September 2016

September 2016 letter

What a month? A lot of work and a good deal of help from friends. I never realized how much work there was and I am going at it at a reasonable pace – not avoiding it and not running myself ragged. I had a very nice visit from Merrilee and she helped with the notary as well. I made two new friends who are helping me clear up the yard. And I expect to see Bob M in early October. I have found a company that makes shipping stuff easy. There are still a lot of things that I have not figured out how to get done and so cannot really see the plan of how to leave clearly but every day seems to be in a positive direction.

I am not doing my usual type of material and instead have another bunch of Harry’s stuff I have found.

Another group of Harry’s papers

Harry had a great interest in music. He was interested in playing, listening, the physics of instruments, the nature of sine waves, amplifiers, speakers, acoustics, instrument repair and on and on. There is no material on much of his ideas in this area. One story I remember that illustrates this. We had a very cheap guitar and Harry was never able to play it in the conventional way because his fingers just would not bend as required. But he worked for some time with ways to tune the guitar and developed a routine that produced a magnificently tuned guitar with a the beat frequencies balanced back and forth across the strings. Harry kept the guitar tuned for fun and it hung on the wall. Visitors who played it would remark on its surprising quality and Harry would say no it is as cheap as it looked but it is well tuned and offer to show them how to do it. The summaries are here and the writing is further below.

5. Making the case for teaching to play by ear

Harry was aware of how ingrained in the culture was the idea that children took music lessons. He was not against music lessons as long as the child could play by ear first. If they knew how to hum a simple tune when they could play it. Then was the time for formal lessons. The one exception he had was that children could take singing lessons because singing did not bypass the sound of a note. This little item explains how he became a firm believer in playing by ear.

6. The Music book

The music book never got past the first few pages. I found this note to someone. “A couple of days ago, hidden in the depths of her computer backups and archived files, Jan found something that I worked on about twenty years ago. Because I don’t have backups and stuff like that, and have changed computers a half dozen times since then, I had thought it was lost and gone forever, but there it was. At least a lot of it. It was the start of a little book on basic music theory, beginning at a building block level. In writing it, I had in mind two specific readers, one was young Ciara, who would have been 8 or 9 at the time, and the other a forty-odd year old friend,who had a beautiful alto voice and sang in a choir, but was frustrated by not being able to read music. I thought that if I was talking to both of them at the same time, the words should be about right.” The book was a great idea but Harry got into a perfectionist mood and spent a great deal of time with fonts and exact placing on things on the paper. He did not have applications or printers that would cooperate with him, and he wanted control of every letter and space. I am murdering his concept in order to place it here – simply typing it out with the letters falling where they will. The ladders were interesting one was printed on the page and the other was free and a sort of bookmark that could be used to make a longer ladder and stuff like that.

7. Injury in flute players

Harry noticed the terrible crick in the neck of flute players and figured out a head joint for a flute that would eliminate this problem. He acquired an old head joint, did experiments, and bent the joint to the angle he figured was right. He could not get a flute manufacturer to make such a flute and had trouble convincing flute players that it was necessary. Below is an letter to the authors of a paper on flute injuries by Ackermann, Kenny and Fortune.

8. Harry’s method of putting the cork on a sax neck

Harry also had looked at way of preparing sax reeds and of shaping the mouthpiece platform for the reed. I thought his experiments with mouthpieces existed by I cannot find them. Harry always believed in very good methods as opposed to the over use of time and skill. When even he had to do something new he spent a little to a lot of time asking himself if there were all better ways to do something.


Making the case for teaching to play by ear.

The simplest way I can think of to explain my view is to tell a little story. As a child I was taught violin, then viola,and concurrently, flute. I was part of a family string quartet, and we weren’t bad. (Second in a reasonable music festival). In my mid-teens I first heard jazz, (very controlled up-bringing), and was smitten. Leaving home at 17, the first thing I did with my own earned money, was to buy a trumpet. I had assumed that the reason I couldn’t improvise, or “play jazz”, was because I had the wrong instruments, and had heard Harry James in movies, thus the choice of instrument. I then followed the path that was familiar: I found a teacher and took lessons. Within a year, I could play most stuff that was put in front of me, ( no Trumpet Volontaire or such, but all the same-). Sadly, the same result: no jazz, no improvisation.

