Monday, April 9, 2012

Educating musically illiterate kids

Education. From the word "educere" latin for "to raise up", "to lead forth". Is this what we are doing with the future generations of humans? We are EDUCATING our kids????
Puh-leeeeze!!! If any one still believes this one, I would say they have been living in outer space for the last 20 years or so.

Schools have been "educating" our children, many times without parent's involvement. I know. I was a teacher for 25 years. The task is daunting. But it has to be done and done well. Elementary school is the basis for all this "education". The world teaches the rest. But in this wonderful exciting and yes, daunting endeavor the obstacles have been constant and hard. And the latest huge obstacle has come as an idea to "eliminate the specials" so we can concentrate in training the kids to pass tests. "Specials" as in art, music, anything that pertains to the whole being. 
I especially mourn the musical education which had already been mediocre. No listening to good music, no discussing performers, no viewing movies about composers, none of this was available in many schools for a long time. But doing away with the arts is completely off the wall!!

Let us see what learning goes on in a typical 5th grade class: there is reading which we all agree is the vehicle for all learning. Reading books, computers, writing and typing are all skills that must be mastered early. Spelling is important but now that computers have "spell check" and teachers have innate forgiveness for bad spelling, eehhh....In math all the necessary calculations and algebraic operations are taught, as well as "language arts "which has replaced history and geography and unfortunately is not as good as either. So far, a piece of the day is accounted for. Obviously other projects and sciences also have a place in this school day. Painfully I have yet to see some artistic traces which could be so easily incorporated to the previous subjects. Music shines by its absence. Who needs it when after schools i pods will inject gorgeously filthy lyrics and prehistoric beats in those virgin ears. 

My beef is with the school programs which do not include any sort of musical education and guidance to these growing kids.Music is not used during classes where it could be doing the most good encouraging habits, teaching relationships and  improving learning. With all the feedback available from prestigious institutions schools blithely ignore it and plod along sending kids to ADD specialists, to speech therapists and linguists to cure dyslexia, when all this time they have an important tool at their hand's reach. Why don't they use it? To me this is a mystery. 

Studies have shown that classical music, particularly baroque music (think Bach and Vivaldi), activates both sides of the brain, increasing the listener’s learning capacity and the retention of information. Baroque music causes the heart rate slows down for improve concentration.

Some of its benefits:

  • Improves test scores
  • Cuts learning time
  • Calms hyperactive children and adults
  • Reduces errors
  • Improves creativity and clarity
  • Heals the body faster
  • Integrates both sides of the brain for more efficient learning
  • Raises IQ scores 9 points (research done at University of California, Irvine)
The reason this happens is the following.The key component of music that makes it beneficial is order. The order of the music from the baroque and classical periods causes the brain to respond in special ways. This order includes repetition and changes, certain patterns of rhythm, and pitch and mood contrasts. One key ingredient to the order of music from the baroque and classical periods is math. This is realized by the body and the human mind performs better when listening to this ordered music.

  • There are other tools to use in classes and to my knowledge very few schools use it. I refer to meditation and relaxation as a means for kids to get in touch with their inner selves. 5 to 10 minutes of these precious skills would accomplish an incredible amount of good in stressful situations. Anger management anyone? This is a short easy training that would be beneficial for the rest of their lives. When I used relaxation techniques in my classes children would look forward to these moments as a way to quiet down and enjoy inner peace. They would be much more receptive and calm later on. There are also a series of yoga for children which some schools have been enthusiastic about. Kids being natural hams love to play at being dogs or turtles and the yoga positions are a fun way to have them relax and stretch.

Education comes in many forms. Formal education is necessary. Schools are needed for many of the skills as well as a socializing force. Could it be enriched? Undoubtedly. There are exciting new forms we need to apply. New tools like computers, i pads, all kinds of audio visual enrichment. 
But don't forget the music!!! Without it we would not be complete human beings. Without it our spirit would starve and miss so many important nutrients. Without it we would miss out on one of the biggest pleasures in life. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012



