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What is Perfect Pitch?

  posted by Daniel on December 9th, 2010

Is perfect pitch a rare musical gift, an elevated state of acoustical awareness possessed by few? Or is it a random neurological condition, creating a disposition towards pitch-OCD that may be musically disabling? Let's take a moment to de-mystify the cult of perfect pitch, and re-clarify what *is* important to develop along your musical journey.

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A "Perfect Pitch Ear-Training Course" is being advertised to me through an ad next to the results of my Google search. Clearly, this catch phrase is an attractive one - and the promise of gaining the holy grail of perfect pitch is alluring enough for the folks marketing this ear-training course to dangle it like a golden carrot. Mozart had perfect pitch, they might tell me, and now so can I!

What is commonly known about people with perfect pitch, is that they have a remarkable ability to name notes out of context. If you sing a random note to them, they (if they've been trained in musical language) can tell you that it was a C#. You might not have known you were singing a C#, so this seems impressive. You go to the piano and check, and indeed, it's a C#. How did they do that?

For people with perfect pitch, the experience of various pitches is extremely distinct. Just as blue is distinct from green, and though both are colors, would never be confused for each other, for those with perfect pitch, C and C# are clearly distinct in their perceptual experience of the notes. It might even be baffling to them why the rest of us can't identify notes by their pitch alone. After all, do you need to look at a color chart to determine that a color you just saw was blue? So, why do you need to check a piano or other instrument to determine what note was just sung?

Alas, to the rest of us non-perfect-pitchers, the difference between C and C# is only revealed when played in comparison to one another. Play both notes to me, in sequence, and I'll tell you which is C#, because it's the higher one. This facility is called "relative pitch," and is a skill musicians develop over time. If we sing Indian music, where a drone is always emphasizing a primary note ("Sa"), then as we learn to sing scales and melodies, we can find the other notes of the scale ("Re," "Ga," and so on) simply *in reference to* the Sa being played as a drone. This is a very important skill, which is developed through practice, and eventually enables one to sing intricate melodies and improvisations that resonate beautifully with the drones, or other instruments, that are playing along. This is "relative pitch," where one is sensitive to the perception of one pitch in comparison to another ~ your voice's pitch in comparison to your harmonium, or your voice's pitch in comparison to the rest of the choir, or the note you are currently singing in comparison with that really high note you are about to leap to.

But folks with perfect pitch, perhaps better called "absolute pitch," have a strong sense of the absolute pitch of a note, or piece of music. For example, if you take a beloved childhood song often played in the key of C, which happens to start on a C note... and then have a musician play it to you in the key of C#, starting on the C# note: most of us won't be able to tell the difference. Same song, same melodic contour, just ever-so-slightly higher. For those with perfect pitch, however, the song is now utterly different. This may be jarring, or disorienting, or at least will sound "wrong." For them, each key seems qualitatively different, each possessing its own "flavor" or "feel," its own character. Many with absolute pitch compare it to color - they "hear" G-sharpness as instantly and clearly as we "see" blue.

There are certainly advantages to a musician being equipped with perfect pitch: tuning ones instrument without an electric tuner is easy, singing or notating any music at its "correct" pitch is easier, and each key gets enhanced by a unique color or qualitative distinctness. However, an over-awareness of the absolute pitch of sounds may actually impede experiencing *music.* It is not uncommon for stringed instruments such as guitars to be slightly de-tuned from tuning standards. As long as the guitar's strings are *relatively* in tune, meaning in tune with each other, then the guitar sounds fine to us, even if it's A string is tuned to 436 hertz instead of the modern standard of 440 hertz. But not to a person with absolute pitch! To them, music played on such a de-tuned guitar may sound mangled, painful, or distressing.

