Saturday, January 26, 2008

Musings on Gearheads

by JW

I have never been a double bass gearhead. Even in the times of my life when I was thinking about music and bass 24/7, I was always more interested in talking about phrasings, musical ideas, technique pointers, fingerings, and bowings than I was in talking about rosin, strings, setup, string action, bows and basses. In my student days I was often dismissive of the gearhead crowd. "Why don't they just practice instead of yakking about the latest Flexocors?" I would think. I imagined myself inhabiting a more idealized world of "pure" music-making while they concerned themselves with the minutiae of bass mechanics.

With age comes (at least a little) wisdom, and today I have much more respect for the gearheads. Part of this came when I finally purchased a bass that was really easy to play solos on. For years I had played solos on my big orchestra bass, and I figured that any difficulties I experienced were the result of my own inadequacies as a player. Then I found out that I could play solos amazingly well once I had an instrument that really worked for solo playing... This may seem like a big "duh!" to some of you, but it was a surprise to me. I think this was at least partially because I didn't really trust my solo playing for a long time and couldn't imagine that it was my equipment holding me back.

Playing bass is a physical act, and to realize my idealized musical goals I need to consider what tools I need to use to accomplish them. That includes basses, strings, bows, rosin, endpins, but most importantly, it includes my own body. When I use my body in a natural and efficient way, not only do I keep myself from getting injured, I also am able to be the best musician I can be. Good music making involves both understanding and hearing the idealized concepts that we want to create and making sure that all of the physical elements we use go into creating that ideal performance are a help and not a hindrance.

In future posts I'll return to some of these concepts...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept: This is Your Brain on Music

by JW

For my first PBDB book review, I thought I'd alert readers to this fascinating description of the little-understood world of exactly what is happening inside our heads when we hear music. Perhaps an even more interesting (and less understood) element of this book is author Dan Levitin's discussion of the "Why" of music: what, if any, purposes has music served for human beings in our evolutionary history?

Levitin's career trajectory gives him some unusual perspectives on all these things. After many years as a producer and engineer of rock and pop records in the 70's and 80's, he became a neuroscientist and leading researcher on music and the brain. He is clearly a fan of almost all styles of music, and takes great pains to mention examples from almost every genre throughout the book.

I was fascinated by Levitin's descriptions of recent groundbreaking studies of how we perceive, remember, and react to music. It turns out that music interacts with and relates to many of the oldest and most basic parts of our brains, including areas that involve movement and coordination, and sections that process basic emotions. This is mysterious from an evolutionary perspective, since no one knows precisely what evolutionary purpose music serves. Why have we developed such complex and finely tuned mechanisms for processing it? Levitin points out that our brain's ability to transpose melodies to different pitches (while still recognizing them as the same melody) is one of the great mysteries of cognitive research. The computing ability required for our brains to do this is beyond the abilities of the most complex supercomputers, yet a person with no musical training at all can sing "Happy Birthday" starting on any pitch with no problems.

As with so many areas of brain research, what we don't know about this topic turns out to far exceed what we do know. Levitin is working on the leading edge of one of the greatest areas of scientific discovery of our lifetimes, and it's fun to ride along with him as he outlines what we know so far and how little we do know.

That said, I have to alert the (mostly) musician readership of this blog to an occasionally annoying problem with the book. Levitin is clearly writing for a general audience, and he spends about a quarter to a third of the book describing and explaining the basic features of music - pitch, timbre, rhythm, etc. He knows he is going over things that his musical readership probably already knows, and he does put most of this material into two chapters (which he invites musician readers to skim). Still, I often had to wade through some Music 101 sections in the rest of the book to get to the "good stuff" about the brain. Conversely, I often felt that Levitin would spend too little time if any explaining the technical terms and neuropsychological jargon that he uses. When you have waded through an entire section on what a backbeat is, and are later confronted with a sentence like:

Music for the developing brain is a form of play, an exercise that invokes higher-level integrative processes that nurture exploratory competence, preparing the child to explore generative language development through babbling, and ultimately explore more complex linguistic and paralinguistic productions.

that has little or no explanation of the various terms invoked, you can't help but feel like the author might be assuming too little music knowledge and a bit too much neuroscience knowledge on the part of his readers. If he is truly writing for a general audience (and he clearly is), he could have spent a little more time making sure that the science is as clearly explained as the music is.

