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.
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!
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.
By now, a fair number of people are aware that I am enrolled in a Bachelor of Science (Advanced Mathematics) degree at the University of Sydney. This knowledge has invariably (and to my great relief) been greeted with enthusiasm and kind support, and I am immensely grateful for this. However, I have never really fleshed out the details behind the circumstances – which I intend to do now with this blogpost. Many of my friends and colleagues at the Sydney Conservatorium will know that my retreat from violin performance is due to onset of focal dystonia in my left hand, a neurological condition which severely compromises coordination in the affected area(s). It has occurred to me that it might be useful (and not only to musicians) to describe in detail the symptoms of this condition, how it affects instrumental playing, the treatment I received, and finally, the steps I am taking to recover.