The Write Practice

Do you ever feel uncertain of grammar or punctuation when writing reports? This is not a thing which can be fixed overnight but perhaps subscribing to a site like Daily Writing Tips  might be a help. I’ve received a daily email update from them for quite a while now and, quite frequently, things come up about which I’ve been uncertain for years. The email subscription link is at the top right of their homepage.

Here’s a link to all their grammatical matters

to Grammar 101

to punctuation

and, like, finally – here’s one for our times….

“Like” serves nouns and pronouns, not verbs

Sight-reading and expectation

I recently took part in some interesting research in that intriguing Venn diagram intersection of music/language/psychology.

To ensure that the tests weren’t skewed by knowledge of what was being studied (so called Observer Effect) I simply followed instructions and asked later. Basically I sat at a piano keyboard prepared to sight-read various short musical samples for right hand only. My eyes were tracked so that the researcher could see exactly what I looked at and for how long.
One thing which became clear was that I looked down at my hands too often, even although there was a square on Middle C and a thin Blue Tack ridge on the G above that. The span of notes involved was a 13th ( from the G below Middle C to the E above the next C up).
Once it was all over, it was explained to me that the research was looking to see whether our eyes would linger over odd and incongruous moments the way they do when we read language. For example, “the cat sat on the sat” will, unless you are a modernist poet, make your eyes linger on the final word, which doesn’t, in any conventional sense really “fit”. Musical equivalents included, for example, an excerpt in the key of D in which the sharps which qualified it as ‘being in D’ were cancelled by natural signs. Interestingly, the weren’t many rhythmically weird moments – probably because that would have made the reading tricky. What was being sought was our reaction to oddness – not difficulty.
When I find out more about the results I will ( with the blessing of the researcher) post more.

Open Goldberg

Those studying composing/arranging and listening in SQA Music exams pretty soon come upon variation form. If you’re lucky enough to have an iPhone or iPad you can download a free app containing a recording by Kimiko Ishizaka along with a score (with moving cursor) of one of the best sets of variations of all time, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

You can get the iPhone app here  http://www.opengoldbergvariations.org/soundsnips-free-iphone-app-featuring-open-goldberg-variations

and the iPad version here:

http://www.opengoldbergvariations.org/musescore-releases-free-ipad-app-open-goldberg-variations

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.

Stage Experience – Footloose

I had an email today from Simon Hanson, Musical Director the Stage Experience. This youth project is to mount a production of Footloose in the Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh in July. In addition to showcasing young dramatic talent this is also an opportunity for young musicians to gain experience in musical theatre. Currently they seek two young electric guitarists – young meaning around 21 or under. Like all musical theatre work this requires reading of musical notation and chord symbols. The music will not be in TAB! If you would be interested finding out more you can contact Simon here.

Music and the Brain

I’ve lately become a great fan of the slightly inelegantly named webiste, Brainpickings. Today they posted on Facebook (don’t knock it – it’s not all egotism) a list of 7 Essential Books on Music, Emotion and the Brain. I feel that two titles have been unfairly omitted: Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body and Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature - both of these links lead to lead to Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature.

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.

Musical Terms

There was a time when many used to feel that it was fine to question Wikipedia’s accuracy. I never really felt this and can’t recall spotting an error – perhaps I know less than those critics.

I’m impressed by their glossary of musical terms - particularly the iPhone version, the alphabetical arrangement of which is elegant and user friendly. A nervous pupil, en route to a grade exam, could do worse than to look check up a few of these in the car. At home on PC it is a great resource – particularly when used in conjunction with Windows search function – Ctrl+F then the first few letters of the term in question.

Of course, when it comes to SQA concepts, there is no better site than LTS’ one - where audio illustrations of the concepts are included.

Creativity

great article in The Guardian (Mon 2 Jan) featured artists from various disciplines offering tips on creativity, inspiration and realising ideas. Placed in the arts section, it would be silly to criticize the piece for lacking a wider field of professionals, but I did find myself wishing for contributions from those in other areas of expertise e.g. science, engineering, social policy, education. The wider the field, the more boldly common themes tend to stand out.

