Eschewing A Cappella

In one of my previous posts I briefly mentioned a cappella music, but as with so many musical topics I’ve mentioned in passing, I’ve never written a full post about it. That is, until now. In this particular post I intend to explore the interesting musical world of a cappella music.

The term “a cappella” comes from Latin, and it describes the musical practice of singing without accompanying instruments. At the start of an a cappella performance, a reference pitch is typically given, which establishes the key of the song to be sung. Usually this pitch is played on a piano, organ, or in some musical contexts a harpsichord. In some extreme cases, such as the Primitive Baptists of the southern United States, the reference note is sung. Based on this pitch, the song continues just as it would with instruments.

Except when it doesn’t.

And this is where the most important flaw in a cappella singing lies.

There are quite a few instances of singers singing a cappella, who, in the course of a song, end up drifting from their original key into a nearby key. For example, if a group started out in E-flat but then slowly drifted downwards into D. I’ve heard that exact musical phenomenon happen on a recording somewhere in the musical depths of YouTube. That recording has forever left a sour taste in my mouth for a cappella music, and it is that recording which I often like to use to cite a cappella music’s flaws.

One should understand, though, that the human voice, more than perhaps any other instrument, is capable of sliding from one pitch to another, and from one key to another without compromising timbre. The only other instrument with this ability to slide between pitches as easily as the voice is, brace yourselves, the theremin.

So all of this begs the question: what to do about tuning slippage? Use musical instruments. Instruments are your first line of defense if you want to protect yourself against the drift from one key to another. And finally, to the choir on that recording I mentioned, thank you. You all taught me, a former music education major, an important musical lesson about the fundamental flaws inherent in a cappella.

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The Harpsichord: The Harp That Isn’t A Harp

In my last post I briefly mentioned the harpsichord, and I may or may not have referenced it in other posts too. In tonight’s post, I’d like to introduce you all to the harpsichord, an instrument that, despite having harp in its name, is not a harp by any means.

The harpsichord is perhaps most famous as the instrument for which Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his monumental two-volume book “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” But the harpsichord goes back further, all the way back to when Columbus sailed from Europe to North America. It remained quite popular from about 1500 to about 1750, which was when the piano, then called the forte-piano, started to replace it. Like a piano, a harpsichord has strings. But unlike a piano, in which the strings are hit with hammers attached to the inner ends of the keys, a harpsichord’s strings are plucked; they are plucked by tiny pieces of plastic called plectra. These little tiny plectra are attached to larger rectangular vertical plastic devices called jacks. These jacks rest on the inner ends of the keys; when a key is pressed the jack lifts up and its associated plectra pluck the strings. Back in the harpsichord’s hayday in the 17th and 18th century the jacks and plectra were usually made from bird quills. Now, the harpsichord is mostly used by those who study early music, and most harpsichordists are also pianists.

Special thanks to music professor Dennis Bathory-Kitsz for letting me feel the inside of the harpsichord we have up at NVU Johnson; that instrument is currently undergoing a slow process of restoration.

Stuck In The Early Baroque: An Examination of Pastor Steven Anderson’s Musical Views

Sorry I haven’t been posting on this blog for the past few months; I ran out of ideas on new musical topics, and this blog is primarily about music. In this particular post I’d like to examine the musical views of pastor Steven Anderson. For those who don’t know who he is, he’s the pastor out of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, AZ, USA. Now, before I go any further I must make one point clear: I DO NOT support many of Anderson’s views; the only topic I agree with him on to any extent is music. With that said, let’s delve into his musical mindset, shall we?

Music In His Church: In order to get a sense of Anderson’s musical mindset it’s helpful to understand what instruments he has in his church. As of late 2017, he had a piano, an organ and a brass section (not sure if it’s a trio, quartet or quintet). This is an interesting approach, mainly because that instrument configuration is more common in much larger churches and at special events. That approach is also quite conservative, underscoring his belief in those ideas which were so fashionable in centuries past.

