Category Archives: Blogging


I was flattered to receive a message on this blog from a Biana Kovic – a cellist and film maker in New York – asking if I would like to review a film she had made entitled Virtuoso. The subject matter of this lovely, short film was Biana’s giving cello lessons to ebullient beginner, Matty Kahn , then aged 89, now approaching 93! This came about as part of the project, never2late.

Alongside scenes from lessons (8 hours-a-day, one day-a-week for one month) the film features interviews with music therapist Dr Concetta Tamaino and geriatrician Dr. Veronica LoFaso. The benefits conferred upon those learning an instrument are outlined in addition to those more specific to people in later life e.g. reducing risk of fracture, building muscle mass etc.

The striking opening words of the film (spoken, I imagine, by Concetta Tamaino) concern the ability of music to address – and therefore to stimulate – the brain on a variety of levels. Balance and co-ordination are cited as specifics. This would appear to endorse music’s position as a key ally in the “use it or lose it” approach to maintaining brain health. Advocate of the brain plasticity, Dr. Norman Doidge, is said to believe that learning languages is one of the best ways to encourage new pathways to form in the brain. I would contend that, for a beginner (of any age) music is a foreign language – or rather one that has become foreign to many, thanks to our species’ relatively recent tendency to outsource almost every aspect of life to experts.

One of the things which nudges this film from the category of documentary into that of art film is the lovely film score, written and performed by Biana Kovic. There is also a very striking still life moment where she and Matty, seated at a table, are framed by a cello and a music stand. The beauty of the cello and the functional elegance of the folding music stand are taken for granted by many of us who are sufficiently privileged to be able (mistakenly) to consider these items as office furniture. This shot alone exemplified one of the best descriptions of what makes something art which I ever heard (from Ian Spence – a Modern Studies teacher at Ross High School – some years ago): art is anything that makes us look at the familiar in new ways. This sounds very much like the sort of thing which keeps us young – because the young unconsciously encourage us to re-examine the familiar.



Having been interested at first mention of WolframAlpha, I decided to spend some time on it to see what it’s all about. The site is not short of explanatory material – ranging from an explanation of its goals, through examples to a video demonstrating what’s possible.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the six major towns of East Lothian featured and decided to find out a little more about population etc. (I imagine that the info might have come from the 2001 census and, in some cases more than others, might be qutie out of date by now). Why not see if you can predict the populations of these towns – or rank them in order before clicking the links? Dunbar; North Berwick; Haddington; Tranent; Musselburgh; Prestonpans

I was also curious about the population of towns which feed into larger secondary schools e.g. East Linton; Longniddry and couldn’t help wondering if all the schools were being located from scratch now, if Cockenzie/Port Seton would merit its own school. The population, at nearly 6,000, must rival that of larger towns at the time schools were establishing themselves.

Then, simply to test-drive Wolfram Alpha, I simply entered random terms in the search box:

a chemical element e.g. Boron; a chemical compound e.g. NaCl (Sodium Chloride); ozone

Pi; a calculation e.g. 7.39 + 17.5%; 10 Factorial aka 10!

today’s date; my date of birth (it seems I’ve been alive for 18,159 days); a random year – 1939

the note Middle C; the interval of the perfect 5th; the major 7th chord; C diminished chord; the term Hertz; human hearing range; speed of sound; speed of light;

the sum of £21.34 which, without asking, was converted into other currencies

a random temperature e.g. 37 degrees C, which was converted into more scales than I knew existed

a random length e.g. 100m; Sun distance Earth; Moon distance Earth; volume of sea;

and finally a random word – sound, which is explored in all its uses – the etymology and first recorded use of words are given – very much like another favourite of mine – etymonline

The results of searches can be saved as pdfs – which must be handy for many classes.

Why not try it out?

Indoor Channel Swim

Beginning on Monday, I intend to clock up the indoor swimming baths equivalent of swimming the Channel i.e. 35km. Raising money for Aspire, the event is scheduled to last 12 weeks – until 6 December. However, I hope to complete the challenge in 6 weeks. This will amount to 50 lengths-per-day, 5 days-per-week. Should I fall behind, there’s always the October week…….

Should you wish to donate, please visit my Just Giving page.

Romancing The Tyne

Flooded at home, driving cautiously through Erie puddles, 3-point turning upon hitting Road Closed signs – I couldn’t resist swinging by The Sands, in Haddington on Friday to have a look at the rising Tyne – or The Panny as we used to call it as children. Growing up in 1960s/70s Haddington, we used whatever slang words were around without much curiosity as to their etymology – this was pre-language-across-the-curriculum 🙂 Years later, I learned that many of these words had come to us from Romany people, either passing through or settling in East Lothian. Many more years later, as a result of a second-hand report of a chance conversation, I learned more about the source of the Romany language.

I imagine that the owners and neighbours of The Waterside

must have been getting nervous about the height of the river but, fingers crossed, we seem to have been spared the aquatic disasters of days gone by.

Music Matters

Increasingly, differences between some aspects of the real and virtual worlds feel virtually negligible – with one notable exception. Walking past the bookshelves in the hall, my eye is frequently caught by the spines of books I hope soon to read or re-read. Undeservedly neglected blogs seem to reach out less and I often return to one to find a treasure trove of fascinating reading/watching/listening/testing matter. One such is Music Matters* – a music cognition blog put together by Henkjan Honing of the University of Amsterdam.

This morning’s visit threw up the following topics:

How well would you do as an expert?

Can music cognition save your life?

Gene for music?

Although apparently published last week, this study was thrown my way by Hilery Williams last term!

Can you point at it?

Is beat induction special? (Part 5)

Does rhythm make our bodies move?

Infant-direct speech

* somewhat confusingly, this is also the name of weekly podcast in my feed-reader from the Radio 3 programme of the same name.