In this regard I have to say that I’ve always found it something of an irrelevance that, in school life, Music is grouped together with, say, Art or Drama. As far as academic side of Music goes, I feel it has most in common with Language(s) and then Maths. Actually, on this point, let me bore you with another possibly pedantic personal opinion: it is often claimed that Music and Maths are very closely related. I think this is an overstatement. Music and Arithmetic are closely intertwined but Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra and Geometry rarely darken my door – unlike alliteration. Certainly as regards the honing and analysis of technique, then Music has as much in common with PE as any other subject – and let’s not forget teamwork!

Returning to the article, I was pleased to see that composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, scotched the idea of inspiration allowing us to avoid hard graft. Fortifying this take on the creative life, he cited various details of working method: routine; a quiet place to work; the difference that time of day can make. He opines that “the afternoon is the worst time for creativity.” It can feel like the worst time for learning and teaching. Many pupils (and possibly staff) seem to undergo a dip around 2.00-3.00 and perk up when within sight of the home straits. In the unlikely event that I am charged with redesigning the school day, I will opt for 7.00-2.00, freeing up the afternoon for siesta, meditation, reading or sport. Turnage also feels his critical eye/ear to be more lenient in the evening, often necessitating morning revision.

Susan Philipsz, has some very straightforward suggestions: “keep it simple” and “be audacious” and, in similar spirit to Turnage, “if you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.”

Singer/song-writer, Martha Wainwright, confesses to a piecemeal approach: “I write in short spurts – for five, 10, 15 minutes – then I pace around the room, or go and get a snack.” Playwright, Polly Stenham, touches on the physical side, advising us to “go for a walk.” Author, Haruki Murakami (in another article) takes this much further. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”

Artist, Polly Morgan, stresses the fruitfulness of a cross-curricular approach: “Don’t restrict yourself to your own medium. It is just as possible to be inspired by a film-maker, fashion designer, writer or friend than another artist. Cross-pollination makes for an interesting outcome.” Harking back to my first paragraph, I would widen this field considerably. Morgan also seems willing to embrace the tough choices which many of us would prefer to avoid: “Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute.” I have certainly found this approach indispensable upon arrival at gigs which differ widely from their description.

Director, Ian Rickson, encourages us to “embrace new challenges. When we’re reaching for things, we tend to be more creative.” This reminded me of an inspirational idea by Joe Zawinul, keyboard player and founder member of Weather Report (and incidentally one of the few who seemed able to write music which was happy but not inane). In his 7th decade, there was more chance than ever that his improvising would fall into favoured patterns. In a bid to stumble upon new sounds, he programmed one of his keyboards so that pitch ran in reverse order. Playing this, along with others formatted in the normal way, many novel ideas emerged which would not have occurred to a trained hand and ear.

Musician, Gus Garvey (Elbow), recommends the practice of bringing together two unrelated ideas. I recall coming across this in Edward de Bono‘s 1973 book, Po.

Perhaps my favourite sound bite from the piece comes from opera singer, Kate Royal who reminds us that, “art is everywhere.” Taking the word art as a synonym for inspirational practice then, with providers and consumers of public service having to produce more with less, this seems like as good a way to step into 2012 as I can imagine. Happy New Year!

You can access the full article here.

But let’s leave Joe Zawinul with the last word:[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/Ae0nwSv6cTU?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

The Latest Scores

 It’s hardly surprising that, in a culture of written music such as the western classical tradition, the look of the music has become more complicated throughout its centuries-old develpment. If you’ve not had the opportunity to see some more out there scores, there is a great collection on the YouTube channel of the enigmatically named ch252525.

Here is an example (click the link above for more):[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/XpCfdRVXG1E?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

p.s. the Google Ad on screen is not part of the score :-)