Archive for the 'coaching and teaching' Category

I have invented a new game called Buxtehudethunkit that anyone with an internet connection can play. Like Googlewhack, where the purpose is to enter two search terms into Google that would yield only one result, Buxtehudethunkit is a way of interrogating  the BBC’s archive of Desert Island Discs to tell you something of the limits of celebrity taste. Though it might look like it, I did not do this to grandstand on the lesser aesthetics of the great and the good. They’re a mixed bunch, I know. In fact, when reflecting one’s own interests, these programmes can turn into a chastisement, depending on who you happen to share a favourite with. And my own musical taste increasingly turns out to be #nothingtowritehomeabout.

But even if you don’t think much of your own taste, or its past trajectory, there is the quote from Hermann Hesse, for which I’m obliged to the inspirational blog  On an Overgrown Path:-

If you want to know the condition of a nation, then listen to its music.”

The Desert Island Database and the accompanying national poll of favourites ostensibly allow this. Though I’m still not sure. I suppose with my single reference game I’m fishing here in the pool of probability among the Law of Small Numbers. And without a licence. Statisticians can dismiss it as the musical equivalent of homeopathy: so dilute as to be entirely unrepresentative. If the occurrence is singular, that could be entirely random. Furthermore, there is a remote possibility, because Desert Island Disc-ers are allowed eight choices, that the database might contain no reference to a piece of music that absolutely every participant would list as their Number 9, and probably does in some universe somewhere.

Set against any cultural pessimism concerning contemporary tastes, the test of time is said to have some mathematical, evolution-style validity to it. I guess this is because artistic success is a kind of complex system. Over time, it must somehow map to a constantly changing environment, so durability implies fitness. But this can go through some twists and turns. The flame can also go out, or at least appear to. Given his current prominence, how did that happen to Vivaldi? It is often cited that his music was forgotten from his death in poverty in 1741 until his revival in the 1930s, despite the enduring popularity of his pizza recipe.

So, one day I was idly trying to get a feel for the influence on the popular culture of Bill Nelson, or more specifically his 1970s art-rock band Be-Bop Deluxe, and the BBC had just put up its Desert Island Discs database where over 70 years of programmes of interviewees’ choices now lie.  Test-of-time-wise, Desert Island Discs is fit: it is the longest running radio show, ever.

I typed in first “Be-Bop Deluxe” then, less hopefully “Bill Nelson”. Nul points. Both times.  For good measure, but with slightly more expectation of success, I went off at a tangent and tried the recently-departed Gil Scott-Heron, thinking that a man described variously as the black Bob Dylan and godfather of rap/hip-hop might have some famous fans by now.  Encore, nul points.

To repeat: I was not trying to be clever. If there were any accounting for taste, given what has been spent on my musical education I’d be in foreclosure by now.

Be-Bop Deluxe were just a bit before my time, and only came to mind when I was checking  Bill Nelson’s back-story a little while ago. Nelson himself was regarded as one of the best guitarists of the ’70s, and he is now a cult figure, with his own sometimes annual festival, endorsed by major guitar manufacturers. So I thought there was a chance of some rock star acknowledgement somewhere, or perhaps that some baby-boomer film director or head of an arts body (who was a student in the ’70s) would have picked up on him.

After the disbandment of Be-Bop Deluxe, Nelson reappeared in my mid-teens with a song called Do You Dream In Colour? which reached #52 in the UK Singles Chart.  Back then, I occasionally mused on matters of cognition, and colour perception was part of it. I bought the ensuing album Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam and got my hair cut short, as Bill Nelson’s appeared on the inner sleeve: an action my teachers, not conscious of the causation, considered a mark of maturity. I started sporting my inherited steel-toe-capped work boots, worn for winter paper rounds, as a fashion statement. The paper profits bought the Telecaster, remember.

But I’ve digressed, into overgrown path-dependence.

Having so far yielded nothing from the Desert Island Database, I felt obliged for a few minutes to keep hitting it in search of something I naïvely held to be culturally cuspal.  I then went classical and I tried Alkan, as in Charles-Valentin, Chopin‘s neighbour in Paris. Alkan classifies as a broken thing for curious study, which I’ll have to defer to another post; there are myths and facts about him which I have not fully disentangled in the record, so am apt to mislead.  Did he really die because a wall of book-shelving  fell on him, as he reached up high for a copy of the Talmud? Alkan came into the house a year ago via the piano tuner.  On his first visit, he (the tuner that is) pulled three CDs from his knapsack in illicit fashion like some well-tempered tambourine man. The result is that I have been hooked on Steven Osborne’s recording of the Esquisses ever since.  But Alkan also scored nul points from Desert Island Distraction.

So then I tried Buxtehude. For shame, and because of Spotify, I don’t own any Buxtehude, and I could not name a principal work. But my guess from all this was that Buxtehude was closer to the cusp, and may actually be the cusp of modern music itself, classical and popular.  Think bass-lines.  Go figure.

