I recall that I was interested in mathematics from a relatively early age, probably from primary school. I was never a particularly talented mathematician — that is, I was certainly not a Wunderkind who won Olympiads, nor did I accelerate through school — but I always did well in maths, and most importantly, I have always had great curiosity and interest in the subject. More than likely my good marks were the result of my curiosity and passion, not the other way round. Oh alright, stereotypical Asian parenting also plays a role, I’ll happily admit. You may have read news articles or psychological studies about the phenomenon of math anxiety. I was rather skeptical about this when I first heard of it, but it seems to be a real psychological condition! You can read this rather dramatic article about this so-called phobia of numbers. Needless to say, this was not a problem for me. I enjoy maths, and I generally do well in maths, which only serves to increase my interest and confidence. When I don’t do well, there is still the enjoyment of a good challenge, of having grappled with a difficult problem or concept, even as I fall miserably short of the desired solution. Incidentally, if you ask a musician why they devote so much of their daily routine to practice and rehearsal, usually the response is along these lines: I enjoy it; music inspires me and I hope to inspire others; it is rewarding and fulfilling; this is my passion, and so on. In both cases, music or mathematics holds intrinsic interest for certain individuals, and they are motivated to master the skills or understand the concepts in their area of interest, and perhaps go as far as to extend current knowledge by exploring and developing new techniques and ideas. In short, I would like to propose that creativity is essential in mathematics. Obviously this is not the same kind of creativity necessary for artistic development, but nevertheless some form of it is needed. Now this is not a theorem which can be proved rigorously, but I hope you will allow me to conjecture a little!
A Brief Commentary on “My Favourite Things”: Valse-Caprice for 2 pianos
For the past few years now, I have been writing short piano “showpieces” around Christmas time, and posting them to my YouTube channel. It started out in a rather silly fashion with the Capriccio festivo for 2 pianos, which is clearly a joke piece more than anything (although to my defence, it does have interesting manipulations of themes and textural ideas). In subsequent years, I wrote piano fugues mainly as challenging composition exercises to develop my craft. These pieces have been received well. However my skill as a composer has certainly increased since the festive Capriccio of 2010, and so this year’s offering is of a much higher quality. In particular, I hope that it can serve well as a concert item or an encore, without sacrificing too much of the humour and sense of fun, which is always a priority in my “novelty” works.
I didn’t have any good ideas for a piece based on Christmas carols this year, but coincidentally the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music film. Hence I focused my attention on the tune My Favourite Things and produced this Valse-Caprice for 2 pianos. Due to the more ambitious nature of the work, it has caused me more trouble than the fugues of previous years, and features more daring ideas and harmonies. However, I have also borrowed some humour from the earlier Capriccio festivo. In this new piece, you will also find some sneaky quotations of great classical composers (can you name them? and which works do I quote?), unexpected modulations, and of course, true to my training, contrapuntal shenanigans.
I must make it clear that I don’t play the piano at all, so why write so many works for the keyboard? Earlier this year, I finished my Three Concert Pieces for solo piano, a serious work to challenge the most advanced students and professional pianists. Obviously, I enjoy writing for the piano very much. Even if I don’t play it, I have now developed over the years a decent sense of what sounds good on the instrument — and what a tremendous instrument, when used properly! In fact, it is the piano’s ability to evoke the many colours of the orchestra that makes it both an exciting solo instrument as well as an ideal “sound laboratory” for any composer. I have tried to include some orchestral effects in my Valse too.
That’s all from me at this point, the rest is up to the listener. I hope you enjoy this piece!
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.
<— back to part 3b
Re-learning and Recovery
(*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!
<— back to part 3a
Psychological Aspects of FD
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!
<— back to part 2
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.
<— back to part 1
As far back as November 2012, I was noticing a strange sensation in my left hand. During a recording session, I noticed that I could not control my vibrato, and especially when the middle finger was involved. However, I simply attributed this to occupational stress, since there was no pain at all. The holidays were coming up, and I would get a good break, so I was not worried. Near Christmas time, when I was already well rested, I decided to do some practice, which was when I noticed that I had trouble keeping the middle finger on the fingerboard. Any violinist can tell you that already this is a strange turn of events. Typically, the middle finger is one of the strongest, and as far as vibrato is concerned, often the easiest finger to use. Actually, what perplexed me the most was the complete absence of pain. (I’m glad to say that I’ve never experienced pain in my musical practice. Violin playing, or indeed, playing most orchestral instruments, is not inherently comfortable, but I think it’s clear that it should never involve pain!). This made me suspect that there was more to it than the usual repetitive strain injury.