His Answer to A Capella: According to Anderson, one should not sing a capella in church; this is because there are no commands to do so in the Bible. In a recent video (April 2019) Anderson pointed out a number of religious groups whose members sing predominantly a capella during worship; he went on to criticize them using Bible verses.

Tethered to Tonal Harmony: In another sermon, Anderson criticized the musical practices of more liberal churches by characterizing their music using words like “whiny”, “effeminate”, and “queer-sounding”. In particular, he was criticizing the chords that those other churches use. He may not have known it, but his ideas are defined and confined by the musical bounds of a group of concepts which we music majors and music theorists collectively call “tonal harmony.” In basic terms, tonal harmony is what most people think of when they imagine harmony: it’s what you hear when you listen to great composers like Mozart and Beethoven, for example.

Looking to The Future:Here are some musical ideas for anderson and his followers: invest in a group of early music instruments. Sure, a brass quartet, piano and organ are a good start, but how about making his church stand out musically? Some instruments to buy could include:

Timpani **

Harpsichord

Violas da Gamba

Recorders (2 sopranos, 1 alto, 1 tenor and 1 bass)

** Note: Timpani usually come in a set of 4: 32, 29, 26, and 23 inches; look for that when buying them.

All in all, I’ve found Anderson’s musical views to be a bit rigid, but agreeable from my musical perspective. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’m quite conservative in my own musical views, and as such I find I generally agree with those whose musical ideas line up with mine.

4 Trumpets, 1 Trombone & 1 Baritone Horn: My Musical History with Brass

In my last post I wrote about my history with trumpets. Here I’d like to expand on that a bit by reviewing my musical history with brass instruments in general.

As of this writing (February 9, 2019) I own 4 trumpets. Three of those horns are conventional, but one of them is a wee bit irregular: it’s a pocket trumpet. The pocket trumpet has the same length of tubing as a normal trumpet, but it has more bends, resulting in a more compact shape.

As I mentioned in my last post, my first horn was given to me by my former pediatrician back in November of 2004; my second one is from one of my uncles in 2012.

The third, the pocket trumpet was a birthday gift from my sister when I was in high school; the forth and most recent one was yet another gift, this time from a long-time family friend. All of these horns I got used except for the pocket. Excluding that horn, they range in age from about 30 to as much as 100 years old for my latest one.

When I was in high school I also had a few opportunities to play a few French horns and tubas, but I don’t own either instrument because they’re prohibitively expensive, around $2000 to $3000 for a high-quality student model from a big-name brand.

Also in high school I got a tromboen and a baritone horn. Now before I go any further I must make a particular point clear: it’s a baritone horn I own and not a euphonium. There are several critical differences between baritone horns and euphoniums just as there are between clarinets and saxophones. In fact, the baritone horn and euphonium are not members of the same family despite both being brass instruments, says composer and bassoonist Brett Newton in a number of articles on his Web site, http://www.bandestration.com. According to Newton, the baritone horn, the instrument I own, is a bass member of the cornet family, while the euphonium is a tenor member of the tuba family. How ironic is it that I own a baritone horn and yet I don’t own it’s soprano family member the cornet? I think it’s about time I rectify that situation, and in fact my future plan is to do just that: own a cornet, the trumpet-like instrument still used in British brass bands and was formerly used in concert bands from about 1850 to 1950.

The Trumpet: My First Wind Instrument

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some, but saxophone was not my first wind instrument: the first wind instrument I ever played was trumpet. Here’s a bit of my musical history with trumpets.

My history with trumpets is almost as long as that with keyboard instruments; one of my uncles had a trumpet when I was around 5 years old, and I would try to play it every time I went to his house in the Vermont countryside. In 2012 that uncle in question gave me that trumpet. In November of 2004 my pediatrician gave me her son’s old trumpet. Despite this early exposure to trumpets I didn’t take it up until middle school sometime in 2010 or 2011, and even then I just played it on my own with no lessons. A few years later I got a third trumpet, but this one was a different design: a pocket trumpet. A normal trumpet has 2 180-degree bends in its tube; a pocket trumpet has 5 of those bends, and it’s the numerous bends which give pocket trumpets their compact shape and appearance. And just this past August I got a fourth trumpet from a family friend whom I have known for a very long time; that horn originally belonged to her husband’s grandfather. As of now I own 4 trumpets.

