The Casual Blog

Tag: music

Music therapy, and looking for new bugs

My work days are often nonstop meetings, calls, and electronic documents about new technologies and difficult problems, and for several hours my left brain is going at full throttle. I like the intensity, but there are a lot of stress hormones. Without a dose of classical music after work, I’d likely redline and blow up. Playing the piano, even for just a half hour, is like a warm, soothing bath.


One of the pieces back on my musical workbench is Liszt’s famous Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude. (There’s also some Schubert, Chopin, and Debussy.) I’ve been infatuated by the Liszt piece for a long time, but discouraged from committing to it by two things. First, it has some daunting technical demands, including reaches and stretches that are awkward and even painful. Olga, my teacher, suggested a (to me) non-obvious way of refingering to avoid the worst stretches, and I’ve been working out the details of the new approach.

The other blocker is the length. Most of the piano music I try to master and embody is on the short side by classical standards – under 6 minutes, which I view as pushing the limits of attention spans for most non-specialists. Benediction comes in at around 16 minutes. But what minutes! It’s very lyrical, elaborated by Liszt’s rich harmonies, and conceived with the piano’s singing qualities in mind. Here’s a couple of good and interestingly different performances from YouTube here and here

We’ve been particularly enjoying listening to music since we had our stereo system reworked last week. This was not entirely optional. Our former system involved in-wall and under-floor connections, which ceased working properly after our new floors were installed. Dr. Video, who installed the system, advised that fixing it would be quite expensive. We eventually decided to reposition the speakers on the large bookshelf, and powered them with a Yamaha R-700 receiver tucked in an adjacent closet. The speakers – two NHT Class Threes and a subwoofer – sounded good before, but with the new position and more power, they sound excellent.

We inaugurated the new sound set up with Harmonielehre, a piece for orchestra by the contemporary American composer John Adams. This is one of my favorite orchestral pieces of all time, and that’s including all the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. It manages to cover an enormous emotional range, from a bouncy and cheery to fiery and fierce to wistful and contemplative. The harmonic language is mostly tonal, but with piquant dissonances, and the rhythm manages to seem propulsive and natural, though it is anything but simple. It takes you on the journey of discovery, much as Mahler does. I have the version by the City of Birmingham Symphony, but various other are available on Youtube and Spotify. I highly recommend giving it a listen.

Another great stress reliever is a walk through the woods and around a lake. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I went to Umstead and Lake Crabtree parks and moved slowly, looking closely in the grasses and bushes for interesting insects. Most of the little creatures I saw did not hang around long enough to have their pictures taken, but I got a few shots I liked.

A forced break from piano playing, and thoughts on autodidacts and other learners

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After work on Friday I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to check on the flowers and insects. The rose garden was gone – nothing there but dirt. But there were still plenty of things growing, and bees and other insects hard at work. I particularly liked this uninhibited butterfly.
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It’s been a whole month now that I’ve been unable to play the piano. I’ve been following my hand doctor’s orders and keeping my fingers taped up, hoping that the torn ligament serving the middle finger of my right hand will heal. Practicing the piano every day is a habit of many years. While I wouldn’t say I’m going through withdrawal, I certainly don’t feel as happy and balanced as usual. Piano music is a big part of my life, and I miss it.

But I’m trying to stay positive. The hand will get better eventually, probably. And I’ve used some of the time freed up from practicing to do ear training exercises that should make me a better musician. I had some exposure to these in my student days, and learned enough to pass the theory course, but not enough to feel really competent. The reason I didn’t do more was, it’s more work than fun. But I see now how a richer understanding of intervals and harmony could help me as a sight reader and interpreter.

