Category Archives: Reading

The Song Is You

Long fascinated by the crossover between music and language, I was delighted to come across a dissertation by Jonathan Pearl entitled Music and Language: The Notebooks of Leoš Janáček. The Czech (or more accurately Moravian) composer was taken by the idea that character was manifest in prosody and strove to come up with melodies for his operatic characters which were true to the music of their speech.

Jonathan Pearl does a much better job of explaining it – either here in the full-length dissertation or here in a shorter version (look for Eavesdropping with a Master: Leos Janácek and the Music of Speech). Very interesting reading!

Illustrating this idea with a single YouTube clip is tricky so instead let me embed a clip of one of Janáček’s most famous non-operatic works – the final movement of his Sinfonietta, conducted here by Pierre Boulez. Listen out for great trumpet section work at 5:00:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Sight-reading, rhythm, recording…

Coping with the abstractions of music, when teaching, often relies on analogy to help pupils grasp otherwise elusive ideas. Consequently, you end up with a bank of ideas of all the things to which music seems comparable. However, this doesn’t often run the other way round – and, in my experience, people using music as an analogy for something else often don’t quite hit the spot.

Listening to Radio 4’s Open Book the other day, I caught an article about a new, unabridged audio book version of George Eliot‘s Middlemarch. At nearly 36 hours on 28 CDs, recording this 800-page novel is a gargantuan task. The reader, Juliet Stevenson, completed it in 12 days – a feat of which many musical recording artists would be extremely proud. She talks here about the many features involved – notably rhythm (of character and also of writer), inhabiting character, and coping with paragraph-long sentences – scroll forward to 19′ 20”

p.s. if this doesn’t seem like a big deal, why not try recording yourself reading a few paragraphs?

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:
[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
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).”

Just as I thought….

For years I have encouraged beginners occasionally to recite the names of notes aloud while playing. My feeling was this practice, annoying as it seems to be for them, encourages them to decide more quickly what they are going to play, resulting in their being able to keep up with the group. At any rate, the playing and reading both seem to improve from this practice.
I was heartened to read in an article entitled The Voice of Reason, in this week’s New Scientist, that there may be another reason for this – that naming improves categorisation, memorisation and, as a result, future recognition.
Many people would argue that they’d prefer to name the notes silently to themselves. The trouble is that they don’t notice when it stops – and neither does anyone else e.g. their teacher.
At the moment, the article, is not online but hopefully it will be at some point. One other estimated statistic is that “out loud” conversation accounts for only 30% of the verbal activity in our brain – this is self-generated verbal activity and does not refer to reading nor, as far as I understand, writing – just thinking and talking to ourselves.

The Musical Brain

I’m continually indebted to Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), and in particular to Dr. Katie Overy, for flagging up many interesting events. In the relatively recent past I have attended a fascinating conference entitled Communicative Musicality and a lecture on Musical Entrainment.

Two more promising events have been brought to my attention in the last couple of days.

The first of these, entitled The Musical Brain, concerns the growing field which links music and neuroscience.*

The second, entitled The Child’s Curriculum: ‘What is the Value of Early Childhood Education and Care?’ concentrates on “ the value of early childhood education and care, with a particular focus on the implications for future practice and policy in Scotland.” This event is, which takes place in Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians, is free but registration is required – details here.

* you can find write-ups of music/neuroscience events I attended in The Wellcome Collection – here, here and here.

Interest in this area has led me to some interesting books which I can recommend:

This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen
Communicative Musicality edited by Stephen Malloch and Colwyn Trevarthen
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge