Saturday, October 26, 2019

Productive Practice

To raise the level of one’s music, one must practice at another level. To raise the level of one’s practice, on must think at another level. To think at another level, one must ask questions at another level. Questions are more important than answers. Questions have energy, answers kill questions.

What happens between lessons is every bit as important as what happens in the lesson itself. A student can be very sincere, really want to learn and be better, have a good teacher, practice regularly, and even a lot, but to accomplish one’s aims, goals, and dreams efficiently, productive practice* is essential.

Learning curves will always have their ups and downs, but if practice is productive, the general trend should always show an upward spiral of accomplishment over time and not just  a turning around and around in the same circle.

Unproductive practice is always uncomfortable and feels not unlike those bad dreams of running as hard as one can and yet not going anywhere. Productive practice, on the other hand, always feels lighter, and clearer, and has its own unique kind of joy.

There are no rigid formulas or mechanical methods that will automatically produce productive practice; productive practice is a very personal affair—it is a process that is written in the sand and not carved into stone, yet, there are a few simple suggestions I can offer that may help to create conditions favorable to a productive practice.

Formulate an agenda and a plan for each week. Be very specific. Don’t just say, “I’ll do technique exercises for the first ten minutes;” instead, think about what technical issues you specifically want to address and what studies or exercises you want to use to work on those technical issues.

I often remind my students that mindlessly and mechanically repeating any technical exercise or study will amount to nothing more than a total waste of their time! But those same exercises or studies become invaluable when used as an opportunity to address very specific technical and musical issues. Define your objectives as simply and specifically as possible, for example, playing more on the tip of the fourth finger of the left hand in scales and chords. Continuity is very important in productive practice—students sometimes start things with the best of intentions but don’t follow through.

Control is another important aspect of productive practice; go slow enough so that you can control the placement of the fourth finger every time you use it in the exercise or study you are working with.

In my book, From Silence to Sound, ** the teacher, Alex Kubadi says, “Two should always be present in your practice; your teacher and your student.” The teacher is the mind and the body is the student. The teacher works in the realm of concepts and ideas. The student’s intelligence is in its ability to learn and remember and reproduce specific physical positions and movements in time. An effective teacher is always very clear with regard to what it wants the student to do and how it wants the student to do it.

The job of the teacher is to translate his ideas—his vision—into the language of the body and then to create the right conditions to facilitate the learning of the student. The student—the body—learns by repeating an action a number of times, but the teacher must always keep in mind that practice, in the sense of repetition, does not make perfect, it makes permanent; and that the number of repetitions needed for the student to learn a particular action is in direct proportion to the teacher’s state of attention while guiding the actions of the student.

In the relationship between the teacher and the student, the teacher functions in the domain of the mind—and in that domain, the body is slow. For example, in my mind I can travel from my house to my friend’s house at the speed of thought—much faster than the time it takes for me to physically go to my friend’s house.

But conversely, in the domain of the body, the mind is slow. Once the body learns even a relatively simple action, the mind cannot keep up with it. Think about even the act of walking and all its components of multiple and simultaneous actions regarding the coordination of the feet and the legs and the arms and balance, etc.

Because of the discrepancies between the relative speeds of the mind and the body in the mental and the physical domains, it is essential that the mind establishes and maintains control of the process of work and must never allow the tempo of the work to get out of its control.  Therefore, if one feels that the work is going too fast for to control, that the body is allowed to make the same or random mistakes over and over again, then it is time to stop and think and ask questions that will lead to a better plan of work.

And this leads to one of those little secrets. Speed can be very impressive and its pursuit can become very compelling, but speed is never achieved by trying to go fast. The capacity for speed is acquired through perfection and refinement of positions and movements and the degree to which these positions and movements are programed into the body’s memory—what is generally called muscle memory. That is why refining and perfecting positions and movements at slower tempos, tempos that the teacher can control, leads to the capacity for speed. It could be said, to play fast later, practice slow now.

One further point on the subject; if you allow the body to learn three different ways of the doing the same thing, one of which is preferred over the others, when called upon to reproduce the action, there is only a one in three chance that the body will reproduce the preferred way.

And finally, always review your work weekly. Ask the pointed questions. Remember that being critical is not the same thing as being negative. Negativity has no place in Productive Practice. As the poet once said, “Ours is not a caravan of despair!” Ask questions like; “What progress did I make over the week? Did I meet my expectations? What could I have been better? What could I have done differently, etc.? As with the initial plan, the answers should be very specific and simple. Your review should lead to your next week’s agenda and plan. There is a saying, “A good plan is a plan that works!

 *&**Because of the initial difficulty to objectively observe and evaluate one’s work, the guidance of an experienced teacher can be useful.  For one on one lessons in Productive Practice, or to purchase copies of the book, From Silence to Sound, please contact Michael Kovitz at

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Art and Science of Performing

You’ve worked out the music, overlooked no detail regarding the notes, the rhythms, the fingerings, the history, and the analysis of the piece. You have worked hard to ‘get the music under your fingers.’ Now, is the opportunity for you to share your vision of the music with yourself and others.

But for many, this sharing is an experience fraught with anxiety, misconceptions, fear, unrealistic expectations, in short, all manner of dysfunction. Would it help to label the experience demonstrating one’s work?  Of, course, merely changing the label on the jar doesn’t change what’s in the jar, but words do have power and thinking about a problem in a different way may lead to new possibilities… 

One cannot demonstrate work that has not been done, but one should be able to demonstrate work that has been done, though the ability to demonstrate that work does not come automatically. One step in the process is the practice of demonstrating one’s work, but here too, practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. I often remind my students, in order change the level of one’s work, one has to change the level of one’s practice; to change the level of one’s practice, one has to change the level of one’s thoughts; and to change the level of one’s thoughts, one has to change the questions one is asking…

Performers often employ meditation and relaxation techniques like deep breathing and body awareness to help calm their nerves and improve their focus; some use psychological conditioning to shape a more positive mental attitude, and no doubt, these methods can be and have been effective, but it has been my experience that these techniques often miss something important—the heart of the problem—a deeper question regarding the science of situation.

Solving this problem begins with understanding the changing roles of the mind’s relationship to the body. When one is working out a piece of music the relationship between the mind and the body is akin to that of teacher and student. The mind as teacher decides that it wants to play a piece of music. It then needs to understand all that needs to be known about how that music should sound. Then, it needs to translate all of that information into specific positions and movements in time that the body can understand—because the body is unable to directly understand the language of the mind—its concepts and ideas.  

Positions and movements are the language of the body—get the body to do something a few times and it begins to remember. Once this is accomplished, the mind must relinquish its role as teacher and take on the role of conductor, but therein lies the problem, because the mind, having become habituated to and identified with its role as teacher, often finds it all but impossible to give up this role.

During a performance, a world-class conductor of a world-class orchestra never wonders if or whether the orchestra can play the music; instead, the conductor’s only concern is with communicating to the orchestra in the moment  what it needs to do to in order to express the conductor’s vision of the music. It’s like the difference between learning how to drive a car and actually driving it. A competent driver does not continue to consider how to turn or brake or accelerate, the driver leaves that to the body while it concerns itself with the exigencies of the journey at hand. But in performance, if the mind begins to consider mistakes and mishaps, or starts to worry about what comes next, or how to do it, it is reverting to its role as teacher…

Of course it’s easy to say, “don’t think about your mistakes while playing, don’t worry or second guess yourself,” but this is easier said than done; because it is the nature of the mind to go to whatever it is told not to— tell it to not think about blue elephants and automatically, that is exactly what it will begin to do. And so, the more successful solution would be to deflect the mind, to get it to think about something else, like say, red elephants—because the more the mind becomes concentrated on red elephants, the less it will thinks about blue elephants. In this case, the red elephant is the musician’s vision and expression of the music.

So, the blue elephant is the state of the mind as teacher and the red elephant represents the state of the mind as conductor. Let’s examine what a conductor does. At first glance it may appear that the conductor’s actions/movements are in response to the orchestra, but, though simultaneous response is an important aspect of his role, his primary attention is to his vision—his musical vision—of the work he is conducting. In other words, the conductor must relate his inner world—his musical vision—to his outer world—the orchestra—and do it in the moment.

This relationship—this balance—of the conductor’s inner and the outer worlds is an act of attention that can be illustrated by a double arrow. One arrow of attention is pointed at the orchestra from his musical vision, while simultaneously, the second arrow of attention is pointed at the conductor’s musical vision from the orchestra, and this relationship is exactly what the soloist must achieve in performance—a relationship between his body as orchestra and his mind as conductor.

But to achieve this balance takes practice—the practice of sharing—and a fair amount of self-study as well—the study of one’s attention. It is work, but it is work that I have personally found to be very rewarding on many different levels. This I say, not as someone who has achieved the goal—perhaps some final goal can never be perfectly achieved—but as someone engaged in a musical and personal journey that becomes more and more interesting and enlightening with every step.

