Singing for my brain – how group singing is the best medicine!

I came across an old TIME magazine article today titled, ‘Singing changes your brain’  As someone susceptible to bouts of anxiety (who isn’t?!) I was intrigued.  I already knew that singing released endorphins and made me feel great, but I didn’t realise that a lot more happens too.

The article is geared towards group singing, something I am passionate about as I am currently leading a workplace choir designed for staff wanting to improve their health and wellbeing.  MusicForMy have arranged specific song requests for the choir so that staff have the added bonus of singing songs they love.

As it has been proven by lovely scientists, I can confidently say that singing improves your health as a result of releasing the following happy hormones;

Endorphins – make us happy and reduce pain

Dopamine – makes us feel good

Serotonin – improves our mood

Oxytocin – the ‘love’ hormone, helps us bond with other lovely people

If you thought that was it, you’d be wrong!  Singing with others also reduces Cortisol which is the nasty hormone that causes stress.  So it’s proven, singing creates the right balance of hormones in our bodies that reduce stress and anxiety levels.  As well as gaining this by singing in the car, singing in a workplace choir can make a real difference to how we engage in our jobs.  This is where MusicForMy can help, so contact us today if you would like to inject some musical happiness into your workplace.

Group singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out.  It is the one thing in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed.  Even if you walked into rehearsal exhausted and depressed, by the end of the night you’ll walk out high as a kite on endorphins and good will. – TIME

http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain/

 

How to arrange music part 3 – Don’t Get Winded!

First off, I must apologise for that awful, awful pun. When it came to dividing up the skills of MusicForMy, Alice got all the comedy and I got the dry application of instrumental knowledge. Luckily for me today is a dry day for we are to learn important things; how to arrange for Woodwinds. As a family, the Winds include any instrument that produces a sound by blowing down a resonating chamber (often a tube) and then manipulated by a mix of increasing/decreasing air pressure and altering sets of keys. The broadness of the term includes two main groupings, Brass and Woodwind. Brass instruments are uniformly metallic and differ from Woodwind instruments by the use of 3 or 4 valves to extend the length of tubing allowed to resonate with any given blow. Woodwinds, on the other hand, tend to be either made of or derived from wood and alternate pitch by covering holes in the resonating chamber, which in turn lengthen/shorten the resulting vibrating air column. While we’ll be focusing on the Woodwinds today, it’s good to understand the broad differences and how they alter the way we think about an arrangement.

The most common orchestral Woodwinds are Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon and together they cover an exceptional range, even before adding the exceptionally low Contrabassoon and piercingly high Piccolo into the mix. That said, it’s not a wholly similar sound through the octaves as you would find in the strings as the manner in which air is blown through the differing instruments is not necessarily consistent. Flutes (Piccolo, Bass Flute, Recorder, Ocarina etc.) create sound by blowing across an opening in a resonating tube, exactly as you can create a sound blowing across an open bottle. This leads to an exceptionally pure tone that ekes out emotive melodies in some of the classic pieces of the modern era. Debussy chose the Flute to set the hazy dream state of his 1894 masterpiece, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In the opening passage alone you can hear the beauty inherent in the lower ranges of the flute and the clarity with which it leaps to the higher notes. This is where we hit our first arranging hurdle, for while this low range is terribly romantic, it is really quite quiet. Indeed, the Flute on the whole tends to struggle in loud passages unless in the higher ranges, which is quite lucky because it can play incredibly high.

The Clarinet also has beauty in it’s lower ranges but, unlike the Flute, it’s tonality changes as the pitch increases. You may already be aware of Gershwin’s 1924 piece, Rhapsody in Blue but if not have a quick listen to the opening few phrases as the Clarinet screams it’s way across the octaves. The lower range I known as the chalumeau range and like the Flute is a brilliant place to put a romantic melody in a quiet passage. However the brusque nature of the Clarinet’s mid to high range means it can clearly be picked out in the crowd and provide harmonic support across the family. Being a single reed instrument it shares many similarities with the Saxophone, a relatively modern instrument (invented in 1840) designed to bridge the gap between the Woodwinds and Brass. Personally I tend not to use the Saxophone in an orchestral setting but it is indispensable if scoring for pop ensembles.

The final two main orchestral Woodwinds differ from the previous two in that they both produce sound by directly blowing into two reeds and are therefore rather ingeniously called double reeds. The Oboe (and related Oboe d’amore and Cor Anglais) fall roughly halfway between the Clarinet and Flute but without the extended range of either. That said, the Oboe has probably the most clarity of all Woodwind instruments and can carve out a melody in even the most densely packed tutti section. I always approach the Oboe with great respect as a misplaced entry can often derail a carefully planned texture with the rustic nature of it’s sound as often as it lifts a piece. You have been warned. It’s bigger brother, the Bassoon (and by extension, Contrabassoon), is one of my favourite instruments to write for. The lower range instantly smooths the sharp tonality, even at higher end of it’s range as seen in the achingly beautiful opening to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. I love this piece and I love the warmth of the Bassoon line, balancing on the edge of calamity with a great sense of poise. Of course, the Bassoon is predominantly used as a bass instrument and in this guise provides a great tonal counterpoint to the Cello. I quite like doubling bass lines between the Bassoon, Bass Clarinet and Cello to provide a fully robust low end with which you can build a solid piece.

