On 19 and 20 January, I had the pleasure of teaching at the Zhang Violin Summer School for young violinists (AMEB grade 3 to A.Mus equivalent). This was a 4-day intensive course, where students received training in preparing solo repertoire and chamber music, as well as Dalcroze eurhythmics. I was invited to take chamber music lessons, a task that I gladly accepted. There was quite a wide range of ages: the youngest students were in years 1 and 2, while the eldest ones were senior school students. As a result, there was a similar range of experience in chamber music. Teaching at the summer school has reinforced my belief of the high importance of chamber music in music education, and in this blogpost I would like to share some of my thoughts on the subject.
First of all, I remark that it is a happy coincidence that the summer school was held at Barker College, where I was a former student. It was at Barker that I first experienced playing chamber music — specifically, the string quartet. As it turned out, I played string quartets throughout my entire education at Barker College, and it was one of the most important factors in my development as a musician — not only as a performer, but also as a composer! The main point that I will emphasise is this: playing chamber music makes great demands on the musicians involved, in technical aspects (i.e. the physical part of instrumental playing) as well as conceptual (i.e. intellectual understanding of the music). These demands are quite different from those encountered in solo playing, and furthermore, I will try to argue that chamber music should play a significant role in a student’s musical development.
At the beginning of the year, I promised that I would try to write more regularly. This has clearly not been achieved! In my defence, studying mathematics full-time requires much dedication, patience, and practice — not unlike learning a musical instrument. But now I have time to write since I have completed my semester 1 exams.
This would seem like an awkward mix of topics, but hopefully I can convince you of the similarities. The connection occurred to me recently, as I have been tutoring a student for theory and sight-reading in preparation for a grade 4 AMEB violin exam. (The AMEB is the Australian Music Examinations Board, a bit like the local Aussie version of the ABRSM, which is a world-wide music education organisation). In addition to preparing a set of pieces for performance, the student sitting the exam must also answer questions relating to music theory and history. I have only ever taken oneAMEB exam in my life, so I don’t know exactly what kinds of questions are asked during a typical exam. Based on this student’s learning materials, I can deduce that, at this early stage in the progression of grades, they are likely to be questions regarding the fundamentals of music history and analysis, such as: “What is a concerto?”; “What is the form of this movement?” (binary, ternary, ritornello, and “through-composed” are the expected possible answers at this grade — sonata form comes later!); “The music of Mozart is representative of which period of music?”; “You just performed a piece by Handel, can you name some other pieces by Handel?”; “What does allegro moderato mean?; and so on. This is not particularly challenging. A student who is curious and motivated will probably know the answers already, via searching on Wikipedia and other sources on the internet. These basic concepts of Western classical music may also be covered in high school music classes, if the school is fortunate enough to provide them. For the average student, these facts can be imparted easily by the teacher during a lesson, with the additional advantage that explicit examples from the music being practised may be used. With a little more effort, the fundamental concepts of musical analysis and theory can be similarly acquired, or else taught in the lesson too. Remember, at this early stage (grade 5 or below), the student only needs to recall the basic facts.
I have decided to record some of my thoughts on composition on this blog. In the good ol’ days, these things were usually penned down into a notebook or included in letters to friends and colleagues, but now we have the Internet!
Finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition
For this first notebook entry, I would like to say a few words about my recent trip to Kendall, NSW, where I attended the finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition (hereafter KNVC). Despite its setting in a quiet rural town, the KNVC is nevertheless one of the most prestigious in Australia, and attracts the best young violinists from around the country.
(*My apologies for not writing sooner, it has been a very busy time at Uni with many assessments due recently!)
There are some words which (bad) writers of popular science like to throw around in order to sound impressive. Quantum is perhaps among the most frequently abused terms, for instance. Another would be statistically speaking. (Did you really analyse the sample distributions, and compute the variance and correlation coefficients? Didn’t think so). Another buzzword, and the one pertinent to our discussion here, is neuroplasticity. Fortunately, unlike quantum field theory and statistics, we don’t have to pretend to understand neuroplasticity, since there are many cases where it is clearly visible, and I believe its core concepts are readily grasped by the general public. In addition, popular science titles like The Brain That Changes Itself by the neuroscientist Norman Doidge certainly increase public awareness and understanding of this issue. We can observe directly that the brain is capable of remarkable change and adaptation. One of the most dramatic and convincing examples of this is the phenomenon of “phantom limbs” — the ability to feel pain or itching or other sensations in missing limbs. If you are interested, I will save you from googling for unreliable sources, and link this journal article by Ramachandran & Ramachandran (2000). The important and (at the time) revolutionary idea is that the brain is not a static organ. The brain map can be reorganised — new neural networks can be created, and the physical topography of the brain is susceptible to change. This is reassuring for those with dystonia. It means that there is a possibility of “unlearning” the dystonic movements, and creating new neural pathways to replace the old, misbehaving ones. Many dystonia researchers now recognise re-training as a viable treatment option, and from a musician’s point of view, I believe it is also the most useful and least harmful. Medical treatments can work very well for some individuals — and depending on the severity of the symptoms, may even be essential — but the prospect of taking botox injections several times a year, for example, is not exactly pretty. However, re-training requires considerable time investment and dedication… then again, isn’t this exactly like learning a musical instrument!
Many recent studies on musician’s dystonia now acknowledge the role of psychological and emotional factors contributing to the emergence or persistence of the disorder. In the previous section, I have already alluded to one of these psychological pressures: the need or expectation for perfection in classical music training. Indeed, this point has been emphasised many times across many research papers, including several by Altenmüller and his colleagues. For example, Altenmüller & Jabusch (2009) is a noteworthy paper, as it compares psychological profiles (“personality structures” is one of the terms used in the paper) of patients with FD and those without. Interestingly, a group of patients suffering from chronic pain was also examined, with the aim of “detect[ing] unspecific secondary psychological reactions in diseased musicians.” I object slightly to the use of the term “diseased”, but you get the idea!
In the previous part, I recounted my experience with focal dystonia. In these subsequent installments, I would like to address more general issues, including the prevalence of dystonia in classical musicians and the psychology of dystonia. Finally, I will conclude by describing some possible steps towards overcoming the disorder. Originally, I had intended this to be a single post, but it appears that there are many details worth discussing, and hence, just like the Hobbit movies, I will expand it into three parts.