The database yields 649 mentions of Johann Sebastian Bach (compared with 718 for Beethoven, 790 for Mozart, and only 251 for The Beatles). Bach is an important anchor here, and despite those statistics, his stock has been rising over the past 70 years. It seems an increasing number — and especially musicians — regard him as the greatest composer of all time. Prolific in his own output,  he was the can-do cantata-writer, he allegedly nailed modern tuning for us — the art of enharmonic compromise that the piano tuner wields every six months on our own joanna.  He was a man more reliable and mathematical in his music than ever there was.  But he was also a man who went AWOL for three months from his first official post as a young professional, walked 400 kilometers across Germany and then 400km back, to study at the feet of the master. Yes, Buxtehude.  He even wanted to work as Buxtehude’s assistant and eventual successor in Lübeck, but baulked at the surprising condition of having to marry Buxtehude’s unprepossessing daughter. What were they smoking in HR in those days to let that contractual clause through?

That line-in-the-sand detail notwithstanding, to dem Bach himself Buxtehude was the greater man.  So, the composer who so influenced Bach — the man of 649 mentions — and could inspire him to become utterly derelict in his duties, must surely be mentioned in the Desert Island Dispatches somewhere. You would hope. Unless, of course, he was everybody’s ninth choice.

Given that Desert Island Discs was started in 1942, and for the first several decades the guests should have been mainly private-school, university-educated, po-faced establishment types with well-cultivated musical tastes, a great many brought up in the church, schooled in cathedral and Oxbridge choristry — the Buxtehude heartland, you might say — I was ready to see Buxtehude generate several results among 1950s bureaucrats or politicians, lord high chief surgeons/justices/FellowsoftheRoyalSociety, or at least among the major post-war classical musicians themselves, the people the sixties, Peter Cook and Monty Python were supposed to have rid us of, with their bow-ties, bowler hats and silly walks. But no. Buxtehude, he da man. Just one result.

Bingo!  Back of the net! Buxtehudethunkit!

Here’s the thing. Buxtehude, in spite of his massive indirect influence on our culture, is just clinging on for dear life in the celebrity endorsement jungle (from which there is no getting-me-out-of anymore).  And he was a no-show for the past 50 of those 70 years. On this basis, if you’re a pessimist, dumbing down will surely kill him off eventually.

Sadly, I can’t myself recommend any Buxtehude to you. He’s still kinda new to me. Instead, we’re forced to rely on  the comic actor Kenneth Williams. About six years into his fame he appeared on a 1961 Desert Island Discs and chose an organ piece, Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BuxWV 149. Who’da thunk it? Williams was no Edwardian grandee from one of the great universities but the son of a homophobic barber from King’s Cross. He straddled high and low culture, to the extent that it fueled his own self-loathing, leading (they say) to a misadventurous death. Williams was himself a cuspal figure of the 20th century, in comedy at least. So, he carried the cultural torch for Buxtehude, and heaven knows what else.

Here you will see him anticipating Nassim Taleb’s Expert Problem, and beyond that his own seminal contribution to English folk music, which has yet to be requested by any Desert Island Desperado. For shame.

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overgrown paths


Purely by accident, in the mid 1990s, I bought a CD of Janacek’s Piano Works. It’s just possible that it was playing when I was browsing in the old Music Discount Centre on Ludgate Hill of a lunchtime. For economy, it was packaged in a cardboard sleeve on the Harmonia Mundi label; I associated them with early music and had had a lucky streak of enjoying everything I’d bought from them, sight unseen, as it were. That probably clinched it.

Despite what I now know of its relative lack of grand melodic themes cf. Rachmaninov and relative inaccessibility to early audiences, I soon found I really liked it. I’d dream that if I were to have kids, and they ever played piano, they might play this.

Before I met the Janacek, there were times in my twenties and even thirties when, feeling particularly mortal, I’d console myself that I’d at least played some (if not all) of a Mozart horn concerto. And, to be accurate, the slow movements of a couple without obvious error. I even won that competition in Yorkshire when just 12.

For that momentary brush with the hem of the musical gods’ raiment I always thought that I could count myself blessed: it was not fame nor fortune but it was a quantifiably better condition than most people in human history might have hoped for. Even within my own extended family, the only other person to have reportedly graced the public with musical performance was a bugler in the Northampton Boys Brigade. With my horn I’d somehow defied, if only for a little while, a more philistine destiny.

For reasons that are very complicated, I stopped playing the horn aged 18, two years after the only available teacher in the district moved away. I continue to dwell on this fact because of my faith that it may well illuminate the difficulties we all face in adhering to the protocols necessary to succeed in a complex discipline; we need a better understanding of fallibility if we are to create robustness.