It is a journey that is different for everyone, but I would characterize it as a journey of love—and sharing love is what love life and music is all about. I have witnessed this love—this sharing—in the performances of the great maestro of the guitar, Andre Segovia. There was something different that I observed when we, the audience, left the concert hall at the end of his performances. Unlike many other concerts, I noticed that we were all generally much quieter and smiling a whole lot more.

Why? I believe that it had something to do with Segovia’s discipline, both as a musician and as a human being. I believe that his work was never about dominating the music, but about serving it. He mastered the music by serving it with love; it was a mastery in servitude, and when something is mastered through service and not the violence of domination, it is felt by all who are in the presence of it as something very unique and very special.

But, regarding this love manifested as disciplined service, what more can be said?

For when the subject turned to love, pen broke and paper tore.” – The great mystical poet, Rumi.

So perhaps it would be best leave it here, because, as Rumi also said, “the tale of love, must be heard from love itself, for like the mirror, it is both mute and expressive!”

© Copyright, Michael Kovitz 2018

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Modes and Musical Thinking

Renaissance music (16th century), by lutenist composers like John Dowland, Luis de Milan, Francis Cutting, and Hans Neusidler is some of the earliest music found in the modern classical guitar repertoire. This music is beautiful and its place in the history of the guitar and the history of music is very significant.

Since this music is modal and utilizes compositional practices quite different than the music of the Diatonic Common Practice Period (1750 – 1900), I believe that for lovers of early music, and especially the musicians who play this music, it is important to know something about the modes and compositional practices of those earlier times. A working knowledge of the modes and their evolution is also of great importance to lovers of jazz and classical music of the 20th Century.

First some background: Study of the early and middle periods of Baroque music, beginning around 1600, traces a transition from the modal compositional practices of the Renaissance to those of diatonic common practice music. By 1750, this trend reached its zenith in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi.

But from the time of Bach, the state of the music did not remain static as composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, pushed the boundaries of diatonic music further and further. Mozart pushed Bach; Beethoven pushed Mozart, Wagner pushed Beethoven, until by the end of the 19th Century, the compositional practices of diatonic music system had been pushed and stretched to such an extreme that the two pillars that supported it—the use of clearly defined major and minor tonalities and the hierarchy of tonic/dominant thinking—began to crumble under the weight of more and more extensive chromaticism.

We can hear and feel this in much of Wagner’s music when it begins to soar, as it were, into a space beyond major and minor tonalities, beyond keys, and beyond the tyranny of the tonic/dominant relationship, into the abyss of freedom—the space that lay beyond diatonic common practice techniques, its sensibilities, and all that it represented. The music soars over the abyss, but like a kite whose string is held by the hand of a man who is safely standing on the rim of the abyss, we hear that time and time again it is reeled in from the abyss to the familiarity of diatonic common practice music.

Claude Debussy’s music, however, is a different story, for Debussy not only gazed into the abyss of freedom, but leapt right into it. In the abyss of freedom there are no rules or procedures, except for those that the composer imposes on himself. Debussy, like many composers of the 20th century who joined him and followed him, had to invent the rules and procedures as he went along, often changing these same rules and procedures when they did not fit a given musical situation, or context, or evolution in the composer’s musical thinking.

The music of the early 20th Centuries was a time of experimentation, upheaval, and novelty. The question of what lay beyond diatonic common practice music had been asked and numerous answers were advanced—some of which took root and some of which had a more passing influence on the ongoing stream of musical thinking and practice. But one thing that was fairly consistent among these early 20th century composers and the jazz musicians who emerged near the middle of the 20th Century was their strong reaction against the rules and techniques of diatonic common practice music leading to new, self-imposed, practices that had less to do with how music should be written and more to do with how music should not be written.

Claude Debussy used pentatonic, whole-tone scales, and exotic oriental modes to create music that broke from the tradition of clearly defined major and minor tonalities. Arnold Schoenberg devised tone rows constructed from the twelve tones of the chromatic scale and created music that explored the realm of atonality. Béla Bartók used the ancient modes as well as Eastern European folk melodies that led to melodies and harmonies beyond the reach of diatonic major and minor tonalities and the tyranny of the tonic/dominant relationship.

Modal Jazz emerged in the mid- 20th Century with the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and others. In this music, the modes were used to create non-functional harmonies free from diatonic associations and enabled the musicians to create melodies that were free from the restrictions of particular chords and the chord progressions of functional harmony.