Additionally, in many musical cultures, transposing songs readily from one key to another is important. If a singer happens to have a higher voice, a skilled pianist accompanying her will simply play the song in a higher key. If my voice is not yet warmed up, I might begin a kirtan by playing a chant in the key of B instead of C#: slightly lower, to suit my voice. This shifting of keys may be disorienting and distressing for those with absolute pitch, and so this musical skill of transposition will be harder for them to acquire.

The wonder of harmony is that when multiple pitches are played together, they create an emotional effect on the listener and musician. As chords flow through a song, different groupings of notes push and pull our emotions, allowing us to access hidden and unspeakable realms of feeling. In an extreme case, a person with too strong a perception of absolute pitch will be focused on the "C-ness" of the C note, and the "E-flatness" of the E-flat note, and may fail to fully be moved by the emotional effect of the two notes relationship: a minor third, often called a "sad" interval by those whose focus is on relative pitch.

Absolute pitch is not necessarily of much importance to musicians – Mozart had it, but Wagner and Schumann lacked it. But if not through musical genius or talent, where does absolute pitch come from? How is it developed? What causes it? In his book "Musicophilia," neurologist Oliver Sacks reveals that incidence of absolute pitch is far higher in Chinese children (60%) than for American children (14%). He suggests that children learning a tonal language (like Mandarin or Cantonese, in which the same syllable spoken at different pitches has different meanings) are encouraged from early on to focus on pitch distinctions. Where-as a child born into an English-speaking family is initially bombarded by huge volumes of auditory information, from which it learns to select the elements that are meaningful in the English language. Early on, the brain recognizes that absolute pitch has little purpose in determining what words are being spoken, and so the brain scratches pitch off the list of auditory phenomena to focus on.
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Emotional Balancing Through Music

  posted by Daniel on November 21st, 2010

I'm ten thousand miles above the ground, pondering fluffy fields of geometric cloud cover. My final destination is Nashville, to hold a harmonium intensive, but right now I am elated to have escaped the dreary drizzle of San Francisco's grey skies. The sun is shining brightly, as it always is above the clouds, and I ponder how my emotions and moods can obscure radiant happiness. I begin to reflect on a time some years ago, when I experienced uncontrollable ups and downs, which now seem as distant as San Francisco's weather.

When I was nineteen years old, I abruptly stopped making music. Previously, I had musicked all my life ~ had probably kicked drum beats on the inside of my mother's uterus ~ and it had been a core element of my identity. I loved instruments and played lots of them, and spent time daily improvising on saxophone or piano.

Then, in 2003, a fascination with meditation led me into a monastic Buddhist community abroad, where I spent nearly two years. I read about nirvana, enlightenment, Buddha nature, and the path of meditation. I strongly desired to experience the fruits of meditation, and it seemed that music had no important role to play. I was so absorbed in this pursuit, that music just went out the window. Gone. In it's place: Silence. Stillness. The pure ringing of a meditation gong.

Over those two years, I experienced a gradual increase in mood swings. Two or three months of feeling quite good would alternate with two or three months of "dry spell." The dry spells were strange ~ I had never experienced them before. It was as if my brain got a little dried out. I imagined there might be a crucial neurochemical substance that was running low, and wondered if it had to do with the seasons, or my diet. During these times, my emotions would be stiff, unflowing, and my interest in relating with friends would diminish. I felt stuck in my head ~ able to read, study, meditate, and be critical of the other students in my classes. But my heart was inaccessible, and I would tell myself to hang in there for a couple months till I felt good again.

As time went on, I experienced an anxious buzz, which made it hard to sink in to meditation. I began to wonder if my trust of meditation as a complete spiritual path was misplaced. After two years abroad, I returned to America, dissatisfied, anxious, harboring many spiritual ideas, and having a more difficult time relating to friends and family. It was at this point that I was reconnected with my saxophone.