Anyhow, I’m learning something. It feels normal to me to continually be learning new things. I tend to think that being curious and having the stamina and gumption required to take on new intellectual challenges is itself a gift, bequeathed by my parents and their ancestors, and also a product of my friends, teachers, and the books and other information that shaped me. But how it works, and why not everyone gets it, are mysteries.
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There was a piece in Slate this week about education that suggested folks like me were outliers, “autodidacts,” and part of a minority able to learn without teachers, classrooms, and surrounding students. I suppose that’s possible. But I did not agree with the author’s premise that schools as they currently exist are optimal learning environments for most people. I suspect that as often as not schools destroy kids’ natural love of learning and at the same time fail to give them the tools they need to pursue their own learning paths.

So what is the best way to learn? Scientific American this month had a piece on recent research on this. The central idea was that we’ve done very little research into the most effective methods of helping people to learn. Instead we simply keep repeating traditional methods. The field of science-based education methods is still in its infancy, but there’s already enough to suggest that a lot of our methods are not very effective, and that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
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Listening to the Tokyo String Quartet for the last time

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert of the Tokyo String Quartet. It was a wonderful concert by one of the world’s great chamber music groups, After 44 years, the TSQ is calling it quits after this season, so I don’t expect I’ll hear them again. It made me listen with more-than-usual concentration. They played Haydn’s quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, Webern’s five pieces Op. 5, and Schubert’s Quarter in G Major, Op. 161, D. 887.

It was such a privilege to hear these master musicians performing such great music. The group performed on Stradivarius instruments made in the early 18th century and collected by Niccolo Paganini for his own performances. Paganini loved the viola in this group he commissioned a work by Berlioz that featured it. I’ve wondered at times if the Stradivarius name was overhyped, but the sound of these instruments as individuals was gorgeous, and together they were stunningly beautiful. I particularly loved the cello, which sounded to me as rich as I’ve always imagined a cello could sound.

I particularly loved the Schubert, which has one of the most beautiful cello melodies ever written. If you do not know the piece, you should sample it. Here’s a performance on YouTube by the Skampa quartet. The TSQ’s performance was brilliant and very moving. I got major goosebumps.

As valuable as recordings are, they are no substitute for a live performance. At my last piano lesson, Olga and I discussed this. She’s drilled me in the importance of considering each tiny detail of the music, thinking about the many different ways each note could be approached, and planning out each aspect of each gesture. After all that, I was surprised to hear her say that she expected that each time we play a piece, it will be different. Each piano is different, the acoustics of each room are different, and we’ll have different feelings each time. The master musician is not a CD player.

I don’t think this is a well understood aspect of the classical tradition. I once heard an interview with James Levine (the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera), in which he said that a recorded performance was to live performance as a postcard of the Grand Canyon was to the actual Grand Canyon. I thought he meant that the sound was different, but he may have meant what Olga meant: master musicians are making unique music at a particular moment in their lives and ours, responding to subtle variables that will never again recur.

Your brain on music

Why do we love music? The question has always bothered me. There’s no doubt that music is a powerful force, but how does it work? It seems like a fundamental human activity, practiced in every society now and as far back as we have knowledge. As a thoroughgoing Darwinist, I assume musical activity must confer some evolutionary advantage, like being able to throw a spear well or make a fire. But it’s by no means obvious what music contributes to survival, or even what it does to make us happier.

For a philosophically inclined musician, that’s troubling. The question has a moral aspect. We can use our limited energy in various ways, with various positive or negative outputs. We can, for example, help feed the poor, ignore the poor, or rob the poor, and the choice partially defines us. If we’re making music, and not feeding the poor or doing some equally valuable thing, how can we justify it?

Last week I learned of a study that gave a new perspective on these questions. Neurologists at McGill University did brain imaging using PET and fMRI techniques that established that the music can cause the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released in the brian. Dopamine is part of the deep reward system involving the limbic system. It makes it pleasurable for individuals to do things that are good for the species, like eating and having sex. In other words, dopamine is connected to key behaviors, and drives those behaviors.

So in some sense, music is as significant as eating and sex. We can do without any of those things, at least for a while, but they are fundamental to human animals as a whole. This doesn’t answer the basic why questions of music, but it suggests the possibility of an answer. At any rate, it shows that music can be something powerful.

