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    Music Concentration At Its Best

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    In any type of education — music, arts, athletics — focus and concentration are essential elements for success. Just as a baseball batter needs to ignore distractions and focus on the ball, a musician must be able to focus on the notes.

    We recently learned of a young musician who took her concentration skills to a new level and we were impressed!

    Flutist Yukie Ota was performing at an international competition in Denmark when a butterfly landed on her forehead. To make matters worse, the butterfly did not flutter away. It remained on her forehead for at least a minute and, according to NPR, was most likely looking for a salty drink to satiate itself.  Aside from one, perhaps two, glances up at her forehead she did not succumb to the distraction. Ota continued playing and, at an appropriate break, swatted the butterfly away.  At all times she appeared composed and professional.

    Ota told Michigan Live: “He [the butterfly] just came and landed on my head. I didn’t see it coming. All of a sudden it landed, ‘What is happening? It was kind of surprising, at the same time, I had to concentrate on my performance. If I stop, I will fail.”

    We were happy to learn that Ota advanced to the next round, despite her butterfly distraction, and eventually placed second in the competition. She considered the butterfly incident an unexpected benefit that helped her place high in the competition.

    “It left a good impression on the judges because they saw I had good concentration on the music,” Ota told Michigan Live.

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    What A Spontaneous Jam Session Can Teach Us About Improv

    Sometimes the best music can happen inside a concert hall.

    And other times the best musical moments are unplanned.

    That’s what happened recently in Texas when an aspiring musician strumming his guitar outside a grocery store was joined by two strangers. A third stranger recorded their impromptu session and posted it on YouTube and Facebook. The rest is Internet history.

    The video is has since gone viral, boosting the popularity of the three men so much that they  were flown to Los Angeles to perform on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Not only were the three strangers reunited but they also were joined by rappers Trey Songz, Juicy J and Aloe Blacc.

    While the video is entertaining, it is also very educational. Improvisation appears deceptively simple but it is a very difficult skill because it requires music knowledge and creativity.

    Here are some basic improvisation tips we observed from the video:

     

    Wait: Notice how the singer in the blue jersey takes in the song before joining in. He may or may not consciously know it, but he’s listening to the song’s scale and the rhythms, figuring a way he can contribute.

     

    Simplify: You’ll notice that the guitarist’s song is more complicated in the beginning but when he is accompanied by other musicians, everyone works to simplify the song. Eventually, they all seem to agree on an ostinato – a brief, repeated pattern that is at the heart of improvisation. The ostinato the men create are the hooks: “I don’t know what you came to do” and “Tell them that I just don’t know.”

     

    Be Fearless: The creativity needed to improvise a song can be daunting. Musicians, however, need to be fearless and experiment with music-making. If your music education has been focused on scales and reading music, The Music Junction educators can work with you to enhance your improvisation skills.

     

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    An Increase in Music Prodigies

    It doesn’t seem possible to refer to musical prodigies as commonplace or 14-year-old virtuosos as over the hill but Newsweek provides some interesting insight about the increase in talented young musicians.

    In its article, “Musical Prodigies Find Plenty of Youthful Company,” Newsweek writes: “Conservatories in Europe and North America report an increasing number of pre-teens who turn up for auditions flawlessly performing repertoire previously considered the domain of 25 year olds.”

    The reason for this increase is uncertain. One person attributed the trend to the Olympic syndrome of wanting to break records and attain fame. Another mentioned the growing Chinese population that typically tends to value music education. It is estimated that there are 30 million young pianists in China.

    Music, however, is not just technical perfection — hitting the right notes and executing difficult passages. It’s also about artistry and creating an emotional connection with the music and to the audience.

    Just ask Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan pianist and a former a child prodigy who made her musical debut when she was just 8 years old.  She stopped playing piano at 18 years old and lived life outside of the piano. She returned two years later and says the break added meaning to her work.

    “The danger is that we’re creating machines that can play any piece at any speed,” Montero told Newsweek. “As an artist you have to say something to say, but you don’t have anything to say if you’ve spent your life in a practice room.”

    What do you think? Is the increase in young music prodigies good or bad?

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    Celebrating Fall With Vivaldi

    Happy first day of autumn!

    For us, autumn makes us think of the smells of baked pumpkin and warm apple cider and the sights of dark nights and wind blowing through trees.

    But what does fall sound like?

    There are no shortage of online playlists focused on this season. You can listen to some here, here and here.

    We think, however, that autumn belongs to Antonio Vivaldi, the Italian baroque composer who penned the wildly successful “The Four Seasons.” The violin concertos are so deeply embedded in modern culture that all of us are familiar with the song even if we don’t regularly listen to classical music.

    To celebrate the first day of fall, we are shedding some light into the Autumn portion of “The Four Seasons.” Next time you’re listening to this music consider these interesting facts:

    1. Vivaldi published  “The Four Seasons” in 1725.

    2. “The Four Seasons” title was not the original name. Instead is was simply referred to as “Op. 8” and belonged to a larger set of 12 concertos known in English as “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.”