While I had no intellectual reason to make music (it did not fit in with my monasticized notions of spiritually relevant activities), I picked up the sax for old time's sake. My embouchure muscles (in the lips and mouth) had atrophied, and I couldn't produce a satisfying tone. But my body's exuberant visceral response to playing music was unmistakable ~ I had not felt an urge that strong in a long time. I began playing saxophone for six hours a day ~ scales, tone exercises, jazz songs, improvisations, or jamming along with CDs I found at my brother's apartment where I was staying. It took over, and reclaimed me. I didn't understand what I was going to do with it, but clearly I could not deny it. It was like drinking after having been thirsty for two years, without knowing I had been thirsty. It felt good.

That year (I was twenty-one), I still experienced multi-month mood seasons, but their amplitude diminished, and by the following year they vanished altogether. I could always feel, and began to understand the connection between my own emotions, and the flavor of music I made while improvising. Music wasn't just an activity; it was a crucial expression of the inexpressible feelings within me. An outlet for all the kinks, passions, frustrations, and creative juices, which otherwise I only knew how to suppress.

In his fascinating book "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain," neurologist and music therapist Oliver Sacks shares a letter he received from a young man in his thirties, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was nineteen. His manic and depressive episodes were both severe, lasting months at a time. However, he had discovered in his twenties that playing piano could have a striking effect on his state of mind. His letter follows:

"If I sat at a piano, I could start to play, to improvise, and to tune into my mood. If my mood was elevated, I could match that elevated mood with the music, and after a period of playing, in almost a trance-like state, I could bring my mood down to a more normal level. Likewise, if my mood was depressed, I was able to bring my mood up. It is as if I am able to use music in the same way that some people use therapy or medications to stabilize their mood... Listening to music doesn't do the same thing for me by any means - it has to do with the output, and the way that I am able to control every aspect of the music - style, tempo, texture and dynamics."

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The Inside Story

  posted by Daniel on October 10th, 2010

Crack! The hammer hits home, sending a loose piece of splintered pine wood flying. I re-close the harmonium's box, pump the bellows - and - it still plays! Gosh, does it sound even better? Perhaps the sound board resonates more fully, relieved of its encumbrance.

It's a music dork's demolition derby today, as I seek to understand: What are the crucial elements that make up a harmonium? And what elements of current harmoniums are unnecessary? expendable? better suited for the trash can, or the annals of history?

First to go is the coupling device, which links each key on the keyboard with a key an octave higher. Most players never use it, and I find that the device stiffens the keyboard's action in an unsatisfying way. So, off it goes, lightening the whole instrument and making it mechanically more streamlined (simpler).

Next, I strip out the six knobs. These vestigial apparati perform borderline useless functions. I have tried to adapt the drone knobs to Western music use by stipulating "white key" notes be installed (C and A for example) instead of Indian-favored "black key" notes (such as C# and G#). Still, drone notes are generally incompatible with moving chord progressions, which are the underpinning of Western music, and of most Western musicians' approach to playing kirtan on harmonium. So, the drone knobs rarely get used, if ever. Then there's the vibrato knob. I *dare* somebody to post a you-tube video displaying an aesthetically pleasing use for this sound effect. Finally, there's the air knobs. Open the harmonium, pull them out. Remember to push them in when you close the harmonium. We all know the drill... but... do we really need them? All they do is allow the air to move from the bellows to the reeds. Why not have that passageway permanently open? Off they go, along with their corresponding wooden blocks, screws, and rods.

With the knobs removed, the harmonium has both sets of reeds permanently on - so, no need for the wood strips that divide the upper and lower reed chambers. In fact, each of these sets of reeds when played independently has a quirky, fickle character, which leads us all to play with both open at all times. Thereby, the dividing boards are unnecessary. Out come the hammer and chisel, sending sections of splintered pine wood strips flying through the workshop.

Just under the bottom tray of the inner box, I see some folded leather. Curious, I unscrew the tray and lift it out - and discover an entire second bellows housed in the harmonium's bottom box, under the inner box's tray. Fitted with two large coiled springs beneath it and a one-way air-flow valve (a leather flap), this second bellows glares at me, challenging: I may seem extraneous, but perhaps I am essential.

