Category Archives: Notes & News

Notes & News: Motivation, Festivals in the UK, and the Future of Classical Music

  • There’s a new organization in Great Britain (or new to me, anyway), The British and International Federation of Festivals. Focusing on events that provide performance opportunities for amateurs, they provide a wealth of information about organizing festivals, copyright and insurance concerns, publicity and discussion forms. Thanks to Melanie Spanswick for publicizing this worthy group.

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Notes & News: Memorizing and Improvising

Can You Memorize a Symphony…and should you bother?

stage_frightJessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in London, Ontario, has written an interesting article about musical memory in the latest issue of the BBC News Magazine.

The occasion is an upcoming BBC Proms concert at which the Aurora Orchestra will play Beethoven’s Symphony no.6, “Pastorale”, entirely from memory. An amazing feat, to be sure, but not totally without precedent.

Hans von Bülow, the legendary 19th-century pianist and conductor, turned a small orchestra from the miniscule German duchy of Saxe-Meiningen into the wonder of all Europe. At their first concert series in 1880, they played all nine Beethoven symphonies, as well as assorted other Beethoven works, completely from memory. On subsequent tours the Meiningen orchestra string section astounded audiences by playing the “Grosse Fugue” from Beethoven’s String Quartet op.133 (an extremely difficult work beyond the performance ability of some string quartets even today) from memory, while standing up. 1

Von Bülow, in his work as a piano soloist, had an equivocal attitude to playing from memory. One time, responding to critics who considered memorization a type of circus stunt which detracted from the music itself, he brought the musical score on-stage, placed it on the piano and proceeded to play the entire recital with the cover shut.

Critics skeptical of performing memorized music represented a negative view of memorization common earlier in the 19th century. Some even considered playing from memory an attempt to take credit for the composition of the piece itself.

Some modern research has seemed to indicate the benefits of memorization, 2 but others are not so sure. The British concert pianist Stephen Hough calls Liszt, one of the pioneers of playing from memory, “the man who invented stage fright”.

Grahn presents both sides. She expertly describes the research on brain activity demonstrating the increased activity in the hippocampus in musician’s brains, and the wide distribution across the brain of musical connections, as well as the problems some musicians experience performing from memory.

Is memorization a good idea? Only you can decide. Personally, I think it is overrated.

Improv Camp

Although I am primarily an old-fashioned, score-based piano teacher, I’m a firm believer that developing creativity in students is just as important as note reading. So I’m happy to inform you about a fun summer improve camp for teachers and adult pianists run by my good friends Bradley Soawash and Leila Viss. You know Brad from his many educational publications and articles in Clavier Companion; Leila also writes for Clavier Companion and has her own blog, which features some great ideas on using the iPad to spark creativity. They are sensitive to the issues faced by classical pianists learning to play “off the page”. More information here. I’d go myself if I had time.

Notes:

  1. More information about von Bülow’s astonishing life can be found in Alan Walker’s eminently readable Hans von Bülow, A Life and Times (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  2. Aaron Williamon, “The value of performing from memory”, Psychology of Music, 27 (1999), 84-95.

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Notes & News: Research on Brain Development

It’s been a hectic Spring! Many exciting performances by my students and of course lots of behind-the-scenes work by me. The Music Teachers National Association Conference in Las Vegas was wonderful, my “high-tech” masterclass there a big success, according to the evaluations. But I admit it: I’m behind. Let’s get caught up!

Music Lessons Improve Children’s Brains

Music teachers know this already but families, school administrators and politicians need to be reminded.

Everyone knows if I lift five-pound, ten-pound, fifteen-pound weights, my biceps will get bigger. The same is true for the brain. We shouldn’t be surprised we can train the brain.”

James Hudziak, Professor of Psychiatry

Researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine analyzed the brain scans of 232 children aged six-eighteen. They looked particularly for signs of accelerated brain development in those kids who studied a musical instrument.

BrainAccording to James Hudziak, director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, they found it. “…the more a child trained on an instrument, it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.”

Much of this group’s previous research had focused on issues of depression, aggression and attention problems. But not this time. “I wanted to look at positive things, what we believe benefits child development,” said Hudziak. “What I was surprised by was the emotional regulatory regions. Everyone knows if I lift five-pound, ten-pound, fifteen-pound weights, my biceps will get bigger. The same is true for the brain. We shouldn’t be surprised we can train the brain.”

On a charming side note, Dr. Hudziak reports that he has started taking viola lessons himself, at the age of 56. He describes his skills in this area as “horrible.”

Here’s a link to the study.

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Notes & News: Contest by TakeLessons, and New Programs at Bard College

Of musical interest, from around the web:

  • TakeLessons.com has just started running an exciting new contest effective December 10th to give away 3 Guitar Center gift cards for $2000, $1000, and $500.

    To enter, contestants simply submit an essay of 250 words or less on the topic “How has music changed your life? Here is a link to the contest homepage.

  • Two New Programs from Longy. Myself being a card-carrying member of academia, I can attest that it is sometimes difficult to overcome years of habit and tradition (which of course in themselves can be a good thing) and try something new.

    So it’s great to see the Longy School of Music of Bard College launching two experimental (my word) courses of study. The first is a training orchestra in New York. Students will earn a Master of Music in “curatorial, critical and performance studies” at no cost and receive a fellowship for participating in the orchestra. The program promises “bold ideas, risk-taking…and new models of performance.”

    Of special interest to me, as a teacher, is the new Master of Arts in Teaching, a one-year degree program in Los Angeles based on Venezuela’s renowned El Sistema, founded by the Venezuelan educator and activist José Antonio Abreu. El Sistema serves over 500,000 students in its native country, with instruction and rehearsal taking place almost daily for students as young as age two. Students attending the Longy course will study with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and receive a California teaching credential upon completing the program.


Disclaimer: I was not compensated for writing this post in any way, and neither TakeLessons nor The Longy School of Music of Bard College sponsored it. It is published for informational purposes solely.

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