A wonderful new word. Denotes exactly what it says. Fans who are mostly female swarming around the hapless artist, usually a musician, like ravenous wild things around Max "gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes". Actually it is not quite this bad. Most people that wait at the end of the concerts to greet the artist will preserve a modicum of respect. There are couples, usually the lady pulling on her partner to approach the target. Younger people, alone or in couples, enthusiastically bringing CD's and magazines or programs to be signed by the accommodating artist, and some gay garçons, eager to converse and deliver their words of admiration . Who knows? Then the mommies and grandmommies who usually fall speechless in the face of so much artistic beauty especially if the artist is young and hot. Ah me,  we women have tender loving hearts! As well as nurturing instincts which make us bring all sorts of gifts, practical and not so much, from chocolates, wine, little souvenirs, to articles of clothing and musical scores.  
Leave it to the pauvre artiste to figure out what to do with such largesse. Take it home?? How much over the luggage limit will it be? Leave it in the hotel? Flowers won't last so long but they will be perfect for a few days….And we will not mention what thoughts will go through the star's mind when full sets of warm clothes find their way to his/her green room. Scary thoughts of having been claimed for adoption immediately by these loving ladies.
Fangirling. Madonna mia. In my very mature years I can boast I played the fangirl game, I lined up, I bought thoughtful presents, I carried flowers and chocolates and books all for the little flash in the eyes of the idol and the words, "Oh, for me? It is like Xmas!!" plus a kiss and a photo. And that was it. 
Fangirling. Playing the game. Feeling young and embarrassed even if one has 7 grandkids. I have successfully reverted to my adolescence and relived the horrible nervousness, racing heart, stammering tongue, blushing like a Juan Fernandez boiled lobster, knees trembling and blood pressure dangerously at stratospheric heights.
Fangirling indeed. Done the deed we leave feeling we "should have said" and "why did I say" and "oh no, I forgot to say"….until the next time. I have to space fangirling a bit in my case as I do want to last a little more. But I have a nice feeling of I DID IT!! HOW COOL!

Jordi Savall in Miami

I admire Maestro Savall. His dignity and presence on stage always reminds me of another time and place, a much earlier century, old Spain perhaps, and he carries this solemnity with him.
Jordi Savall and his ensemble teamed with a mexican baroque group called Tembembe and made sparks fly in the beautiful First Methodist CHurch in Miami. The program started with some"Folias Antiguas" and improvisations , some pasamezzos by Diego Ortiz (1510) and some pieces from the "Cancionero Musical de Palazio " by Juan del Enzina (1468) The Fandango "son" born in the 17 c is a passionate mixture of mexican and caribbean and famous for its strumming. All in all it was a jewel and Maestro Savall excelled in his improvising and incredibly virtuosic technique. He also dedicated some slow solos to his wife Montserrat Fiqueras who dies last November. Sponsored by the Miami Bach Society where I am a contributor, and the zspanish Consulate, it was really well attended. I love people at concerts where everyone is united by their common love for music and the "bravos" and applause were enthusiastic. This concert's emphasis was not so much on South America as Los Pajaros Perdidos but on Central America and the interaction with Iberian early music. Jordi Savall totally rocked!!!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


How would I describe what I call an experience so intensely emotional, spiritual, transcendental and transensual involving all senses but also all thoughts and emotions? I think of Stargate, the program about traveling between two dimensions. Because we are talking about different dimensions, parallel worlds, a passage to another place.

Stargate moment .- Chartres Cathedral. The feeling is of ages, not heavy with them but benevolent , like an old coat of my grandmother's found at the darkest corner of the closet. Comforting, warm, somehow familiar, and expanding up the dark walls to the jeweled windows to shine iridescent blues, greens, reds, in an explosion of fantastic images. I try to absorb the air present, to take it in, all the feelings and thoughts of strangers who have been there before me, from everywhere in the world, and I feel the interconnectedness, the unity with all of them, and I breathe out all my love and joy for them. Breathe in all the essences, emotions, sorrows, and breathe out good will, joy and certainty of a future when we will meet again.

Stargate moment .- This time my stargate is Philippe, where the experience that started at the moment of singing is still around you like a bubble of love and music; my senses are all awakened by the sounds, the beauty and I see him, the young man-child responsible for this ethereal atmosphere. The magic in making us believe we are not really there but with him, wherever he brings us, to older times, to a mother's love for a child, for a romantic lost love, joys, sores, all emotions enchained and attuned to his voice. And then the man-child, playful at times, serious at others, determined, very sure of his judgements, very self-possessed yet sometimes shy at compliments, unerringly polite and sweet smelling warm cheeks, his gaze, direct, piercing, transparently looks into your soul. He sees you and he listens to you. I breathe him in, happy in the knowledge that for a moment we occupy the same -almost- space. Amazed at his poise and beauty. And I think of what a wonderful thing he does bringing us together and helping our spirits grow with the promise of a more beautiful place. He takes us there through his presence and voice. Stargate moment.

