Archive for the 'latent talent' Category

overgrown paths

03Dec09

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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No tag for this post.

Down in the comments of an earlier music post I dug up a seminal BBC documentary about Richard Feynman.  I must have seen it when it first came out.  I recommend you plug your computer into the TV, sit down and watch it with any children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces or godchildren; there may be no greater gift.  A few minutes in he says this:

When you are thinking about something that you don’t understand you have a terrible, uncomfortable feeling called ‘confusion’. It’s a very difficult and unhappy business.  So, most of the time you are rather unhappy, actually, with this confusion.  You can’t penetrate this thing.  Now, is the confusion… is it because we are all some kind of apes that are kind of stupid working against this? Trying to figure out to put the two sticks together to reach the banana and we can’t quite make it? …the idea ? And I get that feeling all the time: that I am an ape trying to put two sticks together.  So I always feel stupid. Once in a while, though, everything — the sticks — go together on me and I reach the banana.”

Last Journey of a Genius

When it came to deciding on a business card for the blog, there must have been some spooky action operating at a distance, for this is what we came up with.

Knackered Hack

Long-time readers will remember my own grappling with bananas only to find that, as usual, I was thwarted. Parce que…

it is not a banana

banana photo credit -eko-

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A recent controversial report from the University of Buckingham found that UK schools specialising in music produce better physics results than those specialising in science. And then education watchdog Ofsted reported that half of the schools it had inspected lacked adequate provision for music education, that music teachers felt marginalized or isolated and did not receive the developmental opportunities they needed.

A couple of years ago Howard Goodall — who in this country is fast becoming to music what David Attenborough is to natural history — was given £10 million to expand the use of singing across the curriculum in primary schools. It was highlighted then that singing could be instrumental in the learning of a variety of subjects but that many teachers lacked confidence to deliver any musical experience at all for their students. A further £40 million or so seems now to have gone into the Sing-Up campaign.

Where teacher confidence is absent, I understand there are cascading techniques to spread music from older to younger children. Perhaps the Sing-Up promotional video hints at that:-

When something’s not working, or some kind of competitive differentiation is needed, there is a strategy (described by Scott Page) called “do the opposite“. So here’s a wild idea. Why don’t we give Howard Goodall the entire national education budget, not just £50 million, and then see what happens? I’d bet things would not get worse. And there’s an outside chance we’d solve many more of our educational difficulties than our current pragmatic approach, in particular the social problems that arise from the inability of barely literate children to take their proper place in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.

A whole chapter in a book of knackeredness could be devoted to the brokenness of modern musical experience. Music tends these days to be consumed rather than practised. The neat thing about Sing-Up is that it seems to be using technology to reverse this.

The institutions for participation in music are rightly or wrongly mostly organized by the classical music tradition, because that is where the majority of skills to perform and teach resides. But there exists now a kind of philistinism that has separated this world from the bulk of the population, as parents (and I suspect many teachers) prefer something more familiar and accessible (to them) from the world of pop. But in the past, whether it was colliery bands, or church choirs, quite serious music could be a source of social cohesion and, for the able person, a technology for social mobility.

Teaching children songs is a gift they keep for a lifetime, but the repertoire on offer seems to be diminishing. Sing-Up has its own Song Bank of high quality musical assets, which parents as well as schools can draw on. No matter how much music of whatever genre gets played at home, when a child really learns a song so that they can sing it out loud, and with others,  something more than just notes and words are rehearsed: a whole neurological, physiological and social complex gets activated. (Don’t tell anyone, but computer games, even I suspect Guitar Hero, don’t do that.)

When I was in primary school, the very flamboyant cathedral organist cruised in once a week in his rather incongruous metallic lime green Ford Mustang Mach I complete with thunderous tailpipes. We crowded his arrival, and believed, apocryphally, that this exotic vehicle (for small-town Yorkshire c1972) contained its very own mobile phone. He taught us folk songs from across the centuries, and from a standard school songbook. What a breath of fresh air if every child these days could sing the following paean to human fragility; it was my favourite.You wouldn’t catch a self-respecting pop musician touching that material these days, now would you?