The consequence of my giving up the horn (or was it the horn giving up me?) was that both metaphorically and neurologically some musical pathways became sadly overgrown; I lost that knowledge of music “from the inside”.  More recently, however, when I took the horn out and went through the warm-ups recommended in a manual that I acquired back in 2001 during an earlier attempt to reopen those paths, I reached a top B: that is, the B above third line C. There was even a hint (though not a full tone) of top C itself. Whether it is just over the summer holidays, or a period of 25 years, the extent of that overgrowth will be different: your mileage may vary (or YMMV, as they like to say on Twitter).

As a technology of inspiration for mid-life extension, Janacek would command a five-star review. A spiky character, his career was marked by relative obscurity until he was around 50, whereafter it took off. Unusually for a composer, his work got better and better until he died. I’m just about to start reading his biography, The Lonely Blackbird.

Oh, and before I forget, the music shop called today to say that the sheet music for On An Overgrown Path has just arrived.

Following VIII. Unutterable Anguish, is IX. In Tears.

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I managed to live over 40 years without ever consciously hearing the word “pianism“.  And perhaps that explains why there is no appropriate Wikipedia entry. Then again, maybe this is a genuine example of social media failure.  How can it be that a word that describes the technique of playing one of the most transformative musical inventions of all time has not been covered yet by one of us wisdomofcrowdshivemindtypewritermonkeys?

If I follow the logic of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, it is actually my fault there is no entry for pianism; being the first person to have discovered the chasm in the wikicrust, I should have done my social media duty and filled it in with what passes for the aggregate of my knowledge so that others following would not stumble into the same psychotic abyss.  Instead, selfishly, I thought I’d share this glaring absence with you my few friends for a bit of a snigger.  But you are probably not sniggering, except perhaps at my archness, which, after all this time, I’m a little disappointed that you’re not accustomed to yet.

In mitigation, social media delivered me a gem just the other day: one of those recycled gems that litter the digital steppe.  Via some path I can’t now recall, I ended up on Amazon reading a DVD review that immediately and uncharacteristically prompted me, Pavlov-canine-like, to click “Add to Shopping Basket“, surreptitiously bypassing the obligatory cooling off period in “Wish List“:

My title [One of the Most Extraordinary Piano Films Ever Made] applies primarily to the 1965 black and white film of Alexis Weissenberg playing Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, amazingly creatively filmed in Stockholm by Åke Falck. I remember seeing this film on TV almost forty years ago and the memory of it has stayed with me ever since. I am so pleased finally to have a copy of that marvellous film. Weissenberg was in his early thirties at the time and at the very height of his considerable form. The views provided by Falck are highly unusual but each has a clear intention of adding to our enjoyment of the music by showing us in closeup both the hands of Weissenberg and the movements of the mechanism of the piano; the camera actually almost climbs inside the piano. The whole thing is filmed with high-key contrast. This is one of the great piano films ever made.

Having confessed to an ignorance of pianism, I am not, however, going to reveal here that I had not heard of Alexis Weissenberg either, nor ever knowingly listened to Petrushka (orchestral or piano version). So don’t ask.

About 18 months ago, I did finally come across this word “pianism”, and on Saturday mornings now I sometimes get to observe it (albeit at my own not inconsiderable expense) being painstakingly transferred from one generation to another.  But I would not dare create a wiki based on these fly-on-the-wall insights.

The other day too, I overheard someone say that, in contrast to the guitar, the piano always sounds like the piano.  Reining in my passion for contradiction I said nothing, even though I was sure that couldn’t be right.  Pianism is about making the instrument sound like all sorts of things that it is not.  A little way in to the Petrushka, the piano does stop sounding like a piano (around 1 minute 35 seconds). In the DVD “extras” Weissenberg too makes an argument that the sounds a piano can make defy the physics of hammer hitting strings. (Ironically, you will find out if you buy it that to film the Petrushka they had to use playback and build a piano without strings).

By other miracles, the copyright owners appear to have provided this enticement for your limbic system. Neurologically speaking, and pace Clay Shirky, the definitive book on pianism might be subtitled How Change Happens When People Spend A lot of Time On Their Own.

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On Friday I had a NASA scientist lying around the house, so I encouraged the youngest Chip off the Old Hack to take him into class for a bit of show and tell. There was a moment of struggle, with some muttering about being an engineer and not a scientist. But through my finely calibrated manoeuvring of a Ford Galaxy, the Eagle landed at T minus 10 mins, with USB memory stick in pocket, loaded with images for an estimated 15-minute presentation. Eager questioning from 32 curious nine-year-olds turned this into more than an hour. One small step…

In my capacity as taxi-driver and provider of rocket fuel, I facilitated a prime-time public service. What goes around doesn’t necessarily come around, however; searching the TV schedules yesterday for child-friendly space programmage led into the void.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter any more. You should just record stuff. Later in the evening the documentary/drama Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 came on, but this overlapped later on and after midnight with In The Shadow Of The Moon. This I managed to record to PC, along with two mistaken hours of “live” Big Brother and a Whoopi Goldberg movie. There goes the hard drive. But, if it was worth putting a man on the moon, forty years later you might reasonably expect the public service broadcasters to do a better job, particularly to inspire kids on the road to knowledge acquisition.