Stargate moment.- A dark small space under the apse of the Basilique de Santa Maria Maddalena in Vezely.This little chapel underground is the starting point of the Crusaders. Connects mystically to Santiago de Compostela and Stonehenge. It also began from a well where druids had rituals. Completely a Stargate! I could feel the times interposing one with the other, and the old one is so strong, its vibrations so clear, you can feel the thousands of feet on the worn stones. Maria Maddalena's clothes are there, it is said, adored as relics. For me it was the humanity of Mary, her sinner heart transformed by love, her own evolving spirit through the immense love for her Jesus. I felt understood in my human condition, my failures accepted and purified, and my love growing in a duet with her. My sins embraced and a generous loving acceptance. Magical!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Ecology of Love

The ecology of love

Mission and Purpose

One of the insights I have gained is that my life's purpose and mission are bound to what I call the ecology of love.
This insight came to me after a series of experiences in trying to overcome an illness and having what I can only describe as an epiphany.The definition of epiphany is a sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something.
I realized very many things and one of them was this tremendous ecosystem from which I am part. The world and its people as I see them.

I realized what my purpose and mission in this life seems to be,and I call this" an ëcology" because it appears as a balance in all life as I know it. A huge ecosystem in which the nourishment is provided by the same people that inhabit it.

To enjoy this life, to take in and learn, to absorb, and admire through our senses this beautiful world which was given to us, to choose and "feed" from other's experiences and life lessons and to choose the ones that are healthy and positive, to observe and discriminate between what we can turn into love... that this love can flow like water,from us,back into the world as an everlasting outpour of nourishment for the soul of others that choose to be with us, and our own. This does not imply ëffort from our part but is merely the result of opening up to the balance already there in nature.

A bee flies to collect nectar from as many flowers as it can find. It does not take the pollen from diseased or dead flowers but chooses according to color, taste, smell and who knows what else, to make it part of itself and turn it into honey, which in its turn feeds the hive and insures the survival of the species. And sweetens our palate too.

This balance is found in nature in every species of animal or plant life. We are part of this balance but I had not made the connection to the spiritual part in us,an inner balance which reflects this outer balance.

And that is why I call it an ecosystem of love.

Look around and see the children enjoy a simple butterfly, a color, a fruit. This world offers us much, but as we grow we realize that other people offer us joys too. We learn from loving teachers, parents, friends and family, and extraordinary talented people who offer us joy and enchantment, a glimpse into what is intangible, joyful art, amazing inventions,so we feel admiration, gratefulness and love for these human beings that give out so much beauty.

This feeds our soul. Valuable experiences, rich and healthy lives, thoughts and emotions, profitable lessons, all this we learn from others. Their water of love flows with their talents, positive feelings, and valuable life insights.

I see the world as full of fountains, endlessly bubbling, water flowing, all doing what we were made to do. We overflow with all our essences, our unique identities, our positive and not so positive emotions. There are all kinds of fountains, big ones, beautiful ones, simple ones, some bubbling close to the ground, some shooting water high up in the sky, but all doing their thing. Some of the water was stopped up in my case, and I was not able to flow well. Fears, hang-ups, petty emotions, had blocked my water for a very long time.

That is why hanging on to negative emotions, anger, envy,holding grudges, hate, etc is bad for our fountain. The water becomes murky and does not flow easily any more. That is why I had to clean house!! But I will talk about this another time.

If we take all the nourishment our souls need, the wealth around us, love flourishes and flows and heals and gives back a thousand fold in an everlasting flow, self-sustaining and ever-growing in complete balance.An ecosystem.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sex and the Classics: Attack of the beautiful divas/divos.