In the latter half of the 20th Century and now, in the early part of the 21st Century, the use of modal terminology is popularly used to codify tonal regions within diatonic tonalities in order to create new possibilities in the realm of melodic improvisation in jazz, popular, and even country music.
Modal music has been around for a long, long time—counting from the Greeks, at least two thousand years! During that time, modal music has gone through many transformations and many systems, yet at its core have always been the modes themselves with all of their various codifications and practices.

Western music traces its origins to ancient Greece and the time of Pythagoras, approximately 650 B.C., but the history of Greece and the rise and fall of its various societies stretch back thousands of years before then, into the second main division of ancient history named the Bronze Age by the modern historian C.J.Thomsen.

In Europe, the Bronze Age began around 2300 BC.  Entwined with this history are the even more remote histories and influences of the cultures of the ancient Near East and Middle East (approximately 3700 BC). Of significance is the fact that the arts, sciences, and philosophies, of these cultures were based upon sophisticated mathematical systems and calculations that later inspired and informed the arts, sciences, and philosophies of the Greek civilization during the time of Pythagoras.

Pythagoras based his system on the mathematical ratio of 3:2 (the interval of a perfect fifth). These modes were constructed from various combinations of tetrachords. A tetrachord is a series of notes that descend an interval of a forth by stepwise motion, e.g. (E, d, c, B,) or (E, d flat, c, B,) etc.
By combining the notes of two tetrachords, the original Greek modes were created. In the following examples, the notes that begin and end each tetrachord are shown in uppercase letters:

                        Dorian:                         E, d, c, B, A, g, f, E
                                    Phrygian:                      F#, e, d, C#, B, a, g, F#
                                    Lydian:                         G#, f#, e, D#, C#, b, a, G#
                                    Mixolydian                    A, G, f, E, D, c, b-flat, A
                                    Hypodorian                   B, a, g, F#, E, d, c, B
                                    Hypophrygian               C#, b, a, G#, F#, e, d, C#
                                    Hypolydian                   D#, c#, b, A#, G#, f#, e, D#

In practice, all of these modes would be transposed between E & E, for example, the Phrygian mode would become; e, d, C#, B, a, g, f#, e.

Greek civilization gave way to the power of Rome that brought with new musical influences, codifications, and systems. Hebrew and Byzantine melodies (approximately 330 AD – 1400 AD) were derived from melodic types based upon melodic motives that were salvaged from the Greeks and earlier Middle and Near Eastern musical fragments. By the 12th & 13th Centuries (Medieval Music), research into these earlier forms and practices was codified into a system of modes and practices called Plainsong or Gregorian Chant.

300 or so years later, Ptolemy again re-codified the modes. Notice that all of the modes in Ptolemy’s codification follow the same pattern of descending steps beginning on a different tone, (half, whole, whole, whole , half, whole, whole) and that the starting notes follow the pattern of a modern-day major scale—in this case an E major scale.

These modes transposed to the same tone become:

   Dorian:                         E, d, c, B, A, g, f, e, (our modern Phrygian mode)
   Phrygian:                     e, d, C#, B, a, g, F#, e, (Dorian)
   Lydian:                        e, D#, C#, b, a, G#, f#, e, (Ionian)
   Mixolydian:                  E, D, c, b-flat, A, g, f, e, (Locrian)
   Hypodorian:                 E, d, c, B, a, g, F#, e, (Aeolian)
   Hypophrygian:             e, d, C#, b, a, G#, F#, e, (Mixolydian)
   Hypolydian:                 e, D#, c#, b, A#, G#, f#, e, (Lydian)

Almost 900 years later, the modes were again codified with credit given to Pope Gregory the Great and this codification was reached a final form by about the 11th century. Notice that this codification bears a closer resemblance to the modes as taught in the later 20th & 21st centuries.

In the following examples, modes I, III, V, & VII are classified as Authentic Modes and modes II, IV, VI, and VII are classified as Plagal Modes. Bold-face upper-case letters are used to designate the final. The final is similar to the tonic in Diatonic Common Practice Music, though it is important to keep in mind that a final and a tonic or a dominant and a co-final do not have exactly the same significance with regard to resolution and all that it implies to the modern musician. Upper-case letters in regular type face are used to designate the co-final.