So what’s the most important thing to remember when arranging for these versatile instruments? The sole drawback to having your dreams streaked in audio? The thing I consistently forget? Wind players need to breathe. Think about your lungs after an intense run and how much they cry our for oxygen; now think about what it must be like to have that feeling and still need to regulate your exhalation. As wonderful as having long drawn out chords held solely in the Winds is, after a few seconds they’ll need to replenish their lungs. Luckily most professional players can sneak in a few sneaky breaths if you give them the occasional break but it’s still good practice to break up and divide a melody amongst the family.

So there are a few pointers for how to approach the Woodwinds that barely gloss over the sheer variety of instruments and sounds available to you. Here at MusicForMy we can arrange for any instrumental ensemble and any skill level to create the perfect music for your special event. Be it a wedding, christening, party or other, just drop us a line at harry@musicformy.net and we can help make your dreams a reality.

How to arrange music part 2 – Know Your Strings

Like a bus, you wait ages for one blog on arranging music and then two come in quick succession! Due to Alice spending yet another weekend away, this time in Berlin of all places, I, Harry, the composer half of MusicForMy am here to continue our musical journey. If you missed part 1 you can read it by clicking this here sentence, I recommend you go check it out, we’ll wait. How’d you find it? Now that it’s all fresh in your memory I’m going to go into a wee bit more detail about knowing your instruments, because they are numerous in number and tricky in capabilities. You probably already know that there are various families of instruments that share similarities of use and construction, the String family for example includes instruments that, unsurprisingly, produce sound from strings while the Woodwind family produce sound from blowing into them. There are 5 main families, the aforementioned Strings and Woodwinds alongside Brass (trumpets, trombones etc.), Percussion (drums etc.) and Keyboards. Within these groups there are further subdivisions, such as bowed strings, plucked strings and struck strings, with each producing a unique sound which in turn can be used to flavour your arrangement.

Let’s start with the Strings, the leaders of any orchestra and ostensibly the dominant set of instruments most arrangers use. These instruments use strings (metal, gut or nylon) of various sizes strung over a resonating chamber (or body) to create sound. The strength of strings is a rich, even sound across the dynamics and a HUGE range over the family, with a double bass alone getting as low as C1 (very low) and as high as D4 (very high, depending on skill). Admittedly, a high double bass can sound a bit intense but this in itself can be used to highlight certain moments in a great arrangement; Richard Strauss in particular used a very high double bass note to highlight Salome’s obsession in his 1905 opera, Salome. Bowed Strings are also exceptionally versatile, being able to produce long drawn out notes with the bow and droplets of sound with a pluck of the strings. The most common use of plucked techniques is found, once again, in the double bass as it can be used to drive the rhythm like a pitched bass drum. You see this most often in jazz and country musics where the bass is considered very much part of the rhythm section and if arranging for one of these ensembles you would always make sure that a strong plucked note was heard at the start of a bar or phrase, preferably in lock-step with the bass drum. One of my favourite bass players at the mo is Paul Kowert, a progressive bluegrass player with Punch Brothers, The Prairie Home Companion and a whole host of the brightest and the best. His style uses a whole host of techniques that highlight the unique qualities of the bass, from percussive plucks to ominous drone.

In that video, alongside Paul Kowert’s incredible demonstration of how the double bass’ variety, you would also have seen Brittany Haas tear it up on the fiddle. There are few real differences between the fiddle and violin but one of the more important ones is a slightly flatter bridge which allows the fiddle to play three notes at a time (triple-stopping) instead of two. When arranging for the greater string family (violins, violas and cellos) these double-stops can be life savers for filling the tonality of a piece. The most common ensemble for arranging is, of course, the string quartet; an exceptionally romantic group of two violins, viola and cello. On the surface it should be fairly simply to arrange for, melody in violin 1, bass in the cello and the rest of the material filled out by violin two and viola. Problems come up if the chords needed have more notes than strings available, this is where double stops come in handy. It’s why, if available, I love to arrange for bowed strings to get that versatility and lush depth of sound.

The other important schism of the String family is the plucked (or strummed) strings. That’s not to dismiss the struck strings, such as the dulcimer or clavichord (the piano is considered halfway between the percussion and string families), it’s just that they aren’t so common in a large scale arrangement. Plucked (or strummed) strings on the other hand, they’re likely the most common set of instruments you hear due to one massively important instrument, the guitar. These instruments share an equal versatility with the bowed strings but focus heavily on the rhythmic aspects with their ability to strum chords as an accompaniment to a melody instrument. Personally, I prefer the mandolin to the guitar and like to use it as an accompaniment to many of my songs as heard in the above MusicForMy commissioned piece, The Nightingale. The mandolin has a higher sitting range than the guitar so together with Alice we decided to sit the vocal in a lower, folkier range giving a really nice warmth to counterpoint the mandolin. That’s always the goal with arranging, balancing the tones so that every piece feels complete. That’s what I always strive towards with each and every MusicForMy commission, creating unique works for your special occasion. For more information email harry@musicformy.net.

