Category Archives: physiology

Our Students, Their Brains


The idea for this entry started as a response to Dino Manrique (a.k.a. noid) and his comment on my post, “A Musician’s Fear and Loathing of Mathematics” which I posted on his website,

His comment

Imagination and the Right Brain
Submitted by noid on December 12, 2007 – 4:17pm.
An example of our school system’s — and our society’s’ for that matter — over-emphasis on left-brained modes of learning. That’s why creatives/right-brained individuals often feel left out or marginalized. The ironic thing though is that right brain/intuition is indispensable to genius. More than a handful of quotes, for example, have been attributed to Albert Einstein regarding the importance of the imagination:
I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.
I, myself, am just finding this out. Am now more fascinated with math and science than I ever was in school, knowing that these fields can actually be approached from a more artistic perspective. Long live the right brain! 🙂

I agree with your observation about the focus of society and schools on left-brain modes of learning.  Math and science do exist in the realm of logic but every new theory and invention was born of creativity and ‘thinking out of the box’, possible only by way of the right brain.

What if we switch it around? Can we say that it’s possible that the arts can be approached in a more logical perspective?  Certainly, music can be analyzed structurally and this requires logical skills.  There is, in fact, a subject called “Forms and Analysis” where a piece is dissected by measuring harmonic and melodic pitch intervals and, by using certain systems (like the diatonic system — major and minor, for example), predicting the music’s movement in relation to the tonic (or where it originated).  It’s almost mathematical, this analysis. One can argue that music can be regarded logically “after the fact”, once it already exists; but what of the composers who intentionally employ mathematical concepts into their music, just as he would elements like timbre or dynamics?    

I’ve met musicians of all sorts. That many are strongly right-brained comes as no surprise.  They use intuition to create or interpret music, and are more likely to be innovative in their approach.  But there are also quite a few, composers and performance artists alike, who are strongly left-brained.  Not surprisingly, they’re the ones who excel in the analysis of musical form.  They sight-read music faster, are able to interpret musical symbols more efficiently.  However, one sort lacks what the other has: which could explain why ‘Forms and Analysis’, a subject where only a few breeze through and the others come out of crawling, is one of the most dreaded at the U.P. College of Music; and why not all performance artists, no matter how superb their technique, are said to have ‘heart’. 

Of course, the happy exception would be the musicians who have balanced right and left brains.  Possibly, they have a thicker corpus callosum which enable a more efficient communication between both hemispheres.  They have the capability and the ability to find the medium between creative and logical thinking.  As composers, they can go beyond existing structures and find unusual ways of expressing sound while still consciously aware of form and all its elements.  As performance artists, they are sticklers for what’s written on the score, but are able to bring a new dimension to the music by way of intuition.  One could say, probably, that these musicians know the rules and choose to break them, or more precisely, venture from them.   

As an educator with these observations in mind, I would probably be more careful in judging a music student’s or musician’s logical or creative abilities.   Too quickly, music teachers would label a certain student “bobo” (stupid) for not being able to quickly grasp musical concepts whose understanding require logical thinking, or “parang bato” (like a stone) for purely interpreting a piece as written, with nary a touch of feeling or personal interpretation.   Different brains means different capabilities.  In fact, musicians born with a balanced brain could have been easily programmed to lean heavily towards only one hemisphere had they been trained to do so by a music teacher who, say, forced them to stick to reading notes and never to play by ear (oido); or by one that constantly ignored a student’s inquiry about certain musical symbols and encouraged them instead to improvise. 

If  teachers are always encouraged to regard their students as individuals, then it follows that how their students think is just as important as what they think.  We must not rely on impressions or the usual clichés (all musicians are right-brained) and be quick to dismiss or give up.  Instead, we must be creative in finding new avenues of teaching in order to rouse our students’ less utilized brain hemispheres.  Observation, care, and a genuine concern for our students’ thinking process will ensure a deeper understanding and holistic response to music.


All Hail the Beatboxing Flutist!

Prepare to be amazed. 

