Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Learning how to play transposed parts

If you play professionally, or even if you play in an amateur way in a community orchestra,you are going to come across horn parts in keys other than F. When you do so, you have essentially two choices. Either you write every such part out for horn in F, or you learn to transpose at sight.

But it might be that sight reading even in F is a bit forbidding - it is for quite a lot of people. So to be able to read parts in other keys may require that you improve and combine two separate skills - transposition and sight reading.

Sight reading frightens a lot of people - many think that it is a black art only mastered by professionals and not to be vouchsafed to mere mortals in the amateur world. Certainly professionals have to have a high degree of mastery of it, but decent sightreading skills are not beyond amateur players. I have described before how to go about learning sightreading.

Now, for transposition. Writing out transposed parts in F is a good idea in terms of understanding how transposition works. Different people have different ways of thinking about it, but I favour the simple interval method.

Consider for example horn in D. D is down a minor third from F. Most transposing parts are written without key signature, effectively in C major. So down a minor third from C is A. You're now in A major instead of C major. In the part written out in F, write in the A major key signature (three sharps), and then write out all the notes a third down. All the sharps and flats will organise themselves automatically as a result of the new key signature, except for where there are accidentals in the original part, which you have to deal with by hand.

For accidentals you look at the newly-written transposed note before the accidental is applied. If it is a natural, all is simple, just write in the same accidental as in the original. If it is a sharp or flat as a result of the key signature, then what you need to do is change the note by a semitone in the same direction as in the original part. So for instance, if you have an Ab in the original part, moving down a third changes it to F-something. Because of the key signature, A natural goes to F#. Ab is a semitone lower than A natural, so the transposed note must also be lowered a semitone, from F# to F natural. So you write a natural in front of the F.

If you do all that right, you now have a part correctly written out in F. The same principle applies to all the other different keys. The only thing different is the interval and therefore the key signature. These are the most common transpositions.

A - up a third, add 4 sharps to the key signature (to E major)
G - up a second, add 2 sharps to the key signature (to D major)
Eb - down a second, add 2 flats to the key signature (to Bb major)
D - down a third, add three sharps (to A major)
C - down a fourth, add one sharp (to G major)
Bb basso - down a fifth, add one flat (to F major)
Bb alto - up a fourth, add one flat (to F major)

I've left out of that list transposition from horn in E. There are two possible ways of thinking about E transposition. One is to just flatten every written note, the other is to go down a second and add five sharps to the key signature. Both methods work perfectly well, and have the effect of lowering pitch by a semitone.

Of course, notation software such as Sibelius or Finale can do all this automatically, with you typing in the part as written, and then having the software perform the transposition for you. But if you are ever going to transpose at sight, you need to work out how to do it for yourself by hand with pencil and paper.

Now, if you're going to progress from transposing on paper to transposing at sight, three things are necessary. One is that you have got your sight-reading good enough that you don't panic about it. Second, you have to be familiar with your scales and arpeggios and key signatures, and third, you need to have understood thoroughly how to do the transposition on paper.

Then what you do is practice slowly sightreading orchestral parts that have been written for horn pitched in various keys. You'll notice that, particularly for 2nd & 4th horn parts, often almost all the notes are in the C major arpeggio. So if you know your A major arpeggio, transposition at sight from D becomes much easier - you just play the equivalent notes of the A major arpeggio. Give or take an octave, that is only 3 notes that you need to learn!

As the parts go higher, you get more notes of the harmonic series, but again you will relatively rarely see written notes that aren't part of the C major scale. So if you know your A major scale, you're still in good shape. Again, the same principle applies to the other keys. So, transposing at sight is much easier if you know the relevant scales and arpeggios.

As for where to go to get horn parts to practice transposition, I can recommend the IMSLP website. Perhaps start with some of the Mozart symphonies. IMSLP has horn parts available online for some of them, I'd recommend you start with the most famous ones, symphonies 38-41. Then try the Beethoven symphonies.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The value of music education

There's an article on the Guardian website today What's happening to the future of music education? about the future of music provision in the education system in the UK, amid concerns as to whether the government will cut provision in order to save money. Dr Peter Thompson of Sheffield University has commented with an example of the value of music provision, even for those who do not take up music as a profession. His comment is worth reproducing here in full (edited only to remove typing errors).

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s I was a pupil at Whitehawk County Secondary School in Brighton which was rated as one of the worst schools in Britain on one of the worst council estates. I got into serious trouble more or less constantly and did things which, if I were to have been caught would almost certainly have led to custodial sentences. Then I joined the school brass band which had free instruments, free tuition and provided an alternative outlet for me. I ended up joining the army as a junior bandsman and that trajectory was what got me an education and a purpose in life so that I am now a senior academic at a Russell Group university. I owe it all to the music opportunities I had at that school back when I was 11 when there was bugger all else on offer. Cutting music provision is not only a culturally philistine move but will also keep many children in the outer darkness of hopelessness.

