“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Musicians Are Smarter

In case you were wondering whether to practice today or not, please read on:

A new study found that musicians might have brains that function better than their peers well into old age.

Courtesy of the Huffington Post - full article here

Researchers tested the mental abilities of senior citizens and discovered that musicians performed better at a number of tests. In particular, musicians excelled at visual memory tasks. While musicians had similar verbal capabilities to non-musicians, the musicians' ability to memorize new words was markedly better, too. Perhaps most importantly, the musicians' IQ scores were higher overall than those who spent their lives listening to music rather than performing it.

The experience of musicians also played a role in how sharp their minds were. The younger the musicians began to play their instruments, the better their minds performed at the mental tasks. Additionally, the total number of years musicians played instruments throughout their life corresponded with how strong their brains remained years later.

The study also found that musicians who took the time to exercise between symphonies had even higher-functioning brain capabilities. This finding supports another recent study that reported people who walk regularly maintain healthier brains. With that in mind, perhaps joining a marching band now will make you the smartest person at the retirement home in the future.


While it is known that practicing music repeatedly changes the organization of the brain, it is not clear if these changes can correlate musical abilities with non-musical abilities. The study of 70 older participants, with different musical experience over their lifetimes, provides a connection between musical activity and mental balance in old age. "The results of this preliminary study revealed that participants with at least 10 years of musical experience (high activity musicians) had better performance in nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processes in advanced age relative to non-musicians."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Grouping Notes

The technical grouping of notes can be different from the musical or notational grouping of notes. An understanding of this idea is crucial to the successful playing of quick passages in works by Chopin and other pianist-composers, including composers from earlier periods. In Chopin’s “Winter Wind” Etude, for example, the four sextuplets sometimes fall technically into  groups of four starting with the fourth 16th note, played by the thumb. If this is not understood, the passages can feel quite difficult. Grouping notes together for technical reasons can make the difference between a very difficult execution and a very easy one.

The ability to play fast depends on an understanding of how to group notes. The longer the passage, the more important it is to find sub -groupings. The hand can’t “conceive” of an indefinite number of notes or a long string of notes without establishing milestones along the way. If the composer writes “17” over a group of notes that are to be completed within a certain time frame, it is important to decide on how to sub-divide that group, i.e., three groups of 4 and one of five, or some other grouping that makes sense in the context. This does not mean that accents will be heard; the group of “17” can still sound like a single unit, a flourish, if that is the desired effect. How those sub-divisions relate to the other hand is also a primary consideration.

Group from the more dense, the heavier combination of notes. For example, in passages where chords are interspersed with single notes, it is much easier to feel a starting point at the chord, regardless of which part of the musical beat it comes on. In Chopin’s G Minor Ballade, on the third page, an arpeggiated figure primarily in single notes contains a chord of a fourth placed on a weak part of the beat that occurs every three notes. By feeling a start on the chord (or a feeling of “down”), the passage immediately wants to move with ease. In my view, Chopin meant for these chords to add rhythmic interest to the passage, an agitated syncopation.

Group notes together in order to avoid stretching the hand. In speed, it is more efficient to allow the hand to remain in a relatively closed position than it is to keep it open. Over long passages of quickly moving notes, if the hand remains open, with the fingers trying to do their work against that “stretch,” it is possible to cause strain resulting in fatigue.

Group notes together in order to facilitate leaps with complex metric designs, i.e., short to long. The hand can’t go both to and from a quick note. In general, a short note belongs (technically) to the next longer note, as in dotted rhythms.

Group notes together in order to facilitate a change of direction. Notes moving in the same direction are often grouped together. It is at the turn-around where a technical issue may arise and this is a good place to look if a passage does not feel easy.

Practice hint: Having decided upon a particular grouping of notes within a longer, continuous passage, practice the group with a silent landing on the first note of the next group. Usually, the problem has more to do with how to get from one group to the next and not so much with how to play the notes within a group, that is, the notes under the hand.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Memorizing: A Snippet

A student who reads quite well but had been having trouble memorizing her music asked about a plan for memorizing. So often, students rely on mindless repetition to somehow hammer the music into their brains by striking the piano with their fingers. This can result in too much reliance on digital memory, to the detriment of the other memory tools: aural, visual and intellectual.

Here's a basic plan. Once you've tried it, you can adjust it to suit your own predilections. 

1) Make a conscious decision to memorize. "Accidental" memorizing is usually muscle memory primarily and this is not totally reliable.

2) Select a small amount of music to consider. This could be the first measure or the first phrase. It could also be a particularly complicated passage in the middle of the piece.

3) Look at the example and notice whatever you can about it, i.e., there is a broken chord figure; there is a scale figure; the R.H is the same (or different) as the L.H; one hand leaps while the other stays put; one hand makes a leap but to the same note 2 octaves higher. I even say these things out loud. (My cats seem to enjoy that.)

4) Play the example from the score very slowly.

5) Look away from the score and play as much as you can, still very slowly. Repeat this process until you can play that example reliably, still very slowly and deliberately. The slow, deliberate playing will help you engage the other types of memory: aural, visual, intellectual, minimizing the digital.

6) Move on to the next section and repeat the process. Do not try to connect the two sections yet.

When you can't concentrate anymore, stop. At the next practice session continue where you left off. When you have finished the new material for the day, then go back and review the old material, one section at a time, or if it feels right, try playing 2 sections together. You may need to refer to the score again; this is normal. But you can tell yourself that you know this material.

Once the piece is learned and up to tempo, practice playing the entire piece excruciatingly slowly. This takes away much of the digital memory and will help you locate places that are fuzzy. It is also a useful test, though more difficult, to practice away from the piano. Close your eyes and see your hands on the keys playing the piece very slowly, thinking of each note in advance of playing it.