Tag Archives: musicians

Musicians, memory, and learning

Great post over at Scienceblogs.com by Dave Munger titled “Musicians have better memory — not just for music, but words and pictures too

As musicians, we are constantly training ourselves to memorize. We spend hours upon hours memorizing music, and using mnemonic cues such as melodies, song form, harmony, music notation, and so on to help us memorize. Many of us start at a very early age.

Not only that, but practicing music is really doing repetitive calisthenic exercise on the parts of your brain that process technical thinking. We count over and over again (one and a two and a…), those beats are subdivided into fractions and complex mathematical iterations begin to permutate in both rhythm and harmonic elements of music performance.

It gets better: Music composition is really just another flavor of writing code. Musicians who read music are trained to read code from an early age. Musicians make excellent programmers.

So it is clear to me that music instruction is a critical component of education, and should begin consistently and from an early age. This is the best way to develop inherent technical thinking skills, improve memory, and help kids survive in an age where the people who know how to write code, or at least can think in code-like patterns, have a far greater chance of success professionally.

What to practice when time is limited?

I’ve often thought much about efficiency when practicing music. I used to park myself in a practice room from dawn until midnight back at NEC and even before then. I would break my practice routines down into 15 minute increments, and have it all laid out on a schedule. Practice would occur for anywhere from 4 to 12 hours per day, including breaks of course. I was nuts, and obsessed. What can I say? 😉

Nowadays time is limited. I have a day job. I have a family. I have classes that I take at night. But I remain obsessed. After the homework is done and the kids are in bed, I might have anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours to practice on any given weekday. What do you practice when time is limited?

Some things I try to cover are maintenance. With the double bass, shifting positions and pushing the strings down to the fingerboard is always kind of an athletic event. So one must maintain a level of strength, dexterity, and muscle memory with exercises. I use Petracchi’s Simplified Higher Technique book, sometimes hit up Ludwig Streicher’s methods, and have a few exercises I’ve worked up myself to stay in shape.

Another technical maintenance issue I encounter is bowing issues. Unlike my left hand technique where I’m fairly comfortable with everything and don’t feel like I have any major challenges, my bowing arm often feels foreign, even detached from my body at times. Only after regular practice with the Zimmerman book do I feel like I have this thing working properly. It is funny – there’s only four strings and two directions your bow can go, but an infinite number of possible patterns and subtleties that occur in these four planes of existence. OK seven planes if you count double stops…

So I am wondering for all you bassists out there: What do you practice when you don’t have much time? What is the first thing you practice? What does a typical practice session look like to you?

Pavarotti dies at 71

Luciano Pavarotti, one of the greatest tenors of all time, is dead at 71.

I never had much of an appreciation for Pavarotti until one day back at NEC when a friend of mine played three recordings of the same section from a Puccini opera. The difference in tone, control, phrasing, and musicianship that came out of Pavarotti’s voice was striking when compared to the other versions, and you could tell that this was a different “instrument” we were dealing with here. The man’s voice was like a cannon ��� projecting over an orchestra with ease and command. In my recording of the Verdi Requiem, his initial entrance completely energizes the mood of the piece and lifts you out of your seat when you hear it.

When I bow the double bass, I often think of an operatic voice and try to emulate that effect somehow. Pavarotti certainly comes to mind often (although my favorite sound is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s…) Pavarotti was a model of the tenor voice to many, and a powerful musical inspiration to millions. Certainly a great legacy has been left by this master Tenor, and I am very grateful to have experienced his musicianship.


Bill Harrison posted this tidbit over at Jason Heath’s Double Bass Blog about frustration playing with shitty musicians, and I could not agree more with this. It really sucks to be stuck in an orchestra gig with the one guy that insists on playing too loud and too fast. It’s a testosterone thing I assume – he’s too macho to play with the rest of these fools, so he’s determined to show everyone exactly how it is done by himself.

These assholes are part of the reason I left the music business. (That, and of course the massive injuries I sustained back in Boston in an accident, coupled with the lack of good benefits and decent pay – long story, another time…) I like music too much, and as a freelancer and prospective auditioning bassist I encountered just a few too many of these to really feel like this was going to be a good career idea.

This discussion reminds me of a particular incident which I love to talk about because it was just so amazing when it happened. There are certain conductors you don’t want to piss off, lest they shove the baton straight down your gizzard. In one rehearsal with Simon Rattle whilst working on the effing difficult but amazing to hear last movement of Shostakovitch 4, he let the last stand of my bass section have it. The instigator was doing his usual finishing the sections about 2 or 3 measures earlier than the rest of the orchestra, and getting the other player (who is otherwise an incredible bassist) all stirred up with a weird air of machismo and tandem crotch-grabbing more fitting for a football huddle than for an orchestra performance with the illustrious maestro:

Rattle (To me as principal):
Sir, would you please yell at them?
Me (Scared shitless):
Uh-huh….. Guys, could you please?
Me (After a second try – same problems – to the last stand – politely, maybe even timidly):
Guys – could you keep it together?
Rattle (To last stand):
If you can’t follow me, follow the concertmistress. If you can’t follow her, follow him (pointing to me). If you can’t follow him, at least listen! Because if you can’t do any of those things, you’ll never get a job! You’ll starve!
Rattle (After the third attempt with no improvement on the part of the problematic stand):

Obviously I was being too nice, but lesson learned. As for the performance, they still finished early – jock-cupping and all at the end of said passage. Mind-boggling.

So to this day, Shostakovitch 4 is my favorite symphony, even though our performance didn’t even come close to doing it justice. It sucks that we have to put up with these situations in our professional lives, but it is how we handle it and pick ourselves up in case we fall that defines our level of professionalism.