Upper-case letters in regular type face are used to designate the co-final. Notice, that in both the authentic mode and its corresponding plagal form, the final is always the same, but the co-final in the authentic mode is a fifth up from the tonal while the co-final in the plagal mode is always a third down from the co-final of the authentic mode. Additionally, the common practice of the time would be to move any final or a co-final that was a half-step below the following degree of the mode to that following note. For example, in the Phrygian mode, the co-final is placed on C rather than B.    
I.                                 Dorian:                                     D, e, f, g, A, b, c, d
II.                                Hypodorian:                              a, b, c, D, e F, g, a                  
III.                               Phrygian:                                  E, f, g, a, b, C, d, e,
IV.                               Hypophrygian:                          b, c, d, E, f, g, A, b
V.                                Lydian:                                    F, g, a, b, C, d, e, f
VI.                               Hypolydian:                             c, d, e, F, g, A, b, c
VII.                              Mixolydian:                              G, a, b, c, D, e, f, g
VIII.                             Hypomixolydian:                       d, e, f, G, a, b, C, d

In 1547 Glareanus added four new modes to the system—two additional authentic modes corresponding to our modern major and natural minor scales and their two plagal variations. These were called Ionian, Aeolian, Hypoionian, and Hypoaeolian, respectively.

IX.                                Aeolian:                                   A, b, c, d, E, f, g, a
X.                                 Hypoaeolian:                           e, f, g, A, b, C, d, e
XI.                                Ionian:                                    C, d, e, f, G, a, b
XII.                               Hypoionian:                             g, a, b, C, d, E, f

The most modern classification of the modes based on the key of C Major is as follows:            

I.                                                         Ionian:                                     c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c

II.                                                       Dorian:                                     d, e, f, g, a, b, c, d

III.                                                     Phrygian:                                 e, f, g, a, b, c, d, e

IV.                                                     Lydian:                                     f, g, a, b, c, d, e, f

V.                                                       Mixolydian:                              g, a, b, c, d, e, f, g

VI.                                                    Aeolian:                                   a, b, c, d, e, f, g, a

VII.                                                  Locrian:                                   b, c, d, e, f, g, a, b 

Of practical importance is the need to identify and construct the modes from various starting points—keys—finals. Towards that end the following techniques are offered.
1.      The first to the last note of any major scale creates the Ionian mode in that key or on that final; beginning with the second note of any major scale creates the Dorian mode in that key or on that final; beginning with the third note of any major scale creates the Phrygian mode in that key or on that final, and so forth with all of the remaining modes. This is particularly useful because of our present usage of ‘key signatures’ in the notation of modal music. For example, a key signature of f#, would not indicate G major or E minor, but the possibility of the music being in any of the modes derived from the Ionian mode, i.e. G Ionian, A Dorian, B Phrygian, etc. To find which mode it is, one only need to determine the final—which is usually the last (the final) note or harmony of the piece.

2.       Because of the contemporary musician's familiarity with major and minor scales, modes can be identified as essentially ‘major’ or ‘minor’.

Ionian is the same as a major scale.
Dorian is the same as a minor scale with a raised 6th.
Phrygian is the same as a minor scale with a lowered 2nd.
Lydian is the same as a major scale with raised 4th.
Mixolydian is the same as a major scale with a lowered 7th.
Locrian is the same as a minor scale with lowered 2nd and 5th.

          3.      Modes in any key will have all of the notes of a major scale in that key. For example, the B       Dorian mode, built upon the second note of the A major scale, has sharps on c, f, and g, as does the C# Phrygian, the D Lydian, etc.

Identifying the modes in Renaissance music can be more difficult because pieces of music often contain notes that are not in the mode, similar to accidentals in diatonic common practice music. Therefore, the following observations are offered with the hope that they may lead the thoughtful musician not so much to answers, but to deeper questions regarding the nature of the music they are playing:

Since the time of Pythagoras, composers have regularly raised the 7th note of any mode by a ½ step in order to create an interval of a ½ step between the 7th note and the final or key tone of that mode.
Additionally, important cadences are also altered to allow for a ½ step movement to any cadential note.
Instances are easily found in which the 6th note of a mode is raised as well.

Mostly, these allowances are found in the upper voice, while the lower voice is often more consistent with the notes of the underlying mode of the piece, therefore, when trying to discern the mode of a particular piece of music, conflicts should be resolved by giving more evidentiary weight to the notes of the lower voice.

And finally, simply put, within any domain of possibilities vast differences occur between theory and practice and, as it has been observed; rules of composition enable the less gifted composer to write competent music, while the greatest of composers have shown the ability to transcend existing rules and create new possibilities within their musical domains.

                                                                     © Copyright, Michael Kovitz, 2017