Conference

I’m going along to The Child’s Curriculum on Saturday, hosted by Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Develpment.Hosted in Queen Street’s Royal College of Surgeons‘ buildings,speakers include Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop, Professor Leena Alanen, Galina Doyla, Professor Colwyn Trevarthen, Kenny Spence, Professor Nigel Osborne, Tam Baillie, Professor Donald Christie, Joan Martlew.

I’ll post any intersting outcomes here later…

Nominal Fallacy

There’s nothing as refreshing to one’s professionalism as a challenging shot across the bows, particularly if it comes from a distant field. The admiral of thought in this case was neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, (chair of the Dept of Biological Sciences, Columbia University). His excellent contributory chapter to This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (edited by John Brockman of Edge fame) is entitled The Name Game. Early in the short chapter he cites a phenomenon which he and others call nominal fallicy – namely (pun intended) that being able to put a name to something equates to, increases or is the beginning of understanding. Often, in science, this can mean the end of investigation or, at least, a postponement in favour of nameless phenomena.

This caused me some alarm as, to say that naming is a big thing in my daily round, is an understatement. I always stress to pupils – and the younger the pupil, the more so – that without names things cannot be discussed. To offer young minds some context I ask if they would respect a teacher who knew all their names more than one who had to rely on descriptions like ‘the boy with the fair hair beside the window’. Without exception they unhesitatingly express a preference for the former.

Why am I so keen on names? Apart from belief in Wittgenstein’s assertion that “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” there are simply too many areas in music to survive otherwise. Pitches, durations and techniques cross the paths of new pupils from the outset. Later, myriad musical concepts – often in Italian appear. These feature heavily in SQA exams and it part of our job to support our classroom colleagues in this endeavour.

Soon, I began to relax as I realised that Firestein was referring solely to the naming and taming of unknowns. The elements of music which crop up in lessons have, in most cases, been established for centuries. So, crisis of confidence over – for the meantime. However, it was enlivening to experience a mirage of a fundamental shake-up.

 

Postscript: numeracy in music has its own taxonomy. We use the following:

Arabic numerals – fingering (left hand – as right hand uses initials for Spanish finger names)

Roman numerals – position e.g. 1st finger based at fret 5 = V

Circled numbers – string number

The above three are internationally used. We also use numbers written in a square to represent ‘phrase number’. To help pupils see and hear connections and variations we use, for example, 1, 2, 1, 2a.

Creativity

I recently came across two interesting posts on creativity. One from the excellent site, Brain Pickings, features a video of a talk by John Cleese. It features the attention-grabbing phrase, ‘Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.’

The other, an article by Jonah Lehrer, is entitled The neuroscience of Bob Dylan’s GeniusI’ve never been a fan of Dylan but it’s a very interesting piece on the creative process.

On my reading lists which, by now, stretches further than years left to me on Earth, is Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist.

Nietzsche and the TARDIS

I follow Nietzsche on Twitter. He doesn’t return the compliment. My days are peppered with @NietzscheQuotes – yet I still can’t spell his name in a hurry. This recent one set me thinking:

Admiration for a quality or an art can be so strong that it deters us from striving to possess it.

Upon seeing this, I was immediately transported back to the late 70s when I used to attend guitar summer schools.  Even then, as a callow youth, I noticed a polarity in reaction to outstanding recitals by visiting artists. The response of some would be, “I’m going to give up” – a skewed compliment suggesting that the peak reached by the artist lay outwith than the numbers of years left to them for catching up. I knew they were joking but it sounded defeatist and disappointing.

I hadn’t thought about this for about 35 years but reading the above quote coincided with an unusual conversation with a pal who asked, “how did you get to be so cultured?” I laughed at what seemed like obvious irony – but he was serious and was looking for an answer. The best I could think of was “just being interesting in things.” He then said, “Yes, but how do you get interested?” And I was quite stumped.

Any ideas?