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French Horn Close UpWhat has the French Horn to do with the science of uncertainty? The Economist review of journalist Jasper Rees’s book I Found My Horn may have nailed it.  The book chronicles Rees’s mid-life crisis in which he picked up his childhood instrument rather than running a marathon ;-) .  It’s now being published in the US as A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument.  More pertinently, a play starring co-writer Jonathan Guy Lewis opens this very night on the London stage.

What makes the horn quite so hard to play is the length of tubing necessary to produce its tonal range; despite three valves, it is very easy to hit the wrong note, or fall off the right one. There’s a level of doubt about each outcome that does not trouble other musicians to quite the same degree.  Even professional orchestral players are more exposed than most to public musical catastrophe, because of the horn’s expressive value to composers.  For this, among other reasons, horn players are considered a breed apart.  This is how Simon Rattle puts it:-

You never eyeball a horn player. You just don’t. They’re stuntmen. You don’t eyeball stuntmen when they’re about to dice with death.”

Given the Knackered Hack’s quest for antidotes to hubris, perhaps mastery of the horn (if that is not a contradiction in terms) should be considered an essential qualification for public or corporate office?  I’ve noticed that this website seems to attract a disproportionate number of horn players (at least two).  Perhaps there’s a connection? You can purchase a CD by one of those readers below.

[By way of full disclosure, the Knackered Hack was placed first in the under 12s brass section of the Harrogate Festival in 1976, performing the second movement of Mozart's Fourth Horn Concerto K495, cough... :oops: ]

Photo credit: vtengr4047

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music must-see

09Jun08

Just a public service announcement to readers in the UK with access to the BBC iPlayer and who missed the programme Imagine last week: Alan Yentob following in the footsteps of Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (US edition). There is just one day left to download it; you can then keep it for 30 days. Do it: it’s worth it. The streaming landing page is here.

I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with music over the past few years, not least trying to understand why I like what I like, how my tastes evolve, and what relationship there might be to my own cognitive function at different times. For example, for the past two months I’ve been listening almost exclusively to classical music radio, barely a CD and almost no pop.

The key points for us here in Imagine were the results of a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan of Alan Yentob’s brain while he listened to three different pieces of music: one that made him happy (Is This the Way to Amarillo), one that annoyed him (some angry heavy metal), and a piece with deep emotional significance for him (one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs sung by Jessye Norman (US version).

There were two unexpected results. One was that the first song didn’t annoy Yentob (OK, that was my conclusion). The second was that the fMRI scan showed Yentob’s brain literally “bathed in blood” during the most poignant musical choice; the first two songs activated regions of the brain more usually associated with music.

Then there was the autistic and blind pianist, Derek Paravicini, who’d come to music at an early age, and as an adult demonstrated extraordinary virtuosity — able to reproduce a piece of complex jazz immediately after hearing it for the first time.

But here you need to pay attention, because it was made plain — then sort of glossed over later by some Yentobian editorialising — that turning the early latent musical genius into what we saw on screen took years of patient mentoring by the music teacher; that his ability to express his musicality through the keyboard was painstakingly earned, and perhaps more so than for an unencumbered musician. The boy’s ability to coordinate and apply appropriate fingering had been deeply limited by his disabilities (blindness/autism). There is probably a whole separate programme here on the process of releasing latent talent, particularly among those with learning impairments.

Finally, a group of Tourette‘s syndrome sufferers, who displayed uncoordinated tics when gathered in a room, became immediately transformed and synchronised as musicians when they started a drumming exercise. This apparently supernatural effect suggests a deep-rooted social component to our experience of music, and one that I’ve sought out myself over the past few years as part of my own evolutionary fitness experiments. But I suspect my choirmaster would dispute how readily I become synchronised with my co-singers.

For those who can’t get the BBC, here are couple of YouTube’s. The first with Sacks talking about rhythm, and the second from Derek Paravicini’s website, which is ostensibly a UK TV documentary made specifically about him, featuring among others Jools Holland and Simon (not Sacha) Baron- Cohen.

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