But don’t despair. Sometimes that which is lost and broken resurfaces. The BBC did perform its civic duty on Saturday morning by interviewing film director Theo Kamecke. He had been invited by NASA to make a so-called time-capsule documentary of the Apollo 11 mission. Even NASA’s PR seemed to understand that it would get ignored once it appeared, because the public would by then be all mooned out. And so it was. Languishing for nearly four decades, Moonwalk One was rediscovered by the makers of In The Shadow Of The Moon. It has been given a digital dusting off and released on a collectable DVD.

CNN provides three minutes with Kamecke here, where he talks about the smell of fear and the contribution of little old ladies to the space race:-

[16.01.10 Addendum: the video above  seems to have been withdrawn, but a full video of Moonwalk One looks  like it was made available in the past 10 days, and so is now pasted below.]

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The idea of the egg and spoon race was, I’m guessing, to teach children balance, poise and concentration versus speed. Handicap all participants with a brittle object so that they develop a skill other than moving fast; break the egg and, as the computer says, Game Over. Heuristically speaking, slow and steady wins the race.

But various concerns, such as the risk of salmonella, forced the real egg in the egg-and-spoon race to withdraw. Its place was taken by the hard-boiled, ceramic or wooden egg, even the surrogate potato or stone. Casting notions of fragility aside, winning now depends on the participant navigating the course fastest with only the closest approximation to following the rules whilst under observation: a very different competition, more akin to modern banking.

Perhaps educationalists should think twice (another heuristic?) before deciding to dilute an educational activity to the point where its original purpose is lost. There may be another post on this subject in which we will investigate together a new sports day phenomenon: the synthetic sack race, where you find that the winner, in a surprise turn of events, is your local supermarket.

Back in the classroom, sheltering from the rain, other rules of thumb are sitting in the corner with the dunce’s hat on.  Michael Quinion, who runs the site and email list World Wide Words and has just published Why is Q Always Followed by U?: Word-Perfect Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Language, points to a recent document sent to all primary schools in which the government is now recommending that the spelling rule “i before e except after c” no longer be taught because it doesn’t work. Quinion takes exception for pragmatic reasons, rather than bemoaning a fall in standards as the Opposition has. He says that, while not universal, it is a small, useful aid on the journey to good spelling. In fact, he notes from the document itself that there is a refined definition of the rule that delivers even fewer exceptions: “i before e except after c when the sound is ee”. The point is that the rule is approximate, and there is a subsidiary learning process in absorbing the exceptions to the rule.

I’ll take Quinion’s word for it on its value in spelling: it helped me. But there may be another reason not to drop so readily a rule of thumb that has proven its worth to so many generations of children, whether you are in the business of advocating spelling reform or not. The teaching to children of how to apply rules of thumb may itself be a useful pedagogical exercise for our modern times, and perhaps is even a first order imperative; the kids would be better equipped to face a complex future than we turned out to be. If I have this right, rules of thumb can work very well for those who will never master quantitative methods. Moreover, rules of thumb can operate as an antidote for those whose mastery of the quantitative, or dependence on the technological, makes them slaves to the same; something liable to get them, and the rest of us, into trouble.

Maybe schools are doing this anyway, and it’s just that I’m not seeing it yet. My gut feeling is that they are not.

Well, even from the giddiest of academic heights there does seem to be a problem according heuristics the respect they deserve. This is what Dan Goldstein at Decision Science News wrote recently:-

All smart statisticians use rules of thumb. DSN has noticed that as soon as one statistician codifies or pronounces a rule of thumb, smart alecs come along with special cases that violate the rule thereby “proving” the rule and the person who articulated it “wrong”. (Smart alecs love to pretend that those who impart rules of thumb are so dumb as to believe that the rules work in all circumstances).

This leads me, if not you, back to Quinion, and an entry in his earlier book Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths on the subject of the phrase “the exception that proves the rule,” a phrase often uttered by smart alecs in the corollary to Dan’s example i.e. when they themselves might have been otherwise proved wrong. Quinion shows how this is a corruption of its original meaning, wrapped as it is in heuristic value.  The phrase really comes from a medieval Latin legal principle:-

exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

Which Quinion translates for me as:-

the exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted

In practice, what this means is that when you see a sign “Parking prohibited on Saturdays” you are seeing an exception to a rule which can be inferred as “parking is allowed at all other times”.

In the meantime, I note that the heuristics literature has always had its skeptics:-

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