ionian scale, and we end up jumping all over the place as far as adding sharps and flats goes. I'll use C major as the starting point for simplicity.

C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb
C Aeloian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb

Seriously... it's hard to think of a logical way to think of modulating on the fly when it just looks like a jumble of flats and sharps being added. As soon as someone told me to reorganize the modes into the circle of 5ths instead of learning them in the traditional order, the lightbulb turned on in my head. So if we reorganize the list above starting with the Lydian mode, the list will be set up in order most uplifting sounding mode at the top to the darkest mode at the bottom. The biggest advantage to looking at it this way is that you only have to change one note at a time as you go down the list.

C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B (flat 4th)
C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb (flat 4th, 7th)
C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd)
C Aeloian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th)
C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd)
C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 5th)

NOW it starts to make some logical sense, because you can start to look at modulations by changing only one note at a time. Moving between adjacent modes keeps the thought process to a minimum because you're only changing one note. More importantly, it keeps the modulation from sounding too jarring, because you're not changing a bunch of notes at once. It's also easier for the band as a whole to slip from one mode to another if they only have to change one note. As a bonus, if Phish is jamming in Dorian, the band can make a pretty educated guess that any parallel modulation is going to be to Aeolian or Mixolydian. That cuts the likely options down considerably, which is pretty helpful in improv. This is also one reason why Phish jams are so heavily based on Dorian and Mixolydian. It's a very easy and smooth way to make a parallel modulation between major and minor based modes. 

There are plenty of other ways Phish keeps jams interesting, some of which go way over my head, but relative/parallel modulation is a BIG one. When you hear key changes in a jam, it's most likely a relative modulation or a parallel modulation to one of the adjacent modes in the list that was reorganized by the circle of 5ths.

Some good stuff in here for sure. I'll second Lephty's site. Lots of good stuff on there.

Some people started getting into modes a bit. There's a lot of mud in how they can be presented though. For starters, I might back off on that and go first to chord tones. Learn chords EVERYWHERE on the neck. Almost every Phish tune has a progression that they improvise over. If you can grab chord tones from each one then you're good to go. The non-chord tones don't matter at that point as far as scales/modes. Any note is fair as long as there is resolution to a chord tone. 

Start simple. Just chord tones. Maybe stay in one position on the neck. Once you are comfortable there, challenge yourself to shift up a few frets and find some more chord tones. You don't have to play a ton here. Just make sure you are choosing the right notes! Once you're comfortable with all of this, start to grab a note that is one fret above or below a chord tone and go back to the chord tone. Hear that resolution! Next, look for common tones between changes and notes that will be a whole step apart. Use the note between the whole step as a chromatic passing tone. It can go on quite a bit from here. You can approach any chord tone from a half step above or below it. I can't think of any exceptions off hand.

These are some things that I've done to try to get into the theory of it. You'll start to hear the functions of each chord and where each note wants to resolve. You'll want to know where the chords are diatonic (belonging to the same scale) and when two chords are derived from different scales, but if you've got the chords down, the scales can be less important (sometimes).

As I said, most of their tunes are progressions. Take ACDC Bag. The chords are A C D C F A G. Don't worry about a scale. Just play the notes from each chord. Sample In a Jar - A C G D A E Em D. Right away you can figure that the A and C chords are not diatonic because A (major) has a C# in it. C major does not. (Obviously, because it's C!). However, C G and D all come from the same scale. So, if you want, you can use a G major scale over all of these, but you really want to emphasize chord tones still. G D and A can also come from the same scale (D major or a relative mode depending on root emphasis). This gives you two options for scales over the G and D. Next, D A and E come from the A major scale. More options there. E and Em obviously don't come from the same scale but Em and D can. The first E (major) is linked to the chords above it. The Em has more in common with the chord that follows, D. That's from D major or E Dorian. Maybe a little confusing at first but when you've done this stuff for years and years it gets a lot easier.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Transcriptions of Bird Song - F. Schuyler Mathews' Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music

Last month I became aware of a book called Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews, first published in 1904.

Mathews was a naturalist who combined his love of birds, composition, art and writing to produce this collection which captured – in music notation – the songs of over 80 bird species he encountered in the woods and countryside of New Hampshire, now more than 110 years ago. In addition to the musical transcriptions, Mathews provided illustrations and often poetic descriptions of the birds themselves.

At the time that Mathews was putting this collection together, there were no portable field recorders. He would have had to transcribe in real time using only his ears – a skill requiring a trained aural recognition and attentive, precise, listening.

Although they are natural songsters, birds have little regard for the rules of music, choosing to compose pieces that don’t resolve to the tonic or fall onto the exact pitches of the 12 musical notes!  Schuyler praises the chickadee for its “perfectly musical bit”, and when necessary, does his best to notate the bird-music that needs a little fudging one way or another.
The Brown Thrasher, as transcribed by Mathews
Nonetheless, Mathews, found that the bird not only possesses an ear for music but the mind to produce it. “His capacity for simple melody, his technical mastery of tone intervals and note values, his phrasing and his brilliancy as a performer, are certainly not exceeded by any vocalist of nature. The truth is, the bird is an accomplished singer who cares less for conventional rules than he does for the essence or the soul of the music; but above all he succeeds in inspiring his listener. What more, may I ask, could be expected of a musician?”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ear Training: 13 Ways To Improve Your Aural Skills by Tom Hess

More and more I’m realizing that aural skills are the most important aspect of playing music.  It’s as simple as hearing a sound on a recording and then finding that sound on your instrument.  Studying theory and being able to read music can make you more knowledgeable, but it won’t necessarily make you a better or more natural player.  Whereas, someone who has worked stuff out by ear by listening to records can usually play pretty well, even if he doesn’t know the theory behind what it is that he's doing. (source: - Why Transcribing Is So Important)

With that in mind, I'd like to share this list by Tom Hess

13 Ways to improve your aural skills (by Tom Hess)

There are lots of ways in which you can improve your aural skills. I've listed many of them below. The idea here is NOT to pick just one of these ideas from the list and expect miracles. Do as many of these things as you can, as often as you can.

Activities to practice:

1. Transcribing (figuring out by ear) songs, chords, melodies, solos, etc. using your instrument.

2. Transcribing without using your instrument (write the music down on paper and then when you think you have it as close to accurate as you can get it check your work with your instrument. Notice what errors you made and look to see if a pattern forms in your errors. For example, if you realize that you always think that minor chords sound major chords then you can see that this is something you will need to focus your practice time on.

3. Sing (yes sing out loud) scales. Start with singing the major scale, later add the natural minor scale, harmonic minor scale, pentatonic scale, blues scale, etc.

4. Sing intervals (two notes at varying distances).

5. Sing arpeggios (chords - one note at a time) start with major triads and then move on to minor triads.

6. Sight singing (you will need to have a basic understanding of reading music to do this) You can use any piece of sheet music for this. There are sight singing books that you can buy if you want.

7. Transcribe rhythms. this is just like transcribing a melody, but the focus here is on writing down on paper the rhythm only.

8. Improvising melodies, solos, etc. over chords. This is great thing to do anyway.

9. Imagine a 3 or 4 note melody in your mind and then try to play it on your instrument.

10. Record yourself playing lots of different chords (just major and minor triads for now). Try not to repeat the same chord very often. play back your recording and then try to identify whether the chords you hear are major or minor.

11. For those of you living in the United States, your local community college or university that has a music department typically offers basic aural skills classes that may be open to the general public. Community colleges often charge a very low fee for this class. I am not familiar with how this works in other parts of the world, so non US citizens should check this out with your local colleges.

12. There are ear training software programs available that can be found on the internet. The one I used in college was called Practica Musica by Ars Nova. (Note: This is not an endorsement for practica musica or Ars Nova, I'm just letting you know that this and other aural skills software do exist and can be a valuable resource.)

