If you asked most people what are three elements of music, you might get the answers “melody”, “cords”, and “rhythm”. Maybe add “lyrics” as a fourth element. I would say, “physics”, “mathematics”, and “passion”. At the Fresta Valley Christian School’s recent Orchestra & Choir Concert at the Landes Center for the Performing Arts in Petersburg, WV, all of these would be the right answer, with an emphasis on “passion”.
Lets start with physics. What is music? Organized sound. What is sound? Vibration. What generates the vibration? A sound box. How does this vibration travel from the sound box to us? The movement of air. How do we sense the vibration? The different structures of our ear and brain (ear drum, cochlea, auditory nerve, right and left temporal lobes of the brain). Where do we “hear” music? The right temporal lobe (the left interprets language).
Now, you might wonder what this has to do with a classical choral and orchestra recital. You are probably expecting that a review would focus on the selections of pieces and their performance. But, live performances do not always go a planned. And, whatever occurs the musicians and conductor must respond to. During the second section of the orchestra’s performance, we heard a pop. Nothing was visible from our perspective. But,
after that piece, the conductor, William Keller, stepped over to the first chair cello, and identified the broken string. Fortunately, one of the other cello players had a spare in his case. While retrieving the replacement string, Mr. Keller began a physics discussion about stringed instruments, essentially a sound box, noting how they are designed, describing how the strings, bridge, tuning pegs, front and back board, and dowel work dynamically to hold each other together. Add a plucking motions with the finger or bowing action, and vibration occur. With the magic of physics, those sound leave the fingers of the musicians to travel through the concert hall to grace our ears with pleasing melodies. Mr. Keller could have sent the cello players off stage to attend to this task, but his impromptu music lesson showed us his passion for music, instruments, and teaching. Is passion a law of physics?
Lets consider the mathematics of music. The opening section of the concert was performed by the Concert Choir. By the numbers: one conductor, 12 singers (5 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors, 3 basses). Twelve singers, five microphones: no room to hide, but for these youths the clarity of their voices did not need a Mahler 8th Symphony with a thousand singers to impress us.
Music is full of numerical equations: whole, half, quarter, eight, sixteenth notes; time signatures; measures; verse/chorus sequences; variations (Bach had 30 Goldburg Variations, Beethovan 33 Diabeli Variations). Furthermore, to add the mathematics to the physics, the position of the notes on the music translate to specific vibration rates. The higher the note, the faster the vibration. Yet, these patterns repeat, creating ranges and octives. Thus the bases vibrate at one rate, verses the tenors, altos, and sopranos.
With practice and talent, the chorus can not only hit the right notes at the right time, but match different notes into harmonies, and different rhythms for soothing and arousing affects. Thus, the chorus can sing a peaceful tune, “Still, My Soul, Be Still”, followed by a more punctuated tune, “Old Dan Tucker”, and then take what I have usually heard as a moderate paced bluegrass or Irish ballad, “Shady Grove” and draw out the the choruses in rich harmonies.
Equally, so, can the orchestra take portions of Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mozart, following the timing and pitch of the composers. Then, turn the calendar ahead a few hundred years to perform familiar numbers from The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz. In case you think that vibration comes only from the physics of sound boxes, air, and ear mechanisms, be prepared for the vibration of goose bumps with each piece… but that is a different neurological process, which has more to do with the passion of live musical performances.
Other than the choral songs’ lyrics, this concert and the neurological processes have little to do with language. Language is how we communicate with words. While we use words to express physics, mathematical, and emotional experience, each of these are first processed in parts of the brain which do not necessarily “think” in words. For passion, no words can adequately express the experience. This is the realm of the limbic system, deep in the brain. Music and mathematical concepts stimulate the right temporal lobe. The understanding of physics relationships occurs in the frontal lobe. Language comes by later to trying to put words to explain these observations… sort of like blogging.
We see the passion of the musical directors, Jennifer Becker for the Concert Chorus and William Keller for the Orchestra, before the first downbeat of their batons. Ms. Becker gestured to the singers, indicating what they should be concentrating on and preparing
them for those first notes. Mr. Keller moved from section to section to check the tuning of their instruments to assure clarity with the first draw of the bow. From there the passion of the leaders and the musicians flowed from piece to piece. When Mr. Keller read the line of the poem associated with “The Masions of the Lord” or sang one of his own folk songs about leaving the farm, the quiver of his voice indicated the passion that words could not express. When the students eyes looked up from the music to follow their conducting, their passion for their craft and admiration for their teachers transformed that moment from physics of sound and mathematics of notation to the passion of performance. And, if that were not enough, when they took a bass to center stage, gathered around with guitar, banjo, two mandolins, harmonica, and voices to sing bluegrass gospel song from “I Saw the Light” to “Fly away”, we could not repress our passion for their evening of music.
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
Psalm 33: 1 – 3
The psalmist does not call for perfect performance, but for skillfull playing. Talent is the raw ability to do something well based on the gentics that each of us receives. Skill is the enhancement of those talents through practice. In live performances, espeically for youth who are refining their skills, erros occur. Placement of the finger just a milimeter off will change the length of the string, triggering a vibration slightly flat or sharp of the intended note. But, learning is not about perfection, but about developing. Ms. Becker and Mr. Keller’s exemplified their passion for teaching by overcoming the errors that occurred and keeping the ensembles focused on the whole performance. Even the teachers made errors, and through their role modeling, showed their pupils how to regain composure, find the lyrics and carry on. Fortunately, the mathematics of music are forgiving. During the seconds that Mr. Keller needed to recall the correct opening line for a folk song that he and his brother performed, they could continue to strum the chord structure and start over again. This is a lesson we should all learn, that when our skills fall short of perfection, we are forgiven.
Part of the development of skill is graduating and taking what you have learned to share with others. Each year, several of the student graduate. Some may pursue additional musical education, and possibly careers in the arts. Most will take their music to community ensembles, church choirs, bluegrass or country bands, the praise band, or an indy-rock group. May they all take their music to their homes for family, children, grand and great-grandchildren to enjoy. Maybe some will be like this hermit and do some fiddling on the roof. Wherever they may go, may they remember the laws of physics, abide by the rules of mathematics, and experience of joy of passion.