    3. It was immediately disliked by the public who thought it was too modern and gimmicky.

    4. A sonnet — most likely penned by Vivaldi — accompanies each concerto, to help listeners understand the meaning of the music. The autumn sonnet begins with peasants celebrating a bountiful harvest. The celebration then turns into drunkenness and a long slumber. The final stanza centers on wild animals unsuccessfully evading hunters. You can read the full text of the sonnet here.

    5. Each season follows the same pattern: fast-slow-fast. Or, in more musical terms allegro-adagio molto-allegro.

     

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    Helping Veterans Through Music

    They’ve seen the worst of atrocities fighting in a war and returned home after enduring life-changing injuries.

    Now, they’re moving on with their lives with the help of music.

    We were inspired to see this CNN story about MusiCorps, a music rehabilitation program that helps military veterans learn, or in some cases re-learn, music with the help of professional musicians. MusiCorps also launched its own music group, known as the Wounded Warrior Band, which plays throughout the country including at the Grand Ole Opry, with Yo Yo Ma and with the Kansas City Symphony.

    “I’ve seen guys come in here, and they’re going through such a tough time with their injuries that they are very withdrawn,” says Arthur Bloom, founder of MusiCorps and a graduate of Yale School of Music. “The music becomes their new way of communicating. It can be just as powerful as the spoken word. … By injecting music into this space, we can inject life.”

    All the veterans in MusiCorps suffered serious injuries including loss of limbs and eyes and are receiving treatment at Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Their conditions are so serious that they need multiple surgeries and end up living at Walter Reed for a few years.

    The MusiCorps program helps veterans take their mind off surgeries and rehabilitation as well as alleviate stress and anxiety.

    We’ve mentioned before that music is a gift and we’re glad so many people are helping others through music.  We’re also impressed with Wounded Warrior Band’s talents. The group’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Grand Ole Opry was so moving and their sacrifice was brought into sharper focus when the singer repeated “home of the brave” several times.

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    Giving Your Brain A Full-Body Workout Through Music

    Playing music produces a whirlwind of activity in the brain that is unmatched by any other activity including playing sports and painting. It is the only activity that researchers can compare to a full-body workout.

    A recent Ted-Ed video has some fun with this topic, exploring the issue through animation that’s under the direction of educator Anita Collins. Researchers have been studying this topic for more than two decades and there is still more work to be done but what is clear is that there is a difference between listening to music and playing music. The act of playing music sparks activity — or what the video narrator likes to call “fireworks” — that lights up both sides of the brain.

    “Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once,” the video’s narrator says. “And as with any other workout, disciplines, structured practice in playing music strengthen those brain functions allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.”

    We’ve already read research on how music lessons enhance communication skills. This video explores the brain’s executive function, the ability to connect past experiences with the present. Essentially it is a set of skills people would love to have on their resume; an ability to organize and plan as well as pay attention to details and manage time effectively. Neuroscientists also noted that playing music increased the activity in the part of the brain that serves as a bridge to both hemispheres of the brain allowing messages to travel across the brain faster.

    To see more info on Collins’ exploration of music and the brain, watch this video.

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    4 Ways to Protect Your Singing Voice

    When instrumental musicians struggle with their sound they can buy new strings, order more reeds or grease their gears.

    When a singer struggles with her sound, fixing the problem is not as easy. Consistent strain on vocal cords can cause damage and create nodules, or polyps, to form. Although benign, the nodules can lead to bleeding when they are not properly rested, which then causes scarring. Vocal cords that are scarred sound more hoarse and are more prone to cracking.

    A cracked voice, however, is not the fate for all singers. Properly managed and maintained vocal cords can provide a singer with a lifetime of beautiful sounds.

    Here are our 4 tips to protecting your singing voice:

     

    1. Healthy Lifestyle: Like everything else in life, a healthy lifestyle reaps many rewards. If you want to give your vocal cords a long life then stay away from smoking and drugs and opt for a healthy diet that includes drinking lots of water and aerobic exercise.

     

    2. Rest When You’re Sick: Just as your body needs to rest when you’re sick, so does your voice. If you must sing while sick, schedule several days of rest soon after so your vocal cords can begin healing.

     

    3. Warm-Ups and Cool Downs: Just as a runner stretches before and after a race, singers must also get their vocal cords warmed up and ready to perform. A voice coach can work with you on tailoring a set of exercises that works best for you.

     

    4. Technique: A good voice coach — including someone from The Music Junction — will work with you to understand how your voice works and the proper techniques for singing including understanding how to breathe and how to use your diaphragm. We like this piece of advice from voice trainer Judith Farris on the benefits of a properly coached voice.