Tom Hess
13. For those of you who may not be able to enroll in an aural skills class, I strongly recommend to seek out a private music teacher. The good thing about seeking a private teacher is that the teacher does not need to be a teacher of your chosen instrument. Any competent music teacher (no matter what instrument the teacher plays) can teach you aural skills. The key is to find a competent teacher though, there are a lot of incompetent teachers out there.

Ear training is critical to any musician's development as musician. Remember to persevere and be patient with yourself as your ear develops. Expect progress to be like your physical instrument playing, slow but steadily moving forward each day. Your ear needs constant practicing just like your hands do, so don't neglect the most crucial tool that you have...... your ears!

Tom Hess is a successful recording artist and composer. He is also a very dedicated music teacher, mentor, and coach.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

At Last! Phonetic/Numeric Names for All Twelve Musical Notes

There are phonetic solfège names for all 12 musical notes.  These are hard to intuit and differ when ascending vs. descending.  For example:

Ascending = doh, dee, ray, ree, mee, fah, fee, sol, see, lah, lee, tee, doh.

Descending = doh, tee, tay, lah, lay, sol, say, fah, mee, may, ray, rah, doh.

You may have noticed that each of these scales contains "doh, ray, mee, fah, sol, lah, tee, doh" and "doh, tee, lah, sol, fah, mee, ray, doh".  This is the major or Ionian scale, made familiar by the Sound of Music.  The five notes that fall in between these major scale notes are the ones that get the different names going up and going down,depending on whether they are being flattened or sharpened.  (Whenever you're using a scale other than that major scale, you're going to have one or more of these other notes in the scale.)
I think I've finally come up with a handy dandy, easy to grasp alternative to the more conventional method.  Here goes:

Use the major scale as the home base and assign a numeric name to each note.  So "doh, ray, mee, fah, sol, lah, tee, doh" becomes "one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one", and "doh, tee, lah, sol, fah, mee, ray, doh" becomes "one, sev, six, five, four, three, two, one".  That seems easier to understand and remember, especially when descending.

Let's use the C-major scale as an example.  The notes are one (C), two (D), three (E), four (F), five (G), six (A), sev (B), one/eight (C).  When you need to raise (AKA "sharpen") any of those notes, use a word that rhymes with the note number you are sharpening and add an "r" sound in front of it (r for "raised"). Raised two (D#) = roo, raised four (F#) = ror, raised five (G#) = rive, and raised six (A#) = rix.  (Note: you probably wouldn't raise the one - you would diminish the two; you probably wouldn't raise the three because that's already four, and you probably wouldn't raise the sev because that's already one, but there may be situations that call for this).

When you need to diminish (AKA"flatten") any of those notes in the major scale, use a word that rhymes with the note number you are flattening and add a "d" sound in front of it (d for "diminished").  Again, in the key of C major, diminished two (Db) = doo, diminished three (Eb) = dee, diminished five (Gb) = dive, diminished six (Ab) = dix, and diminished sev (Bb) = dev.  (Note: diminished four is the same as three, diminished one is the same as sev).
More often than not, you're going to be flattening/diminishing notes in the major scale rather than sharpening/raising them.  However, the Lydian scale contains a raised four: one, two, three, ror, five, six, sev, one.  For an exotic example of a scale with flattened/diminished notes, try playing the Greek Hitzaz scale (a scale I just learned about this morning).  The Hitzaz scale contains a flattened two, flattened six and flattened seven:  one, doo, three, four, five, dix, dev, one.  That large scalar interval between doo and three - Db to E in the scale of C - is what gives the Hitzaz scale a distinctive, Mediterranean sound to our Western ears.

Once you understand this concept, you'll have a phonetic/numeric name for any note in any melody, based on its relation to the "one".  The benefits of defining it this way are endless.  It's as if you didn't have a name for the colors red, orange and pink, but now suddenly do.  When you have a word for red it becomes more tangible and distinct from orange and pink.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Blood Splatters Quickly - The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood Jr.

