Category Archives: Practice

What are conductors for?

What are conductors for? This is a question often asked by those outside the world of music – and sometimes by those in it.

In the following three videos, Semyon Bychkov explains very articulately the collaborative and personal business of preparing for performance. There are some very interesting examples of his forensic research and some interesting points about a subject dear to my heart – the connections between music and language.

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If I’m entirely honest, I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of Bychkov until this morning when I heard him in a fascinating interview with Tom Service on approaching the music of Wagner – and the associated difficulties. A sucker for a nicely turned phrase, I noticed his gift for aphorism e.g. “in the end, the beauty of life is infinitely greater than the weaknesses of those who go through it.”

You can hear that interview here.

Showcase Rehearsal No. 3

Esteemed Pupils,

You may already have discovered that schools are to remain closed to pupils until Monday 6 December. Sadly, this means that our East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsal, scheduled for Friday, will not be able to go ahead. However, rest assured that parts for our 3rd piece will be distributed to you on Tue 7th, Wed 8th & Thu 9th respectively. Play-along midi files for this mystery piece will be posted along with those already there for two pieces already underway.

The next scheduled Showcase rehearsal is Friday 21 Jan. See Dates For Your Diary for the complete list.

Thanks for your hard work and savoir faire, so far. Enjoy the snow while it lasts.

photo by Lesley Pearson

Instrumental Tuition in Aberdeen in danger

Although this is a grim and worrying situation, it is encouraging to read that pupils are taking action. In addition to the threat to their learning, it is interesting to see social consequences highlighted by one pupil:

“The bands, choirs and orchestras we attend are a big part of our social life and are where we meet our friends from different schools across the city.”

Unsurprisingly, the students are using a social networking site to organise.

A petition – which articulately outlines many the extra-music benefits of instrumental tuition –  can be found here.

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.

Mental muscle: six ways to boost your brain

Many will not find it surprising that the word “music” appears 23 times in this New Scientist article.

I found this paragraph especially interesting:

“Musically trained people perform better on tests of auditory memory – the ability to remember lists of spoken words, for example – and auditory attention. Children with a musical training have larger vocabularies and higher reading ability than those who do not (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 11, p 599). There is even some evidence that early musical training increases IQ (Psychological Science, vol 15, p 511).”