Epiphanies and Osmosis

How many epiphanies are you allowed in a lifetime? Assuming that the answer is – as many as you’re prepared to let in – then, are they likely to have anything in common? I’d say that the common factor in all those moments when I was struck by something so meaningful that it should really have been obvious, is that they arrived when I wasn’t really looking for anything. I suppose that’s why people use the expression – it dawned on me. Dawn isn’t something you do. It comes in its own time and, if you’re awake, you get something out of it.

Ten years ago the MGS Guitar Group were rehearsing a medley of Scots songs for a concert. I noticed that the players, especially those on the melody part, were executing naturally a level of articulation which would have dozens of hours of rehearsal had the music been in another genre. It struck me that this music was in their bones and and they were hearing the articulation, not reading it and certainly not thinking about it. The only way that a similar attention to detail was going to be possible in other genres of ensemble music, would be if they could hear it much more frequently than a weekly rehearsal would allow. The age of affordable PCs and music software had also dawned and it seemed like play-along midi files was going to be the way ahead. The irony of this is that machines were going to result in pupils playing in a more human way. Knowing that the choice and amount of articulation applied to the written parts was going to affect the sound files raised my level of attention of this aspect of music to a level I had not foreseen and I’m convinced that this happy accident has had a beneficial impact on lesson content.

Initially distribution of play-along files was not easy and a number of less than watertight methods were tried:

  • copying to floppy discs during lessons, break or lunchtime
  • taking pupils’ discs home to return, laden with expressive content the following week
  • depositing files on computers in school libraries
  • emailing files to those families I knew and relying on their good nature to forward them to pals

You can imagine that compared to this, we seem to living in something of a golden age where they can be deposited in this blog for pupils to pick up in their own time.

So where does osmosis fit in? One of the pieces we are preparing for the East Lothian Showcase Concert* is Enrique Granados’s Córdoba. For some reason it struck me, after parts were printed and midi files created and posted, that one bar of repeated notes should be both more pronounced and more detached than initially stated. Without actually planning to experiment with this, I simply started playing it like that – demonstratively, but not forcibly. To date I have not singled out this bar for discussion of any kind although I had noticed that a few people have taken to articulating the bar in the same way. You can imagine how noticeable it was when, in this afternoon’s rehearsal, all those sharing that rhythm (20/40) hammered it out in like style despite there being no written, spoken or midi suggestion that they do so.

I should also mention here that this piece is extremely challenging and that the pupils, many of them noticeably weary, put in an exhausting shift this afternoon without complaint. They really achieved a great deal when they could have been out playing.

If you plan to attend the Showcase Concert, and would like to test your musical memory, the bar concerned contains three repeated notes and occurs at 1:27 – 1:28 in this midi file: Córdoba – Performance Speed

* Friday 7 March at 7:30 in Musselburgh Grammar School.