OR Books has published a collection of cult filmmaker Ed Wood’s short stories, titled Blood Splatters Quickly. Edward D. Wood Jr. is best known as the creator of B-movies such as “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Bride of the Monster”. Johnny Depp portrayed him in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic “Ed Wood”.

In the late 60’s, Ed Wood began working as a writer to help pay the rent. His short stories often appeared in obscure girly magazines published during the 1970's. The 32 macabre/erotic stories in Blood Splatters Quickly were written between 1969 and 1975.  Edward D. Wood Jr. died in 1978 at age 54. In the 40 years since these stories first appeared in adult magazines, none of them have been available to the public until now.

Ed Wood, 1969
Naturally, the guy widely considered to be the "worst" filmmaker of all time also had a knack for writing so bad they’re good short stories. As a hobbyist musician, I take inspiration from those who manage to create bodies of work in spite of adversity or a perceived lack of skill. I’m about a third of the way through this collection so far and the stories are actually quite entertaining and imaginative (and sleazy). They’re definitely easy to ingest in one sitting if you have about 15 minutes to spare before going to bed.

With stories that begin like this, how can you go wrong?!: “It was bitter cold and the blizzard had been grinding across the land for more than two days and there didn’t appear to be any letting up and Stella, Johnnie’s wife, lay dead on the kitchen floor… right where she had fallen dead from the butcher knife wound in her heart – the night the storm had started.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gary Burton's Jazz Improvisation MOOC Week 4 - Keith Jarrett's Memories of Tomorrow

So, I'm in week 4 of vibraphone player Gary Burton's free online Jazz Improvisation course.  I'm trying to hang in there through all the discussions of chord scales even though, as a melodic-based player and jazz newbie, I'm not even aware of the chords as I'm playing a tune.
Part of this week's assignment was to record yourself playing the melody to Keith Jarrett's "Memories of Tomorrow" and then improvise over the harmony - one chorus of melody and then a chorus of soloing.  I had never heard this tune until yesterday, but it actually has a melody that I can make out and get into.

I spent yesterday listening to the tune and imagining myself recording it tonight.  Kind of poetic that way, since it's called Memories of Tomorrow.  When I got home this evening I cranked out a recording the first chance I got.  This here is the 2nd take.  It may not be all that improvisational but it actually sounds listenable to my ears, unlike my sub-par submissions for the previous week's assignments.

I am definitely learning some theory-oriented approaches from this class and getting a glimpse into the mindset of a jazz improviser - an area where I was completely ignorant beforehand.  Jazz is first and foremost an aural tradition, but gaining an understanding of the technique behind certain strategies of soloing can't hurt.

This is the video I listened to to get an idea of what Memories of Tomorrow sounds like:

It's a good sounding tune!

The Moleskin Large Music Notebook

Moleskin makes some of the finest journals, sketch pads and notebooks, so naturally their Music Notebook would be cool too. The left side of each page is blank, while the right side contains blank sheet music staffs/staves, so it can function as both a practice journal and a compositional notebook. 

Instead of having scraps of paper strewn about and misplaced, this music notebook allows you to keep all your musical ideas in one place. Write your practice notes, song lyrics and musical thoughts on the left side, and jot down melodies, chords, and composition ideas on the staffs on the right. 

The large version of the music notebook measures 5” x 8.25” with 192 pages and has a durable, hard black cover with an elastic closure. It also includes a music ruler to draw lines of new staffs, if necessary. The size and design of the Music Notebook is conducive to making you want to write in it daily. It’s not so rigid and formal to be intimidating, not so big to be clunky, and not so small to be inconsequential.

Don't overthink it, don't second guess yourself, just start writing. A blank page, a blank mind.  Accept all ideas. Don’t throw anything out. Ignore self-doubt. Just get something on the page, you have nothing to lose. Fill the music notebook up then start on another!