Physical beauty has always been a powerful factor in all visual arts, as in almost everything else. Helen of Troy was the "face that launched a thousand ships"- which started a war. In the world of spectacle, physical beauty is paramount; only after the initial impact other attributes come into play. There are too many names to mention, but plastic surgery is not where it is by accident. Before the advent of TV, artists were judged not by what they looked like but by their talents. It is still so in some venues; not alas! in music. Or I should specify CLASSICAL music.

Suddenly, we're surrounded by glamorous young violinists, cellists, singers and - believe it or not - bassoonists.

If you don't believe it, look at, where you'll find pictured a generous acreage of musically-gifted pulchritude, listed by instrument. Among the violinists there's Linda Brava, rather better known for her centrefold appearance in Playboy than for playing in the orchestra of the National Opera of Finland.

The site lists only women, but in the musical world the men are getting the same treatment. Twenty years ago, virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell led the way when he was pictured on the cover of his first CD in eye-wateringly tight jeans, leaning over a motorbike.

More recently, there's been a whole procession of heart-throb tenors. Two in particular have stood out: the Maltese Joseph Calleja, much praised in this paper for his effortless impersonation of the philandering Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto. And there's the Mexican Juan Diego Flórez, who recently released a much-praised album of virtuoso Rossini arias. What they have in common is that mix of dark, soulful looks and stubble that indicates "smouldering". Directly quoted from the internet:
"Admitting something I probably shouldn't, I have always thought Nadia Solerno-Sonnenberg was quite something because of her split of angelic playing and projected attitude of "bad girl." There's something quite sexy about being able to pull off the Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn violin concerto and also portray being (slightly) dangerous.
Oh my god! Thomas Hampson! *drools* He is so handsome, particularly in his younger days. He's so virile, so masculine, so charming... lol have I gone too far? I think so But he is gorgeous. This is a pretty hot vid (except for his Fake Tan of Doom):"
And mentioned of course:..."Also, Philippe Jaroussky is a bit of a hottie." A BIT???

Deborah Voigt of the Wagneresque voice had to lose many pounds to improve her opportunities. A few countertenors we know of have had to hit the gyms and work out frenetically before a revealing role.

Are looks the deciding factor in adjudicating roles in opera? Probably not THE deciding factor, but it helps to be easy on the eye. A singer that looks like Jaroussky can be marketed way more easily than others not so fortunate. Add this to a gorgeous voice, modest demeanour, amiability with the public and you have a rock star equivalent to the rock stars from the 18th century.Remember them?
Fair? Maybe not. But we are a people captive to our senses, especially visual. Allure and beauty matter big time. Adding talent equals BIG SUCCESS.And, why not in classical music as in everything else? The subject of eroticism IN classical music is food for another time.But just listen to Italian madrigals of the early 17th century, or Wagner's Tristan and Isolde where ..."where it seems as if all the eroticism of humanity has been poured into one super-charged phrase. The tension, the agonised delay, purges the erotic quality of any sense of the body. "

Classical music , anyone?

Monday, July 14, 2008

In Defense of Countertenors

What is a counter tenor? Countertenors are men who sing in the traditionally female alto or soprano ranges. Countertenor is short for contratenor altus which just means above the tenor. Two modes of vocalization available to both sexes are the chest voice and head voice. The chest voice, which produces low pitches, is what most people use to speak. For head voice, the larynx makes a gear shift, allowing for higher pitches. Most women use both modes when singing. Most men use only their chest voices.

Every human voice, male or female, has a "head" register and a "chest" register. People tend to speak in the chest register most of the time, and the head register has got tagged with the derogatory word "falsetto" as if there's something false about it, but it's natural. Singers work at developing the strength of both voices, along with a blended sound that brings in some characteristics of each. Counter-tenors and sopranos work in the head voice almost all the time, and singers of the lower voice parts work in the chest voice most of the time.

The human vocal cords operate pretty much like the strings on a musical instrument. You can't make a string resonate below its basic frequency. However, you can make it produce higher frequencies, either by shortening the string's effective length (which a violinist or guitarist for instance does with the fingers of his left hand), or by increasing the tension on the string (which with violins and guitars is done when tuning the instrument). Both these things can be done with the vocal cords, to a certain anatomically limited extent, but you cannot ever go lower than the lowest possible frequency.

