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Paul G.

Do 'we' think differently?

October 20, 2008 at 9:04 PM

Today, in English class, we watched the movie
"The Great Debaters"; A movie about the 1st African American debate team to debate Harvard University...
I couldn't pay attention to the movie in some parts because of the music playing in the background. I was listening to the orhcestra, the chord changes, the oboe solo, the dynamics. Then later in the movie while a piano solo was being played, I found the notes popping into my head, and I tapping the rythm on the desk.
Is this a normal thing among musicians?
Nothing like this happened to me last year; well, at least I would notice it as much.
Do we as musicians reach a certain point where our minds work differently? And maybe even differently among musicians. But is "reaching this point" what happened to me?

I'll use an example: A senior in my orchestra has been playing since age 4 and she is 17; so she's played for 13 years. I would say that at about the beginning of the school year she was more advanced than me, and now, I am at the same level.There is a difference in our playing. You can see, and she will tell you that she doesn't enjoy playing the violin, her parents make her. I on the other hand love it. I would be sad without my violin. She practices a half hour 3 times a week, she's only as good as she is because of the length of time she's been playing. I think if she enjoyed it and worked as hard as me, she could be at the top and going to the best music schools.
13 years is a long, long time for development. I wish I have been playing that long, but I've only been playing for 2 & 1/4. Who knows where I'll be in 11 years, or even 5. But if something is not your passion, how can you excell at it?

But back to the main point, what do you guys think? Am I alone?

From al ku
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 12:03 AM
paul, great to hear your deep interest in violin or anything for that matter. for the long haul, it is truly what matters.

we all have different interests and as we grow our interests also grow in different directions. but i believe the process of music training offers many great life lessons, whether one becomes pro or not.

so are you a shy boy that we have to wait much longer to see you playing? want me to buy you a videocam so you won't use that excuse? :)

From Tommy Atkinson
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 12:04 AM
My advice - learn to switch off your musical ears and you'll enjoy things like movies, concerts (open mic nights, amateur bands, etc), and other things a lot more.

I feel kind of bad for students whose parents force them to play violin, actually. I've had students who just DON'T want to play at all, and never practiced. Seriously, the violin case was in the same place and the music was exactly in the same order every single week I would go to the house. I had one student who even got into a screaming argument with their parents in the middle of one of their lessons.

In cases like that, it's better for them not to play if they don't like to do it.

I think she probably does like playing a little bit though - practicing 30 min 3 times a week is fine if you don't want to excel at something. Hell, it might actually make her continue the violin for the rest of her life if she doesn't put so much pressure on herself to practice really hard, especially if it is not her passion.

From Paul G.
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 12:30 AM

Yes, I am shy... But not too bad when it comes to playing... Just give me a while:) I have a recital in february and I'll be playing Canzonetta, one of the Mozart Sonatas, and maybe some Bach. I don't have a video cam, but I've got a nice recording system and I just have to learn how to use it correctly!

But if I could find a pianist to play the accompaninment for The Lark Ascending I would record it tomorrow.. The private teachers is STILL gone, so no pianist:(

From Patricia Baser
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 12:39 AM
Well, you may very well notice that background music but you should be able to filter sound sources in order to discriminate what is most important (f.y.i.-my teacher-self is picturing how others might find that tapping rather annoying). That filtering process is a very important skill for a musician. Turn pages for a pianist some time and see what happens if you get lost in the moment.

Now, since you are pondering great thoughts, I think this is very important: why would you describe your fellow classmate as an idiot, when she has stuck with something for so long. Just because her priorities are different? She is obviously an important member of your orchestra and probably a good source of leadership. Fine musicianship goes beyond the Annie Oakley mindset of "anything you can do, I can do better".

From E. Smith
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 3:11 AM
Paul, I would urge you to think twice about writing such critical and unsupported things about your fellow student on a public forum where she might recognize herself. In addition to being hurtful to her, your words could come back to bite you.
From Paul G.
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 3:17 AM
I deleted the "over-critical" parts about her. I just said that because I hate seeing how she's wasting and not recognizing the talent she could reach. But I guess it's not her fault because her parents forced her to learn and continue to force her to play...
From Charles C
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 6:41 AM
Paul, whatever you may think, in most if not almost all cases it is simply better to bite your tongue. You may offend somebody, or 'worse', you may just be dead wrong in your judgment of a person. Not saying you are or aren't (I'm sure you have thought carefully about these things), but both teenagers and young adults have a tendency to pass critical judgments on nearly everything. Whether or not their criticisms are well-spoken or accurate or whatever, at any rate they usually miss the point :P.

That said (!!), yes, I do believe musicians think differently. This goes into the realm of neuroplasticity, which is a field which says roughly that training in any way shapes your brain (as in the literal shaping of your neural pathways). Musicians have years and years of training, of paying attention to chord changes, of tapping out rhythms, of listening to pitches, of studying architecture - essentially of organizing and compartmentalizing and honing and integrating the different areas of music. In that sense it is no wonder that when you hear a piece of music you automatically assign the sounds to coordinates in pitch space in your head. You have simply trained yourself to not only be able to do it, but to like doing it and doing it automatically. When you get bored of that, start listening to Webern and let me know how it goes ;).

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 9:52 AM
Charles C, neuroplasticity exists, but it is much, much stronger In younger people (children) than in older folks. It is most pronounced in children from birth to about six years old. I'd say that if you start learning something beyond the age of 12 or so, neuroplasticity is not a big factor. (I'm a former neuroscientist. It would be interesting to hear from Karen Allendorfer (sp?), a current neuroscientist.)