Even if you describe this in purely economic terms, this is a staggeringly good investment. Thomson has been saved from a probable life of crime and hopelessness which would in all likelihood have been a substantial drain on the public purse, and instead is a respected academic who has made his own substantial contribution to society, in the taxes he has paid and in the contribution he has made to educating subsequent generations.

This is what music is about, this is what it can do for people.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

My father, Roger West

Over on my other blog, I have published the tribute I gave to my father, Roger West, at his funeral yesterday, 10th January 2011.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The emotion of music making

Last month there was an article in the Guardian titled 'The pull of love' – or why music can be a quasi-spiritual practice. In it, there got to be a bit of a discussion of various aspects of performance, and I'm going to pull out some of the comments I made there, clean them up and put them here.

The commenter jeremyjames made this comment

Incidentally, I asked a horn player chum which frightened him more - the beginning of Bruckner 4 or Mahler 5. He said whichever one he happened to be playing!

I've played both, and if it is to be done well, the solo at the opening of Bruckner 4 is one of the most dangerous moments for a horn player in all classical music. The entry is fairly high, so it is very easy to "crack" the opening note. You can reduce the danger by playing the opening note louder, but that destroys the ethereal effect of the opening. If you do that, you are merely playing the notes and have abandoned the music. The note almost mustn't actually start, instead the audience should realise that it is there when previously it wasn't, but not notice the transition from nonexistence to existence.

The horn player will always be sweating a bit at the start and his concentration will be needle-sharp at the instant of playing that first note. After the first note, you can relax a bit. You know you can do it and the rest of the solo will go OK.

Then savvymum, with whom I've had many enjoyable and stimulating conversations on the Guardian website, made this comment:

I hope he's going to help me explain the difference between listening to music and playing it. There is also the world of difference between playing the piano and playing orchestrally. Not only are different skills needed to sit and rattle off your Rach' and Chopin, but the subjective feelings and critical skills are different., when you are a solitary player. Joining in with a good symphony orchestra is a different ball game, which requires a further set of skills, and a different mindset when you play.

Anyway Jonathan might be able to put the meat onto the bare bones I've laid out here.
I don't think playing is a semi-spiritual practise, and I bet Jonathan and I have done enough of it over the years, so I reckon we know what we're talking about. Sure, I get a feeling that I can't get elsewhere, and it fulfills me in a way that nothing else quite does. In fact I admit to being so bad, I can't live without it, as it actually is my life being a musician.

I could hardly turn down such an invitation!

Great musical performance (or even just pretty good musical performance) requires that you get into the emotion of the work. There is an interesting thing about emotional thinking.

One can simply experience the emotion itself. Almost everybody can do that, and this is all that audiences really need to be able to do to enjoy a good performance.

Then you can also be aware of the emotion in a detached part of your mind, and have some idea as to whether the emotion is appropriate. A surprisingly large number of people haven't really twigged how to do this.

And then you can also direct your emotions, turn them on and off to a degree under conscious control in order to communicate. Very few people are adept at this, but some degree of this skill is essential for musicians.

But it isn't much talked about. Partly this is because it is so hard to put into words. Talking about instruments and techniques is so much easier. Partly it is that few people would understand what you are saying.

Some people, when I talk in this way of awareness and control over emotions, comment that if I'm forever analysing things this way, I can't possibly feel the emotion fully itself. The reverse is true. The additional awareness allows you to have a much richer experience on more levels. You don't feel the emotion any less fully, but the other aspects of the experience are available to you as well.

And when that is wrapped up in a musical performance you are participating in, so you are engaging your motor control skills to produce the music, and your empathy and awareness so you keep up with everybody else, you can get into a state described by the psychologists as flow, which in its more intense manifestations can give you such a sense of euphoria that you can be walking on air for days after. And that gets communicated to the audience, who (hopefully) experience it as a great performance.

If there is no emotional engagement by the musicians, they are concentrating solely on the notes, even the most untrained listener will recognise that there is "something missing" from the performance, even if they can't articulate why.

But the emotion isn't all you have to do.The thing about playing music is that you have to think emotionally and technically at the same time, at very high speed and with great precision. You have to know what emotions you want to convey, but you also have to be concerned at some level with the technicalities of extracting the sound for the instrument, and you have to be highly aware of everything that the other players are doing, so you can be sensitive to what their emotions are and fit in with it all. So collaborative music making requires great skills in empathy as well.

While there's a lot of grinding practice needed to acquire the skills necessary to do all this, the performance itself is a spur of the moment, no going back, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. You launch yourself into the piece as if you are a canoeist in rapids, and there's no way out except to navigate the obstacles and reach the calm water at the end. And the water won't stop for you while you work out how to get round some particularly forbidding rock that is right in the middle of the stream!

Occasionally you will founder on that rock, and a performance will go horribly wrong. That is part of the fear and excitement - you never quite know what is going to happen. And for an audience, this is the key difference between listening to live music and listening to a recording. Live performance is exciting, not only because you can see what is happening as well as hear it, but because it is happening now and you don't know what is coming next.