That said, I still found this book an enjoyable and informative read, and encourage you to check it out. It gives me a new appreciation for the power that music exerts over us, and for how mysterious that power still is, even to the most brilliant scientists.

I'll leave you with a fascinating excerpt from the book. Levitin is asking what makes for an expert musician as opposed to an inexpert or unskilled one. Is it some sort of brain feature that others lack? He reviews some recent studies and concludes:

The emerging picture from these studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, Ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn't address why some people don't seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. but no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know and achieve true mastery.

How far along are you to getting your ten thousand in? Let's all get back to work!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Great article on "The Talk"

by JW

I recently discovered this great post by violinist and blogger Holly Mulcahy about the experience of giving her first "Talk" to a student. I remember how strange it felt to go from "Talk" recipient to "Talk" giver...

The next stage for me after the one Holly describes so well has been actually seeing some of the students that I gave the "Talk" to going out into the world and making their way in music. They have all run into all the challenges and difficulties of life as a working musician that I warned them about. Some are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of success, while others feel that have met or exceeded their original career goals and are very satisfied and happy. But for me, as a teacher, I'm happy I gave them all the "Talk" and I recommend it for anyone teaching a student who wants a career in music. The more a young musician understands the good and bad sides of this profession, the better they can reach a decision about what music means to them, and the more they can enjoy music for their entire life.

After all, whether you're an amateur or a professional, shouldn't that be the whole point?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Mock Day Part III: What are We Looking For?

by JW

Happy New Year to all! PBDB is back from our holiday hiatus. We've got some good stuff coming for early 2008, including some photo and video posts, book reviews, and maybe even some liveblogging of Peabody Audition Week in all its awesome glory. For now, here's my final post on Mock Day.

After all of the What and How of Mock Day, it's time to look at the Why. What's the point of all this and what are we looking for from the students when they play?

First, we should describe some things we're not looking for. We're not looking for whether the student is ready to win a professional orchestra audition. We know in advance that many of the students simply aren't yet ready as players to reach that level. We do let students know how close they are to that level on each excerpt, but it isn't a requirement for an A. We also aren't looking to see which student "wins" or is the best player that day. Each student is only auditioning against their own abilities and potential, not against any other student's playing. We don't even expect every student to be able to play all of the excerpts at a performance tempo yet.

So what are the things we want to see on Mock Day?

- The most important by far is that we see HARD WORK. We want to hear that students know what their problem areas are and are orienting their practicing towards improving in these areas. This can often be seen in what students choose for their performance tempi. If a student who I know is struggling with their spiccato stroke takes a particular excerpt under tempo in order to maintain good bow technique, I give them a good mark for being willing to do what they need to do to build their technique. As Paul says, "If you are working as hard as you can in rep class you will earn an A. If you aren't working as hard as you can, you should ask yourself if Peabody is the right place for you."

- We are also looking for a sense that the students understand what is called for in each excerpt in terms of dynamics, bow strokes, and basic style and phrasing. Even if they don't have total mastery of it yet, we want to see that they know what they're aiming for. If, after having several classes on the Bach Badinerie from the 2nd Orchestral Suite, a student plays it like it's a lost Strauss tone poem, I begin to wonder whether they were paying attention in class...

- We want to see how well the student copes with nerves. We try to make the whole experience very similar to a real audition. We use a screen, and also do not allow the students to speak to us during their audition. The list of excerpts to be played is not posted until the day of Mocks. All these things combine to create an anxiety-inducing environment, which helps students see how they will react and practice managing those feelings effectively.

- And finally, of course we are looking for the things that would matter in any orchestral audition: intonation, rhythm, sound, musicality, and consistency and accuracy. In the end, that's what it's ultimately about for all of us. Students are here to acquire and internalize these very skills.

I hope this little series has demystified some of the process that a school like Peabody uses to teach orchestral excerpts. If you're a student at a music school right now, you most likely have an orchestral class not unlike this. If you don't, and you are interested in a musical career involving orchestra playing of any sort, I respectfully suggest that you find out why not! As I wrote here, we all need to learn how to audition well to be able to work in the orchestral field, and studying excerpts systematically is an important part of this process for most of us.