I agree with those who have advised caution in your posts. Anyone can read them. That includes the person you're writing about and her friends and colleagues, who would probably tell her about your post.

If you're weird or crazy because you respond more to the background music than to the movie, then I'm weird or crazy, too. :-)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 11:16 AM
"It" happened to me somewhere around 5th grade (I started learning the violin in 4th grade): I started hearing violin music in my head and playing it on my teeth. A friend of mine in 6th grade also admitted to doing it--for her, since she started in 6th grade, she said it was "Mary Had a Little Lamb." I've pretty much suppressed the thing with the teeth at this point, but I still hear violin music in my head for some part of every day.

And, it's never really gone away, even during the years I wasn't playing an instrument. Even then, I'd still hear violin music in my head and feel it in the rest of my body, mainly Bach. Interestingly (following on your "too much Bach" blog) it was one of the Brandenberg concertos and the 3rd movement of the A-minor concerto, mainly, during those years.

Nowadays, as you might expect given the concert I'm playing, it's mostly the first violin part to Capriccio Italien and Mendelssohn's 5th symphony.

I think the phenomenon correlates pretty well with working hard on something and committing it to memory. Once a piece is in your mental recording loop, it's likely to stay there.

As for adult neuroplasticity, this is an interesting article about two recent books on the subject:

The books are _Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain_ by Sharon Begley, and _The Brain that Changes Itself_ by Norman Doidge.

In part, the review says: "If either book can be faulted, it would be for the occasional whiff of overstatement. At times each author seems to say that our brains’ potential for transformation is essentially infinite, rather than merely astonishing and paradigm busting. But these excesses of enthusiasm are understandable, given the present-day backdrop. Science, like any other human endeavor, is susceptible to trends and pendulous swings of groupthink. The current vogue is for “neurogenetic determinism,” the view that your genes and subconscious are the true, essential shapers of who you are and how you think and behave; the conscious mind is little more than a self-important figurehead along for the ride. Begley and Doidge wade against this current with a strong message of hope: By recognizing neuroplasticity as a real and powerful force, we can tilt our theories of mind back into a realm where choice and free will are meaningful concepts, and where radical improvement to the human condition is possible using the right, scientifically proven techniques. The wonderful thing is, the hope they offer is not of the blind variety. There are solid, empirical reasons to think they may be right."

From Terry Hsu
Posted on October 21, 2008 at 3:15 PM
Thanks for passing that along Karen. Those books sound really interesting, I've reserved them at my local library. :) Terry
From Jerald Archer
Posted on October 22, 2008 at 11:34 AM
"Do we as musicians reach a certain point where our minds work differently? And maybe even differently among musicians. But is "reaching this point" what happened to me?"

The phenomenon you are experiencing is common among young musicians. It actually happens, in different ways, throughout our entire life. Being the age you are, you are apt to take in more details than someone older or more musically seasoned. Experience is the best teacher. Certain academic details become trifles when you get older and more experienced as you progress. You are still experiencing the art of the violin, and whatever time it takes to master them is unknown for any given individual. Just keep working as hard as you can and never give up. To "master" violinists (or any musician, respectivly) certain working details are still considered, but trivial points become ignored, since the brain (musically) has already either heard and recorded the music from some source (and all of it's possible intrepretation derivitives), one has played and performed the music (and can no longer master it any further), or in the case of a "new" work, will use the knowledge of past experiences to aid it in interpretation. Bear in mind that there are only a certain number of tones to be "photographed" by the brain. The keys are simply all relative. Details in theory are just how we can attempt to explain it to our subconscience, as it does not think in such an orderly fashion (it does not know fantasy from reality and has no order). This could be why we find atonal music unusual, and also tend to compare our situations with those of others, respectivly. Any challenge, be it musicial or mathmatical, makes the brain work harder and achive the goal set for it, despite the subconscious' constant denial that it is possible and sends us failure notices. Ignore them.

"13 years is a long, long time for development. I wish I have been playing that long, but I've only been playing for 2 & 1/4. Who knows where I'll be in 11 years, or even 5. But if something is not your passion, how can you excell at it?"

Despite how long someone has been doing something, it does not always make them the better for it. 13 years is relativly a short period after one has done it for 30. Genuine interest plays a great role in the success of any endevour. In many instances I have witinessed persons who were doing work they had no interest in, but were masters at it. It does not make sense, unless one considers why they are doing it and it usually always involves money. They are not usually happy individuals, but they have the material things they want. Satisfacton does not always equal happiness.
Don't compare your talent or even yourself to anyone as there is no other person like you in the world. Also, bear in mind that no two persons think alike. Too many individuals waste their lives striving to be like someone else, only to discover that, sometimes too late, they had more to offer than they could ever have imagined. Don't fret about what will happen tomorrow, as no one knows what the future holds. Use the past as a guide, and learn from mistakes. Make realistic goals and keep your eye on the prize, and you are certain to succeed. Even it you think you did'nt.

From Paul G.
Posted on October 22, 2008 at 8:40 PM
Thank you for your comment mr.Archer, I find them very wise and informative.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 22, 2008 at 11:02 PM
Paul, I think yiu might be really interested in a book called `This is your brain on music` by Levitin.
ITs a wide ranging study on the nature of music and its connection with the mind written by someone who is both a well repsected musician (brillaint ptoduer actually) and cognitive scientist. I thin it explores the kind of issues your blog hints at with great humor and wisdom.

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