Then followed a tempestuous decade or so, with lots of errors of youth. With no real emotional ties to music, it was totally neglected. Then, at thirty (we’re talking 60’s now), I had a lot of strange friends, one of whom was a brilliant poet and a not-bad painter and photographer. He had decided to learn to play trumpet and bought himself a horn. Without a smattering of musical knowledge and a friend with similar qualifications but with a sax, they would make noises together. It was painful to witness. Freddie would push down valves at random, willing the notes he wanted out of the horn, but they wouldn’t come. Because I loved the man, and because I knew, through his poetry, that there was a great musician in there somewhere, I made a tentative offer of help: “Would you like me to show you what those buttons do?” He did, and I did. I showed him that each valve added a little bit of extra length and lowered the note. Little step, bigger step, both together a step and a half, then two steps, two and a half, and bottom note. I consciously decided to stop there, for fear of over-loading the session.

On the way home, I remarked to my partner that it was a good thing I had decided to stop where I did, because in fact , that was all I could remember. I didn’t know the name of the open note, where it sat on the staff, nothing. I must point out, I could still easily read in two clefs, could air finger any written material on the violin ,viola or flute.

Freddie lost interest in the horn, and I started to borrow it more and more, until I traded him something for it. I practiced in the back of a van moving in traffic or on the beach to avoid complaints from neighbours, and in a month or so, I was playing figures from Miles’ Sketches of Spain, and doing my own threads from them, blues tunes, even some of my own. I had learned to hear a note in my head, and my fingers would find it. When I wanted to play something complicated, for which I had the score, I would play it on the flute ( I had rescued one from a junk store, but normally never played it) to learn the tune, then transpose it to where it was comfortable on the horn, without ever knowing what the notes were that I was hitting on the horn.

Eventually, I noticed that the musicians I listened to the most were sax players, and that the voice of the tenor was the one I most identified with, so, a pawnshop tenor, and the start of a long learning curve. It started nervously, because I had built up a phobia about the instruments on which I had been so mute, and the Boehm system is the Boehm system. But happily, the old mind trap was gone. The tenors have included a beautiful SML rev D, and my best gig so far has been a street fair where I was roving back-up player to nervous young buskers and to kids doing their first song in public. So, Carnegie Hall, eat your heart out.

Back to what I couldn’t do. I am convinced that my being without a voice on those instruments which I had been taught to play was not a particular weakness of mine. Many orchestra players of good standing (some first chair) could not play ‘happy birthday’ for their kid’s party without notes in front of them. And when you hear someone mention that they ‘took lessons’ up to Grade 5 in this, or Grade 8 in that, and you ask them whether they play now, what’s the answer you most often hear?

My hypothesis is a simple one. When a beginner (particularly a child!) is taught to read music and to play an instrument at the same time, it is almost inevitable that the brain makes a link between a position on the staff and a finger position, bypassing any notion of the sound completely. It’s like touch typing, where a proficient typist can copy a page of material, without an error, and without any awareness of the content.

Of course there are the brilliant exceptions. I think of Oscar Peterson, John Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin, Nigel Kennedy et al, but these are the geniuses who would have been great regardless of how they started. Also, some instruments may be more conducive to avoiding this trap than others, but our woodwinds, where a note on the staff equals a fingering, one to one, are particularly prone.

My method is simple. Lend the kid a horn, show them how the sound is made and where the sounds are. You don’t need the whole chromatic scale (there’s a lot of keys on a sax!). Get them to sing a very simple melody with mostly whole tone and semi-tone intervals, give them a starting point for the first note, then let them find the tune. Mary had a little lamb will bring a smile of accomplishment, and good king Wenceslas isn’t bad either. Let them ask you where the other sharps and flats are when they need them because of where they started the tune. I don’t see anything wrong with doh re me, (movable doh of course, not that fixed doh nonsense).Why don’t they just call it “C”?? We don’t need paper notation for any of this.