Bravo! Bravo! What a multi-tasker! 😀

I am envious.  Goaded by my first boyfriend, I attempted to learn the flute when I was in college but, after a few sessions, I threw in the instrument, so to speak.  Kids, I keep telling you that singing is an unnatural act but so is playing any wind instrument.  I admire all wind players because only unwavering dedication and unshakeable discipline can make them suffer years of training.  I say “suffer” because wind players undergo many physiological difficulties.  New wind students often experience black-outs, numbness in the arms and, other body responses to breathing deeply and holding one’s breath.  It’s like learning a new skill and the body needs to get used to it.  Once it does, there are other things wind players have to contend with, namely health problems.  I read an article written by a dentist once and he discussed the typical dental implications of playing single and double reed instruments which included, among others, receding gums and overbite problems.  Another article spoke of wind players having headaches and occasional retinal hemorrhages, again due to excessive air pressures produced when blowing into their instruments.  Then another one said flutists often get contact dermatitis because of the constant contact of their flute with their chin. 


Now, those are just the physiological problems.  There are psychological ones, too.  Case in point, when I typed “reed players dental problems” on Google, I was asked, “Did you mean: reed players mental problems?”  I almost laughed out loud.  I don’t know about mental problems but I do know lots of musicians who have emotional problems, reed players et al.   All that practicing made many of us socially inept and, without our instruments, we feel vulnerable as newborn babes.  We especially go through this when we’re younger (tween and teen years) when everyone is still trying to find their place and fit in in social circles.  By the time we’re experts or professionals and have more time to socialize, we find that we can’t because we never properly learned to. But that’s the pay-off of being a musician. 

Everything people do in life has a pay-off; it just so happens this is what some of us have chosen and, despite dental, mental and, many other problems, we will always deem and declare and  that we have chosen well.   

My Sources:
I discovered the YouTube clip at 🙂
Aural References (listen to short performances by each instrument): 
Physiological Problems: 
Hey, kid! Give yourself a chance to excel.  Please do not plagiarize.

Electrify Thyself: iPods and Thunderstorms

I remember when cellular phones first came out, talk spread that using it can give you cancer. Something about the signals, I think. I haven’t heard anything else since then so the info must have been unfounded and was just one of those things: a rumor.

Recently, warnings about the use of iPods, particularly during thunderstorms, had been circulating. In rainy Manila, they didn’t seem to be taken seriously judging by the many peeps still using their iPods despite lightning and heavy downpours. This news article, however, proves that using these handy music gadgets during thunderstorms really is a recipe for disaster.

In Vancouver, a 37-year-old guy was out enjoying his run while listening to some tunes. Unfortunately, he did this during a thunderstorm. Instead of fuelling him with music during his run, his iPod caused him permanent deafness after he was thrown 8 ft after an adjacent tree was struck by lightning.

In Colorado, A 17-year-old guy was being a good kid, mowing the front lawn of his home while listening to Metallica rock on his iPod. It wasn’t raining that day. In fact, it was a good day for mowing lawns. But there was a storm off in the distance which means lightning strikes can still occur. Again, a nearby tree was the culprit: it hit him after it was struck by lightning.

Well, you may argue, trees do get struck by lightning. Their iPods may not have anything to do with it. Not exactly. Although there is no hard fact that iPods can attract lightning strikes, both victims’ injuries prove that iPods can cause second-degree burns, muscular damages, broken bones and deafness.

Lightning directly striking people are rare. Usually, it jumps from an object (like a tree or signpost) to a person who happens to be nearby. This phenomenon is called side flash, and often people get thrown to a distance leading to further injury. But, because of the high resistance of our skin, flashover often occurs, an effect where lightning is conducted over the outside of the body. However, sweat and the metallic material from your iPod can disrupt the flashover and direct the current straight to your head.

It may look it but this poor kid’s injuries are not just external. The burn on his ear and jawline is just part of it. The current caused sudden heating and expanding of air inside his ear which led to increased pressure which, in turn, ruptured his eardrums. It also dislocated tiny bones that are essential in transmitting soundwaves. As if permanent deafness is not enough, the current travelling through his iPod player’s wires also caused nasty burns, lining up the side of his torso eventhough the cord was outside of this shirt. His hip also suffered second-degree burns where the iPod had been in a pocket.

I couldn’t find a photo of the runner from Vancouver, but the news reported that he suffered worse injuries. Aside from permanent deafness, the current running through the cord of his headphones caused his jaw to break in four places.

Alarming, isn’t it? But this article isn’t meant to scare you. It’s meant to make you aware of the risks of using your beloved iPod (or any MP3, for that matter). So, what to do.

1. Never use your iPod during a thunderstorm.

2. If the rain’s pouring down heavily but you don’t see any lightning or hear thunder, err on the side of caution and switch your iPod off.