I perform some tests. I remove the springs, replace the rest and play. The harmonium sounds, but dies intermittently as my hand moves away to catch the next pump. In an instant, I grok the function of the second bellows: to enable the harmonium to produce a consistent sound by blowing the reeds with a consistent air pressure, rather than a periodic sound which would be produced if the reeds were played directly by the primary bellows, with is pumped periodically by a hand.

Herein, I realize, is the crucial difference between two species of free-reed keyboard instruments: the harmonium, and the accordion. A single bellows pumping a single reed will inevitably have an unsatisfying gap in its sound when the bellows is reset, in preparation for a future pump. The method for overcoming this periodicity, and producing a sustained sound, is the crucial distinction between harmonium and accordion.

Accordions overcome this challenge by having double reeds. Each metal reed plate has two reeds - side by side. One is played as the bellows are squeezed toward each other, and the other is played when the bellows are drawn back apart. Thereby, the illusion of a continuous sound, actually produced by two separate sets of reeds. Meanwhile, the harmonium overcomes the same challenge with a different mechanical approach: Use one set of reeds, but play it with continual air pressure by having an intermediary bellows - a bladder, or ballast really.

Just as a trumpeter employs puffed cheeks in the playing of his horn while he breaths in through his nose, in order to produce a continuous stream of pressurized air (circular breathing), the harmonium employs this spring-pushed (instead of hand-pushed) secondary bellows.

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Harmonium Orchestra

  posted by Daniel on October 5th, 2010

Just got back from New York, where this crew of budding harmonium players took a "Harmonium Intensive Weekend" at Yogamaya NY. Here they're playing a "Govinda Jaya Jaya" chant that they had just learned. One group is playing the melody, the other group is playing the chords, so together they form a harmonium orchestra!
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International Kirtan Party

  posted by Daniel on May 1st, 2010

It's a moving sight: thousands of people from all corners of the world, gathered together to sing the divine names.

This was in Mayapur during Gaura Purnima time, February 2010. Many pilgrims from Russia had just arrived, to join the already international group of Indians, Europeans, Africans, Americans, in chanting the Hare Krishna mantra nonstop. Literally, nonstop! When there wasn't kirtan happening in the temple (and sometimes when the was), there would often be kirtan happening out in the streets, or in this case, out in the village area surrounding the ISKCON Mayapur campus.

Most of us didn't speak each others' languages. For some there is at least a little common English. But it is not uncommon to spend hours chanting and dancing joyfully with a group of pilgrims, making strong friendships in the process, and then after the kirtan attempt to say hello only to discover no common language! I had one close friend from Ukraine of this sort. We would dance and spin in the temple together, as bhakti brothers, solidarity in the dance steps and joy of singing Krishna's names. Then often we would run across each other during the day - out at the market, or at a restaurant for lunch, or at my mridanga practice spot. We would exclaim "Hare Krishna!" or "Hari bol!" and smile... Sometimes we would even have conversations - me speaking English without him understanding; then he speaking Ukrainian without my understanding. Back and forth. Gesticulating, laughing, wanting to use words to express the love of friendship, but only really understanding when the other said "Krishna." Hah! At least we understood the important part.
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Radhanath Swami Kirtan

  posted by Daniel on April 14th, 2010

One major highlight of my trip to Mayapur was a full-on maha mantra kirtan led by Radhanath Swami.

I had been in Mayapur for a few weeks, and a friend recommended that I check out a book entitled "The Journey Home" by Radhanath Swami. I got a copy in the main temple's book shop, opened the cover, and three days later, finished the book and came out for a breath of fresh air. This guy's story is incredible - a cinematic wild ride, like a spiritual action-adventure, with encounters with saints, pilgrimages to holy places, soul searching and hard-won insights, and a triumphant meeting with his Guru. After finishing reading it, I was talking to a friend - who says to me "Oh! You know Radhanath Swami is in Mayapur right now, right?" "What!? No I didn't know!" Well, indeed, he was in town for the Gaura Purnima festival, and would lead the shakti saturated kirtan a couple days later in the main temple room.

