Category Archives: Wider Connections


Having recently attended Music: An Explanation by a Guitar Hero, which concluded with some deliberations on prosody (the music of speech which amplifies meaning), I chanced upon an inspirational TED talk by film critic, Robert Ebert, who lost his lower jaw, and his speech, through cancer.

Exploring text-to-speech technology, he found that, unless he entered very time-consuming XML coding, the prosody was never quite right. Work is currently in progress with Edinburgh-based company, CereProc to refine his voice, using recorded material from Ebert’s television archive. Exploring their site, I was quite astonished at how far along the speech synthesis road things have travelled. You can hear some of their voices here or type in your own text and choose a voice here. While CereProc finish their refinements, Ebert is using Apple’s Alex voice.

It is very touching to see how Ebert responds during the talk. The words are his own but his wife and two other close friends help out with reading. Despite the fact that the oral delivery is at one remove, he gestures as though delivering the words personally.

Let me, once again, flag up some interesting lectures on prosody by Peter Roach.

The Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory

Today I received formal acknowledgement of enrolment in a conference entitled: The Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory,

Organised by the Fondazione Mariani in conjunction with Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, the conference will take place in Edinburgh from 9 – 12 June. As part of what I see as payback for the investment in my attendance there, I intend to post write-ups of relevant content, for the benefit of pupils, colleagues and other interested parties.

Some of the highlights of the conference include:

Impact of musical experience on cerebral language processing – Mathias Oechslin (Chair), Geneva, Switzerland

Why would musical training benefit language functions? A neurobiological perspective? – Aniruddh Patel, San Diego, USA

Memory and learning in music performance – Caroline Palmer and Peter Pfordresher (Chairs)

Keynote lecture – Human memory – Alan Baddeley, York, UK

The functional architecture of Working Memory for tones and phonemes in non-musicians and musicians with and without absolute pitch – Stefan Koelsch, Berlin, Germany

Learning and memory in musical disorders – Psyche Loui and Isabelle Peretz (Chairs)

Mindset Matters

Yesterday I attended a CDP event entitled Mindset Matters. The overarching these was the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and the effect of each on pupils’ learning. Presented by Derek Goldman of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, the session alternated tasks, small and whole group discussions and questionnaires designed to help us arrive at our own feelings about confidence and optimism.
The first task was to discuss in pairs the following three questions:
  • What is confidence? (being an incurable etymologist, I knew I’d end up here later)
  • What does it look like?
  • What factors can become obstacles to confidence?
Before long, we realised that the issue is not a straightforward one. Many of us initially summoned up images of extrovert people in action e.g. public speaking or on-stage performance. But what of quiet confidence? There are many who are confident in their abilities but less happy about broadcasting this assurance. The idea that confidence, like fitness, is contextual emerged. We may feel supremely confident in some areas but extremely reticent, even pessimistic about our chances of success in others. As to the appearance of confidence, the ability to look people in the eye was mentioned, along with being able to hold to a minority opinion/belief. Factors cited as likely to be an obstacle to confidence included  peer pressure, adverse criticism etc. Several in the room could recall clearly adverse criticism from their own school days which had resulted in a lasting belief that a given subject or skill lay permanently beyond their grasp.
Discussions of confidence and optimism led naturally to the topic of resilience – the inclination to strive for something despite setbacks. This can be a sensitive area. Belief that bouncing back from failure is possible is unlikely to develop without experience of failure. But – how to afford experiences of failure without incurring damage?
The discussions soon turned to fixed vs growth mindsets, much of this emanating from the work of Standford psychologist, Carol Dweck. The diagram here will give you more of an idea about the ingredients and outcomes of these differing mindsets. One of the most important areas in school life which can affect mindset is summed up by Dweck as person vs process praise or criticism.
Very much like confidence, mindset is not a constant across the whole life of an individual. We may regard some abilities (or deficits) as fixed while retaining more optimism about improvement in other areas.
One area we were asked to consider was our own feelings of confidence in our workplace. For some this is easier to pin down that others but the idea was to dwell upon the place and activities which occupy the largest part of the most standard days. We were asked to score ourselves on three A s:
  • Affiliation – do we feel included in the organisation – that our opinions matter?
  • Agency – how do we rate our own success at the skills required in our job?
  • Autonomy – what level of choice do we have in what’s to be done and how?
Personal nuances are often eclipsed in large discussions and there were a few things I would have liked to define a little more:
  • the difference between a challenge and  things which are merely challenging, which can often amount to little more than repeated and pointless annoyance
  • autonomy – like any freedom, this comes with responsibility. In my own work, I enjoy a massive amount of autonomy, a good example of which can be seen in the running of four guitar ensembles: choice of repertoire; when it should be begun; how it should be presented; how much time to spend on each item; who should play which part. However, if any performance were to come unstuck, I would be entirely responsible for this.
That said, I scored myself a mean of 9/10 in the three A s.
Follow-up was very generous. In addition to being directed to the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and Brainology websites, we were each given two books, which I look forward to exploring:
In the evaluation, I was very positive but felt that questions about how this might change my practice would require some reflection – of which I hope this short summary forms a small part.

Free Will & Sight-Reading

Catching up with a podcast of Start The Week, I was delighted to be pointed in the direction of The Mysteries of the Brain – a series of programmes on BBC World Service by Professor Barry Smith.* In his discussions with Andrew Marr, he referred to experiments carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, which pointed to the illusory nature of free will. Volunteers were asked, repeatedly, to decided whether to press a button with their left or right hand while in an fMRI scanner. Evidence of brain activity, which enabled those reading output to predict with 100% accuracy which hand would be used, appeared up to 7 seconds before the volunteer was aware of their conscious choice. John-Dylan Haynes describes the situation as follows:

Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of activity would be produced by someone sight-reading this:
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I wonder if, one day, we’ll have much more of a handle on what helps us turn a skill, with which we are not born, into a learned reflex and of ways in which this can be done more effectively. Perhaps until then we’ll need to content ourselves with the following equation:
10,000 hours = expert

You can listen again to Professor Smith’s series here.
You can see John-Dylan Haynes lecture on this material here.

* I first came across Professor Smith in an excellent episode of In Our Time on Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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?


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?

Fund-raising concert

Last night it was my pleasure to MC the second of two concerts in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. Featuring instrumentalists and singers from East Lothian Schools, the event was held in the atmospheric hall in Haddington’s Town House. I was delighted to be able to announce in the vote of thanks that the events had raised £1,320 for the charity. Timing is everything in music and news had just come in that East Lothian Council, who were being thanked for the use of the hall, the printing of the programmes and the savoir faire evident in employing us, had just won two more national music awards – bringing the total to five such awards in three years!

Here are a couple of samples of last night’s music – Robert Burns’ The Lea Rig, sung by Zoe from NBHS: the-lea-rig Three Jigs, played by David & Callum from Knox: david-callum-three-jigs


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.