3. Don’t forget: lightning strikes can occur even if a storm is miles away. Dark clouds in the distance can tell you if there’s a storm further away. Again, better be safe than sorry: switch your iPod off.

4. “When thunder roars, go indoors”. A common denominator of iPod-lightning accidents occur outdoors. If you can’t live without your tunes then stay indoors during the thunderstorm and listen to them to your heart’s content.

5. Lastly, inform people of the hazards of using iPods during thunderstorms. Your warning can save them from permanent scarring, lifelong injuries and a future without music due to deafness.

Be wise. Be safe.

My references: (photos)
This article was written based on research and smarts. Plagiarism is for stupid people.

The Thinking Singer: Your Thoracic Diaphragm

Thinking singers, before we move on to the next important step in singing, it is very pertinent that we tackle a certain body part essential in efficient breathing and beautiful singing: the diaphragm.


There are several types of diaphragm:

  • The Thoracic diaphragm, a shelf of muscle extending between the thorax and abdomen
  • The Pelvic diaphragm, consists of the Levator ani and the Coccygeus (fancy names for pelvic muscles)
  • The Urogenital diaphragm, a layer of the pelvis separating a certain sac from the upper pelvis
  • The iris
  • The eardrum

In other words, any dome-shaped dividing structure may be called a diaphragm. Fortunately, thinking singers are concerned only with the thoracic diaphragm which separates the thoracic (with lungs and heart) and abdominal cavity (with the digestive and urogenital systems). Since it’s dome-shaped, its convex upper surface forms the floor of the thoracic viscera*, and its concave under surface the roof of the abdominal viscera.

*internal organs 🙂

“Are we there yet?”

Doubtless if you’ve had any voice training, you would have heard of the diaphragm. Usually, when asked, people would point to their stomachs when I ask them where the diaphragm is. There had been some instances where my female students would even refer to their pot belly. As you can see in the first illustration, the diaphragm is located under the lungs, extending across the bottom of the ribcage.

“Isn’t the diaphragm like the appendix — just another superfluous body part?”
Nope. Aside from its very important contribution in helping to expel vomit, feces, and urine from our body, it is also essential in efficient breathing: in order to draw air into the lungs, the diaphragm contracts, thus enlarging the thoracic cavity and reducing intra-thoracic pressure. In simpler terms, when we inhale and the diaphragm contracts, it allows more space for our lungs to expand.

This is the tricky part where singers often err. Inappropriate imagery or inadequte explanations cause bad breathing and singing habits. When I was younger, I used to think that when my teacher would say,”Contract your diaphragm”, it meant I have to intentionally tighten my abdominal muscles. Wrong. Since the diaphragm is located above the abdominal cavity, tightening the abdomen will not activate it. Just like a rubber band, the “contraction” of this dome-shaped fibrous muscle occurs when it expands. In fact, the outward manisfestation that diaphragm is working properly is the torso getting larger when one inhales.

Try watching a baby breathe while sleeping. Observe the rise and fall of the center of his torso. When he inhales, his center rises; when he exhales, it falls because of the recoil of the lungs and the tissues lining the thoracic cavity. That’s his diaphragm naturally at work. I was told by one of my voice teachers that, often, people lose this natural use of the diaphragm as we get older. Improper breathing techniques (“shoulders should rise when we inhale”, “push in your stomach”, etc.) and even infrequent cardio/aerobic activities are the main culprits.

Activating your diaphragm can also help your posture. Because of its location, this little muscle supports your lumbar vertebrae (back) as well as your costal cartilages (beneath your ribs). In fact, I’ve heard a ballet teacher refer to the diaphragm as ‘our body’s natural girdle’. She was 84 and had a better posture and stance than her students.

Things to Remember:

  • As thinking singers, activating your diaphragm is a crucial key in proper breathing. Practice inhaling and allowing your diaphragm (you know were it is now) to relax. When it’s relaxed while you inhale, it can tighten properly.
  • Tightening your diaphragm doesn’t mean pushing in your abdominal muscles. When your diaphragm expands to create space for your lungs, it will tighten naturally.
  • Your diaphragm starts relaxing when you exhale. This means that it goes back to its original dome-shape. This is actually where you will notice an outward sign: your abdomen sort of getting pushed in.
  • The diaphragm also helps give you good posture, and, if you read the first article of posture, you know that beautiful singing starts there.

Illustrations courtesy of the awesome wikipedia. . I modified them, of course. (plagiarism: bad)