Creativity and Schizophrenia

I just came across this interesting article about how research using some sort of brain scanning technology noted similarities between the brains of highly creative people and the brains of people with schizophrenia, notably fewer receptors of a particular kind.  From the article:

“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.

He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.  This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.

Looking through history it seems almost as if very creative individuals and crazy lives go hand in hand.  Take, for example, the life of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Charlie Parker.  In addition to helping to create a new style of improvisation that would lead to modern jazz, Parker also suffered virtually his whole life with addictions and mental illness.  Like other similar cases, Parker died young, at the age of 34 (and the coroner who conducted his autopsy famously estimated his age to be in his fifties).

I tend to think the idea of linking tragic lives and creativity to contain a bit of confirmation bias.  It’s more interesting to study the biography of someone who was eccentric and we tend to not think about the more normal lives of other creative figures in history.  Still, this new research goes a long way in explaining why it seems that highly creative people often seem to be, well, a little off in their own world.

Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Theory of Fourths

I’ve blogged about using perfect fourths as an technical exercise and as a method for motivic development in improvisation before.  The above YouTube video (click read more if you don’t see it) is the late pianist and music educator Walter Bishop, Jr. explaining how he discovered and explored the use of perfect forth patterns to derive both harmonic and melodic material in jazz improvisation.  He plays examples as he describes the application of using the perfect fourth interval on some of his original composition as well as on standards like On Green Dolphin Street and I Got Rhythm as well as standard progressions like the ii-V-I.

Good stuff for improvisors on all instruments and composers looking to expand their vocabulary and explore some new ideas.  The way he starts off by showing how to squeeze the range of a pattern based entirely on perfect fourths into a single octave range will help us non-pianists find a comfortable range in which to start off applying some of his ideas.

Sight Reading and Working Memory Capacity

The ability to sight read a piece of music accurately is an important skill for any musician, and is absolutely essential for a working professional musician.  Most musicians work very hard at improving their sight reading by doing a lot of sight reading.  Of course, if you want to get better at something you need to practice doing it, but some new cognitive psychology research may force us to adjust our thinking on sight reading practice.

According to researchers Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing, practicing sight reading for thousands of hours will make you good, but individuals with good “working memory capacity” have an advantage. Continue reading Sight Reading and Working Memory Capacity

Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?

Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal Online doesn’t seem to think so.  He asks:

What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century? Many people still believe that an orchestra is a self-evidently essential part of what makes a city civilized. But is this true?

He goes on to compare regional orchestras to regional museums and theater companies.  These are probably good comparisons to make, since it’s probably the same group of people who are attracted to these artistic activities.  But what point is Teachout driving at with this comparison?   Continue reading Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?

Eight Composition Points To Consider by Bill Russo

I’ve been leafing through Bill Russo’s book Jazz Composition & Orchestration for some ideas and inspiration and came across the following eight points to consider for composers wanting to have their music performed.  It’s good advice, particularly for inexperienced composers.

  1. Write in medium registers for all the instruments
  2. Give the brass instruments frequent and long rests
  3. Deal with one aspect of composition at a time
  4. Write a sketch score and then a full score
  5. Be sure that both the score and the extracted parts are legible and that they correspond to each other completely
  6. Know the orchestra you are writing for and give crucial passages to the best players
  7. Construct parts that are enjoyable to perform
  8. Be brave, if your work is unpalatable to the “hip” crowd, but be careful to learn what they have to teach you and avoid attacking theme merely to disguise your own deficiencies.
  9. If I could be so bold, I’ll add:

  10. When looking for new musical material see if you can derive it from motives already in the piece

What would you add?

The Hand of Bill Evans

I just saw this over on Casa Valdez Studio, the blog of saxophonist David Valdez.  Supposedly it is a scan of Bill Evans‘ handwritten manuscript for a 1971 recording session.  Evans was not only one of the most influential pianists of jazz, but was also a innovative composer as well.

Time Remembered is a challenging tune to improvise over.  The root movement is mainly what you would expect, but sometimes the chord quality (major, minor, etc.) often isn’t.  Check out mm. 5-6 in the image above to see what I mean.  The root movement of A, D, to G is the common ii-V-I pattern, but all three chords are minor.  I also love how Evans chooses the upper extensions of the chords as melody notes (9th, 11th, 13th).

One of my composition teachers once brought a stack of photocopies of handwritten music by John Scofield he had gotten somewhere (he wouldn’t say).  It was really cool to look at what Scofield had written and hear the recording to see how much was actually improvised and how much was pre-composed.

Arnold Jacobs on Embouchure: A Criticism

Today I’m going to go after one of brass pedagogy’s sacred cows, Arnold Jacobs.  Since so many teachers and players have been strongly influenced by Jacobs’ teaching (myself included), I should give a little background first.

Jacobs sometimes summarized his teaching philosophy as “Song & Wind.”  This influential concept is sometimes described as the musician’s focus should first and foremost should be on being a musical communicator, the “song.”  After that, a brass musician’s attention should be placed on good breathing, the “wind.”  One of the reasons that this is such a popular pedagogical method is because it’s very effective.  Putting attention on the musical expression does have a tendency to work out the kinks in a player’s technique.  Efficient breathing is also an extremely important part of good brass technique.

Just so I’m clear here, I’m not advocating that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.  However, just because Jacobs had an expert understanding of the physiology of breathing and application of that knowledge to playing brasswind instruments doesn’t mean that his statements on other areas should be taken for gospel truth, as many seem to think.  Case in point, his statements on the embouchure. Continue reading Arnold Jacobs on Embouchure: A Criticism

Addin’ Down for Big Band and Pros and Cons of Music Software

One of the reasons I’ve been quiet here lately is because I’ve been spending a lot of time composing a new big band chart, called Addin’ Down.  Here is a MIDI realization of it.

[audio:|titles=Addin’ Down]

In case anyone is curious, I use Finale 2010 to do my arranging and copy work, and the playback is also done in Finale, with a little help from an old version of Band-in-a-Box to create some of the rhythm section parts and improvised solos.  It’s sort of stiff sounding because of this, and I never bothered to get the drum playback to play more like the street beat feel I want on this one.

Of course, you have to use your imagination when listening to a computer play back your composition anyway.  It’s tempting to feel that just because somethings sounds cool on the computer that live musicians playing it are going to sound like it does on the computer. Continue reading Addin’ Down for Big Band and Pros and Cons of Music Software

Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures by Lloyd Leno

Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures is a documentary film made by Dr. H. Lloyd Leno sometime in the late 1980s, I think.  Leno was the trombone professor at Walla Walla College, in Walla Walla, Washington.  I’m not certain exactly when he passed away, but his son, Michael Leno, gave me permission to post his father’s film on YouTube.  Dr. Leno made this film after doing research on his dissertation, A Study of Lip Vibrations With High Speed Photography (he wrote an article for the International Trombone Association Journal based on it in 1987 and I think his dissertation was completed just a year or two earlier).

Dr. Leno’s dissertation research was designed to confirm that the lips actually vibrate at the same frequency the pitch oscillates.  It turns out that they do, which is what physics states must be happening but prior to Leno’s research no one had actually tested this.  What became so interesting about his study wasn’t the slow motion view of the lips vibrating but that out of his initial pool of 4 test subjects that three players were found to be blowing the air past the lips downstream and 1 was blowing upstream.   Continue reading Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures by Lloyd Leno