The McGill researchers found that dopamine release levels vary with different kinds of music, and related those variations to the what they called “chills,” and I call goosebumps. So not all music is created equal. I’ve developed as my own test for when music is most effective the monitor of when it makes a lot of goosebumps. Thanks to the neurologists for a new way of thinking about this amazing thing.

A musical dinner party

We had a small dinner party on Saturday night for some old friends. Sally put a lot of thought and work into the food, and I organized the music, including both recordings and some of my own piano playing. I’ve come to think that a musician’s work is inherently social. This isn’t completely obvious, since so much of the work consists of individual, solitary practice. It is possible to enjoy music alone, although even this has a social aspects, since it involves interacting with the musical ideas of others (composers, editors, previous performers).

But a musician’s conception that doesn’t get communicated is not quite complete. It’s like a meal prepared with infinite care which no one tastes. Listeners complete the musical circuit that runs from abstract idea to human emotion. Just as a meal is just an abstraction if it isn’t eaten, a musical conception isn’t really music until someone listens.

So I was happy that our friends let me share with them some of my musical ideas regarding Chopin and Debussy. I played the Minute Waltz, the D flat Nocturne (Op. 27, No. 2), and Clair de Lune, and managed to make some beautiful sonorities. There were some memory lapses, which I was not pleased about, but I recognized them as minor and didn’t get discombobulated.

Having listeners always changes the musician’s mental processing. It can cause greater inspiration and concentration, but it also causes greater stress, and sometimes system failure. The possibility of losing one’s grip and falling is part of the business of climbing, and the possibility of losing one’s place is part of the business of musical performance. It is strange, though, when it happens. The keys suddenly look completely unfamiliar, and the hands are paralyzed with uncertainty. It’s a terrible feeling. But it happens, and the only thing to do is move on. Despite the problems, I was glad I made the effort, and grateful to my listeners for completing the musical circuit.

Sally’s cooking was delicious, and there was plenty of laughter and lively conversation. Tony Judt, the historian and author of Postwar (a great book about the aftermath of WW II) who died of ALS last week, once said that talking was the point of adult experience. It certainly is a great pleasure to talk with kindred spirits about things we care about passionately.

At work last week I took a short class on the subject of “crucial conversations,” which was about how to communicate better when stakes and emotions are high. The class included a little film by a middle schooler who replicated Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment. In the experiment, the subject is told that there is a test of visual perception, and asked to compare the length of one straight line to another. The subject hears several people who are secretly in on the experiment give answers that are clearly wrong, and then, most often, agrees with the clearly wrong answer. The point is, most people go along with the group, even when they think the group is wrong. Those who are willing to trust their own perceptions and buck the group are a minority.

Why does this happen? Is it intellectual insecurity? The fear of being ostracized? It’s possible to imagine a certain evolutionary advantage might accrue to those that maintained stable groups with uniform, though wrong, ideas, so that their band was more effective in hunting, say, the woolly mammoth. But it’s also possible that a huge evolutionary disadvantage from group think that prevented admitting and addressing such global problems as the disastrous war on drugs or global warming from CO2 emissions.

Whether we admit it or not, we all struggle with the pressure to conform to the group, but some of us put up more of a fight than others. Our friends would probably be in the minority of Asch’s test subjects that was willing to go against the grain and voice their true thoughts. It makes for much more lively conversation. Before we knew it, four hours had flown by, and it was time to say good night.

An Xmas Carol

As a nonbeliever, I feel a deep ambivalence about Christmas.  The customs and traditions are strongly evocative of a many happy episodes in my childhood — longed-for toys, rich food, friendship and love.  But it also evokes memories and feeling of sadness and loss for loved ones now gone, who were integral to those early years.

