Category Archives: Memory


When I look back upon my teachers and lecturers what emerges is that – fairly or unfairly – the ones I remember the most were mavericks – but none as much as former teacher – Ivor Cutler: (video not embedding as hoped – see it on YouTube here).

In addition to teaching at Summerhill, Cutler apparently spent 30 years teaching in inner-city schools in London.

p.s. if you are a maverick is there a noun for the quality you display? Maverickism? Maverickness? Maverickity? Maverickery?

p.p.s. Is there a name for words of such specific origin that they resist ready transformation?

Ann Cruickshank

This Friday sees the retirement of Ann Cruickshank after 33 years of service to Musselburgh Grammar School’s Music Department. As this coincides with the beginning of the October holiday, Ann decided to throw a retirement ceilidh/party last night in Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange. It was a fantastic occasion and Ann was clearly over the moon to be sharing the evening with so many friends and colleagues, past and present.

The ceilidh music was provided by Laurie Crump and friends. Laurie is the husband of MGS’s universally popular, and boundlessly talented Woodwind Instructor, Juliet Aspley. Between ceilidh sets, there were sessions of lovely solo jazz guitar by Robin Robertson.

Lifelong friend and guitar predecessor at MGS, Mike McGeary and I also performed a short, affectionate send-off to Ann. Between us, Mike and I represent 26 years of collegiality with Ann and it’s always nice when a send-off takes the form of the activity that brought us together.

Always one of the first in the building each morning and with barely a day’s absence since 1975, Ann will be a much missed member of staff.

Thanks for everything, Ann, and don’t be a stranger now.

You Must Remember This…

I once debated with an intelligent and able amateur musician what I believed to be going on when I was playing from memory – which is most of the time. I claimed that I was playing by ear and monitoring accuracy with my memory. He claimed the opposite. Listening to Sergio della Sala’s talk at last year’s SLF I was interested to hear him suggest that our memories are not so much accessed as recreated and that the solidity of each memory is destabilised in the accessing.

As if there weren’t sufficient things to sustain the interest in memory as we know it, there is also the increasing phenomenon of outsourcing our memories to online and external data storage facilities – a kind of prosthetic memory. Dr. Susan Blackmore discussed the effect this trend might have on our memories last night on Radio 3’s Sunday FeatureRemember, Remember. One interesting application might be to help remove the distress caused by uncertainty in sufferers of dementia. You can listen again to the programme until Sunday 28th. Dr. Blackmore’s website also sports an article on the programme from the Radio Times

Returning to the memory monitors ear/ear monitors memory debate I’d say from, watching pupils over the years, that both processes are equally in evidence – although rarely in the same person.

Music, memory & emotion

The second half of yesterday’s Material World came from The Cavern, where the BA Festival of Science – Brains, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll was considering the fields of music, memory and emotion.

One thing to emerge was that important memories, associated with specific pieces of music, tend to be formed between the ages of 15 & 25. I’d come across this notion a few times and, for some reason, was reluctant to believe it – almost as though it belittled musical content of the remaining 23 years. However, when considering tracks for a Desert Island Discs project I recently proposed for an In Service* many were works I’d come across in that very period. Why not consider your own choices and see whether this is true of you?

The programme mentioned the The Magical Memory Tour which invites people to contribute a memory associated with the Beatles.

You can listen again or download a podcast from the Material World site – until Thursday 18th.

* the idea here, rather than simply listening to music at tax payers expense is to encourage colleagues to experiment with sound editing software (such as Source Forges excellent and free program, Audacity) to produce 8 x 1 minute extracts, each intended to convey specific expressive ideas. I think it would be interesting to see one another discuss expressive content, emotion, composition, technique, cultural and personal context etc.


