Category Archives: Feeling

A breath of still air

I note that film director, David Lynch, hopes to introduce Transcendental Meditation (TM) to UK schools – details here in Guardian and Telegraph. His belief (described more fully in his own words here) is that it would help attention and behavioural problems. This seems believable. Whether boisterous adolescents would warm to the idea is another question.

TM* is not the style with which I’m most familiar, nor the one I came to know through a course laid on by East Lothian Council’s Healthy Working Lives** team, last term. Those with little experience of meditation tend to focus primarily on the mental/psychological benefits. However, the physiological benefits should not be overlooked and such a perception may move the activity from the possibly presupposed subject area of RME into PE.

With well-being joining literacy and numeracy atop CfE’s global aims, inclusion of some kind of meditation should be, at least, considered.

* one further problem could be one of the apparent unfairness of subscribing and paying into a worldwide foundation/corporation – perhaps a less affiliated style would be preferable.

** while searching for links, I stumbled upon the fact that East Lothian’s Housing Department won a silver award for Healthy Working Lives. Perhaps they could let us in on their secret?

NBHS PTA Burns Supper

On Friday 29 Jan a group of 7 North Berwick High School guitar pupils gave, along with Zoe (singer), a performance of two songs at the PTA Burns Supper. While the performances were very good, and very well received, the recordings were not great – it was a live event, after all. So today, we met in the cathedral-like acoustic of the Dance Studio to make studio recordings.

The final mix was luck – the placing of a Zoom H2 in the middle of the studio and distancing people by intuition more than science. I hope you’ll agree that the result and, more particularly, the performance of the pupils is a success. Thanks to the PE Dept. for their hospitality. It’s worth remembering that these recordings came at the end of a school day, which had already featured a lunchtime rehearsal (of other material) and that the pupils went straight to record without further run-through. It may be my imagination, but I sense a difference in feel between live and studio events for pupils: the former is all about energy, communication and the moment, while the latter is more about focus, attention to detail and posterity.

The Lea Rig: the-lea-rig-2010-02-09

The Deil’s Awa Wi’ The Exciseman:the-deils-awa-wi-the-exciseman

Mirror Neurons

I first came across the idea of mirror neurons in February 2001. How do I know this with such certainty? Because I wrote to New Scientist about the article concerned. The notion has featured recently as several pupils are playing pieces with a moto perpetuo right hand pattern. Here are three examples of such pieces currently being studied by pupils:

Ana Vidovic playing Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa Lobos:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Ben Kearsely playing West Coast* by Helen Sanderson:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Peo Kindgren playing Estudio No. 6 by Leo Brouwer:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

The essential thing in learning such pieces is to master the right hand pattern, by playing it without any distractions from the left hand. The hope in so doing is that the pattern will soon run on auto-pilot. That way, pupils will not be distracted when the left hand re-enters**. As such patterns are soon memorised, pupils are free to look away from the music and I ask them to look at my right hand while they continue to play the pattern. It may be my imagination but, almost without exception, pupils seem to relax the hand and play in a more economical way than might normally be the case. Could mirror neurons be at work here?

* I would describe this piece as the single most successful teaching piece I know

** An interesting half-way stage between playing without left hand and including the left hand is to introduce an unchanging chord shape which descends one fret-at-a-time. This way the hands can begin to come together in a way which falls somewhere between having no left hand involvement and having very varied (and therefore distracting) left hand content. A diminished 7th chord shape serves this purpose very well and, in fact features in the Villa Lobos Etude(from 0:41 to 1:17 on the Ana Vidovic video above)

I should also point out that some doubt has been cast on the theory of mirror neurons.

Further links on the topic of mirror neurons:

Wikipedia article

V. S Ramachandran 

 And here are two short videos on the topic:
[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And more generally – Sergio della Sala on neuroscience and learning about learning.