A reasonable assignment would be: “Pick three tunes that you like, and learn how to play them. Phone me if you need help in finding a good starting point for them”. And if the answer is “E”, you don’t say “E”, you say “three fingers down left hand, two fingers down right hand”. If you are looking for exercises, the major scales are a good starting point, but if you’re a teacher, you don’t need my advice here. If, on the other hand, you’re the young one’s parent, and maybe need some advice, some suggestions: the major scales, start with the easy ones,C, F, Bflat, G, D. Long slow 4 beat notes every day, as a warm-up. Each note played 3 times, with a different sound each time, all the way up the scale. Try to make all the number 1 notes sound the same as each other, all the way up the scale, and the number 2’s, and 3’s. I’m talking about timbre, or the character of the sound. Then simple patterns, doh me re fa,me soh etc. (And if you are that parent and are still with me at this point, take heart; it’ll be fun, and you will learn as much as your youngster will).

But I digress. Anyone who wants to call him/herself a teacher will come up with creative ways to use this approach, if they are persuaded by its supporting logic.


The Music Book

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do are the names given to some notes. They are pronounced Doe Ray Me Fa So La Tea Doe. There are other ways to spell them, but the way at the top is the most common. In any case, as with most things to do with music, it’s the way things sound that is important and not the way they are written down. When you sing – Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do you are singing a scale. Again, there are other scales, but this is the first one we are going to look at and think about.

We get the word “scale” from a word that means ladder, and a ladder is a very good way to get to understand the scale.

You will notice that the ladder I have drawn is a rather unusual ladder, so I had better explain it. First, the steps are not the same distance apart. Second, thee are steps at the very bottom and the very top, which is not very useful on a real ladder. Finally the top step is named the same as the botton step, which doesn’t seem quite right either.

Well, when you sing “do, re, mi, etc.”, if you listen carefully, you might notice that the steps you are making with your voice aren’t even. Next, we often want to sing higher or lower than we can get to with do re me fa so la ti do, so we want to be able to stack another ladder on top of our first one, or underneath it. When we do that, we want the first “do” of the second ladder to be the same as the last “do” of the first one. As for the “do” at the bottom and again at the top, the reason for this is that the more we sing or play music, the more we find that the two “do’s” sound almost exactly the same, except that one is much higher than the other.

One of the very useful things about our do re mi scale is that we can start it on any sound, or notem that we please. You can sing any note you want, and call it “do”. Then, as long as you make the same big steps and little steps that make up this scale, or ladder, it will sound right.

What is much more interesting, is that we can make up any song or tune, using the “do re mi’s” in any order, and if we change the note we used for “do”, the song will still sound the same, just higher or lower.

Now let’s deal with those uneven steps before we go further. If you look at the ladder, you will see that the steps between “mi” and “fa”, and between “ti” and “do” are half as big as the others. When the scale or ladder has these half-spaces in these places, between the third and fourth steps, and between the seventh and eighth steps, it is called a Major Scale. Sing the scale out loud and I think you will agree that the space between those pairs of notes is different than the space between the others.

In music language, we call the big spaces “tones”, and the little spaces “half-tones”. This is a bit unfortunate, because the same word “tone” is also used to mean something completely different, and this is the sound, or character of a note. Like whether a note sounds open and clear, or muffled, or nasal, like singing through your nose. Anyway, you can usually tell which way a person means “tone” from what he or she is saying.

Now since I’ve said that you can call any note you like do, that means that this way of naming motes isn’t much use if we want to tell someone to sing or play some particular note or sound. It’s as if we had all the notes of your voice lined up, one next to the other, and we could set our ladder beside them. We can set the ladder so that do is beside any particular note, and we could sing a tune that went “mi re do re mi mi mi”, for example. If we told someone else that was our tune, (mi re do re mi mi mi) they could sing it, but without knowing where we had set the ladder they wouldn’t know whether to start on a low note, a high note, or in between.

To solve this problem, each note or sound is given a name of its own that stays the same whatever step of the ladder is beside it. These name are the first seven letters of the alphabet, repeated over and over from the very lowest notes you can think of the the highest.

Now here is a strange thing.

To build our first scale which ties together our do re mi ladder and our a b c d motes, we set the ladder so that do is opposite c! Why c and not c? The reason is buried in history and we are not going to bother to dig it out just now, but that is the way it is.

Okay. If do is c, then re must be d, mi is e and so on. That means there must be a half-tone between e and f, (mi and fa), and between b and c, (ti and do), the full tones between all the other notes, And so it is. When we do this, when we set the ladder with do opposite cm and the half tones between e and f and b and c match up with the half tones between mi and fa, and ti and do, we call that the C scale or the Key of C.