Timing is everything

I recently read something in Steven Mithen‘s excellently written and thought provoking book The Singing Neanderthals which stopped me in my tracks. The passage concerned the research, by Professor Willi Steinke of Queens University in Kingston, Canada, into the melodic recall of a subject with amusia, following a stroke at the age of 64. The subject was unable to identify many well-known instrumental themes. However, when themes with lyrics were played, recall was normal – even although the lyrics were not present! Steinke and his colleagues concluded that melody and lyrics were stored in different parts of the brain – the prosody of the lyrics helping to summon up the tune, and the rhythms of the tune aiding the reverse.

Suddenly my mind jumped back 42 years to my first piano tutor book, in which every melody featured lyrics – added after the event by the author, John W. Schaum. At the time I regarded them as a slightly annoying irrelevance because I was six years old and knew everything. Now the aspiration behind them seems clear. I began to think that, although the beginners’ materials I use have no lyrics, there may be an argument for adding some – more particularly for asking the pupils to add their own.

By an amazing coincidence of timing, this topic was brought up at our in service on Thursday, by one of my colleagues who was keen to discover similarities and differences in our approaches to teaching rhythm. Recommendations and reservations were expressed – the latter concerning examples where words had been forced to fit rhythms in an unnatural way, and possible confusion arising from the differing prosody of varying accents and dialects.

Still – it’s something interesting to think about. Any experiences, views, recommendations to offer?



Like buses, synchronicity comes in threes. John Connell recently led me to an article in which Nicholas Carr asks Is Google Making Us Stupid? This Sunday, I came across Brian Appleyard‘s piece in The Times, Stoooopid….why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks. The next concentration-based piece I spotted, in a section called Emily’s News on the site of Scotland’s Centre for Confidence and Well-being, was entitled You may not see it, but TV is affecting children.

The last of these three articles, which deals specifically with very young children, is relatively straightforward. The previous two contain so many variables that it’s difficult to see this debate coming to an end any time soon – but it is surely a very good thing that it is taking place. My own view is that, before worrying too much about difficulty of reading lengthy articles online, a few parameters need to be set. I skim through a great deal on the net, often in the living room with the TV or radio on (sometimes both); my email & feed-reader sit open along with a correspondence-chess website. However, I consider this to be searching as opposed to reading. I would no more sit with my laptop, struggling to read an in-depth piece in a distraction-filled environment, than I would with a book. I’d retire to somewhere quieter, having set aside the time to concentrate. If that weren’t possible, I’d send the url to myself in an email, paste the text into a word processing application, or bookmark the page with del.ici.ous and read it later.

I spend more time online than many people I know and, to the best of my knowledge, my concentration is no worse than before. With books easer to track down, and reviews easier to garner online than off, I probably read more books now than at any time in my life. In school, I teach 52 lessons-per-week and don’t find myself suddenly wondering what I was saying, or who these people are in front of me. However, at 48 years old, my formative years were over long before the internet began to impact on my modus operandi. Has enough time elapsed to tell what effect, if any, has been wrought on young people’s concentration? Currently, they spend as long as I do in class; they sit in silent exam halls for as long as ever; as far as I’m aware, a football match still lasts 90 minutes….

The synchronicity was kept alive when I came to a captivating story this morning entitled The Last Channel by Italo Calvino – from an outstanding collection of stories entitled Numbers In The Dark. Without spoiling this almost Kafkaesque tale, I can reveal that the protagonist allows his habit of channel-hopping with the remote to escalate to monumental proportions. However, even he appears to be searching and not watching. If your brain is not e-addled, you may be up to reading it in parallel text.

Attention span

Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for pointing me in the direction of this post by Donald Clark. Citing 1976 research by A. H Johnstone and F. Percival into attention span in 90 Chemistry lectures, with 12 different lecturers, it describes the highs and lows of attention in a 60-minute lecture.

  • 2-3 minutes to settle down
  • 10-18 minutes of attention
  • progressively shorter attention periods, dropping to 3-4 minutes towards end

These conclusions were not formed by an impression of attention but by the subjects’ ability to recall content.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that, following a long period of evolution, all my lessons across a 5-school orbit, last 30 minutes. Allowing time for pupils to travel from the previous class, unpack and then reverse these features in order to return punctually, the hands on instrument time must be around 22 minutes. For many pupils, this feels about the right time.