Showcase Rehearsal No. 2


Setting dates for Showcase rehearsals always seems straightforward at the beginning of the session. Refreshed from seven weeks holidays, the biological reality of, say, a Friday afternoon rehearsal at the end of the week after the October break, when the clocks have recently gone back … cannot readily be conjured up. The day duly arrived – a few excuses had been made, one bus was late and I readied myself to embrace a rehearsal where, if we distributed the new music, mastered a few bars and managed to stay in a good mood and avoided frightening the new, younger pupils, it could be considered a success. To my amazement, the ensemble pretty much knocked this off in one go:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

The moral of the story: never prematurely pre-install pessimism on behalf of others. Thanks, everyone!

How sound affects us


Julian Treasure, of The Sound Agency, discusses how sound effects us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively and behaviourally in this short video. The stress-inducing bell/buzzer at 0:44 is neither as loud nor as long as one of the bells in my working week – affecting hormones (cortisol), heart rate and brain waves. His recommendation is five minutes (or more) of birdsong per day.

The Connected Voice

I’ve just been catching up with Alistair McGowan on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction. Aside from the expected entertainment value, he struck me as being someone of great insight. This came through particularly in his descriptions of trying to get into the what makes characters tick. From a technical point of view though, what really struck me was his description of what we warm to in a voice. It could be summed up as:

  •  resonant voice = voice connected to the body and therefore to feeling thereby encouraging trust
  • constricted voice = the opposite

 This made me wonder about voice projection in our profession. The subject has come up in terms of voice preservation and avoidance of unnecessary injury but not, to the best of my knowledge, in terms of putting pupils at their ease. Moreover, I can’t help feeling that, perhaps, a little more knowledge of the workings of the primordial instrument might give us one more tool in our armoury in understanding physical manifestations of psychological features in pupils.

The above Chain Reaction link will take you to listen again until 18:30 tomorrow (Wednesday 7th Oct.) when, speaking of resonance as we were, Alistair McGowan interviews the cathedralesque Simon Callow.

You can also see Alistair McGowan describe some of his working method and observations here:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

Guitarists talking guitar

Radio 4 is broadcasting a series of five short programmes this week (Mon – Fri, 15:45 – 16:00) about guitar style and technique. Each day, Joan Armatrading discusses playing ideas, tunings etc. with one of five players: Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, John Williams, Russel Lissack and Bert Jansch.


A Rude Awakening

Wednesday’s edition of All In The Mind featured a study on the effect of rudeness (in the workplace) on creativity and productivity. The study by Amir Erez of the University of Florida and Christine Porath of the University of Southern California, discovered that even witnessing rudeness can affect cognitive performance, memory and incliantion to help out.

This discovery is at odds with our culture of humiliation as seen in Britain’s Got Talent; X Factor; The Weakest Link; Dragons’ Den; The Apprentice. The first two of these are extremely popular with pupils and, before hearing of this study, I often used to wonder what message was being conveyed when the response to ambition was often mere cruelty.

Listen again here, or else! The article is the second of three in the programme.

Analogy is key

The depth in which a new musical concept is explained varies greatly depending on the age of the pupils. Often, the first encounter of a concept contains little in the way of technical data, the main concern being to see whether or not the pupils can hear the concept.

One such concept is tonality – or the idea of a piece of music being in a certain key. In the first instance I mention no more than the fact that in most pieces have there exists one note which is the leader, the centre and the foundation of the piece. This seems to do the trick. I play a short extract and pupils then rummage around the fingerboard until they locate the centre of the piece. The gravitational pull is usually sufficiently strong to ensure that most will eventually get there. In fact, the pull is so strong that the key note does not even have to be present in the tune. If you play this extract, you will hear what the key note (aka tonic) should be and that, in fact, should have been present as the final note: click

This fact bewilders most pupils. An implied planet cannot exert a gravitational pull, so how can a note do it? Normally an analogy would be pulled out here to illustrate the point. The problem is that I can’t think of a convincing one. The nearest I can get is that in certain sentences, a missing verb is so obvious that it feels more or less present:

He ****** the ball so hard that it broke the crossbar

But even this sentence has room for doubt.

Can anyone out there think of a parallel situation in another subject?