The video gives a little glimpse into the fervor and energy level of kirtans in Mayapur. I only got Radhanath Swami on film for a couple moments - he's sitting down, shaven head but for a little brown tuft in back, in yellow robes, playing harmonium. He was so calm and humble, as if sitting in the eye of the storm, with so much dance and song and emotions swirling around the room!
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Oh Mayapur!

  posted by Daniel on April 1st, 2010

This kirtan singer's beauty and sincerity still haunts me, along with this simple and delicious maha mantra melody.

In Mayapur in mid Feb 2010, the village was growing by the hundreds every day as pilgrims from all over the world arrived. By the end of February, dozens of thousands of pilgrims would inflate this otherwise tiny village into a Vaishnav Mecca - for a couple weeks. With the crowds came many many kirtan leaders from many countries, and so often an informal kirtan would spring up on a street, in a park, near a temple, in a hotel room...

One day I happened upon this kirtan, in front of the main temple at ISKCON Mayapur. The band is beautifully international. And the singer... really struck a chord deep inside of me. He is so utterly relaxed, resting in the mantra; so vibrantly alive and joyful, singing to the beloved; meeting all eyes with a kind smile, occasionally closing his eyes and tasting the nectar of the chant inside. May we all find that place of sweet simple devotion!
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Mayapur, India

  posted by Daniel on March 24th, 2010

Here's a glimpse of Mayapur, the tiny village in West Bengal, India, that swells to 20 times its size annually when tens of thousands of Vaishnav pilgrims arrive for Gaura Purnima festival. This is the festival celebrating the 'appearance of the golden one,' the birthday of Chaitanya, the sixteenth-century Bhakti saint who launched what today is the modern Haré Krishna sankirtan movement.

Internationally renowned Loknath Swami is leading this kirtan, surrounded by a large crew of drums, cymbols, gongs, clappers and enthusiastic singers. You'll see mostly men, since that's the half of the room that I was in, but the ladies' side of the room was also up and dancing wildly. Check out the little Radha Krishna statues that get passed from one dancer's head to another, as the dancers spin and glorify the deities!

The sound quality isn't great on my little camera, but hopefully this video gives a sense of the spirit of the place! Cut to the last minute of the video if you want to see really wild dancing :) Dancers in the front, dancers in the back, singers in the middle, prayers on the sides, clear jubilant bhakti bhav everywhere! I've never experienced anything like this place, Mayapur. It's like every brick of every building is singing "Radha," every leaf of every tree is whispering "Krishna," and the stars rush into the sky as dusk falls cause they want to be there when the evening kirtan begins...
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Costa Rica Kirtan Camp

  posted by Daniel on March 3rd, 2010

I'm stoked to be back in California, where the blossoming daffodils don't know it's still winter. I'm starting to unpack all the pics and vids from my trip.

Here's some video footage from Kirtan Camp Costa Rica, which was entirely off the charts. They gotta make new charts periodically because of things like kirtan camp! I'll post one of the vids here, and if you want to see another half dozen high-times clips from camp, follow this clip onto my you tube page.

The incredible thing about Kirtan Camp is the tribe vibe. Jai Uttal and Daniel Paul are the most incredible, gifted song leaders to have at the helm. Each camp seems to go deeper, as this extended chant family grows. Many of us have been to multiple camps, 'repeat offenders,' and those who are new often find it very easy to slip into family mode. The support and care of one another is really moving for me; it's shaped 'camps' into held-spaces where I can grieve, as well as celebrate, so freely.. and feel safe doing so. I love this family! May I sing and dance and play with them till my days are done.
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