Now we come to the second half of this business of Major Scales. I have said that some notes have while tones between them and others have half-times between them. And, of course, that this is true whether we are thinking do ra mi, or a b c. this leaves us with a fairly obvious question. Those notes that have a whole tome between them, could we divide up that space into two half-tones? The answer is yes, and if no one had done it before, it would still be yes. Because we could decide to do it for ourselves. After all, if you can make your voice go up a half-tone from mi to fa, then surely you could make it go up a half-time from fa to half-way between fa and so, whether there was a name for that or not!

But we are looking at major scales, and we have said that they have their half-tones in particular places. So instead of looking for notes half-way between fa and so, let’s look at what happens if we wet our ladder so that do is opposite d instead of c. We see that re has become e, but that mi is half-way between f and g. So we are going to have to make f a half-tone higher because that is where our scale ladder says it must be to sound right. As it happens, there is already a name for this. When we want a note to sound a half-tone higher, we say we ‘sharpen’ the note, so that our f becomes an f sharp. We have a sign that stands for ‘sharp’, and it is #. So our mi is going to be f#. Fa is opposite g, and all the notes match up until ti, which is between c and d, so we will call that c#, and then do will b d again. Since we made this scale by setting do at d, we call it the D Major Scale.

That is all there is to it! Well, more or less. It won’t surprise you a lot that where-ever you put the do of our scale ladder, (except on c) one of more notes will have to be paced a half-tone away from where they belong to make them fit to the scale ladder, so that the scale will sound right. By the way, when we have to push a note a half-tone down instead of up to make it fitm we call that flattening the note, so that if we start our scale on f, for example, b becomes b flat, and is written b*.

If you count all the possible places that we could start our scale, (or set the do for our scale), including all the half-tone points, before we start repeating, you will find that there are twelve. So this must be twelve possible major scales. Each of this scales will have a different number of notes that have been either sharpened or flattened to make the scale work. This twelve scales are often arranged in order of the number of sharps or flats that they need. So starting with C with no sharps or flatsm, we have G with one sharp, D with two sharps, A three sharps, E four sharps, B five sharps, and F# with 6 sharps. Then F with one flat, B* with two flats, E* three flats, A* four flats, D* five flats, and G* with 6 flats.

If you count this up, you will reach thirteen and I said there would be twelve. Problem. No really. Notice that the scalle with six sharps is F#, and the one with six flats is G*, and that these two notes are really the same. A half-tone up from F is the same as a half-tine down from G.

Now it’s time to look at ways of writing down a tune so that someone else could read it. We could do it like this: Scale of D Major. Mi Re Do Re Mi Mi Mi, Re Re Re, Mi Mi Mi, Mi Re Do Re Mi Mi Mi, Re, Mi Re Do. Actually, I happen to think that is a very useful way to learn how to read music, but not a lot of other people dom and it is limited in what can be done with it.

Similarly, we could write F# E D E F# F# F#, E E E, F# F# F#, F# E D E F# F# F#, E, F# E D. Music teachers or tutors often do write the notes down like this about the ‘normal’ notes to help their beginners.

These ways would work, but they have a lot of problems. You’ll notice I used commas to suggest little pauses, but I had no way to day how long any note should be. Also, by looking at a line of such notes, you can’t tell ahead of time whether the notes go up or down until you actually read each one. To solve these problems and a great many others, we west a very different approach. We draw a picture or rather a plan of the tune.

The system goes like this. We draw five horizontal lines across our paper. We shall let each line, and each of the spaces between lines be a note. These five lines are called a staff. A special symbol, called a clef, is drawn at the beginning of the staff, that tells us which notes sit on which lines, or spaces. Then we make some symbols to tell use how long a note should be, and simply draw it on the right line or space to show which note we mean. This is a note that is one beat long and for a note twice as long, we draw this.

Before I do any explaining, lets see how our little tune looks in this system of notation.


Injury in flute players

My reaction to the suggestion that these injuries are caused by “poor posture” is that you have hit the point exactly, and hit it exactly wrong! The cause of this type of injury is not the poor posture of the young players, but rather the gross contortion of the human frame called for by the classic teaching of the instrument, particularly “proper posture”.