How to arrange music: part 1 – The basics

Hallo! I’m Harry, the composer half of MusicForMy. Alice is away this week (something about enjoying the wilds of west Wales) so I’m stepping up to shine a light on how I approach my musical arrangements. Whether it’s reducing a pop song to string quartet or a symphony to organ, the way I start is always the same, with extensive listening. When we love a song so much that we want to hear it as we process down the aisle we’re not just thinking about the melodies, we’re thinking about how those melodies make us feel. By listening intently we can strip the song to it’s very core and then build something truly magical.

You see, music is greater than the sum of it’s parts and when we change the arrangement of a piece there is always that danger of collapsing the very thing that makes a song special. When I first started arranging Sibelius’ Symphony no.5 III Allegro for Alice’s wedding I was lucky to have known the piece from a very young age. I think part of the reason Alice chose it was the memories my siblings and I had driving up to Scotland and listening to an old Sibelius cassette as the hills rolled by. Even then, knowing the orchestral piece as I did, difficult decisions had to be made in setting it for organ. The soul of this piece is it’s dynamics and percussion, thrilling you with their intensity and vigour. Church organs (unless you have a super fancy one) tend not to have percussion and really struggle with dynamics. Luckily an organ does has a very ‘percussive’ sound for a split second when you open a pipe, something you can hear for yourself by blowing across a bottle, so I could happily put an approximation of the timpani hits in the bass. Equally I knew that to get that sense of pomp at the beginning I could pull out all the stops and blast out the chord. But then I faced immediate problems with where to place the melody, which neatly brings me to my second point.

Know your instrument. It seems such an obvious thing to say but knowing all the ins and outs of the instrument (or instruments) you are writing for is absolutely vital. Every instrument is different and they all have little secrets that you can exploit to hide their limitations. The organ, as mentioned, can give a sense of percussion even if it can’t make the percussive sound itself. But you must always remember that the organist only has 10 fingers and two feet and you always want to make the music as playable as possible. If using percussive bass lines with the organ I am always careful to make sure I have enough limbs to keep the melody and harmony moving satisfactorily. Another good example of this is my arrangement of Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man. The original orchestral piece is on the surface very simple, individual brass melodies following each other in beautiful Appalachian harmony. The problem in this case is that the genius of the original is the way it slowly gets thicker and thicker in tonality until the final chords blare out across the octaves. I could only realistically score for 10 notes at once so had to be acutely aware of which hand I needed to put which melody at which time. I also had to make sure that all the counter melodies were present as the interactions they have dictate the harmony and make this piece (at least to Alice) special.  It was no mean feat but with a little trimming and much use of the pedals I managed to create something truly awesome!

So that’s a little primer for you on how I approach my arranging; I always listen intently first and then make sure I know the instrument well enough to satisfactorily make any arrangement a magical experience. Those two rules form the basis of all my arrangements, classical, popular, folk or other, so that at MusicForMy the only limit is your imagination!

If you would like to know more or have a chat about how we can add to your special day, send us an email at harry@musicformy.net.

My favourite dress

My favourite dress is a fabulous sequin number I originally bought for my wedding day. I knew that I wanted to wear a different outfit in the evening and I knew that I wanted sequins. As someone who tries to be frugal, I justified the additional expense as it is the perfect performance dress.

Audiences can be fickle. When entering that stage, you want to immediately grab their attention. A dress made of hundreds of little mirrors paired with super trooper spot lighting is something your audience are going to find hard to miss. And then you will have them in the palm of your hand ready to be wowed by your performance. A sequin dress is a powerful tool for a performer.

This sequin dress of mine is one that I feel invincible in. It is my armour. It protects me from my nerves and gives me confidence. This dress makes me feel amazing which enables me to give the best performance I possibly can.

It is my favourite dress.

Why practice makes (nearly*) perfect

I have never been good at practicing. When I was younger and progressing through the ABRSM grades, I found every excuse not to practice. It was around the millenium and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a very tempting distraction. But I soon learnt that practice does indeed make (nearly*) perfect and it really is worth putting the effort in.

When we sing, whatever we sing, it should feel effortless. We shouldn’t be worrying about the words, or the notes, or the technique as our full concentration should be on the performance. Practice is the only way to get to this level.

There are many that say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill. Just look at Beyoncé. She is the queen of practice and the result is the amazing performance she is able to give each and every time she is on stage. She commands that stage. She commands that stage because she never stops practicing. And the great thing is that practice is something everyone can do. It takes no money or pre-existing talent, it just takes a bit of time. But as the saying goes, You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.

Tips to help with practice

1. Set achievable goals – you won’t be Beyoncé tomorrow if you have only started today. Baby steps.
2. Build practice into your daily routine – do some warm up scales while making your breakfast, or driving to work.
3. Ramp up your practice before a performance and do a rekkie of the venue beforehand – you want to remove all other worries before a performance, so a practice of navigating backstage will focus your concentration on the performance.

*There is no such thing as a perfect performance, so stop worrying that it has to be!  That’s a subject for another blog.