And I’m deeply ambivalent at the sweet and absurd idea of Santa Claus.  The red felt suit, the jolliness, the limitless generosity are all great ideas.  But even now, I feel a slight bitterness and chagrin that my normally reliable and credible parents, when I put the “Is he really real?” question  to them squarely, gave some type of yes and set me up to make a fool of myself in defending the existence of Santa to the neighborhood kids.  I trusted them to tell the truth!  There may be, as recent studies suggest, some value in Santa for developing children’s imaginative powers.  But for me, even years later, there was a cost in terms of injured trust.  My Mom’s solution was to let me read the old chestnut Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, which proposes to escape the problem of no Santa by redefining Santa as the Christmas spirit.  Really?

I know I’m not the only one with complicated feelings about Christmas.  Some love the shopping and the happy surprises, some love the story of the baby Jesus, some love being with family.  With all the pain and confusion in the world, I have no wish to add to the store without good reason.  I usually keep a low profile about my own irreligion, and especially so at Christmas time, when it seems that Christian beliefs are  for many on balance a source of joy.  But I don’t like flying under false colors, and I feel less than forthright when I say Merry Christmas.  There’s no problem with “merry,” but I don’t care to suggest I’m on board with the Christ part.  I usually go with “happy holidays” or something like that, but really, that just doesn’t sound as happy.  Yet another problem with no good solution.

Still, yesterday, after playing some really rich and beautiful music of Debussy, I found myself digging through the bottom of the music pile for my rarely used Xmas sheet music, and without any particular internal discussion I was soon playing through some favorite carols of my youth:  Angels We have Heard on High, Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the Chipmunk Song.  It was a bit like Proust’s madeleine:  memories of family gatherings caroling, happy shopping, beginner band concerts, presents, vacations from schoolwork, trips to see grandparents, fresh smelling decorated trees, wrapping presents, and houses smelling of fresh-baked cookies hit me all at once.  I felt the pure childlike joy of Christmas.

The “classical” music problem

    When I was a student at Oberlin College, I knew a good many people who loved “classical” music (that is, broadly, the art music that began in Europe in the late 16th century).   I assumed back then that this would always be the case.   The music itself had managed to endure for substantial periods (more than 200 years for Bach, more than 100 years for Brahms, more than 50 years for Bartok).  Within the western high art musical tradition, there were vast troves of riches – many sub-traditions,  many genres, and within those genres, many styles, and many many nuances.   It was, clearly, inexhaustible.  And when, as a student of that music, I penetrated some of its depths, I found it got richer and richer.  I assumed that, as I got older, this would continue, not just for me but for others, and I would encounter more and more people with this same passion. 

    As it turned out, I was partly right.  My own musical tastes have broadened in terms of geography, periods, and genre (e.g. salsa, jazz, techno, hip hop, etc.), but I continue to find the western tradition a source of inspiration and happiness.  In fact, in recent years, I’ve found myself even more susceptible to its power – more prone to get goosebumps or misty eyes from a great performance.  I was wrong, though, in assuming that I’d gradually find more people who cared about this music.  There are a few, and I treasure them, but only a few. 

    I am sorry this is so.  This is not because I dislike being in a minority.  Great music itself counteracts loneliness by connecting us — to other listeners, contemporary performers, and prior generations of musicians and audiences.  There’s human communion that’s inherent in intentional listening. 

      What bothers me is the loss of so much potential joy. So many people would be enriched by making this music a part of their lives.  This musical tradition has caught and preserved in written form a comprehensive catalog of thought and emotion.  Not only does it give joy and meaning to individual lives, but it embodies an important part of what it means to be human. 

      Our schools for the most part have given up on broad based music education, and the commercial “classical” world has not done well in inviting in those without a basic grounding.  The customs of the ordinary American symphony orchestra – the dress, the silence, and ritualized clapping at specific intervals (and nowhere else) – are far from inviting to the uninitiated.   

     What is to be done?  Well, more listening, of course, but also more thinking and talking.  I highly recommend Benjamin Zander’s Ted Talks video   It is a great introduction to the subject and explains  in about 15 minutes why this music matters.  Hint:  it’s about our deepest feelings.