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Circuits, Spirals and Vines

September 24, 2013

Haliburtob Sculpture Forest (111)As I have dipped into some kinds of popular music my role as interpreter has changed. Even when the pieces are my own – for example those written in a blues style – a style with its own strong identity, the things I have written down demand to be altered. The tradition often has a strong backbeat so the body needs to move to the music on beats 2 & 4. The melodic gestures call out for more notes than are on the fret board demanding that we connect them with slides and bends. While a sense of pulse is vital to the core of the music the rhythm can be quite flexible. When rehearsing those pieces all of the versions of that kind of music float in my memory – my music gets altered and reshaped by those memories.

As we learn new habits our brains adds new circuits and pathways. An older musician has a vast network of circuitry comprised of all the music they have heard or played. Every new experience filters through that array of neurons which means the experience of a student listening to a brand new piece of music is different than that of a teacher. The sheer amount of circuitry the impulse travels through in the experienced musician’s brain means that much more activity takes place. To quantify experience makes it tangible, it is what we strive towards: a denser network of neural pathways. In the words of the great jazz bassist Ray Brown: “ You can find any number of players that can do the gig well. When you hire me you get a guy that knows how to end a phrase 5,000 ways whereas someone less experienced might only know how do it 50 ways. That is what I mean by experience.”

When it comes to repertoire development we learn set of skills for each new work. For the Giuliani sonata we need a clear set of pathways corresponding to a set of ideal movements that help recreate the music with precision and accuracy. We want the performance to be consisHaliburtob Sculpture Forest (32)tent and dependable. The brain circuitry in this case would look like the branches of an ash tree spiraling upwards towards the sun.

I was struck when reading an interview with Odair Assad recently as he spoke of the improvisatory aspects of playing with his brother. They knew the music so well they could change the shape of phrases on the fly, sculpting and recreating the music anew during performance. In order to achieve this, the brain circuitry needs to accommodate fast fluid changes, responding to each nuance of volume, tone and tempo. This circuitry is more like vines twisting around a mansion allowing for a myriad of choices to be made at any point in time. Odair was hoping to develop that freedom in his solo repertoire but finding it challenging because the skill demands in solo playing are so high. I suppose if one were to be able to play the Giuliani sonata faster than required, slower than required, louder than required, softer than necessary, with right hand blocking, the developed circuitry might resemble a vine wrapped around an ash tree. This brings to mind anecdotes of Beethoven’s piano playing which held listener’s rapt with attention as his melodic filigrees turned into thunderous chords.

One day Nasrudin quarrelled with his wife, shouting at her till she fled to her neighbour’s house. Nasrudin followed her there and the neighbours managed to placate the angry husband by serving the couple tea and sweetmeats.

When they returned to their house, they began quarrelling again and when Nasrudin began shouting at her, his wife again opened the door to run out.
“This time, go to the baker’s house,” he advised. “He makes delicious cakes.”



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  1. ALWAYS a profoundly stimulating experience…:) Thank you for helping ‘see’ something beautiful!!

    • sol thanks for that on day i will post a link to a recording of a piece called just that – something beautiful…

  2. Inspiring once more. Love your blog William

  3. nice Nasrudin story…

  4. you inspired the choice my dear – thank you for that.

  5. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post! It is the little changes which will make the greatest changes. Many thanks for sharing!
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