    “In singing, if one’s breath is balanced, it is nearly impossible to have any kind of strain on the vocal apparatus, and the easiest and most beautiful sound is achieved,” Farris told Theatre Communications Group. “ Thus obtaining a correct vocal technique is the key to the prevention of vocal problems. The vocal cords themselves are muscles. Athletes and dancers know that any muscle that is used correctly gets stronger with use, not weaker or injured.”

     

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    5 Tips to Singing the National Anthem

    Two hundred years ago today, Francis Scott Key witnessed British soldiers firing on Fort McHenry as they tried to gain entry into Baltimore during the War of 1812.  American soldiers, however, remained fearless and defeated the British. To celebrate their victory they hoisted the U.S. flag and seeing those stripes and stars inspired Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

    Since then, the song has been immediately cherished by the country, proudly sung during the Civil War and as act of patriotism in the days after September 11.

    As much as the song is beloved by millions, the national anthem poses some problems for singers. It is one of the most challenging songs for a singer due to its high notes, lyrics that use antiquated words and wide-ranging melody. In fact it’s common for a singer to feel honored and utterly frightened upon being asked to perform the song publicly.

    In honor of the 200th anniversary, we are offering some tips on how to successfully sing the national anthem.

    1. Learn what the song is about and what the words mean, says the National Association for Music Education. The song was written 200 years ago when people spoke differently and it’s easy to butcher the lyrics if you don’t know the definition of “o’er” or the meaning of  “rampart.”

    2. Now that you know what the song is about, sing with meaning. In so many ways, singing is like acting. You cannot just recite the words, they have to be sung with emotion.

    3. Start the song slightly lower than your normal range to avoid singing out of your range when the song’s high notes approach, advises singer John Legend.

    4. This is a song to honor your country, not to show off your vocal talents. Unless you have the vocal range of Whitney Houston (see video above) most singers are criticized for excessive embellishments and flourishes. Just keep it simple.

    5. Remember that other people like singing the song too. If you have ever attended a sports game you’ve seen a lot of people singing along, proudly taking off their hats and placing their hands over their hearts. If you improvise too much the crowd won’t be able to follow along with you causing them to lose interest or be unhappy with your performance.

    The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons at our Burbank and Hollywood locations. Call us today to learn more.

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    Kid Friendly Places to Listen to Live Music in Los Angeles

    At The Music Junction, we encourage our young students to see live musical performances as much as possible. Not only is listening to live music fun but it helps our performers aspire to be better. And maybe, just maybe, it will give them a little motivation to keep practicing.

    A great perk of living in the Los Angeles area is access to great cultural attractions, especially for kids. We just wrapped up some great summer music including world music at Hollywood Bowl’s Summer Sounds and free music at Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena and MacArthur Park.

    Recently, we were excited to discover that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been offering kid-friendly performances for the past few years at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The program — Toyota Symphonies for Youth  — offers art workshops and live music for children 5 to 11 years old in the fall, winter and spring. The first performance in this four-series program begins October 18 and is adorably named “What Do French Fries Sound Like.” The performance will feature the concert hall’s unique organ that children often refer to as french fries. Other performances include jazz music, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

    Sometimes in the fall, the focus turns to other fun activities including school, pumpkin patches and trick-or-treating. It’s not always easy to find opportunities to listen to live music. Where do you go in the fall? We would love to learn of some other great venues!

    The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons at our Burbank and Hollywood locations. Call us today to learn more.

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    Making The Brain Better Through Music

    Here’s a story on some very specific ways that music benefits children and their brain development.

    Pacific Standard writes about a group of researchers who gathered 44 children ranging in age from six to nine and followed them over the course of three years. All of the children came from gang-infested parts of Los Angeles and lived in communities stricken with poverty.

    When the research began, 16 students were exposed to music instruction from the Harmony Project, a nonprofit that bring music education to low-income families. The remaining children waited one year before they received instruction.

    At the end of the second year, the two groups were evaluated for how well they could process sound, including how quickly they could differentiate the syllables “ba” and “ga.” Researchers discovered that all students who particiapted in music lessons had improvement in neural functions compared to when they first particiapted in the project. Also, the children who participated in music for two years displayed “marked improvement” in distinguishing sounds.

    “This suggests that music training transferred to non-music listening settings to influence automatic auditory processing,” according to Pacific Standard that quoted the research report from Nina Kraus of Northwestern University and her colleagues. “These improvements were in processes that are important for everyday communication.”

    “Previous investigations have revealed that, as groups, children who are better readers, and children who hear better in noise, show stronger neural distinctions of these same syllables. These findings therefore provide support for the efficacy of community and co-curricular music program to engender improvements in nervous system function.”

    Unfortunately, we know that children living in poverty deal with stresses that other kids cannot imagine. The stress can affect performance at school and we love the idea of music as a way to close the achievement gap.

    The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons at our Burbank and Hollywood locations. Call us today to learn more.

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