One World Night

Last night I took part in an extraordinary event in Musselburgh Grammar School. Organised by Maya, a pupil in S4, One World Night featured an imaginative mix of pupil performance and presentations on humanitarian themes by guest speakers and pupils of MGS and Campie Primary School. The event was warmly compèred by Fiona O’Donnell, MP for East Lothian.

MGS Orchestra opened with the Prelude from Charpentier’s Te Deum, followed by an arrangement of Over The Rainbow. John Cunningham then gave a presentation on the work of Mercy Corps. MGS Guitar Group performed Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra before Katherine and Roanna described the work of the MGS Amnesty Group and the necessity of speaking out against injustice.

After the interval, six pupil members the local branch of the Alpha Dance Academy gave a fantastic performance of Jai Ho from the film, Slum Dog Millionaire. This was an energetic and impressive mix of Indian and en pointe styles.

P7 pupils from Campie PS spoke eloquently about the school’s links with a Burmese refugee school (CDC) in Thailand, and also about the recently released Aung San Suu Kyi. Having listened to an edition of Radio 4′s Word of Mouth earlier in the week in which schools in the U.S. were praised for nurturing confidence in public speaking, I couldn’t help feeling that Campie’s presentations were as confident and capable as it was possible to find. On this note, I also couldn’t help noticing some of my P6 pupils from Campie listening intently throughout the evening – an impressive counter to current worries about young people’s attention span.

Edinburgh based lawyer, Alison Smith talked about the Dalit (Untouchable caste) in India. I had no idea that so many people suffered such exclusion – 150 million – that’s 30 Scotlands!

Shirley gave a heartfelt performance of Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia, accompanied on guitar by Amy. The final presentation by Susan Dalgety (vice-chair of the Scotland-Malawi Partnership) described Scotland’s historic links with Malawi.

In her vote of thanks at the evening’s close, Maya informed us that £264 had been raised during the evening. This had been a moving mix of entertainment, information and philanthropy. I was particularly indebted to my pupils at MGS. As a result of the holidays and the itinerant nature of my work, they were asked only on the previous Friday if they would be free and willing to take part. Almost all were able to make it, happy to be there and engaged by all the speakers.

The Science of Sound

If you like the mix of music/sound and science – plus a bit of comedy – why not listen to this episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage?

The programme features Professor Brian Cox; Robin Ince; University of Salford’s acoustic expert Professor Trevor Cox; neuroscientist Professor Chris Plack; violinist Julian Gregory; comedian and former acoustics student Tom Wrigglesworth.

Topics covered include major/minor-happy/sad correlation; why some sounds fill us with horror; acoustics of concert halls; musical intervals and maths/ratios – including the tritone also known as Diabolus in Musica (The Devil in Music).

The Unanswered Question

Can you recall a sea-change in your thinking taking place after a book, documentary, film, argument talk, lecture? I’ve written here before on Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures, on music and linguistics, The Unanswered Question, and the effect they had on my musical thinking. All six lectures are now on YouTube.

One thing I learned much later was that Bernstein had memorised the scripts! If you have several hours to spare, not necessarily all in the same day, then I can’t recommend them highly enough:

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MuseScore

I’m endebted to J. Simon van der Walt for (inadvertently) alerting me to a free, open source, music score-writing programme entitled MuseScore.  It is intuitive to use for anyone accustomed to the basic commands which feature in most programmes e.g. hitting the space-bar to start/stop playing.

The program saves in its own file format but opens a variety of other file types, including Midi files.

While it’s not Sibelius, it’s not £449.95 either and, in these difficult times, it might be the only way for some to get their foot inside the score-writing software door.

In the spirit of open source, the first thing that happens, upon opening the program, is that you are invited to join the community. The news menu of this is reminiscent of Twitter with many (shortened) urls leading to how to videos such as this one on how to transpose a score.  A quick search for similar videos on YouTube revealed about 1,000 results.

You can download the programme (Windows, Linux or Apple) here.

And, finally, congratulations to Simon on his recent PhD in composition! You can hear some of Simon’s work here.