And it just so happens that here at Northern Vermont University Johnson one of my fellow music majors is a trumpet player, and she has agreed to give me lessons next semester; this would mark the first time I’ll have had lessons on any brass instrument.

My Realization Of The Recorder’s Musical Value

Like most American schoolchildren I had to learn how to play the recorder in elementary school: that infamous little instrument whose musical value is appreciated only by a select few. As I’ve grown up and become exposed to other instruments I’ve also become one of those few who sees the musical value of the recorder.

I started playing the recorder in second grade, and played it continuously up until I moved to Florida in August 2006 at the start of fourth grade. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, after I moved to Florida I basically stopped growing musically. However, despite the lack of musical growth the recorder remained in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until high school when I really started exploring the recorder as an instrument. By that time I already knew that the recorder family extended from soprano to bass, and that knowledge guided my musical exploration of the instrument. I started with the alto; some time later I got a tenor, and this past Christmas I got a bass.

My real recorder revelations came sometime in 2017 when I started following the composer and bassoonist Brett Newton. On his Web site, http://www.bandestration.com, he has several articles dedicated to recorders. It was these articles that made me realize just how musically valuable the recorder is. The recorder is actually a very old instrument, going back as far as the 1500s. Many composers from about 1550 to 1750 wrote for the instrument. The recorder we all know and have played at some point is a Baroque-style soprano. There are 2 major styles of recorder, Baroque and Renaissance. All my recorders are Baroque in style.

I also found out from Newton that the recorder is actually a very large family: it goes from garklein (an octave above the common soprano we’ve all played) all the way down to the sub-contrabass, 2 octaves lower than the bass, itself an octave and a fifth lower than the soprano. To put that into perspective, the garklein is the smallest non-experimental woodwind instrument, and the sub-contrabass is in the range of a 16′ pipe organ stop. That’s right: the sub-contrabass is so low in pitch that it could potentially be used to give the effect of a 16′ organ stop, especially with organs which lack such stops.

Because of those articles, and from listening to Sarah Jeffrey, host of Team Recorder on YouTube, I have gained a deep appreciation of what the recorder can do as an instrument, and what the entire family can do when put together in an ensemble. And this semester at Northern Vermont University Johnson, I am taking 1-on-1 recorder lessons, helping me to get a better grounding in both technical and musical skills on the instrument.

The Wondrous Ways of Woodwinds and Brass

If you have ever played woodwind and brass instruments for almost any length of time you have probably noticed that many instruments have some interesting tendencies with dynamics and timbre. Dynamics describes the loudness of a musical instrument or piece of music; timbre describes the tonal color of a voice or instrument. In this post, I will take all the major woodwind and brass instruments and explore what they do when played in the extremes of their ranges.

Flute & Recorder: as different as the flute and recorder are, they both have the same musical characteristics when played in their extremes: they’re very quite in their lowest ranges, and as one goes higher in their ranges both instruments become progressively louder, and their loudest notes are at the tops of their ranges.

Clarinet: The clarinet is the most balanced of all the woodwinds: it doesn’t do anything extreme in its extremes.

Saxophone, Oboe & Bassoon: The conical-bore woodwinds (saxophone, oboe, and bassoon) are very difficult to play quietly in their low ranges, but as one goes higher it becomes easier. Their highest ranges are quite bright.

Brass: All brass instruments have similar tendencies when in their extremes; bright low notes and mellower high ones. This is especially true when the instrument in question is in the hands of a beginner.

Feel free to check out some of my other posts about music and musical instruments, and subscribe to my blog so you can read my latest posts:

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