All Guitar Group rehearsals, except those of the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble*, last 30 minutes. If pupils arrive on time, set up quickly, engage and play well it’s not unknown for them to be released in 15-20 minutes – particularly as the concert approaches and the spectre of staleness taps at the window (where the luxury of a window exists).

Yet, curiously, the reason we migrated from 35- or 40-minute lessons to 30 minutes, is that general school timetabling has gone in the opposite direction – all periods in the secondary schools I visit are now 60 minutes long. Apart from this simply being too long for an instrumental lesson and too long for pupils to be out of class, this would permit only six instrumental lessons per day and so it seemed natural to opt for 12 x 30-minute lessons-per-day – so natural in fact that I can’t recall discussion seeming necessary in any school.

Does this mean that we have been blessed with the ideal length by virtue of our colleagues veering blindly in the wrong direction? Well, only if it was still 1976 and if school teaching resembled the kind of university lecture where one person was active while the others listened in reverential silence, their most dynamic input being the taking of notes**.

Donald Clark writes interestingly about Tyrannies of Time one of which rings a bell with me – the dip in performance which some pupils seem to experience when their lesson immediately follows lunch. In such cases, I ask the pupils if they’d mind my asking what they had for lunch, and my fears that a matrix of E-numbers has brought about the cognitive dip are usually groundless.

* Contrastingly, and for purely practical reasons the six annual East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsals take place from 1:30 – 3:30 – minus time for pupils, transported from distant schools to walk from the drop-off point to the venue – minus tidying up time – minus a break in the middle – well it is a Friday afternoon, after all.

** During my five years at music college, my note-taking habits changed from the frenzied assembly of a wretched, illegible and barely revisited scrawl, to simply listening, empty-handed. In the end, I could no longer see the point in inaccurately recreating what already existed in the library, at the cost of my ability to concentrate and enjoy the lecture.

Music and Etymology

Guess who got me into etymology. Perhaps surprisingly, it was Malcolm X, in his autobiography. Rather than looking up definitions, it soon seemed preferable to attempt to divine them through familiarity with the constituent parts of the word – making it nearly impossible to forget.

In a subject like music, the bulk of whose vocabulary consists in old and foreign words, an etymological outlook can offer a key to these baffling terms and associations. With this in mind, I’ve created a new Lesson Support Page entitled Music & Etymology. I must stress here that this is not really my own work but simply a series of links to a fantastic online etymological resource. At the moment the work is at the brain-storming stage and I feel that further developments (and perhaps suggestions from users) will help me decide which of the following options to choose:

  • alphabetical – favouring those looking for a specific term
  • thematic – grouping together related words e.g. interval; triad; chord – favouring browsing

I’ve also yet to decide what to do about words which do not appear on Should I provide my own pointers? Leave them blank – encouraging reader research? Omit them from the list altogether?

Clearly, this will an ongoing project requiring constant updating. However, there’s no rush and it’s important to bear in mind the following proverb of Lao Tzu at the outset of a seemingly huge task:

“ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So long farewell, auf weidersehen good-bye

When does school life end? Last formal lesson? Last exam? Last signature on leaving form? For many S6 pupils at North Berwick High School the leaving process began to register at the Spring Concert on Thursday 24th April. This would be the last of many performances on the school stage and it was clearly an emotional experience for some. A tradition has become established in the school for the outgoing S6 to sing a song of thanks to the Music staff – having already showered us generously with gifts – and this year’s offering ensure us that they’d “always love music.” The following mp3 sketch will give you some idea of the variety on offer that evening – a variety all the more impressive when you consider that at least one S6 pupil took part in every item in this clip: NBHS Spring highlights

Many thanks to the makers of the open source program Audacity with which this clip was edited.