I was taught to stand, sit, or indeed march in more or less an ‘attention’ posture; ie. Back straight, shoulders square, face pointing straight ahead. The flute was to be held level, that is horizontal, and straight to the side, not pointing forward or backwards. To appreciate the problem, get a volunteer to take up this position, then another one to hold up a piece of tube 66 centimeters long (if no flute is to hand), to the players chin, then try to move the “player’s” hands to the finger hole positions. You will find that the left elbow is in front of the breastbone, and the vertebral column is twisted more or less severely, depending on the size of the victim. He/she would need an arm reach (and height) of about 2 meters to manage this without discomfort.

Clearly this is impossible and therefore nobody does it. The instrument slopes downwards and forwards, and the neck cricks down and to the left, and this posture is maintained for extended periods, while your attention and focus goes to what you are trying to play, and you grow habituated to the discomfort, and the condition becomes chronic.

All this, or almost all, can be radically improved by a slight modification to the design of the instrument, If, in the last few centimeters of the head joint, the tube sweeps downward and forward, the arms effectively move anti-clockwise to a much happier ergonomic, without the need of a neck crick.

Purists immediately bridle at the suggestion, usually claiming unacceptable acoustic harm. These are usually the people that believe the quality of the sound depends on the dollar value of the metal, and who would avoid a blind sound test of any of their theories like the plague. My answer is: set up a blind test, and if there is a discernible difference, weigh that against the young bones you are going to damage. Frankly, I doubt that most critics could distinguish (in blind test) between a straight head joint and one with a “u” joint (as in some student flute ranges), provided both instruments were of the same quality.

If there should be an appetite for these experiments, I would suggest the following ideas. A bend of between 15 and 18 degrees is enough to effect a dramatic improvement in ergonomics. The plane of the bend and the position of the embouchure have to be related. I would suggest a sampling of a group of volunteers to determine the angle between embouchure axis and the vertical that they use normally, and to rotate the plane of the bend 45 degrees clockwise. I find these angles useful, but they should be seen as a starting point.

Players should accustom to the shape by playing in front of a mirror. The tendency to cock the head is so strong that it takes seeing yourself in a mirror to learn to play without a crick in your neck.

To close on a light note, some years ago, I was holding forth on this theme at the woodwind counter of a friendly music store, and another customer disagreed with the need for any of this, offering that he’d played flute for years without any problems, and while talking, he unconsciously picked up the air flute, and immediately cricked his neck over!


Putting a cork on a sex neck

Putting a cork on a sax neck starts with an obvious problem: you’re starting with a tapered tube, and you want to finish with a cylindrical cork. Obvious solution: alter the neck to be cylindrical. I use adhesive backed aluminium tape. (down Red Green fans, I didn’t say duct tape!) Aluminium tape with very good quality adhesive is available as a house insulation accessory, for sealing joints in rigid foam panels. You need to cut a piece of tape as wide as your cork is going to be, parallel for about 60 mm, then ramping down to a point, distance ‘x’ further along. Now the dimensions: Borrow a vernier or digital caliper, and measure the diameter of the neck at each end of the taper you’re going to cover. You also need to know the thickness of the tape. Stick say three layers of tape on to something flat (a piece of glass) and mic the glass alone and with the tape, to get the thickness of the tape. The difference in the two diameters of the taper, divided by 2, then divided by the thickness of a single layer of tape gives you the number of turns of tape you will need to wind up on the mouthpiece end. This number times the diameter times Pi gives you the length of the ramp. Cut it our on a piece of paper to convince yourself that this is getting somewhere. Wind the paper, starting with the sharp end at the m/pc end, round and round and you can see what we’re aiming for here. That “about 60 mm” will be the final lap, to cover the spiral pattern that you have produced. You can trim it to just nicely do that. Repeat the process with the tape instead of paper, and you have a nice solid cylinder on which to glue the cork. You can start off with a cork thickness closer to what you need to give you your finished product, and the final sanding of the cork is so much easier and neater when all you have to do is take off a few thou evenly rather than having to shape it in to a cylinder, There is the added advantage the when, sometime in the distant future you have to replace the cork, you just unwind that last lap and aluminium tape, and not worry about scrapng off the glue residues as in the ‘standard’ method.

Bookmark the permalink.

About Janet Kwasniak

Retired pensioner, raised in Canada but UK citizen living in France, interested in Science and many other things.

Comments are closed.