Conference 1

I recently experienced four days which I would have to sum up as amongst the most stimulating but toughest days I can recall. They were spent at a conference (organised by the Mariani Foundation and hosted by Edinburgh University – specifically Katie Overy of the IMHSD) entitled: The Neurosciences and Music: Learning & Memory

 Stimulating for the following reasons: 

  • dedicated, uninterrupted time to devote to an area of fascination which often only pops up intermittently – namely the intersection of music, language, memory, learning, science (of various sorts)
  • the world’s leading thinkers – many of whose names I had already come across – were presenting recent research
  • the questions/comments often added another dimension to the talks – I noted that resonant, thought-provoking questions were equally likely from delegates in identical or contrasting fields to the speaker

 Tough for the following reasons: 

  • although I am now very interested in science, I do not have a scientific background – my last formal contact was failing Higher Chemistry and Physics in 1977
  • speed – all speakers were keen to run to time and presentations were necessarily quick – this meant that slides containing acronyms, data, graphs, brain scans etc. seemed to be racing by*
  • concentration – not my own (although this was no doubt challenged) but more the concentration of 18 hours of listening and a further 6 hours of poster viewing/chat to authors over four days was quite dense 

I would equate the content of those four days with at least a year’s reading, TV/radio documentaries, on-line exploration. For that reason, I was glad to have my Zoom H2 mp3 recorder with me and intend to re-visit many of the talks in order to write things up over time. Until then, though, here is an outline of content to give some broad overview of the content. 

*One of the delegates seated next to me, using an iPad, switched seamlessly between – typing, photographing, videoing. That’s the way to go! Other devices are available :-)

Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning & Memory

 DAY 1  – Thu 9 June

 

  Registration

 “Working with Infants and Children”

 Workshop 1Experimental Methods  – 4 x 30 minute presentations

 Workshop 2 – Social / Real World Methods – 4 x 20 minute presentations

 Day 2 – Fri 10 June

 

 Keynote lecture - Human memory – 45 minutes

Symposium IMechanisms of Rhythm and Meter Learning over the Life Span – 3 x 20 minute presentations

Symposium 2Impact of Musical Experience on Cerebral Language Processing – 4 x 30 minute presentations

Symposium 3Cultural Neuroscience of Music – 6 x 20 minute presentations

Poster session I – 2 hours to view posters/chat to authors/take away A4 version handouts

 

Day 3 – Saturday 11 June


Symposium 4 - Memory and Learning in Music Performance 5 x 20 minute presentations

Symposium 5Mind and Brain in Musical Imagery – 5 x 20 minute presentations

Symposium 6 - Plasticity and Malplasticity in Health and Disease – 5 x 20 minute presentations

Poster session II – 2 hours to view posters/chat to authors/take away A4 version handouts

 

Day 4 – Sunday 12 June

Symposium 7The Role of Music in Stroke Rehabilitation: neural mechanisms and therapeutic techniques – 6 x 20 minute presentations

Symposium 8Music: A Window into the World of Autism – 4 x 25 minute presentations

Symposium 9Learning and Memory in Musical disorders – 4 x 25 minute presentations

Edinburgh International Film Festival previews – neuroscience is a theme this year – 15 min presentation

Conclusions and thanks.

Poster session III – 2 hours to view posters/chat to authors/take away A4 version handouts

 18 hours of talks – 6 hours of poster sessions

45 Speakers

300+ delegates

It never rains but it pours…

… I hate that expression – but anyway.

Tomorrow sees the Neuromusic IV conference kick off. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. I intend to write up (m)any interesting things when it’s over (it runs till Sunday). Fittingly the conference closes with a concert and jazz session, at which I have offered to play what has become one of my favourite tunes (see video below).

On Saturday evening, I’ll be taking time out for a much loved musical experience – a Calton Consort concert (what a poet!) Had that not been on, I’d have gone along to this Edinburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble event. I’ve just been listening to some audio from previous events.

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