This lowest frequency tends to be much lower in men than in women, because the human larynx, which has the vocal cords in it, is a secondary sexual characteristic, and in males undergoes a growth spurt at puberty (or, more colloquially, their "voice breaks", and they get an Adam's apple). Adult males therefore have longer vocal cords, on average, and a lower basic frequency to their voice than women. That was the whole idea behind castrati: by castrating a boy very early, he missed out on normal puberty, his larynx only expanded proportionally with the rest of his body (as it does with women), and he ended up with his voice in a soprano or alto range.

Sopranos use exactly the same vocal techniques to achieve their high notes that male falsettists use to achieve theirs (men and women do not have differently constructed larynxes, it's just the average size that differs). It's a matter of cultural prejudice that many people have grown used to hearing only women sing this way, not men (at least in classical music -- in pop music, as has been pointed out, the falsetto voice has always been a very "natural" presence).

This doesn't mean that there aren't women with naturally very low voices, or men with naturally very high voices just as the fact that men are on average taller than women doesn't mean that there aren't any women that are taller than most men, or men that are shorter than most women. What we do have is a culturally determined problem where a low voice is associated with "masculinity", which makes many men nervous about singing in a high register (to a large extent because "not masculine" is in turn culturally associated with "homosexual"), and makes many women nervous about singing in a low register for the same reasons.

A voice teacher on the countertenor voice: " In my experience, the counter tenor is basically a singer who has developed the falsetto with such strength that it has similar power and resonance of a full-voiced sound. Often these singers possess a lower male voice; baritone or bass in the changed voice function. I have found that the lower male voices usually (not always) have stronger and more beautiful falsettos. In studying the successful counter tenors, I have found the singer often possesses the ability to hold back tremendous amounts of breath pressure with the body, which allows the falsetto to develop great strength and beauty of tone along with excellent agility. This agility makes it possible to sing the florid phrases demanded in the earlier vocal literature. "

In spite of all this, countertenors are viewed at times as "something of a circus" or at least a freak show. Philippe Jaroussky, David Daniels, Andreas Scholl and others have all experienced the nervous laughs from one or two spectators who had no idea countertenors exist! (Or what they sound like) David Daniels said once that every time he goes on stage he feels he has to convince the public of the virility of his role.

This prejudice definitely didn't exist in the baroque time.It is a completely modern bias. It's something counter-tenors have had to put up with since the voice type reemerged as a solo singing voice in the 1950s (it had never died out in the English choral tradition, of course). Even today every counter-tenor who's interviewed can expect strange questions about his sexual identity and orientation -- questions that nobody would ever dream of asking of a bass or tenor, or female soprano or alto, despite the fact that those people's voices are just as "natural" or "unnatural" as his.This inexplicable association between the male alto voice and a sexual orientation, an association that's made even more inexplicable because you apparently only have it with clasically trained singing voices, not with pop music singers!

Not the least at all is the prejudice existing among singers, such as mezzos, or directors, about the competence of countertenors. The jokes about "avian" sounds and general hootiness are widespread as well as the idea that the natural singers to succeed castrati should be female. But in this visual age, looks are important even (or especially?) in opera, and Julius Cesar as a woman is harder to swallow than a countertenor with a soft voice.

But countertenors are not all created equal. Some use techniques that are very effective and insure good projection and even tone. Of course Philippe Jaroussky comes to mind, as also David Daniels. The voices range from full, plummy sounds to pure transparent, almost "white" singing. Again the voice teacher :..."'hooty' sound comes from a low soft palate position and a high larynx position. What causes a low palate and high larynx is the pushing of too much breath pressure in an attempt to However, the trademark 'hooty' sound that some counter tenors develop is held in the mind of many as a vocal characteristic....Breath control alone does not solve the problem of lack of beauty in the voice altogether. The missing piece is not just a high soft palate and lower larynx position, but one huge key is the tongue position. If the tongue is trained in the 'ng' position, then the singer can begin to feel nasal resonance, a concept that allows many higher overtones into the vocal production. Without these higher overtones, a counter tenor (and any other voice type for that matter.) can sound hooty and pushed."

As a final note, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. In this case, the listening. And when you listen to a good countertenor, chances are you will feel amazed at the sound. Different from a woman's, it will carry you to a place where beautiful voices , be them men's or women's, surround you and fill your soul. After all, isn't this what singing is all about?

This piece has been compiled from various forums and other sources in the net and written material available. M.